In my show “How to Talk to the Dead” I touch briefly upon exorcisms. The show is generally a light hearted comedic affair so I try to keep it light and jovial. The main reason for this is it is a rather bleak topic. The main purpose of the show is to entertain as well as educate, an audience member once described the sister show “How to be a Psychic Conman” as “edutainment” and I think that neatly sums up the current mediumship themed show.
Talking to the dead has been a staple of western Spiritualism for almost two centuries ever since the religion was inspired by the charlatan Fox Sisters. In the modern age the whistles and trumpets of classic séances have been replaced with a solitary medium on stage relaying messages between this world and the next, though obviously there is bad reception as the messages are truncated and unspecific – there is a sort of Schrödinger’s Spirit about mediumship, on the one hand the messages are vague and unclear, yet in the next minute the medium will talk specifically about circumstances around death or seem to be hitting on specific areas. The spirit is at once both stunted in their information and loquacious. As with Cold Reading the information seems to become more tailored and specific as a reading goes on, the positives are remembered and the negatives forgotten. I’ve never been given a satisfactory answer for why a spirit can give their first name and information about their death, yet are unable to simply provide a surname. Instead of “I’m getting the name David and manual work” why can’t they simply say “Its David Stevens the laborer”? Is it really such a weak connection that a first name is forthcoming but a surname impossible to relay as if there is a character limit on the length of a communication? Is spirit communication simply supernatural Twitter?
As much of an issue as I have with mediums, I must give some credit in that they do seem to bring comfort and I find myself in a difficult grey area as a skeptic- I want us to live in a factual and evidence based world, but I also do not want to rip the one bit of comfort a grieving parent has from them. But whereas general spirit communication can be a difficult shade of grey, there is something that is more approaching black and white. And that is the world of exorcisms.
It is surprisingly difficult to find out anything objective about how exorcisms work. How they work and what they work for seem to be unique to different cultures and religions with no universal “How to” guidebook. The Catholic Church have official exorcists, and many evangelicals claim to banish demons or evil spirits. There is also the question of what exactly is a possession?
Before the advent of Spiritualism, possessions where usually enacted by demons. Not by spirits of the dead but by Satans devils. The Salem Witch Trials took place because young girls claimed (when the mood took them) to be possessed by demons, not by spirits of the dearly departed. Trance mediumship, where a spirit will inhabit the living, is relatively new and many mediums such as Derek Acorah and Colin Fry claim to be possessed by ancient spirits at times. Both Frys and Acorahs possessions would be hysterical if it were not for the fact many believe them to be genuine. Why when Magnus takes over Fry he needs to affect a voice and mannerisms is beyond me, the spirit is inhabiting Fry, not his own body, therefore using Frys body and vocal chords meaning Magnus is for reasons best known to him affecting an older mans voice. Acorah was once also possessed by a spirit that insisted that Mary loves Dick. Actually, I take it back, even with the belief of their advocates, Fry and Acorahs possessions are still hilarious.
Mediums such as Goldie have been caught out with their possessions when she was stung by a BBC set up, but at least in her case she seemed not to be affecting any voice. She also happily confessed to having been caught out. I’m not sure if that makes me respect her more or infuriates me that she so easily shrugged it off as if it were just a game.
But beyond the centuries old witch trials and the laughable demonstrations by modern mediums, possessions are really no joking matter. Recently in Texas, a video has surfaced of church members trying to resurrect a two year old toddler who died as a result of starvation- starvation brought about due to demon possession.
These modern possessions are once again harking back to the days of demonic possession to explain everything from bad attitudes to mental illness. The International Business Times interviewed exorcist Father Vince Lampert and reported that When Lampert receives a case, he requires individuals to visit a physician and psychologist. If neither can determine where the person’s symptoms are coming from, he then counsels the individual until both parties feel comfortable with an exorcism.
According to the article, exorcisms are on the rise as Satanic groups are constantly increasing. This seems to ignore that the most commonly practiced form of Satanism is LaVeyan Satanism that is at its core atheistic and does not actually believe in a physical or even metaphysical “Devil”. As an atheist myself I do not ascribed to LaVeyan Satanism and I find the idea of treating someone who may be ill with supernatural mumbo jumbo to be an affront to reason, logic and basic human compassion. Just because the medical world has not found the cause of that persons problems does not mean it is a result of a very specific deity within a very specific religion acting upon that person.
I find the idea of demonic possession to be ludicrous and dangerous. How the exorcism takes place would seem to be specific to the religion. Within Christian exorcisms they of course pray to God to help vanquish the demon. Which raises the question of just how powerful or caring their god is if he didn’t stop the possession in the first place.
Just a few weeks ago The Guardian reported that a priest in Spain was being taken to court over 13 exorcisms of a girl with anorexia. When she was 16 she developed problems with anorexia and her parents saw this as an example of demonic possession as opposed to the very real and serious illness that it is. Despite seeking treatment from a qualified medical professional the parents insisted on taking her to an exorcist.
“The girl told authorities she was forced to lie on the ground and was tied up with crosses placed over her head. Images of saints were put on her body during the ritual, which often lasted between one and two hours.”
This is quite simply abuse, and abuse of someone who is in a fragile state of health. The parents were wrong and the priest wrong to carry it on 13 times. The judge in the case seems to agree as they described it as “domestic violence, causing injury and abuse”
In 2012 the Daily Mail reported that three teenage sisters of an American reverend had been travelling the world to perform exorcisms. One of the women said she got up on stage in Africa and cast out a demon in front of 3000 people. This sounds altogether too close to the evangelical Benny Hinn, whose alleged abilities can be explained through a mixture of things like social compliance and various other psychological elements and his act was expertly recreated by the illusionist Derren Brown on several occasions most notably in his Messiah television special. These type of large scale on stage exorcisms may look convincing to the initiated but they are easily replicated.
In numerous African countries exorcisms are common, and frequently performed on children. And the belief in witchcraft is rife. In Gambia in 2009 1000 people were imprisoned on charges relating to witchcraft and forced to drink an hallucinogenic potion. In some states upwards of 15,000 children have been accused of witchcraft and ended up on the streets. In order to cleanse, or exorcise, these children violence is often used with one boy telling CNN that “They would take my clothes off, tie me up and beat me.”
And although not uncommon in third world countries, we must head back to the UK for a story involving an 8 year old girl who was badly beaten and almost tossed into a river after her family believed she was a witch. Heading to India we find a 2014 story of a girl who died as a result of an exorcism that involved inflicting burn marks on her.
Stories such as the Amityville horror and the movie the Exorcist bring demonic possession into the mainstream with their alleged real life inspiration and throughout the world exorcisms are taking place. I do not doubt that the people conducting them believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing and that they are doing the right thing. It is also quite common for people with mental health conditions to be diagnosed as having been possessed. According to Psychology Today, something referred to as “Cen” is a belief that involves the possessed person being taken over by another spirit, so instead of demonic possession it is closer to Colin Frys possession by Magnus, only unwanted. It is suggested by the research that many people who experience psychological illness or trauma have had it explained away as being possession rather than an actual illness. This train of thought is especially common in Haiti and Western Africa.
While we quite rightly fight back against the claims of mediums in terms of communicating with spirits and demand evidence, we shouldn’t ignore the dangerous practice of exorcism and the belief of possession. Though mediums may be mostly harmless, the belief in exorcism is not. People who are unwell are being treated by non medical professionals, in many cases being abused and assaulted, and though there may be little harm in belief in ghosts and spooks, when it comes to possessions there is a very real harm and danger.