Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Possession and Exorcism: An Essay Review

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Possession and Exorcism: An Essay Review

Article excerpt

The word possession (in the vocabulary of psychology) refers to the belief (or the fact, as some claim) that a person's mind or soul can be ejected from his or her body and the body then controlled by another personality, usually that of a discarnate entity. The possessing entity may be that of a deceased person or that of an evil spirit, the latter being usually conceived in Christianity as the devil. The belief in possession was almost universal, so far as we can tell, until about the end of the 16th century. It was closely linked with the belief in witchcraft; witches were not thought necessarily to be possessed by the devil, but to be allied with him. Toward the end of the 16th century, works of skepticism about witchcraft began to be published in Europe, and over the next 2 centuries the belief in witchcraft and in possession declined in the West. The last executions for witchcraft in Europe occurred in the last quarter of the 18th century. The rest of the world went on believing and, for the most part, still believes in witchcraft and possession. Moreover, even in the West some persons may still be found who believe in possession. Sixteen patients who believed themselves to be possessed were admitted to a psychiatric hospital in England during the four years from 1973 to 1977 (Whitwell & Barker, 1980).(1)

The idea of possession is found often in the Bible and became incorporated in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Exorcists - persons empowered to displace a possessing devil - were a minor order of the Roman Catholic Church until the Church abolished this role in 1972. Authorized priests may still perform rituals of exorcism. The book by Thomas Allen(2) that stimulated this essay describes the alleged possession and exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in 1949.

We should consider the case and the book together because the book is likely to be our only publicly available source of information about the case. Some other information in ecclesiastical archives is inaccessible, and the subject in the case - to whom Allen gives the pseudonym Robbie - did not answer Allen's letter asking for additional information. This makes it important to examine Allen's sources and his handling of them. Of these sources, the most important by far is a 28-page diary kept by Father Raymond Bishop, S.J., who was an eyewitness to the second and more extensive of the two exorcisms in the case. Father Bishop included in his diary what he was able to learn about the family concerned in the case and certain events that occurred before it came to his attention. Unfortunately, Father Bishop and the two exorcists, Father Albert Hughes and Father William Bowdern, S.J., had all died by the time Allen began to work on his book. He was, however, able to interview a few other persons who were either firsthand informants or apparently reliable secondhand ones. The most important of these was Father Walter Halloran, S.J., who had assisted at the second exorcism. Allen also derived some further fragments of information from other sources, especially a few newspaper accounts based on items of information that leaked out during Robbie's illness. Allen acknowledges the limitations of the evidence he deploys and shows that he tried to corroborate statements as much as possible. His attention to details pleases me. For example, in trying to place in Robbie's family a person mentioned without being further identified, Allen searched the obituary of another member of the family in the hope that it would name the unidentified person and state her relationship to the rest of the family.

In the early 1970s this case provided the basis for a fictional account of it and a sensational movie. Such exploitation would generate caution in anyone reading the assertion in the subtitle of Allen's book that he has given his readers "the true story" of the case. Nevertheless, I think that he can fairly claim to have done this. I believe that his account is sufficiently reliable so that we can take the case seriously and consider alternative interpretations for it. …

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