Is there such a thing as demonic possession? In polite society, including among many Christians, exorcism is not a topic of conversation. But despite default scepticism toward spiritual matters, the topic of demonic possession does occasionally catch the public’s imagination. The most famous example of this is the 1973 film The Exorcist, which took over $400m at the box office.

Often, it’s not until people have direct personal experience of the demonic realm that they become convinced of its existence. Despite directing The Exorcist, William Friedkin had never seen a real-life exorcism. That changed last year when he was allowed to film the ritual by the late Catholic exorcist Fr Gabriele Amorth. Writing in Vanity Fair, Friedkin said that when he showed the footage to a panel of psychiatrists (including two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons), they failed to attribute the activity to a medical condition such as epilepsy. Friedkin explained, “I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.”

In September 2015, experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US warned exorcists were in urgent demand following a sharp rise in people dabbling in satanism and the occult. Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, said: “The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting.” The story received widespread media attention. Dr Richard Gallagher’s piece for the Washington Post titled ‘As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession’ was also widely shared on social media after it was published last summer.

Both Gallagher and Freidkin have come to the same conclusion: Despite what many in our secular world would say, demonic possession can’t always be explained away in purely medical terms.

Personal experience

Some years ago, one Sunday afternoon, I was taking part in a public meeting in a cinema. Christians in the area had been encouraged to bring their friends and neighbours. There was some music and singing, and an invitation to those present to become followers of Jesus. I approached a man in his 30s who had come to the front to ask for prayer. He said he wanted to become a follower of Jesus. So we prayed, and with a joyful hug I welcomed this smiling man into the Christian family. Suddenly his embrace became steely. As I extricated myself from his grip he dropped to the floor, writhing and letting out a loud, growling scream. Then for a few minutes three of us knelt next to him, and I repeatedly and firmly said, “In the name of Jesus be bound and come out.” The noise and the twisting stopped. He sat up, quite relaxed! The last I heard he remained a follower of Jesus.

Five reported cases of real-life possession

Roland Doe - This case is cited as the story which inspired the film The Exorcist. A 14-year-old named Roland Doe (not his real name but a pseudonym assigned to him by the Catholic Church in order to protect his identity) was said to have used a Ouija board to contact a dead relative. His possession saw him become adverse to religious artifacts and marks began to appear on his body, including words that seemed to have been carved into his flesh. He spoke in tongues in a guttural voice and he levitated while contorted in pain. A Catholic priest deemed Roland possessed by evil spirits and he and colleagues performed several exorcism rituals which eventually freed the boy from this demonic hold.

Anneliese Michel Anneliese - Michel is a tragic case, and the source of several films including The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Anneliese had a history of epilepsy and mental illness. She suffered from depression and began hallucinating while praying, complaining about hearing voices telling her that she was “damned”. Her treatment in a psychiatric hospital did not improve her health and her depression worsened. A priest who believed that she was suffering from demonic possession urged the local bishop to allow an exorcism. After more than a year of exorcisms, Anneliese died. The cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration due to being kept in a semi-starvation state for almost a year while the rites of exorcism were performed.

David Berkowitz, AKA ‘Son of Sam’ - The notorious serial killer dubbed by the media as ‘Son of Sam’ stalked New York in 1976 shooting victims and leaving behind notes mocking the police. Six people were killed and seven others severely wounded before he was caught. He claimed he was commanded to kill by a demon who spoke to him through his neighbour’s dog and that he was part of a satanic group. He was sentenced to six life sentences, and is reported to have become a Christian in 1987 while in prison.

Patient nicknamed ‘Julia’ Psychiatrist - Dr Richard E Gallagher at New York Medical College, documented the case of a patient who he said was possessed by demons rather than mentally ill. Dr Gallagher personally observed objects around her flying off the shelves – the phenomenon of psychokinesis. She also had an apparently supernatural way of gaining knowledge. The doctor explained: “She commonly reported information about the relatives, household composition, family deaths and illnesses, etc, of members of our team, without ever having observed or been informed about them.”

Clara Germana Cele Clara - is said to have been possessed when she was just 16 years old after making a pact with Satan in Natal, South Africa. Accounts tell of her being able to speak languages of which she had no previous knowledge and demonstrating clairvoyance by revealing the most intimate secrets and transgression of people with whom she had no contact. Moreover, Clara could not bear the presence of blessed objects and seemed imbued with extraordinary strength and ferocity.

