Obsession and Possession

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Obsession and Possession

Obsession, from Latin obsidere (to besiege), is a form of insanity caused, according to traditional belief, by the persistent attack of an invading spirit from outside the individual. Obsession is the opposite of possession, control by an invading spirit from within. Both, however, involve the usurpation of the person's individuality and control of the body by a foreign and discarnate entity.

In the Western Christian context, both obsession and possession, but especially possession, have been viewed as completely negative, a perspective somewhat enforced by the modern concern for the autonomous individual, possession implying a giving over of one's freedom. In most cultures, however, there is a distinction between dysfunctional possession and possession that occurs voluntarily, usually in a religious context. Numerous religions, like Spiritualism, are possession-oriented religions, in which a central feature is the voluntary possession of members by what is believed to be a deity, a spirit, or a deceased person. These religious functionaries may periodically become possessed, usually in a ritual context, during their entire active lives, but without the otherwise dysfunctional consequences so evident in pathological possessed states.

During the 1960s anthropologist Erika Bourguignon conducted a study of possession in 488 societies about which data was available. Seventy-four percent of them maintained some belief in spirit possession, of which more than half had some form of positive institutionalized structure in which possession occurred and was appropriated by believers.

Historical Background

This belief may be found in the earliest records of human historyin the ancient magic rites and in the pronouncements often used as charms against and for the exorcism of these invading influences. The oldest literary remains from India, Greece, and Rome are filled with references to possession. While there are passing references to demons and demon obsession or possession in sacred Jewish writingssuch as the case of Saul, who was "troubled with an evil spirit from God" only to be relieved by the music of David's harp (1 Sam. 16:14-16)it is with the Christian movement that a major emphasis on spirit possession emerges. Jesus regularly healed by casting possessing spirits out of the mentally ill. Crucial to later understanding of possessing spirits in the Western tradition are incidents such as Jesus' driving the legion of demons into the swine (thus demonstrating their existence apart from the psychology of the possessed individual) and Paul's driving out of the divining spirit who possessed a young woman of Thyatira (thus associating spirit possession with fortune-telling).

Plato, in the Republic, not only speaks of demons of various grades, but mentions a method of treating and providing for those obsessed by them. Sophocles and Euripides described the possessed, and mention of the subject is also found in Herodotus, Plutarch, Horace, and many other classical writers.

Appalling episodes in the Middle Ages can be traced to the unquestioned belief in possession and obsession by the Devil and his demonic legions. Many believed that all madness was caused by possession, the visible manifestation of the Evil One. Such madness had to be exorcised by charms and averted by the observance of sacred rites. In extreme cases the possessed body was to be burned and destroyed for the good of the tortured soul within. The rites of black magic, in all ages and places, deliberately evoked this possession by the Devil and his demons to obtain the benefit of the extensive knowledge it was believed they conferred and the consequent power and control over man and his destinies.

In the Middle Ages, when an intense belief in angels, saints, and devils flourished, the imagination of the individual was dominated by such beings.

A variation on the belief in obsession and possession can be found in the condition known as lycanthropy (the delusion that one has become a wolf), which afflicted large numbers of people in France and Germany in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The mania of flagellation took its rise in Perouse in the thirteenth century, caused by the panic accompanying an outbreak of the plague. Flagellants preached that there was no remission of sins (and dissipation of accompanying disasters such as epidemics) without their self-inflicted punishment offered as penance. Bands of them, gathering adherents everywhere, roamed through city and country, clad in scanty clothing on which were depicted skeletons, and with frenzied movements publicly lashed themselves. It was to these exhibitions the name "Dance of Death" was first applied.

