SHARE The Possession , yet another in a recent deluge of films about demonic possession and exorcism supposedly based on real cases, opened this Labor Day weekend.
I have not seen the movie, so this is definitely not a review. Directed by Orne Bornedal and co-produced by Sam Raimi, The Possession tells the terrifying tale this time of a mysterious wooden box containing an ancient Hebrew demonic spirit, the Dybbuk. In medieval Jewish folklore, the dybbuk was a transmigrating spirit or soul capable of causing physical sickness and psychological suffering by possessing one's body or brain. Those perceived to be destructively possessed by the dybbuk would be forcibly brought for exorcism to the synagogue and supportively surrounded by a minyan of ten men traditionally required for Jewish religious services.
The group, led by the exorcist, would then deliberately provoke the presumedly possessed person into a rage in an evidently often successful effort to forcefully evict the dybbuk from his or her body. However, unlike in Christian exorcism, which seeks solely to extirpate and expel the offending evil demon, the purpose of the Jewish exorcism is to heal both the person being possessed and the troubled spirit or disembodied soul dybbuk doing the possessing.
The rabbi performing the exorcism may, like Catholic priests, employ specific paraphernalia like a lit candle, shofar ram's horn and empty glass flask into which the dybbuk can visibly retreat once leaving the victim. Or perhaps, as in The Possession, a small wooden "Dybbuk box. In the positive sense, the genii or genie was originally an incorporeal, immortal tutelar deity or spirit presiding over the destiny of a person, later becoming a particular talent or mental endowment genius , and was commonly associated with generativity, vitality and creativity as much as destructiveness, negativity and evil.
As The Possession points out, belief in demonic possession--expecially prominent in the Roman Catholic Church--and its exorcistic treatment can also be found in Judaism, as well as in numerous other major religious systems including Hinduism and Buddhism. The "possession syndrome" occurs across cultures and religions, and there are striking similarities in both its various manifestations and treatments.
Anger , rage and even violence are almost universally involved, especially during the ritualistic process of exorcism. His primary function was to provoke marital animosity, discord and domestic abuse. For example, there is typically a sudden intensification of anger when the exorcist displays the holy relics, such as holy water, the Bible or a crucifix in Christian exorcisms.
This intense rage can become so severe as to require physically restraining the afflicted person for the duration of the exorcism, and is understood to be the "rage of the demon" who anticipates and violently resists expulsion. Psychologically, this repressed rage is chronically disowned and dissociated by the so-called victim of possession, which is what is making him or her ill possessed in the first place. Indeed, by dint of physical restraints, the person being exorcised is free to cathartically ventilate his or her heretofore repressed rage harmlessly with a vengeance, providing at least some temporary relief.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the evangelical exorcisms performed regularly and publicly by the highly controversial Rev. Bob Larson, as I discuss in an upcoming episode of the TV show Taboo on the topic of demonic possession and exorcism. Why are high-tech, scientifically-minded, religiously secular twenty-first-century cynics so fascinated with films about exorcism and demons? While the level of filmmaking ranges wildly, there seems to be a trend toward this supernatural i.
Paranormal Activity and its sequels deal with the subject of evil demons. Last year, The Rite , starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest and professional exorcist somewhat reminiscent of Father Merrin Max von Sydow in The Exorcist an excellent film , was released to tepid if not terrible reviews.
Nonetheless, the topic of exorcism and demonic possession evidently still touches a nerve in the movie-going audience, perhaps especially in horror fans, true believers and so-called recovering Catholics still not sure what to believe about such matters. Films about possession and exorcism, like The Last Exorcism and 's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, strive in part to convince their audience of the objective existence of the Devil, and, in turn, of God.
But in dogmatically pursuing this fundamentalist agenda, the filmmakers are missing a golden opportunity to examine and explore the many important parallels between exorcism and modern psychotherapy , and to possibly reach and educate a far wider secular, spiritual and psychologically sophisticated segment of the public about this intensive treatment for what I term the possession syndrome.
