Spirit Attachment and Possession
A new breed of therapist is healing the mentally ill not with talk and drug therapy, but by releasing troublesome or malevolent spirits—most of them human in a former physical life—who have attached themselves to their victims. I am not talking about religious healers like the Christian “deliverance minister” Francis McNutt, but secular healers, some of them licensed psychiatrists or psychologists, who have discovered, often by accident, that this new therapy works better than what they learned in medical or graduate school. They tell us that too often drug therapy only masks symptoms, and talk therapy reaches only as deep as the patient’s conscious mind can go. But “spirit release” usually heals, often permanently. Not only does it heal the client; it heals the attached (or “possessing”) spirit.
Dr. William Baldwin’s Spirit Releasement Therapy: A Technique Manual, published in 1995, was a watershed event for this movement. Baldwin left a dentistry practice to pursue his passion. His ensuing Ph.D. dissertation in psychology was the first ever to take seriously spirit release—sometimes referred to as exorcism—as a legitimate therapy.
Baldwin, who died in 2004, and his disciples deal with spirits, or “entities” as they are often called, in a manner very different from most church-based exorcists and deliverance ministers. Missing is the adversarial command to “come out in the name of Jesus!” These alternative therapists treat the spirits with respect and compassion. To threaten anyone, living or dead, they say, only provokes an angry reaction; but a gentler, more rational approach is usually enough to coax the spirit out of its host and into the Light of the Afterworld, where it should have been all along. But not always.
Spirits come in several varieties, we are told. Most often they are EBs, or “earth bound.” These are more attached to the loved ones they’ve left behind than to the Light they’ve turned their back on; others are addicted to earth’s vices, such as alcohol or narcotics; still others are simply confused, not even sure they’ve died. But DFEs, or “dark force entities,” are another matter. Intent on evildoing, they attach themselves to unsuspecting mortals to inflict maximum damage to self-esteem, family relations, and every expression of love. Speaking through their victims, they swear profusely. They are belligerent, disruptive, threatening, and thoroughly unpleasant. They might claim they belong to a Satanic Intelligence that rules them and punishes them when they fail at their tasks. Yet their loyalty to this Negative Force can be dislodged; with skillful handling, they, too, can be released into the Light.
One of the most extraordinary claims made by this new kind of healer is that nearly all of us, at one time or another, have had entities attached to us. How do they know? The same way they know everything else they tell us: Under hypnosis their clients, and the spirits speaking through them, tell them. Baldwin says he did not invent EBs and DFEs; they emerged, unsought, out of therapy sessions. Over and over and over. Other healers — like psychiatrists Shakuntala Modi, who practices in West Virginia, and Robert Alcorn in Ohio — describe a spiritual world and a method of dealing with it that follow in Baldwin’s footsteps. One might suspect a conspiracy except for the fact that the movement is so widespread, with practitioners ranging from Hindu babas living in Pune, India, to a Polish healer who describes herself as a “therapist for ghosts as well as people, both needing the same love and care.”
Most of us have a child or relative or friend whose life is shattered by depression, sexual dysphoria, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, or a host of other ailments. What if you were told that there was a healer who could get to the bottom of the problem and heal it, but that the source of the problem was probably an attached spirit? Would you go for it? Could you open your mind to the possibility that your sister’s untreatable thirty-year-long bulimia could be stopped dead in its tracks by identifying the spirit behind the disease, releasing it into the Light, and then teaching her how to protect against a future attachment? All in this movement hope that you would. Dr. Alcorn writes:
My patients are completely unaware of the presence of these others and therefore they have no conception of the problem or how to deal with it. The spirits who are attached pull them this way and that, throw them into a panic, destabilize their mood regulation, drain their energies, cloud their awareness and leave them searching for answers in the dark.
Healers like Alcorn regard their procedures, not as a throwback to medieval times when demoniacs were put to death, but as an advance. Dr. William Woolger, an internationally renowned transpersonal psychologist, sees them as “the next and essential stage in the development of psychology, a kind of return to the source.”
