Exorcisms May Have Psychological Benefits

“There’s not a day in my life that I don’t feel like a fraud. Other priests, doctors, lawyers—I talk to them all. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that.” —Father Damien Karras, The Exorcist (1973)

In A Nutshell

A new take on psychology suggests that the centuries-old practice of an exorcism might have clear and useful psychiatric value (in some specific circumstances). Psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to suggest that performing an exorcism on a person suffering from various mental illnesses might serve to help them on the road to recovery—especially if they’re devoutly religious and firm believers in demonic possession. For those that believe their problem is because of a demon that’s possessing them, an exorcism could be just what the doctor ordered.

The Whole Bushel

Right now, the idea is just a theory, but it’s an interesting one that sheds new light on a centuries-old practice that has always had non-believers scoffing. Exorcisms have been performed back as far as we have recorded history. The idea of being possessed by a demon or otherworldly being spans religious and cultural boundaries. And so does the idea that the demon or other foreign entity can be expelled by the performance of rites and readings.

Now, some researchers are suggesting the possibility that demonic possessions might be very, very real—in the sense that a person who is suffering from possession must have some sort of established belief system for that possession. In the creation of this belief system, which is obviously quite elaborate, there must also be a way to remove these demons. That’s where an exorcism comes in.

It’s similar to the placebo effect, but with psychiatry. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s actually a demon present; what matters is that the subject believes there is. The performance of an exorcism may give them the will, the strength, or whatever outside help they need to fight their own type of psychological illness.

Psychologists like Carl Jung have made mention of a secular idea of possession in which the religious aspect is largely removed, but in which the patient still feels an invasion of evil thoughts that seem to take over their minds, or the feeling of being driven by something outside of themselves. In these cases, having an exorcism performed might be a way for the mind and the soul to reconcile the knowledge that whatever has been causing them to have these evil or destructive thoughts was not a part of them, and has been driven away.

For some patients, the act of an exorcism is thought to provide a meaningful way to allow them to confront whatever demons—religious or secular—might be ruining their day-to-day lives. Called the possession syndrome, this is the belief that a person has that they are being controlled by something that has found a home within them.

It’s also not argued that what a person needs to overcome a mental illness is a support group and a way to actively participate in moving forward with their lives. In the case of a very spiritual person who believes they are possessed, an exorcism gives them that. An exorcism—and an exorcist—can give a person something that a secular therapist can’t: a way to heal their soul and their beliefs. Multiple doctors and psychologists have noted the value of suggestion; and at it’s most basic level, that’s what an exorcism is.

What a priest might call a possession, a psychiatric journal might call an obsession, a multiple personality disorder, or a bipolar disorder. No one can deny that there are people who truly believe that they are being possessed by someone or something, and whether those are cases of real demons or of a psychological phenomenon, exorcism might just actually help a person confront their fears.

Show Me The Proof

Psychology Today: Devils, Demons and Dybbuks: Possession, Exorcism and Psychotherapy
LiveScience: Exorcism: Facts and Fiction About Demonic Possession
The Evolution of a Belief System Regarding Possession & Exorcism