The dancing mania, accompanied by aberration of mind and maniacal distortions of the body, was prevalent in Germany in the fourteenth century, and in the sixteenth century in Italy, where it was termed tarantism and was ascribed to the bite of the tarantula spider. The music and songs employed for the cure are still preserved. Edmund Parish, in his book Hallucinations and Illusions (1897), summarizes the activity of the dancers:

"If not reckoned as true chorea, the epidemic of dancing which raged in Germany and the Netherlands in the Middle Ages comes under this head. Appearing in Aix it spread in a few months to Liège, Utrecht and the neighbouring towns, visited Metz, Cologne and Strasburg (1418) and after lingering into the sixteenth century gradually died out. This malady consisted in convulsions, contortions accompanying the dancing, hallucinations and so forth. The attack could be checked by bandaging the abdomen as well as by kicks and blows on that part of the body. Music had a great influence on the dancers, and for this reason it was played in the streets in order that the attacks might by this means reach a crisis and disappear the sooner. Quite trifling circumstances could bring on these seizures, the sight of pointed shoes for instance, and of the colour red which the dancers held in horror. In order to prevent such outbreaks the wearing of pointed shoes was forbidden by the authorities. During their dance many of the afflicted thought they waded in blood, or saw heavenly visions."

Tying the dancing to possession, Parish continues, "To this category also belongs the history of demoniacal possession. The belief of being possessed by spirits, frequently met with in isolated cases, appeared at certain periods in epidemic form. Such an epidemic broke out in Brandenburg, and in Holland and Italy in the sixteenth century, especially in the convents. In 1350-60 it attacked the convent of St. Brigitta, in Xanthen, a convent near Cologne, and others. The nuns declared that they were visited by the Devil, and had carnal conversation with him. These and other 'possessed' wretches were sometimes thrown into dungeons, sometimes burnt. The convent of the Ursulines at Aix was the scene of such a drama (1609-11) where two possessed nuns, tormented by all kinds of apparitions, accused a priest of witchcraft on which charge he was burnt to death [see Urbain Grandier ]. The famous case of the nuns of Loudun (1632-39) led to a like tragic conclusion, as well as the Louvier case (1642) in which the two chief victims found their end in life-long imprisonment and the stake."

Religious Possession

The widespread belief in and fear of magic and witchcraft produced some hallucinations. Certain levels of religious ecstasy partake of the same character, the difference being that they involve possession by and contact with so-called angelic or good (i.e., socially approved) spirits. The sacred books of all nations teem with instances of this and history can also furnish examples. The many familiar cases of ecstatic visions and revelations in the Torah may be cited, as well as those found in the legends of saints and martyrs, where they either appear as revelations from heaven or temptations of the Devil.

In the latter case, the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing pointed out the close connection of religious ecstasy with sexual disturbances, especially in situations where the sexual drive was suppressed and diverted into religious activity. The religious ecstatic condition was frequently sought and induced. Von Kraftt-Ebing noted as follows:

"Among Eastern and primitive peoples such as Hindoos, American Indians, natives of Greenland, Kamtschatka and Yucatan, fetish-worshipping Negroes, and Polynesians, the ecstatic state accompanied with hallucinations is frequently observed, sometimes arising spontaneously, but more often artificially induced. It was known also among the nations of antiquity. The means most often employed to induce this state are beating of magic drums and blowing of trumpets, howlings and hour-long prayers, dancing, flagellation, convulsive movements and contortions, asceticism, fasting and sexual abstinence. Recourse is also had to narcotics to bring about the desired result. Thus the flyagaric is used in Western Siberia, in San Domingo the herb coca, tobacco by some tribes of American Indians, and in the East opium and hashish. The ancient Egyptians had their intoxicating drinks, and receipts for witch's salves and philtres have come down to us from medieval times."

In many countries this condition of possession was induced for a spectrum of purposes from the higher mystical and prophetic to mere fortune-telling. Anthropologist Edward Tylor, in his Primitive Culture (1871), testifies to the extent to which this belief in obsession and possession persisted into the nineteenth century: "It is not too much to assert that the doctrine of demoniacal possession is kept up, substantially the same theory to account for substantially the same facts, by half the human race, who thus stand as consistent representatives of their forefathers back in primitive antiquity."

Such beliefs persisted in the development of Spiritualism. Pioneer Spiritualist seer Andrew Jackson Davis developed a theory of obsession to account for forms of insanity and crime. The following passage taken from his book Diakka and Their Victims (1873) indicates this belief:

"The country of the diakka is where the morally deficient and the affectionately unclean enter upon a strange probation. They are continually victimizing sensitive per sons still in the flesh making sport of them and having a jolly laugh at the expense of really honest and sincere people. They [these demonlike spirits] teach that they would be elevated and made happy if only they could partake of whiskey and tobacco, or gratify their burning free-love propensities. Being un-principled intellectualities their play is nothing but pastime amusement at the expense of those beneath their influence."

