“The Rite” Stuff

February 10, 2011

I have (so far as I know) never encountered the Devil or his minions, possibly because I regard the supernatural as make-believe. However, I am always open to being shown the error of my views, and to that end I have investigated many places and people allegedly connected to demonic activity. Here, I rely on them to illustrate four major areas of the Devil's "extraordinary" work (that beyond mere temptation). Denoted by the International Association of Exorcists at the request, in 1998, of the Roman Catholic Conference of Italian Bishops, they consist of (1) infestation, (2) oppression, (3) obsession, and (4) possession. (See Matt Baglio's nonfiction book The Rite , 2010, the inspiration for the 2011 movie of the same title starring Anthony Hopkins.)

The first of these, infestation , refers to demonic activity residing in an object or a location, for example a "haunted" house. Unexplained noises, odors, malfunction of appliances, and the like may serve as indicators (although those who so draw conclusions from a lack of knowledge about an occurrence are guilty of a logical fallacy called "an argument from ignorance"). What some regard as providing evidence of ghosts the demon hunters believe shows the presence of demons. The late Ed Warren, whose business card read "Demonologist," was one of these, and I challenged him on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show (which aired October 30, 1992). He was taken in by the Amityville Horror hoax and a case later featured in another movie called The Haunting in Connecticut , both of which I investigated. For instance, the supposedly demonic source for nighttime sexual touchings of a young girl in the latter house were actually from her drug-using cousin who confessed the activity to police; he was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as schizophrenic. Also, some of Warren's co-authors have reportedly since admitted that Warren told them to fabricate and manipulate incidents to create "scary" stories. (See my "Demons in Connecticut," Skeptical Inquirer , May/June 2009.)

The second type of demonic activity, oppression , is indicated by invisible blows assailing the victim or scratches "inexplicably materializing" on his or her body. I researched the case of the supposedly possessed boy known as "R" on whom the book and movie The Exorcist were based, which involved scratched messages—for example, one reading "No school." The boy was reportedly observed using one of his long fingernails to scratch "HELL" and "CHRIST" on his chest. Two cases of stigmata that I investigated were supposedly linked to possession—one that of stigmatist Lilian Bernas who said a cruciform scar on her jaw was among stigmata that were produced by the Devil, claiming that before receiving genuine stigmata she had had bouts of possession. And another woman who claimed to have had diabolical encounters showed me a cross scratched on her left arm, she being right-handed and easily able to have produced the superficial wounding herself. (See my "Exorcism! Driving Out the Nonsense," Skeptical Inquirer , January/February 2001, and "The Stigmata of Lilian Bernas," Skeptical Inquirer , March/April 2004.)

Obsession is a third type of diabolical influence, involving attacks on the victim's mind that he or she cannot escape. These may be in the form of tormenting influences or nightmares. Consider self-styled visionary Vassula Ryden, for instance, whom I encountered in 2004. She claims Jesus and even Yahweh guide her hand to produce divine messages, but says she has also been mentally assailed by Satan: "He produced such anguish and such terror in my soul, that I could have died had it not been that God had a plan for me." She adds: "As though it was not enough to be tormented in the daytime, Satan came too at nighttime. He would not let me sleep. Every time I was about to fall asleep, he would try to suffocate me" (Vassula Ryden, My Angel Daniel , 1995). However, that Ryden exhibits traits of a "fantasy-prone" personality and that the supposedly divine automatic writings she receives have many of the same characteristics and mistakes as her own, indicate a non-possession explanation: Her thoughts represent the wishes and fears of her own imagination. (See my "Heaven's Stenographer," Skeptical Inquirer , March/April 2011.)

Finally, the most "spectacular" of the Devil's activities— possession —is also the most rare, some exorcists believing they have never seen a fully developed case. Possession consists, allegedly, of Satan taking temporary control of someone's body, acting and speaking through it without the victim's knowledge. By temporary is meant during certain crisis moments in which the possessed person is allegedly entranced. The effect, however, is not unlike a "hypnotized" person acting out certain fantasies while in a "trance." Hypnosis is actually "simply relaxation, compliance, role-playing, an altered state of consciousness, suggestion, cognitive restructuring, or response expectancy" (according to psychologist Robert A. Baker's entry on hypnosis in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal , ed. Gordon Stein, 1996). Interestingly, one of the most distinctive traits of a fantasy-prone individual is his or her ease in being hypnotized.

In neither "possession" nor "hypnosis" is the subject, in fact, in a trance, but merely in a dissociative state , the result of the mind being "split" into portions that are involuntary as well as voluntary—as in being lost in thought while driving, producing automatic writing, or the like. Under hypnosis, a good subject may "remember" her past life as Cleopatra, seemingly reexperience his abduction by extraterrestrials, or act-out (much like a method actor) being "slain in the spirit" at an evangelical service or behaving as if possessed by the Devil in front of family members or an exorcist. Dissociation is not an either/or state but a spectrum. Thus in one videotaped exorcism, which I studied with psychologists and other skeptics, a sixteen-year-old girl, who was supposedly possessed by ten demons, exhibited what looked to us like poor acting. She even stole glances at the camera before affecting "convulsions" and other allegedly diabolic behavior (see my Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings , 1995).

As these examples from my own work as a skeptical demonologist show, belief in demons and the Devil merely harks back to a time of ignorance and superstition. We may well wonder—if we are to use the word at all—what has possessed the Roman Catholic Church to believe, or pretend to believe, otherwise.