Spirit possession is the belief in external forces, malevolent or benevolent, taking over a body or object. Possession is a fascinating phenomenon that speaks to our deep attraction to the supernatural world. Spirit possession seems like it happened to people in a far away time and place, and while we like to think that we are more secular and less superstitious today, over 80% of Americans and 58% of Canadians still believe in an afterlife and heaven. Furthermore, 57% of Americans and 47% of Canadians still believe in ghosts and spirits. So while we might not be sitting our butts down in pews (which is also a complicated question), we are still invested in the supernatural and spirit world.
Spirit possession is a great example of our relationship to forces beyond the human world. Three common examples are jinns in Islam, Dybbuks in Jewish mythology, and demon possession in Christianity. All three speak to our desire to understand evil in the world, and socio-cultural forces still in play today. Join us as we look at the history of spirit possession, exorcism, and their place in culture and society today.
Spirit Possession and Exorcism: Jinns, Dybbuks, and Demons
In Jewish folklore there exists a malicious spirit called a dybbuk. The dybbuk is believed to be the wandering soul of a dead person, that comes to possess living hosts (dybbuk is Yiddish for cling). The belief in dybbuks really began in the late 16th century in eastern Europe, alongside the rise in Jewish mysticism, although possession stories date back to the Hebrew Bible.
What dybbuks are is debated. Some believe that they are family members whose souls remain in limbo. Some claim the dybbuks are spirits who have escaped from Gehenna, the Jewish equivalent to hell or purgatory. Others claim that dybbuks are souls banned from Gehenna because they committed sinful acts such as suicide.
It can take nine men and a Rabbi to exorcise a dybbuk. The Rabbi, called a baʿal shem, must be a powerful Rabbi. The Rabbi and the men attempt to shock the dybbuk out of the victim, and will recite prayers and blow the shofar (ram’s horn). Once the demon has made itself present, the Rabbi will attempt to heal it through dialog and prayer.
Dybbuks in Popular Media
Dybbuk possession has fallen out of favor in the larger Jewish community, but some Hasidic communities will still practice exorcisms when needed. There is a weird story going around today that the rapper Post Malone cursed himself by touching a box in a museum that supposedly contains a trapped dybbuk. The following is the opening scene from the Coen Brother’s movie, A Serious Man, featuring a dybbuk.
Jinn – where we get the word Genie from – are supernatural creatures that originated amongst pre-Islamic Arab tribes, and were later added to more canonical Islamic theology and mythology.
Some Muslim cultures will claim that people have “worn” the jinn. Wearing a jinn is to be possessed, but what that possession looks like will be different depending on the culture and country. Parts of the world under-conflict, like Egypt and Palestine, will often have stories of Jewish or Christian jinn. Jinn possession may be used to make sense of problems like infertility, the inability to find a marriage partner, or the loss of employment.
Similar to the Jewish dybbuk, the cure of jinn possession involves treatment by a particular religious leader (an imam) who may recite prayers, dialogue with the jinn, or perform non-invasive medical procedures. Treatment can occur immediately, or takes months.
Jinn in Popular Media
One of the more interesting examples of jinn in popular media is the television show American Gods, which depicts a jinn having a sexual encounter with an unsuspecting man.
There is only one apparent case of demonic possession in the Hebrew Bible, that of King Saul being tormented by an “evil spirit,” (1 Samuel 16:14). In the New Testament, the most famous exorcist is Jesus Christ, who had many encounters with demons and evil spirits. Matthew writes:
That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick (Matt 8:16).
Guidelines for exorcism in the Catholic Church were only established in 1614, and since every Christian was understood to have the power to command demons, both the priestly and lay classes could perform exorcisms. People would confront the possessed and use the Benedictine formula of “Step Back, Satan” to force the demon out.
There is a belief that we are fighting a spiritual warfare, and what is at stake are our souls.
In 1999 the Vatican revised its exorcism guidelines. Today the rules are more stringent. Only a priest can perform an exorcism, and the potentially possessed individual must be evaluated by a medical professional before any other acts are taken. While it might seem strange that the Catholic Church would maintain a policy of exorcisms, the belief in exorcisms has only grown since the 1970s when film and television began popularizing demons and spirit possession.
