The Growing Evidence for “Demonic Possession”:
Lessons for Psychiatry
Abstract: Evidence of evil spirits is voluminous and
comes from many cultures, both ancient and modern. Cases from
great deal of Jesus’ ministry was devoted to exorcising “evil spirits” or
“demons.” Seven specific accounts in the
Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) show him casting them out of their human
victims.  All over the
Yet there is mounting evidence today that evil spirits do oppress and occasionally even possess the unwary, the weak, the unprepared, the unlucky, or the targeted.
Before proceeding, let me clarify both what I mean and do not mean by “evil” or “demonic spirits.” I don’t mean anything like devils with tails and pitchforks who fell from heaven with Lucifer and have been cursed by God to an eternal life in some cosmic ghetto, from where they tempt us to a similar perdition under the leadership of a head devil named Satan; none of what I say here is based on Christian or any other theology or mythology. By “evil spirits” I mean more or less intelligent beings, insensible to us, with a will of their own who seem to bother or molest or, in rare cases, possess our bodies outright, and with whom we can relate in a variety of ways. In this essay I will survey and assess some of this evidence, then suggest what psychiatry’s reaction to it should be. The Evidence
of evil spirits is voluminous and comes from many sources. One source is Spiritualism. In the first half of the Twentieth Century it
was common for Spiritualists to conduct “spirit help” sessions where
“earth-bound” spirits were led to freedom by methods analogous to
counseling. This gentle form of exorcism
is very different from what we meet elsewhere.
Spiritualism: In 1924 Dr. Carl Wickland, a psychiatrist practicing in Los Angeles, published 30 Years Among the Dead,5 a unique record of verbatim conversations he had with departed spirits using his wife as medium. (In order to avoid the tedium of constant qualification – “alleged,” “ostensible,” “putative,” etc. – I will report the following cases as if the spirits were real. It should not be assumed, however, that I intend to convey this impression.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said of Wickland, “I have never met anyone who has such a wide experience of invisibles. No one interested in obsession or the curing of insanity by psychic means should miss this book.”6
Wickland divided his book into chapters based on what kind of spirit spoke through his wife. Some tormented women both before and after their death; others had been criminals, still others suicides. One chapter is devoted to spirits who were alcoholics during earth life. In the following excerpt Wickland is talking to a spirit who has been parasitically using the body of a woman named “Mrs. V” to drink. Wickland wants to free Mrs. V from the obsessing spirit who drives her to drink uncontrollably. He uses electric shock to dislodge the spirit, then transfers the spirit to his wife’s body, a trained Spiritualist medium. Once inside his wife’s body, the spirit is addressed by Wickland, and the conversation begins:
Spirit: Paul Hopkins. Patient: Mrs. V.
Psychic: Anna Wickland
Doctor: Are you a stranger to us? Where did you come from?
Spirit: (Attempting to fight.) It’s too warm! Why did you pull me away when I was just going to have a drink and a good time?
Dr. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Do you think that controlling a lady and ruining her life is a good time?
Sp. When a fellow feels so blue, what can you do?
Dr. You must overcome your old habit.
Sp. I’m so warm. I’m awfully hot!
Dr. Where did you come from?
Sp. Give me something, quick! I’m so dry.
Dr. You have had all you are going to have.
Sp. I’m burning up!
Dr. You made a lady drink for you. Do you know that you are “dead” and are now a spirit?
Sp. All I know is, I’m hot! It was pouring fire all over me. [Electric shock therapy administered to patient]
Dr. That was good for you.
Sp. I ran away when all that hot fire came down on me. It’s the first time I ever felt anything like that. It was so hot that I thought I was in an oven. They must have new things these days.
Dr. What do you mean?
Sp. Fire, pouring down on my back. I am dry; I’m awful dry! Give me something—just a few drops!
Dr. Can’t you understand that you have lost your mortal body and are a spirit? Do you understand what I am talking about?
Sp. No. I don’t know you.
Dr. But you understand me, do you not? You are a spirit.
Sp. You give me something to drink! I’m awful dry. Give me something, I tell you! I only got a very few drops when you took me away.7
Eventually Wickland succeeds in making the spirit understand who he is, that he has died, that he is ruining a woman’s life, and that he can get help for himself. As the session ends, the spirit, guided by his deceased mother, departs. Wickland closes the account with these words: “After the foregoing experience a friend reported a marked change for the better in Mrs. V., saying that no further desire for intoxicants was manifested. Mrs. V. herself acknowledged this change and expressed her gratitude for the relief obtained.”8
Spirit Possession in
spirit healer in
At the first sound of the drum or gong marking the beginning of arati, nearly all bhut victims begin shaking, twisting, and moaning. Some faint and fall on the ground where they remain unconscious. Some writhe on the ground in apparent pain. Many swing their head and torso in a circular motion. Most do this while seated, some while standing. I observed one man, feet placed wide apart, bend from the waist and swing the upper half of his body in a circle at an incredibly fast rate. At each gyration his head very nearly touched the ground. Several victims throw their heads violently up and down letting their long hair fly and snap like a whip. Some become frozen in a rigid cataleptic trance. Several roll slowly over and over on the stone paving of the courtyard. It seems a miracle that they are not trampled. “Baba takes care of them,” I am told; “only the bhuts are hurt.” There is a great deal of screaming and moaning. Indeed, the impression is that the entire crowd is experiencing tremendous pain. As soon as the arati ceases, most abruptly regain normal consciousness, brush themselves off and begin normal conversations with people around them.10
Spirit Possession in China: The Russian Daoist Peter Goullart presents a horrifying account of the last day of a three-day Daoist exorcism that he observed at a monastery near Shanghai in the 1920’s.12 We are told what happened when a young farmer with “a wild, roving look in his fevered eyes” was approached by a Daoist abbot holding “an elongated ivory tablet, the symbol of wisdom and authority.”13 The abbot commanded the spirits – for there were two – to come out of the man in the name of Shang Ti, the supreme Daoist Godhead.14 The spirits cursed the abbot “out of the energumen’s distorted mouth in a strange, shrill voice, which sounded mechanical, inhuman – as if pronounced by a parrot.”15 Then the havoc began. “With unutterable horror, we saw that [the man’s body] began to swell visibly. On and on the dreadful process continued until he became a grotesque balloon of a man.” Then, as the abbot concentrated and commanded more fiercely, “streams of malodorous excreta and effluvia flowed on to the ground in incredible profusion.” This process, accompanied by an appalling stench, continued for an hour until the man finally resumed normal size. But the spirits were not finished:
Another scene of horror evolved itself before our dazed eyes. The man on the bed became rigid and his muscles seemed to contract, turning him into a figure of stone. Slowly, very slowly, the iron bedstead, as if impelled by an enormous weight, caved in, its middle touching the ground. The attendants seized the inert man by his feet and arms. The weight was such that none of them could lift him up and they asked for assistance from the onlookers. Seven men could hardly lift him for he was heavy as a cast-iron statue.
