Demonic Possession - Fact or Fiction?
Humans have been fascinated by demonic possession since the beginning of time. It has been used to explain everything from babies conceived out of wedlock to mental illness and serial killers. But what is it really? Does demonic possession really happen? If so, is it like The Exorcist, where it's very obvious or could it be more subtle? Have we become too rational or too exposed to the Hollywood ideal in modern day society, to the point where we no longer even entertain the possibility that things beyond our understanding can exist? If we have, this is perhaps dangerous thinking. After all, it has been stated that the greatest trick the devil ever played on the world was convincing people that he didn't exist.
The Science-Based Case For Possession
Undoubtedly, many cases of supposed "possession" can be chalked up to mental illness, seizures or simple outright fakery. However, there are some situations that science simply cannot explain very well at all. Though there are many we could examine, for the sake of brevity we will look at two of the more blatant cases in recent history for this article. In order to be as fact-based as possible, we will only look at what facts are in evidence for each case.
Annaliese Michel - 1970s
Let's examine the case of Annaliese Michel. It is well-known that Annaliese Michel suffered from seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. It is well-known that Annaliese Michel had been hospitalized for psychiatric illness and received psychiatric drugs. However, many of her symptoms did not appear to coincide with psychiatric illness, other than they were just "not normal" and seemed crazy. She was on multiple medications almost right up until her death, including antipsychotics and they did not help. It is important to note that Annaliese and her family did not start out believing she was possessed; they only came to believe this after years of medical and psychiatric treatment did not help her at all.
Annaliese continued to get worse. She began to become aggressive and even more bizarre; she drank her own urine and ate bugs, refusing all food and water. Her mother told stories of actual physical changes which took place with Annaliese's body which mental illness and science do not explain. It was reported that Annaliese would be "forced" to the floor and not be able to get up for hours, though she clearly wanted to. It was also reported that Annaliese spoke languages she had never studied and should not have been able to use. Of course, this could just be the incorrect, hysterical memory of a grieving mother who felt she failed her child. It is entirely possible that she just needed to blame something else. Much of Annaliese's behavior could possibly be explained by delusions and psychosis. A hysterical, guilt-ridden mother and psychotic delusions do not explain how Annaliese was able to live as long as she lived in the condition she was in, however. Nothing really explains this.
Annaliese refused to eat or drink anything for almost a year. She weighed 68lbs when she died and was so dehydrated her face had begun to blacken. She endured exorcism sessions for 4 hours a day 2-3 times a week for about 10 months. Throughout these sessions, she screamed almost nonstop and thrashed about. Aside from the near-universal opinion (not fact) that the screams do not sound like they're coming from a 20 year old female, how someone in this condition could continue that for hours on end defies logic. How she had the strength to even speak - let alone scream at that volume for hours - when she was so dehydrated and suffering from pneumonia defies logic and science. She had broken knees from nonstop genuflections (getting on the knees and bowing forward to the ground), more than 600 a day. How could someone who was unable to even stand without help for months have done this enough to break both of their knees?
Is it humanly possible for Annaliese Michel to have done all of these things in the condition she was reportedly in? Sure, maybe; lots of things are humanly possible, even if they don't seem to be at first. Is it likely? No, it isn't. By all rights and according to what we know about the human body, Annaliese Michel should have been dead long before she actually died. Interestingly, the priests who carried out the exorcism on Annaliese claimed to have finally freed her from the parasitic presence within her. It was only then that she died. It was also reported that Annaliese predicted the day of her death exactly.
In order to believe that Annaliese Michel was not possessed, it is necessary to dismiss multiple eyewitness testimony, disregard biology and what we know about the human body, disregard what we know about psychiatric illness, epilepsy and psychopharmacology, dismiss her abysmal condition (which was documented by doctors, with photographs and by her autopsy) and believe that being mentally ill somehow gives people superhuman abilities to stay alive even though their body should not be able to keep going. This is not as hard for people as it sounds with poor Annaliese Michel, considering who the witnesses are; many people take a very dim view of religious folks and Catholic priests especially. It's a little harder to dismiss the eyewitnesses in our next study, however.
Latoya Ammons's children - 2000s
Latoya Ammons showed up in the emergency room claiming her children were showing signs of demonic possession. She claimed her children's eyes would bulge and they would smile oddly; they just didn't seem like themselves. She claimed the children spoke in deep voices and that they talked to people who weren't there. Ms. Ammons's 12 year old daughter reported that she felt she was being held down or choked and that she'd heard a voice tell her she'd never see her family again because she wouldn't live another 20 minutes.
