• A Brief History of Exorcisms; Or, Why Demons aren’t actually Out to Get You

    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.


    A Brief History of Exorcisms; Or, Why Demons aren’t actually Out to Get You by Amanda Beck

    It has been believed for thousands of years that evil exists in our world. Whether it’s Hell, demons, ghosts, ghouls, or multiple other baddies, there has always been this idea that a more sinister world secretly lay hidden, mingling with our own, working it’s magic to tempt us into wrong-doing. As far back as we can tell, people have blamed their bad behavior on influences of evil and the like. This skewed perspective sparked a curiosity as to where this belief originated, and why it is still so prevalent today. Some of the findings may just surprise you.

    As it turns out, demonic possession and its comrade-in-harm exorcism have no scientifically based evidence to support claims of their existence, and are therefore considered pseudoscience. So if there is no scientific evidence to support claims of demonic possession, why the heck do people still believe this stuff? Well, it’s not just a small number of people – a staggering 41% of people in the US believe in demonic possession! This number is a main reason I have set forth to help educate the people on this common pseudoscience. In order to understand the “why” of this belief, we must first get a little bit of history.

    AnzuWritten depictions of demonic possession date back thousands of years, beginning with the Sumerians, who thought that “sickness demons” were the cause of all diseases in mind and body. Due to their limited knowledge of illness and the human body, ailments such as infection or schizophrenia had no explanation. So, like many people of that time did, they turned to religion for answers. Their belief dictated that god brought the things that were good, so it only made sense that something evil (or the opposite of god) brought the things that were bad.  The Sumerian cures for such possessions were some of the first known exorcisms given by priests (called sorcerers) who applied bandages and salves. This gave little aid to those who were suffering real ailments, yet the belief of demonic intervention was still the primary explanation. Even as far back as 3500BC, religious priests have been performing exorcisms on members of their congregation and communities using things such as religious chanting, holy reading, and prayers to combat the evil spirits. Many of these rituals included attempts to get the spirit or entity to leave by taking a religious oath, priests commanding the spirit to leave in the name of a higher power, and even splashes of holy water to expel the demon. Different religions however have varying methods and techniques to rid a body of a demon.

    The Ancient Egyptians also believed in entities such as demons, though they were not labeled as such. These cruel or hostile entities played an important part in Egyptian culture and are evident in both archeological remains as well as text. The Egyptians even had different categories or types of demons that would possess and cause different ailments the way different spider bites would cause different reactions. Spells, prescriptions, and apotropaic devices further indicate how prevalent these “demons” were in ancient Egypt.

    The ancient Greeks had groups such as the cult of Dionysus who “voluntarily induced” possession by the gods through excess wine and sexual rites which lead to madness. This ritual became so widespread in Greece that the ancient Romans actually banned the practice due to excesses. Priestesses were most commonly the ancient Greek’s method of other worldly contact and were often used as mediums for the Greek gods.

    It was the Romans who were actually among the first to  separate mental illness and other ailments to factors outside of possession. Hippocrates first proposed that madness was due to an imbalance of four bodily humors. This would imply that depression, for example, was a result of excess black bile which could be cured with specific diets, purgatives, and even blood-letting. Taking a note from Hippocrates, the Roman physician Asclepiades as well as philosopher Cicero asserted that things such as depression did not originate with ailments such as excess black bile as Hippocrates’ had believed, but rather from emotions (rage, fear, grief, etc.). Around the time of Jesus, however, Asclepiades’ influence declined and a more influential physician, Celsus, once again stated the idea that madness was a godly punishment and not simply an ailment of the body.

    Then, let’s fast-forward a few hundred years to the rise of Christianity. In the typical Christian Bible, the book talks about the existence of demons as well as demonic possession as a means of finding a bodily resting place for lost spirits (such as in Matthew 12:43, 45, and Luke 11:24-26). Jesus himself was even depicted as expelling such demons and it was accepted by many religious practices as a supernatural explanation for various displeasing behaviors. The church was able to use this belief to control the congregation with threats of damnation if certain behaviors were not met or followed. These beliefs were wide-spread, reaching across many countries, and influencing such things as religious wars and political conflicts. During the Salem Witch Trials, for example, individuals who presented with different kinds of mental problems were labeled as witches or considered to be demonically possessed, and were sometimes killed for their “treason” against God.

