Exorcism is bound to conjure up scary images of a teenage
girl's head spinning around on her shoulders at 360 degrees, her convulsing
body, contorted face, a guttural demonic voice mouthing curses and
obscenities at a battered priest —The Exorcist, who struggles against
the devil to redeem the girl's body and soul.
Exorcism or the ritualistic act of driving out evil spirits is a special type of faith healing. The word exorcism is derived from the Latin word exorcismus. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines exorcism as "the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice." Signs of possession are believed to include speaking or understanding languages unknown to the victim, intense hatred of 'holy things', display of incredible physical strengh, levitation and inexplicable wounds or lesions on the body. Irrespective of where in the world this ritual is done, the scene involves the exorcist, the victim and a supporting community.
Religion and Exorcism
The Vedic religions speak of an evil spirit that can harm human beings and even obstruct God's will. In a traditional Hindu exorcism the exorcist chants mantras, holds a bunch of neem leaves, blows sacred ash on the possessed person and the spirit is either appeased with choicest food items or whip lashed out of the victim.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The movie Exorcism of Emily Rose examines a 1976 real life exorcism conducted in Germany. It generated great interest because the priest who performed the ritual and the parents of the victim were convicted by the Court for decreeing the teenager possessed, and denying medical treatment for what may have been a mental illness.
The Roman Catholic Church currently uses the New rite for exorcism— the official document detailing the prayers and steps of an exorcism, only as a last resort, with a psychiatrist or a medical practitioner in attendance during the ritual. While introducing the New Rites for Exorcisms to the press in 1999, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez said, "Exorcism is one thing, and psychoanalysis is another. If the exorcist has any doubt about the mental health of the possessed, he should consult an expert ... It often happens that simple people confuse somatic problems with diabolical influence, but not everything can be attributed to the devil."
Where Spirituality and Psychiatry Overlap
Several studies conducted by the Division of Adult Psychiatry, University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland have shown that Religion, described as "spirituality and religiousness" was central in the lives of many people suffering from schizophrenia.
Medical experts realize that Religion, involving a subjective dimension and a collective dimension is a multifaceted construct and insist on the need to address spirituality in patient care in order to help reduce pathology, enhance coping and to facilitate recovery. In many patients' life stories, religion plays a central role in the processes of reconstructing a sense of self and recovery. Psychiatrists are agreed on the fact that just as religion has become part of the problem, it can also become part of the cure.
The Exorcism Controversy
The controversy surrounding exorcism arises from two contexts. One relates to the advance in medical science and the advent of psychiatry in 1800s that questioned the rationale of attributing a patient's disturbed condition to an unseen evil. The second is the moneymaking "exorcism ministries" like the Bob Larson ministries that televise their show of mass exorcisms. Mercy Ministries charging carers' payment in Sydney, Australia, came under fire recently when young women in their care who had bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and anorexia were told they were possessed by Satan and rendered broken and suicidal.
The Internet and Media advertisements project Exorcists with 30 years experience and over 35,000 successfully performed exorcisms. It is quite natural for people to suspect an ulterior motive when profit is mixed with the paranormal.
Exorcism vs Psychiatry
Medical experts criticize the manner in which people still attribute a host of neuro-psychiatric disorders such as dissociative states, psychoses, schizophrenia and epilepsy to demonic possession. Several studies conducted all over the world revealed that psychotic illness was given a metaphysical orientation among the ignorant and the less educated. The patient's delusional thinking was seen to be influenced by the family's magico-religious beliefs and attitudes. In a sample of 80 mothers of psychotic patients from southwestern Greece, 85% attributed their children's illness to supernatural causes, and entertained strong metaphysical beliefs about the cause of psychotic illness.
The immediate family of the patient usually resorts to exorcism or combines exorcism with formal psychiatric help, to bring the patient back to normal. Modern psychiatric practice believes that awareness of lay beliefs about psychosis and the proper handling of such beliefs by the treating psychiatrist may facilitate cooperation with the patient and his or her family, increasing the prospect of a more favorable outcome.
Medical Answers to Demonic Possession Symptoms: Epilepsy
Derived from the Greek word epilambanein meaning to be seized or overwhelmed by surprise, epilepsy is a common, but serious brain disorder that affects at least 50 million people worldwide across geographical, racial or social boundaries. Epilepsy has a long history of being misunderstood as an invasion and possession of the body by super natural force, usually evil in nature, requiring exorcism, incantations or similar religious rituals. Faulty procedures in curing and controlling the condition and myths about epilepsy ostracizing the sufferers often result in their death.
Sri Lanka has adopted an innovative approach to remove the superstition and stigma attached to epilepsy by correcting inadequate diagnostic and treatment facilities, especially in rural areas. The Epilepsy Task Force in Sri Lanka (ETF), a large multidisciplinary team consisting of neurologists, pediatricians, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, psychiatrists, medical officers, occupational therapists and social workers, was initiated to remove the superstition associated with the disease and address the real problems of people affected by the condition.
