Ever since The Exorcist, movies about demonic possession have depicted innocent people becoming possessed involuntarily. But how close is this to widely held beliefs about possession? Can any of us be a victim?
The belief that demons exist and can possess people is, of course, the stuff of fiction and horror films—but it is also one of the most widely-held religious beliefs in the world. Most religions claim that demonic spirits can possess human beings and that certain things make one vulnerable to this threat.
In the Quran, it talks about the jinn—the spirits that occupy a parallel realm to humans, and are capable of possessing them. According to Islamic belief, Muhammad warned his followers to close their doors and keep their children close to them at night, as the Jinns spread out at such time.
In Hinduism, there are varieties of malevolent ghosts called bhuta-pretas, including those that may possess people. Women are seen as more vulnerable to possession than men for a number of reasons; such as the belief that all evil spirits are attracted by things that are attractive to the senses.
In Jewish folklore, there exists a malicious spirit called a dybbuk. The dybbuk is believed to be the wandering soul of a dead person, that comes to possess living hosts. Some believe that ignoring religious practice or doubting Jewish tenants can allow one to be susceptible to possession.
But while most religions regard demonic possession as possible and offer exorcism as a remedy, they don’t authorize the use of exorcism in the way the Catholic church does. Catholic Church law requires that every diocese has at least one specially-trained priest who can perform exorcisms, as the exorcising of demonic power is an integral part of the Catholic Church.
“Many people when they think of exorcisms only focus on demonic possession,” said Father Vincent Lampert, one of the most famous exorcists in the United States. “There are three other types of extraordinary demonic activity that could require a prayer of exorcism. These include demonic infestation (the presence of evil in an animal, a location, or associated with an object), demonic vexation (physical attacks by evil spirits), and demonic obsession (mental attacks by evil spirits).”
“True cases of demonic possession are rare, they do happen but not frequently,” he added. “Most cases that I have dealt with in the past 14 years in this ministry are related to infestation, vexation, and obsession.”
In Fr. Lampert’s experience, the only particular trend as to who is more susceptible to possession are those with no or a weakened faith in God. He maintains that if one is practicing their faith and living out their commitment to God, then the devil is already on the run and they need not be concerned about demonic possession.
“For someone to be possessed they have to open a doorway to evil in their life,” he said. “This can be done directly when one knows they are acting against God. Indirectly when they are doing things they view as entertainment but are actually attracting the attention of the Evil One.”
Of course, things that directly create a doorway for evil are mortal sins—murder, cannibalism, satanism, rape, etc. Indirect things, according to Fr. Lampert, are occult ties, visiting a psychic or medium, playing with a ouija board, practicing magic—things prohibited according to Deuteronomy 18:10-12.
Indeed, in the view of the Catholic Church, one of the main, if not the main, risk factors for coming under demonic possession is involvement in the occult. In his book Exorcism, Father Jeremy Davies—who set up the International Association of Exorcists with the Pope’s top exorcist—warns that activities such as yoga, massage therapy, or even reiki could be considered occult practices and put people at risk from evil spirits, statements that Fr. Lampert agrees with.
So, is it really true?
Aaron Leitch doesn’t think so. A senior member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he’s been a practicing occultist for nearly three decades. His experience comes mainly via the Book of Abramelin—a grimoire that includes many potentially dangerous demons and has been cited as a primary influence on Aleister Crowley.
“Any and all occult practice is not prone to lead you to possession,” Leitch said. “That is a line of nonsense used by the mainstream organized religions to frighten the curious away from magick.”
He likens it to the drug war propaganda of the 1980s, which insisted a single hit of marijuana could result in the same experience as a massive hit of LSD. “That kind of thing was dangerous because a kid only needed a single hit of weed to learn he had been lied to, and probably assume he had been lied to about harder and more dangerous drugs, too. This is no different.”
According to Leitch, possession becomes possible when you begin to directly call upon and work with the spiritual creatures; but not every single occult practice requires doing that. When you do call them to work directly with them, there are some practices that do indeed involve being “mounted” and “ridden” by the entity. In some practices, this is intended. Sometimes it just happens.