Eventually, and suddenly, the man regained his normal weight. Then began the final struggle, abbot against spirits. As the abbot enlisted the help of Shang Ti (the “Supreme Power”) and yelled “Get out! Get out!” the onlookers saw the victim’s body convulse, his fingers claw his body until it was covered with blood, his eyes roll up under his skull, and then the final twisting paroxysm as the spirits came out of him with a wild scream, “Damn you! Damn you! We are going but you shall pay for it with your life.” Suddenly, the man resumed his normal personality and asked where he was. He had no memory of anything that had happened. The exorcist was completely exhausted and had to be helped away.
Exorcism in the
In a number of ways these Christian exorcisms remind one of the Chinese and Indian accounts above. The demons reveal themselves to be utterly and horrifyingly malevolent; they cling to their victims with unbelievable tenacity and exhibit superhuman strength; and the exorcism requires a lot of time, often several days, to complete. Further, the demons are expelled only after divine assistance is called on repeatedly, and the entire ordeal is exhausting to the exorcist and his team. Listen to Peck’s account of the moment of expulsion, which comes after three days of effort by a team of seven working ten hours a day:
When the demonic finally spoke clearly in one case, an expression appeared on the patient’s face that could be described only as Satanic. It was an incredibly contemptuous grin of utter hostile malevolence. . . . Yet when the demonic finally revealed itself in the exorcism of [the second] patient, it was a still more ghastly expression. The patient resembled a writhing snake of great strength, viciously attempting to bite the team members. More frightening than the writhing body, however, was the face. The eyes were hooded with lazy reptilian torpor—except when the reptile darted out in attack, at which moment the eyes would open wide with blazing hatred. Despite these frequent darting moments, what upset me the most was the extraordinary sense of a fifty-million-year-old heaviness I received from this serpentine being. It caused me to despair of the success of the exorcism. Almost all the team members at both exorcisms were convinced they were at these times in the presence of something absolutely alien and inhuman. The end of each exorcism proper was signaled by the departure of this Presence from the patient and the room.18
Peck tells us that these two patients “were gravely ill from a psychiatric standpoint before their exorcisms,”19 yet that after the exorcisms the mental state of these patients was dramatically improved. As one of the victims put it, “Before, the voices were in control of me; now I’m in control of the voices.”20 Following additional psychotherapy, the voices died out and both patients made a full recovery.
Deliverance in the
MacNutt believes that many mentally ill people – both within and outside of mental institutions – are oppressed by spirits. These spirits range from the truly Satanic to the “dead who are not at rest.”26 These latter are not so much evil as confused. Yet in their blind selfishness these “earthbound spirits” can do serious, if unintended, harm. In relation to us, therefore, they are “evil.”
What happens when an oppressing spirit or spirits are being delivered from a victim? MacNutt summarizes the signs under three headings: “bodily contortions, changes in the voice, and changes in facial expression.”27 MacNutt’s generalizations are reminiscent of the Asian cases we surveyed above. He tells us, for example, that spirit victims “may arch their spines backward, while still others roll on the ground.” Unnatural and unseemly bodily postures and motions are commonplace. Furthermore, “the tone of the person’s voice changes. A woman may start speaking in a husky voice like a man, or a mild-mannered person may begin speaking in a snide, insulting tone of voice.”28 (We will discuss multiple personality disorder, or MPD, in the next section.) Often the voice uses the plural we, and on rare occasions a foreign language is spoken. As for changes in facial expression, MacNutt writes:
Perhaps the most common external indication of demonization comes when the person’s facial expression changes. It is as if you are no longer looking at the same person you started talking to. The old saying “The eyes are the windows of the soul” becomes especially meaningful. It is as if the evil spirit is peering out at you. The eyes become filled with hate, mockery, pride or whatever the nature of that particular spirit is. Now that the evil spirit has surfaced, you are no longer directly in touch with the person you have been praying for.29
Other predictable features include rolling eyes, screams, gagging, fetid smells, and a feeling of cold in the room. Finally, near the climax of the deliverance it is not uncommon, reports MacNutt, for the threatened spirit to temporarily possess the victim, as we saw in the Indian cases. When that happens,
She probably will remember nothing she said or did during that time. She may have been shouting curses at you, or thrashing around and screaming, but afterward, mercifully, she will have no memory of it at all. In the end she will probably feel refreshed and ready for a celebration, while you and your team will feel exhausted and ready to sleep on the spot!30
Hijacking the Body: It is logical to wonder at this point if there is any evidence of an invading spirit permanently dislodging and expelling, or at least paralyzing, the rightful owner (the “resident spirit”) of a body. Peck, MacNutt, and Martin all point out that most of the victims of spirit oppression are basically good people, sometimes very good people, struggling against spirits afflicting them and alien to them. What about those who do not struggle? Such people might not be recognizable as oppressed, for the evil spirits in control would not make a scene: they would have what they want – a living human body – without a fight. In People of the Lie, a study of profoundly evil people and societies, Peck asks, “Could the thoroughly evil people I have described be cases of perfect possession?”31
And what about the incurably insane? Are they victims of perfect possession?