In the meantime, Dr. Modi, the West Virginia psychiatrist, recommends a “protection prayer” for her patients, to be repeated every night. It begins, “I pray to God to please cleanse, heal, shield, illuminate, and protect me, all my family, friends . . .” And Dr. Louise Ireland-Frey devotes the last chapter of her book Freeing the Captives to techniques that victims of spirit attachment can use to free themselves from the invisible intruders.
Some of them obsessively cling to their victims—often without any intention of harming them. What then? Ireland-Frey describes the technique used by three of her colleagues. Annabel Chaplin’s advice for how to help a loved one who has died but is earthbound is instructive:
Find a quiet place in your home…a time when you…will be reasonably certain of quiet…. Relax….Breathe in and out rhythmically….Your favorite prayer will help….Silently or vocally call the person by name….Now begin your conversation. Tell the person the reason for your trying to communicate…[and] the circumstance of the death. Very often the dead are not aware that they have passed on, and so it is important that they be told. Be very explicit. Remain calm and don’t expect answers….If you have been unusually distressed, nervous, sleepless or ill since the demise, then say so, and emphasize that their presence is harming you. Reassure your loved ones that they will be looked after when they finally depart from the material world, and will benefit by the release. Last of all tell the departed to look for the guiding Light, for helpers, relatives or friends who have gone on before. Give a final word of love or blessing….Repeat, if necessary, the entire process several times for about three days.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the successes of these “gentle exorcists.”
If these healers are correct in their claims, then obviously most, maybe all, of the spirits attaching themselves to us have survived death, and we have another stick to add to the bundle. But not so fast. There can be no doubt that many clients have been helped by rituals of depossession, spirit release, or exorcism (whichever term you prefer), but appearances can deceive. Materialists claim that when they work, it’s only because the client believes they work. That belief is the engine that drives the client to health, not some spirit who has headed for the exit! Dr. Modi herself confesses that she isn’t completely certain spirits are real—perhaps they are fantastic inventions made up out of her patients’ subconscious minds. Nevertheless, she, and all her colleagues, strongly suspect they are real. In what follows we’ll see why. But first a little history.
A 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. And St. Paul wrote to the early Christian community in Ephesus that their struggle was not so much against worldly powers but “the spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” All over the Developing World right down to the present day, “spirits,” both good and bad, are taken for granted as realities that share our world and sometimes must be dealt with. Depossession rituals are commonplace throughout South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and sub-Saharan Africa; and there is no place in the world where they are unknown. In the United States, according to Catholic theologian Malachi Martin, there was “a 750 percent increase in the number of
Exorcisms performed between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s.” And in England, according to Dom Robert Petitpierre, editor of the Anglican “Exeter Report” on exorcism, “incidents of demonic interference . . . since 1960 have become ‘virtually an explosion.’” Yet most college graduates in the West—the smart set as I like to call them—think that “spirits,” at least the kind that oppress or possess us, are not real. Indeed the very raising of the question, “Do evil spirits molest us?” seems to most of them like a return to the Dark Ages and might be greeted with derision. In a dreamlike state of delirium the agnostic Ivan, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, yells at the devil, “No, you are not someone apart, you are myself, you are I and nothing more! You are rubbish, you are my fancy.” Doesn’t Ivan speak for most of us today?
Yet there is mounting evidence that evil spirits are real and that they 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, though I appreciate their confirmation when it appears. By “evil spirits” I mean more or less intelligent beings, insensible to us, with a will of their own who seem to bother or oppress us or, in rare cases, possess our bodies outright, and with whom we can relate in a variety of ways. Most of them appear to have lived on earth as human beings and therefore to have survived death. In what follows we’ll survey and assess some of this evidence, then suggest what psychiatry’s reaction to it should be.