What about the bad kind of possession, where something very nasty grabs hold of an innocent person and wreaks havoc?
“That kind of thing certainly happens, but it is very rare,” he said. “And, where it comes to occultism, you would have to be doing a lot of things very wrong to get yourself into that situation! When someone has little to no understanding of what they are doing, literally anything is possible.”
As an example, Leitch says it’s all too common to hear of people going to do work in a graveyard, or people utilizing blood in their work (especially their own), or other practices that are in fact very dangerous to attempt if you don’t know the safety protocols. Those kinds of things can lead to possession—or some would say obsession or even spirit-attachment.
“Historically speaking, magick has always been a set of protocols used in order to approach and work with spiritual beings,” he said. “Those protocols are not only about gaining the attention and friendship of the spirits, but also keeping the worker safe from negative influences.”
“Magick can be like working with electricity. It can be a wonderful thing that powers your home, or it can fry you—and you need training to work with it properly.”
Lizzy Rose, “Australia’s celebrity psychic”, agrees. A renowned psychic, tarot reader, and witch, she offers her services through her website. However, it is her work as an exorcist that is her main focus. A professional exorcist for 27 years, Rose has performed more than 10,000 exorcisms, some of which have been extreme cases like in the horror movies.
As one of the few non-denominational exorcists working today, Rose’s approach to fighting demons utilizes her experience as a High Priestess of Eclectic Witchcraft. “I do not see the occult as evil, I see organized religions as evil; the humans who have created them, not necessarily the Gods who they worship,” she said.
With that said, Rose says the most common way to become possessed is by carrying out magical workings that one isn’t qualified, knowledgeable or experienced enough to practice. And these include the most basic forms of spirit communication via ouija boards, séances, and dark occult workings.
“These practices make for perfect doorways,” she warned. “There is a direct line in from the realm of the non-human to the human and what’s more often the case is that the human is asking to be shown a spirit or to feel, see or speak to it and in some cases for it to enter them. The human is serving themselves up as a willing subject.”
“Think of it like this…” she continued. “It’s like entering a high-level prison and approaching a row of the worst offenders, unlocking the jail doors and inviting them to get close to you. So you see doing something as dangerous and stupid as this will open one up to danger no matter who you are.”
“So my advice is to not play with it, not even as a joke or a fun party trick. Do not entertain such depths of spiritual esoteric evolution, as once a door is opened it’s not as easy as you would think to close it. Spiritual energy imprints on you and may haunt you even without possessing you.”
Rose also warns to stay away from haunted places such as asylums, psychiatric buildings, hospitals, jails, buildings or places where horrific acts of crime have occurred. As she explains it, whenever an event transpires that arouses strong emotions, such as a death, the residency in which this event occurs can create a psychic photograph or recording which may “loop” indefinitely, known as a psychic imprint. Malevolent spirits are drawn to this and feed off this energy, creating an environment in which demonic possession can take hold.
It brings to mind the murder/suicide of paranormal investigators Debby and Mark Constantino, stars of the travel channel’s popular Ghost Adventures show. Throughout the paranormal blogosphere, many people were claiming Mark was “possessed” by “evil spirits” he was investigating, which had led him to murder his wife. Regardless of what you think, he isn’t the first ghost hunter to get ill or die a horrible death after meddling with spirits (Gaurav Tiwari, star of Syfy’s Haunting: Australia, is another recent example).
This is what happens when you mess with things you do not have the license to mess with and disturb, according to Rose. However, while demonic possession is not something to take lightly in her experience, she views the subject in a very matter-of-fact, non-sensationalist way.
“Possession occurs as it’s simply energy that requires more energy than it currently has to exist, to continue to empower itself, grow, feed and nurture itself,” she said. “Despite how it may behave or appear from a human perspective, the possessing energy itself is just energy and its need to survive overrides all other motives, reasons, logic, understanding or programming.”
“If as humans we can understand this first, then possession and the necessary elimination of that which is possessing a human becomes easy to comprehend and logically justifies the very practice of professional demonic exorcism in itself.”