Some of these movies make reference to the apparent actual growing demand for exorcisms and the need to train more priests or perhaps rabbis to perform this archaic religious rite. This widespread explosion of interest in exorcism was confirmed by a Washington Post article Feb.
Citing modern ills, hundreds of priests have trained to expel the devil. But according to one busy practitioner, " 'My remedy is based on spiritual means, which cannot be replaced by any pharmaceutical remedies. I do not stop at the level of just treating symptoms. I'm very much interested in the soul of a person. As a priest, I keep asking questions a doctor will never ask. How does it heal? Can we learn something valuable about psychotherapy from exorcism? Are there certain techniques employed by exorcists that psychotherapists should consider when treating angry, psychotic or violent patients?
Are there vital existential or spiritual questions addressed by exorcism--for example, the archetypal riddle of evil--that psychotherapy detrimentally avoids or neglects? Exorcism--the ritualistic expulsion of evil spirits inhabiting body, brain or place--has been practiced in some form throughout history, and is probably the first primitive type of psychotherapy. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, was originally a trained exorcist.
Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have healed individuals suffering from mental and physical symptoms by casting out demons. Now, more than two millennia later, the Roman Catholic Church is reported to be secretly educating a new crop of exorcists to meet a rapidly rising demand for exorcisms in Italy, Australia, America and elsewhere around the globe. Here in the U. See my prior post. Despite the secular scientific persona of most mental health professionals today, simply scratching the surface of rationality and objectivity reveals a secret exorcist: Like exorcists, psychotherapists speak in the name of a "higher being," be it medical science, rationality or some psychological, metaphysical or spiritual belief system.
Notwithstanding today's economically-driven, superficial, simplistic trend toward brief psychotherapies such as CBT , DBT and myriad psychopharmacological treatments, sooner or later one inevitably is confronted in clinical practice with strikingly similar phenomena and principles to those educed by traditional exorcists. Psychotherapy, like exorcism, commonly consists of a prolonged, pitched, demanding, soul-wrenching, sometimes tedious bitter battle royale with the patient's diabolically obdurate emotional "demons," at times waged over the course of years or even decades rather than weeks or months, and not necessarily always with consummate success.
And there is now growing recognition--not only by psychoanalytic practitioners--of the very real risks and dangers of psychic infection inherent also in the practice of psychotherapy. This psychic susceptibility is almost universally depicted in these films, starting with The Exorcist and most recently by The Devil Inside.
Counter-transference is what we clinicians technically call this treacherous psychological phenomenon, which can cause the psychotherapist or exorcist to suffer disturbing, subjective symptoms during the treatment process--sometimes even as the patient progresses!
Hence the ever-present importance for psychotherapists, like exorcists, to perform their sacred work within a formally ritualized structure, making full use of collegial support, cooperation and consultation, and to maintain inviolable personal boundaries. Marsha Linehan's DBT, for instance, structures this support and consultation into the treatment program.
To paraphrase Sigmund Freud , no one wrestles with the emotional demons of others all day without themselves being affected. This is an unavoidable occupational hazard of both exorcism and psychotherapy. Of course, the main difference between psychotherapy and exorcism is that modern psychotherapy is typically a secular treatment for figurative, metaphorical "demons"--mental, emotional or psychological traumas , memories or "complexes,"-- whereas exorcism takes the existence of demons quite literally.
Doing so can have certain advantages in treating patients who believe in the Devil, demons and exorcism, if for no other reason than the extremely impressive power of suggestion. This is also the power behind the so-called placebo effect.
Someone in the midst of an acute psychotic episode, for example, is confused, disoriented and hypersuggestible. They desperately seek some meaning to hang on to.
Unless we can seriously offer a more or at least equally satisfying explanation of the patient's disturbing experience, it is, as clinicians well know from working with delusional patients, exceedingly difficult if not impossible to rationally dissuade someone of the fervent conviction that they are victims of demonic possession.
