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THE POSSESSION SYNDROME
MYTH, MAGIC AND MULTIPLICITY
by
Ralph B. Allison, M.D.
May, 1980
Presented at
Second Pacific
Congress of Psychiatry
Manila, Philippines
May 12-16, 1980 
In the world of psychological sciences, it is considered a mark
of progress to have passed beyond a belief in witchcraft and
spirit possession as a cause of mental illness.  The awareness
of the way the mind can split itself into several parts, as in
multiple personality, has more current acceptance than the
ancient, supernatural beliefs.  This seems in contrast, however,
to the common, lay opinion of many cultures that black magic and
evil spirits are more acceptable explanations for certain odd
behaviors than dissociated parts of one person's mind
alternately taking over that person's body.

In this paper, I would like to propose that this problem is not
an "either/or" situation, but that all of these current and
ancient ideas may have merit.  I would like to suggest that the
concept of a possession syndrome, whereby a person's mind is
controlled by an agency acting contrary to his own best
interests, can be viewed as a spectrum.  This spectrum rates the
forces involved on a scale from totally self-generated to those
which seem totally externally-generated.  I will illustrate each
of the five points on the spectrum of the possession syndrome
with a clinical example

from my own practice.  I fully realize that other
interpretations of the clinical data may be made, but we must
first start with a description of the clinical information from
which all theories evolve.

Grade I Possession is control by an idea, an obsession, or by an
involuntary act, a compulsion, or by addiction to alcohol or
drugs.  A lady with an obsessive-compulsive neurosis came to me
for years for depression and a hand-washing compulsion.  Many
years ago water had splashed from a public toilet into one eye,
causing a conjunctivitis.  Ever since then she had to avoid
public toilets, due to her persistent thought that she would go
blind if such an event should ever happen again.  Certainly, her
fixed idea about public toilets being so dangerous greatly
hampered her social life, since she could only stay out in
public for a limited time before having to go home and use her
own toilet.  She could not work at her former job as a legal
secretary and she could not take advantage of any of the
cultural events in town.

We have all seen such patients who seem controlled by such
mistaken ideas, compulsions or addictions.  In some cases where
physical damage occurs from the compulsive act, these persons
harm themselves severely, sometimes to the point of death.

Grade II Possession is due to the influence of a negative
alter-personality developed by a person with an hysterical
personality structure.  One young man created an imaginary
friend at the age of nine, while hiding under the bed to escape
another of his mother's angry tirades.  This dissociated mental
creation evolved into an

alter-personality who hated all women, considered them only good
for sex and eventually raped and killed six young women in two
states.  All this happened while the young man, in his primary
personality, was holding down a responsible job, living with a
girlfriend with whom sex was wonderful, and was helping raise
their young son.  When he weakened in any way, the
alter-personality came out and killed another young lady.  The
primary personality was totally amnesic for all these episodes
until psychiatric investigation under hypnosis was conducted. 
He was found to be a modern Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with
absolutely no recollection of the periods of murderous activity.

In many cultures, the alter-personality would be considered the
prime example of an evil spirit, invading the body of this
decent young man.  However, deep hypnosis showed very clearly
the psychosocial roots of his mental splitting.  The way this
alter-personality was able to handle the repressed aggression
against his mother was clearly demonstrated.  With adequate
information from his unconscious storehouse of data, there is no
need to invoke supernatural explanations, at least in this
particular case.

Grade III Possession is when the controlling influence seems to
be the mind of another living human being.  Here is where
witchcraft commonly becomes involved, in order to accomplish
this end. A very Americanized Mexican lady, who did not believe
in witchcraft, came to my office complaining of a year of
depression and physical weakness.  These symptoms had started
just after her nephew had been

killed in an automobile accident the night before his wedding
was scheduled.  The young man's mother (my patient's sister)
blamed the patient for his death, since my patient had refused
to try to talk the young man out of the desire to wed his
girlfriend.  The sister and their mother then visited a local
black witch and had been observed by other family members
performing black magic rituals aimed at harming my patient.  In
hypnosis, I asked to find out the cause of the problem and a
voice came forth, identified itself as the sister of my patient
and explained why she hated my patient.  She admitted to having
caused all of the suffering my patient had endured over the past
year.  After I told her to go back into her own body and leave
the patient alone, the patient awoke with total amnesia for the
hypnotic session and relief of her symptoms.

I had no follow-up on this case, so I do not know the patient's
mind well at all.  But the facts were that she considered
witchcraft pure superstition and acted the role of the typical
sophisticated American housewife.  Both her sister and mother
were still very superstitious and fully believed in native
Mexican folk beliefs of witchcraft, bought black candles and
other paraphernalia from a local witch and performed rituals in
front of a nephew.  They fully believed that one mind could
adversely affect another from a distance.  The voice told me she
was the sister, by name, and hated my patient because she, the
patient, was so well-liked by everyone, and the sister was
despised by most who. knew her.  This was the sister's way of
punishing the patient for being so popular.  I had no evidence
at all that the patient was suppressing her hostilities and
created this entity, which had not caused blackouts,
hallucinations or any other symptoms of dissociation.  Only
generalized, unexplained aches and pains, depression and malaise
had been present for the previous year.  I would like to think
some other explanation would be more likely than the obvious
one, but I can think of none which is supported by the data I
had.

