The devil in health-part II

demoniacs exposed2

I did spend some time wondering whether this topic was worth writing about – but since i had read the literature I thought why not. We scientists don’t like to talk about demon possession, its one of those topics deemed totally uncool, unscientific and oh so unlearned to get hooked on. However, we can’t ignore this discussion in Africa, as it permeates a lot of our life. It especially affects our outlook on mental health.

However, demon possession is not something that can withstand rigorous quantitative interrogation. How do you define ‘demon possession’, what would you measure? How would you count those freed from their demon possession when you can’t even measure it? It’s difficult to find a research question that you can actually answer with any degree of confidence. The same would apply to questions about the existence of angels too. Things that you can’t measure and see, that rely on faith, are impossible to subject to scientific questioning.

I didn’t therefore expect to be drowned in scientific literature regarding this topic and I was not disappointed. The few available scientific writings dwell on historical aspects and some on the association between believe in evil and behaviour. Some scientists have reported that people who have a deep believe in evil are much more prone to violence (hmmm…).

Some scientists are however quick to point out that medical practitioners should not scorn at those who are labelled as demon possessed. Prof Roland Littlewood in a paper published in Psychiatry Journal, 2004 , titled ‘Possession states’ advises western doctors to always take account the culture of a person who is claimed to be possessed. Although he clearly does not believe in possession but he believes that if the client’s belief is squashed, healing might be slowed down. ‘Listening to a local healer’s version of treatment for certain psychological presentations will probably be better for the patient’, he says.

I found a few pieces of interesting scientific articles looking at the European history of exorcism of the 16th century.

Nick Tosh in his paper ‘Possession, exorcism and psychoanalysis’ published in 2002 presents a historical perspective of the usefulness of psychoanalysis in dealing with demonic possession and exorcism.
He starts his paper with a 1596 vignette from the UK
In 1596, thirteen-year-old Thomas Darling blamed his possession by Satan on an
old woman and a fart. ‘As I passed by her in the Coppice, I chanced (against my
will) to let a scape; which shee taking in anger sayd, Gyp with a mischiefe, and fart
with a bell: I will goe to heaven, and thou shalt goe to hell; and forthwith she
stooped to the ground’. This, at least, is the account Thomas gave his grandparents,
whose ward he was. They had already settled on a diagnosis of demonic possession:
the boy was plagued by fits in which he thrashed about, screamed, cursed God and
the Church, and abused his family. Small transgressions earned sharp rebukes in
respectable Elizabethan households, but holding a Christian child morally responsible
for behaviour like this was out of the question. The old woman was identified, hauled
in front of the Derby Justices, and thrown in jail for suspected witchcraft. (She died
before she could be sentenced.)

Nick uses vignette to describe the ‘gain from illness’ account of possession. The young man, Thomas, uses his possession to vent out his feelings on God and his family and since the ‘demon’ is in the end removed, he is now more holy than before.
The author states that during that period of time, this type of possession was particularly common in children from highly religious families. A child from a respectable family would therefore ‘gain from the illness’ by using the guise of demon possession to ventilate all his anger without the family losing face.

The author is of the Freudian view that the root of many mental maladies is an unresolved psychic conflict or some sort, ‘raging outside the domain of conscious control and for all its ferocity, stuck in a long-term stalemate’. To understand demon possession, he says, one must examine the culture of the possessed.

‘Possession rarely develops in isolation but rather at the very centre of a terrified family’s attention.’

In this paper, the author claims that exorcism was more effective than psychoanalysis due to the ease of the expected outcome that both the healer and possessed agreed on – Satan was send to hell and the demoniac recovered.

I found another interesting article in The Lancet of (2009) by Kaptchuk and colleagues from the Harvard Medical School. It is also a historical look at the 16-17th century European exorcism. In that period, exorcisms were conducted by Catholic priests. It was believed then that when demoniacs were exposed to holy water, consecrated wafer or reading from the Latin scriptures- the demons were not able to tolerate this and would writhe in pain, flee and the victim would be free of their possession.

These exorcisms were as described by Kaptchuk and colleagues, ‘colossal revival meetings performed on elevated platforms built inside or outside churches….. In bawdy relief, the possessed demoniacs provided entertainment with erotic ditties, lewd gesticulations, wild gyrations, grotesque grimaces and shrieking animal roars….Audiences could reach 20,000 and pamphlets publicising exhibitions throughout Europe indicated the intense interest in these spectacles.

The possessed were overwhelmingly women and demoniacs testified about protestant ungodliness. The power of these exhibitions was so immense that the monarchy happily supported ‘trick trails’ – a placebo trial – where demoniacs were exposed to water that was not ‘holy’ but told it was holy and reacted in the same way as though they were exposed to ‘holy’ water. In this way, the exorcisms were rubbished as fake. This is the basis of the drawing at the top of the blog.

In writing this paper, Kaptchuk and colleagues were not that interested in the phenomenon of demon possession and in fact their paper is titled ‘placebo controls, exorcisms and the devil’ with the main emphasis being in those early placebo trials that exposed the fakeness of the exorcisms.

As I read those papers, I could not help drawing parallels to Africa at the moment. Whereas the 15-16th century exorcisms were held on platforms with tens of thousands of people present to watch, all you need now is to flick a TV button to observe the same. There are even u-tube clips of actual exorcisms. Today’s Pentecostal pastors, like the catholic priests from 15-16th century, encourage the ‘demoniacs’ to speak. Children are made to confess that they float as spirits in the night and kill people. Women are slapped to force demons out. A public spectacle is made of these poor people on live TV for all to see. It draws viewers and TV ratings but does no good to the victims who have to live with what they have been subjected to.

The demon possessed are almost always children and women, rarely will you see a demon possessed man being freed of his burden. It is not difficult to imagine the psychological torture that that those children who are forced through this display have to live through, that some end up committing suicide is not surprising.

Like the old European church, the African church is currently obsessed with the devil – I know people who catch a cold and start to cast out demons, people who trip on a pebble on the street and ‘Ashindwe!’ is the first thing out of their mouths.

Although as a Christian, I do believe in things I cannot see or touch, I do also believe that you become more of what you focus on. Perhaps as Kenyan Christians, we should spend more time ‘following the Lord’ than ‘fighting the devil’.


  • Great article and very timely in what is going on in African christian churches currently

  • gitigi

    i like the topic . wow i never knew my farts had powers

  • Gits – wewe! But this issue i must admit bugs me. Children belief what adults tell them without questioning too much – so imagine if you are told you are the one who killed your own mother or sibling or anyone for that matter – what a hellish life they live. Yet this is done regulary, all in the name of God….. there is something seriously wrong with us to allow such things to happen to our children.