Ian Stevenson, the
Colin Wilson writes: “The most fascinating point about the case, of course, is that Jasbir was already three when he ‘died’ and was ‘taken over’ by Sobha Ram, who died at the same time. The implication is that Sobha Ram was able to slip into the body before brain death had occurred and fight his way back to life.”33 Equally interesting for us is that Sobha Ram seems to have completely displaced Jasbir in Jasbir’s body – whether forcibly (in which case he would have hijacked Jasbir’s body) or by default (because Jasbir had died naturally). On either reading, we have here what looks like a case of “perfect possession.”
I have not surveyed
cases of possession from sub-Saharan
Evaluation of the Evidence
What do we do with all this evidence of apparent spirit oppression? I think every reader would grant, however grudgingly, that on the surface the phenomena we have surveyed suggest a dualist metaphysics: we are spiritual selves inhabiting bodies, and spirits are beings, as conscious as we are, as individual as we are, who somehow exist without physical bodies. But what do we find when we look below the surface? Can a materialist metaphysics reasonably accommodate cases of apparent spirit oppression and possession like the ones we have just surveyed? Can it do so without sounding farfetched and perhaps disingenuous? Or do we land right back in dualism as we go deeper? Is dualism less of a stretch than materialism, or is it the other way round?
Only a book could do justice to these questions fully, but the following line of reasoning seems to me fruitful and suggestive. I will evaluate the evidence under four headings.
1. Experience of the victim: Let us begin with an argument from introspection. A spirit victim, now healed, tells us he made intimate contact with an invisible, intelligent, malevolent “something” that seemed completely alien to him. His experience tells us that Jesus, when confronted 2000 years ago by demoniacs, was dealing with something not at all unique to his time and place. Psychiatrists call it a by-product of brain chemistry run amok. Jesus called it a possessing spirit. He saw it as the victim felt it.
Was he mistaken in his interpretation? Very possibly. But very possibly not. “Solemnly and of my own free will, I wish to acknowledge that knowingly and freely I entered into possession by an evil spirit,” wrote one of Malachi Martin’s five possessed persons some months after his successful exorcism.34 Is it proper to dismiss such a confession as having no possible validity? Are any of us in a better position to speak with epistemic authority about some of the most mysterious “facts” of our own experience? When we assure ourselves that we are free and not determined (to take but one example from philosophy), do we have any finally convincing evidence? Libertarians and determinists endlessly argue back and forth without coming to any conclusion on the matter. Indeed it is hard enough making intelligible the notion of a genuinely free will – so much so that many are driven to the scarcely intelligible compromise called soft determinism. Yet many, perhaps most, of us believe in free will implicitly and live by that belief. Why? Because our direct experience speaks with an authority that silences all arguments. In a similar manner the direct experience of victims of possession point with equal psychological force to spiritual possession.
Jesus and the “spirit victim” might be wrong, but their interpretation, naive though it may be, is far from absurd. On the contrary, it is a logical starting place for our argument.
2. Universality: If spirit
oppression were unique to one culture or religion or geographical region, it
would be to me highly suspect. Why would
bothersome or evil spirits “pick on” only one kind of people? The fact that they do not discriminate, that
their passions and machinations are as prevalent in India and China as in the
Christian (or post-Christian) West, that they work their mischief all over the
world makes us take them more seriously.
What are taken to be spirits behave in the same generic way whether they
oppress Americans or Chinese or Indians.
They cause the victim’s voice and face and movements to be changed
dramatically. They feel just as threatened
by a Daoist abbot clasping an ivory tablet as a Catholic priest stretching out
a crucifix or an Indian baba waving a
tray of lights (arati). They are put to rout not by human agency
acting alone, but by divine power, whether by Shang Ti or Jesus or
3. Unnatural or Superhuman Phenomena: When we read Goullart’s account of the Daoist abbot exorcising the alleged demons from the Chinese farmer, what do we make of the symptoms of possession? We see a man who blows up like a balloon, exudes a pool of excreta from his pores as he deflates, becomes as rigid and heavy as a cast-iron statue, caves in an iron bedstead while remaining motionless, resists being lifted by seven men, and writhes like a mortally wounded snake at the moment of expulsion.35 Concerned to open the minds of his readers to the possibility of spirit possession, Huston Smith quotes this case in its entirety because, as he puts it, “it will be useful to have an example to show that there are cases that almost require it.”36 Almost as remarkable are the uncanny movements of spirit victims undergoing exorcism at the hands of the Indian baba.
And what of the Jasbir/Sobha Ram case? How best to account for a toddler of three-and-a-half becoming overnight a different personality with a different vocabulary and eating habits and with the ability to name strangers in a family he has never seen and find his way around a village he has no knowledge of?37 The question before us is this: Is it easier to believe human beings can do such things on their own with their bodies and minds, or that these things are unnatural and/or extra-human and can be done only by something alien to them using their bodies? If you observed first-hand someone in your own family inflate before your eyes and then speak a language you know he has never learned, in a voice that is not his, would it be easier and more plausible to assume he was showing a hitherto unknown side of his personality for the first time or that he was possessed by an alien spirit?
