• Exorcisms versus Psychotherapy

    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

    exorpoll2The 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.

    Category: HealthMental 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

      I really like how you listed out the well-known movies that popularized exorcism. I also like how you went into details on how exorcisms. I was unaware how the training for this was done and now I am aware, I feel that the priest/ individuals who preform these acts of greatness are no better then the “snake oil” salesman from the past. You did a great job at using words to help your reader visually imagine the priest and the setting. I loved your sarcasm. I wish that more people could see that “demonic possession” is a mental problem that could be fixed with medication or psychological treatment. I also feel that more people need to be aware of how dangerous an exorcism can be. Great Post.




      • Lauren Gaudreau

        CRTorres, This is an eye-opening video. I especially like the part where they assume the only solution to seizures at night is sending someone to a psychiatric hospital where they shoved psychotropic drugs down her throat. Not to mention, I’m sure the drugs that were administered couldn’t have been that well studied at the time. Depression was sure to set in. This is in many ways similar to the way our population reacts to pseudoscientific drugs that are available- with no prior research. You would think that after many months of trying the same things, someone would have thought to modify their attempts.
        I’m so glad we now have forensic evidence to alleviate at least some of the BS in cases like this. Unfortunately, many of those cases are concluded after a tragedy has occurred.

    • Kaitie McElroy

      I was unaware of how dangerous exorcisms could be not only because they can keep people from getting the actual scientifically proven treatment they need in the case of mental disorders but because they can also be violent.
      Recently the daily show did a segment on virtual exorcisms and how some people were turning to priest to esssential do a Skype exorcism and were paying upwards of hundreds of dollars per exorcism. This practice preys on peoples beliefs to make a profit while keeping people in the dark about what their demonic symptoms could actually mean such as mental health or tumors, seizures etc…

    • CatherineD

      I’m glad you touched on the fact that priests don’t really get formal training on exorcisms, because that is something I have wondered before. It’s incredible that the symptoms of being “posessed” are the same symptoms you see with several mental illnesses, yet their first reaction is to perform an exorcism, rather than see a doctor! This should really be a wake up call that the public needs to be informed on what mental illnesses can look like! Great post!

      • SStice28

        Technically, the Roman Catholic Church has guidelines pertaining to investigating suspected possession. They are supposed to have the possibly “possessed” person see a doctor/psychiatrist and have those ailments ruled our before seeing a priest, but it still happens.

    • J. Kyle Haws

      I once asked a religious leader, “why there are not as many possessions today when compared to the biblical narrative?” The religious leader said it was because the devil no longer possess people because those who come in contact with the possessed become more holy. His reasoning was that when individuals are confronted with evil they combat through prayer. He didn’t think it was because we are better at recognizing and psychopathology.
      I really enjoyed your post and I think it is fascinating that most scary movies involve demons and evil spirits. These movies used to scare me the most because alarms, guns, knifes, and other weapons of defense are useless against demons.

    • Kiersten Durning

      It is hard to believe that in modern times death can occur from an “exorcism”. My question is how does the law handle the situation after the fact. Surely an investigation would be pursued if someone appeared with “exorcism” as their cause of death. Especially if there was lack of documentation and it was in the individual’s home. Is society supposed to take the priest’s word that there were spiritual illness over other alternatives? Would they then be charged of the individual true did need medical attention and was not given it? I know it’s a fine line between church and state but at what point is it crossed?

      • SStice28

        It usually boils down to involuntary manslaughter.

        • Kiersten Durning

          Which I consider to be complete BS. That’s what, maybe 2 years tops for punishment? They could have just as easily attempted their “exorcism” in a facility providing the physical necessities and restraints needed to technically keep the person alive. Only then should they have exorcism. I could be wrong but I don’t believe there is a place in holy scripture specifically saying they could not be I’m a fine medical faculty. Perhaps they had to be on holy ground? Or no other substance is allowed in/on the possessed individual? Knowing what we do today church leaders should look at the science without getting their feelings hurt about their beliefs. There are plenty of other things the bible says that they no longer follow word per diem.

          • SStice28

            People have actually died because they were restrained and deprived of food and water for days. It’s interesting to note that even parents have been sent to prison for the same thing – negligent manslaughter, which is really just negligent homicide. There was a case of it not too long ago, although it applied to faith healing… which to me is pretty similar to exorcism.
            You can read the case here: http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2014/11/albany_parents_convicted_of_ma.html

    • jordannpyle

      I would be very interested to see if the primary believers in demonic possession are from the Catholic church or if all types of Christianity are high believers in exorcisms. I know that there are those who are not Catholic who preform exorcisms and I are curious how that become integrated into those forms of Christianity since it seems that this mostly derived from the Catholic Church. Or is it possible that other christian churches become more involved due to all the media that surrounds demonic possession? Very interesting information overall, good job!

