Demonic Possession: all in the mind?

With Halloween upon us only a few weeks ago,  all sorts of occult paraphernalia would lie scattered throughout stores. This strange cargo appears more than ever to come with no warnings or age restrictions. In fact, today, there appear to be no restrictions of any sort in relation to such goods. But then, why should there be?

It’s all harmless fun, after all – this being the prevailing view of a society that sees all things supernatural – of whatever hue – as merely superstition. It is sobering, therefore, that Sophia Institute Press has re-published Jean Lhermitte’s True or False Possession: How to Distinguish the Demonic From the Demented. If nothing else it is a timely counterblast to those contemporary views.

True or False Possession? by Jean Lhermitte is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Originally published in French in 1956, it is the work of an expert neuropsychiatrist, one who combines his knowledge of psychiatry with an interest in demonic possession. This unusual combination means Lhermitte is well placed to survey the subject. In many ways this volume is a companion piece to Sophia’s other recently resurrected text Who is the Devil? That book, also originally in French and from the same era, explored the nature and manifestations of the devil in history; this latest work examines cases of when the devil and his legions take possession of a soul.

The book starts with a clear acknowledgement that evil exists, not only exists but operates through the devil and his demons. The ideas, increasingly prevalent in the middle of the 20th Century, and ones still with us, that evil is but a disturbance of the mind are treated here as wholly misguided. Such ideas are seen for what they are: not only false but also dangerous – something akin to a physician wishing away a serious illness because he does not believe in it. Starting with the New Testament, the author begins to explore cases of possession before showing that such things have and do occur.

A book for the specialist as well as a mature lay readership, this is not a sensational work, quite the reverse in fact. The author skilfully counters both naïve credulity and a relentless scepticism. The result is a prudent, sober and scholarly work, albeit one that deals with matters that are anything but that.

Lhermitte not only had his civilian medical practice to aid his researches but experience of treating survivors of what is termed ‘hysteria’ induced by the ravages of the Great War. His book is the work of a man of science, and, therefore, as one would expect, a work of theory illustrated largely through case histories. Mostly French in origin, they are a strange gallery of events and people ranging from the fantastic to the fraudulent, the bizarre to the baffling. The one thing they are not is dull. Whether it is enclosed nuns caught in a contagion of seemingly supernatural possession or the singular individuals who attract attention because of their ‘mysticism’, the more one reads these pages the more it becomes clear of how little one really knows for certain; and, with it, the realisation that in the sphere of suspected demonic possession one should be guided by experts in those respective fields of spiritual deliverance and medicine.

Nevertheless, the world has witnessed, and continues to witness, those so afflicted. The ‘unfortunate derelicts of mankind’ as the author terms them.  It is a well-chosen phrase, calling to mind the emptiness of evil, its inability to create, only ever able to destroy and hollow out those unfortunate enough to be in its grasp. The author states that their plight is further worsened by the insidious nature of evil itself: one that can hover and change to the extent that the family and friends of those afflicted remain uncertain as to how much of the behaviour exhibited is demonic in origin or simply mental disturbance. This is complicated further by the sometimes demonic mimicking of illness, with, to the untrained eye, the genuinely ill appearing to be possessed. Examples are given of when the Rite of Exorcism has been wrongly applied, only to make matters worse. Here is the problem at the core of this book, one that this work tries to shed light upon. By looking at the facts, alongside the various case histories principles can be discerned, argues Lhermitte, with practical guidance then offered. This book is an aid in that regard, but not a definitive work.

Who were these unfortunates and what were their stories? They were men and women who manifested odd behaviour that appeared to come from an evil source. Who is genuinely afflicted, who is an imposter, who is a victim or a willing participant, at times is far from clear.  There is the remarkable case of Marie Therese Noblet, a story that reads like a Gothic novel and yet all its events are attested and documented. And stranger still the seventeenth-century prioress, Sr. Jeanne of the Angels, whose convent of nuns by the end was a seething mass of demonic attack or was it simply a case of mass hysteria within the convent walls? Added to this other case studies involving false ‘stigmata’, and still more false ‘mysticism’, all of which deceived many including those at its centre, and you begin to get the idea of the tangled realm that one enters through these varied histories. For the lay observer, it is evident that in such matters things are rarely as they appear.

The author draws a distinction in his researches between those possessed by demons and those possessed by the devil. The latter is rarer and of a more subtle, spiritual nature, the former being more primitive in its manifestations. Satan is a more disguised entity, more obscure in some ways, and thus all the more pernicious as a result. What this book has no time for is the notion then current – perhaps even more so today – that modern behaviours that look and sound like demonic possession of old can only ever be explained away through a medical diagnosis. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

As I closed this short volume, my mind drifted back to the shop fronts and their Halloween fare. Still just harmless fun? Only a matter of days previously, I had been informed that recently the number of diocesan exorcists in London had had to be increased significantly. Perhaps, those shop-fronts, with their strange brew lit in neon, was not so harmless after all.

Editor’s note: True or False Possession is available from Sophia Institute Press

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KV Turley writes from London

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