In Praise of Demonic Possession [part 1]

25 October 2014


I offer this essay in two parts, and I would first make clear what this essay won’t do.

It won’t ask what demons “are.”[1] It hazards nothing about any erotic or worldly “benefits” sometimes claimed for demonic possession.[2] It avoids speculation whether angelic possession occurs,[3] and neglects generally whether a demon—or a malevolent spirit of any sort—may enter a home or someone’s mind without prior permission from the victim.[4]

These issues, amply explored already on the Internet and in numberless human circles over the course of our species, beg their questions by assuming both a literal and a supernatural actuality for demons. For this reason, any dispute whether demons “are real” sidesteps one indisputable fact from the world: that people do sometimes perceive others as demon possessed.

People also make errors of judgment. And in La Barre’s (1984)[5] Muelos: A Stone-Age Superstition about Sexuality, he bluntly declares that the sheer age and duration of some cultural practice or belief—like a belief in demonic possession—only demonstrates that whole cultures, not just individuals, can at times suffer errors of judgment. It shows how a mere cultural consensus (about a belief) offers no argument for the belief’s rationality much less any justification for its continuance.

However, La Barre’s point amounts to question begging itself, precisely because these sorts of “irrational” beliefs have in fact effectively ordered the social world where they occur. To insist that only true beliefs could (much less should) effectively organise cultural activity seems itself already a variety of the sort of “true irrationality of belief” that La Barre condemns.

But even were La Barre perfectly correct, we should still have to deal with the lived reality and insistence of those who perceive demonic possession in others.[6] To put it less nicely: we would still have address in some way the craziness of that belief.[7] Thus, rather than engaging in a sterile digression whether or not a person’s or culture’s perception of demonic possession “is true” (much less whether demons “are real”), I would look instead at how that belief operates within culture; I would look at its social dynamic. Rather than debating what (belief in) demonic possession “is,” I would rather look at what (belief in) demonic possession “does”.

A Framework for Demonic Possession

Jung’s (1911)[8] “On the Doctrine of Complexes” provides a helpful framework for doing this. I will add commentary in what follows to one particularly long, summary paragraph from Jung, but let me demonstrate in advance the relevance of this paragraph to demonic possession generally by citing what Jung adds at the end of that paragraph:

I may say here the superstition held by all races that hysterical and insane persons are “possessed” by demons is right in conception. These patients have, in fact, autonomous complexes, which at times completely destroy the self-control. The superstition is therefore justified, inasmuch as it denotes “possession,” because the complexes [that possess them] behave quite independently of the ego, and force upon it a quasi-foreign will (¶1352).

Jung’s description of the operation of what he calls a “complex” thus resembles or actually functions as what we typically call (at least mild cases of) demonic possession. In my commentary on the rest of Jung’s paragraph that follows, allow yourself also to hear “demon” wherever the word “complex” occurs; for instance, that a complex [a demon] interferes with one’s thinking because it takes over [possesses] the cognitive position of ego-consciousness:

This points … to the complex … [as] having a remarkable independence in the hierarchy of the psyche, so that one may compare the complex to revolting vassals in an empire. Researches have shown this independence is based upon an intense emotional tone—[i.e.,] the value of the affective elements of the complex—because the “affect” occupies in the constitution of the psyche a very independent place and may easily break through the self-control and self-intention of the individual. [9]

Two of the most important discoveries to follow from this identification of “complexes” involve the independence (autonomy) and the plurality of them within an individual’s psyche.

I conceive the complex to be a collection of imaginings, which, in consequence of [its] autonomy, is relatively independent of the central control of the consciousness, and at any moment liable to bend or cross the intentions of the individual.

Thus, a complex [a demon] might take over [or possess] one’s ego, which ego exists itself as simply one complex amongst a plurality of complexes: [10]

Especially in those states where the complex [a demon] temporarily replaces the ego, we see that a strong complex possesses all the characteristics of a separate personality. We are, therefore, justified in regarding a complex as somewhat like a small secondary mind, which deliberately (though unknown to consciousness) drives at certain intentions which are contrary to the conscious intentions of the individual (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Jung elaborates more fully whence and why such complexes [demons] manifest out of the impenetrable darkness of the Unconscious, but we do not need these further mechanisms to examine what demonic possession “does” in culture.

In Praise of Demonic Possession

Jung’s position within psychology as a discipline readily allows incorrectly imagining an equation between “demonic possession” and “mental illness”.[11] The autonomy and especially the plurality of complexes [demons], however, radically changes the picture.

A most basic point to make: possession [by a complex, by a demon] may happen in completely non-pathological ways. Colloquially, we will say “what’s gotten into you,” which seems to draw attention less to any inexplicability of one’s behaviour and more to the fact that your behaviour seems out of character, that it doesn’t seem like you.

Usually, other people note this, but not always. For ourselves, we may notice at times how—no matter how determined we feel about something—we nonetheless find ourselves acting contrary to our desire or willing; very often, we notice only after the fact. People who want to quit smoking may often painfully experience this “two-mindedness” about seeming to want to quit while also thwarting that want. Or we simply rise with the sun, full of determination to do everything that needs doing, and at the end of the day, we fall back into our beds, unable to even remember what we did, much less what we failed to.

We can blame this as a failure of will on the part of our egos, but it seems inaccurate (i.e., it does not describe the actual human experience accurately) to say that “I” “didn’t really want” to quit smoking or that “I” “didn’t really mean to get everything done today.” I seriously want to quit smoking, so which “I” lit that last cigarette? We might say, “You’re of two minds about it,” but if we take that statement seriously, then we have to confront “who” has those “two” minds then?

