Do I Believe in Demons and Demonic Possession?

It is a dark winter night. Fog looms over the streets of a secluded neighborhood. A figure strolls through the gloom, his heavy coat not quite concealing his white priest’s collar. He stops at a house positioned at the end of a lonely street, as if it has been forced away from the rest of the neighborhood. He takes a deep breath and crosses himself before knocking on the door.

Inside the house, the priest finds a family in terror. Devoutly religious parents cower in fear. Their youngest daughter has been acting strange for months now. She does not eat. She does not sleep. She hears voices whispering to her in the dark, telling her to do terrible things. Sometimes she obeys them.

That is why the priest is here. He has been called to rescue the child’s soul from the demon possessing her.

(Promotional image from the 2016 TV series, The Exorcist)

The scene I just described could have been the opening of any countless number of horror movies released in the last five decades. Demonic possession is so prevalent in Western consciousness that it has become a cliche. How many B-movies have tried to make a back-bending twelve year old in a bloody nightgown scary since The Exorcist? How many haunted house attractions use “satanic” and “demonic” imagery every Halloween to elicit cheap scares?  It’s a concept that media and pop culture have driven into the ground many times over. But what exactly is it about the concept of demonic possession that has drawn human fascination for hundreds, if not thousands, of years?

Personally, I think there are two reasons for the media’s fixation on possession. First, it appeals to our belief in or desire for something “out there” beyond the physical world. Second, it is innately disturbing because it represents the ultimate violation of consent and the ultimate loss of agency. Demonic possession, as it is presented in most horror media, is not unlike rape in that it completely strips the victim of their power over their own body. When someone is possessed in a Hollywood production, the demon is shown literally forcing its way inside of their physical body, wearing it like a skin and using it like a puppet to carry out evil. It’s no mistake that movies like Rosemary’s Baby draw direct parallels between possession and rape or even blur the lines between the two.

For some of us it may seem like something out of a cliche horror movie, but a lot of people have a genuine belief in demons and demonic possession. We all know someone whose parents wouldn’t let them celebrate Halloween or read certain best-selling children’s book series about wizard schools because those things “invited the devil,” but for some it goes much deeper. There are people who live in genuine fear of being possessed or otherwise targeted by demons, who see themselves as little more than pawns in a massive spiritual war between the forces of good and evil. “Religious delusions” (such as believing oneself to be possessed, believing that one is being haunted or otherwise targeted by demons, or believing that one has been chosen by God to fight demons) are a common symptom of several mental disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — in fact, one study by King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry states that between one-fifth and two-thirds of all schizophrenic delusions in their patients had “religious themes.” But even people who have no noticeable mental illness can be affected by the fear of demons. Several modern religious groups still hold the existence of literal demons and encourage their followers to be diligent in warding off spiritual attacks from these entities.

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(Promotional image from the 2012 film, The Possession)

This fear of demons is something that I’ve personally been affected by in more ways than one. I’ve lived with people with diagnosed schizophrenia, and I have seen grown adults genuinely terrified that demons are going to come for them and hurt them. I also grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, which is one of those groups I mentioned that still preach the literal existence of demons. Mormons (or, at least, the ones teaching my Sunday school classes) believe that mental illness, homosexuality, and other “spiritual afflictions” are caused by demonic influence. As a gay teenager who struggled with mental health issues, this was a teaching I had a lot of difficulty with. There was a time in my life when I genuinely believed that I was attracted to women because a demon had somehow gotten ahold of me and was trying to lead me to sin. Which, in turn, made my anxiety and depression worse, which made me believe that the demons’ hold on me was getting stronger, which made me even more afraid… You can see how this becomes a vicious cycle that people can easily get trapped in.

Here’s the thing though — I now know that I wasn’t under the influence of demons at all. I am attracted to women because of the complicated mix of genetic, environmental, and personality factors that shape sexuality. I have a (now diagnosed and treated) anxiety disorder that stems from childhood trauma that was serious enough to alter the way my brain works. There’s nothing supernatural about any of those things, and none of them are evil — this is just who I am.

Many modern religious scholars believe that the concept of demons was created as a way to explain things like disabilities and mental illness in a time before modern medical science. To someone who had no knowledge of the brain or how it works, someone having a manic episode or a psychotic break would seem to be possessed by an evil spirit, wouldn’t they? This is the reason that Jesus’s healing ministry in the gospels is described as “casting out demons.”

So here’s where my thoughts on demonic possession and exorcism come in. I think it’s entirely possible for someone to believe that they are possessed by a demon or other evil spirit, and this belief would cause them to behave in ways that are consistent with our culture’s idea of demonic possession. Ultimately though, this behavior is a product of their own psyche, not the work of an outside force. Exorcism and other types of faith healing may help break the delusion, but using faith healing as a means to avoid or replace medical/psychiatric help can have very dangerous consequences.

The life and death of Anneliese Michel is one of the most famous modern cases of alleged demonic possession. This case has inspired films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has been featured in a ton of paranormal investigation media, and has been used in arguments regarding exorcism by both skeptics and believers. It’s also disturbing, incredibly sad, and a good example of what I’m talking about. (Please note that when I mention Anneliese’s case in this post, I am trying to bring attention to the issues that I believe contributed to her death. I am not trying to sensationalize her story; Hollywood has already done a pretty good job of that. Please keep in mind that this is a true story about the death of a real person.)