Psychiatrist Scott Peck is especially helpful here. “In common with 99% of psychiatrists and the majority of clergy,” he writes, “. . . I did not believe that possession existed. In fifteen years of busy psychiatric practice I had never seen anything faintly resembling a case.”38 He then adds, “It was another matter after I had personally met Satan face to face.”39
But it is not only the impact on the spirit victim that points to possession. The impact on the exorcist is equally impressive (and frightening). Martin, who interviewed fifteen Christian exorcists in depth and came to know most of them intimately, writes:
And no matter what the outcome, the contact is in part fatal for the exorcist. He must consent to a dreadful and irreparable pillage of his deepest self. Something dies in him. Some part of his humanness will wither from such close contact with the opposite of humanness – the essence of evil; and it is rarely ever revitalized. No return will be made to him for his loss.40
Do psychiatrists experience such “pillage” after whole careers of work with their patients? We know that they do not. If not, then why so destructive an impact on the exorcist? It is tempting to conclude that whatever the psychiatrist is doing is different from what the exorcist is doing.
This conclusion is
forcefully seconded by Peter Goullart, the Daoist who lived for many years
prior to the Communist Revolution in a monastery outside
They all died in the prime of their life. . . . They were sectional abbots and they sacrificed their life just as the living ones are sacrificing theirs. . . . Most of the senior monks here are doomed men and must die in the flower of their manhood. . . They dedicated themselves to exorcizing evil spirits; this is their work of love and their chosen path to the Throne of the Almighty. . . . for every energumen [spirit victim], cleansed by them of his terrible possessors, a number of years is deducted from their earthly lives. . . The more successful exorcisms an abbot has to his credit, the sooner his own end comes.41
For these anonymous exorcists, as for Peck and Martin’s exorcists, demonic spirits were terribly real. And because they can inflict measurable and often dramatic harm on their adversaries, harm unlike anything experienced by conventional psychotherapists, there is good reason to conclude that something altogether different, and not reducible to conventional notions about brain chemistry, is going on.
Are exorcists in the best position to judge what that may be? Or are philosophers and scientists who tell us that such things are not possible, and who go to great pains to explain why they are an artifact of pre-scientific thinking? I will return to this question below.
4. The Better Diagnosis: In medicine a correct diagnosis is essential to healing. If a physician misdiagnoses, the patient is much less likely to heal under him than under a different physician who correctly diagnoses. Conversely, it is likely that a physician’s diagnosis leading to successful treatment is sounder than a second physician’s diagnosis leading to unsuccessful or less successful treatment. All of this is self-evident.
If a patient has symptoms that suggest schizophrenia or psychosis to a typical Western-trained psychotherapist, but possession to an exorcist, equally successful treatment is not likely to come from both. We would expect that the reason the more successful approach worked was that it more correctly diagnosed the problem.
Which approach succeeds, or at least succeeds more often, the conventional psychiatric approach which rules out any possibility of possession from the outset, or the spiritual approach which not only makes room for possession but suspects it when the appropriate symptoms are present?
First the psychiatric. Generalizing about the effectiveness of contemporary psychopharmacological treatment for severe mental illness is risky, but there are studies which help. In his book The Undiscovered Mind, the celebrated (but controversial) science writer John Horgan refers to several of these.42 He concludes:
. . . chlorpromazine and related medications for schizophrenia have often been described as virtual cures. But according to a leading psychiatric textbook, “a reasonable estimate is that 20 to 30 percent” of schizophrenics taking medication “are able to lead relatively normal lives. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of patients continue to experience moderate symptoms, and 40 to 60 percent remain significantly impaired for life.” Moreover, chlorpromazine and other anti-psychosis drugs often cause extrapyramidal effects, which resemble the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Patients’ movements and facial expressions become stiff and rigid; they display uncontrollable, repetitive twitching and tremors. It was in part these side-effects that led psychiatrists to call anti-psychosis medications neuroleptics, which literally means “brain-seizing.”43
He acknowledges that the latest neuroleptics, such as olanzapine, might have fewer side-effects, but it is too early to “tell whether these represent a true step forward or merely another false dawn.”44
But psychiatrists do not rely solely on drugs to manipulate the brain back into sanity. After falling out of favor for a generation, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, or “shock therapy”) has returned to favor because of “the growing recognition of drugs’ limitations.” No one in the psychiatric community can say for certain why ECT works, but there is no question that it does. As Dr. Harold Sackheim, a psychologist at Columbia University, says, “Not only is the probability of getting well higher than with any other treatment, but the likelihood of getting residual symptoms is less.”45 ECT is a much more exact science today than it was back in the 20’s when Carl Wickland was zapping patients to rid them of possessing spirits (see above), but the treatment is essentially the same.
A few of Horgan’s critics think he goes too far in debunking contemporary drug therapy, but even Paul Churchland, one of his more severe critics, acknowledges that “we have a long way to go.”46
Now for the spiritual. Do exorcists and deliverance ministers fare
any better than psychiatrists? I wish I
could tell you that the Chinese farmer who was freed from two demons and fully
recovered his normal personality stayed
cured, or that exorcisms performed at immense sacrifice by all those youthful
Daoist abbots described by Goullart were fully and finally effective, but
Goullart does not follow up. If he did,
and if he found that exorcisms worked,
the evidence in favor of possession would be compelling. (I think he assumed they worked permanently
and assumed the reader would assume that fact.)
What about the Indian cases?