Davis saw some of these creatures as having such a malignant and bloodthirsty nature as to incite the beings they possessed to murder.

Recorded Instances of Possession

The sixteenth-century writer Jean Boulaese told how 26 devils came out of the body of the possessed Nicoli of Laon:

"At two o'clock in the afternoon, the said Nicoli, being possessed of the Devil, was brought to the said church, where the said de Motta proceeded as before with the exorcism. In spite of all entreaty the said Beelzebub told them in a loud voice that he would not come out. Returning to their entreaties after dinner, the said de Motta asked him how many had come out, and he answered, 'twenty-six.' 'You and your followers,' then said de Motta, 'must now come out like the others.' 'No,' he replied, 'I will not come out here, but if you like to take me to Saint Restitute, we will come out there. It is sufficient for you that twenty-six are out.' Then the said de Motta asked for a convincing sign of how they had come out. For witness he told them to look in the garden of the treasury over the front gate, for they had taken and carried away three tufts (i.e., branches) from a green maypole (a small fir) and three slates from above the church of Liesse, made into a cross, as others in France commonly, all of which was found true as shown by the Abbot of Saint-Vincent, M. de Velles, Master Robert de May, canon of the Church Notre-Dame of Laon, and others."

The same author gave an account of the contortions of the possessed woman:

"As often as the reverend father swung the sacred host before her eyes, saying, 'Begone, enemy of God,' so did she toss from side to side, twisting her face towards her feet, and making horrible noises. Her feet were reversed, with the toes in the position of the heel, and despite the restraining power of eight of the men, she stiffened herself and threw herself into the air a height of six feet, the stature of a man, so that the attendants, sometimes even carried with her into the air, perspired at their work. And although they bore down with all their might, still could they not restrain her, and torn away from the restraining hands, she freed herself without any appearance of being at all ruffle.

"The people, seeing and hearing such a horrible sight, one so monstrous, hideous and terrifying cried out, 'Jesus, have mercy on us!' Some hid themselves, not daring to look; others, recognising the wild cruelty of such excessive and incredible torment, wept bitterly, reiterating piteously, 'Jesus, have mercy on us!' The reverend father then gave permission to those who wished to touch and handle the patient, disfigured, bent, and deformed, and with the rigidity of death. Chief among these were the would-be reformers, such men as Francois Santerre, Christofle, Pasquot, Gratian de la Roche, Masquette, Jean du Glas, and others well-known for their tendencies towards reform, all vigorous men. They all endeavored, but in vain, to straighten her limbs, and bring them to a normal position, and to open her eyes and mouthit was futile. Further, so stiff and rigid was she, that the limbs would have broken rather than give, as also the nose and ears. And then, as she said afterwards, she was possessed, declaring that she was enduring incredible pain. That is, by the soul torment, the devil makes the body become stone or marble."

A Dr. Ese exponded on the case of Sister Mary, one of Louviers' nuns:

"The last was Sister Mary of St. Esprit, supposedly possessed by Dagon, a large woman, slender-waisted, and of good complexion, with no evidence of illness. She came into the refectory head erect and eyes wandering from side to side, singing, dancing and skipping. Still moving about and touching lightly those around her, she spoke with an elegance of language expressive of the good feeling and good nature which were his (using the person of the devil). All this was done with movements and carriage alike haughty, following it up with a violence of blasphemy, then a reference to his dear little friend Magdalen, his darling and his favourite mistress. And then, without springing or using effort of any kind, she projected herself into a pane of glass and hanging on to a central bar of iron passed bodily through it, but on making an exit from the other side the command was given in Latin, 'est in nomine Jesu rediret non per aliam sed per eadem viam.' After some discussion and a definite refusal to return she, however, returned by the same route, whereupon the doctors examined her pulse and tongue, all of which she endured while laughing and discussing other things. They found no disturbance such as they had expected, nor any sign of the violence of her actions and words, her coming to being accompanied with some trivial remarks. The company then retired."

