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Demonic Possession

Demonic possession is the belief that a person's actions are controlled by an alien spirit, demon, or entity. Symptoms of demonic possession commonly claimed by victims include missing memories, perceptual distortions, loss of a sense of control, and hyper-suggestibility. Erika Bourguignon found in a study of 488 societies worldwide, seventy-four percent believe in possession by spirits, with the highest numbers of beliefs in Pacific cultures and the lowest incidence among Native Americans of both North and South America.

demonic possession hyper-suggestibility demon

1. Abrahamic Religions

1.1. Judaism

While demons exist in the Jewish religion, they are seen as agents of God. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the very few mentions of demons harassing mortals is in the First Book of Samuel,

Exorcism prayer.

"Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you."[1] There are few mentions in other Judaic religious works, with only one in the Mishnah.[2] Both the Talmud and the Midrash[3] mention demons, but though Kabbalists trace demonology throughout the Jewish holy books, little is mentioned of possession.[2]

In the 16th century, Isaac Luria, a Jewish mystic, wrote about the transmigration of souls seeking perfection. His disciples took his idea a step further, creating the idea of a dybbuk, a soul inhabiting a victim until it had accomplished its task or atoned for its sin.[4] The dybbuk appears in Jewish folklore and literature, as well as in chronicles of Jewish life.[5]

1.2. Christianity

From its beginning,[6] Christianity has held that possession derives from the Devil, i.e. Satan, his lesser demons, the fallen angels.[1] In the battle between Satan and Heaven, one of Satan's strategies is to possess humans.[6] The New Testament mentions several episodes in which Jesus drove out demons from persons.[1]


Catholic exorcists differentiate between "ordinary" Satanic/demonic activity or influence (mundane everyday temptations) and "extraordinary" Satanic/demonic activity, which can take six different forms, ranging from complete control by Satan or some demon(s) to voluntary submission:[7]

  1. Possession, in which Satan or some demon(s) takes full possession of a person's body without their knowledge or consent; the victim is morally blameless.
  2. Obsession, which includes sudden attacks of irrationally obsessive thoughts, usually culminating in suicidal ideation, and which typically influences dreams.
  3. Oppression, in which there is no loss of consciousness or involuntary action, such as in the biblical Book of Job in which Job was tormented by a series of misfortunes in business, family, and health.
  4. External physical pain caused by Satan or some demon(s).
  5. Infestation, which affects houses, things, or animals; and
  6. Subjection, in which a person voluntarily submits to Satan or some demon(s).

In the Roman Ritual, true demonic or satanic possession has been characterized since the Middle Ages, by the following four typical characteristics:[8][9]

  1. Manifestation of superhuman strength.
  2. Speaking in tongues or languages that the victim cannot know.
  3. Revelation of knowledge, distant or hidden, that the victim cannot know.
  4. Blasphemous rage, obscene hand gestures, using Profanity and an aversion to holy symbols or relics.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Ecclesiastical authorities are reluctant to admit diabolical possession in most cases, because many can be explained by physical or mental illness alone. Therefore, medical and psychological examinations are necessary before the performance of major exorcism. The standard that must be met is that of moral certitude (De exorcismis, 16). For an exorcist to be morally certain, or beyond reasonable doubt, that he is dealing with a genuine case of demonic possession, there must be no other reasonable explanation for the phenomena in question."[10]

Exorcism of the Gerasene Demonaic.

The New Testament indicates that people can be possessed by demons, but that the demons respond and submit to Jesus' authority:

33In the synagogue, there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice,34 "Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"35 "Be quiet!" Jesus said sternly. "Come out of him!" Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.36 All the people were amazed and said to each other, "What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!"37 And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area. (Luke 4:33-35 NIV)[11]

It also indicates that demons can possess animals as in the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac.[11]

Official Catholic doctrine affirms that demonic possession can occur as distinguished from mental illness,[12] but stresses that cases of mental illness should not be misdiagnosed as demonic influence. Catholic exorcisms can occur only under the authority of a bishop and in accordance with strict rules; a simple exorcism also occurs during baptism[6]


The literal view of demonic possession is held by a number of Christian denominations. In both charismatic and evangelical Christianity, exorcisms of demons are activities carried out by individuals or groups known as Deliverance ministries.[13] Symptoms of such possessions, according to these groups, can include chronic fatigue syndrome, homosexuality, addiction to pornography, and alcoholism.[14] The New Testament's description of people who had evil spirits includes a knowledge of future events (Acts 16:16) and great strength (Act 19:13-16),[1] among others, and shows that those with evil spirits can speak of Christ (Mark 3:7-11).[1]

