Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Waiter, There's a Demon In My Soup!

How can more than half of Americans believe in demonic possession?

Posted Nov 04, 2012

According to a recent poll, more than half of Americans say they believe demonic possession is possible. <<Overall, only 35 percent of the 1,200 registered voters polled—including Independent voters and others— said that demon possession is an impossibility.>>[1]  If you believe in demons of course, psychology would be more or less pointless, since demons are gratuitously malicious and you can't get very far studying their motives. And since demons are supposedly invisible and don't follow any natural laws, science is moot.

That's not to say ancient beliefs in demons don't make some sense. We're insolubly ambivalent creatures: we have mixed feelings about everything.  It's the way we're built. Like scapegoats, demons often objectify the negative side of our ambivalence. Demons are antisocial, rebellious, selfish, murderous, and more. They give shape to motives that may otherwise be too distressing or taboo to think about. When conflict and suffering reach emergency proportions, demons wind up their sirens and race to the scene.

 As a tool for managing motives, demons offer some advantages. They can be frighteningly incalculable.  But since they're not you, the right technique such as an exorcism may get rid of them. Psychotherapy rarely gives you such definitive results.  Demons can also explain your failings, especially if you strive to be flawless.  As the historian Norman Cohn says, Satan emerged in the European middle ages at a moment when Christians were especially avid to emulate Christ—and frustrated by their sins.

Demons externalize your conflicts, but luckily they come with a toolkit. Theologies and magic prescribe strategies for demon-control. In emergencies riddance usually involves purgation: some form of abreaction, conversion, or cathartic violence such as torture and witch-burning. In effect, you reset a psyche gripped by hysteria or panic by overdriving it to exhaustion and recuperation (unless you've burned the witch).

The deep metaphor for purgation is near-death or play-death and resurrection. You can see that this process answers to everyday death-anxiety as well as a particular demon, and that's logical, since a lot of "demonic" experiences are rooted in disguised terror of death.  

You can also see that demonic possession and riddance is related to the medical regimen of ages past that treated illness with purgatives, emetics, and bloodletting.  As in exorcism or the expulsion of scapegoats from the village, physicians held that something alien has overtaken you and must be forced out. Needless to say, this could be hard on the suffering patient. While demons are notorious shape-shifters, they work in a polarized world split between God and the Devil, right and wrong, obedience and rebellion, and love and hate. Such a binary system has no room for genetic, neurological, and psychosomatic explanations with subtle overlays of causality and always changing. 

Demons produce particular symptoms, but basically they attack the core of personality, the belief in "what is right" that gets underway at birth and is often underwritten by God. Even ancient medical fantasy imagined illness as an attack on "what feels right."  So belief in demons responds to psychosomatic symptoms. It moralizes not just behavior, but all reality. And since we're insolubly ambivalent and always changing as we grow in a world endlessly evolving, the belief is always richly   conflicted. You can see why the early Christian story, with its insistence on mercy and forgiveness. must have been powerfully attractive. And in turn, it's understandable that some Christian sects have  foregrounded the Devil and put forgiveness behind them.

Even today, demons make a robust explanatory tool. Since demons attack God, they work well for conservative, authoritarian personalities that cherish obedience and hate intrusive "outside" forces. This may be a reason why the poll reports that more Republicans (68%) than Democrats  (49%) believe in demonic possession. "Conservatives" oppose "alien" immigrants and, In other polls, are more racially intolerant and tougher on crime. If you favor a militarized country entangled in agonizing wars, it could be logical to find something demonic in all those enemies. Come to think of it, the same logic could apply to the criminal citizens locked up in America's voracious prison system.

The "demon" poll also finds that more Romney supporters doubt global climate change (42%) than Obama supporters (12%). A connection may lie in "conservative" arguments that climate change is natural and not caused by human activity. This argument blames nature for injury and also (ahem) takes the heat off you and me. It also squares with an emphasis on individualism and hostility to "collectivism." After all, the deep threat in climate change is death-anxiety and annihilating population crash. If you believe yourself an independent, beleaguered individual, you could feel a good deal more vulnerable than if you can imagine a global effort at remediation. If you're a powerful billionaire, you might feel guilty about not joining a community effort to avert tragedy. 

There's an air of unreality about an analysis such as this. For one thing, the poll was probably based on a fairly general question. In polls most Americans say they believe in "God," but the word is so fuzzy you can't be sure what they mean or whether they're talking about the same thing.

In "demonic possession" there must be an element of role-playing and fantasy for most people. After all, these folks are not going  around talking about demons on the job and in the coffeeshop. Much of what gets called "belief" is a kind of half-knowledge—emotional, fuzzy, colored by denial or wishfulness—rather than reasoned, operational thinking. Like tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter ("WOMAN TRAPS ALIEN IN BREAD BOX"), demons offer a thrill of the uncanny in a bureaucratized world. Since the poll mentions politics, it's worth noting that this campaign has been distinguished by a tidal wave of vague or false advertising that many voters tolerate. And since much of the corporate Citizens United money comes from sources that have worked to keep down wages for most Americans, this indifference to truth is disquieting. Whether or not American schools are deficient, the public attitude toward education is careless if not subtly contemptuous. (Only an embarrassingly tiny minority of Americans knows enough about evolution for "belief" in evolution to mean anything at all.)

No question, we remain richly superstitious creatures. The problem, needless to say, is that fantasies about the demonic can be vicious. It's poignant to see Nazis embracing supernatural nonsense while lining up "alien" women and children to be exterminated.  Closer to home, the Satanic Abuse hysteria that excited some preachers, corrupted some American psychiatrists, and befuddled some well-meaning feminists in the 1980s and 90s wrecked real lives.

The problem isn't that we live by enabling fictions. Most of the time our enabling fictions are true enough to make an overwhelming world user friendly. The problem is having the courage to recognize enabling fictions for what they are and to sort them out.

1. Dominique Mosbergen, "Most Republicans Believe In Demon Possession, Less Than Half Believe In Climate Change," Huffington Post (11/02/2012).