Obsession and Possession
Obsession, from Latin obsidere (to besiege), is a form of insanity
caused, according to traditional belief, by the persistent
attack of an invading spirit from outside the individual. Obsession
is the opposite of possession, control by an invading spirit
from within. Both, however, involve the usurpation of the person’s
individuality and control of the body by a foreign and discarnate
In the Western Christian context, both obsession and possession,
but especially possession, have been viewed as completely
negative, a perspective somewhat enforced by the modern
concern for the autonomous individual, possession
implying a giving over of one’s freedom. In most cultures, however,
there is a distinction between dysfunctional possession
and possession that occurs voluntarily, usually in a religious
context. Numerous religions, like Spiritualism, are possessionoriented
religions, in which a central feature is the voluntary
possession of members by what is believed to be a deity, a spirit,
or a deceased person. These religious functionaries may periodically
become possessed, usually in a ritual context, during
their entire active lives, but without the otherwise dysfunctional
consequences so evident in pathological possessed states.
During the 1960s anthropologist Erika Bourguignon conducted
a study of possession in 488 societies about which data
was available. Seventy-four percent of them maintained some
belief in spirit possession, of which more than half had some
form of positive institutionalized structure in which possession
occurred and was appropriated by believers.
Historical Background
This belief may be found in the earliest records of human
history—in the ancient magic rites and in the pronouncements
often used as charms against and for the exorcism of these invading
influences. The oldest literary remains from India,
Greece, and Rome are filled with references to possession.
While there are passing references to demons and demon obsession
or possession in sacred Jewish writings—such as the
case of Saul, who was ‘‘troubled with an evil spirit from God’’
only to be relieved by the music of David’s harp (1 Sam.
1614–16)—it is with the Christian movement that a major emphasis
on spirit possession emerges. Jesus regularly healed by
casting possessing spirits out of the mentally ill. Crucial to later
understanding of possessing spirits in the Western tradition are
incidents such as Jesus’ driving the legion of demons into the
swine (thus demonstrating their existence apart from the psychology
of the possessed individual) and Paul’s driving out of
the divining spirit who possessed a young woman of Thyatira
(thus associating spirit possession with fortune-telling).
Plato, in the Republic, not only speaks of demons of various
grades, but mentions a method of treating and providing for
those obsessed by them. Sophocles and Euripides described the
possessed, and mention of the subject is also found in Herodotus,
Plutarch, Horace, and many other classical writers.
Appalling episodes in the Middle Ages can be traced to the
unquestioned belief in possession and obsession by the Devil
and his demonic legions. Many believed that all madness was
caused by possession, the visible manifestation of the Evil One.
Such madness had to be exorcised by charms and averted by
the observance of sacred rites. In extreme cases the possessed
body was to be burned and destroyed for the good of the tortured
soul within. The rites of black magic, in all ages and
places, deliberately evoked this possession by the Devil and his
demons to obtain the benefit of the extensive knowledge it was
believed they conferred and the consequent power and control
over man and his destinies.
In the Middle Ages, when an intense belief in angels, saints,
and devils flourished, the imagination of the individual was
dominated by such beings.
A variation on the belief in obsession and possession can be
found in the condition known as lycanthropy (the delusion
that one has become a wolf), which afflicted large numbers of
people in France and Germany in the fourteenth and sixteenth
The mania of flagellation took its rise in Perouse in the thirteenth
century, caused by the panic accompanying an outbreak
of the plague. Flagellants preached that there was no remission
of sins (and dissipation of accompanying disasters such as epidemics)
without their self-inflicted punishment offered as penance.
Bands of them, gathering adherents everywhere, roamed
Obercit, Jacques Hermann Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
through city and country, clad in scanty clothing on which were
depicted skeletons, and with frenzied movements publicly
lashed themselves. It was to these exhibitions the name ‘‘Dance
of Death’’ was first applied.
The dancing mania, accompanied by aberration of mind
and maniacal distortions of the body, was prevalent in Germany
in the fourteenth century, and in the sixteenth century in
Italy, where it was termed tarantism and was ascribed to the bite
of the tarantula spider. The music and songs employed for the
cure are still preserved. Edmund Parish, in his book Hallucinations
and Illusions (1897), summarizes the activity of the dancers
‘‘If not reckoned as true chorea, the epidemic of dancing
which raged in Germany and the Netherlands in the Middle
Ages comes under this head. Appearing in Aix it spread in a few
months to Liège, Utrecht and the neighbouring towns, visited
Metz, Cologne and Strasburg (1418) and after lingering into
the sixteenth century gradually died out. This malady consisted
in convulsions, contortions accompanying the dancing, hallucinations
and so forth. The attack could be checked by bandaging
the abdomen as well as by kicks and blows on that part of
the body. Music had a great influence on the dancers, and for
this reason it was played in the streets in order that the attacks
might by this means reach a crisis and disappear the sooner.