Grade IV Possession is control by the spirit of a once alive
human being.  Although there is doubt in European and American
circles as to the continued existence of the human spirit, it is
an accepted belief of the majority-of the earth's inhabitants.
one young lady, who also had multiple personalities, found
herself compelled to walk from her home to the local harbor
without knowing why.  When she finally regained consciousness
and control of her body, she went to a phone and called a friend
to come and get her.  I saw her at home shortly after that,
induced hypnosis and asked to learn what was responsible for
this odd behavior.  A voice came forth which claimed to be the
spirit of the woman who had drowned herself in the surf of the
Atlantic Ocean while looking in the boats at the harbor for her
husband and children, who had deserted her.  She stated that she
had taken over this patient's body to continue the search, but
she was now on the Pacific Coast instead.  After she agreed to
leave the patient, the patient ceased to be interested in
walking in the water.

This patient was well-known to me and I was well-acquainted with
all of her alter-personalities from therapy.  She had often been

"taken over" by entities which claimed to be either good or evil
spirits, and which were identified as such by one or another of
the wise, informative helper alter-personalities she had.  This
particular spirit-fitted the role of one which had died but had
not completed a necessary function at the time of her
demise--namely, finding her family.  So, she did not accept the
reality of having died, and had to take over the body of a
susceptible person and one which lived near a harbor.  My
patient fit both of those criteria.

Grade V Possession is the control by a spirit which has never
had its own life history and identifies itself as an agent of
evil.  I once saw a young man who had been injured at work when
a piece of machinery fell on his head.  He had had several
subsequent convulsive seizures but neurological evaluations did
not show injury sufficient to explain the seizures.  He also
began hearing a voice telling him he was going to die shortly. 
Under hypnosis, I asked to learn the reason for these symptoms. 
A voice came forth, claiming to be the Devil.  This Devil
claimed to have entered the man several years before, when he
was in Japan in the U.S. Army.  The man had run into a burning
house to rescue a Japanese occupant and, when he did, an
explosion blew him out of the house.  The man was hospitalized
for many months and was very unhappy about the poor quality of
his medical care.  This Devil claimed he went into the man at
the time of the fire and was responsible for the object falling
on his head.  He also claimed responsibility for all subsequent
physical and mental symptoms.  I secured a consultation with a
local priest, who also met this same Devil, just by reciting
certain rituals.  The priest expressed an opinion that this was
really not the Devil, as known in theology, but that he was an
evil spirit who was so stupid he actually thought he was the
Devil.  When the man was relieved of this particular burden by
the priest, he began to express the very strong repressed
hostility he had toward his father from childhood, and about the
male doctors who had treated him in Japan.  As far as I know
from subsequent correspondence, the symptoms of the voice and
seizures did not continue after he left the priest.

DISCUSSION:

It is an axiom in parapsychological research that it is
impossible to accurately differentiate, when a strange voice
emanates from a person who is capable of deep hypnosis and
dissociation, from play-acting, dissociation of that person's
mind, or an outside entity which has entered sometime before. 
All we have for data is the self-definition of that voice and,
if it is presumed to be an evil entity, there is reason to think
it would lie to the examiner.  There is no reason to think that
a negative alter-personality would-not also lie and claim to be
an evil spirit.  Therefore, self-definition is an inadequate
criteria for identification of the entity.  Only by repeated
exposure to such entities can an examiner arrive at his own most
logical conclusions.  In this talk, I cannot go into all the
other experiences. I have had that led me to feel the entities I
describe were what I think they were.  Only by following a
series of cases

can any physician come to know what presenting symptoms usually
indicate in regard to the underlying pathology.  One thing is
sure about the human mind--it is capable of doing anything.  The
only limitation is. our own perception of what we think is
possible or impossible for it to do.

Personally, I am all in favor of intrapsychic explanations for
the symptoms I have noted in these patients.  I have no doubt
that, even if one accepts possession by an outside agent as
possible, there has to be something about the patient's mind
which makes it fertile ground for such entities to grow.  This
is usually found to be repressed negative feelings from their
own past history, feelings which have never been dealt with and
resolved by needed psychotherapy.  These feelings act as a
magnet for the outside force, since they are of the same nature,
but internally-generated.  Any healer of any culture soon comes
to recognize this process and has learned to deal with it in a
way compatible to the ways of the culture and the client.

CONCLUSION:

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that we not so lightly
brush off explanations based on experience of many cultures over
centuries of time, with many bright, insightful healers.  The
purely intrapsychic view of mental illness may not hold all the
answers, especially when one gets a glimpse of what is deeply
buried in the unconscious mind.. When one digs deep enough and
the exposure is wide enough, strange entities may come forth
from the depths.  Only with careful analysis and correct
identification of these entities can an effective approach be
planned and curative maneuvers be successfully undertaken.






  Copyright© 2017 - Ralph B. Allison