All healing centers claim a high percentage of cure for victims [of possession] who come regularly to arati sessions. Most of the cures are said to require only a few weeks; some, as long as a year. Although I was not able to test these claims in any rigorous way, my conversations with spirit victims and friends and relatives of victims, as well as with people who had been cured, confirmed the claims without exception. Nearly all who come regularly are, after a certain period of time, fully restored to feeling their former selves. Some few do come to sessions regularly for years without complete recovery, but even in these “incurable” cases the relatives and friends of the victim report that the sessions help the individual a great deal—especially that they feel much better immediately after an arati session.47
I see no reason to
doubt the veracity of
Back in the United States, psychiatrist Peck, participant in two exorcisms, holds that exorcism is an effective cure – the only effective cure – in certain situations: “Difficult and dangerous though they were, the exorcisms I witnessed were successful. I cannot imagine how otherwise the two patients could have been healed. They are both alive and very well today. I have every reason to believe that had they not had their exorcisms they would each be dead by now.”49 And deliverance minister MacNutt adds:
I once prayed for a young woman who had been confined in a mental hospital for twelve years, suffering from schizophrenia. After two hours of prayer for healing and deliverance, the glazed look in her eyes left and she was able to converse in a normal way. Several weeks later the doctors recognized a dramatic change in her behavior and released her from the hospital. I could cite many more examples from a steady stream of supplicants . . . unable to find help from psychotherapy or from those who are ministers of religion who had not learned to deal with the demonic.50
“Our madhouses,” writes Huston Smith, “may contain souls that are ravaged by principalities and powers on the psychic plane; in a word, possessed.”51 MacNutt agrees.
I haven’t discovered
any statistics showing the relative success and failure of exorcists and
deliverance ministers, but my impression, from a study of much anecdotal
evidence, is that there are more successes than failures when the required
expertise is present. Most important,
these successes, when they occur, are usually total, as they were in Peck’s two
exorcisms, in Martin’s five case studies, and in
Counterarguments and Further Evaluation
There are arguments, some better and some worse, against this conclusion. Here are three, followed by rebuttals:
1. Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD): MPD (often referred to by clinicians as “dissociative identity disorder,” or DID) is a fairly common psychiatric disorder in which a secondary personality splits off and dissociates itself from the primary one. The primary or core personality is almost always unaware of the secondary one, called an “alter.” The alter has a life of its own, and when it surfaces, the core personality “goes underground” and is displaced by the alter, which is usually strikingly unlike the primary. Most psychiatrists think that a so-called possessing “evil spirit” is in reality nothing more than an alter. Occam’s Razor states that the simpler a theory or diagnosis is, the better it is—as long as it accounts for all the relevant data or phenomena. So why introduce such dubious entities as “spirits” when a common personality disorder will suffice?
Occam’s Razor is a sound principle, and MPD is often the correct diagnosis when bizarre behavior bearing no relation to a patient’s basic personality suddenly turns up. But MPD does not account for all the relevant data here. First, in MPD the core personality, according to Peck, “is virtually always unaware of the existence of the secondary personalities – at least until close to the very end of prolonged, successful treatment.” But in cases of spirit oppression patients are “either aware from the beginning or [are] readily made aware not only of the self-destructive part of them but also that this part [has] a distinct and alien personality.”52 Second, trying to cast out an alter is, according to MacNutt, “an impossible task since these alters are mostly fragments of the person’s personality.”53 Yet casting out an oppressing spirit is not only possible but likely when the necessary expertise is available.
The above considerations do not prove the spiritual hypothesis, but they do indicate fairly decisively that spiritual oppression/possession cannot be reduced to MPD. Thus Occam’s Razor is of little help to the MPD-favoring theorist since MPD, the simpler theory – simpler because it avoids cluttering our world with invisible entities like “spirits” – fails to account for all the data. A potentially useful escape valve has been sealed off to the materialist.
2. Brain-Dependence: Everyone, materialists and dualists alike, acknowledges that human experience is in some way dependent on the brain. Everyone grants that a damaged or diseased brain, for example, can profoundly alter a personality. Moreover, tweaking a brain with a cerebral probe can engender all kinds of inner experience in the subject. Most psychiatrists hold that these universally accepted facts point decisively toward materialism and away from dualism, with its cumbersome soul-talk. And since “spirits” make sense and can exist only if dualism is true, then the “evil spirit” hypothesis is no stronger than dualism itself. In other words, spirits, evil or otherwise, could not possibly exist, for dualism has been discredited.
Let us look at the materialist’s argument more closely. Invoking Occam’s Razor, he believes that materialism, which reduces all reality to only one kind of substance, namely matter, is much superior to dualism, which postulates an immaterial second substance, often called spirit, in addition to matter. The materialist argues that all our experience is dependent on and produced by the brain, which of course is nothing but matter. And if a person’s brain shuts down through trauma or death, that is the end of the person. To introduce a spiritual soul in addition to the material brain is pure nonsense; at best the “soul” is nothing more than a mysterious epiphenomenon of an active, living brain; the “soul” is not an independent reality. And if the soul is not an independent reality, an alleged “world of spirits” isn’t either.
Materialists, of course, have a point; it would certainly be less messy if we could reduce all phenomena, from the densest physical things to the wispiest of inner states, to matter. But this is exactly what dualists believe we have no license to do. True, the dualist sometimes concedes, the materialist’s account of human experience as the exclusive product of brain chemistry could be correct, but the materialist is far from having proved that it is so. For it might just as easily be the case that human experience, or what we call consciousness, is dependent on the brain only for its expression, not for its existence. Spirit or soul, says the dualist, needs a healthy brain if it is to express itself properly while embodied. The brain is the soul’s organ as long as the soul is lodged in the flesh. Just as breathing is retarded if the lungs are punctured or cancerous, so the intellectual and emotional life of a person is retarded if her brain is damaged or ill. The soul interacting with the brain isn’t damaged anymore than the air in the lungs; it just can’t express itself in the usual way.
