Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Modern Obsession with Demon Possession

In my occasional review of the articles in Arts & Letters Daily I ran across a rather interesting review article about demon possession and modernity.  The article, by Josephine Livingstone about a book by Brian Levack (The Devil Within).  The book, to be released on April 8, has the following description:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation, thousands of Europeans were thought to be possessed by demons. In response to their horrifying symptoms—violent convulsions, displays of preternatural strength, vomiting of foreign objects, displaying contempt for sacred objects, and others—exorcists were summoned to expel the evil spirits from victims’ bodies. This compelling book focuses on possession and exorcism in the Reformation period, but also reaches back to the fifteenth century and forward to our own times.

Entire convents of nuns in French, Italian, and Spanish towns, 30 boys in an Amsterdam orphanage, a small group of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts—these are among the instances of demon possession in the United States and throughout Europe that Brian Levack closely examines, taking into account the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians. Challenging the commonly held belief that possession signals physical or mental illness, the author argues that demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.
Moreover, as so many people have repeatedly noted, there is a highly gendered element to possession in the modern period. As Elizabeth Reis's Damned Women notes, even in early modern traditions that claim that men and women were equal before God, they were NOT equal before the devil, who seems to have a much easier time penetrating and possessing women than men (and, yes, sexual penetration is often used as a metaphor--or sometimes meant literally--on how women become possessed by the devil and his minions).

The review article, however, raises several additional striking issues that presumably the book also raises.  Firstly, there is a point that cases of demon possession or interest in demon possession has steadily increased in the modern period as compared to a fairly minor interest in medieval period.  This is quite interesting, in that we prefer to associate the modern period with renaissance (rebirth, reawakening), enlightenment, and the rise of scientific inquiry that would banish such thoughts as demon possession.  Yet, evidently, the inverse was true.  Indeed, just think of our popular fascination with demons, vampires, witches, and supernatural forces in film and television, in novels and comics, etc.  

Why?  The article also mentions that our increased modern fascination with possession, especially possession of children (think of most psychologically troubling horror films of the past forty years), taps into the basic question (and deep-rooted anxiety) that has been around for millennia but seems to strike us with increasing urgency and worry in the modern period:  what does it mean to be human?  Werewolves and vampires are about the loss of one's humanity (and, indeed, what is frightening about them is that they are us or were us).  Possession is more psychologically fraught since it is not a physical transformation into beastliness but an internal transformation, the loss of one's soul, or, at the very least, the loss of one's control over oneself.  It is a rootlessness, a feeling of complete lack of control over one's destiny that in a world in which we value freedom of choice and self determination that we fear most.  Perhaps it represents the gap between ideal of complete freedom and the reality of its lack, the frustration that one does not really have as much control over one's destiny as one would like.  Indeed, signs of possession are often those who are most oppressed by society--e.g., women--acting outside of their social norms, seeking some sort of freedom of action and speech.  Possession reflects, in that case, both the social constraints one feels, a lack of control, and a justifiable means of pushing back against them.  Perhaps it is the ebb and flow of multiplex interrelationships constraint, loss of control, and freedom that possession can represent that fascinates and repels us.

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