possession The takeover and control of a person’s mind, body, and sometimes soul by a Demon, Ghost, spirit, or deity. There are different forms of possession. While possession is a universal and ancient belief, the approaches to it differ widely. In Christianity, possession is associated with Demonic and malevolent influences, but this is not the case in other cultures.
Ancient peoples—and some today—believed that gods and various other spirits can interfere in human affairs on a daily basis. They may possess a person’s mind and or body and cause them to carry out certain acts for the possessing entity’s own purposes. While possession usually is regarded as undesirable, some traditions hold that it shows the favour of the gods. Mediums, channelers, and trance prophets undergo a type of temporary possession, in which they become a vehicle for discarnate entities to communicate through them.
Anything might be blamed on or credited to a possessing entity. Such possessions usually are temporary and end when the goal is accomplished, but sometimes they present an ongoing problem. If possession becomes problematic, remedies of Exorcism, the expulsion or banishing of the entity, are sought from a trained practitioner, such as a priest, magician, or other expert. Some forms of possession are more psychiatric in nature, causing mental disturbances and personality changes.
The Bible tells how Jesus healed by casting out “unclean spirits,” which was customary for healers at the time. Demons were believed to be responsible for illness. One of Jesus’ “patients” was a deranged man who was possessed by Demons who identified themselves as “Legion.” Seeing that their possession of the man was at end, the Demons begged Jesus to send them into a nearby herd of swine, which he did. The pigs went berserk and plunged over a cliff to their deaths, taking the Demons with them.
By the end of the New Testament period, Demons were equated with the wicked fallen angels cast out of heaven with Lucifer. Early Christian theologians considered possession to be caused by the devil. Demons plagued the holy, such as saints, and also fooled the innocent.
In the Middle Ages, Demonic possession became a major concern of the church. Anyone found showing signs of unusual behavior or a different personality was automatically possessed by the devil. During the Inquisition, this became a heresy—a reason to be arrested, tried, and, if found guilty, executed. Theologians said that the devil worked through the agency of witches; the practice of witchcraft also became a heresy. Witches were accused of using black magic or animal familiars to send Demons into people. Demons also preyed upon the weaknesses of people—lust, greed, anger, and so forth—to find an entry point on their own for possession.
Even eating certain foods, such as apples, could result in possession, for Demons rode along into the body on the food. The apple was considered a favourite Demonic vehicle because it was the fruit involved in the fall of Adam and Eve. In 1585, the townspeople of Annecy, Savoy, France, became alarmed over an apple that gave out a “great and confused noise.” Believing it to be full of Demons, they pushed the apple into a river.
Exorcisms had been practiced since the early days of Christianity, but in 1614, the Catholic Church issued a Rituale Romanum to standardize procedures. The Rituale Romanum was especially intended for Demonic possession— an all-out spiritual battle for control of a soul. Revisions have been made to the text since then, but it continues in modern use. It can only be performed by a priest, preferably one who is trained in exorcism. The Protestant Reformation rejected the idea of Demonic possession.
Demonic possession cases continue in present times, although church attention to possession cases dropped in the 20th century. Then in the 1970s, public attention was renewed by William Peter Blatty’s novel and film, The Exorcist, based on a real case in 1949 (see St. Louis Exorcism Case). The numbers of reported possession cases began to rise. A sharp increase was seen at the turn of the 21st century, perhaps in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and rising global fears over terrorism and war. The church increased the training of exorcists (see International Association of Exorcists).
Most possession cases are dealt with by Catholic clergy, but some Protestant and evangelical ministers perform varying types of exorcism. Lay Demonologists (see Demonology) also investigate cases and work with clergy in exorcisms, as assistants or witnesses.
Some believe that one modern cause of possession is toying with the supernatural, such as by playing with a TALKING BOARD or other divination practice that establishes communication with the spirit world. They contend that the undiscerning person may be fooled by deceiving spirits that respond to an open call.
The Catholic Church defines the true signs of possession as:
• displaying superhuman strength, often accompanied by fits and convulsions
• having knowledge of the future or other secret information
• being able to understand and converse in languages previously unknown to the victim
• revulsion toward sacred objects or texts
Early Puritan ministers and later Protestant clergy agree on these same signs, adding the complete ignorance of the possessed person about his fits and behaviors. Demonic possession progresses through stages:
• Infestation is the actual entry point, when the Demon first enters the victim and begins to exert an influence.
• During oppression, the victim weakens, and makes unethical or immoral choices, or serious mistakes on vital matters.
• As oppression worsens, the victim voluntarily yields control to the invading spirit, even though he knows the spirit is alien to his personality.
• Full-blown Demonic possession takes place. According to the church, possession cannot occur without the consent, however subliminal, of the possessed. Thus, a victim does not have to consciously invite evil. Once possession occurs, the Demon tries to capture the soul, sometimes by causing the victim to commit heinous acts, such as murder, or by committing SUICIDE.
