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Possession and exorcism: an essay review.

The word possession (in the vocabulary of psychology) refers to the belief (or the fact, as some claim) that a person's mind or soul can be ejected from his or her body and the body then controlled by another personality, usually that of a discarnate entity. The possessing entity may be that of a deceased person or that of an evil spirit, the latter being usually conceived in Christianity as the devil. The belief in possession was almost universal, so far as we can tell, until about the end of the 16th century. It was closely linked with the belief in witchcraft; witches were not thought necessarily to be possessed by the devil, but to be allied with him. Toward the end of the 16th century, works of skepticism about witchcraft began to be published in Europe, and over the next 2 centuries the belief in witchcraft and in possession declined in the West. The last executions for witchcraft in Europe occurred in the last quarter of the 18th century. The rest of the world went on believing and, for the most part, still believes in witchcraft and possession. Moreover, even in the West some persons may still be found who believe in possession. Sixteen patients who believed themselves to be possessed were admitted to a psychiatric hospital in England during the four years from 1973 to 1977 (Whitwell & Barker, 1980).(1)

The idea of possession is found often in the Bible and became incorporated in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Exorcists - persons empowered to displace a possessing devil - were a minor order of the Roman Catholic Church until the Church abolished this role in 1972. Authorized priests may still perform rituals of exorcism. The book by Thomas Allen(2) that stimulated this essay describes the alleged possession and exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in 1949.

We should consider the case and the book together because the book is likely to be our only publicly available source of information about the case. Some other information in ecclesiastical archives is inaccessible, and the subject in the case - to whom Allen gives the pseudonym Robbie - did not answer Allen's letter asking for additional information. This makes it important to examine Allen's sources and his handling of them. Of these sources, the most important by far is a 28-page diary kept by Father Raymond Bishop, S.J., who was an eyewitness to the second and more extensive of the two exorcisms in the case. Father Bishop included in his diary what he was able to learn about the family concerned in the case and certain events that occurred before it came to his attention. Unfortunately, Father Bishop and the two exorcists, Father Albert Hughes and Father William Bowdern, S.J., had all died by the time Allen began to work on his book. He was, however, able to interview a few other persons who were either firsthand informants or apparently reliable secondhand ones. The most important of these was Father Walter Halloran, S.J., who had assisted at the second exorcism. Allen also derived some further fragments of information from other sources, especially a few newspaper accounts based on items of information that leaked out during Robbie's illness. Allen acknowledges the limitations of the evidence he deploys and shows that he tried to corroborate statements as much as possible. His attention to details pleases me. For example, in trying to place in Robbie's family a person mentioned without being further identified, Allen searched the obituary of another member of the family in the hope that it would name the unidentified person and state her relationship to the rest of the family.

In the early 1970s this case provided the basis for a fictional account of it and a sensational movie. Such exploitation would generate caution in anyone reading the assertion in the subtitle of Allen's book that he has given his readers "the true story" of the case. Nevertheless, I think that he can fairly claim to have done this. I believe that his account is sufficiently reliable so that we can take the case seriously and consider alternative interpretations for it. Allen provides a careful guide to his sources, a compact bibliography (which shows that he is acquainted with some of the scientific literature on possession), and an index.

I turn now to the case itself. Robbie was his parents' only child. He was 14 years old when the case developed, in January 1949. He seems not to have shown any obvious abnormalities of personality prior to that time, although he was perhaps somewhat introverted and solitary. His maternal grandmother lived in the home (in a Washington, D.C. suburb) with him and his parents. The family were Protestants.

Robbie had a paternal aunt named Harriet, who did not live with the family but came often to visit them. Harriet was a Spiritualist, and she introduced Robbie to the ouija board, which she worked with him. Afterward, Robbie sometimes worked the ouija board by himself. Harriet to some extent convinced Robbie's mother of the reality of communication with deceased souls, but Robbie's father and grandmother remained skeptical.

The first event in the case occurred on January 15, 1949, when Robbie and his grandmother - his parents being absent - heard an inexplicable sound as of water dripping. This was followed by a sound as if someone or some animal was scratching on a floor. The scratching persisted for several nights, and all members of the family heard it. On January 26, Robbie's Aunt Harriet died. Her death seems to have devastated Robbie, who began spending hours with the ouija board, possibly trying to contact Aunt Harriet. At about this time the scratching ceased, but other inexplicable noises, as of someone walking with squeaking shoes, began. Robbie's mother thought the unusual sounds might somehow be connected with Aunt Harriet's involvement with Spiritualism, and remembering what Aunt Harriet had said about using raps to communicate with spirits, she endeavored to reach Aunt Harriet with raps.

