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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Enigma of Demonic Possession

Demonic possession is a fascinating topic for me. To be honest, I feel a bit out of my element when it comes to this topic. I’m agnostic about religion much like I am most things in this world. I wasn’t raised in a particularly “religious” household, so I don’t have a very Christian background. And while I fully admit there is “evil” in this world, the concept of “demons” hasn’t really been one I’ve ever put too much stock into. Additionally I’ve never watched The Exorcist (please don’t judge me, I’ve gotten bored every time I tried to watch it). In my defense, however, I have watched most of the other demon possession films, including the amazing Repossessed starring the late Leslie Nielsen and Linda Blair, somewhat loosely “reprising” her role from The Exorcist which, regardless of what IMDB suggests, I remember being a funny movie. Although I was probably seven when I first watched it, so that probably flowers my perceptions a little. Perhaps more than that though, as a psychology major, I find myself torn when it comes to determining the causal agent behind the phenomenon known as demonic possession. Is demonic possession simply a leftover superstitious term for medical illnesses which were not well understood by our ancestors? Are there evil entities which are taking control of people, wreaking havoc in their lives and causing despair and anguish?

I’m not too interested in really old cases as it’s harder to rule out the possibility of mental illness being the root cause of the experience, though you could argue the same thing for modern examples as well I suppose. Instead I wish to review some of the more (in)famous modern cases below. What makes some of these modern cases more compelling to me is the amount of documentation that exists on some of the cases. Photographs, recordings, and, in one case, video footage, has been secured which gives a unique glimpse into  the cases which will follow. As always, I will allow you to come to your own conclusions as to what may, or may not, be happening in these experiences.

Anneliese Michel


Probably one of the more  famous modern cases is the sad tale of Anneliese Michel. Born on September 21, 1952, Michel was diagnosed with having temporal lobe epilepsy at the age of 16. Michel was a German Catholic who lived in Leiblfing, Bavaria, West Germany. Her family is said to have been very religious and apparently attended Mass at least twice a week. Not having familiarity with Catholicism I can’t say whether that represents a normal amount or an “extreme” amount. Ido think its worth noting her and her families deeply held religious convictions. I believe these beliefs may have played a part in the events which would unfold in her life. Around the time that Michel had gone off to college, in the 70’s, she suffered a third seizure while at a hospital where she was being treated for tuberculosis. The picture gets a little fuzzy here, though an author( whose name I can’t seem to find on the site) wrote an extensive blog post detailing this case which you should certainly check out here, has much more information than I could possibly provide. Instead I wish to give a thumbnail view of the major points.

Upon her third seizure, Michel was treated with medications which seemed to not have an impact on her symptoms. Around this same time, she began to have severe depression. During these episodes of depression, Michel started to become intolerant towards religious items and reported hearing voices which spoke to her and began tormenting her. Doctors prescribed her medicine which would be used in the treatment for Schizophrenia, largely because auditory hallucinations are one of the hallmarks of Schizophrenia.

Michel and her family believed that she was being targeted by demonic forces. The family sought out an exorcism from their local Priest. By all accounts, the Priests and local Bishops were extremely hesitant to perform the ancient ritual. I don’t wish to speculate too much, but it may be that the Priests were unconvinced that Michel was truly exhibiting demonic possession and not simply suffering from a mental illness. After much persistence, in 1975 two Priests finally relented and agreed to perform an exorcism.

For a period of about 10 months, exorcisms were regularly performed on Michel. Her family stopped seeking medical treatment, instead relying solely on the ritual of exorcism to save their daughter. Eventually, Michel would stop eating and drinking, stating that the demons did not want her to. On June 1st 1976 Anneliese Michel died due to malnourishment and emaciation. Both her parents and the priests who performed the exorcism would later be charged with negligent homicide. Her story would eventually be adapted into screenplay of a not so great “horror” movie in 2005 called The Exorcism of Emily Rose. To read more on the case, including the graphic images and disturbing recordings of the exorcisms, be sure to check out The Entire Case History of Anneliese Michel blog post.

Roland Doe


As I said earlier  I’ve not seen The Exorcist movie before. Although it would be hard for me to deny the cultural impact the film has had. Fortean Times just released their April issue which is all about Exorcisms and celebrates 40 years of The Exorcist movie. Besides it being a great film (allegedly), the movie probably stands out to many people because it is said to be based on a true story.  The name “Roland Doe”, and later changed to “Robbie Mannheim”, are both pseudonyms for an anonymous Maryland boy who was said to have been possessed by demons and was apparently successfully exorcised. Roland’s story begins with the death of an Aunt, when he was around the age of 14 somewhere around 1949 or so. At this time, strange and unexplained phenomenon began occurring around the home. Objects began moving around the house, unusual noises were said to be heard throughout the hose. Honestly, it all sounds a lot like the child may have been experiencing poltergeist phenomena which fits in nicely with both his age and apparent emotional stress level. The family in this case appears to have been quite religious as well, which appears to be a common trait amongst those who are believed to experience demonic possession and subsequently request exorcisms. They turned to their Lutheran pastor, Rev. Luther Miles Schulze. The child had been examined by both medical and psychiatric doctors, according to what the Reverend told a local newspaper, and neither were able to offer an explanation as to what was happening to the child. It was determined that the best course of action would be to have an exorcism performed.