When a victim is under Demonic possession, his appearance and behavior can alter in radical ways. A host of unpleasant phenomena manifest, among them lewd and obscene acts and thoughts; cursing and swearing; screaming in rage; spitting, vomiting, and urinating; foul Smells; horrible facial expressions; physical contortions; unusual strength; speaking in tongues; prophesying; emaciation through rapid weight loss;Levitation, and so forth. If presented with holy objects or splashed with holy water, a victim recoils.
Sometimes the offending entity can be expelled before full possession is reached. Some cases require repeated exorcisms—some can last for years before a person is clear. Possession may not be unrelenting. There are cases of “transient possession,” in which the Demon comes and goes.
Those present at an exorcism—the exorcists, assistants, and witnesses—are in danger of suffering possession as well. At the very least, the Demon, speaking through the victim, may hurl their secret fears and vices in their faces. Exorcists and Demonologists also can suffer mishaps, like strange accidents, while they are working on cases. Good health and a virtuous life are important defenses in dealing with possession cases.
Possession cases can be dangerous to deal with. Untrained paranormal investigators, attracted by the danger, have involved themselves in the field, thus opening themselves and their families to unpleasant problems. Exorcists stress that amateurs should not meddle in possession.
Spirits and Multiple Personality
In psychiatry, patients suffering from multiple personalities repress a great deal of hatred, which acts almost like a magnet for evil influences which are sometimes perceived as external spirits or ghosts. Obsession always represents an abnormal condition, and once the patient admits the existence of spirit influence, the idea of spirit obsession cannot be ignored. Severe physical or psychological trauma may so upset the victim that a “window” in the mind opens, allowing spirit influences to enter.
But are spirit obsession and possession tricks of the eager but unbalanced mind? Or, are diseases of the mind—schizophrenia, paranoia, hysteria, compulsion and multiple personality—really the work of spirits controlling their unhappy victims?
In some cases of multiple personality, some psychiatrists find that only exorcism—perhaps simply invoking the Lord’s name—eliminates one or more of the troubling personalities so that the patient can eventually become one person.
James H. Hyslop, a former leader of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and an investigator of spirit obsession, wrote in his book Contact with the Other World (1919) that if people believe in Telepathy, then invasion of a personality over distance is possible. And if that is true, he said, then it is unlikely that sane and intelligent spirits are the only ones able to exert influence from beyond. Hyslop also stated that persons diagnosed as suffering from hysteria, multiple personality, dementia praecox or other mental disturbances showed, in his view, unmistakable signs of invasion by discarnate entities. He called on the medical establishment to take such situations into account during treatment.
Dr. M. Scott Peck, a self-described “hardheaded scientist,” a graduate of Harvard University and a practicing psychiatrist in Connecticut, has claimed that two of his patients suffered from possession by spirits in addition to their other symptoms of multiple personality. In both cases, Peck found the spirits to be evil, actively working to destroy the mind of the host patients.
In his 1983 book People of the Lie, Peck describes these patients, their awareness from the beginning of alien presences, and the exorcisms which eventually cleared the way for spiritual healing. When the Demonic entities finally revealed themselves, Peck relates, the patient’s faces were completely transformed into masks of utter malevolence. One patient became a snake, with writhing body and hooded reptilian eyes, and made darting efforts to bite the exorcism team members. A tremendous weight—an ageless, evil heaviness, or the true Serpent— seemed to be in the room. Peck reported that everyone involved felt such a presence, and it was only relieved when the exorcism succeeded.
Peck’s experiences corroborated those of California psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Allison. Although he was conventionally trained in psychiatry at both the UCLA School of Medicine and Stanford Medical Center, Allison has stated that many cases of multiple personality are the result of spirit possession, both nonthreatening and Demonic. His controversial 1980 book Minds in Many Pieces discusses some of these patients and the inexplicable paranormal occurrences surrounding them. Allison also noted that at least one personality in each patient—sometimes the primary but usually a secondary one—displays striking psychic abilities.
The influence of Spiritualism
Life everlasting for the spirit—and the ability to contact such spirits through mediums, proving their survival— underlies Spiritualism, a movement that arose in the mid- 19th century and became a religion. Although many people claimed to communicate with the dead, the famous Rappings of the Fox Sisters in Hydesville, New York proved the existence of spirits to many nonbelievers and provided the impetus for organized gatherings and Séances. The temporary possessions of mediums by alleged spirits of the dead, however, are distinct from Demonic and spirit possessions that take over complete control of an individual’s personality and life (see Mediumship).