Quite trifling circumstances could bring on these seizures, the
sight of pointed shoes for instance, and of the colour red which
the dancers held in horror. In order to prevent such outbreaks
the wearing of pointed shoes was forbidden by the authorities.
During their dance many of the afflicted thought they waded
in blood, or saw heavenly visions.’’
Tying the dancing to possession, Parish continues,
‘‘To this category also belongs the history of demoniacal
possession. The belief of being possessed by spirits, frequently
met with in isolated cases, appeared at certain periods in epidemic
form. Such an epidemic broke out in Brandenburg, and
in Holland and Italy in the sixteenth century, especially in the
convents. In 1350–60 it attacked the convent of St. Brigitta, in
Xanthen, a convent near Cologne, and others. The nuns declared
that they were visited by the Devil, and had carnal conversation
with him. These and other ‘possessed’ wretches were
sometimes thrown into dungeons, sometimes burnt. The convent
of the Ursulines at Aix was the scene of such a drama
(1609–11) where two possessed nuns, tormented by all kinds of
apparitions, accused a priest of witchcraft on which charge he
was burnt to death [see Urbain Grandier]. The famous case of
the nuns of Loudun (1632–39) led to a like tragic conclusion,
as well as the Louvier case (1642) in which the two chief victims
found their end in life-long imprisonment and the stake.’’
Religious Possession
The widespread belief in and fear of magic and witchcraft
produced some hallucinations. Certain levels of religious ecstasy
partake of the same character, the difference being that they
involve possession by and contact with so-called angelic or
good (i.e., socially approved) spirits. The sacred books of all nations
teem with instances of this and history can also furnish examples.
The many familiar cases of ecstatic visions and revelations
in the Torah may be cited, as well as those found in the
legends of saints and martyrs, where they either appear as revelations
from heaven or temptations of the Devil.
In the latter case, the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing
pointed out the close connection of religious ecstasy with sexual
disturbances, especially in situations where the sexual drive was
suppressed and diverted into religious activity. The religious
ecstatic condition was frequently sought and induced. Von
Kraftt-Ebing noted as follows
‘‘Among Eastern and primitive peoples such as Hindoos,
American Indians, natives of Greenland, Kamtschatka and Yucatan,
fetish-worshipping Negroes, and Polynesians, the ecstatic
state accompanied with hallucinations is frequently observed,
sometimes arising spontaneously, but more often artificially induced.
It was known also among the nations of antiquity. The
means most often employed to induce this state are beating of
magic drums and blowing of trumpets, howlings and hour-long
prayers, dancing, flagellation, convulsive movements and contortions,
asceticism, fasting and sexual abstinence. Recourse is
also had to narcotics to bring about the desired result. Thus the
flyagaric is used in Western Siberia, in San Domingo the herb
coca, tobacco by some tribes of American Indians, and in the
East opium and hashish. The ancient Egyptians had their intoxicating
drinks, and receipts for witch’s salves and philtres
have come down to us from medieval times.’’
In many countries this condition of possession was induced
for a spectrum of purposes from the higher mystical and prophetic
to mere fortune-telling. Anthropologist Edward Tylor,
in his Primitive Culture (1871), testifies to the extent to which
this belief in obsession and possession persisted into the nineteenth
century ‘‘It is not too much to assert that the doctrine
of demoniacal possession is kept up, substantially the same theory
to account for substantially the same facts, by half the
human race, who thus stand as consistent representatives of
their forefathers back in primitive antiquity.’’
Such beliefs persisted in the development of Spiritualism.
Pioneer Spiritualist seer Andrew Jackson Davis developed a
theory of obsession to account for forms of insanity and crime.
The following passage taken from his book Diakka and Their
Victims (1873) indicates this belief
‘‘The country of the diakka is where the morally deficient
and the affectionately unclean enter upon a strange
probation. . . . They are continually victimizing sensitive persons
still in the flesh making sport of them and having a jolly
laugh at the expense of really honest and sincere people. They
[these demonlike spirits] teach that they would be elevated and
made happy if only they could partake of whiskey and tobacco,
or gratify their burning free-love propensities. . . . Being unprincipled
intellectualities their play is nothing but pastime
amusement at the expense of those beneath their influence.’’
Davis saw some of these creatures as having such a malignant
and bloodthirsty nature as to incite the beings they possessed
to murder.