At this time the second phase of the case began. This consisted of the phenomena associated with a conventional poltergeist. Objects moved without being touched: Sometimes they tipped over, and some of them took off and flew through the air. Robbie was quickly seen to be the focus of these disturbances; his desk at school participated in the inexplicable movements. He firmly denied that he had anything to do with the events. His parents sought professional help, including that of a psychiatrist, who had nothing to often As the disturbances continued, they became "convinced that Robbie was the victim of an evil ghost" (p. 13), perhaps that of Aunt Harriet. They next consulted a local Lutheran minister, the Rev. Luther Schulze. He satisfied himself about the magnitude of the phenomena when he slept in the same room with Robbie and observed a bed shaking and a heavy chair tip over without being moved normally. As an "enlightened Lutheran," he had no belief in possession by an evil spirit and could only suggest prayer as a remedy. This having failed, Schulze, with commendable liberality, advised Robbie's parents to consult a Roman Catholic priest. He said "the Catholics know about things like this" (p. 24).

Readers of this journal will find interest in being told (or perhaps reminded) that Schulze, who had some knowledge of parapsychology, consulted J. B. Rhine about the case (Brian, 1982). J. B. Rhine and Louisa Rhine went to Washington and listened to Schulze's account of the case; but they did not undertake to observe the phenomena themselves. Another 9 years elapsed before J. B. Rhine authorized Gaither Pratt to study the poltergeist case that became known as the Seaford disturbances (Pratt & Roll, 1958).

The phases of the case that I describe were not separated distinctly. During the first two phases, Robbie showed no marked change of personality, beyond being troubled by the disturbances and by being blamed for them. After a time, however, he underwent periodic changes of personality in which he would seem to be in a trance (that is, unresponsive to stimuli), to show seemingly involuntary and purposeless movements, and sometimes to scream and become violent. He would also shout, curse, and sometimes spit in the faces of persons present. This kind of behavior, some of which resembled la grande hysterie of Charcot (even including opisthotonos, a characteristic distortion of bodily posture), continued until Robbie recovered, in the middle of April 1949. So did the unexpected movement of objects that no one was trying to move. Sometimes scratches that bled appeared on Robbie's skin, and sometimes these formed words. In their effort to find an appropriate Catholic priest, Robbie's parents first met Father Albert Hughes, in Washington. He attempted an exorcism at the Georgetown University Hospital. This effort ended when Robbie succeeded in slashing Hughes's arm with a piece of bedspring that he had loosened. He was promptly discharged from the hospital, and his parents then took him (early in March) to St. Louis, where they had relatives. There they made renewed attempts to communicate with Aunt Harriet, who was still conceived as being responsible for the phenomena focused on Robbie.

Robbie's parents had some Catholic relatives in St. Louis, and through them they came in contact with Jesuit priests who became interested in the case and declared it one of possession by the devil. Father William Bowdern undertook to perform the Catholic ritual of exorcism. His was a much more prolonged endeavor than that of Father Hughes; it lasted, with intermissions, from March 16 until April 17. Allen, using Father Bishop's diary, reports the scenes of the exorcism in considerable detail. Robbie's behavior during this phase continued to be grossly abnormal, although not always. Sometimes he seemed relatively normal and could describe dreams, such as one in which "he had been fighting a huge red devil." At other times, usually at night, he behaved like an angry defiant person, and he sometimes spoke as if he were a different personality, who referred to Robbie in the third person. For example, on one occasion, when Father Bowdern asked him for the name and date of departure of the demon, Robbie replied: "I will not go until a certain word is pronounced, and this boy will never say it." He cursed, screamed, writhed, used foul language, and spat in the faces of persons present. Scratches on Robbie's skin that sometimes formed into words continued. Robbie became so violent at times that he required restraint. Accordingly, he was admitted to the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, and the exorcism continued there. The crisis of the case occurred in mid-April. According to Robbie later, he saw an angelic figure standing in a brilliant white light. The angel fought the "devil and his demons" and chased them away. Robbie was heard to say "he's gone" and then that he was feeling fine. He seemed relaxed and happy.

He also seemed amnesic for the events of his ordeal. He appears to have remained well afterward, but it is important to note that we have almost no information about the later course of Robbie's life.