A European offshoot of spiritualism, Spiritism, founded by Allan Kardec, holds that certain illnesses have a spiritual cause and can be treated psychically through communication with spirit guides. Kardec said that persons suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia and multiple personality showed signs of spirit interference, either from spirits of other dead people or from remnants of the patients’ own past lives. Kardec said that within each person’s personality are what he called “subsystems” of past lives inherited with each new incarnation. Sometimes these subsystems dominate the present life, blocking out reality and controlling the body for extended periods. Successful treatment depended not only on counseling and therapy but on communication with these spirits to understand their presence and get them to depart the victim. Kardec’s theories were fashionable in France for a while but did not catch on in the rest of Europe. They found enthusiastic audiences in the Western Hemisphere, however, particularly in Brazil.
Similar views of spirit possession were held by other practitioners of medicine, such as Carl Wickland and his wife, Anna, and Titus Bull, who believed a host of medical ills were caused by confused but benign spirits who needed a gentle exorcism of persuasion.
Spirit Possession Elsewhere in the World
In many non-Western cultures, communication with spirits and deities serves as the centerpiece of religious worship. Possession by a god shows the possessed to be worthy of the god’s notice and protection. Even minor accomplishments and setbacks stem directly from the god’s active intervention.
Although the followers of Islam worship one god, Allah, they acknowledge the mischief created by minor Djinns (genies), or zar spirits. The zars, also called sars, possess their victims, usually women, and cause sickness, marital discord and general rebelliousness. The zars only depart if they are placated with gifts of clothes, food, liquor, jewelry or other presents for the possessed victim, or perhaps better treatment of the victim by the men in her family (see ZAR).
In India, spirit possession permeates every facet of daily life. Again the possessed is most often a woman, who attributes her personal problems—menstrual pain, barrenness, the death of children, miscarriage, abuse by husbands or fathers, the husband’s infidelities—to the intervention of evil spirits. Exorcism techniques by the shaman include blowing cow-dung smoke, pressing rock salt between the fingers, burning pig excreta, beating the victim or pulling her hair, using copper coins as an offering, reciting prayers or mantras, and offering gifts of candy or other presents. Traditional African worshippers hold similar beliefs about the mischief of the gods, as do the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese exorcist/ healers believe certain Demons cause particular diseases, usually brought on by discord in the home or workplace.
Besides being female, most of the possessed come from the lower classes: humble laborers or servants. Possession gains these people stature, perhaps even resulting in a betterment of their station. At the very least, placation of the gods usually involves showering presents on the victims and promises of better behavior from the victims’ families or employers.
In the Caribbean or Latin America, or anywhere tribal Africans were taken to be slaves, worship of the religions of their ancestors—now practiced as Vodoun (voodoo), Santería, Candomblé or Umbanda—involves the possession of the faithful by the gods to obtain true communion and protection. Worshippers, overcome by chanting and the frenzied beating of drums during the ceremonies, are “mounted” by a god, becoming the god’s “horse,” and take on that god’s personal characteristics: a preference for certain foods or colors, perfumes, patterns of speech, use of profanity, even smoking large, smelly cigars. Under possession, the worshipper may endure great extremes of heat and cold, dance unceasingly for hours, suffer from cuts and bruises with no pain, and even tear off the heads of live chickens used for sacrifice with his or her own teeth. Often the possessed issue prophesies and deliver pronouncements about local affairs. The words of the spirits are not al ways taken seriously, but doubts about the gods’ powers are held in check by fear, ridicule by awe. Under possession, the devotee is the deity, accorded all rights and hon ors; however, once possession subsides, the wor shipper receives no special treatment.
Possession by the Holy Spirit
The idea of possession by the Divine presence also appears in Western cultures. The word “enthusiastic” originally meant being filled with the Holy Spirit, or the supreme 392 possession state of oneness with God. After the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the first day of Pentecost (the date seven weeks after Passover, in the Jewish calendar), the apostles became possessed with the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts describes how flames appeared above their heads, and that they spoke in tongues previously unknown to them. Speaking in foreign tongues—glossolalia— and other ecstatic communion with God characterized early Christian worship, but by the Middle Ages the practice had come to signify the work of the Devil instead.
In modern Christian worship, the Pentecostal Movement has revived interest in ecstatic religious practices. The movement began on January 1, 1901 (the first day of the 20th century) when a group of worshipers at Bethel College, in Topeka, Kansas, reportedly received the Holy Spirit. Members of Pentecostal churches may speak in tongues, engage in long prayer revivals, perform faith healing and even roll and writhe on the floor as the spirit fills them. See Spirit Attachment.
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———. People of the Lie. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.
- Wickland, Carl. Thirty Years Among the Dead. N. Hollywood, Calif.: Newcastle Publishing Co., 1974. First published 1924.
- Zaffis, John, and Brian McIntyre. Shadows of the Dark. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004.