Recorded Instances of Possession
The sixteenth-century writer Jean Boulaese told how 26
devils came out of the body of the possessed Nicoli of Laon
‘‘At two o’clock in the afternoon, the said Nicoli, being possessed
of the Devil, was brought to the said church, where the
said de Motta proceeded as before with the exorcism. In spite
of all entreaty the said Beelzebub told them in a loud voice that
he would not come out. Returning to their entreaties after dinner,
the said de Motta asked him how many had come out, and
he answered, ‘twenty-six.’ ‘You and your followers,’ then said
de Motta, ‘must now come out like the others.’ ‘No,’ he replied,
‘I will not come out here, but if you like to take me to Saint Restitute,
we will come out there. It is sufficient for you that twentysix
are out.’ Then the said de Motta asked for a convincing sign
of how they had come out. For witness he told them to look in
the garden of the treasury over the front gate, for they had
taken and carried away three tufts (i.e., branches) from a green
maypole (a small fir) and three slates from above the church of
Liesse, made into a cross, as others in France commonly, all of
which was found true as shown by the Abbot of Saint-Vincent,
M. de Velles, Master Robert de May, canon of the Church
Notre-Dame of Laon, and others.’’
The same author gave an account of the contortions of the
possessed woman
‘‘As often as the reverend father swung the sacred host before
her eyes, saying, ‘Begone, enemy of God,’ so did she toss
from side to side, twisting her face towards her feet, and making
horrible noises. Her feet were reversed, with the toes in the
position of the heel, and despite the restraining power of eight
of the men, she stiffened herself and threw herself into the air
a height of six feet, the stature of a man, so that the attendants,
sometimes even carried with her into the air, perspired at their
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Obsession and Possession
work. And although they bore down with all their might, still
could they not restrain her, and torn away from the restraining
hands, she freed herself without any appearance of being at all
‘‘The people, seeing and hearing such a horrible sight, one
so monstrous, hideous and terrifying cried out, ‘Jesus, have
mercy on us!’ Some hid themselves, not daring to look; others,
recognising the wild cruelty of such excessive and incredible
torment, wept bitterly, reiterating piteously, ‘Jesus, have mercy
on us!’ The reverend father then gave permission to those who
wished to touch and handle the patient, disfigured, bent, and
deformed, and with the rigidity of death. Chief among these
were the would-be reformers, such men as Francois Santerre,
Christofle, Pasquot, Gratian de la Roche, Masquette, Jean du
Glas, and others well-known for their tendencies towards reform,
all vigorous men. They all endeavored, but in vain, to
straighten her limbs, and bring them to a normal position, and
to open her eyes and mouth—it was futile. Further, so stiff and
rigid was she, that the limbs would have broken rather than
give, as also the nose and ears. And then, as she said afterwards,
she was possessed, declaring that she was enduring incredible
pain. That is, by the soul torment, the devil makes the body become
stone or marble.’’
A Dr. Ese exponded on the case of Sister Mary, one of Louviers’
‘‘The last was Sister Mary of St. Esprit, supposedly possessed
by Dagon, a large woman, slender-waisted, and of good complexion,
with no evidence of illness. She came into the
refectory. . . head erect and eyes wandering from side to side,
singing, dancing and skipping. Still moving about and touching
lightly those around her, she spoke with an elegance of language
expressive of the good feeling and good nature which
were his (using the person of the devil). All this was done with
movements and carriage alike haughty, following it up with a
violence of blasphemy, then a reference to his dear little friend
Magdalen, his darling and his favourite mistress. And then,
without springing or using effort of any kind, she projected
herself into a pane of glass and hanging on to a central bar of
iron passed bodily through it, but on making an exit from the
other side the command was given in Latin, ‘est in nomine Jesu
rediret non per aliam sed per eadem viam.’ After some discussion
and a definite refusal to return she, however, returned by
the same route, whereupon the doctors examined her pulse
and tongue, all of which she endured while laughing and discussing
other things. They found no disturbance such as they
had expected, nor any sign of the violence of her actions and
words, her coming to being accompanied with some trivial remarks.
The company then retired.’’
As at Louviers, nuns at Auxonne also experienced a problem
with possession, an account of which is in the Relation des
Ursulines possedées d’Auxonne (ca. 1660)
’’. . . the bishop of Chalons, with the intention of exorcising
Denise Lamy, sent for her and when she was not found, he inwardly
commanded her to come to him in the chapel of St.