There are of course skeptics who claim that demonic possession has been explained by science and medicine, and would dismiss any talk on the matter by religious or occult “nutjobs”. Such skeptics may be unfamiliar with the work of Dr. Richard Gallagher. A Yale-trained psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University and New York Medical College, Gallagher is about as far from a hocus-pocus peddler as it’s possible to get.
He says demonic possession is real, something his scientific background initially made hard to accept. He’s seen the evidence: victims suddenly speaking perfect Latin; people exhibiting superhuman strength; objects flying off shelves. Yet despite these paranormal signs, it isn’t always easy to differentiate between true cases of possession and those that are not.
“You have to take the totality of the case,” he told me. “For instance, manic patients can seem very strong at times. Or psychics and mediums may know things called hidden knowledge that they otherwise couldn’t know. But when you have the totality of someone with plausible background for possession, who clearly feels that they’re being assaulted and who clearly exhibits paranormal features, then you can be pretty sure that you’re dealing with a possession.”
For more than two and a half decades, Gallagher has been approached by exorcists and religious leaders, including Muslim and Hindu clergy members, to give scientific advice about whether a patient is mentally ill or under demonic possession. While he believes full possessions are rare, he estimates that he’s seen more cases of the real thing than any other physician in the world.
Based on about 100 true cases of possession, in which the male-female ratio was nearly equal, Gallagher doesn’t believe that women are more vulnerable than men. “I have heard that maintained by some exorcists but I think that’s because women seek their help more often,” he said. “I never heard any good explanation other than to speculate they were “somehow” more vulnerable, which sounds sexist in a way.”
He also believes it’s extremely rare that a child would be possessed, although people have argued that there are some cases; such as the exorcism of Roland Doe, the true story that inspired The Exorcist.
“The most common cause of people getting possessed, if we’re talking about a full diabolic involuntary possession, most often happens to people who have turned to either evil and/or the occult and usually both,” Gallagher said. “It doesn’t just happen to anyone.”
While Gallagher’s opinion here is more or less the same as the exorcists who consult with him, he’s quick to stress that his beliefs are entirely his own and have been verified through clinical practice. He casually dismisses some of the theories he’s heard about possession over the years, such as that a high percentage of people in mental institutions are possessed—something he absolutely does not believe.
While mental illness and possession can co-exist, he doesn’t believe there is a link between the two conditions and sees theories that claim otherwise to be a distraction. “I’ve worked in mental hospitals for most of my professional life and I can assure you that these people are not possessed,” he said. “This is not a psychological problem. It is a spiritual problem. And spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.”
One of the spiritual solutions Gallagher is referring to is obviously exorcism, something he has witnessed many times. Raised a Catholic, he says the exorcisms he’s witnessed have deepened his faith. Yet while exorcisms are often extremely helpful in getting the demons under more control, he admits they’re not the whole story.
“You’ve got to remember exorcism is essentially a prayer. These prayers help but they are not like that of a witch doctor in terms of automatically and magically solving the problem. The person also has to work at it. The person has to make their own spiritual decision and they have to grow spiritually by turning to God and renouncing whatever has occurred in their life.”
Gallagher is very confident in what he says, and having seen many of these cases, he knows what works and what doesn’t work. When his book Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possession, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal is released by HarperCollins next year, it will surely be a lasting contribution to the field.
However, not all exorcists share his view that there’s no correlation between mental health and demonic possession. In fact, most of the exorcists I interviewed had noticed such a correlation in the possession cases they had seen.
Father Pat Collins, a leading Irish exorcist, told me that many people who contact him for help have suffered a traumatic experience such as child sex abuse. However, he has not been particularly interested in arriving at a reliable statistic.
A famous American exorcist, who asked that I not use his name in the article, told me that nearly 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking exorcism are sexual abuse survivors. However, he also sees a lot of people with other kinds of trauma that are not sexual abuse. “Physical abuse, emotional abuse—there has to be a lot of events and experiences; not usually just one but a pattern,” he said.