In 1924, Dr. Carl Wickland, a psychiatrist practicing in Los Angeles, published 30 Years Among the Dead, a unique record of verbatim conversations he had with departed spirits using his wife as medium. Wickland divided his book into chapters based on what kind of spirit spoke through his wife. Some, both before and after their deaths, tormented women; others had been criminals, still others suicides. One chapter is devoted to spirits who were alcoholics during earth life and continued, after death, to “drink” through their victims. In one case Wickland talks to a spirit who has been parasitically using the body of a woman named “Mrs. V” to drink. Wickland 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, who tries to persuade the spirit to leave. Eventually he 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.”
Unfortunately, most spirits are not as obliging as Mrs. V’s. When they are treated rudely or violently, as they are by many traditional exorcists all over the world, they often make a spectacle of themselves. India is typical.
A spirit healer in Western India is called a baba (“father,” “holy man”), as is the god he works with and who gives him power to heal. (I will use the term here to refer exclusively to the human healer.) The way it works is this. A person who is deranged—we in the West would use words like severely depressed, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or psychotic—is brought to the healer by her family. As she approaches the temple, she usually becomes visibly agitated. Or rather the earthbound spirit, called a bhut (“ghost”), within her does. Once the healing ritual is underway, the body of the victim becomes completely possessed by the tormenting bhut. At the climax of the ritual, the baba waves a tray of lights (arati) in front of each of the victims. These lights embody the power of the baba and the sponsoring god, and there is apparently nothing so agitating to a bhut. The body of the person may fall into a cataleptic trance, or moan and shake, or bash its head against a wall, or exhibit bizarre gyrations of supernatural force. John M. Stanley interviewed many spirit victims in the 1970s at a healing center in Pune after their recovery and found that none had been aware of any pain: “. . . all of the writhing and all of the agonies are experienced only by the bhut. The person himself, entirely unconscious, feels nothing.” He also discovered that most of the afflicted persons who came regularly to the sessions—bhuts do not usually depart for good until they have been subjected to repeated exorcisms—were completely restored to normalcy.
Moving on to 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. 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” 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. 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.” 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.
Back in the States, Malachi Martin, Catholic theologian and former professor at the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, published in 1976 Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Americans. At the time it was—and perhaps still is—the most convincing and authoritative book available on the subject. It was praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book Review, Newsweek, the Psychology Today Book Club, and a host of other prominent publications when it first appeared. We’ll come back to it below. Then in 1983, M. Scott Peck, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and author of the hugely popular self-help book The Road Less Traveled, startled the psychiatric community by describing his participation in two exorcisms. Peck says he personally confronted a profoundly evil spirit on both occasions.
In a number of ways these Christian exorcisms remind me of the Chinese account 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. Furthermore, the demons are expelled only after divine assistance is called on repeatedly, and the entire ordeal is exhausting to the exorcist and his team.
Peck tells us that the two patients he observed “were gravely ill from a psychiatric standpoint before their exorcisms,” 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” Following additional psychotherapy, the voices died out and both patients made a full recovery.
“Genuine possession, as far as we know,” writes Peck, “is very rare.” “We should use the word possession only when it fits—for the rare Charles Manson’s of the world,” writes Francis MacNutt, a former Catholic priest and leading authority on possession. In MacNutt’s experience most people under the influence of evil spirits are merely “oppressed” by demons—he likes the word “demonized”—but not completely possessed. And for these, exorcism is neither necessary nor desirable. Rather, such victims need “deliverance.” Furthermore, the “true demons from hell,” the kind that usually require a full-scale exorcism, “represent a relatively small percentage” of all the spirits capable of influencing us, says MacNutt, “perhaps only ten percent.”
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.” 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.” MacNutt’s generalizations are reminiscent of the Asian cases we looked at above. Spirit victims sometimes show supernatural agility or strength. They “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.” Often the voice uses the plural we, and on rare occasions a foreign language, a language unknown to the victim, 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.
Other predictable features include rolling eyes, screams, gagging, fetid smells, and a feeling of cold in the room. (Several horrifying examples of possession are online through YouTube.) 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!