Eventually, Roman Catholic priests would be called in after the Lutheran Exorcism Rite failed to produce any positive results. By the end of it all, exorcisms were performed on the child over 30 times. Various “demonic” manifestations were said to accompany these exorcisms, all of which are recorded in a diary which was kept by the lead priest in the ritual, Father William S. Bowdern. Some of these include objects flying around the room, the bed shaking and lifting off of the floor, and the child making strange sounds with his voice. During the final exorcism, it was reported that the words “evil” and “hell” actually manifested themselves on the childs body. There is a happy ending to this tale, unlike in Michel’s case. After what would be the final exorcism, no more paranormal activity was reported by either the child or his family. Roland had been cured of whatever had been afflicting him. Once again, our unnamed blogger has written up an excellent post about this case as well. I recommend you read The Entire Case History of Robbie Mannheim.

Anna Ecklund


This case takes us back in time a little to the early part of the 20th century. Born in 1882 in the Midwestern United States, Ecklund was (as our pattern suggests) raised as a devout Catholic. Around the age of 12 she began to display the signs of “possession”, which included the usual aversion to religious icons. It also included what’s referred to as “disturbing thoughts about sexual acts”, which seems fairly normal to me for a teenager but I digress. It’s reported that Ecklund had her first exorcism about this time which was performed by Father Theophilus Riesinger. This exorcism was supposed to have been quite effective. However, around the age of 14, Ecklund was “cursed” by her Father ( an account of which I can’t find, but I can’t imagine what the circumstances were behind this event or what it would have done to her mental state). Because of this curse, Ecklund is supposed to have been possessed by a multitude of demons, chief among them Beelzebub.

Rosemary Ellen Guiley tells of this story in her book, The Encyclopedia of Demons & Demonology. It wasn’t until 1928 that Ecklund would be exorcised a final, and apparently successful, time. Why it took until she was 46 before an exorcism was again performed is a mystery to me. During the exorcism many strange feats were supposed to have manifested themselves. Ecklund was said to have levitated and stuck to the wall above the door, at other times her body would become as heavy as lead threatening to break the bed she was in, and she was said to have been able to expose the sins of those who were present around her.  After many long days and nights, Father Theophilus Riesinger was able to free Ecklund from her demonic possession. If you wish to read more on this case I suggest reading Martha Decker’s write up about the case.

Final thoughts

The above cases are interesting food for thought. They represent only a tiny handful of the countless tales of demonic possession, not only throughout time, but even into the 21st century. Only just a few months ago a huge story of alleged demonic possession was reported by the news of a family in Indiana. I still don’t know what to make of these cases. On the one hand, the ages of some of the victims and the attendant phenomenon sound strikingly like poltergeist activity. That’s not to say that the “demons” could not be manifesting this as a form of trickery or deceit, but it’s an interesting parallel to note.  Also, some of the less paranormal aspects of these cases sound a lot like mental illness. Again, I can’t say that the “demonic” influence manifests itself in ways which are similar to mental pathology, but it’s hard to rule out that the person’s may not simply be suffering from mental illnesses. Finally we have the fact that, at least in the cases I cited above, there is a history of devout religious beliefs. Could this be influencing or coloring these events? I’m inclined to suspect that it probably is. I’m extremely interested in hearing what you all think about these cases and demon possession in general. Hit me up in the comments section or drop me an email and let me know your thoughts.


Red Pill Junkie said...

Hey Tony! Nice to see you're back at the Fortean saddle :P

Unlike you, my parents raised me as a devout Catholic. I attended Catholic schools all my life --even when I went to college!-- and I even admit that, for a short amount of time, I considered the possibility of taking the vows & join some order.

My choice would've been the Jesuits, because --also unlike you-- I was deeply impressed by both the movie The Exorcist & the book it was inspired in. I think I've read the book at least 4 times, and the parts when father Karras is conversing with the 'devil' inside 'Regan' are particularly interesting to me. Also, in the book it's shown how there seemed to be more than one entities taking control of Regan, including the man she threw out of her window; something father Merrin dismisses by explaining to Karras there is only one entity, and the other 'personalities' are just tools for psychological attack.

Which brings me to one idea I've been considering lately, specially after listening to Dr. Christopher Ryan discusses the particulars of what is currently known as 'multiple personality disorder' (MPD), as in this episode of his podcast with Conner Habib. Ryan explains how in some cases of MPD the 'foreign' personality doesn't need prescription eyeglasses, even though the 'normal' personality can't see without them! So how can you explain these physiological changes as just a psychological disorder??

So going by that logic, perhaps what we call demonic possession could be seen as an extreme case of MPD; one in which the 'evil personality' is capable not only of great physiological feats like increase strength & the capacity to contort their body, but ALSO abilities that would fall into the ESP realm, like the ability to speak other languages, precognition, materialization of foreign objects that are later regurgitated, etc.

Or, maybe the victim is really possessed by an outside agency, but one that is just exploiting the person's cultural baggage & sociological circumstances in order to manifest itself. So if the victim was raised as a Catholic, then the negative agency claims to be Lucifer himself!

You don't have to believe the words of a douchebag, just because it doesn't happen to have a physical body ;)



Tony Morrill said...

Hey RPJ!

Thank you for the warm welcome back, it had been a while since I'd done this whole blogging thing.

On to your point about MPD or Dissociative Identity Disorder, this idea totally resonates with me as a possible explanation for what may be occurring in some (or maybe most) of these kinds of accounts. It definitely falls within the lines of my psychology classes, but as a Fortean I can't completely agree with scientific understanding as it doesn't always cover every potentiality as it purports to do.

So about your second idea that the persons could actually be hostage to an outside force, this too makes sense to me as a potentiality for these experiences. After all, the idea that negative outside intelligences exist and seek to better themselves at the expense of humans (or maybe they're just being dicks and "trolling" us) makes sense to me.

As is my usual stance, I'm somewhere in the middle as to what is behind these experiences. And for what it's worth, I'm planning on making my way through The Exorcist this weekend :)

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