Others report similar stories. Michael Harper (1931–2010) was an Anglican priest who later became an Orthodox priest. In Spiritual Warfare (Kingsway) he tells of a man who “began to growl like a dog and to flail his arms in all directions. He slipped from his chair and went into a coma”. Michael says that later “the moment the name of Jesus was mentioned, he went into another coma, his legs shot from under him, and he lay spreadeagled and inert on the floor. Bending over him and binding the enemy power, the spirits were commanded to leave in the name of Jesus. He opened his eyes, blinked, got to his feet, brushed himself down and smiled blandly”. Michael says he had been delivered.

I take these incidents to be two of many modern examples of demon possession and exorcism. Demon possession is the idea that an evil spirit (also called a demon) is able to take up residence in a person. The resulting apparent control (or possession) can bring harm to the person’s life, either through emotional or physical health problems, or perhaps through a series of unexplained harmful accidents. The cure or release is supposed to come through exorcism. Some use the word ‘deliverance’, often to indicate the evil is of a less invasive kind. What are we to make of demon possession and exorcism? I am not an exorcist, nor am I – to misquote the prophet Amos (7:14) – the son of an exorcist! However, I think there are four important points to keep in mind.

Four reasons possession is real

First, despite the sophistication of our scientific advancements that have rightly left behind superstitious practices such as cupping and bloodletting, studies of religious experience continue to find that large numbers of people experience not only the presence of God, but also the presence of evil powers that frighten them. For example, a sane and rational man in one of our churches reported the unaccountable presence of frightening evil in parts of his home.

Secondly, although medical science has been able to show that demon possession is not needed or appropriate to explain such conditions as epilepsy, fever hallucinations, encephalitis, schizophrenia or depression, there is a residue of health problems that are best explained in spiritual terms. Kenneth McAll (1910–2001), a consultant psychiatrist, gives the following case: “A lady who had been confined in a padded cell had not spoken for two years and had to be forcibly fed by her husband as she violently resisted members of the staff. She had failed to respond to any treatment. On being approached one day with the suggestion that she was ‘demon possessed’ she immediately came out with the name of an ancestor and asked to see a priest. This led to her immediate healing and release.” (R Kenneth McAll, ‘The Ministry of Deliverance’, Expository Times).

Mental illness or demonic possession?

Mental illnesses and demonic possession often seem to get confused. To the psychiatrist or the person skilled in deliverance, they typically look quite different and their descriptions (in the Bible or in psychiatric textbooks) are also different. But we can get stuck in a spiritual mindset and see everything as spiritual or, conversely, stuck in a medical mindset and see everything as medical. Instead, it is better to stick to what we know and work together where there is uncertainty.

Psychiatric conditions are well described and you should work carefully with your GP or psychiatrist to understand which condition they think it is, which symptoms are present and what treatment is planned over what timescale. The Royal College of Psychiatrists website has lots of helpful patient information leaflets. Psychiatric conditions also respond to medication and/or talking treatments – which of course demonic possession does not.

In situations where there does seem to be a place for deliverance, but the person also has mental health problems, do not give advice that goes out of your remit as a Christian – do not tell them to stop medication or change their treatment plan. Secondly, remember that many people with mental health problems will be experiencing stigma and have a history of trauma. You do not want to add to this by forcing them to take part in a humiliating ceremony. The power of deliverance is in the name of Jesus, not how loud you shout.

In cases where there is genuine uncertainty, when both a mental health professional and an experienced pastor/counsellor think there could be elements of both illness and oppression, it is wise to work together. Many larger denominations require those undertaking this kind of ministry to have a group of mental health professionals they can consult with periodically. Given that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, it should be possible to progress with both prayer and psychiatric help at the same time. The term ‘ministry of deliverance’ is perhaps easier to understand than ‘exorcism’ if you are joint-working with mental health staff.

