Last night I watched a fascinating show on the Smithsonian Channel about the (alleged) events that the movie The Excorcist is loosely based on. In case you are not familiar with the story, a thirteen year old boy appeared to slowly become possessed by a demon. The event happened not longer after the unexpected death of his aunt. Weird things are said to have happened in the house and marks started showing up on the boy's body. The family took him to several doctors and finally turned to the church as a last resort. As luck would have it, one of the local herdsman was formally trained by the church to identify and perform exorcisms. Unfortunately he wasn't "man enough" to rid the boy of the demon, although he did determine that there were several demons inside the body. Supposedly one of the demons told him so and the story is believable because the demon spoke in latin.
Anyhoo, one of the marks on his body appeared to say "St. Louis" so the family picked up and moved there (no, I'm not kidding). Several talkers-to-God there spent several months of gibberish talking before putting the boy into complete isolation. As luck would have it, the possession seemed to stop after a while.
Impressive, isn't it? To this day the man who experienced this will not talk about it as he said that he remembers none of it. Then again, after spending several months of isolation with Catholic Priests I think I would also have some repressed memories. (sorry, the joke was there).
The first interview that they show did was with a modern priest. The priest explained that there is a 10 week (10 week!) class on exorcism that the Vatican uses to qualify priests for exorcism. The key tools used in the exorcism are 16th century Latin bible (the exorcism procedure was first documented during that time) and a wooden cross. Apparently the Latin version is more convincing to said evil beings - go figure. I found this to be curious because the family thought that the aunt had inhabited the boy - when did she pick up a dead language? It is good to know that they stopped churning out demons when Latin died off as we don't have to worry about new demons. The holy fella then went on to say that he used a wooden cross because it wouldn't hurt as much if he were beaten with it by the ghost (once again, I kid you not). If I was worried about that I think I would skip right to the foam cross. Better yet, why not a marshmallow cross? I say if you are going to be beaten you might as well enjoy it a little bit.
I was amused to find out that the first thing the priests did after the move to St. Louis was to baptize him into Catholicism. "Before we get this kid medical attention, he needs to be indoctrinated into this group that believes that their leader is infallible. We'll show that devil!". As you may suspect, this didn't impress those mean old devils. When the "possession" was over the priests credited St. Michael with saving the day. In Catholic lore he is the one in charge of keeping Lucifer at bay (I did not know this). Apparently the old man is slipping a little bit because the church is not performing thousands of exorcisms every year. As and aside, I have always gotten a kick out of the statement that Catholicism is a monotheist religion. There's a lot of powerful dead people in that cupboard.
At that point the show turned to science. My skeptic friends have probably heard of the phrase "Occam's Razor" (wiki here)). In extremely simple terms this statement implies that the simplest explanation (or the one that requires the least amount of assumptions) is the one that should be followed. It is not an absolute but when you look at the mysteries of the world you can find that this is true (especially when people try to impose supernatural explanations).
The next interview was with Canadian professor Michael Persinger. Persinger has spent years looking at this phenomenon and has analyzed dozens of patients that had already been classified as possessed. As you might think they all had a lot in common. First, they were all Catholic. You'd think that a devil or two would find its way into a Muslim or Jew or Atheist - apparently this does not happen. Second, they all had the same kind of brain activity. It turns out that scientists have identified the area of the brain where religious belief lives. When there is some kind of religious euphoria that area of the brain is alive with electrical activity. The same kind of activity is evident within those that are said to be possessed.
More telling was the "God Helmet" that this man invented. I had seen this helmet in other shows and it is quite impressive. The professor would invite in various subjects to try on the helmet. The helmet was designed to fire signals to the aforementioned area of the brain. And guess what happens? The same kind of feelings that are associated with supernatural experiences. The more religious you were, the more likely your experience would be religious (and not all of them were pleasant). More telling was that the religious experience was always about your religion and not some other religion. I know I've said this before but nobody claims to have seen the Virgin Mary in Muslim countries. There is some controversy around this procedure but the bigger point is that these kinds of experiences can be reproduced in a lab under certain conditions. It isn't surprising, especially when you consider that other religious experiences (especially the Near Death Experience) is easily reproduced in a flight simulator.
Another scientist that was interviewed said that bodies under stress often will react with unusual muscle spasms. Also, the brains of young adults are undergoing significant chemical changes and it isn't uncommon for the person to have some really rough periods. This would also explain why the weirdness seemed to suddenly stop. He also went on to say that the "possessions" seemed to become more intense as the intensity of the exorcisms increased. Was this because the demons were fighting back? No, it was because the priests were actually stimulating that part of the brain and actually implanting the story lines into his head. We know much more about psychology and the human brain now than we did sixty years ago. The show mentioned that the boy used a Ouija board so there was already a predisposition to fantasy (as an aside, I've always been amused when people still refer to Ouija boards as being a tool of the devil. You can buy one at Toys r Us for crying out loud).
I just went out to youtube and watched some videos of people that claimed to be possessed. You may not realize this but the definition of a miracle is something that happens beyond the laws of the natural world. I see a bunch of people in makeup making funny noises and funny faces but - hold on to your hats - not one video of people levitating, breathing fire or changing the channel on the TV without a remote. That's the funny thing about supernatural claims - the evidence is supposed to be all around us and nowhere at the same time.
One other note on this. The director of the film was interviewed toward the end of the show. He said that the studio wanted to change the name of the film because the term "exorcist" relatively unknown. Now that the seed has been planted in our collective head we now have thousands of people coming forward claiming to have been demonized. And this is really the root of all supernatural belief - the seed is planted and the human brain and human desire (or fear) make it bloom.