Anne where he was. It was striking to see the prompt obedience
of the demon to this command, formulated merely in the mind,
for in about a quarter of an hour a violent knocking was heard
at the door of the chapel, as if by one hard pressed. On opening
the door this girl entered the chapel abruptly, leaping and
bounding, her face changed greatly and with high colour and
sparkling eyes. So bold and violent was she that it was difficult
to restrain her, nor would she allow the putting on of the stole
which she seized and threw violently into the air despite the efforts
of four or five clerics who did their best to stop her, so that
finally it was proposed to bind her, but this was deemed too difficult
in the condition in which she was.
‘‘On another occasion, at the height of her frenzy. . . the
demon was ordered to stop the pulse in one of her arms, and
it was immediately done, with less resistance and pain than before.
Immediate response was also made to the further order
to make it return. The command being given to make the girl
insensible to pain, she avowed that she was so, boldly offering
her arm to be pierced and burnt as wished. The exorcist, fortified
by his earlier experience, took a sufficiently long needle
and drove it, full length, into the nail and flesh, at which she
laughed aloud, saying that she felt nothing at all. Accordingly
as he was ordered, blood was allowed to flow or not, and she
herself took the needle and stuck it into different parts of her
arm and hand. Further, one of the company took a pin and,
having drawn out the skin a little above the wrist, passed it
through and through so that the two ends were only visible, the
rest of the pin being buried in the arm. Unless the order was
given for some no blood issued, nor was there the least sign of
feeling or pain.’’
As proof of the possession of the Auxonne nuns, the same
account continues
‘‘Violent agitation of the body only conceivable to those who
have seen it. Beating of the head with all their might against
the pavement or walls, done so often and so hard that it causes
one to shudder on seeing it and yet they show no sign of pain,
nor is there any blood, wound or contusion.
‘‘The condition of the body in a position of extreme violence,
where they support themselves on their knees with the
head turned round and inclined towards the ground for a foot
or so, which makes it appear as if broken. Their power of bearing,
for hours together without moving, the head being lowered
behind below the level of the waist; their power of breathing
in this condition; the unruffled expression of the face which
never alters during these disturbances; the evenness of the
pulse; their coolness during these movements; the tranquil
state they are in when they suddenly return and the lack of any
quickening in the respirations; the turning back of the head,
even to the ground, with marvelous rapidity. Sometimes the
movement to and fro is done thirty or forty times running, the
girl on her knees and with her arms crossed in front; at other
times, in the same position with the head turned about, the
body is wound around into a sort of semicircle, with results apparently
incompatible with nature.
‘‘Fearful convulsions, affecting all the limbs and accompanied
with shouts and cries. Sometimes fear at the sight of certain
phantoms and spectres by which they say they are menaced,
causes such a change in their facial expression that those
present are terrified; at other times there is a flood of tears beyond
control and accompanied by groans and piercing cries.
Again, the widely-opened mouth, eyes wild and showing nothing
but the white, the pupil being turned up under cover of the
lids—the whole returning to the normal at the mere command
of the exorcist in conjunction with the sign of the cross.
‘‘They have often been seen creeping and crawling on the
ground without any help from the hands or feet; the back of the
head or the forehead may be touching the soles of the feet.
Some lie on the ground, touching it with the pit of the stomach
only, the rest of the body, head, feet and arms, being in the air
for some length of time. Sometimes, bent back so that the top
of the head and the soles of the feet touch the ground, the rest
of the body being supported in the air like a table, they walk
in this position without help from the hands. It is quite common
for them, while on their knees to kiss the ground, with the
face twisted to the back so that the top of the head touches the
soles of the feet. In this position and with the arms crossed on
the chest they make the sign of the cross on the pavement with
their tongues.
‘‘A marked difference is to be noticed between their condition
when free and uncontrolled and that which they show
when controlled and in the heat of their frenzy. By reason of
their sex and delicate constitutions as much as from illness they
may be weak, but when the demon enters them and the authority
of the church compels them to appear they may become at
times so violent that all the power of four or five men may be
unable to stop them. Even their faces become so distorted and
changed that they are no longer recognisable. What is more astonishing
is that after these violent transports, lasting someObsession
and Possession Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
times three or four hours; after efforts which would make the
strongest feel like resting for several days; after continuous
shrieking and heart-breaking cries; when they become normal
again—a momentary proceeding—they are unwearied and
quiet, and the mind is as tranquil, the face as composed, the
breathing as easy and the pulse as little changed as if they had
not stirred out of a chair.
‘‘It may be said, however, that among all the signs of possession
which these girls have shown, one of the most surprising,
and at the same time the most common, is the understanding
of the thought and inward commands which are used every day
by exorcists and priests, without there being any outward manifestation
either by word or other sign. To be appreciated by
them it is merely necessary to address them inwardly or mentally,
a fact which has been verified by so many of the experiences
during the stay of the bishop of Chalons and by any of the clergy,
who wished to investigate, that one cannot reasonably doubt
such particulars and many others, the details of which cannot
be given here.’’