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(Photo of Anneliese Michel before her exorcisms.)

To make a very long and complicated story as short as possible: Anneliese Michel was born in West Germany in 1952. She had poor health as a child, becoming seriously ill for long stretches of time. She was raised by devout Roman Catholic parents and was described by her university classmates as “withdrawn and very religious.” When Anneliese was sixteen, she had her first seizure — she was taken to medical professionals and was diagnosed with epilepsy, although it’s worth noting that neurology in the 1970s was not as advanced as it is now (the MRI hadn’t even been invented yet) and epilepsy in particular was not well understood by doctors at the time. It would be two years before Anneliese would be prescribed any kind of medication for her seizures. Although her family would claim that this medication did not stop her convulsions, it is clear from her autopsy that she was not taking it at the time of her death, if she ever took it at all, and it’s again worth noting that drug-resistant forms of epilepsy do exist and are not uncommon. By the age of twenty-one, Anneliese had begun to experience visual hallucinations and had started to hear voices telling her that she was damned to Hell. It’s at this point that Anneliese and her family began to believe that she was possessed by demons, and they sought help from the Catholic Church.

The priests consulted by the family originally did not believe Anneliese was possessed. She began to keep correspondence with a priest named Father Alt, whom she became increasingly dependent on and who fought for official approval from the Church to attempt an exorcism. Approval was finally granted, and the exorcisms began. In the last year of her life, Anneliese would undergo no fewer than 67 exorcisms. She also completely stopped seeking medical treatment at this time. Her mental and physical condition worsened, and her behavior became more erratic and deranged. In 1976, Anneliese died at the age of 23 — at the time she weighed only 68 pounds and had broken bones and untreated pneumonia. The official cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration. Both of Anneliese’s parents and two of the priests involved in her exorcisms were charged with negligent homicide, as her death could have been prevented if she had been hospitalized even ten days before she died. The court ruled that Anneliese was not mentally stable enough to have been responsible for her own wellbeing and all four defendants were found guilty of manslaughter.

Anneliese’s death was a tragedy, and it represents the danger posed by forsaking medical intervention in the name of religious belief. Repeated exorcisms fed into Anneliese’s belief that she was possessed, which intensified her psychosis until she was completely disconnected from reality. She refused medical attention because she genuinely believed that exorcism would cure her, even after a year of failed attempts. I think that most, if not all, documented cases of alleged demonic possession represent similar situations. Of every case I’ve read, I’ve never found one where the victim’s behavior could not be explained by mental and/or physical illness. That sounds incredibly skeptical of me, but it’s the only logical conclusion given the facts of these cases.

Disbelief in demonic possession does not equal disbelief in God, or the supernatural, or the battle between good and evil. I’m a very religious person, and I work hard to maintain a close, personal relationship with God. I’m also a believer in the supernatural. I have had personal experiences with spirits, both good and bad, and I 100% believe that there are things in our universe that cannot be explained by science.

I just don’t think that God’s angels and Satan’s demons are literally fighting a war over the fate of my soul. (In fact, I’ve already shared my thoughts on the origin and existence of Satan on this blog.)

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“St. Michael Vanquishing Satan” by Raphael.

I do believe that incorporeal spirits exist and are a part of our world. But I think that “angel” and “demon” are relative terms that we apply to these spirits depending on whether or not they are friendly or helpful towards humans. After all, in Christian lore, demons are merely angels who have rebelled against God’s will, which represents the ultimate good of creation. Even the word “demon” comes from the Greek “δαίμων” (“daimon“) which simply means “spirit” or “divine power” and originally had no negative connotation. The earliest concept of demons as we know them in the West, which originates from the prophet and philosopher Zoroaster, is that of “daevas,” or devils. “Daevas” is in turn related to the Sanskrit “devas,” which refers to the gods in Hinduism. Even the words we use to refer to these “evil spirits” did not originally carry negative associations.

I think it’s possible for spirits — both good and bad — to take an interest in a human being, and even to influence that person’s life. But I do not think it is possible for a spirit to totally and completely take control of a human, or that doing so would give said human superhuman strength or occult knowledge.

I also don’t think that there are demons lurking in the shadows, trying to snatch up our souls. I think spirits, like people, probably have their own agendas and that, to put in bluntly, they probably have better things to do than possess little girls and make them walk backwards up walls.

What do you guys think? Do you believe in demons? Do you think parents and religious leaders should be allowed to perform intense rituals like exorcism on minors? Let me know in a comment! This is a topic I’ve put a lot of thought into, and I’d love to open up a dialogue about it.

2 responses to “Do I Believe in Demons and Demonic Possession?”

  1. On a side note, I enjoy and am impressed by your style of writing.

    To answer your question about my personal beliefs, I think there are two forces in this world: those that are “of God” and those that are not. I am no religious scholar, and I do not profess to have all the answers. I do believe in science and medicine, and I think they share a space with our great Creator. Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but I certainly see “evil” in this world on a daily basis. I also have experienced and witnessed first-hand the amazing power of God.


    1. Hi Tonya! Sorry for taking so long to reply — we just moved and haven’t had Internet for the last several days. I agree with you that both good and evil exist in the world. Personally, I understand that which is in line with the will of God to be “good,” so to me evil isn’t a force in itself so much as an absence of God’s light.


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