The Catholic exorcists I interviewed all supported the same mechanism behind this connection. Namely, when people suffer traumatic abuse whether physical, sexual, emotional, it can give evil spirits a foothold if the victims are unable to acknowledge and come to terms with their negative feelings. As a result, they may have emotions such as anger, resentment, hatred and vindictiveness suppressed in their unconscious minds. These emotions that interfere with the spiritual life can become strongholds and cause impediments to a relationship with God. God does offer protection but God does not interfere in our free will, and so when we choose to exhibit hate or anger internally or externally, God allows it to happen. Those strongholds can have an effect on our spiritual protection because we choose to allow those kinds of negative emotions to marinate in our psyche.
However, the Catholic exorcists agreed that this kind of trauma injury usually is not enough to get possessed…another “door” has to be opened. The injury creates the vulnerability to demons and—in the majority of cases—the occult activity is the “engine” that brings the demon(s) into the person. Father José Antonio Fortea, a leading Spanish exorcist, pointed out that the trauma injury is sometimes what makes the person reject God. They feel victimized by a God who didn’t protect them, and in anger, they fall into satanism or other types of occultism.
Such an explanation may fall short for those from a secular point of view. However, Lizzy Rose, the non-denominational exorcist, had also noticed a connection between trauma and demonic possession in some of her clients, although her proposed mechanism behind this connection was quite different.
As with most neopagan witches, Rose believes in the existence of an aura, which describes the electromagnetic field that surrounds the human being. “A healthy auric field can and does work as a highly effective shield against negative entities such as ghosts and demons,” she said. “It’s like having a large fog light or alarm system around your property that is current, switched on, regularly monitored and loud and sends a big message that the host is indeed prepared to defend itself against such an attack.”
According to Rose, the aura is the acclimation of the positive and balanced effects from all of the chakras (the energy centers of the body). To keep this envelope strong and resistant, one must keep their vibration high. This refers to your emotional state. High vibrations are generally associated with positive qualities and feelings, such as love, forgiveness, compassion, and peace. On the other hand, low vibrations are associated with darker qualities such as hatred, depression, guilt, and fear. Because of the aura’s ability to amplify everything going on in your system if you’re vibrating lower in some or all chakras, it creates holes or tears in the aura that makes it easier for outside entities to enter our bodies.
“I’ve never come across a positive loving person who truly lives that way every day as being demonically possessed, not yet anyway,” Rose said. “I believe living as best as we can in a positive, loving, caring and respectful way deters possession and always will.”
However, Rose points out that our energy vibrations are not black and white. Any emotional state that is heightened, be it positive or negative, intense or reserved, is not balanced and therefore is more accessible to penetrate and draw energy from.
“The aura alone does not stop possession, it just deters it, as there’s more energy to get through to possess the host,” she said. “The demon is attracted to stand out energy, it cares not how the human displays that energy. Yes, it’s fine to have moments of extreme elation and it’s understandable that at times we can feel really low and flat. However, remaining in that state of mind and consciousness is where the problem comes in to focus and is attractive to the realm of the demonic.”
Rose’s views are actually based on her own experiments with electromagnetic field meters, as well as her own firsthand perceptions and experiences. However, some of her views are in line with the Kundalini Yoga tradition, which also accepts that the aura is a highly effective shield against negative entities and energies.
Similar views are also found in Thailand and its surrounding countries. In Thailand, a khwan doctor, can be a Brahmin priest, a ritual specialist, a respected village elder or, less often, a monk. Most learned their craft while serving as monks, or from monks. “Khwan,” in Thai, is usually defined as “soul,” but it means something more akin to the aura in Kundalini Yoga. A hard soul can keep one protected from possession, a weak one means that one is vulnerable. A scare or shock can make your khwan flee your body, leaving you very vulnerable.
These kinds of beliefs are common in countries where Buddhism is strong, and where people generally are fearful of ghosts and other supernatural creatures. However, it’s inaccurate to characterize this as a uniform Buddhist response. Typically, Buddhism coexists with other religious traditions, and the boundaries are not always very clear. There are also significant variations in how spirits are regarded in the great diversity of Buddhist communities; and of course, some modern Buddhists are skeptical about the supernatural.
Traditional Buddhist cosmology, however, accepts that the world is inhabited by various ghosts and demons, many of whom are malevolent or dangerous, and can possess people. As these entities can move between the spirit world and the earth plane at will, one does not have to invite them in through evil or witchcraft; they are here and everywhere. And they can get close.