Simon Goulart, in Histoires admirables et mémorables de nostre
temps (2 vols., 1610), culled many stories of demonic possession
from demonologist Johan Weyer, including the following
‘‘Antoine Benivenius in the eighth chapter of the Livre des
causes cachées des maladies tells of having seen a girl of sixteen
years whose hands contracted curiously whenever she was taken
with a pain in the abdomen. With a cry of terror her abdomen
would swell up so much that she had the appearance of being
eight months pregnant—later the swelling went down and, not
being able to lie still, she tossed about all over the bed, sometimes
putting her feet above her head as if trying a somersault.
This she kept up throughout the throes of her illness and until
it had gone down by degrees. When asked what had happened
to her, she denied any remembrance of it. But on seeking the
causes of this affection we were of opinion that it arose from a
choking of the womb and from the rising of malignant vapours
affecting adversely the heart and brain. We were at length
forced to relieve her with drugs but these were of no avail and
becoming more violent and congested she at last began to
throw up long iron nails all bent, brass needles stuck into wax,
and bound up with hair and a part of her breakfast—a mass so
large that a man would have had difficulty in swallowing it all.
I was afraid, after seeing several of these vomitings, that she was
possessed by an evil spirit, who deluded those present while he
removed these things and afterwards we heard predictions and
other things given which were entirely beyond human comprehension.
‘‘Meiner Clath, a nobleman living in the castle of Boutenbrouch
in the duchy of Juliers, had a valet named William who
for fourteen years had the torments of a possession by the devil,
and when, at the instigation of the devil, he began to get ill, he
asked for the curé of St. Gerard as confessor. . . who came to
carry out his little part . . . but failed entirely. Seeing him with
a swollen throat and discoloured face and with the fear of his
suffocating, Judith, wife of Clath and an upright woman, with
all in the house, began to pray to God. Immediately there issued
from William’s mouth, among other odds and ends, the
whole of the front part of the trousers of a shepherd, stones,
some whole and other broken, small bundles of thread, a peruke
such as women are accustomed to use, needles, a piece of
the serge jacket of a little boy, and a peacock’s feather which
William had pulled from the bird’s tail eight days before he became
ill. Being asked the cause of his trouble he said that he
had met a woman near Camphuse who had blown in his face
and that his illness was the result of that and nothing else. Some
time after he had recovered he contradicted what he had said
and confessed that he had been instructed by the devil to say
what he had. He added that all those curious things had not
been in his stomach but had been put into his throat by the
devil despite the fact that he was seen to vomit them.
‘‘On the 18th March, 1566, there occurred a memorable
case in Amsterdam, Holland, on which the Chancellor of Gueldres,
M. Adrian Nicolas, made a public speech, from which is
the following ‘Two months or so ago thirty children of this
town began to be strangely disturbed, as if frenzied or mad. At
intervals they threw themselves on the ground and for half an
hour or an hour at the most this torment lasted. Recovering,
they remembered nothing, but thought they had a sleep and
the doctors, sorcerers, and exorcists were all equally unable to
do any good. During the exorcism the children vomited a number
of pins and needles, finger-stalls for sewing, bits of cloth,
and of broken jugs and glass, hair and other things. The children
didn’t always recover from this but had recurrent attacks
of it—the unusualness of such a condition causing great astonishment.’’
Dr. Jean Languis gives the following example in the first
book of his Epitres, saying they happened in 1539 in Fugenstall,
a village in the bishopric of Eysteten, and were sworn to by a
large number of witnesses
‘‘Ulric Neusesser, a ploughman in this village, was greatly
troubled by a pain in the side. On an incision being made into
the skin by a surgeon an iron nail was removed, but this did not
relieve the pain, rather did it increase so that, becoming desperate,
the poor man finally committed suicide. Before burying
him two surgeons opened his stomach, in front of a number of
persons, and in it found some long round pieces of wood, four
steel knives, some sharp and pointed, other notched like a saw,
two iron rods each nine inches long and a large tuft of hair.
One wondered how and by what means this mass of old iron
could be collected together into the space of his stomach.
There is no doubt that it was the work of the devil who is capable
of anything which will maintain a dread of him.’’
