Demon possession, as a cause of psychotic behavior, remains endorsed by the Catholic Church.
Halloween is a time for ghost stories and scaring people. All the old stereotypes are dragged out in the showing of horror films, and those suffering with mental illness are scapegoated for their symptoms. It’s frustrating for those of us trying to fight the stigma. The killer psychotics run rampant; terrifying demons possess little kids.
I’m referring to The Exorcist, one of the movies that started it all. Few remember that it was nominated for Best Picture in 1973 and remains one of the most profitable horror films ever produced. For those that missed it, the story revolves around a girl who becomes possessed by the devil himself.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Only in the movies? That’s what I thought, too, until I discovered this startling fact: 51% of Americans still believe in demon possession. You read that correctly. Over half of the people reading this believe that something like The Exorcist could happen in real life. Actually, it’s worse than that--they believe it does happen!
I’ve witnessed acute psychosis firsthand, and, trust me, it can be seriously upsetting. Trying to communicate with someone disconnected from reality is at once shocking and frightening. Shocking because they look and sound normal but are completely detached; frightening because you fear that madness might be lurking in your own mind, waiting to take hold. But to blame psychosis on supernatural beings is ridiculous. First, science has proven that psychosis is a symptom of an underlying illness, a result of unbalanced neurotransmitters. Drugs and time can modulate these imbalances and restore rational thought. Second, and probably more importantly, demons aren’t real.
Tying psychosis to the devil only perpetuates the tragic misconception that the mentally ill are violent and dangerous. They are not, as has been proven time and time again. Still, if someone honestly believes that demons are causing such bizarre behavior, they’re going to be petrified. How can we make any progress towards ending the stigma when so many are so ignorant about these diseases?
“Just call me Lucifer 'cause I'm in need of some restraint." -- The Rolling Stones
Religion has a lot to answer for here, especially the Catholic Church. Let me state upfront that my wife and I raised our kids Catholic. I’ve spent a lot of time around the Church, and for the most part its message is positive: love, forgiveness, patience, compassion. But in certain areas, it’s just plain wrong. And when it comes to these areas, the Church does real harm.
Did you know that every Catholic parish is required to name a priest who will carry out exorcisms in that area? Seriously, you can see examples here and here. So, if you’re a practicing Catholic, and a loved one begins to suffer psychosis, the Church would—apparently—recommend that you call a ghostbuster over a qualified psychiatrist. Maybe this was justified in the Middle Ages, when science was put on hold and superstition triumphed over reason. But today it is completely inexcusable.
Actually, the Church has stepped up its preaching of exorcisms over the past two decades. Whereas in 1983 it dropped the requirement that each parish have a named exorcist, it reinstated this condition in 2004. Apparently, the International Association of Exorcists had been lobbying the Vatican for years and finally won. In 2017, Pope Francis gave a speech where he encouraged priests to call upon exorcists if needed. The Church was prepared; in 1998, it had updated the ancient tome that provided guidelines for scaring off the demons—a book that was written in 1614!
This must stop, not just with the Catholic Church but with all religions. People who suffer psychosis need help. They need medication, support, compassion and understanding. Treating them like monsters, or believing that horror-film creatures are controlling them, should not be tolerated. It’s demeaning and destructive. Honestly, it’s inhumane.
This is one battle in the fight to end the stigma that is concrete, actionable, and trackable. We should demand that the Catholic Church stop preaching exorcism and publicly recognize what science has proved: Mental illness is caused by disease not demon possession. We don’t need ghostbusters; although, of course, they approached the banishment of demons with the light-hearted ridicule the concept deserves: