Defining Spirit Possession.
“Emotion is something that you don’t simply receive.
Emotion is compelled.
Other than that, we’re just shells until we’re possessed
or reanimated from time to time by different emotions.”
__ CeeLo Green
Amidst the darkness of the new moon night, the red vibrant rays of fire immediately came to our notice. At a distance, in the forest of Saharanpur, a group of loosely clad men were seated, circled around a young woman, completely frenzied, helpless, screaming her lungs out, “mujhe bachaao, main marna nahi chahti, koi to bachaao” (help… I don’t want to die, someone please save me). In the middle of the confluence, was a bonfire, and we could not understand what was being constantly poured into it; the men resembled some sadhus, what we can say native sages or ‘aghoris’; their bodies smeared in grey ash and their lump of knotted hair carelessly falling on their back; their eyes were red, and their face stood for the second name of crude, brutal violence and sadism. We couldn’t hear what they were chanting in front of the fire, as we were watching all this from behind a far-away tree, as we were instructed by our team leaders, not to advance any forward. The girl was not alone, there were many other people gathered over there, surrounding this picture, but to my surprise, none of them approached to help her; the villagers were mere spectators, and what stood out to me, was their expressions; each of them had a glimpse of horror, fear, uncertainty and sympathy for what they were watching.
The next morning, we received a news before leaving Saharanpur; the girl we saw last night in the forest was finally burnt alive in her cottage in front of 150 dwellers of the district, and nobody uttered a word of protest. She was ‘possessed’ and her family members had called the group of sages for her cure; unfortunately, the spirit was too powerful and evil to be controlled by the chants and hymns of the sacred men, so they failed in exorcism, hence, for the safety and betterment of the locality and neighbours, the girl had to die. I was on a research tour to the district of Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh in India, for my academic documentary on native culture and traditions, in the year 2012, and this horrific incident left me dumbfounded; I was unbelieving myself that I am standing in the 21st century.
The word possessed means ‘to belong’. If we are less to ourselves and belong more to someone, or something else, it means we are possessed by that source. When our liberty and decision-making abilities are compromised to some other power or energy, it means we are possessed by that entity. It can be a person, a thing, an emotion, a thought or anything gullible or abstract for that matter.
The concept of spirit possession or demonic possession is nothing new; it has been believed in several cultures and religions over the eras.
How Do We Define Demonic or Spirit Possession?
Spirit possession is a term which is used when a living person is usurped by an alien energy, usually negative in kind, like that of animalistic spirit, ghost, demon or anti-human dark forces from the underworld. When a person is over-powered by some force, other than his own soul, which is apparently invisible to others, generally he is believed to be ‘possessed’. The concept of spirit possession exists in many religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca, Haitian Voodoo and Southeast Asian and African traditions. An extensive study generated by the National Institute of Mental Health standardized that almost 74% of subjects, in a group of 488, were found to be predated by supernatural possession. In Western culture, a demonic possession is identified with the unnaturally violent behaviour of a person.
If a person is doing evil things, not likely of himself, speaking dirty tongues in crude languages which he or she has never learned, or impersonating other voices, revealing unknown secrets, and propagating pervert art or deviant philosophy, or behaving completely like some other entity, he or she is said to be possessed by the devil. Descriptions of demonic possessions often include “erased memories or personalities, convulsions (i.e. epileptic seizures or “fits”) and fainting as if one were dying. Other descriptions include access to hidden knowledge and foreign languages (xenoglossy), drastic changes in vocal intonation and facial structure, the sudden appearance of injuries (scratches, bite marks) or lesions, and superhuman strength. Unlike in channelling, the subject has no control over the possessing entity and so it will persist until forced to leave the victim, usually through a form of exorcism”.i
We have watched several film productions on spirit possession, in fact, it is a very popular genre in horror to depict a person as being possessed or seized by the devil. Finally, truth prevails, the evil spirit is exorcised and the victim is cured. None of us could have possibly forgotten The Exorcism Of Emily Rose(2005), an American horror drama with a legal connotation which was directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson.
The film depicted a girl who dies of self-inflicted wounds and malnutrition after a priest performs exorcism on her, and following this sequence of events comes a court case, where a legal practitioner defends the priest, who is made a convict for practising exorcism.
It is not the first time, that we as audience, have questioned on the truth and accuracy of spirit possession and exorcism. It is a zone which is unknown to us; something which we have not perceived with our five senses; something beyond our understanding, and hence the most convenient way to describe possession, is that it is a supernatural phenomenon.
However, when it comes to logic, we are questioning the possibilities and feasibilities of what we watch is movies.
i “Demonic Possession”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 May 2017. Web. 30 May 2017.
The Exorcist (1973) is one of the most popular horror films of all times, and is one of the pioneers in depicting spirit possession and exorcism. Lankester Merrin is a veteran Catholic priest and exorcist who is on an archaeological dig in Iraq. There he finds an amulet that resembles the statue of Pazuzu, a demon whom Merrin had defeated years before. Merrin then realizes the demon has returned to seek revenge. The evil spirit possesses a 12-year-old girl who suffers till she is almost dead. We are given a clear picture, of what a revenge-seeking evil soul can do, if he is not united with the universe after death.
According to Christianity, evil spirits are incarnations of the eternal devil, Satan, responsible for the fall of Man; during their lifetime, they engage in different kinds of sins and destroy many lives
and families, and after death, they are not at peace; they resurrect themselves as evil spirits with tremendous, unbound power and force to cause further menace to the living environment and become a potential threat to life, as they are undefeatable and non-destructible.
In the above films as well, we have seen the cruel, most destructible face of the evil spirits in undefined forms, thus we are bound to fear them. However, the depiction of possessed persons in the films always have left us with thousand ’if’s and ’but’s.
A possessed person resembles a sick man/woman, who has occasional fits, often gets violent and faints, speaks unnatural things at moments, and the next moment starts crying. These are symptoms which we can easily associate with a person who is mentally unstable. Such people generally don’t take much care of themselves, and people around are also scared to go near them, and hence they are underfed, hence loses weight; vitamin deficiency gives them cracked skin, dry tissues and usually upset stomach.
In The Exorcist, ii we have seen the young girl gets possessed and the first symptom she shows, is urinating in public. Today we all know, this is a kind of medical problem, an impulse control disorder which can happen to someone in shock, has had a bad dream or is sleepwalking. Such problems usually happen to children or during teenage. Urinating problems can happen due to over consciousness or extreme control too. Paruresis or ‘shy syndrome’ is a phobia where people are not comfortable urinating in public toilets, or in presence of others, in fear of being judged, and it is quite possible that your bladder gives up after a particular constriction point.
ii The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. The exorcist experience--unedited footage? London material. N.p., n.d. Web.
As time passed, it was found that there can be a medical explanation to the physical deformity or deterioration of a possessed person, but religious beliefs in people could not be distorted because they had huge foundations and proofs too. We will discuss them in the following chapters.
Certain physiological and psychic conditions were observed through researches in people who are believed to be possessed, but it was easy to tag these occurrences as something supernatural and beyond control. Many countries in Europe, America and Southeast Asia have been believing in spirit possession since generations, and have resolved to solutions which are not medically sanctioned. Tantric practice is another such solution evolved in India which is believed to drive off the evil spirit from a possessed person. There are many such rites and rituals which have popularized over centuries in different parts of the world, and today, they have become proper remedies themselves; books on exorcism and religious rites are as true as the books of history and geography, some people argue that if we believe the earth is round, we have to believe that there is evil in the world, which can possess people and then we should seek a Godly remedy to get rid of it. People often resort to unscientific means, to get rid of demons in a person which cannot be theorized with logic or philosophy. The possible reason for this attitude can be fear. If we are taught to fear something, we never wish to take a chance. Even learned and literate men never refrain from bringing in an ojha in their house, if they believe that there is even one percent chance of a family member being possessed, because they are sceptic and do not want to take that chance. But it was seen over time, that these rituals, prayers, and unprofessional treatments often produced ill-effects on individuals, ruining the health of the victim, hurting them, and sometimes even causing death of that person.
In many countries like Japan, China, and India, even today, girls are called ‘witches’ and burnt to death. Due to such mishaps generating from the belief of possession, medical science attempted to understand this phenomenon in its own way. Several researches have been made on the topic of ‘spirit possession’ and how it can be medically resolved.
The 17th century, or we should say, the rise of Enlightenment period deviated from theory that madness had anything to do with the soul or morality; now it was observed as an organic physiological problem; a mad person usually behaved like a wild animal, was the basic concept and needed to be tamed. Several torturous therapies were implied to control their animalistic instincts. Some of the asylums had weird and inhuman techniques to tame the ‘mad’, or mentally dissociated people, the most popular of the crudities being in Bedlam, where people even payed money to watch the worse treatment of their inmates.
Later, scientists observed this madness in possessed people, as excess of some humour which needed purgation. The term “crazy” (from Middle English meaning cracked) and insane (from Latin insanus meaning unhealthy) came to mean mental disorder in this period. The term ”lunacy“, long used to refer to periodic disturbance or epilepsy, came to be synonymous with insanity. “Madness”, long in use in root form since at least the early centuries AD, and originally meaning crippled, hurt or foolish, came to mean loss of reason or self-restraint. “Psychosis”, from Greek “principle of life/animation”, had varied usage referring to a condition of the mind/soul. “Nervous”, from an Indo-European root meaning to wind or twist, meant muscle or vigour, was adopted by physiologists to refer to the body’s electrochemical signalling process (thus called the nervous system), and was then used to refer to nervous disorders and neurosis. “Obsession”, from a Latin root meaning to sit on or sit against, originally meant to besiege or be possessed by an evil spirit, came to mean a fixed idea that could decompose the mind.
Towards the end of the 18th century, a moral treatment movement developed, that implemented more humane, psychosocial and personalized approaches.
Notable figures included the medic Vincenzo Chiarugi in Italy under Enlightenment leadership; the ex-patient superintendent Pussin and the psychologically inclined medic Philippe Pinel in revolutionary France; the Quakers in England, led by businessman William Tuke; and later, in the United States, campaigner Dorothea Dix.
The constant effort to understand the phenomenon of spirit possession in people, is on, and it is still a huge challenge to the world of medical science, as every behaviour or aspect of the problem cannot always be typically associated with mental disorder, but today there is a medical definition to ‘possession’ and it is equally important to our study.
It is considered to be one of the many forms of insanity in medicine (more precisely psychiatry). There are many psychological ailments commonly misunderstood as demonic possession. Some of them are:
Hysteria: It is a primitive category of mental disease and a collective terminology for all types of disease, symptomized with ungoverned behavioural patterns, i.e. heightened emotional state, violence, aggression, suspicion, delusion, periodic unconsciousness and fits of epilepsy. The term hysteria has been replaced by “psychosomatic”, “functional”, “nonorganic” or “psychogenic”.
Mania: This is a typical mental condition where the patient is afflicted with strict beliefs about things; the thought processes are obsessive and implied into practice which harms their daily life; manics experience strong mood problems.
Psychosis: It is a severe mental disorder where the patient is strongly affected with hallucinations and delusions; they view and believe things which do not exist in real, and that develops over a period of time; the disorder is complemented with anxiety, fear, suspicion, panic and sometimes depression; visible reactions are violent outbursts, social withdrawal, loss of appetite and seclusion. Psychosis can result from any type of physical illness too like brain injuries, genetic problems, HIV, previous records of Alzheimer’s etc.
Schizophrenia: This is another proclaimed mental disorder often misunderstood as spirit possession, because the patient complains of seeing things, places or people which do not exist in real. The imaginary world of fancy becomes truth for the patient and he loses all contact with the real world.
Dissociative identity disorder: This is a mental inhibition where the patient embodies more than one personality within himself and reflects them according to subconscious wish or stimulus; a person with separate alter egos or identities are usually dangerous to themselves as well as the society, as because they are themselves, hardly aware of the fact. People with dissociative identity disorder function as two or more Dissociative Identity States (DIS), called Neutral Identity States (NIS) and Traumatic Identity States (TIS). NIS keep out of the mind traumatic memories. So, it’s easier to master daily life. TIS are aware of these memories and that’s why the behaviour is influenced.
Of these, most commonly people misunderstand “Dissociative Identity Disorder” as demonic possession. In cases of dissociative identity disorder (commonly called split personality), about 29% are reported to identify themselves as demons.
However, in medical science this is regarded as the mental disease called demonomania or demonopathy, a monomania in which the patient believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons.
We will discuss in detail about each of the psychological issues later on.
It is quite unfortunate, that often patients with symptoms of medical disorder are not appointed to a doctor, but dragged to a temple, mosque, church, and sometimes tortured with the most rugged methods imposed by priests or men who claim to be experts in the occult-relief technique. Sometimes, disorders are misinterpreted as possession, and at others, possession is conveniently explained as a psychosocial deformity.
It is a thought that someone near us is possessed by something evil which is causing harm; it is important to note that we are possessed with the idea that he or she is possessed which impends us to take an action. It is major convolution of thought process and perspective which drives the mind; our mind is driven to believe in demonic possession of another person, and another person believes in distorting his or her behaviour as a retaliation or sometimes emotional backlog. The answer is quite blur but we can at least attempt to understand the depths of the notion of possession, so that we can try locating an answer.