Diagnostic tests such as electroencephalograph (EEG) and brain scans were performed on people with epileptic symptoms and the supporting community made aware of the scientific truths of the condition. Even patients in remote villages were exposed to imaging methods such as CT (computerized topography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans that were used to search for any growths, scars, or other physical conditions in the brain that may be causing the seizures. A follow up study has shown that modern antiepileptic medications to control seizures are slowly replacing rituals of exorcism in many remote places in Sri Lanka.
Voice Hearing - Medical experts who have reviewed information on voice hearing from multiple disciplines and perspectives observe that voice hearing could be the result of drug side effects, brain lesions and other down-to-earth causes. Researchers have offered a wide range of assessment, intervention, strategies for self-management and treatment options for clinicians that can help patients control the distressing condition of hearing voices, and reduce stigma and discrimination in society.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - Patients suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a chronic disorder that distresses patients with repeated obsessive thoughts, impulses or images - sometimes aggressive, criminal, sexually deviant or blasphemous in nature, were considered motivated by Satan and in need of exorcism to banish the "evil." Scientists studying obsessive-compulsive disorder have differing opinions over the cause of the illness. One group believes that OCD is a psychological disorder and the other thinks it has neurological origins. Majority of researchers are agreed that there is "some abnormality with the neurotransmitter serontin," besides other psychological or biological abnormalities.
Tourette's Syndrome - Tourette's syndrome explains an inherited neuropsychiatric disorder that was once considered a rare and bizarre condition. When the patient probably manifested symptoms of coprolalia, or the exclamation of obscene or socially indecent and derogatory remarks, the surrounding community thought it was a haunting prompted by the Devil.
Schizophrenia and Narcissism - Schizophrenia is a mental illness that leads to auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and even violent behavior at times and is mistaken for diabolic possession in cultures where education and awareness are minimal. People with low self-esteem and narcissistic tendencies are known to act out the role of "possessed person" in order to gain attention. Interestingly, researchers studying rituals of exorcism in rural and suburban parts of India have observed that it is most often women who are possessed and make huge demands on the community that fearfully appeases the deity or demon, fearing serious repercussions for the community.
Recorded Real-life Exorcism
Recording real-life exorcisms in his book American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, Michael Cuneo, Professor at Fordham University mentions an official church-sanctioned exorcism that he watched. It involved a man (the possessed) who was a heavy drinker, had sex with whoever, whenever, was generally depressed and had recently begun to hear voices, see things and feel an "unbearable pressure" on his body at night. With the sanction of a psychiatrist an exorcism was arranged. Without much of the drama that is seen in movies, the priest prayed over the man in the basement of a building, sprinkled holy water made the sign of the cross and exhorted the devil to leave the man in peace. Professor Cuneo writes, "Warren said, he felt peaceful, but was also a bit confused. He thought he felt something leaving him during the exorcism, but he wasn't sure." There may be those who believe in exorcism and those who don't. But the professor wonders that if the patient felt better after the exorcism and no one was hurt in the process why object to it.
Explaining Exorcism in the Modern Context
The winter 2004 issue of the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal has reviewed a book How about demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern world by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman sketches similarities between multiple personality disorder and spirit possession. Drawing on her own experience and other researchers in countries such as Japan, Mexico and Brazil, she records that trance and spirit possessions thrive in religious congregations in traditional societies in developing as well as in industrialized nations.
The book explains exorcism at two levels—the psychological level that sees the body as a shell and a soul within that sees an "intrusive alien entity" overpowering the body on occasions. The nature, the identity of this entity and the mode of entry into the body are culturally and religiously structured. On the psychological level, the author explains the phenomenon as an altered state of conscious (ASC) and the emergence of a rearrangement or substitution of the brain map. The ritual of exorcism is seen by some as a bridge that connects the events happening at the psychological and physiological level that lead to an experience that is probably therapeutic in some cases, especially in the case of injurious possession.
Many researchers observe that the failure of modern western psychiatric and biomedical treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder is that it only tries to make the patient accept the condition and cope with it. The treatment does not deal with the upsetting conflicts caused by the affected person's powerful inner experiences, whereas cultures with rituals of exorcism provide patients with a means of controlling these powerful inner experiences. Brazilian spiritists operating on the lines of the Kardecian movements have successfully treated MPD phenomena as a form of involuntary possession or as the intrusion of a past-life personality.
Exorcism -Still an Enigma
Although Science continues to provide credible explanations for bizarre human behavior, the preference for exorcism has not diminished. One person may see possession and pull out his rite of exorcism while another may suspect mental illness and pull out an encyclopedia such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV) to come to a conclusive diagnosis . It is of course, important to raise the level of education and awareness among people to remove all superstitious associations from their minds. Concurrently it is important to note the fact that medical experts, demonologists and religious scholars are yet to arrive at a consensus where exorcism is concerned. \
The greatest mystery that is life still has huge gaps like the "possession" of spirits that cannot be unraveled by simple inference and deductive reasoning. Science cannot claim to have all the answers to the intricate workings of the human spirit, soul, mind and body..... yet.
Editors Comment- Medindia invites you to share your experience on the controversial subject of Exorcism by writing to us.