In terms of the scariest things in the universe, it goes clowns, sharks and then demons. Namely because we have definitive proof of the first two and zilch on the latter. And yet, it still serves a healthy helping of fear. Because the possibility of demons offers up a whole host of implications. One being that there is an afterlife that exists for tormented souls. This itself will put the literal fear of God in just about anyone, and probably inspires thousands of church goers every year.
But beyond merely acting as proof of some sort of spiritual realm, it’s the method of terror that makes demons so utterly frightening. Demonic possession, or the complete takeover of someone else’s body by an ethereal being, is (to put it lightly) an incredibly un-fun prospect. As a human, you take for granted a certain amount of autonomy. It forms who we are as people, so to have it taken away is to lose some amount of your humanity. This assault on one’s being is what makes demonic possession so impossibly terrifying.
That, and the rich history behind it. Indeed, demonic possessions date back for a millennia, and have not slowed in recent years. Perhaps it’s the ever-globalizing world that is driving demons out from under sulfuric rocks and into our souls. Or maybe it’s the election. Who knows? In the meantime, here are some “fun” facts to help you combat the increased activity from the spirit world. Let’s hope you never have to use them.
15. The first Recorded Possession Was By The Sumerians
Surprise history lesson! You can’t escape now. Never could, apparently. According to the historically inclined individuals at Indiana University, Sumerians in Mesopotamia are responsible for the oldest recorded exorcisms. In their time, it was considered as routine as pulling teeth and their ‘ashipus’ (medical practitioners) were trained to drive out the demon by way of charms and spells. This was all going on as early as 2100 BCE, meaning that for the past 4,000 years, we’ve been actively fighting against a hostile spirit world that is trying to possess our physical forms and cause mischief. Of course, historical records from this time are hardly reliable, considering everything from language to human biological make-up has changed since then. Still, this “history lesson” provides the framework for understanding the modern forms of exorcism.
14. Demand For Exorcists Is Rising
Yes, you read that correctly. Now, more than ever, people all around the world are claiming some form of demonic possession or another is plaguing either them or a loved one. Granted, almost all of them can be attributed to something else (more on that later) or are just plain lies. And yet, those who believe in the condition are responding in full force. Just look at the numbers. According to The Telegraph, in the United States, over the past ten years, the number of official (more on this later too) exorcists has quadrupled, rising from 12 to 50. Many blame this on a failing mental healthcare system that routinely misdiagnoses and fails to accommodate for its patients. Others blame ouija boards. Who’s to say which is correct?
13. There’s An International Association Of Exorcists
Not only is there an International Association of Exorcists (one wonders what the price of admission is), but one of their more prominent voices may very well be living in your backyard. Indeed, Father Vincent Lampert is one of the United States’ premier exorcists and he’s based in Indianapolis. Just in case you needed one less reason to go to Indianapolis. Lampert, in an interview with Indianapolis Monthly, claims that he lived in Rome for three months and “participated in 40 exorcisms.” Which is roughly one every other day, so one hopes he was well compensated. Or at least given free coupons at Exorcists ‘R Us. Joking aside, Lampert takes his job very seriously, going so far as to use traditional tap water instead of holy water to gauge whether the possessed is lying or not. According to Lampert, “if a demon is present, the demon will know.”
12. The Catholic Church Has Official Exorcists Around The World
Aside from the arguably unaffiliated International Association of Exorcists (though this is up for dispute), the Catholic Church itself has a sticky relationship with demonic possession. Already lacking in the PR department, it’s no wonder why the Vatican is fairly mum on the notion of demons occupying skin suits. And yet, according to ABC News, the Catholic Church has at least 10 official exorcists around the globe— up from one a decade ago. Michael Cuneo, a sociologist from Fordham University, says that the church has reported all of the typical Hollywood signs of exorcism from levitation to mysterious wounds to a sudden inexplicable grasp of Latin (recovering private school students despair). That being said, the church approaches cases of possession with extreme caution, doing everything they can to weed out anyone who might be faking it. Wouldn’t want to look ridiculous, y’know?