Today in some Protestant Evangelical circles, there is a belief that we are fighting a spiritual warfare, and what is at stake are our souls. Brian Connor, a contemporary protestant exorcist says, “But when one experiences it face-to-face — when one sees evil, smells it, feels it, has things thrown in his face, encounters evil prowling around like a lion — then you know there’s a spiritual warfare going on all around us.” One of the key differences between Protestant and Catholic theology in regards to possession is the Protestant focus on the individual as being the cause of affliction. Like the Jewish dybbuk and some Islamic folklore, bad faith or bad practice can influence demonic possession.
Exorcism in Popular Media
It isn’t very hard to find examples of exorcism and spirit possession in popular media today. There are an endless number of movies about possession including The Possession, The Nun, The Shining, The Conjuring, Paranormal Activity, and of course, The Exorcist.
Possession has been understood by some academics and psychologists today as being akin to mental illness. It is easy to imagine someone suffering from psychosis being thought of as possessed. That is certainly one possible answer. Even today our way of understanding mental illness in the West is different from how other cultures understand it.
Another answer is that people are influenced by popular media. In 2012, a whopping 57% of Americans claimed to believe in demonic spirit possession, and while many of those people may be religiously oriented, we have many examples of pop-culture influencing belief. For example, the claims of UFO encounters shot up dramatically in conjunction with Hollywood’s interest in them. However today, when technology that would allow for easy gathering of evidence is available, UFO sightings have dramatically decreased. In the 1970s, Hollywood exploded with movies about spirit possession, demons and Satanic cults. None of this was helped by the growth of new religious movements like the Manson Family and Jonestown, whose grizzly crimes were projected onto television screens.
Theodicy is the fancy word for trying to understand why bad things happen to good people. The term is especially relevant to the three monotheistic religions who have to contend with evil and an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God. Some early Christians believed that there was both an evil and a good God. Many Jews following the Holocaust chose to understand the horror inflicted on them by claiming that God must have decided to leave humans alone to fend for themselves.
Possession stories can often reflect a culture’s political, economic and social situation. In Palestine, where death is a constant part of life given the conflict with Israel, many people claim to become possessed by Jewish jinn. These stories, according to some scholars, allow men and women to externalize personal and economic problems such as the lack of employment, emasculation, and poverty. In the Western world, the claims of possession shot up dramatically after WWII and the cold war, and coincided in many ways with the growth of the Christian-right. It can be hard to come to terms with evil in the world, and so demons may allow us to externalize our fears, and protect our sense of self.
Possession often “happens” to women, especially in many parts of the Islamic world. One explanation for this is that possession is one possible method for women to work within male-dominated systems, or what scholar Saba Mahmood has called feminist agency. Mahmood believes that in these situations, woman can be agents within their social systems or structures as a means of creating stability and not change.
In the case where a woman is not able to conceive, a possession diagnosis allows her to externalize experiences that do not fit in with what is considered normal.
Anthropologist Janice Boddy’s work on Zar possession among the Hofriyati in Northern Sudan is a great example where possession is not necessarily negative. For the Hofriyati, a woman’s sense of worth and value is intimately tied up with socialized fertility. Fertility problems “place intense strain on a woman’s self-image and often fragile marital relations.” In the case where a woman is not able to conceive, a possession diagnosis allows her to externalize experiences that do not fit in with what is considered normal, thus maintaining an idealized norm. Possession then, works as a defence of the self and of social relationships, and becomes therapeutic while moving beyond medical or psychological treatments as we might understand them in the West. Unfortunately, unlike other forms of spirit possession outlined above, there is no cure for Zar possession.
What is clear is that jinns, dybbuks, demons and other spirits have not gone away. In some circles, spirit possession is more prevalent today than it has ever been. In some cases, possession narratives are powerful forms of therapy, and means of exercising power in the face of social oppression. In others, it is a reflection of popular media, and the popularity of cultural myths and stories. And in many cases, possession is a way of understanding evil in the world, and how a good God could allow for bad things to happen. Spirit possession stories say a lot about ourselves, our societies, and our relationships to the supernatural. They have evolved, and will continue to evolve rather than ever go away.