In Great Britain, the Christian church had offered suggestions on safeguarding one's home. Suggestions ranged from dousing a household with holy water, placing wax and herbs on thresholds to "ward off witches occult," and avoiding certain areas of townships known to be frequented by witches and Devil worshippers after dark.[15] Afflicted persons were restricted from entering the church, but might share the shelter of the porch with lepers and persons of offensive life. After the prayers, if quiet, they might come in to receive the bishop's blessing and listen to the sermon. They were daily fed and prayed over by the exorcists, and, in case of recovery, after a fast of from 20 to 40 days, were admitted to the Eucharist, and their names and cures entered in the church records.[16] In 1603, the Church of England forbade its clergy from performing exorcisms because of numerous fraudulent cases of demonic possession.[12]

1.3. Islam

Various types of creatures, such as jinn, shayatin, 'afarit and ruh, found within Islamic culture, are often held to be responsible for demonic possession. Usually, Iblis, the leader of evil spirits, only tempts humans into sin by following their lower desires.[17][18] Though not directly attested in the Quran, the notion of jinn possessing humans is widespread among Muslims and also accepted by most Islamic scholars.[19] There are various reasons given as to why a jinn might seek to possess an individual, such as falling in love with them, taking revenge for hurting them or their relatives, or other undefined reasons.[20][21] Since jinn are not necessarily evil, they are distinguished from cultural concepts of possession by devils/demons.[22] In contrast, the shayatin are inherently evil.[23] Hadiths suggest that the demons/devils whisper from within the human body, within or next to the heart, devilish whisperings (waswas) are thought of as a kind of possession.[24]

2. Buddhism

Buddha, resisting the demons of Mara.

In Buddhism, a demon can either be a being suffering in the hell realm[25] or it could be a delusion.[26] Before Siddhartha became Gautama Buddha, He was challenged by Mara, the embodiment of temptation, and overcame it.[27] In traditional Buddhism, four metaphorical forms of "māra" are given:[28]

  • Kleśa-māra, or Ma̋ra as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions, such as greed, hate and delusion.(the Demons of delusions/defilement and unwholesome states)
  • Mṛtyu-māra, or Māra as death. (the Demons of the Lord of death)
  • Skandha-māra, or Māra as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.(the Demons of contaminated aggregates)
  • Devaputra-māra, the deva of the sensuous realm, who tries to prevent Gautama Buddha from attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth on the night of the Buddha's enlightenment.(the Demons of sons of deva Gods/desire and temptation)[29]

It is believed that the demon will depart to a different realm once the demon is appeased.[25]

3. Other Religions

In many of the Diasporic traditional African religions, possessing demons are not necessarily harmful or evil, but are rather seeking to rebuke misconduct in the living.[30] As Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian sects move into both African and Oceanic areas, a merger of belief can take place. Demons can be representative of the "old" indigenous religions, which the Christian ministers work to exorcise.[31]

4. Medicine and Psychology

Those who profess a belief in demonic possession, also referred to as possessive trance disorder,[6] have sometimes ascribed to possession the symptoms associated with physical or mental illnesses, such as hysteria, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy,[32] schizophrenia,[33]conversion disorder or dissociative identity disorder.[34] In its article on Dissociative Identity Disorder, the DSM-5 states, "Possession-form identities in dissociative identity disorder typically manifest as behaviors that appear as if a 'spirit,' supernatural being, or outside person has taken control such that the individual begins speaking or acting in a distinctly different manner.[35]" It is not uncommon to ascribe the experience of sleep paralysis to demonic possession, although it's not a physical or mental illness.[36] The symptoms vary across cultures.[37] Demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-5 or the ICD-10.[38] The DSM-5 indicates that personality states of dissociative identity disorder may be interpreted as possession in some cultures, and instances of spirit possession are often related to traumatic experiences—suggesting that possession experiences may be caused by mental distress.[39] Some have expressed concern that belief in demonic possession can limit access to health care for the mentally ill.[40] Studies have found that alleged demonic possessions can be related to trauma.[39]

5. Notable Cases of Demonic Possession

In chronological order:

  • Aix-en-Provence possessions
  • Loudun possessions
  • Dorothy Talbye trial
  • Mademoiselle Elizabeth de Ranfaing (1621)
  • Louviers possessions
  • The Possession of Elizabeth Knapp[41]
  • George Lukins
  • Antoine Gay
  • Johann Blumhardt
  • Clara Germana Cele
  • Exorcism of Roland Doe ("Robbie Mannheim")
  • Michael Taylor
  • Anneliese Michel
  • Arne Cheyenne Johnson
  • Tanacu exorcism

5.1. Notable Frauds

  • Martha Brossier (1578)


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  9. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio; Doubleday, New York, 2009.
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  11. "Bible: New International Version". 2011. 
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  14. Tennant, Agnieszka (September 3, 2001). "In need of deliverance". Christianity Today 45: 46–48+. 
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  16.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Energici". Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 398. 
  17. Michael Anthony Sells Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings Paulist Press, 1996 ISBN:978-0-809-13619-3 page 143
  18. Islam and rationality : the impact of al-Ghazālī : papers collected on his 900th anniversary. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. 2005. pp. 103. ISBN 978-9-004-29095-2. 
  19. Dein, S. (2013). "Jinn and mental health: Looking at jinn possession in modern psychiatric practice". The Psychiatrist 37 (9): 290–293. doi:10.1192/pb.bp.113.042721. 
  20. Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2009. pp. 148. ISBN 978-0-813-54610-0. 
  21. Rassool, G. Hussein (2015). Islamic Counselling: An Introduction to theory and practice. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-44124-3. 
  22. Al-Krenawi, A. & Graham, J.R. Clinical Social Work Journal (1997) 25: 211.
  23. Meldon, J.A. (1908). "Notes on the Sudanese in Uganda". Journal of the Royal African Society 7 (26): 123–146. 
  24. Szombathy, Zoltan, “Exorcism”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Consulted online on 15 November 2019 First published online: 2014 First print edition: 9789004269637, 2014, 2014-4
  25. Hinich Sutherland, Gail (2013). "Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism". doi:10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0171. Retrieved December 12, 2019. 
  26. "Tibetan Buddhist Psychology and Psychotherapy". Retrieved December 12, 2019. 
  27. Kinnard, Jacob (2006). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practice. Gale Virtual Reference Library: Gale. 
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  29. "Four maras". Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. 2019. 
  30. Verter, Bradford (1999). Contemporary American Religions. Gale eBooks: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 187. 
  31. Robbins, Joel (2004). "The globalization of pentecostal and charismatic Christianity". Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 117–143. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093421. 
  32. Pfeifer, S. (1994). Belief in demons and exorcism in psychiatric patients in Switzerland. British Journal of Medical Psychology 4 247-258.
  33. Tajima-Pozo, K.; Zambrano-Enriquez, D.; De Anta, L.; Moron, M. D.; Carrasco, J. L.; Lopez-Ibor, J. J.; Diaz-Marsá, M. (February 15, 2011). "Practicing exorcism in schizophrenia". BMJ Case Reports 2011: bcr1020092350. doi:10.1136/bcr.10.2009.2350. PMID 22707465.
  34. Ross, C. A.; Schroeder, E.; Ness, L. (2013). "Dissociation and symptoms of culture-bound syndromes in North America: A preliminary study". Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 14 (2): 224–225. doi:10.1080/15299732.2013.724338. PMID 23406226.
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  36. Beyerstein, Barry L. (1995). Dissociative States: Possession and Exorcism. In Gordon Stein (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. pp. 544-552. ISBN:1-57392-021-5
  37. Bhavsar, Vishal; Ventriglio, Antonio; Bhugra, Dinesh (2016). "Dissociative trance and spirit possession: Challenges for cultures in transition". Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 70 (12): 551–559. doi:10.1111/pcn.12425. PMID 27485275.
  38. Henderson, J. (1981). Exorcism and Possession in Psychotherapy Practice. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 27: 129-134.
  39. Hecker, Tobias; Braitmayer, Lars; Van Duijl, Marjolein (2015). "Global mental health and trauma exposure: The current evidence for the relationship between traumatic experiences and spirit possession". European Journal of Psychotraumatology 6: 29126. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v6.29126. PMID 26589259.
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  41. Demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, Cotton Mather's widely cited report on the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp of Massachusetts (1701)
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