“Even without full demonic possession, demons are also believed to distract people from following the Buddhist path,” said Paul L. Swanson, author of several scholarly works on Buddhism. “They can cause unhealthy visions and dreams, and lead to physical, emotional, or psychological disease that can impede proper meditation or other forms of Buddhist practice.”
In this haunted world, Buddhists employ many methods to protect themselves from possession and other forms of spiritual attack. Some of these methods (such as the spirit trap) are non-direct and do not require actual “conversing” with the spirit in question, while others are direct and require the exorcist to be more involved. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, a giant public exorcism is held annually where every household in the celebrating region is cleaned physically and spiritually (typically by a priest) to get rid of misfortune and ghosts, in preparation for the new year.
There are also traditions and rules to follow if one wishes to stay safe, which are too numerous to list here. But in Thailand, it is believed that funerals associated with untimely or abrupt deaths are particularly virulent, as almost all of these spirits are malevolent. Their life being unexpectedly and abruptly ended makes their spirit unwilling to leave this world, and instinctively, it looks for a new body to possess. Thus, monks are called in to chant Buddhist scriptures from the Pāli Canon.
The signs of demonic possession are the same all over the world, and Buddhist majority countries are no different. The best account of a Buddhist-Daoist demonic possession can be found in Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth, which is as grisly and terrifying a possession as they come. However, most cases of spirit possession in Buddhist majority countries tend to follow a different pattern. Says Professor Andrew A. Johnson, one of the leading experts on spirit possession in Southeast Asia:
“In the cases that I’m familiar with, possession might go like this. A person falls sick and goes to a medical doctor. But medicine doesn’t help, or the person is really acting strange (voices, etc.). Then, they might go to a spirit doctor, who then might be able to consult with the possessing spirit. Sometimes that spirit is, in fact, a beneficial spirit who is being disrespected. Sometimes it’s an evil spirit (“demon,” if you like) who must be cast out.”
It is here that the definition of demonic possession becomes further blurred. In many Buddhist cultures, nature spirits are revered, respected and feared. Failing to keep these spirits happy can lead to involuntary possession by these spirits, which may cause illnesses, fits, animal noises, and speaking in tongues, that can be similar if not identical to possession by an evil spirit or “demon”. However, these groups of spirits can’t really be interpreted as demons as they are not inherently evil or seeking to oppose humanity, as seen from the western Christian perspective.
Furthermore, a separate question arises: can we really consider mental illness as a sign of demonic possession?
In his book Deliver Us From Evil, demonologist and exorcist Ralph Sarchie tells us that when someone is possessed, the demon doesn’t control the person twenty-four hours a day, so “he or she will behave normally most of the time, always knowing that something isn’t quite right.”
In keeping with the view of Dr. Gallagher and the Catholic church, Sarchie maintains that for a diagnosis of demonic possession to be made, the patient must exhibit obvious or distinctly paranormal signs in their behavior. However, the renowned psychiatrist M. Scott Peck believed—based on experience—that these criteria are so unrealistically strict that they would deny an exorcism to the majority of victims genuinely possessed by the demonic. Instead, he believed they should be enlarged to include soft signs of the paranormal, by which he meant signs that did not fit normal pictures of psychiatric disease. If one factors into the equation the generally held belief that demons are craftier than humans and would rather not be found out, at least in theory, it’s perhaps reasonable to think that some cases of demonic possession could manifest as mental illness.
Such a perspective is also found in particular African cultures, which share the Buddhist and Hindu belief that our physical world is intimately linked with subtler worlds. However, the symptoms of demonic possession in these cultures can be even less discernible. Among particular central and western African cultures, for example, many of the signs of demonic possession are common behavioral problems that would barely reach the diagnostic threshold in western psychiatry. This is especially true within initiated traditions such as Kindoki and Vodun (Voodoo), where evil spirits are thought to target children either while still in the womb or in early childhood.