Views of Obsession from Psychical Research
As Nandor Fodor pointed out, obsession in psychiatry
means that the mind of the patient is dominated by fixed ideas
to which an abnormal mental condition corresponds. In psychical
research, obsession is an invasion of the living by a discarnate
entity, tending to a complete displacement of normal personality
for purposes of selfish gratification that is more or less
permanent. The difference between mediumship and obsession
is not in principle but in purpose, duration, and (most important)
effect. Mediumship, or trance possession, does not interfere
with the ordinary course of life, does not bring about a
demoralizing dissociation or disintegration; it shows consideration
for the medium and its length is limited. After a certain
time it ceases automatically and the medium’s normal self resumes
its sway.
Obsession is always abnormal; it is an accompaniment of a
shock, organic lesion, or, as has been observed among psychics,
of low morale and weakening will power, induced by an unstable
character and debility of health. Once the existence of spirits
is admitted, the possibility of obsession cannot be disregarded.
Psychical researcher James H. Hyslop in Contact with the
Other World (1919), observes
‘‘If we believe in telepathy we believe in a process which
makes possible the invasion of a personality by someone at a
distance. . . . It is not at all likely that sane and intelligent spirits
are the only ones to exert influence from a transcendental
world. If they can act on the living there is no reason why others
cannot do so as well. The process in either case would be the
same; we should have to possess adequate proof that nature
puts more restrictions upon ignorance and evil in the next life
than in this in order to establish the certainty that mischievous
personalities do not or cannot perform nefarious deeds. The
objection that such a doctrine makes the world seem evil applies
equally to this situation in the present life.’’
How are we to distinguish obsession from multiple personality
It was explained to Hyslop by the ‘‘Imperator’’ group of
controls of medium William Stainton Moses that even for the
spirits it is sometimes difficult to state how far the subconscious
self of the patient is acting under influence and suggestion
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Obsession and Possession
from spirits or as a secondary personality. Nevertheless Hyslop
claimed to have found a satisfactory method to find out the
truth in cross-reference
‘‘I take the patient to a psychic under conditions that exclude
from the psychic all normal knowledge of the situation
and see what happens. If the same phenomena that occur in
the patient are repeated through the medium; if I am able to
establish the identity of the personalities affecting the patient;
or if I can obtain indubitably supernormal information connecting
the patient with the statements made through the psychic,
I have reason to regard the mental phenomena observed
in the patient as of external origin. In a number of cases, persons
whose condition would ordinarily be described as due to
hysteria, dual, or multiple personality dementia precox, paranoia,
or some other form of mental disturbance, showed unmistakable
indications of invasion by foreign and discarnate agencies.’’
Hyslop tells the readers of his Life After Death (1918), ‘‘Before
accepting such a doctrine, I fought against it for ten years
after I was convinced that survival after death was proved. But
several cases forced upon me the consideration of the question.
The chief interest in such cases is their revolutionary effect in
the field of medicine. . . . It is high time for the medical world
to wake up and learn something.’’
William James, shortly before his death, surrendered to the
same belief. He wrote
‘‘The refusal of modern enlightenment to treat obsession as
a hypothesis to be spoken of as even possible, in spite of the
massive human tradition based on concrete experience in its
favor, has always seemed to me a curious example of the power
of fashion in things scientific. That the demon theory (not necessarily
a devil theory) will have its innings again is to my mind
absolutely certain. One has to be ‘scientific’ indeed to be blind
and ignorant enough not to suspect any such possibility.’’
James was affected by the account of the Thompson-Gifford
case published in the Proceedings of the American Society for
Psychical Research (vol. 3, part 8, 1909). According to the report,
F. L. Thompson, a Brooklyn goldsmith, was seized in
1905 with an irresistible impulse to sketch and paint. The style
was that of Robert Swain Gifford. The American artist had died
six months previously but this fact was unknown to Thompson,
who hardly knew of him and, except for a slight taste for sketching
in his early years, had never shown artistic talent.
Supposedly, Thompson had visions of scenes of the neighborhood
of Gifford’s country house and often had the hallucination
that he was Gifford himself. He saw a notice of an exhibition
of Gifford’s paintings. He went in and heard a voice
whisper, ‘‘You see what I have done. Can you take up and finish
my work’’ The desire to paint became stronger. Soon it was so
overpowering that he was unable to follow his former occupation.
Thompson grew afraid that he was losing his sanity. Two
physicians diagnosed the case as paranoia. One of them, without
offering to cure it, expressed a desire to watch the progress
of the malady. Thompson went to Hyslop for advice, who took
him to three different mediums. They all claimed to sense the
influence of Gifford, described his character and life and confirmed
the vague possibility, which Hyslop wished to investigate,
that the case was not the result of mental disorder. As
soon as the case was determined to be spirit obsession, a course
of treatment was decided upon. Reportedly, Gifford, the spirit
entity, was reasoned with and persuaded to desist.
Spirit Obsession and Personality Displacement
If one assumes the possibility of obsession being actually
caused by a spirit entity, the importance of such treatment as
Hyslop gave Thompson and Gifford seems appropriate. The
obsessing spirit entity, if driven out either by strengthened willpower
of the victim or by psychotherapeutic means, would logically
seek and find another subject, but if it is convinced of the
error of its ways, the danger is eliminated. Work of this kind was
done in the Temple of Light in Kansas City in 1910. Hyslop was
impressed with the importance of this cure and established the
James J. Hyslop Foundation for the Treatment of Obsession in
New York. Physician Titus Bull served as its director.
The systematic practice of curing obsession through such
means was soon taken up by Dr. and Mrs. Carl Wickland in
their Psychopathic Institute of Chicago. The patient was
brought to Mrs. Wickland, who operated as a medium. She
went into trance. Her controls influenced the obsessing spirit
to step into Mrs. Wickland’s body. If the obsessor was unwilling
it was forced to do so by means known to the controls. Dr. Wickland
then began to parley with the spirit, usually ending in convincing
the invader that it did a great wrong to its spiritual evolution
by strengthening ties to the Earth. The invader usually
promised to depart and the patient became normal. Later
Wickland moved to California and founded the National Psychological
Institute for the Treatment of Obsession. His experiences
are chronicled in his book Thirty Years Among the Dead
The Wicklands considered the obsessing entities to be mostly
earthbound spirits—spirits of the recently deceased. They do
not necessarily mean harm, the Wicklands said, but only wish
to enjoy earthly existence again. Some may commit acts of revenge
or do other harm, however, and if an occasional evil personality
takes control, the obsessed individual could be driven
to criminal, insane acts.
Just as the trance control will become perfect by practice, the
obsessor will feel more at home in the victim’s organism after
repeated possession and will settle as permanently as possible,
said the Wicklands.
Certain historic records suggest that obsession may attain an
epidemic character. The case of the Ursuline Nuns of Loudon
in 1632–34 has already been cited. Several of the nuns of the
convent, including the mother superior, were seized with violent
convulsions, symptoms of catalepsy and demonic possession.
Blasphemies and obscenities poured from their mouths,
confessed to come from the devil. The priest Urbain Grandier
was accused of immoralities preceding the outbreak. The devils
indicated him as the cause of their troubles. He was burned
alive in April 1634.
In February 1874 Franklin B. Evans was executed in Concord,
New Hampshire, for the murder of a 12-year-old child.
In his confession made just before his execution he said that
‘‘for some days before the murder I seemed to be attended continually
by one who seemed to bear a human form, urging me
on to the deed. At length it became fixed in my mind to take
her life.’’
Hudson Tuttle, in his book The Arcana of Spiritualism (1871),
describes a suicidal obsession
‘‘While sitting in a circle at the home of the venerable Dr.
Underhill, I was for the time in an almost unconscious state,
and recognised the presence of several Indian spirits. The roar
of the Cayahoga River over the rapids could be heard in the
still evening air, and to my sensitive ear was very distinct. Suddenly
I was seized with a desire to rush away to the rapids, and
throw myself into the river. . . someone caught hold of me, and
aroused me out of the impressible state I was in, so that I gained
control of myself. Had the state been more profound, and had
I once started, the end might have been different. The desire
remained all the evening.’’
On occasion the obsession might serve a beneficial end. An
example is the case of Lurancy Vennum, Watseka Wonder.
Her obsessors, it was said, were forced out by the spirit of Mary
Roff, who had died 18 years earlier in the same city. ‘‘Mary
Roff’’ supposedly lived in Lurancy Vennum’s body, but haunted
the house of her own parents for 16 weeks and convinced
everyone of her identity. Her long inhabitation somehow made
Vennum’s body safe from malicious invasions, and when she finally
yielded its control to the returning ego of Lurancy Vennum,
the girl’s health was mentally and physically reestablished.
Obsession and Possession Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
As a result of his twenty years’ study of obsession as head of
the James Hyslop Institute, Titus Bull published in 1932 some
conclusions, as follows
‘‘An obsessing personality is not composed of the soul, mind
and will of one disembodied being, but is, in reality, a composite
personality made up of many beings. The pivot obsessor, or
the one who first impinges upon the sensorium of the mortal,
is generally one with little resistance to the suggestions of others.
He or she, therefore, becomes an easy prey to those who
desire to approach a mortal in this way.