Before reviewing interpretations for the case, I need to furnish some additional information. First, about halfway through his experience with the Jesuits of St. Louis, Robbie converted from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. In his normal periods he was well aware that a ritual of exorcism was being conducted on his behalf. Second, although Allen has tried to narrate the events of the case in neutral language, the vocabulary of some persons - such as the eyewitness and diarist Father Raymond Bishop - colors his descriptions. Thus, concerning the need to restrain Robbie, we find Allen describing Father Halloran as "spending his night holding down a demoniac" (p. 143); in another passage Allen states that Father "Bowdern had never seen Robbie so savagely diabolic" (p. 183) (my italics in both these cited phrases). Third, apart from the substantial evidence of ostensibly anomalous movements of objects, the case provides only meager evidence of any paranormal phenomena. Father Walter Halloran dismissed Robbie's utterances of some phrases in Latin as probably mere reflections of the Latin he had heard during the ritual of exorcism. As for the bloody scratches on Robbie's body, we are left uncertain about whether they might have been artifactually produced by Robbie himself. Most witnesses thought this unlikely; and it remains possible that they were psychosomatic, perhaps similar in process to the extraordinary dermographism of Mme. Olga Kahl (Osty, 1929); but Robbie's dermographic words showed no evidence of a paranormal process. On the contrary, they betrayed his involvement with the idea that he was possessed by a devil.

This case has no modern parallel known to me. It does not fit into any of our familiar categories, either of psychopathology or parapsychology; and this should make us hesitant to draw firm conclusions about it.

Poltergeist cases always require the careful elimination of fraud. I suppose it is possible that Robbie had faked the poltergeist phenomena and that, when blame seemed to attach to him, he then faked demonic possession as a credible explanation for the earlier phenomena. There is, however, no evidence of trickery in the moving and flying around of objects, phenomena that numerous observers witnessed on different occasions.

I am unable to believe that the devil exists. I think the devil is a concept that expresses particular human attributes - the evil in us - in a form of pretended concreteness. I bracket the idea of the devil with the ideas of Mars, Santa Claus, and Santoshi Ma. The last named, a Hindu goddess, represents wifely devotion and is pertinent here because there are numerous cases of Indian women ostensibly possessed by Santoshi Ma.

Could Robbie have been possessed by a discarnate spirit of evil nature who chose to remain anonymous? I believe that possession as I defined it at the beginning of this essay can occur. I have published reports of two cases in which a child correctly stated details about the life of a deceased person who, however, had died after the subject's birth (Stevenson, 1966/74, 1983). In a third case of this type the subject was a young woman only a few years older than Robbie, who exhibited changes of personality and on one such occasion seemed to die. Then she unexpectedly recovered with a markedly different personality and set of memories (Stevenson, Pasricha, & McClean-Rice, 1989).

The ostensibly possessing personalities in the three cases I just cited were neither anonymous nor evil. There are, however, plenty of nasty people alive, and, if we survive death, there must be plenty of nasty people dead. I know of one case in which such a discarnate person seems to have taken control of a medium and then tried to kill - by strangling - one of the sitters who, the possessing personality asserted, had killed him in circumstances that he specified. The other sitters only with difficulty removed the medium's hands as they tightened around the indicated sitter's throat. The ostensibly possessing personality's accusations were subsequently verified (Bozzano, 1921). Robbie's case differed in that in his altered states he never gave any indication of being a vehicle for communications by a discarnate human entity. His "devil" never named himself.

The stress of the poltergeist phenomena that initiated the case might have precipitated a short episode of paranoid schizophrenia, which could account for the irrational and violent behavior that characterized the third phase. It can be difficult to distinguish schizophrenia from multiple personality and possession or pseudopossession (sometimes called "possession syndrome"). A report of a recent case in England illustrates this. An Indian man believed that he was possessed by a ghost who, he said, impelled him to various thefts that led to his arrest. Two efforts at exorcism failed, but he was then treated successfully with clopenthixol, an antipsychotic medication (Hale & Pinninti, 1994).