“Children are vulnerable to possession because of their unformed minds and souls,” said Thomos Matumbo, a Vodun priest of African descent who now resides on the mainland of Europe. “They are innocent little human beings. They can become possessed as a result of the world around them. A lot of the time kids are visited by spirits and deities from the unseen world as it is easier for them to enter into their world and influence them.”
Matumbo is repeating the words of his friend Malcolm Poussaint, a well-known Vodun priest who specialized in child possession cases. Although his religion forbade him from advertising, Poussaint did a roaring business in London, England, and was so successful that he had his own agent, all through word of mouth. He passed away a few years ago, but Matumbo is continuing with the work that he did when he was around, although only for people who are close and in need of protection.
According to Matumbo, those in the African community love and cherish their kids and will do anything to protect them from harm. And that means the children need to be protected from a very young age. “Everything starts from young,” he said. “If a tree is growing crooked you start to put it right from infancy, not when it has grown big and into maturity. It is easier to correct kids from a young age than to repair broken men.”
When one thinks of demonically-possessed children, terrifying images of girls thrashing about violently and growling in Satanic tones come to mind. However, Matumbo says this is often far from reality. In the child possession cases that Poussaint dealt with, the usual symptoms were things like constant bed-wetting, unruliness at school, insatiable appetite for food, reckless behavior even when it can endanger their lives, lack of respect for their family and people around them, non-stop crying in the middle of the night.
“The exorcism can vary and typically takes about 3-4 visits during a two to three-week period to help bring these kids back to some semblance of normality,” Matumbo said. “It’s done through prayers, chants, incantations and special baths in the presence of the child’s parents.”
“Malcolm’s exorcisms were always successful,” he noted. “Exorcisms are complex and hard work as you are dealing with supernatural forces which are much more powerful than humans and can cause mayhem if one is not careful.”
Matumbo insists it is vitally important to prevent these kids from bringing shame to their family. If not cleansed, it is believed that they can fall by the wayside and indulge in criminal activities and other negative norms of life. “White people don’t understand this and don’t want to understand how and why this happens to kids,” he said.
“Vodun teaches that kids should be safe at all times and if they begin to act abnormally then the parents reserve the right to visit a priest or mambo who will advise and offer spiritual counsel. He will look at the child and do a reading and depending on what the reading says, he will decide on the next course of action. It’s a consultation that involves a few trusted people.”
A similar belief is found among particular Chinese cultures, who regard unborn and young children as having incomplete souls. I.e., the child possesses the capacity, like a half-empty glass, to take in more spirit, and therefore makes a suitable vessel for possession by a demon.
In parts of India, children are also considered particularly vulnerable to demonic possession. One of the reasons is that, according to popular Indian religious belief, fear and a lack of psychological fortitude provide openings for evil spirits.
Indeed, while various religions and cultures hold some radically different views on demonic possession—and the determinants of the vulnerability to this threat—one can see many similarities with them too. The similarities grow stronger when one looks throughout history when witchcraft and demonic possession were common explanations for mental disorders in Western societies; and when children were seen as vulnerable to demons in fifteenth-century England.
Of course, these kinds of beliefs can seem like primitive superstition with all our learning and western logic. In reality, many beliefs about demonic possession are likely to have a non-supernatural origin. The belief that women are more susceptible to possession than men, as held by the Zār cult in the middle east and northeast Africa, for example, can possibly be explained by these cultures in which women have subordinate status, rather than by any objective observations of spirit possession. Shamanistic cultures, which believe that demons prey upon weak-minded people, can possibly be explained by shamanism’s power for survival under persecution.
More times than not, these kinds of beliefs lie beyond scientific scrutiny, and as such, they cannot be verified. However, there are also beliefs about demonic possession that arguably warrant attention, yet have barely been explored by science. This doesn’t mean that they are true, but it does oblige us not to be dismissive of the unknown. While many cases of demonic possession can be explained away by cultural traditions, the psychology of gullibility, or mental disorders, there are individuals who are rational, stable and intelligent who have had sensory experiences that defy all explanation. With a growing number of psychiatrists in the US now believing in demonic possession thanks to the work of Dr. Gallagher, one can’t help but consider the possibility.
We in the West may just be catching up.