11. The Official Catholic Decree Holds That Demons Are Fallen Angels
So, what are demons? Movies tell us that they’re vengeful spirits and demigods (see: ‘Pazazu’) looking to reclaim their place in the world. Others see them as more of poltergeists, wreaking minor havoc and misfortune upon the world. The Catholic Church, however, has a different opinion. According to the official Catholic Catechism, demons are fallen angels who were “created naturally good by God” but eventually “became evil by their own doing.” Meaning that, like Lucifer (i.e. Satan), demons were once happy naked cherubs, bouncing about heaven freely before they succumbed to sin and listening to Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” The rest, including their primary directive, seems to be shrouded in mystery, probably because we’ve never managed to nab one for an interview. Looking at you, Charlie Rose.
10. Almost Every Major Culture Has Stories Of Spiritual Possession
Lest we dwell too much on the Western notion of possession, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not just the Catholic Church that has a history of dealing with those rascally demons. Indeed, many Protestant faiths also buy into the demon theory. But beyond even that, almost every major culture (and, one presumes by proxy, every major religion) has some account or story of spiritual possession. Reverting to the word, “spiritual” is used very consciously here, as not all cultures believe possession is committed by a demon. Mainly because “demons” are very much the product of a culture that believes in a heaven and hell, and the dichotomy of good and evil. But many Buddhists also believe in possession, and have steps they take to remedy it. Judaism, as well. In fact, according to a study done by the University of Rochester, roughly 74% of cultures studied had some form of spiritual possession narrative present in their history.
9. It’s Doctor Approved
Here’s where things start to get complicated. And here is where you may want to grab your crucifix if you’re particularly superstitious and/or religious. In a 2016 (that’s this year, by the way) op-ed in The Washington Post, one Dr. Richard Gallagher wrote extensively on his experience as a clinical psychiatrist and exorcism consultant. He has received education from Princeton, Yale, and Columbia, and is board-certified. He also swears up and down that demonic possession is not only very real, but very problematic. After an up-close look at the phenomenon in the late ‘80s, Dr. Gallagher has been tussling with the spirit world ever sense, trying desperately to disprove it with science and medicine. His efforts have, in a few cases, been in vain. According to Gallagher, he has never seen a levitation, but he has seen other effects that he could only describe as paranormal and out of the normal realm of possibility. Yikes.
8. Mother Theresa Was Exorcised
Supposedly the holiest person in the land, even Mother Theresa wasn’t immune to the tug of the demonic world, apparently. According to BBC, shortly before her death, Mother Theresa was the subject of an exorcism. Suffering from heart trouble, 87-year-old Mother Theresa was admitted to the hospital. While there, though, she began suffering from insomnia and an Archbishop took this to mean that she must be experiencing some sort of demonic possession, no doubt incurred by the nun’s fragile state. Consulting with a priest, the Archbishop found an exorcist who read a few prayers over Mother Theresa until she ultimately went to sleep. The idea of having to listen to Latin spoken at you repeatedly while lying in bed aside, this was a relatively calm exorcism if it really was one, as there are no reports of Mother Theresa turning her head 360 degrees around or vomiting blood on the priest. But who knows what goes on behind closed doors.
7. Pope John Paul II Reportedly Carried Out Exorcisms
Was there ever a pope so beloved as John Paul II? In his life, he united people from almost every culture and denomination and was roundly celebrated for his goodness and tolerance. His funeral was probably bigger than every birthday you’ve ever had combined. He was a decent man, and spoke directly to the people in a language they could understand. He also apparently communed with the spirit world by way of exorcism. Reports of the Pope performing an exorcism on a 19-year-old girl are varied, with some claiming that he merely blessed the woman. But that’s exactly what they would say if they were trying to cover up an exorcism performed by “God’s emissary on earth.”