As at Louviers, nuns at Auxonne also experienced a problem with possession, an account of which is in the Relation des Ursulines possedées d'Auxonne (ca. 1660):

" the bishop of Chalons, with the intention of exorcising Denise Lamy, sent for her and when she was not found, he inwardly commanded her to come to him in the chapel of St. Anne where he was. It was striking to see the prompt obedience of the demon to this command, formulated merely in the mind, for in about a quarter of an hour a violent knocking was heard at the door of the chapel, as if by one hard pressed. On opening the door this girl entered the chapel abruptly, leaping and bounding, her face changed greatly and with high colour and sparkling eyes. So bold and violent was she that it was difficult to restrain her, nor would she allow the putting on of the stole which she seized and threw violently into the air despite the efforts of four or five clerics who did their best to stop her, so that finally it was proposed to bind her, but this was deemed too difficult in the condition in which she was.

"On another occasion, at the height of her frenzy the demon was ordered to stop the pulse in one of her arms, and it was immediately done, with less resistance and pain than before. Immediate response was also made to the further order to make it return. The command being given to make the girl insensible to pain, she avowed that she was so, boldly offering her arm to be pierced and burnt as wished. The exorcist, fortified by his earlier experience, took a sufficiently long needle and drove it, full length, into the nail and flesh, at which she laughed aloud, saying that she felt nothing at all. Accordingly as he was ordered, blood was allowed to flow or not, and she herself took the needle and stuck it into different parts of her arm and hand. Further, one of the company took a pin and, having drawn out the skin a little above the wrist, passed it through and through so that the two ends were only visible, the rest of the pin being buried in the arm. Unless the order was given for some no blood issued, nor was there the least sign of feeling or pain."

As proof of the possession of the Auxonne nuns, the same account continues:

"Violent agitation of the body only conceivable to those who have seen it. Beating of the head with all their might against the pavement or walls, done so often and so hard that it causes one to shudder on seeing it and yet they show no sign of pain, nor is there any blood, wound or contusion.

"The condition of the body in a position of extreme violence, where they support themselves on their knees with the head turned round and inclined towards the ground for a foot or so, which makes it appear as if broken. Their power of bearing, for hours together without moving, the head being lowered behind below the level of the waist; their power of breathing in this condition; the unruffled expression of the face which never alters during these disturbances; the evenness of the pulse; their coolness during these movements; the tranquil state they are in when they suddenly return and the lack of any quickening in the respirations; the turning back of the head, even to the ground, with marvelous rapidity. Sometimes the movement to and fro is done thirty or forty times running, the girl on her knees and with her arms crossed in front; at other times, in the same position with the head turned about, the body is wound around into a sort of semicircle, with results apparently incompatible with nature.

"Fearful convulsions, affecting all the limbs and accompanied with shouts and cries. Sometimes fear at the sight of certain phantoms and spectres by which they say they are menaced, causes such a change in their facial expression that those present are terrified; at other times there is a flood of tears beyond control and accompanied by groans and piercing cries. Again, the widely-opened mouth, eyes wild and showing nothing but the white, the pupil being turned up under cover of the lidsthe whole returning to the normal at the mere command of the exorcist in conjunction with the sign of the cross.

"They have often been seen creeping and crawling on the ground without any help from the hands or feet; the back of the head or the forehead may be touching the soles of the feet. Some lie on the ground, touching it with the pit of the stomach only, the rest of the body, head, feet and arms, being in the air for some length of time. Sometimes, bent back so that the top of the head and the soles of the feet touch the ground, the rest of the body being supported in the air like a table, they walk in this position without help from the hands. It is quite common for them, while on their knees to kiss the ground, with the face twisted to the back so that the top of the head touches the soles of the feet. In this position and with the arms crossed on the chest they make the sign of the cross on the pavement with their tongues.

"A marked difference is to be noticed between their condition when free and uncontrolled and that which they show when controlled and in the heat of their frenzy. By reason of their sex and delicate constitutions as much as from illness they may be weak, but when the demon enters them and the authority of the church compels them to appear they may become at times so violent that all the power of four or five men may be unable to stop them. Even their faces become so distorted and changed that they are no longer recognisable. What is more astonishing is that after these violent transports, lasting sometimes three or four hours; after efforts which would make the strongest feel like resting for several days; after continuous shrieking and heart-breaking cries; when they become normal againa momentary proceedingthey are unwearied and quiet, and the mind is as tranquil, the face as composed, the breathing as easy and the pulse as little changed as if they had not stirred out of a chair.