    Unfortunately, literature supports that these people were not witches or possessed, but rather they were mentally ill or ostracized for unique personal characteristics (such as disabilities or socially unacceptable practices such as premarital sex). It has also been alluded to that in the past people have actually faked the symptoms of demonic possession. The reasons for this can vary greatly, but some include attention seeking, as a form of malingering, and sometimes even as a manipulation of others.

    Mental illness was commonly misunderstood for many centuries and people would often look to religion for an explanation. This led some families to explain away things like mental illnesses as simple demonic possession that could quickly be reversed with a priest-led exorcism. Unfortunately, the symptoms of the underlying mental illness were often still present after the exorcism, so it was common for someone to have multiple exorcisms.

    Annelise Michel
    Annelise Michel

    The belief of demonic possession and exorcism is not simply ignorant of modern science, it is also dangerous. For example, a man hogtied and shot his brother to death in 2010, claiming that demons made him do it. Exorcisms have also been proven dangerous as with the case of Anneliese Michel, who was exorcised 67 times until she finally died at the age of 23. These stories are less common of course, but the fact of the matter is this belief prevents individuals who are really suffering from mental or physical illness from receiving the treatment they need. Naturally, Hollywood likes to capitalize on such stories by creating memorable horror films such as The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which some believe was based on the Anneliese Michel story). These stories, while meant for entertainment purposes, often fuel the pseudoscientific belief of demonic possession and exorcism.

    The supposed symptoms of demonic possession are more often than not symptoms of an underlying mental illness such as schizophrenia or other forms of mania, as well as substance abuse or mood altering illnesses. It is the tendency of humans to try to explain that which cannot be explained, however, and sometimes the easiest answer (a magical demon entering a person and causing them to act a certain way) is not always the right answer (a treatable mental illness that is simply misunderstood).

    While science is discovering more about the human brain as well as the mental illnesses that inflict it, there are still those who are critical of science as a whole. The issue with demonic possession is not the inability of science to disprove it, but rather the inability on the part of the individuals with such claims to prove it. Science cannot disprove what does not exist, but many supporters of the idea of demonic possession use that inability to disprove as proof of existence. This skewed logic further propels misconceptions like demonic possession and slows scientific research. History as well as science has shown no evidence to support the existence of demonic possession, or the effectiveness of exorcism as a treatment.

    Category: FeaturedMental HealthPseudoscienceReligionTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com
    • CRTorres

      Very informative post. I like how you spoke on Egyptian placing illness on demons. I also like how you spoke on witches. These are the foundations of our society. It is based upon fear. I believe that is what drives us all, keeps us from taking what we want, and killing. I do have a tendency to lean more on the realization that it is possible that religion was set in place to “keep peace through out the land”. I love how you mentioned that mental illness has been mislabeled (for years) as demonic possession. I believe that this technique is hurting individuals with “make-believe and magic”. There are many people how have died from “the works of the devil”. I think this can be label as the “misrepresenting the works of God”, as well. Good job.


    • jordannpyle

      As I was reading your post, I was hoping you would bring up the case of Annelise Michel. I think the terrible way her situation was handled floored the exorcism movement in the past few decades. Hollywood seemed to glamorize it in a demented way and I think that’s why we’re seeing up to 41% of people believing in possession and demons. The media gets their claws into things such as this and people just run with it. I understand how people would believe in this stuff back in the old ages but it’s 2014 and we have proof that the majority of this stems from mental illnesses that have gone untreated. I loved how you laid out the misconceptions and brought light to the history of exorcisms and demons. Awesome post!

      • SStice28

        You are correct, Jordan. Michel suffered from psychological ailments that needed proper treatment. The consensus is that she suffered from epilepsy, depression, and possibly schizophrenia, which we know are very debilitating psychological disorders. It is even more unfortunate because so many people, like Michel, have died tragically due to this “treatment.”

      • Kels

        Jordan, I was thinking the same thing. The poll it was taken from was from 2001. I wonder if today those numbers would be lower because, while there has been more Hollywood glamorization of exorcisms, there has also been a push towards bringing mental health into the public’s view.

    • Kiersten Durning

      Great history summarization! I mentioned in another post how
      it would be impossible for me to imagine a criminal investigation not being pursued
      if someone just randomly showed up with a corpse and claimed they died during
      an exorcism, even with the backing support of the church. Additionally, I like
      how you stated that some individuals would “fake” possession since humans tend
      to be attention seekers, even if that attention maybe negative. It is hard to
      believe that some individuals would actually want to appear ill, especially
      since many of the practices to “cleanse” the individual of their demons is
      often so dangerous and life threatening.

