Beyond Hollywood Pseudo-Science: Treating Demon Possession with Antipsychotics


The Rite

Like most movies coming out of Hollywood, it’s rare to ever witness a movie that didn’t promote pseudo-science as a means of profit making. Why would they? Today’s culture seeks out the unimaginable, the paranormal, the myths of religious practice come to life, etc.

Demon possession has been a long used movie plot throughout the horror genre – whether it be The Exorcist series, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, or this year’s latest film The Rite, starring the well known actor among horror enthusiasts Anthony Hopkins.

Throughout these films, they promote the idea that demon possession is a reality. In fact, The Exorcism of Emily Rose promoted itself as being supposedly based on a true story. Today’s hot horror film The Rite takes it a little deeper, not by claiming it’s true (nor claiming exorcism is false either), but by developing a plot where a closeted-atheist is sent to a famous Priest (Anthony Hopkins) in order to observe the exorcisms he performs. Thus, in the end, the once-closeted-atheist develops faith in God.

Films like this promote a religious practice, well known among both the secular and today’s religious community, that have committed murderous crimes among innocent lives who were suffering psychological trauma. The Exorcism of Emily Rose tries making the murder of 23 year old Anneliese Michel seem like a deliberate death by the devil himself, rather than the carelessness of her family-Priest who forbid her from seeking psychological help, and thus eventually led her to become malnourished and died not long after.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

As for the film The Rite, although it doesn’t claim openly to be “based on true events”, the film was based on a book written by English-Literature major Matt Baglio, called “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist”. The book, itself, claims to be 100% based on actual events, where Baglio follows Rev. Gary Thomas and tells the story of Rev. Thomas’ journey as an upcoming exorcist. According to Baglio, thanks to Rev. Thomas’ ability to separate “the real from the imaginary in the mysterious and unsettling sphere of the demonic,” he was able to “reconnect with his faith.”

Of course, books like this, and even more so movies that base itself upon these books, never stick to a realistic realm and instead riddles itself among pseudo-science. Only to justify their past crimes with lucky moments where the Priests, fortunately, didn’t kill their patients through their religious practice.

Which is why I’m presenting the article below. Instead of having to watch the Hollywood hype of pseudo-scientific rituals of past religious practice, I believe it’s necessary in attaining a glimpse of reality of who the so-called “possessed” really are and what really is wrong with them:

Treating Demon Possession with Antipsychotics

by Daylight Atheism
March 30, 2011

As I’ve written in the past, modern Christianity has never outgrown the demoniac fixation of its founders, who believed that evil spirits were constantly on the prowl and assaulting them. People like Gary Collins – an evangelical, a clinical psychologist, and the head of a 15,000-member association of Christian counselors – still believes, based not on evidence but on his “theological beliefs”, that demons exist and are the cause of at least some cases of mental illness. Although this post from Boing Boing is a little old, it sheds a powerful illumination on these stories.

The case was that of a 22-year-old Hindu man, whose story came to light when he was arrested for stealing a taxi and robbing the driver. In prison interviews, he claimed that he had been cursed by a spiteful relative, allowing the ghost of an old woman to possess him. He could hear the ghost speaking to him, and sometimes it would take control of his body and force him to commit criminal and self-destructive acts against his will. He could see the ghost when it invaded him, settling upon his body like a fog and entering his nose and mouth, and while it was possessing him he was conscious of his actions but helpless to stop himself. The doctors noted:

The patient was an intelligent, well educated and insightful young man, westernised in his appearance and apparent outlook. He said he gained nothing from his behaviour, deriving no excitement from his adventures while possessed and did not need the things he stole… He recognised the effects of his behaviour on [his] family…

But most incredible of all, the young man’s story was corroborated by his cellmates and even the prison chaplain:

We were disturbed by a telephone call from the prison chaplain who described seeing the ghost possess the patient in prison, seeing a descending cloud and an impression of a face alarmingly like a description of the dead woman given to us by the patient, of which the chaplain denied prior knowledge. Similar reports came from frightened cellmates.

So far, this story sounds just like the accounts of demonic possession in apologetic literature: the seeming rationality of the patient in the face of his condition, the lack of evidence for a disconnect with reality, even external evidence that seems to indicate the truth of his story to outside observers. If that was where this story ended, we’d probably be hearing about it on Christian apologetic websites, and it would be quoted in the next Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell book. But the paper ends with this laconic comment:

Treatment commenced using trifluoperazine and clopenthixol… The patient underwent remission during neuroleptic treatment, despite previous evidence of genuine possession.

As a commenter on the BB thread noted, a psychotic person is “the world’s best method actor”. The impairment of their brain’s ability for rational thought gives them an unshakable confidence in the truth of their delusions that could never be achieved by relying on mere evidence. If it was part of this patient’s delusions that he was being possessed by a ghost that was forcing him to act against his will, it’s not surprising that he “played the part” so well as to convince the more suggestible people around him.

The Christian apologist’s “lord/liar/lunatic” trilemma assumes that when a person is suffering from mental illness, this fact should be obvious to everyone around them. In reality, such people can be seemingly calm, rational and in all other respects capable of leading a normal life, except in areas that touch upon their delusional fixation. And if this is true of our society, how much more true must it have been in more superstitious past societies, which readily accepted mental illness as a sign of divine favor or demonic attack?

The human brain is a marvelous belief-forming engine, and when guided by reason and informed by the proper functioning of the senses, it’s adept at grasping the true nature of reality. But when it malfunctions, it can produce an endless variety of strange delusions, fantasies and hallucinations, all of which seem utterly real and convincing to the people experiencing them. By following the dictates of reason, we can help many of them. But when the mentally ill are immersed in a culture that accepts such delusions as real, their suffering is needlessly prolonged. How many people have been denied needed medical treatment because their culture leads others to believe their disturbed state must be supernatural?



About B.J. Murphy

I'm a young socialist and Transhumanist activist within the East Coast region, who writes for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), India Future Society, and Serious Wonder. I'm also the Social Media Manager for Serious Wonder, an Advisory Board Member for the Lifeboat Foundation, and a Co-Editor for Fight Back! News.

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