"It may be said, however, that among all the signs of possession which these girls have shown, one of the most surprising, and at the same time the most common, is the understanding of the thought and inward commands which are used every day by exorcists and priests, without there being any outward manifestation either by word or other sign. To be appreciated by them it is merely necessary to address them inwardly or mentally, a fact which has been verified by so many of the experiences during the stay of the bishop of Chalons and by any of the clergy, who wished to investigate, that one cannot reasonably doubt such particulars and many others, the details of which cannot be given here."

Simon Goulart, in Histoires admirables et mémorables de nostre temps (2 vols., 1610), culled many stories of demonic possession from demonologist Johan Weyer, including the following:

"Antoine Benivenius in the eighth chapter of the Livre des causes cachées des maladies tells of having seen a girl of sixteen years whose hands contracted curiously whenever she was taken with a pain in the abdomen. With a cry of terror her abdomen would swell up so much that she had the appearance of being eight months pregnantlater the swelling went down and, not being able to lie still, she tossed about all over the bed, sometimes putting her feet above her head as if trying a somersault. This she kept up throughout the throes of her illness and until it had gone down by degrees. When asked what had happened to her, she denied any remembrance of it. But on seeking the causes of this affection we were of opinion that it arose from a choking of the womb and from the rising of malignant vapours affecting adversely the heart and brain. We were at length forced to relieve her with drugs but these were of no avail and becoming more violent and congested she at last began to throw up long iron nails all bent, brass needles stuck into wax, and bound up with hair and a part of her breakfasta mass so large that a man would have had difficulty in swallowing it all. I was afraid, after seeing several of these vomitings, that she was possessed by an evil spirit, who deluded those present while he removed these things and afterwards we heard predictions and other things given which were entirely beyond human comprehension.

"Meiner Clath, a nobleman living in the castle of Boutenbrouch in the duchy of Juliers, had a valet named William who for fourteen years had the torments of a possession by the devil, and when, at the instigation of the devil, he began to get ill, he asked for the curé of St. Gerard as confessor who came to carry out his little part but failed entirely. Seeing him with a swollen throat and discoloured face and with the fear of his suffocating, Judith, wife of Clath and an upright woman, with all in the house, began to pray to God. Immediately there issued from William's mouth, among other odds and ends, the whole of the front part of the trousers of a shepherd, stones, some whole and other broken, small bundles of thread, a peruke such as women are accustomed to use, needles, a piece of the serge jacket of a little boy, and a peacock's feather which William had pulled from the bird's tail eight days before he became ill. Being asked the cause of his trouble he said that he had met a woman near Camphuse who had blown in his face and that his illness was the result of that and nothing else. Some time after he had recovered he contradicted what he had said and confessed that he had been instructed by the devil to say what he had. He added that all those curious things had not been in his stomach but had been put into his throat by the devil despite the fact that he was seen to vomit them.

"On the 18th March, 1566, there occurred a memorable case in Amsterdam, Holland, on which the Chancellor of Gueldres, M. Adrian Nicolas, made a public speech, from which is the following: 'Two months or so ago thirty children of this town began to be strangely disturbed, as if frenzied or mad. At intervals they threw themselves on the ground and for half an hour or an hour at the most this torment lasted. Recovering, they remembered nothing, but thought they had a sleep and the doctors, sorcerers, and exorcists were all equally unable to do any good. During the exorcism the children vomited a number of pins and needles, finger-stalls for sewing, bits of cloth, and of broken jugs and glass, hair and other things. The children didn't always recover from this but had recurrent attacks of itthe unusualness of such a condition causing great astonishment."

Dr. Jean Languis gives the following example in the first book of his Epitres, saying they happened in 1539 in Fugenstall, a village in the bishopric of Eysteten, and were sworn to by a large number of witnesses:

"Ulric Neusesser, a ploughman in this village, was greatly troubled by a pain in the side. On an incision being made into the skin by a surgeon an iron nail was removed, but this did not relieve the pain, rather did it increase so that, becoming desperate, the poor man finally committed suicide. Before burying him two surgeons opened his stomach, in front of a number of persons, and in it found some long round pieces of wood, four steel knives, some sharp and pointed, other notched like a saw, two iron rods each nine inches long and a large tuft of hair. One wondered how and by what means this mass of old iron could be collected together into the space of his stomach. There is no doubt that it was the work of the devil who is capable of anything which will maintain a dread of him."