      • SStice28

        I was trying to find statistics relating to your question, but I came up empty. I think a Gallup poll would be useful,

    • Kels

      I found it very interesting how people with psychiatric problems were more susceptible to believing in these types of things. When I was younger my mom was an alcoholic (she has since been sober for 7 years) and we lived in this house that she always swore was haunted but it only “did anything” when she was mad. She went so far as to have it blessed by a Catholic priest. I guess I never thought about it long enough to think had to do more with her mental state. Very interesting!

      • CodyB

        It’s unfortunate (although somewhat understandable) that people are so willing to accept the supernatural as an explanation for these possessions and apparitions all while ignoring the potentially serious mental illnesses that may be present. It is hard to accept that people are living with the fear and shame of “demonic possession” knowing that their condition may be improvable with the help of a good psychologist.

    • CodyB

      I have always had issue with religious organizations wielding their authority with seemingly little attention to the potential side effects of such actions. People have such a predisposition to take the word of a priest or person of the church as the gospel (forgive my wording) that they tend to ignore more likely causes or treatments for the things that they are experiencing.
      I work with a girl who says that she sees ghosts and demons on a fairly regular basis, and it is no coincidence that she was brought up in an extremely religious household. Things that most of us would attribute to tricks of light and shadows, the house settling, and so on, she attributes to a spirit world purely based on the religious principles she was taught growing up.

      • Amanda Beck

        Running with this thought, Cody, I’d like to also point out that not only are individuals taking advice from churches with no medical training, but they are also using techniques that have never been scientifically tested. These things are major issues when it comes to the mental health of the individual being exorcised, as they are not getting real treatment for a very real (and sometimes quite serious) problem. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d rather take the opinion of a person who’s gone through extensive medical training than from someone who’s simply going to squirt water on my face and all it a cure.

        • SStice28

          Fantastic points, Amanda. I think it would be interesting if studies were done to show the long-term effects of exorcisms on people’s self-esteem and identity. I can imagine this kind of “procedure” would leave people feeling less than human – no pun intended.

    • Kylerdean

      Demonic possession is something that one believes in or one does not, there is no in-between. With that said if one has exhausted all avenues of treatment and clearly there does not seem to be improvement and one ‘believes” in this type of possession, I do not see the harm in them reaching out to their parish for help. Exorcisms can only be performed if requested. A doctor can say you are delusional or a priest can say your possessed, it’s one’s choice in venue. It’s argued that there is not evidence or tangible proof of possession whereas there is with other disorders such as bi-polar, borderline, and schizophrenia. Interesting post!

    • ke Liu

      I have seen a movie called “The Conjuring”,it’s a story about the process of exorcism and it claims the movie is based on a true story. It’s an impression horror movie, by the way. But It’s very interesting that why the devil always choose the person who believe the devil is real or people with some psychiatric problem. There is even an proverb in China called”There is an devil if you believe in, and there is not if you don’t believe.” What a ridiculous sentence!

      • SStice28

        I actually considered using that movie as inspiration for the activity portion of our exorcism booth. The movie, to me, was a prime example of everything wrong with how the media and society handles exorcisms, and what is actually entailed when they are performed.

    • Christina Smith

      I feel very sad for Anneliese Michel who had to pass away after 67 exorcisms because nobody thought that her behavior might be due to something else. It’s a sad reality that 42% of people believe in demonic possession because that is a significant enough number that someone else might be subjected to the same sad fate. This was a very good read!

    • Scott Sims

      Something we found from our booth is that people who report being abducted by aliens often have fantastical thinking patterns like those you would see in certain psychiatric disorders. Take those thought patterns and combine them with a strict religious upbringing, and I can see how so many people could buy into this. It’s unfortunate that mental illness is taken less seriously than demon possession, though.

    • OklahomaTrey

      I found this to be very informative and the differences between lucid dreaming and dream control. Personally, I did not know there was a difference between the two. Personally, I never quite remember most of my dreams, but I do have some ones that are great and I have been aware they were a dream, but it is usually just me going with the flow and enjoy the adventure. What I find interesting is the research examine this and see what extent it is true and the advantages/disadvantages.

    • Carrie Tubbs

      I think that it’s amazing that there is a link between psychiatric issues and belief in exorcisms. Our society has become so focused on social media, that when these films are released, people think that they are real. On that note, it’s not surprising that 42% of people believe in these types of things. It also makes sense that 70% believe in the devil. Our nation used to be so focused into religion, so subjects about the devil were most definitely thought of to be real.