This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Exorcisms versus Psychotherapy by Sarah Stice
The belief in exorcisms and demonic possessions has been an integral part of our society and the world for centuries. Today, it is evident that our world’s fascination with these subjects has not lost steam. Many of the horror movies that have been released for the last decade have centered on demonic possession. Just think about it! We have had The Rite, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside, The Unborn, The Omen, The Possession, Paranormal Activity, and the list just goes on. Seriously, enough with the demons, and let’s get back to good old-fashioned hack and slash (props to Freddy and Jason).Anyways, with this increase in horror films centered on demons, there are questions that plague skeptics and psychologists. Why is the public drawn to this kind of subject matter? Why do some people believe that demonic possessions are real? Better yet, why do some people seek out individuals that specialize in exorcising said demons?
First off, it may be good to examine the exorcism practitioners’ training. Catholic exorcists typically are not specially trained while they attend seminary school. They are usually educated about the devil, manifestations of evil, and evil’s consequences, but most of their exorcism training comes from their experience as priests. They can also learn the prayers and steps of exorcisms from the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism document. There are also exorcism organizations (e.g., International Association of Exorcists) that print newsletters where exorcists can communicate and pass along their “tricks of the trade.” Otherwise, this is as much educational training as appointed exorcists get, and it is severely lacking compared to the amount of training psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, physicians, and counseling psychologists receive.
Now, it is time to move onto what exactly is involved in an exorcism (personally, I would be terrified if I were you). An exorcism usually involves a priest dressed in a surplice and a purple stole (the usual white gown and purple shawl). The priest recites prayers during the ritual, which can be broken down into formulas. The first formula is termed the “imploring formula,” which involves the priest asking God to free the person from suffering, or in this case demon(s). The second formula is termed the “imperative formula,” which is when the priest orders the demon(s) to leave the person’s body, and return from where it came from. See, I told you exorcisms were terrifying… terrifyingly simple! Moving on, the person who has received the exorcism usually reports feeling better, although most do not have any significant psychological improvement. This typical response should sound familiar because it is none other than the placebo effect, and it is no wonder why scientists have had difficulty tracking the effectiveness of exorcisms.
Exorcisms, or the belief in their efficacy, are not well acknowledged or supported in the realm of psychotherapy. The general consensus among the psychology community is that exorcisms are filled with autosuggestion, misdiagnosis, and manipulation (Wilkinson, 2007). Essentially, people who suffer from mental illness may be more easy to manipulate and more sensitive to the power of suggestion than other groups. Other factors supported by psychologists and physicians include hysteria and unconscious role-playing (Wilkinson, 2007). Also, people with schizophrenia and anxiety disorders are more susceptible to seeking out priests for “treatment,” rather than seeing a medical doctor or psychiatrist (Pfeifer, 1994). An even bigger component to this is the possessed person’s belief in exorcism effectiveness. The stronger the belief in exorcism effectiveness, the more likely the person will report it worked (Pfeifer, 1994).There is the placebo effect again! No wonder so many people who strongly subscribe to these beliefs request exorcisms instead of psychotherapy.
Sadly, there have not been many, if any, studies done concerning the effectiveness of exorcisms versus psychotherapy. One sociologist, Michael Cuneo, observed over 50 exorcisms, and stated that he saw no demon(s) that could be visibly identified via exorcism. Cuneo (2001) also concluded that most of the people who reported that the exorcism worked for them had symptoms that could be easily explained in psychological, medical, cultural, and social terms. Incredibly, or not incredibly, most of the evidence that has shown support for exorcisms has come from anecdotes from people who supposedly witnessed an exorcism, or had the ritual performed on him or herself.
Amazingly, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, 42 percent of people in the United States that believe in demonic possession. They truly believe that the only way they can be “saved” from their so-called demon(s) is by having an exorcism performed. However, some of these believers display symptoms, or they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia (various types), bipolar I disorder, depression, possibly dissociative identity disorder, epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, alcoholism, and drug abuse – many of which are helped by evidence-based therapies and medications.
It is even more upsetting that the symptoms displayed by these individuals match the criteria for the Roman Catholic Church’s criteria for demonic possession. Case in point, some of the Church’s criteria include supernatural physical strength, speaking in tongues unfamiliar to the possessed person, evident negative responses to prayer, holy water, and priests. It is clear that it may be difficult for individuals that subscribe to these beliefs to understand the real cause of their suffering, and they may resort to possibly dangerous treatments to have their “demon(s)” removed. This is where things get a bit more dicey.
Thankfully, the Roman Catholic Church has become more vigilant, and has passed numerous new guidelines about performing exorcisms, but these measures cannot erase the harm exorcisms have done. For instance, a 23-year-old woman, Anneliese Michel, died after receiving 67 exorcisms in a year. Her death was unfortunate because she suffered from psychiatric illnesses (e.g., depression, epileptic seizures, hallucinations) for seven years prior to receiving her first exorcism, and all of these events stemmed from her parents’s belief that she was possessed (on a side note, Michel’s story was the inspiration for the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose). There have been numerous other instances of exorcisms gone wrong including an incident in 1995 where Pentecostal ministers beat a woman to death, a woman was strangled to death by a church minister in New Zealand, and a case where two children were stabbed to death during an exorcism. Exorcisms do not seem so harmless now, do they? Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to stop these incidents from happening (even with the strict guidelines and education), and it is even more difficult since 70 percent of people in the United States believe in the devil. The only advice that this article can hopefully provide is to be careful about who you talk to concerning mental distress, and be vigilant about the placebo effect.