Exorcisms and Psychology: What’s Really Going On?

Bible and holy waterExorcisms occupy a hallowed place in horror movies, with some claiming to be “based on a true story”—attracting mass audiences, rampant skepticism, and much discussion. But the ancient practice of expelling demons or other entities from a person isn’t merely fodder for fright flicks or some relic of a less enlightened time. Exorcisms are very much a part of cultural mythology, and occupy an important place in some religions. The Catholic Church has 10 exorcists in the United States. Even Mother Teresa underwent an exorcism at the direction of the archbishop of Calcutta.

No one can say with absolute certainty whether demons walk among us and occasionally take control of living beings, but science can offer a helpful window into exorcisms and what might cause a person to appear “demonically possessed.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not recognize demonic possession as a psychiatric issue. There is little doubt, however, about the influence of issues that are recognized by the DSM, and no one questions the power of suggestion.

What Causes the Appearance of Possession?
Historically, exorcisms have been used to treat a wide variety of symptoms that are now associated with mental issues. People with schizophrenia, personality issues, delusions, hallucinations, or severe depression might all have been considered candidates for exorcisms in generations past. Each of these issues can, in some cases, cause unusual or frightening behavior.

In a culture where many believe certain behaviors may be caused by demonic possession, the manifestations of mental health issues may conform to popular mythology. A person with schizophrenia might, for example, believe he or she hears the voice of Satan, or that he or she is in fact Satan, because he or she grew up amid culturally ingrained messages that this is possible.

Even in contemporary times, people with mental issues may be subject to exorcisms, particularly in devoutly religious communities and developing countries. Epilepsy, which can cause severe seizures, may lead to exorcism being performed. Substance abuse, head injuries, and brain tumors can also dramatically alter behavior, leading someone to appear possessed.

What Happens During an Exorcism?
Exorcisms tend to follow a predictable path. The apparent victim of possession’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, perhaps even violent, until the exorcist casts the demonic spirit out. “Possessed” people may speak in tongues, vomit, become violently ill, or harm themselves. And while these behaviors might seem shocking, they can be easily explained.

Mental issues can cause strange behavior, and people tend to conform to expectations. This means a person experiencing an exorcism is more likely to act in ways he or she has heard of others behaving during exorcisms. Exorcisms sometimes also involve the use of potions, drugs, or fasting, each of which can induce violent illness and strange behavior. Starvation can affect brain function, and the stress of an exorcism may radically alter behavior.

Some exorcism advocates insist that exorcism works. And it very well may. People undergoing exorcisms may enter hypnotic trances, during which time they may be much more suggestible, which means their behavior may later change. The dramatic ritual of an exorcism can also be cathartic for some deeply religious people, and may inspire a change in behavior or personality.

Exorcisms As Abuse
Although every person has the right to practice his or her own religious beliefs, exorcisms sometimes become a form of abuse, and some mental health experts are concerned that they may replace competent psychiatric treatment for people with mental health issues.

Over the past decade, several people have died during exorcisms. A woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, attempted to exorcise her son by forcing him to drink vinegar and olive oil, then held him down during an exorcism. The boy suffocated, and his mother was convicted of murder in 2011. A 3-year-old in Arizona was nearly choked to death by her grandfather, who was attempting to exorcise her; the grandfather was shot and killed by police.

References:

  1. Attempted exorcism ends in man’s death. (2007, July 29). MSNBC.com. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/20027027/
  2. Batty, D. (2001, May 02). Exorcism: Abuse or cure? The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2001/may/02/socialcare.mentalhealth1
  3. Interview with the exorcist. (2000, September 21). The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2000/09/21/interview-with-the-exorcist.html
  4. Libaw, O. (2012, September 11). Exorcism thriving in the U.S., say experts. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92541
  5. Mom convicted in son’s exorcism death. (2011, May 29). WISH TV. Retrieved from http://www.wishtv.com/dpp/news/local/north_central/boy-dead-after-attempted-exorcism
  6. Peter, B. (2005). Gassner’s Exorcism—not Mesmer’s Magnetism—is the Real Predecessor of Modern Hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 53(1), 1-12. doi: 10.1080/00207140490914207

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  • kellerman

    kellerman

    March 8th, 2013 at 3:02 PM

    This whole subject just freaks me out.

  • Caitlyn

    Caitlyn

    March 9th, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    I’m with you kellerman, This has always been one of these weird things that I can never understand, can never wrap my head around the fact that people may believe that someone is demonically possessed! I put about much faith in this as I do the Bigfoot hunters.

  • Liz s

    Liz s

    March 10th, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    Sad how those of us who are SANE and RATIONAL would know that this is a question of mental health and not that someone has been possessed by a demon.

    I guess that there are just those fanatics who are looking for some sort of answer that feels like and explanation and for some reason with these people they tend to find it easier to believe that someone would have been possessed by the devil rather than that they may actually have something wrong with them in terms of mental illness.

    This should really be a study about more of the kooky ways that religion can be used as an excuse for both the good things that happen in life as well as the bad.

  • teri

    teri

    March 11th, 2013 at 2:48 AM

    10 licensed exorcists? This goes deeper than I would have even thought because I guess I always thought that just a regular old priest would do, but looks like the Catholics actually take this a little more seriously than I thought to have people who actually have this as a part of their job

  • teresa

    teresa

    March 11th, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    What about people speaking in languages they do not know. If you believe in God,then you have to believe in the devil as well. I’m catholic.