Views of Obsession from Psychical Research

As Nandor Fodor pointed out, obsession in psychiatry means that the mind of the patient is dominated by fixed ideas to which an abnormal mental condition corresponds. In psychical research, obsession is an invasion of the living by a discar-nate entity, tending to a complete displacement of normal personality for purposes of selfish gratification that is more or less permanent. The difference between mediumship and obsession is not in principle but in purpose, duration, and (most important) effect. Mediumship, or trance possession, does not interfere with the ordinary course of life, does not bring about a demoralizing dissociation or disintegration; it shows consideration for the medium and its length is limited. After a certain time it ceases automatically and the medium's normal self resumes its sway.

Obsession is always abnormal; it is an accompaniment of a shock, organic lesion, or, as has been observed among psychics, of low morale and weakening will power, induced by an unstable character and debility of health. Once the existence of spirits is admitted, the possibility of obsession cannot be disregarded.

Psychical researcher James H. Hyslop in Contact with the Other World (1919), observes:

"If we believe in telepathy we believe in a process which makes possible the invasion of a personality by someone at a distance. It is not at all likely that sane and intelligent spirits are the only ones to exert influence from a transcendental world. If they can act on the living there is no reason why others cannot do so as well. The process in either case would be the same; we should have to possess adequate proof that nature puts more restrictions upon ignorance and evil in the next life than in this in order to establish the certainty that mischievous personalities do not or cannot perform nefarious deeds. The objection that such a doctrine makes the world seem evil applies equally to this situation in the present life."

How are we to distinguish obsession from multiple personality? It was explained to Hyslop by the " Imperator " group of controls of medium William Stainton Moses that even for the spirits it is sometimes difficult to state how far the subconscious self of the patient is acting under influence and suggestion from spirits or as a secondary personality. Nevertheless Hyslop claimed to have found a satisfactory method to find out the truth in cross-reference:

"I take the patient to a psychic under conditions that exclude from the psychic all normal knowledge of the situation and see what happens. If the same phenomena that occur in the patient are repeated through the medium; if I am able to establish the identity of the personalities affecting the patient; or if I can obtain indubitably supernormal information connecting the patient with the statements made through the psychic, I have reason to regard the mental phenomena observed in the patient as of external origin. In a number of cases, persons whose condition would ordinarily be described as due to hysteria, dual, or multiple personality dementia precox, paranoia, or some other form of mental disturbance, showed unmistakable indications of invasion by foreign and discarnate agencies."

Hyslop tells the readers of his Life After Death (1918), "Be-fore accepting such a doctrine, I fought against it for ten years after I was convinced that survival after death was proved. But several cases forced upon me the consideration of the question. The chief interest in such cases is their revolutionary effect in the field of medicine. It is high time for the medical world to wake up and learn something."

William James, shortly before his death, surrendered to the same belief. He wrote:

"The refusal of modern enlightenment to treat obsession as a hypothesis to be spoken of as even possible, in spite of the massive human tradition based on concrete experience in its favor, has always seemed to me a curious example of the power of fashion in things scientific. That the demon theory (not necessarily a devil theory) will have its innings again is to my mind absolutely certain. One has to be 'scientific' indeed to be blind and ignorant enough not to suspect any such possibility."

James was affected by the account of the Thompson-Gifford case published in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research (vol. 3, part 8, 1909). According to the report, F. L. Thompson, a Brooklyn goldsmith, was seized in 1905 with an irresistible impulse to sketch and paint. The style was that of Robert Swain Gifford. The American artist had died six months previously but this fact was unknown to Thompson, who hardly knew of him and, except for a slight taste for sketching in his early years, had never shown artistic talent.

