According to some religious sects, demonic possession is the taking over of a person’s body by one or more demons or by the devil. Symptoms of demonic possession are said to include convulsions or fits, inappropriately public sexual behavior, verbal outbursts (often obscene), and physical changes in the body (such as a bloated belly or permanently grimacing expression). Some possessed people also supposedly demonstrate unusual abilities, such as unexplained knowledge of a foreign language, strength disproportionate to their body size or age, the ability to predict the future, or the ability to levitate. Some Roman Catholics also believe that an aversion to sacred objects, such as crucifixes, is a sign of demonic possession. According to Catholic dogma, genuine cases of demonic possession can only be treated by an exorcist, a person who uses rituals to “cast out” the devil’s spirit from the possessed.
Over the centuries, various theories have been proposed regarding how a demon or the devil might enter a person’s body. Magicians, wizards, and witches have all, at one time or another, been considered capable of aiding in a victim’s possession. However, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was commonly believed that the invading spirit could not simply be sent into the intended victim, but rather it had to enter the body through the ingestion of food or the touching of some magical object. Amulets, potions, and certain foods, particularly apples or pieces of bread, were typically cited as the tools used to open someone to a possession. In modern times, however, those who believe in demonic possession say that the devil or his agents can possess any person at will, unless that person’s faith is strong enough to thwart them.
Those who believe in demonic possession cite the case of Anna Ecklund, who lived in the early twentieth century, as demonstrating that Satan really can take over someone’s body. Ecklund exhibited what appeared to be classic symptoms of demonic possession, including the ability to speak and understand languages to which she had never been exposed. Moreover, her abilities—and the exorcism ritual used to rid her of the demon—were well documented.
Sceptics, however, say that Ecklund’s “possession” was a mental illness, and her “exorcism” was successful because she believed it would be. In fact, most people now view symptoms of demonic possession as a mental illness that has nothing to do with demons or devils—and even the Catholic Church acknowledges that this is often the case. The church also acknowledges that some people have faked demonic possession, either for attention or for profit. This was particularly common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when fraudulent exorcists, pretended to cast demons out of supposed victims who were working with them. These performances typically took place in front of large crowds of people who later rewarded the exorcist with money or goods.
- Demons and the Devil
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning