An altered state of consciousness in which the conscious personality
of the individual is replaced with that of another personality,
commonly thought of as a possessing spirit entity. Possession
is a phenomenon common to all religious traditions but
some traditions have a greater focus upon it. For example,
many of the Afro-Cuban religions (Voudou, Santeria, Macumba)
can be described as possession religions, and the being possessed
by the deity is central to worship in these groups.
In the Christian West, possession, with rare exceptions, has
been viewed as a negative phenomena. Taking the lead from
New Testament examples in which several people are described
as possessed by demons and are healed by Jesus, Christian
leaders have largely equated possession with possession by
a demonic force, or even the devil himself.
The negative evaluation of possession in the West has been
reinforced by the development of secular worldviews that
champion the autonomous individual, the maker of choices.
Such worldviews emerged in the nineteenth century from European
encounters with what were deemed ‘‘primitive’’ cultures
with possession-oriented beliefs and practices, and by the
spread of the practice of hypnotism, in which people could
seemingly be made to do things that they would not or could
not do if conscious. More recently, in this century, negative
views of possession have been reinforced as a by-product of
contemporary psychological exploration of the phenomena of
multiple personalities, in which a secondary personality of the
individual comes forward, usually as a result of extreme trauma.
Spiritualism emerged as a possession-oriented religion in
the mid-nineteenth century. In Spiritualist mediumship, and
its contemporary derivations such as New Age channeling,
possession is a developed form of motor automatism in which
the personality of the automatist is substituted by another, usually
by as a discarnate spirit. The possessing personality aims
to establish communication with this world through the organism
of the entranced medium, by writing or speech.
The incipient stage of possession is personation, during
which the medium’s own personality is still in the body but is
assuming the characteristics of someone departed. The next
stage is partial possession, the excitation of the medium’s
motor or sensory centers by a discarnate agent either through
the subconscious self or in some direct way. F. W. H. Myers
suggested the word ‘‘telergic’’ as a correlative to telepathic for
such action.
Full possession postulates the vacation of the organism by
the medium to allow the entrance of another spirit. Alternating
personalities offer the first suggestion of the possibility of possession.
An arbitrary personality may possess the organism of
the hypnotic subject at the hypnotizer’s suggestion. Secondary
personalities are often hostile and antagonistic to the primary
Traveling clairvoyance in dream states points to the wandering
of the spirit while the body is asleep. Cases of religious
ecstasy in which an excursion is made into the spiritual world
furnish another instance of the temporary separation of body
and soul. Once we admit the possibility of the soul leaving the
body, we have to admit the possibility of another spirit entering
Whether possession actually takes place or whether a secondary
personality speaks through the organism is a question
of evidence. Such evidence has to be furnished by the nature
and content of the communications. The testimony of the mePope,
Dorothy Hampson Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
dium is usually not available, as she or he often does not remember
what happened.
Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg remembered his excursions
into the spiritual world, but in his case there was no possession.
The subjects of Alphonse Cahagnet described heavenly
visions in trance, but there was not enough evidence to rule
out the possibility that even when evidential communications
from discarnate spirits were produced, they did not come from
the subconscious self alone. If no new knowledge is shown in
the trance state, there is no reason to ascribe the communication
to an external intelligence. The character of the communicator
alone does not furnish convincing proof.
The medium Leonora Piper never remembered her visions
of the spiritual world and, the fragmentary utterances during
her passing from trance to waking life aside, she was the tool
for the writing and utterances of ‘‘alien entities’’.
Paranormal knowledge the medium could not have acquired
is an indispensable condition for proving the presence
of an external spirit. It is believed incoherence in the communicator
does not militate against possession. It is rather in favor
of it. If the spirit of the medium vacates the body, his or her
brain will be left behind in a dreamlike state. To control such
a brain and to make it obey the will of the communicator may
not only be an enervating process, but full of pitfalls and possibilities
of confusion.
Possession and Psychical Research
Taken as a phenomenon, possession presents one of the
central mysteries of human life. It involves a mind using a
brain. Possession is always temporary and implies a surrender
of the body on the part of the medium. If possession takes place
against the will of the medium and endures in the waking state,
the phenomenon is called obsession.
The possibility of an instrumental test of possession was first
suggested by W. Whateley Carrington. He advised the use of
a galvanometer, which measured the emotional reactions of the
medium to a certain set of questions. The different controls, if
they are different personalities, should exhibit different emotional
reactions to the same questions. It was by such tests that
the independence of the controls of the medium Eileen Garrett
was established at Johns Hopkins University and the New
York Psychical Institute in 1933.