Is Demonic Possession Real?

Well this is a question I get asked more often than you could imagine, largely in high school classrooms and such, the question motivated by movies like “the Exorcist,” (which was very good) and a whole bunch of other movies (that kinda suck).  It’s a sensational question – I’m not surprised at all at being asked it.

Fuel is added to the question by the fact that Jesus himself seemed to perform exorcisms all the time.  If we read the Gospels, the form of healing Jesus performs the most, by far, is exorcisms.

Of course, back then, every ailment that they didn’t understand was called demonic possession.  If you had epilepsy, you were possessed.  If you were a mute, you were possessed.  If you were really depressed, you were possessed.  The other big candidate was leprosy: every ailment from Hanson’s disease (the ACTUAL leprosy) to a bad rash to acne stood a pretty good chance of being diagnosed as leprosy.

The priests were the doctors back then - 'nuff said.

So when Jesus performed these “exorcisms,” it would seem he was actually curing all these other kinds of illnesses.

But what about actual demonic possession, where a demonic spirit actually inhabits a human being?  Is that real? 

I’ve had the odd experience with people who THOUGHT they were possessed.  They claim they can sense a dark presence in their basement in a certain spot, or they feel aches in the back of their legs that they can’t explain, and so forth.  Usually the first question I ask them is if they are on any medication.  So far, almost every time, the answer has been yes.

Quite often what people consider to be demonic possessions are actually schizophrenic delusions, and were I to rush over and bless their basements or call out the evil spirits from their shin splints, I could be REINFORCING their delusions – that is, making it worse.

And in less drastic situations, quite often the DARK presences people sense are actually unresolved baggage from their own past – parts of their own psyches, repressed memories, things within themselves that they may be TERRIFIED to face, but these things still affect their actions, causing them to do things they don’t understand and don’t SEEM to be able to control.  This is particularly the case when these ominous feelings happen after some repetative, almost ritualistic activity, like praying the rosary, or even knitting - it creates a TRANCE response, which opens the door for the unconscious. By this definition, racism could be considered a demon.  So could child abuse.  So could parental neglect.  Etc.  Old wounds that haven’t healed – can affect us now, almost as though we were possessed by some foreign force within us.  When this is the case, EXORCISM involves counselling, and healing.

But there’s another side to this story too.

I remember out at camp once, a group of teenagers had snuck out during the dance into the woods, and performed a pseudo-séance (pseudo because none of them had any idea what they were doing).  Whether they contacted any spirits from beyond the grave or not is doubtful, but one fourteen year old girl, who had a very traditional Catholic upbringing, managed to work herself up to the point that she became convinced that she was becoming possessed. She said she felt the devil coming into her.

Was she?  I doubt it.  I do know that we all have the ability to work ourselves up with fear, even into a frenzy (a clinically diagnosed panic attack), and this is exactly what she did here.  We calmed her down, prayed with her, the Our Father, over and over and over again, assured her that God was more powerful than the devil, and that she was protected, etc.  She calmed down.

But afterward, one of my fellow staff members pointed out to me – there had to be something really evil going on for a child like that to get that scared.  From this point I realized, if the devil really wanted to attack someone, what better way could he do it than by terrorizing a fourteen year old girl?  Was she about to become possessed?  No.  However, was the devil trying to scare her?  Well, maybe.

A lot of times, when it comes to supernatural phenomena, we tend to classify them into one of two groups – either a) its real, spiritual supernatural stuff, or b) it is dismissed as scientific phenomena, coincidence, or psychological delusion.  But I wonder: maybe in some cases, it could be both.

Perfect example is the famous case (who’s name escapes me unfortunately, but it was the case that the story of the Exorcist was based) – a little boy believed himself possessed, and so did his family, and a priest came along, performs the Rite of Exorcism, and he was cured.  It was a really creepy story too apparently.  Since then, detractors have claimed that it was really a matter of the power of suggestion – because of the child’s strict Catholic upbringing, he BELIEVED he was possessed, and then for the same reason BELIEVED the power of the ritual that helped him.  So it’s all a matter of reinforced delusion.