  • chase

    chase

    August 6th, 2018 at 1:19 AM

    sorry to say it, but most of the stories of people speaking in unknown languages are either proved to be bs, or very likely faked. how can ome determine whether or not they know these languages beforehand besides taking their word for it? they may not even know the language at all and couldve memorized phrases to throw out during an “exorcism”. of course, if you believe that theyre real thats okay and valid! this is just how i see it. im of a different faith so we dont really believe in “demons” per say

  • gibbs

    gibbs

    March 11th, 2013 at 10:55 PM

    all this is just a part of the forgettable past of our world.the sooner it is eliminated and forgotten the better.never have these old practices benefited us and yet they will only make us seem like savages to our future generations.

  • JT

    JT

    April 3rd, 2013 at 10:07 PM

    It may intrest some of you to know that the Catholic Church has had a dramatic increase in excorcisms of late in all parts of the world, so much so as it has had to train a vast amount of Priests in the ritual, Of course, the church does NOT take this lightly, there is process of investigation and inquiry that must take place and the church has to approve any exorcisms after much serious and exhaustive study of each case. It is ALWAYS used as a last resort! It takes this very seriously and understands modern medicine and therapy is the answer to most reported cases but there are those that do fall into the relm of supernatural causes. The last thing the church wants or needs is a lawsuit! That being said, it should concern you more that the number of “last resort” essentially soul if not life saving exorcisms has in the past several years more then trippled! Wheras in the past they may have performed only double digets, they are now thousands. Maybe that is something we should ponder more and not be surrprised aat with the state of the world today.What if it is real? Then what?

  • Christopher Smith

    Christopher Smith

    April 16th, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    Exorcisms are something that are beyond the experience of many of us. Even the idea of demon possession is something that is beyond many of our frames of reference, even if we are from a religious tradition that speaks of this. Some other articles about this process:
    deseretnews.com/article/700193717/Vatican-trained-exorcist-shares-true-tales-of-his-craft.html?pg=all
    diabolicalconfusions.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/theres-a-valid-reason-why-the-roman-catholic-church-needs-to-sanction-an-official-exorcism/
    From the last one, there is a good distiinction between exorcisms and deliverance. While many do not want to label mental health problems as demon possession, the idea of the power of prayer to deliver someone from being influenced by evil and controls beyond themselves may not be so far off. Of course, this does not preclude the idea of using other techniques – therapy, medication, etc to also try to address the issue or even to be seen as part of the answer to prayer.

  • Susan

    Susan

    October 30th, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    I am from India. Possession and exorcism are known in the traditions of Kerala where I live. People are allegedly possessed by the souls of the dead, especially those who die abruptly in the middle of life . The possessed, as shown in movies, are made to sit before a magician who has a fire before him and hoe creates a scary atmosphere and orders the demon to leave. Sometimes they are shown thrashing the possessed person asking the demon to leave the body. It looks like suggestion to me. The person gives up when things become too painful and abandons the drama and become exorcised.

    In our Orthodox Christian prayer book, ‘prayer for specific occasions’ there is a prayer titled ‘prayer for clearing possession’ and in brackets (for cure from mental illness)

    I think the devil does not need such kind of possessions when it has alcoholism and drug abuse , wars, chemical weapons, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, abuse of children etc. at its command. I would call these, the result of possession. Isn’t alcohol called ‘spirit’

  • Confused

    Confused

    November 1st, 2017 at 3:12 PM

    Yesterday, I went to a friend’s baptism just to support him. His brother-in-law was also getting baptized. I didn’t know the guy doing to dunking, but he had a ritual of asking the participant about their background and any hidden sins they wanted to confess and then started praying for them as if to call out spirits which I was not expecting. He did this and at a point in the process the subject started talking in ways that you would never want someone to hear and then choking, gagging and eventually letting go. Everything was being done in Jesus name, but it was crazy town as the subject said.
    After they were done with him they turned to me. Wait! I was their to support, but I had shared something where I felt common feelings as the previous guy…again just support. They asked if they could pray for me. I said ok, opened up about a few things that you might in a small group…no big deal. Then they started praying. I was sitting there listening not really seeing how anything could happen as I have done a lot of praying in my life. Then, all of a sudden something happened in my gut and everything seized up. Soon I felt like my eyeballs were about to explode while intermittently gasping for air. They kept calling for the names of demons to reveal themselves. It was crazy. I got to the point where I couldn’t even through suggestion even come up with a “name” that fit the question and then some weird set of indistinguishable words came out of my mouth like might happen in a nightmare, but the only thing on my mind was “death”. The baptizer then almost immediately after said, “Death, that’s your name”. I squeezed his let so freaking hard, but I still could not speak. Then what ever was gripping me released. It was the craziest moment of my life.
    I have been a Christian since a young boy and have raised 5 solid believing Christian kids. After this experience I was exhausted and fragile. I had a rope strung up in my backyard originally for a rope swing but joked/threatened with my wife that it was a noose when I was depressed which was often. It truly had become that for me. So, the first thing I did when I got home was take it down which took forever with all the knots, the whole time saying Jesus name because I was literally in fear. It was Halloween, how crazy!
    My daughter who I had previously had a knock-down-drag-out called me and I told her what happened because the first thing that came to my mind after the experience was to text her, “I love you”. She broke down as she relayed that she had been praying for me that day and while we have never personally believed in praying in tongues, she started to. This really happened.
    The rest of the day was a blur with my head aching and physically exhausted. Today Nov. 1, I still feel subdued and now feel confused, exposed and somewhat like a loser. I have been a Christian, am highly educated, have a great family….what the heck just happened?

  • Ham

    Ham

    May 7th, 2018 at 6:29 AM

    Although some cases of exorcisms were probably cases of mental disease, it doesn’t mean that the possessions weren’t real. In some cases, victims floated and spoke of things they’d never know. How is that possible? It must mean something.

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