‘‘Some people, moreover, may be born with tendencies
which make it easier for them to become victims of mental alterations
later in life. . . . There is an influence which can be
exerted upon the minds of mortals by ideas embodied in
thoughts from their departed ancestors. In other words, some
departed ancestors, whenever possible, attempt to mould the
lives of those incarnated who are akin. . . . There is a type of
mortal whose mind is easily influenced by the stronger minds
of the family group. . . . The more clannish the family group,
the more likely is this to be true on both sides of the veil. It is,
however, not to be considered as spirit obsession in the true
sense. . . . The intervention of shock, however, or anything that
could upset the nerve balance of a member of such family
group, would place him in actual danger of becoming a victim
of true spirit obsession. . . . The primary obsessor, in this case,
would likely be one who claimed the right by ties of blood, who
had no desire to do anything but to keep the mortal in line with
family ideals.’’
According to Bull, obsessors ‘‘. . .have three major points of
impingement; namely, the base of the brain, the region of the
solar plexus and at the center governing the reproductive organs.
As there are three major points of impingement, it may
be assumed that there can be three composite groups, each
starting with a pivot entity. What satisfaction is to be gained this
way includes the whole gamut of human emotions.’’
Objections to the Concept of Spirit Obsession
Much of the evidence for spirit obsession is subjective, based
on the observations, feelings, and prejudices of investigators,
many of whom have been reputable individuals. However, so
far no conclusive evidence has been found that will resolve this
question definitively.
The subconscious mind has the ability to weave convincing
fantasies of personality, just as novelists create imaginary characters
who seem to have lives of their own. Some cases of apparent
secondary or multiple personality seem to be a dramatization
of the subject’s unconscious emotional desires and fears.
Children often pretend to be different personalities, while even
the effect of a powerful movie portrayal often awakens both
conscious and unconscious imitation of personality traits in impressionable
For a time it was thought that the technique of hypnotic regression,
in which a subject’s memory is progressively explored
into the past and then into apparent former lives, might offer
reliable evidence of the continuity of personality from one life
to another. However, although there are case histories, the evidence
so far is not conclusive.
It may well be discovered that there is no one simple explanation
for or against the concept of spirit obsessions, that certain
cases may be genuinely spirit obsession, others only subconscious
impersonation. The concept of spirit obsession
possession has suffered from the same doubts that have
discouraged continued research on spirit communication. Such
experiments as the conjuring of ‘‘Philip’’ by members of the
Toronto Society for Psychical Research have done much to call
into question the possibility of investigating spirit survival and
working with a spirit hypothesis.
Pagan and Christian beliefs in demonic obsession and possession
brought about complex rituals of exorcism, designed to
drive out the diabolical entities. Although such rituals had virtually
fallen into disuse in Christian countries with the more
pragmatic materialist philosophy of the twentieth century, they
were revived on a startling scale with the occult boom of the
1960s. The theme permeated popular books and movies
through the early 1970s and led to a revival of forgotten rituals
of exorcism.
Active belief in demonic possession seems to be a causative
force in generating apparent cases. Among Pentecostal Christians,
who discuss demons and possession regularly from the
pulpit and hold periodic exorcism services, cases of possession
appear to be in response to the group’s belief. Among liberal
Christians and conservative groups who do not believe in
demon possession, members manifest no symptoms of possible
Ebon, Martin, ed. Exorcism Fact Not Fiction. New York New
American Library, 1974.
Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudon. London Chatto &
Windus, 1952. Reprint, New York Harper & Row, 1971.
Hyslop, James H. Contact with the Other World; The Latest Evidence
as to Communication with the Dead. New York Century,
Nicola, John T. Diabolical Possession and Exorcism. Rockford,
Ill. TAN Books, 1974.
Oesterreich, T. K. Possession, Demoniacal and Other. London
Kegan Paul; New York R. R. Smith, 1930. Reprint, New Hyde
Park, N.Y. University Books, 1966. Reprinted as Possession and
Exorcism. New York Causeway Books, 1974.
Pettiward, Cynthia. The Case for Possession. UK Colin
Smythe, 1975.
Sargant, William. The Mind Possessed A Physiology of Possession,
Mysticism & Faith Healing. London Heinemann, 1973. Reprint,
Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott, 1974.
Shepard, Leslie. How to Protect Yourself Against Black Magic &
Witchcraft. New York Citadel, 1978.
Walker, Sheila S. Ceremonial Spirit Possession in Africa and
Afro-Americana. Leiden, Netherlands E. J. Brill; New York Humanities
Press, 1972. Wickland, Carl A., et al. Thirty Years among
the Dead. Los Angeles National Psychological Institute, 1924.