On balance, Occam’s Razor favors the materialist in this specific argument. But not decisively. It is enough here to show that dualism can give a plausible account of the everyday experiences alluded to above. If additional considerations – the very considerations we surveyed in the first part of the paper – shift the balance in favor of dualism, then the dualist account sketched in the previous paragraph, however metaphysically messy it may be, gives the scope needed for a full-fledged dualist theory that can accommodate all reality, including the demonic; and it emerges as a better account, because it is more comprehensive, than the materialist’s.
3. The Effectiveness of Drugs: A potentially strong argument against the spirit-hypothesis is that drugs and ECT do have an impact on the brain and on the inner life of many mentally ill people. As Churchland puts it, “For better or worse, the insane asylums of the 1940’s and 50’s are now mostly emptied, thanks to first-generation psychopharmaceuticals.” Furthermore, recent advances in drug therapy and ECT have ameliorated the situation even more. We are far from having discovered anything close to a cure for schizophrenia or psychosis, or even depression, but “we can still do measurable good.”54 And since we can, this line of reasoning goes, then it makes sense to conclude that mental illness is an illness of the brain, not a result of spirit-affliction. For it is a lot easier to see why drugs have an impact on a sick brain than on a possessing spirit. Indeed, it is ludicrous to think that drugs or ECT are effective because they chase away demons.
This argument requires two responses. First, it must be granted that, however imperfectly, drugs and ECT often do help the mentally ill. But what does this prove? No responsible exorcist or deliverance minister claims that all mental illness is caused by the presence of evil spirits. MacNutt, for example, reports that his wife, Judith, when counseling clients as a licensed psychotherapist, “ended up praying with [only] about a third of them to be freed from the influence of evil spirits.”55 This suggests that in the other two-thirds, even a therapist as sensitive to the presence of oppressing spirits as his wife, suspected them in only a minority of cases. American clergy commonly distinguish between afflictions that are “purely emotional” and those that are “spiritual.” This distinction prevails throughout the deliverance ministry.
Second, it is not at
all ludicrous to consider the possibility that drugs and ECT might inhibit
spirit oppression or possession. At the
beginning of this paper we saw the alleged spirit of a deceased Paul Hopkins
complain vehemently and repeatedly of “fire, pouring down my back” after Mrs.
V, his victim, had been given shock therapy; it was this “fire” that supposedly
dislodged him from Mrs. V’s body. Is it
really so preposterous that a spirit utilizing in some mysterious way a
person’s body, more particularly brain, should be disturbed or even uprooted
when that body with its brain is subjected to a shock as violent as ECT? As I pointed out above, psychiatrists do not
know why ECT works. Dr. Sackheim, the
psychiatrist working at
4. A Demon Behind Every Bush: One might object that a spiritual etiology could lead to a kind of madness. Having admitted the existence of evil spirits’ ability to obsess us, it might be tempting to see them behind all mental illness. This could lead to pogroms and witch-hunts and cause civilization to take a backward step.
To this complaint MacNutt responds: “Indeed, the skeptics are right: There is a real danger of seeing a devil in every bush. But have these critics ever found a devil in any bush?”57 In other words, an extreme response to the claim that spirit obsession is a reality can come from either side and be equally irrational.
As for civilization’s taking a backward step, it is hard to see how giving mentally ill patients the treatment they need could be a backward step. Much of the world is mystified by the West’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of spirits and takes a dim view of any therapy that excludes spiritual healing from the picture. It is possible that the West took a backward step long ago when, under the spell of scientific materialism, it dogmatically refused to give spirits their due. Millions of us might have been harmed by this refusal.
What Should We Conclude?
Dr. Peck wrote in 1983 that
“possession and exorcism have never been scientifically studied, to my
Is Peck awaiting the
day, as I am, that teams of experienced exorcists, with six- or seven-figure
grants, will be allowed to treat “hopeless” schizophrenics or psychotics locked
away in mental institutions – given up on, in other words – to see if exorcism
works where drugs failed? We have
glimpses of such success. I mentioned
above the apparent cure by MacNutt of a schizophrenic who had been in a mental
institution for twelve years. And Peck
is not the only psychotherapist working in
But these are only glimpses. We are left with a great deal of tantalizing evidence pointing to demonic-type oppression or outright possession. We do not have, however, the indubitable evidence (the “slam dunk”) we need to overturn the claim of Western medicine that infesting spirits are not the cause – ever – of mental illness.
What would constitute such evidence? Replicability, says science. And I agree. But what would it take to satisfy the demand for replicability? Would the horrific phenomena reported by Goullart – including the weighed-down rock-like body that bends iron bedsteads or the horribly inflated body resembling a balloon – be disqualified from consideration because they could not be replicated on demand? Or because they turned up in only one in twenty exorcisms? How many deliverance ministers and exorcists would have to share their stories in the serious journals and magazines before scientists took note? How many exorcisms like the Chinese case would it take to convince the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) that there was no fraud or credulity or misunderstanding, but honest and careful reporting of the facts? What about levitation, a feature of certain advanced cases of possession reported in many cultures in every age down to the present? If occasional cases of levitation by apparently possessed persons were witnessed and videotaped by reputable individuals, would the professional debunkers be mollified?60
I don’t think so. Most materialists deny the existence of even extrasensory perception (ESP). I once had a friend, a psychiatrist, who woke up one night at ten minutes to two and told his wife that his brother had just died. Sure enough, the call came a few hours later that his brother, who had not been sick, had indeed died – sometime around two in the morning. For many months my friend read everything he could find on ESP. But when I talked to him three years after his brother’s death, he dismissed the whole affair as an “anomaly,” a “coincidence.”
Why did this bright man respond in such a way? I think I know. In all that he read, he could find no explanation of how ESP worked. The brute fact of his sudden “knowing” about his brother’s death was compatible with no scientific (i.e., physicalist) theory he could discover. So he concluded he must have misunderstood what happened. The “knowing” was really nothing more than a serendipitous illusion.