    • J. Kyle Haws

      I really like what @CRTorres:disqus said about how the beliefs in demons are based on fear. The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. Most people are ignorant about the current wealth of scientific knowledge, especially those that dispel archaic knowledge. Honestly, I grew up believing in demonic possessions because of anecdotal stories from family members. Most of the stories they shared involved individuals engaging in delinquent behavior, possibly to scare me into righteous behavior.
      Reading this post on exorcism really made me regret the topic I chose. I think it would have been fun to do this same project on this topic but also look at the ouija board and incorporate that in the pseudoscience fair. It would have made for an interesting couple hours.

    • kellyjent

      I like how you pointed out the issue of individuals who claim something needing to prove it rather than science attempting to disprove it. I think this is a very important point that a lot of people fail to recognize (or just blatantly ignore). Also, it’s a shame that when science does offer alternative explanations (in this case mental illness) they’re not always received or respected even after the demand of “disproving” the claim. Like you mentioned, people like to have explanations for what is happening, and when science doesn’t fit their perception and current belief, it is dismissed.

      • Amanda Beck

        Kelly, the psychology behind people needing explanations for what is happening is one of the most fascinating aspects of this research. It’s interesting to see how ready and willing people are to accept that which has no evidence, and yet still be critical of that which has a multitude of evidence (read: science). It shows humanistic faults of objective thinking and how we really can’t trust our own assumptions. It makes me thankful we have science and objective steps for testing hypotheses as with many tested hypotheses the results are not always what we anticipate.

    • OklahomaTrey

      “Ever since object permanence, humans were doomed to be haunted by ghosts and gods (Rupp, 2008).” I think there is a lot of behavioral understanding that can taken finding a more scientific thinking in how the brain and body can influences and facilitation of demonic possessive behaviors. The post written is a unique and enlightened perspective on demonic possessions when a scientific approach to mental and cultural influences are taken into account. I think one extension from this could be looking at monetary and social implications people have in the exorcist field.

    • Skeptics say that the spiritual world does not exist and yet most of the people in the world think that it does exist. I think for the skeptics to make this claim they must follow the rule: EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS REQUIRE EXTRAORDINARY PROOF-

      • Brian, what that means is that the person making the claims needs to be able to provide replicable, empirical evidence of that they believe. The onus of proof is on them.

      • I realize that I have nine years of higher education in mathematics and engineering

    • Yes, exactly. Skeptics must prove that the non-organic entities do not exist. Most people’s experience is the opposite. Most of psychology is not replicatable. Last year a comprehensive review of psychological experiments demonstrated that less than 40% of experiments could be repeated. In other words psychology is in a complete state of disarray with no one really knows what is going on. Freudian psychology has been labeled pseudoscience and Jungian is about the same. As a result we can’t use any psychological models to say what is going on.

      • Brian, most people’s experience is that the sun moves across the sky from the east to the west. In reality, it’s the Earth that turns and orbits, while the sun is stationary. This is called naive realism (seeing is believing). So, I’m afraid the burden of proof is still on you and others who believe that the supernatural exists, because just because many people believe in something is no evidence of it’s validity. Instead, there needs to be independent, replicable, empirical verification of any claim.

        Your segue into discussing psychology is interesting. Saying that the field is in “a complete state of disarray” is laughable. Science does what science has always done: continue to improve upon what we know, but via new research and via replications to help support or improve upon past research. I’d recommend these two articles to get some insight into the matter:

        Schmidt & Oh – http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/arc/4/1/32.pdf&productCode=pa
        Laws – https://bmcpsychology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40359-016-0135-2

        And no scientific psychologists are either Freudian or Jungian. That’s a ridiculous statement and shows a complete lack of knowledge about the field in the 21st century.

        • I am not sure where you are getting your information, but I would suggest that you read the Nature paper on the lack of replication of psychological experiments. You obviously don’t know the history of pseudoscience. The term pseudoscience was coined to describe Freudian psychology. I a discipline can only replicate 40% of it;s findings and in the Nature paper it says that that may be actually optimistic, then it is not really a science. If a science cannot be relied upon for it’s findings then it cannot be truly called a science, rather it is more of a field of study. I studied psychology in college, in my early days, so it is not like I don’t know what I am talking about.