Ammon reported seeing her 12 year old child levitate from her bed and claimed to have seen other things in her home that were not normal, including wet footprints. She'd attempted to "cleanse" the home, burning sage and reciting prayers, but nothing helped. Finally Ms. Ammons took her children to the family physician, unable to find help anywhere else. What followed next was not only witnessed by a doctor and medical staff, but it was written in the DCS caseworker's official report. One of Ms. Ammons's sons began to rage and curse at the doctor in a "demonic voice." Medical personnel reported that the youngest boy was lifted into the air and thrown into the wall, even though nobody was touching him. Both children then abruptly passed out in unison and could not be revived. 911 was called and the police came. The boys were transported to another hospital. When the children awoke, the younger child seemed OK but the older boy thrashed and screamed. It apparently took five men to hold this 9 year old boy down.
It was at this time that social services was called on Latoya Ammons. The caller believed the children were "performing" for their mother, and that the delusion was in fact hers (a psychiatrist at the hospital would examine Ms. Ammons and conclude that she was not mentally ill). A DCS family case manager came to the hospital to interview the family. Finding the children healthy and free of bruises or any signs of physical abuse, the case worker attempted to speak with Ms. Ammons. The 7 year old began growling deep in his throat and attacked his brother, choking him. The child refused to let go until adults pried his hands apart. A little while later, the caseworker and a registered nurse moved the children to a small interview room to speak with them. The 7 year old began to growl again, stating in an unnatural voice, "It's time to die and I will kill you" and the 9 year old began to attack his grandmother. The grandmother grabbed her grandson's hands and started praying.
What happened next was in the caseworker's official report and was corroborated by the RN who also witnessed it. The 9 year old child walked backward up the wall to the ceiling, flipped over his grandmother and landed on the ground - all the while never releasing his grandmother's hand. The caseworker and the nurse both fled the room. Police later asked the case worker if the child ran up the wall, the way someone would if they were performing a gymnastics feat. The case worker responded negatively, saying "He glided backward on the floor, wall and ceiling," according to the police report.
Resulting police investigations and reports detail odd happenings, including photos which show figures that officers swear were not there when the picture was taken and a police recording that features an unknown voice saying, "Hey!" Even officers who did not believe in demonic possession or who thought Ammons was just trying to get money somehow from this story became convinced something was wrong with Latoya Ammon's home - and her children.
Ms. Ammons's children were removed from the home. The home and Ms. Ammons were repeatedly exorcised and after about 6 months, Ms. Ammons was able to rid herself of the parasites and move away from the home. She then got her children back and there have been no problems with possession or anything else since 2012.
In order to dismiss this story, you have to disregard the laws of physics, gravity and what we know about the human body. You have to dismiss the eyewitness accounts of many people - people who are not simple, heartbroken religious parents or Catholic priests and other people too close to the situation. They are doctors, nurses, police officers and DCS family case managers, among others. You have to believe that these rational, intelligent professionals - who certainly had nothing to gain, and perhaps much to lose - falsified official documents, police reports and had group hallucinations on multiple occasions. You have to believe that doctors and psychiatrists lied about their findings. Again, is that possible? Sure, maybe. Is it likely?
Do you think demonic possession happens?
What about other kinds of possession?
In cases like those above, possession would be fairly easy to recognize. If true, it may not be believed, but it is very obvious that something is wrong. What about other situations where a negative energy or dark entity may be affecting someone's life in a more subtle way? There may be cases of "minor harassment" from negative energy in many people, even people in our every day lives. This person might have "odd" symptoms but not be truly mentally ill. They may have impulses to do things they don't want to do, or feel they have no control over their own behavior. They may have unsettling recurring thoughts, explosive anger or addictions they can't get rid of. Of course, these things in and of themselves don't indicate anything evil. But if these things have no explanation or psychological "root," or if they continue to get worse even with medical intervention, maybe we should not be so quick to dismiss the notion that they could be coming from something else. Perhaps the evidence of a negative influence isn't always like Annaliese Michel or Latoya Ammons's children; perhaps sometimes it is far more subtle.
For example, there are a few cases where an argument could be made about whether certain serial killers were possessed or being manipulated, especially regarding those who tried to stop their behavior but were unsuccessful. Dahmer jumps to mind, as does Bundy. Neither had any real psychological reason for their behavior (unlike many other serial killers) and both reported repeated unsuccesful efforts to stop. Neither of these people had any episodes like the cases discussed above, but they claimed to feel controlled. Whether this is true is of course debatable, serial killers being the notorious liars that they are. The argument is intriguing though and one that warrants examination.
In the end, science and medicine can explain most instances of supposed possession, but in situations where it cannot, perhaps we should remember that there are things we cannot explain or understand in this world. After all, regardless of which side we fall on in this debate, we must recognize that even science acknowledges it cannot explain everything with its limited scope, hence the scientific tenet that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.