I wonder, however, does that mean it wasn’t true?

What we know is that schizophrenic visions and episodes tends use religious symbols, all the time, from whatever creed the visionary in question holds to.  Why is that?  We also know that symbols and rituals that are used by religions tend to match Jungian archetypes of the unconscious.  See my paper on Joseph Campbell for more info – click HERE.  Also likely is the fact that were St. Joan of Arc or St. Francis of Assisi alive today, they likely would have been diagnosed schizophrenic themselves – and these are canonized saints of the church.  And we also know that Biblical apparitions often occurred as dreams, or at least used the language of dreams.

My point – maybe the part of ourselves that psychologists call the “unconscious self,” which is connected to what many of them call the “collective unconscious,” is in fact a way of communicating with this transcendent spiritual realm.

Campbell has an interesting idea in this regard – comparing the unconscious self to the SEA (which is usually a dream symbol for the unconscious, by the way).  Those who learn how to swim in their own unconscious are the ones who learn to interpret their own symbols and images that present themselves in dreams and even visions, and can navigate themselves through life successfully.  Those who CAN’T tell the difference between the unconscious world and the real world, and therefore can’t interpret them – these are the ones who drown in that sea.

Another example – I had a fellow come to me saying that these two women he knew were witches, casting spells and hexes on him.  Turns out these two women were actually dealing him drugs.  My interpretation, which he unfortunately wasn’t able to make on his own, was that his own unconscious spiritual centre was trying to turn him away from drugs by portraying these two dealers as witches – unfortunately he took these images literally, reinforcing his fear.

Here's another really good example - once a young man told me he was plagued by dreams of hell hounds; wolves attaching him. I could have dismissed the issue, telling him he had nothing to worry about, but I didn't, and encouraged him to try to communicate with whatever message these dream images were trying to tell him. In a later conversation, he told me about an older man that was trying to initiate a sexual relationship with him - this man was a sexual preditor. Guess what the dream symbol of a wolf typically respresents - a sexual preditor (check the Little Red Riding Hood). His unconscious was trying to warn him of a message his conscious self was choosing to ignore - that this older man was dangerous to him. Creepy, huh?

So, back to the question – does demonic possession take place today?

Well, in the broad sense, we could say it takes place every time I get mad at the guy who cut me off in traffic – but that’s not the kind everyone seems to be interested in (even though this is probably the way the devil does 99% of his damage).

In the STRICT sense – the rather exotic kinds that are the subject of fiction and folklore – that of being animated by a foreign spirit who takes over our bodies – well, I supposed its possible – I’m certainly not so arrogant to assume that it isn’t, not with such a wealth of historical evidence.  I do know that each Archdiocese has an appointed exorcist – their identity is kept a secret so as not to invite every crack-pot with a hangnail to hound them all day and all night – but we do have them.

I do not know who ours is.

I do know it isn’t me - so don't bother asking.

Nonetheless, this difference between the broad sense and the strict sense, I think, should be illustrative.  Maybe we should consider the possibility that the devil could attack someone by making them schizophrenic – whatever the devil is (a topic for another time).

So when a case of demonic possession is considered, the first thing that the church does (as was pointed out in the movie), is ruled out all other explanations first: medical, psychiatric, etc., - then if no other explanation for bizarre behaviour is found, then an exorcism is considered, but even then only with great caution.  But the whole time, the process is done with consideration for and consultation with medical and psychiatric professional.  This is all to avoid the possibility of reinforcing a delusion – as mentioned above.

Let’s bottom line this – when it comes to questions of demonic possession, also ouija boards, tarot cards, etc., it seems to me there are two alternatives – either they are B.S., in which case pursuing them is a waste of time, or they AREN’T B.S., in which case, its best not to mess with them in the first place.