I believe that this sort of intransigent skepticism will always plague researchers and philosophers favoring a dualist interpretation of reality. Dualism, beginning with our own immediate experience (our bodies), has an enormous amount of evidence in its favor. Most immediately, all our thoughts and feelings seem to emerge from a different order of reality than the physical: they have no shape, no volume, no weight, and no identifiable location, which physical things always do. It is reasonable to conclude that they therefore come from a source sharing their nature, such as a nonphysical self or soul, rather than one that doesn’t, such as a physical brain. But dualism fails to provide an explanation of how nonphysical and physical substances interact; that interaction is almost as mysterious today as it was when Plato championed it.61 And many people reject dualism for that reason alone – along with all those queer experiences, such as spirit oppression, that symbiotically depend on it.
In spite of the mysteriousness of our subject, I think that the evidence surveyed here provides good reason to think that Jesus’ interpretation of mental illness is at least sometimes on the mark. If it is, the implications for us would be significant. Most importantly, if an alien spiritual being could interact with a living brain, that would suggest a fortiori that an inborn spiritual being – what we call a soul – could interact with it. If so, materialism would have to be discarded, and some form of dualism would replace it. In addition, life after death would become plausible once again. And the human will, no longer a side-effect of brain states, could again fly free. And with that freedom it would make sense to speak of moral responsibility without resorting to the philosopher’s artful dodge of “soft determinism.” Even God might seem more comely after such a metaphysical facelift. If spirits, demonic or otherwise, came to be regarded by intelligent men and women as real, Spirit would again take its place at the controls.
What Might Psychiatry’s Response Be?
In the city where I work, a few people know of my interest in
paranormal research. One of them is a
highly respected psychiatrist from
Are there a number of psychiatrists in this country quietly wondering if there is something to possession? If so, there is little evidence of it in the professional literature. To take but one of many examples, in a typical psychiatry journal article titled “The Delusion of Possession in Chronically Psychotic Patients” (Goff et al., 1991), there were frequent references to “delusional possession” and “the delusion of possession” in the 25
of 61 psychotic outpatients who believed themselves possessed. It never occurred to the authors that some of those patients might really be possessed. And a few years ago in Newsweek, the lead article, “The Schizophrenic Mind,” never mentioned possession. Even though the author described schizophrenia as “one of the most . . . mysterious of mental illnesses” and went on to say that the “cause is largely unknown,”62 she, and all the doctors whom she quoted, assumed without question that the illness was caused exclusively by a disordered brain. “In paranoid schizophrenia,” she continued, “the patient becomes convinced of beliefs at odds with reality, hears voices that aren’t there or sees images that exist nowhere but in his mind.”63 Since she was supported by every psychiatrist she interviewed, she felt it unnecessary to question this claim – indeed it may never have occurred to her to question it. But what is the evidence, after all, that the voices heard by the schizophrenic or the images he sees “exist nowhere but in his mind”? This is an assumption, not a fact. It may well be that the voices belong to realities that we cannot see. Does our inability to see them make them unreal? To a certain kind of materialist, yes. But what about the rest of us? More to the point, does the evidence surveyed here point conclusively to materialism? If anything, taken all together it points with some force in the opposite direction.
There is a telling moment in English author Susan Howatch’s novel Glittering Images where two of her characters are discussing exorcism. The time is the 1930s:
“Do they still perform exorcisms in the Church of England?”
“Nowadays it’s generally regarded as a somewhat unsavoury superstition.”
“How odd! Is it wise for the Church to abandon exorcism to laymen?”
“They’re called psycho-analysts,” she said dryly. “Maybe you’ve heard of them. They have this cute little god called Freud and a very well-paid priesthood and the faithful go weekly to worship on couches.”64 (147-148)
This character is not speaking tongue-in-cheek. She speaks for surprisingly many Anglicans today, and Anglicans are an unusually well-educated and well-read lot. She is saying that materialists who rule out possessing spirits as the ultimate cause of some mental illness are like religious people who confidently worship a different kind of god in their churches on Sunday, with no better evidence for what they believe in.
This brings us back to the brain. The Newsweek article makes it appear to millions of readers that the cause of all mental illness is faulty brain chemistry – no discussion needed! I hope I have shown here that this unexamined assumption is unwarranted.
I suggest that psychiatrists do the following:
1. Challenge the above assumption with philosophical rigor. Especially consider the possibility that a person might be a mix of two different kinds of reality working in harmony when the person is mentally healthy and in disharmony when not. The invisible part of the mix should not be assumed to be unreal or a mere epiphenomenon of brain states just because it is invisible. That reasoning would lead to the assumption that gravity, which is enormously mysterious to physicists, is merely an illusion; or that electricity, since invisible, is either unreal or a mere epiphenomenon of the visible light bulb! Who can say that the spiritual component of the person is not like electricity? Surely it is at least possible that the visible brain is the invisible soul’s instrument and that the soul empowers the instrument just as electricity powers up the light bulb.
2. Study the
responsible literature investigating paranormal phenomena. Over the last fifty years, university
professors and medical doctors have produced dozens of books dealing with the
near-death experience, apparitions, mediumship, reincarnation, and possession;
and several scientific journals investigate these phenomena at great length.65 Obviously there is much here to be skeptical
about, and indeed there are frauds aplenty making a buck off the gullible
simpletons who drink up everything about these perennially fascinating subjects
as if it were Coca Cola. But it is a
great mistake to assume that every book on the paranormal is
untrustworthy. Some of the most
significant pioneering studies of the human mind have been written in recent
years not by conventional academic psychiatrists, but by maverick psychiatrists
like Ian Stevenson, who has devoted his life investigating past-life memories
in little children,66 and Kenneth Ring, who has made a career
studying the near-death experience (
3. Conduct research to determine whether the tools and techniques of the exorcist and deliverance minister work better than the drugs and therapies of the psychiatrist. Allow a few battle-tested exorcists and deliverance ministers into mental institutions to work with the huge numbers of victims that psychiatry cannot help. If initial results are encouraging, promulgate the findings far and wide. Then write grants for the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to further test the spiritual techniques that appear to be working. Many trials will be needed and the most sophisticated experiments devised. I predict that by the end of this century this research will have been done and that the results will be startling. But why wait for another fifty years? All it takes is for a few dozen psychiatrists to put their reputations on the line in the interest of truth – and compassion – and get started. (If it is any consolation, I have put mine on the line where I work.)