I haven’t looked in depth at cases of possession from Africa or South or Central America, where they are frequently reported. The above cases, however, should be adequate for the preliminary form of evaluation needed here.
What do we do with all this evidence of apparent spirit oppression? In particular, can it be squared with the materialist worldview of Western psychiatry? Is “spirit oppression” always to be placed within quotation marks, or can we leave them off? Are “spirits” the hallucinations of a sick brain, or do they have an independent existence? I think every reader must grant, however grudgingly, that on the surface the phenomena point to dualist metaphysics: we are one kind of being, and spirits are another. We are visible, and they are not. We are subject to the laws of physics, and they are not. We have physical bodies, and they do not. Yet they are as conscious as we are, as individual as we are. And most of them claim to have lived on earth at one time.
But what do we find when we look below the surface? Can materialist metaphysics be salvaged in the face of all this evidence? Can it be salvaged without sounding farfetched and perhaps ridiculous? More importantly, should psychiatry make room for, or even embrace, the “spiritual” therapies used in the above cases? Should it place them alongside the brain-altering drugs and electroconvulsive therapies (ECT) presently used? Should it learn to accept them as alternative therapies – just as medical science learned a generation ago to accept chiropractic treatment? Or are there good reasons for maintaining the status quo, as most materialists are determined to do? Is some form of dualism less of a stretch than materialism, or is it the other way round?
The following line of reasoning seems to me fruitful and suggestive. I’ll evaluate the evidence under four headings;
1. Experience of the victim. Let’s 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. “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. Is it proper to dismiss such a confession as having no possible validity? Are any of us in a better position to speak with authority about some of the most mysterious “facts” of our own experience?
When we assure ourselves that we have free will (to take an example from philosophy), do we finally have any convincing evidence? Determinists don’t think we do. Yet almost all 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 points with equal psychological force to the reality of spirits.
2. Universality. If spirit oppression were unique to one culture, religion, or geographical region, it would be 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 way whether they oppress Americans or Chinese or Indians. They cause the victim’s voice, face, and movements to change dramatically. They feel just as threatened by a Daoist priest holding an ivory tablet as a Catholic priest holding a crucifix or an Indian baba waving a tray of lights. They are put to rout not by human agency acting alone, but by divine power, whether by Shang Ti or by an avatar of Krishna or by Jesus.
3. Unnatural or Superhuman Phenomena. When we read Goullart’s account of the Daoist abbot exorcising the 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 release. 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.” Almost as remarkable are the uncanny movements of spirit victims undergoing exorcism at the hands of the Indian baba.
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 you be more likely to conclude that he was showing an up-until-now unknown side of his personality for the first time or that he was possessed by an alien spirit?
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 suggest possession to a healer or 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 correctly diagnosed the problem.
Which approach succeeds, or at least succeeds more often, the conventional psychiatric approach which rules out any possibility of spirit oppression from the outset, or the spiritual approach which not only makes room for it 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 well regarded science writer, John Horgan, refers to several of these. 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-psychotic drugs often cause effects that 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-psychotic medications neuroleptics, which literally means “brain-seizers.”
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 drug 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.” 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.
Now for the spiritual. Do healers, exorcists, shamans, and deliverance ministers fare any better than psychiatrists? I wish I could tell you the Chinese farmer who was freed from two demons and fully recovered his normal personality stayed cured but Goullart does not tell us. What about the Indian cases? Stanley, a trained social scientist, gives us a little more to go on:
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.
I see no reason to doubt the truth of Stanley’s report. He is careful not to exaggerate—he acknowledges there are incurable cases—and he has taken care to interview many people in a variety of conditions. And he admits that the possessing spirits have a tendency to return until they are convinced it would be more comfortable for them to retire permanently. Moreover, his findings are supported by witnesses of possession-type phenomena in other parts of India.
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.” 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.
“Our madhouses,” writes Huston Smith, “may contain souls that are ravaged by principalities and powers on the psychic plane; in a word, possessed.” 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 most of Stanley’s samples.