Supposedly, Thompson had visions of scenes of the neighborhood of Gifford's country house and often had the hallucination that he was Gifford himself. He saw a notice of an exhibition of Gifford's paintings. He went in and heard a voice whisper, "You see what I have done. Can you take up and finish my work?" The desire to paint became stronger. Soon it was so overpowering that he was unable to follow his former occupation.

Thompson grew afraid that he was losing his sanity. Two physicians diagnosed the case as paranoia. One of them, without offering to cure it, expressed a desire to watch the progress of the malady. Thompson went to Hyslop for advice, who took him to three different mediums. They all claimed to sense the influence of Gifford, described his character and life and confirmed the vague possibility, which Hyslop wished to investigate, that the case was not the result of mental disorder. As soon as the case was determined to be spirit obsession, a course of treatment was decided upon. Reportedly, Gifford, the spirit entity, was reasoned with and persuaded to desist.

Spirit Obsession and Personality Displacement

If one assumes the possibility of obsession being actually caused by a spirit entity, the importance of such treatment as Hyslop gave Thompson and Gifford seems appropriate. The obsessing spirit entity, if driven out either by strengthened will-power of the victim or by psychotherapeutic means, would logically seek and find another subject, but if it is convinced of the error of its ways, the danger is eliminated. Work of this kind was done in the Temple of Light in Kansas City in 1910. Hyslop was impressed with the importance of this cure and established the James J. Hyslop Foundation for the Treatment of Obsession in New York. Physician Titus Bull served as its director.

The systematic practice of curing obsession through such means was soon taken up by Dr. and Mrs. Carl Wickland in their Psychopathic Institute of Chicago. The patient was brought to Mrs. Wickland, who operated as a medium. She went into trance. Her controls influenced the obsessing spirit to step into Mrs. Wickland's body. If the obsessor was unwilling it was forced to do so by means known to the controls. Dr. Wick-land then began to parley with the spirit, usually ending in convincing the invader that it did a great wrong to its spiritual evolution by strengthening ties to the Earth. The invader usually promised to depart and the patient became normal. Later Wickland moved to California and founded the National Psychological Institute for the Treatment of Obsession. His experiences are chronicled in his book Thirty Years Among the Dead (1924). The Wicklands considered the obsessing entities to be mostly earthbound spiritsspirits of the recently deceased. They do not necessarily mean harm, the Wicklands said, but only wish to enjoy earthly existence again. Some may commit acts of revenge or do other harm, however, and if an occasional evil personality takes control, the obsessed individual could be driven to criminal, insane acts.

Just as the trance control will become perfect by practice, the obsessor will feel more at home in the victim's organism after repeated possession and will settle as permanently as possible, said the Wicklands.

Certain historic records suggest that obsession may attain an epidemic character. The case of the Ursuline Nuns of Loudon in 1632-34 has already been cited. Several of the nuns of the convent, including the mother superior, were seized with violent convulsions, symptoms of catalepsy and demonic possession. Blasphemies and obscenities poured from their mouths, confessed to come from the devil. The priest Urbain Grandier was accused of immoralities preceding the outbreak. The devils indicated him as the cause of their troubles. He was burned alive in April 1634.

In February 1874 Franklin B. Evans was executed in Concord, New Hampshire, for the murder of a 12-year-old child. In his confession made just before his execution he said that "for some days before the murder I seemed to be attended continually by one who seemed to bear a human form, urging me on to the deed. At length it became fixed in my mind to take her life."

Hudson Tuttle, in his book The Arcana of Spiritualism (1871), describes a suicidal obsession:

"While sitting in a circle at the home of the venerable Dr. Underhill, I was for the time in an almost unconscious state, and recognised the presence of several Indian spirits. The roar of the Cayahoga River over the rapids could be heard in the still evening air, and to my sensitive ear was very distinct. Suddenly I was seized with a desire to rush away to the rapids, and throw myself into the river someone caught hold of me, and aroused me out of the impressible state I was in, so that I gained control of myself. Had the state been more profound, and had I once started, the end might have been different. The desire remained all the evening."

On occasion the obsession might serve a beneficial end. An example is the case of Lurancy Vennum, Watseka Wonder. Her obsessors, it was said, were forced out by the spirit of Mary Roff, who had died 18 years earlier in the same city. "Mary Roff" supposedly lived in Lurancy Vennum's body, but haunted the house of her own parents for 16 weeks and convinced everyone of her identity. Her long inhabitation somehow made Vennum's body safe from malicious invasions, and when she finally yielded its control to the returning ego of Lurancy Vennum, the girl's health was mentally and physically reestablished.