Dr Rob Waller is a Consultant Psychiatrist and a Director of the Mind and Soul Foundation. For more information visit mindandsoulfoundation.org

Thirdly, as well as a residue of human experiences and conditions that are best explained in terms of the presence of evil spirits, as McAll’s case suggests, cure of some conditions by exorcism appears to remain important. As a psychiatrist, McAll said that about 4 per cent of all the patients he saw needed some form of exorcism or deliverance. The Gospels and Acts show that Jesus and his followers only attributed some cases of illness or suffering to the demonic and the need for exorcism. My experience is that very few troubled people need exorcism.

Fourthly, the close correspondence between the successful methods of Jesus in curing those sick through demon possession and the successful methods of modern exorcists I have mentioned is remarkable. For example, in Mark 5:1-20 Jesus perceives that a deranged man needs to be healed by ordering a multitude of demons out of him. The story ends by saying that the man was left in his right mind.

Yet, the New Testament writers are remarkably restrained in their interest in demons. They appear to be interested in demonology only when necessary for human healing. The interest of the New Testament writer is not on the demonic but on the new life that God brings in Jesus. We would do well to follow their example.

Avoiding pitfalls

CS Lewis in his preface to The Screwtape Letters (William Collins) put it well. He said: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” And, writing for theologians, Karl Barth said in his Church Dogmatics (T & T Clark International) that we must not become too engrossed in the demonic as there is the imminent danger that we might become a little demonic!

In other words, while demon possession may be the best description for some human suffering, and exorcism may be the appropriate cure, the New Testament writers, as well as some modern writers and theologians, urge caution: we should pay as little attention to the demonic as is pastorally possible.

Dealing with the demonic

Church leader John Tancock shares what he's learned from being involved in over 70 deliverance sessions in the UK and Africa:

Avoid the experiential subculture in the deliverance world. We need to be biblical, not give undue weight to the experiential. Dogmatism expressed in books and articles with titles such as ‘Seven keys to deliverance’, ‘Breaking the Jezebel spirit’, and ‘ten principalities and powers in order of rank’ is not biblical. The majority of Christian books on the subject of the demonic aren’t worth much. The obsession with ‘naming the spirit’ is seriously overplayed and is not always necessary.

The patient is the priority. Listen, explain and then listen again. Distinguish who you are talking to – the unclean spirits or the person. Proceed with the person’s permission and stop when they say no.

This field can be tiring and frustrating. The intertwined mental, relational and emotional issues mean that there is often more than one solution.

Not all demons need to be confronted directly. Sometimes these things can be truthed out or discipled out and of course cast out.

Be practical. Don’t close your eyes because you will not be able to see if the person is smashing their head against a tile floor. Sessions that take up hours in the middle of the night are no good to anybody. Shouting is on most occasions completely unnecessary. Surprisingly I’ve found that using water, the Bible and even Communion can be really helpful. 

These things are real but don’t worry. They are not Hollywood-style demons. They are grubby, dirty and furtive. They pretend, mock and challenge but they are ultimately powerless before Jesus.

My experience and reading suggest that if someone you know is thought to be suffering from the presence of evil spirits, the first action is to seek medical help. There are likely to be natural causes to the suffering, and medical responses that will bring healing. If mature, wise and widely respected Christians are of the opinion that there is a demonic dimension to the suffering, in the company of at least one other Christian, there can be a time of prayer for the person.

In the last chapter of Christ Triumphant (Hodder & Stoughton) I have spelt out in detail some things to keep in mind in relation to exorcism. The nature of a prayer for deliverance is only important in so far as it asks Jesus to come in his power to deliver the person from the evil. In some traditions that prayer will be liturgical and likely led by a priest, in others it will be extemporary, and perhaps led by a lay person. The aftercare of the person needs to involve encouraging the person to give their allegiance to God, and helping the person see the importance of living daily for God.

Films such as The Exorcist can lead people to fear the demonic. However, with his confidence in the power of the love of God in Jesus, St Paul got it right in his letter to Christians in Rome when he said: “I am convinced that there is nothing…in the realm of the spirits or superhuman powers…that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Graham H Twelftree is academic dean and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, London School of Theology (LST). He has worked at All Souls Church, Langham Place, been a pastor in Australia and is one of the leading theological thinkers on exploring the biblical accounts of exorcism and demon possession. He is the author of Jesus the Exorcist (Hendrickson) and Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Now and Then (Hodder & Stoughton)