As a result, it is impossible to avoid arriving at the surprising conclusion, at least for the moment, that evil spirits are real and that they sometimes obsess or possess the living. For if they were not real, then why would an exorcism work? One might just as well bring about a cure for stomach cancer by taking out the appendix. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that exorcism works so dramatically, completely, and permanently in cases where conventional psychiatry fails because the exorcist has correctly diagnosed the ailment and the psychiatrist has not?
There are arguments, some stronger and some weaker, against this conclusion. Here is the one I regard as the strongest:
It has to be acknowledged that drugs and ECT do have an impact on the brain and on the inner life of almost all mentally ill people. As Paul 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, as Churchland says, “we can still do measurable good.” And since we can, 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, Churchland and other materialists conclude, 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 counselling clients as a licensed psychotherapist, “ended up praying with [only] about a third of them to be freed from the influence of evil spirits.” This suggests that in the other two-thirds, even a therapist as sensitive to the presence of oppressing spirits as his wife, diagnosed 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. Is it really so preposterous that a spirit utilizing in some mysterious way a person’s body, more particularly the 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 Columbia, says: “We’re triggering a seizure in order to get the brain to stop a seizure…. God knows if it’s true.” Moreover, is it all that farfetched to consider the further possibility that powerful neuroleptic medications might discourage an obsessing spirit from oppressing its victim, and, like shock therapy, creates a hostile environment in the brain for oppressing spirits? After all, cures of many diseases are administered both topically and internally. Might ECT be the topical approach to expelling an oppressive spirit from the victim’s brain, and medication the internal? Not to consider such a possibility, however heterodox, is unscientific.
So what should we conclude? Dr. Peck wrote in 1983 that “possession and exorcism have never been scientifically studied, to my knowledge, in America or Europe.” He acknowledges that Western anthropologists have long studied possession phenomena in the Developing World, but India is not America.
I await the day that teams of experienced exorcists, with seven-or-eight-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 depossession rituals work 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 was not the only psychotherapist working in America to treat mental illness as possession. Colin Wilson mentions two who occasionally treated their patients as if they were possessed. One of them, Dr. Ralph Allison, a specialist on MPD working in California, occasionally ran into personalities that did not act at all like split-off alters. Of one of these Allison wrote, “Despite all my efforts, I was unable to find a more plausible explanation for his existence than the spirit theory.”
But these are only glimpses. We are left with a great deal of tantalizing evidence pointing to spirit 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 in a lab? Or because they turned up in only one out of twenty exorcisms? How many deliverance ministers and healers 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 entrenched skeptics of CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) 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 (and they have been), would the professional debunkers be mollified?
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 an illusion.
I believe that this sort of unyielding skepticism will always oppose those who find much evidence for a dualist interpretation of reality. Dualism, beginning with our own immediate experience (our bodies), has an enormous amount of evidence in its favor. But, as we saw earlier, it fails to provide an explanation of how immaterial and material substances interact; that interaction is almost as mysterious today as it was when Plato defended it. And many people reject it for that reason — along with all those queer experiences, such as spirit oppression, that depend on it.
In spite of the mysteriousness of our subject, I believe that the evidence reviewed here provides extremely good reason to think that Jesus’ interpretation of mental illness 2000 years ago 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 all the more strongly 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. Even God might seem more comely after such a metaphysical facelift. If spirits, earthbound or demonic, came to be regarded by intelligent men and women as real, Spirit would again take its place at the controls.
What should psychiatry’s response be? Are psychiatrists in this country quietly wondering if there is something to possession? If so, there is no evidence of it that I can find in professional literature. To take but one of many examples, in a psychiatry journal article titled “The Delusion of Possession in Chronically Psychotic Patients,” 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,” 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.” 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.
“Spirit Attachment and Possession” is an extract from When Did You Ever Become Less By Dying? AFTERLIFE: The Evidence by Stafford Betty