As a result of his twenty years' study of obsession as head of the James Hyslop Institute, Titus Bull published in 1932 some conclusions, as follows:

"An obsessing personality is not composed of the soul, mind and will of one disembodied being, but is, in reality, a composite personality made up of many beings. The pivot obsessor, or the one who first impinges upon the sensorium of the mortal, is generally one with little resistance to the suggestions of others. He or she, therefore, becomes an easy prey to those who desire to approach a mortal in this way.

"Some people, moreover, may be born with tendencies which make it easier for them to become victims of mental alterations later in life. There is an influence which can be exerted upon the minds of mortals by ideas embodied in thoughts from their departed ancestors. In other words, some departed ancestors, whenever possible, attempt to mould the lives of those incarnated who are akin. There is a type of mortal whose mind is easily influenced by the stronger minds of the family group. The more clannish the family group,the more likely is this to be true on both sides of the veil. It is, however, not to be considered as spirit obsession in the true sense. The intervention of shock, however, or anything that could upset the nerve balance of a member of such family group, would place him in actual danger of becoming a victim of true spirit obsession. The primary obsessor, in this case, would likely be one who claimed the right by ties of blood, who had no desire to do anything but to keep the mortal in line with family ideals."

According to Bull, obsessors "have three major points of impingement; namely, the base of the brain, the region of the solar plexus and at the center governing the reproductive organs. As there are three major points of impingement, it may be assumed that there can be three composite groups, each starting with a pivot entity. What satisfaction is to be gained this way includes the whole gamut of human emotions."

Objections to the Concept of Spirit Obsession

Much of the evidence for spirit obsession is subjective, based on the observations, feelings, and prejudices of investigators, many of whom have been reputable individuals. However, so far no conclusive evidence has been found that will resolve this question definitively.

The subconscious mind has the ability to weave convincing fantasies of personality, just as novelists create imaginary characters who seem to have lives of their own. Some cases of apparent secondary or multiple personality seem to be a dramatization of the subject's unconscious emotional desires and fears. Children often pretend to be different personalities, while even the effect of a powerful movie portrayal often awakens both conscious and unconscious imitation of personality traits in impressionable viewers.

For a time it was thought that the technique of hypnotic regression, in which a subject's memory is progressively explored into the past and then into apparent former lives, might offer reliable evidence of the continuity of personality from one life to another. However, although there are case histories, the evidence so far is not conclusive.

It may well be discovered that there is no one simple explanation for or against the concept of spirit obsessions, that certain cases may be genuinely spirit obsession, others only subconscious impersonation. The concept of spirit obsession/ possession has suffered from the same doubts that have discouraged continued research on spirit communication. Such experiments as the conjuring of "Philip" by members of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research have done much to call into question the possibility of investigating spirit survival and working with a spirit hypothesis.


Pagan and Christian beliefs in demonic obsession and possession brought about complex rituals of exorcism, designed to drive out the diabolical entities. Although such rituals had virtually fallen into disuse in Christian countries with the more pragmatic materialist philosophy of the twentieth century, they were revived on a startling scale with the occult boom of the 1960s. The theme permeated popular books and movies through the early 1970s and led to a revival of forgotten rituals of exorcism.

Active belief in demonic possession seems to be a causative force in generating apparent cases. Among Pentecostal Christians, who discuss demons and possession regularly from the pulpit and hold periodic exorcism services, cases of possession appear to be in response to the group's belief. Among liberal Christians and conservative groups who do not believe in demon possession, members manifest no symptoms of possible possession.


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Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952. Reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Hyslop, James H. Contact with the Other World; The Latest Evidence as to Communication with the Dead. New York: Century, 1919.

Nicola, John T. Diabolical Possession and Exorcism. Rockford,Ill.: TAN Books, 1974.

Oesterreich, T. K. Possession, Demoniacal and Other. London: Kegan Paul; New York: R. R. Smith, 1930. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1966. Reprinted as Possession and Exorcism. New York: Causeway Books, 1974.

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