The interpretation that I favor for this case - albeit diffidently - is that of a secondary personality induced by suggestion. Admittedly, we have few cases on record in which the secondary personality manifested only once, but the cases of Ansel Bourne (Hodgson, 1890; James, 1890) and Lurancy Vennum (James, 1890; Stevens, 1887) offer us important examples of this feature. I think Bliss (1986) made a good case for supposing that many instances of multiple personality are self-generated by a kind of autohypnosis. Powerful suggestions from other persons may markedly affect another one. We know also that culture strongly influences the form of cases of secondary personality. For example, in the possession syndrome of India, the ostensibly possessing personality is often a powerful deceased person of the family or a supernatural entity who seem to have been invoked to neutralize misfortunes or to correct abuses of the subject by other members of the family (Teja, Khanna, & Subrahmanyam, 1970). We do not often find this feature in Western cases of multiple personality. (Western cases in which one personality tries to exculpate crimes by blaming them on another personality are perhaps analogous.) Robbie and his family were introduced to the ideas of Spiritualism, and he and his mother certainly believed in survival after death. We can suppose that under some stress, still unidentified, Robbie became the focus of poltergeist phenomena. These were attributed to him, and then it was suggested to him that he was possessed by the "ghost" of his Aunt Harriet. The Lutheran clergyman and then the Roman Catholic priests adjusted this and suggested that not Robbie's Aunt Harriet, but the devil himself had possessed Robbie. These ideas became strongly reinforced in Robbie's mind as he became increasingly imbued with the belief in demonic possession within the subculture of the Society of Jesus. Medicine recognizes a category of disease called iatrogenic, which means "caused by physicians." We must also recognize that diseases may be anthropogenic, that is, caused by the beliefs of the persons around a sensitive person. I might even go further and suggest that Robbie and his family became affected by a folie a plusieurs. Why did Robbie then recover at the end of the second exorcism? This too seems to have been prescribed. Part of the ritual of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church requires the possessing devil to state when he will depart. Robbie never set a date for the devil's leaving, but at some level he knew that his devil was expected to depart and it did. He responded to what amounted to a posthypnotic suggestion. The interpretation I have described is not new. Oesterreich (1921/1966) clearly stated it many years ago, although he did not claim that it applied to all cases of ostensible possession.

I said that I offered my preferred interpretation diffidently. I make this disclaimer, because Allen's book, as he admits, gives an imperfect account of the events he honestly tries to describe. No parapsychologist of the period of this case - witness the attitude of the Rhines - would have taken an interest in the case sufficient to make a better record of it than the one that - thanks to Allen - we now have. Today investigators of paranormal phenomena are no longer as imprisoned in laboratories as their predecessors were. A new case similar to Robbie's may occur, and new investigators should be able to reach firmer conclusions about it than we can for this one.

1 This essay does not offer a comprehensive guide to the history of the belief in possession in the West. Interested readers can find further sources in Kemp and Williams (1987) and Oesterreich (1921/1966).

2 Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Pp. viii + 259. $20.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-385-42034-X.


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BOZZANO, E. (1921). Di un caso drammatico d'identificazione spiritica. Luce e Ombra, 21, 119-122.

BRIAN, D. (1982). The enchanted voyager: The life of J. B. Rhine. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

HALE, A. S., & PINNINTI, N. R. (1994). Exorcism-resistant ghost possession treated with Clopenthixol. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 386-388.

HODGSON, R. (1890). A case of double consciousness. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 7, 221-257.

JAMES, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

KEMP, S., & WILLIAMS, K. (1987). Demonic possession and mental disorder in medieval and early modern Europe. Psychological Medicine, 17, 21-29.

OESTERREICH, T. K. (1966). Possession: Demoniacal and other, among primitive races, in antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books. (Original work published 1921)

OSTY, E. (1929). Ce que la medecine doit attendre de l'etude experimentale des proprietes psychiques paranormales de l'homme. Revue metapsychique, 79-148.

PRATT, J. G., & ROLL, W. G. (1958). The Seaford disturbances. Journal of Parapsychology, 22, 79-124.

STEVENS, E. W. (1887). The Watseka wonder. A narrative of startling phenomena occurring in the case of Mary Lurancy Vennum. Chicago: Religio-Philosophical Publishing House.

STEVENSON, I. (1974). Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation (2nd ed.). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. (Original work published 1966)

STEVENSON, I. (1983). Cases of the reincarnation type. Vol. 3: Twelve cases in Thailand and Burma. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

STEVENSON, I., PASRICHA, S., & McCLEAN-RICE, N. (1989). A case of the possession type in India with evidence of paranormal knowledge. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3, 81-101.

TEJA, J. S., KHANNA, B. S., & SUBRAHMANYAM, T. B. (1970). "Possession states" in Indian patients. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 12, 71-87.

WHITWELL, F. D., & BARKER, M. G. (1980). "Possession" in psychiatric patients in Britain. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 53, 287-295.

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Author:Stevenson, Ian
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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