The Devil Inside: Psychotherapy, Exorcism and Demonic Possession
Does Satan truly exist?
Posted Jan 17, 2012
From what I gather, The Devil Inside tells the story, "inspired by true events," of a woman who, in 1989, brutally butchered three people (two priests and a nun), was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a Roman psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane for twenty years. Her daughter, now grown, understandably wants to make sense of what happened. She discovers that the killings occurred during a failed exorcism, and that her mother, despite decades of intensive psychiatric treatment, is still possessed by several demons. And clearly in serious need of another (hopefully, this time more successful) exorcism tout de suite. She enlists the help of two rogue and rookie Catholic priests who are involved in performing unauthorized exorcisms on people who they believe may be both mentally ill and demonically possessed, but don't meet the Vatican's strict criteria for receiving this rare and sacred ritual. You get the picture.
What does the astounding and unexpected popularity of this movie say about us and our culture psychologically? Why are high-tech, scientifically-minded, religiously secular twenty-first-century cynics so fascinated with a (bad) film about exorcism, Satan and his demons? What many critics have called the worst movie they've seen in quite some time? While the level of filmmaking ranges wildly, there seems to be a trend toward this supernatural (i.e., religious) subject these days. Paranormal Activity (2007) and its sequels deal with the subject of evil demons. Last year, The Rite (2011), starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest and professional exorcist somewhat reminiscent of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in The Exorcist (an excellent film), was released to tepid if not terrible reviews. Nonetheless, the topic of exorcism and demonic possession evidently still touches a nerve in the movie-going audience, perhaps especially in horror fans, true believers and so-called recovering Catholics still not sure what to believe about such matters. Films about possession and exorcism, like The Last Exorcism (2010) and 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, strive in part to convince their audience of the objective existence of the Devil, and, in turn, of God. But in dogmatically pursuing this fundamentalist agenda, the filmmakers are missing a golden opportunity to examine and explore the many important parallels between exorcism and modern psychotherapy, and to possibly reach and educate a far wider secular, spiritual and psychologically sophisticated segment of the public about this intensive treatment for what I term the possession syndrome.
Perhaps it's time psychologists start asking some of those same questions. What is exorcism? How does it heal? Can we learn something valuable about psychotherapy from exorcism? Are there certain techniques employed by exorcists that psychotherapists should consider when treating angry, psychotic or violent patients? Are there vital existential or spiritual questions addressed by exorcism--for example, the archetypal riddle of evil--that psychotherapy detrimentally avoids or neglects?
Exorcism--the ritualistic expulsion of evil spirits inhabiting body, brain or place--has been practiced in some form throughout history, and is probably the first primitive type of psychotherapy. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, was originally a trained exorcist. Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have healed individuals suffering from mental and physical symptoms by casting out demons. Now, more than two millennia later, the Roman Catholic Church is reported to be secretly educating a new crop of exorcists to meet a rapidly rising demand for exorcisms in Italy, Australia, America and elsewhere around the globe. Here in the U.S., where there is evidently an acute shortage of formally trained exorcists, burgeoning numbers of suffering souls--some deeply disillusioned with or wary of what mainstream psychology and psychiatry have to offer today--are desperately turning to exorcism to deal with their debilitating "devils" and "demons."
This question as to the true nature of what I call the "possession syndrome" is at the very crux of the matter regarding exorcism: Exorcism is the traditional treatment for possession. What is possession? Is so-called demonic possession a psychological phenomenon, a form of psychosis or another as yet ill-defined mental disorder? Or is it the work of the Devil, and irrefutable proof of Satan's powerful reality? In one of my previous posts, I discussed the infamous Andrea Yates filicide case. By the time she deliberately drowned her five children in 2001, Yates was convinced she was possessed. Satan himself, claimed Yates, compelled her to carry out her evil deeds. In her second trial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution. How can we make sense of her delusions and diabolically destructive behavior? Postpartum depression? Schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Or was Yates, as she fervently believed, a hapless victim of "possession"? And if so, what exactly is that? Do demons really exist? What is evil? Where does it come from? What is our relationship to it? Is it a proper subject of study for psychology and psychiatry? And how can we better deal with it?
Phenomenologically, the subjective experience of possession--feeling influenced by some foreign, alien force beyond the ego's control-- is, to some extent, an experiential aspect of most mental disorders. Patients frequently speak of symptoms, unacceptable impulses, thoughts or emotions as ego-alien, and uncharacteristic moods or destructive behaviors as "not being myself," commonly exclaiming "I don't know what got into me," or wondering "What possessed me to do that?" Presently, such disturbing symptoms are hypothesized by psychiatry to be due primarily to some underlying neurological or biochemical aberration. Biochemistry, in the form of the tiny neurotransmitter, has become our postmodern demon du jour for which all manner of evils are blamed. Depth psychologists C.G. Jung (in his concept of the shadow) and Rollo May (1969) provide psychologically sophisticated, secular theories of human evil and daimonic (as opposed to demonic) possession which do not demand literal belief in the devil or demons. (I discuss these matters in detail in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.) But, tragically, most psychotherapy today does not adequately comprehend or treat the possession syndrome. For some bedeviled individuals, the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of "demonic possession" serve to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by mainstream psychiatry and psychology. If psychotherapy as a healing of the soul (not just the mind) is to survive and thrive into the future, our current overemphasis on cognition, behavior, genetics, neurology and biochemistry must be counterbalanced by the inclusion of the spiritual and depth psychological dimension of human existence. It must become, as Freud intimated and C.G. Jung courageously recognized, psychotherapy for the soul. (See my prior post.)
The truth is, most psychotherapy patients need far more than what pharmaceutical intervention and/or cognitive therapy--the two most popular so-called "evidence-based" or empirically supported modalities today--can provide. They need and deserve support and accompaniment through their painful, frightening, disorienting, perilous spiritual or existential crises, their "dark night of the soul." They need a psychologically meaningful method to confront their metaphorical devils and demons, their repressed anger or rage, and the existential reality of evil. They need a secular spiritual psychotherapy willing to ask the right questions. In a time where so many have lost faith in God, rejected organized religion, yet still seek something transpersonal to believe in, something spiritual, something transcendental or supernatural, the notion of demonic possession has diabolically tempting appeal. For to believe that the Devil and his demons can take possession of one's body, mind and soul is to find evidence also of God's existence. And to make meaning from meaninglessness. This "will to meaning," as existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called it, is a fundamental human drive, one which abhors a meaningless "existential vacuum." For those who have lost faith, the myth of "demonic possession" can--in addtion to providing a possibility of attributing responsibility for our darkest, most despicable or spiritually unacceptable emotions, impulses and evil deeds to something or someone other than ourselves-- paradoxically provide a path back to God, since God and the Devil are but two opposite sides of the same spiritual coin. Unless psychology can provide a better or at least equally satisfying, meaningful alternate explanation of the possession syndrome--and a more effective way to deal with it-- belief in demonic possession and the practice of exorcism are bound to persist .