Perhaps fifty years from now Newsweek will do another lead article on the schizophrenic mind. And instead of saying that the paranoid schizophrenic “becomes convinced of beliefs at odds with reality, hears voices that aren’t there or sees images that exist nowhere but in his mind,” the article will report that “in some cases it is almost certain that a hostile or mischievous spiritual being causes its victim to hear voices and see images that emanate not from the mind of the victim but from the mind of the spirit.” If that turns out to be the case, then psychiatry will have to turn itself on its head, redesign the curriculum of its medical schools, and get about the business of healing all types of mental illness – those that originate in the chemistry of the brain, those that originate in the soul that constantly interacts with and may negatively alter the chemistry of the brain, and those that originate in a meddlesome or hostile spiritual presence targeting, either with or without its victim’s permission, the soul or brain of its victim.
1. A comprehensive summary of Jesus’ dealings with evil spirits can be found in Francis MacNutt’s Deliverance from Evil Spirits (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995), Ch. 2.
2. Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Americans (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p. xviii.
3. Dom Robert
Petitpierre quoted in Linda Malia, “A Fresh Look at a Remarkable Document: Exorcism: The Report of a Commission Convened by the
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: New American Library, 1957), p. 582.
by Newcastle Publishing Co. of
6. From 30 Years Among the Dead, 1974, copyright page.
7. Ibid., pp. 170-171.
8. Ibid., p. 176.
9. John M.
Stanley, “Gods, Ghosts, and Possession,” The
Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in
10. Ibid., pp. 37-38.
11. Ibid., p. 39.
Goullart, The Monastery of
13. Goullart, p. 86.
14. Later in the book Goullart describes Shang Ti as “the Godhead from whom the Divine Tao [or law of nature] issues and nourishes the world” (p. 164).
15. Goullart, p. 87. The rest of the Goullart quotes following are taken from pp. 88-89.
16. Malachi Martin, op.cit.
17. M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), ch. 5.
18. Peck, People of the Lie, p. 196.
19. Peck, p. 202.
20. Peck, p. 198.
21. Peck, p. 183.
22. MacNutt, Deliverance from Evil Spirits, p. 73
23. MacNutt, p. 69.
24. MacNutt, p. 67.
25. MacNutt, p. 88.
26. MacNutt, p. 93.
27. MacNutt, p. 77.
28. MacNutt, p. 78.
29. MacNutt, p. 78.
30. MacNutt, pp. 170-171.
31. Peck, p. 210.
32. The case is
recounted in impressive detail in Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of
Virginia, 1974), pp. 34-52. Helpful
summaries of the case can be found in Colin Wilson, After Life (
34. Martin, p. 403.
36. Smith, Forgotten Truth, p. 43.
37. A more impressive and more recent case similar to this and involving unlearned linguistic abilities is analyzed in detail by philosopher Robert Almeder, Death & Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life after Death (Lanham, MD: Littlefield & Rowman Publishers, 1992), pp. 143-159.
38. Peck, People of the Lie, p. 182.
39. Peck, p. 184.
40. Martin, p. 10.
41. Goullart, The Monastery of
42. John Horgan, The Undiscovered Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1999), ch. 4.
43. Horgan, pp. 123-124.
44. Horgan, p. 125.
45. Sackheim quoted in Horgan, p. 133.
46. Paul Churchland, The New York Times, October 31, 1999, Section 7, p. 30, col. 2.
48. See William
Dalrymple, The Age of Kali (
49. Peck, p. 189.
50. MacNutt, p. 23.
51. Smith, p. 43
52. Peck, pp. 192-193.
53. MacNutt, p. 231.
54. Churchland, op.cit.
55. MacNutt, p. 67.
56. Sackheim quoted in Horgan, p. 131.
57. MacNutt, p. 42.
58. Peck, p. 200.
59. Allison quoted in
59a. Robert Alcorn, Healing Stories (
60. One of Malachi Martin’s cases included a taped levitation. He describes what he saw on the tape: “As Carl’s body, still supine, rose slightly from the couch, all sat back in their chairs, a gaze of awe and reverence sweeping across their faces” (Martin, p. 363).
61. I say “almost” because the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has long held that all reality, including God and souls, was material; and because of recent speculation by Huston Smith, one of our country’s few living sages. Smith speculates that photons are “transitional from Spirit to matter” and “are only quasi-material while producing things that are fully material” (Smith, Why Religion Matters [HarperSanFrancisco, 2001], p. 265). He believes that the Cartesian problem is potentially solvable if Spirit is regarded as the single source of both consciousness and photons. His well-informed speculation is worth careful study.
62. Sharon Begley, “The
Schizophrenic Mind,” Newsweek (
63. Ibid., p. 47.
64. Susan Howatch, Glittering Image (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987), pp. 147-148
65. The Journal of Near-Death Studies is especially significant.
66. Stevenson has
written many books, all published by the
67. Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper, Mindsight (Palo Alto, CA: William James Center for Consciousness Studies, 1999).
Correspondence should be sent to Stafford Betty at Stafford_Betty@firstclass1.csubak.edu