Sometimes the best approach can be to go with where they are and use the patient's belief system to the treatment's advantage.
Scott Peck, who believed in and sometimes practiced exorcism, drew a distinction like the Catholic Church, but mistaken in my view between demonic possession and mental illness. Peck correctly pointed out that, unlike individual psychotherapy, exorcism makes more use of power in waging war against the patient's sickness, and is usually conducted by a team of exorcists who attempt to overpower the patient's efforts to resist treatment.
He further notes that, unlike time-limited psychotherapy sessions, exorcisms can extend far beyond forty-five minutes, and often involve forcible physical restraint of the patient during these intense and typically angry confrontations.
In religious exorcism, as opposed to psychotherapy, the team invokes the healing power of God via prayer and ritual, and attributes any success directly to God rather than themselves or even the exorcism process itself. Whereas in psychotherapy, success is typically attributed primarily to some combination of the doctor-patient relationship and the treatment process itself. Exorcism is based on a theological, spiritual or metaphysical model, unlike psychotherapy, which is generally rooted in a psychiatrically-based biopsychosocial or medical paradigm.
But both methods address similar symptoms or syndromes, especially as seen in the most severely disturbed patients. The Catholic Church is careful today to rule out malingering or demonstrable mental illness when considering candidates for exorcism, using medical doctors and mental health professionals to help distinguish between so-called genuine possession and pseudo-possession.
But can such a distinction truly be drawn? And, if so, on what basis? The Roman Catholic Church's official diagnostic criteria for discerning genuine demonic possession something mentioned in many of these movies includes speaking in tongues or languages formerly unfamiliar to the possessed person, supernatural physical strength, and visibly negative reactions of the victim to prayers, holy water, priests, etc.
From a psychiatric perspective, the problem with such criteria is that these phenomena can be found in many mental disorders, including dissociative and psychotic disorders of various sorts.
See my prior post on psychosis. Peck, a born-again Christian, the distinction between "human evil" and "demonic evil" is crucial: He distinguishes "satanic possession" from mental illness, stating that though in such cases some emotional problem predisposes the patient to satanic or demonic possession, "the proper question to pose diagnostically would be: But another way of looking at this same possession syndrome is that in such cases what we are seeing are the most extreme and treatment resistant states of mind manifested in patients who may truly believe themselves to be demonically possessed.
The pertinent question then for psychologists and psychiatrists is how best to treat such severely disturbed and intensely suffering individuals?
It seems that at least some familiarity with their religious beliefs and meaningful integration of these beliefs into their psychotherapy is essential. These patients have usually tried traditional psychiatric treatment, with its banal neurobiological bias , to no avail. Providing some way to help such frustrated patients make sense of their frightening and bewildering subjective experiences and integrate them meaningfully into a deeper psychological and spiritual understanding of themselves and the world is what real psychotherapy should, really must, strive toward.
Without such a meaning-centered, spiritually sensitive secular psychotherapy see my prior post , exorcism is seen by some bedeviled individuals as their only hope. This question as to the true nature of what I call the "possession syndrome" is at the very crux of the matter regarding exorcism: Exorcism is the traditional treatment for possession.
Is so-called demonic possession a psychological phenomenon, a form of psychosis or another as yet ill-defined mental disorder? Or is it the work of the Devil, and irrefutable proof of Satan's powerful reality?
In a previous post , I discussed the infamous Andrea Yates filicide case. By the time she deliberately drowned her five children in , Yates was convinced she was possessed. Satan himself, claimed Yates, compelled her to carry out her evil deeds. In her second trial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution. How can we make sense of her delusions and diabolically destructive behavior? Or was Yates, as she fervently believed, a hapless victim of "possession"?
And if so, what exactly is that? Do demons really exist? Where does it come from? What is our relationship to it? Is it a proper subject of study for psychology and psychiatry?
And how can we better deal with it?