6. They Can Be Deadly
As widely accepted as the idea of an exorcism seems to be, one has to be cautious when trying to perform one. Or even when bringing up the possibility, depending on where you are in the world. There are so many reports of amateur exorcisms being performed all across the world, oftentimes leading to severe injuries and, in the worst cases, death. Just in the United States, priests have beaten supposedly possessed people to death, a 17-year-old girl in New York suffocated her mother, and mental patients have been incorrectly diagnosed. In Glendale, California in 1997, one Korean Christian woman, believed to be possessed, was stomped to death. A 5-year-old girl in the Bronx was even forced to swallow ammonia and vinegar. Demonic possession is an evil and terrifying thing, but the fear of it and the response to that fear can sometimes be so much worse.
5. They’re Often Better Attributed To Other Diseases
Human error is especially scary when you consider that what most ancient cultures attributed to demonic possession can now be more properly identified as mental illness. Hell, as recently as two hundred years ago, scientists were diagnosing depression as “melancholia” and the cure was a mixture of leeches and just waiting it out. So, you can imagine that far more severe and conspicuous ailments like schizophrenia, epilepsy, and Tourette’s might be confused for demons. Especially considering there were no CT scans back in those days, and mental health awareness still had a few hundred years until it was of actual concern, any act of mania or hysteria could be chalked up to “omg it’s the devil.” As a result, there were undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people killed or “cured” for something they really had no control over. Even more tragic, knowing no better, it’s entirely possible that these victims fully believed themselves that they were possessed by the devil.
4. ‘Holy Laughter’ Is A Thing
A strange phenomenon observed primarily in churches across the world, it gained increased visibility and awareness in the early 1990s in evangelical “charismatic” churches. That is, churches that believe heavily in the Holy Spirit and its effect on the human soul. Holy laughter is precisely what it sounds like: sudden bouts of uncontrollable laughing that occur in the middle of religious proceedings. Your beliefs aside, church isn’t a very funny ordeal and sudden laughter, while definitely applicable to other things, was first seen as a sort of demonic possession. In fact, famed minister, John Wesley encountered holy laughter in several of his meetings and deemed it an act of the devil. More optimistic theories report that it’s a supernatural feeling of happiness being granted to certain people by the Holy Spirit.
3. There Are Many Types Of Possession
Much like anything these days, possession doesn’t manifest as just one brand, but as many. While typical “demon enters body” stories make up the majority, there are various other forms of oppression, as defined by Catholicism. Possession is typically defined as the nonconsensual takeover of the human body by outside demons. Subjugation, on the other hand, is volunteer work. Indeed, there are reports of people actively welcoming demons (god knows why) into their physical forms and acting as a sort of willing host of demonic activity. Maybe there are tax benefits? In addition to possession of humans, there is also a form of demonic possession known as Infestation. As the name implies, this form of possession involves the demonic possession of household things, animals and even houses themselves.
2. Exorcisms Are Cures, Not Punishments
How exorcisms are carried out is a bit of a mystery. We know it involves heavy praying and most likely a dash of holy water, but the specific words spoken and items used are not readily available for public knowledge. What is known, however, is the Catholic church’s view on exorcisms, which is very important to the whole topic at hand. Mainly because they view demonic possession as separate from the person being possessed. Obviously, this believed separation is a decidedly limited one, as it’s hard to completely separate the supposed being when it looks a lot like the afflicted. This being said, exorcisms are seen as cures for an illness as opposed to punishment for wickedness. Which is why amateur exorcisms performed at the expense of victims’ lives are widely criticized.
1. Pop Culture Has A Lot To Do With It
In case you’ve been under a rock for the past 40 years, it’s worth bringing up The Exorcist. The 1973 movie that started the whole fad is littered with demonic possession trivia and a handful of facts. Mostly, though, it’s an entertaining movie fit for Halloween night. The same goes for every possession movie that followed (and there’s an endless supply) and the various television shows that incorporate possession into the narrative (see: Supernatural). Following The Exorcist, reports of demonic possession skyrocketed and many credit the movie with having popularized the phenomenon and brought it into the popular culture. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that popular movies lend themselves to real life action, and it’s unlikely The Exorcist is any different. But, be warned, exorcism, if not demonic possession, is a very serious thing. Whether or not the proposed reasons or effects are rooted in reality, the results certainly are. Remember: movies are fiction. Most of them, at least.