“Do you know of anyone who thinks they or their house has been possessed by a demon?” a Sunday Times journalist asked me over the phone just the other day. Several names popped into my mind instantly but there was no chance that I was letting her have them. “We’ve got about 20 people on a list to speak to about a piece my colleague is doing about exorcisms” she pressed.
Despite explaining that I couldn’t put her in touch with anyone I’d worked with or advised over the years because it would be ethically questionable of me to do so she still didn’t get it, so I went into a detailed explanation.
People who think they’re possessed or think that there is an evil entity in their house disturbing them are usually exhibiting signs on an underlying mental or physical health problem. They’re usually disturbed, scared or hysterical. The last thing they need is my involvement.
“That isn’t to say that everyone who thinks they’re possessed is mentally ill” I explained “but there’s a good chance that they need the attention of a medical professional and not their local ghost hunter, demonologist or exorcist who will do them no good at all.”
To my surprise the journalist on the other end of the phone asked “do them no good how?”
I got the immediate impression that she had been talking to others who had suggested differently while humbly describing what spiritual superheroes they were – saving the general public from evil, and so on.
“Well, just an example… a percentage of people who have dissociative identity disorder report that their alternative identity is a demon, however those people do not need an exorcist, they need a psychologist to help them. Exorcists, demonologists, ghost hunters… they’re all the same, they’ll tell you what they want to be real and often they don’t consider how much their actions could harm you because really they just want to prove to themselves that they are right. That kind of approach stigmatises those with mental illness as evil and dangerous when they’re not, and it also denies them the access to the proper care that they require.”
There was a silence over the phone so I carried on,
“Imagine a different scenario – imagine that something is happening in your house that makes you think there’s something malicious or evil in your house but it turns out to actually have a pretty rational cause like, say, your cupboards weren’t hung on the wall properly and that’s why they’re always open when you come home from work, right?”,
“right…” she replied.
“Well, imagine that you get told by a ghost hunter that it’s an evil spirit that they’re going to banish from your house. They sound pretty convincing when they tell you that by doing a clearing ritual they’ll get it to leave, and for a few days afterwards you don’t notice the cupboards open so you think that it must be because there was an evil entity like the ghost hunters told you but it’s gone now just like they said it was. In reality this is just a sort-of placebo effect. The real problem isn’t gone because you haven’t had the cupboards adjusted, then one day you come home and the cupboards are open again and you’re 100% certain the evil entity has returned and nothing – absolutely nothing anyone says to you will convince you otherwise. That’s pretty harmful, right?”
“Right” the journalist responds – “do you know anyone that has happened to that I can talk to?”, “Well that was a case I worked on” I replied, “but I can’t give you their details…”
That was the second time she tried to get the names and contact details of people I’d just explained were potentially vulnerable. It wouldn’t be her last attempt.
“When someone contacts me I have to be pretty strict about whether I take on their case” I continued, “I cannot be the person who convinces someone that there’s a demon or evil entity with them. If they need medical help then I cannot be the person who gets in the way of that happening. It’s unlikely that I would take on a case today where someone thought they have a demon following them or possessing them because it would be unethical of me to do so-”
“So what do you do?” she asked. “I tend to work on a lot of public cases that have been in the press, or cases where the potential to harm someone is limited. If someone has a weird photo, for example, I can try and work out what it really is, or something like that.”
“Do any of the people you’ve worked with think they’ve been possessed? Can you give me some examples of places you’ve investigated?” “There are some listed on my website, but apart from those, no… I can’t give you details I’m afraid” I explained, for the third time.
“I’ll add you to the list and my colleague who is writing the piece may be in touch with you” the journalist explained. “Great” I replied, wondering if I will be mentioned in the piece at all, and which potentially vulnerable people the paper are going to go to town on without considering the damage their feature will cause to those mentioned and those who read it.
The stigma of possession is real and it is harmful to those in minority groups and those with mental illness. There is nothing mysterious or glamorous about it. What a depressing conversation.