Many people may be familiar with one of the most iconically frightening movies in film history: The Exorcist. The film features demonic possession, exorcism, and frame after frame of terrifying images. After watching (if you dare to watch!) you may be left disturbed, scared, or horrified. But the good news is, that movie is just a fake, made-up Hollywood plot! Right?
Not quite. Many people, of multiple faiths, believe demonic possession IS a real occurrence - and alarmingly, it is also apparently on the rise.
In April 2018, the Vatican held its annual excorcism course in Rome, which was attended by at least 250 priests from 50 countries, a number that has more than doubled since the course’s inception in 2005. The increasing demand for exorcisms worldwide is being blamed on both a decline in Christian faith and on the internet for providing easy access to the occult, Satanism, and “pagan activities” that lead to addiction. In Italy it has been reported that half a million people seek exorcisms every year. The number of exorcisms performed in the UK has also been growing. And in the United States, priest-led exorcisms more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2016, jumping from 12 to 50, as priests expressed their struggle to keep up with the demand.
With demonic possession becoming so prevalent in the modern day, why does it still seem taboo to believe in such powerful spiritual activity? Why do we not start looking beyond the curtain of Hollywood movie sensationalism and take the subject more seriously?
Because, according to Dr. Richard Gallagher, a private psychiatrist and a professor at New York Medical College and Columbia University, demonic possession is often treated as or confused with mental illness. A devout Catholic himself, Dr. Gallagher believes that possession, though rare, is very real. In the last 25 years, he estimates that he has seen about 100 cases of true demonic possession, during which time he has served as a “consultant” for a growing network of exorcists in the United States.
Originally, while studying medicine at Yale University, Gallagher had concluded that biblical accounts of demonic possession were the attempt of an archaic culture to explain mental disorders. But in the intervening years, he has experienced enough cases that defied psychiatric explanation to come to believe in the frightening reality of demons and their ability to possess a living body. Over his long career, Gallagher maintains that he has witnessed victims suddenly speaking perfect Latin and other languages; people revealing personal information or secrets about others that they could not have conceivably known otherwise; sacred objects flying off surfaces; and hearing other, demonic voices emanating from an afflicted person. In one interview he described the following encounter:
"There was one woman who was like 90 pounds soaking wet. She threw a Lutheran deacon who was about 200 pounds across the room. That's not psychiatry. That's beyond psychiatry."
And yet, most medical professionals are hesitant to treat, evaluate, or even believe in the possibility of demonic possession - believing instead that doctors like Gallagher have been tricked by their own patients, and are enabling them to continue in their mental illness by using demonic possession as an “easy out” for their troubling behavior. These health professionals choose to consider spirituality as the antithesis of scientific knowledge, rather than as a (largely unexplored) companion to it - a fact that needs to change if the demonically possessed are to receive serious help for an afflication that affects not only their minds, but their souls.
Additional information about Dr. Gallagher and his insight and experience with demonic possession can be read here.
Not included in Dr. Gallagher’s observations but something perhaps worth noting is the recent rise in teenage mental illness, which has also been attributed in part to internet activity:
“In surveys of over five hundred thousand American adolescents, psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that adolescents, especially girls, who spent more time on screen activities (smartphones, Internet, and social media) were significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation than those who spent their time on non-screen activities...” (The full article is available by clicking here.)
This troubling piece of information raises at least two important questions linking both psychiatry and spirituality:
1) To what extent have we allowed the internet to take over our minds (and spirits)?
2) How much overlap is there between the remarkable increases in both demonic possession and mental illness?
The answers needed here are by no means easy to come by. According to Dr. Richard Gallagher, demons certainly won’t submit themselves to lab studies or other means of obtaining “scientific proof” of possession. Their purpose is in fact the opposite - to sow doubt and cause derision. Adding to that supernatural complication is the unwillingess of a critical medical field to expand their thinking beyond what can be tested and quantified by scientific explanation. But in the end, mental illness and demonic possession are increasing by the caseload, suggesting that they are both very serious, and very real. It may be time to consider, as Dr. Gallagher does, how members of the mental health field and members of the church can offer treatment for afflictions of both the mind and of the spirit, in order to heal those who may be suffering in one or the other - or both.
Post updated 12/19/18.