Whether one judges this in a moral framework as some kind of laziness—as if lassitude or sloth were not themselves most challenging demons—the criticism jumps the shark and presumes a straightforwardness of solution where such self-evident solutions may in fact not rule. For instance, if someone fails to leap up from the earth to the surface of the moon, to then accuse them of not trying hard enough seems non sequitur.

But whether we blame Jung’s framework as a kind of “excuse-making” or not, its framing of the complexes as possession reflects within it not only a more accurate description of human experience but also a crucially human element that the moralising framework lacks, as I will show. But—to anticipate that point—since the moralising framework functions in these cases in a more inhumane (and thus, inhuman) way, this also makes it less socially desirable, along with being less accurate.

At root, this framework of demonic possession asserts that your bad acts do not originate out of your typical self, much less your best self. Such a view interprets your bad acts as things done by agents either external to you [i.e., demons] or autonomous and plural with respect to your own will [i.e., as another complex or complexes besides your ego]. By contrast, the moralising framework ascribes the bad acts, as evil and ill-will, expressly to your Self. No matter how well-behaved you’ve acted in the past, this eruption of “evil” from you finally exposes your true, evil colours. Rather than remaining a friend who has temporarily become beset by an egregious and alien presence [a demon], the moralising framework takes your sudden bad acts as a betrayal at best, if not proof that your “friendship” never had any real basis.

In addition, the framework of demonic possession presumes the possibility of your recovery. This possession by an alien presence, by definition temporary, can’t last indefinitely. Truly, it may require an expert’s intervention—an exorcism or depth psychological analysis—or it may spontaneously disappear on its own. Either way, the idea that it can only persist hopelessly and indefinitely runs wholly contrary not only to the framework of possession, but also our experiences of it. We get possessed by a mood, but later that mood goes away.

The moralising framework, by contrast, insists that bad act you exhibit now points to your very “nature” or “character”. And for all of the assertions that education or religion might amend “human nature or character,” vast swaths of the US population express considerable scepticism about the prospects of “rehabilitation”. And our current psychiatric models don’t generally presuppose to “cure” anyone but rather (and usually psychopharmacologically) to “manage” the person’s symptoms.

This “character” model of psychotherapy assumes that most one might hope for involves management of symptoms; once “madness” comes to roost, one won’t get rid of it.[12] In many (or most) Christian settings, the helpless and unregenerate unrighteousness of everyone positions salvation [recovery] as solely through the work of grace by the Divine, and then also showing its fruits only after the person’s death. Rather than viewing a “possessed” individual as occupied by something contrary to and overthrowing their will, they get seen as inherently broken and unsalvageable by human means, so that all we can do devolves, again, to managing the symptoms of that brokenness.[13] This placement of human beings beyond the pale of intervention, help, or hope seems not only radically heartless but also endlessly useful for those industries (e.g., religion and psychopharmacology) eager to ensure an unending pool of pilgrims and patients.

Between the moralising framework and the framework of demonic possession, then, we see that that the latter not only better preserves the dignity of the human being as a core value but also plays less automatically into those (religious and psychiatric) modes of social control imposed by Power on the population it wants to keep “manageable”. When we think of those who start acting “not like themselves” in our presence as “possessed” rather than “assholes,” we preserve our connectedness to the person and do not lose sight of all their other qualities that don’t dovetail with “asshole” at all.

Confining the Violent

Some will object that cases of “madness” (whether “mental illness” or “demonic possession”) can express themselves so violently or destructively within our human societies that we must confine them, for our safety and theirs.

In the first place, however, many cultures exhibit what we might (patronisingly) call a much greater “tolerance” for “mental illness.” We see in these societies a refusal to quarantine or sequester certain people for acting sometimes radically contrary to social norms.[14] To pick a most obvious (and admittedly “nonviolent”) example, hundreds of human cultures throughout history have not demonised[15] gender nonconformity.[16] I would wager in these more humanistic culture, we would find a higher incidence in the belief in demonic possession. Moreover, this does not mean they have no means for dealing with genuinely violent or destructive behaviours.

An analogy.

Contrary to what we get told in the media (and then subsequently imagine), the overwhelming number of people in prison do not actually require confinement, because they in no way pose the sort of danger to us claimed of them.[17] So also do the overwhelming number of people diagnosed as mentally ill require no confinement because they too pose nothing like the sort of danger to us claimed by the media (and popular imagination). In other words, before we even would think to address actually violent or destructive cases of mental illness (or criminality), we should not forget that this speaks only to a narrow portion of greater population being spoken of.

Moreover, we may see the case of prison how destructively the moralising framework operates. At one time, in most carceral systems (in the United States), indeterminate sentencing placed human beings in prison for some specified minimum period of time, with release from prison dependent upon meeting various “good behaviour” markers for parole.[18] Since then, and in most places and for most crimes, jurisdictions have replaced these indeterminate sentences and parole boards with (longer and longer) determinate sentences. Thus, where previously a “thief,” sentenced to “six months to life,” might get out in eight months if he or she showed sufficient improvement [i.e., if the demon departed], the new carceral regime deems the “criminal” (and in fact the “black male” in general) as inherently bad—as capable only of “management” not “improvement” or “rehabilitation”—so that behaviour in prison plays next to no role regarding when she or he will get out. Of course, this plays out as well what few mental hospitals remain as well, where the possibility of “recovery” gets replaced by a claimed necessity to “manage symptoms”. This radical detachment of any consequence to your behaviour while confined, as Arendt noted of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, creates the most dehumanizing of conditions: the entire environment drums into your skull, “Nothing you do matters.”

So, however a society deals with the very real problem of behaviour deemed so violent or destructive that it requires confinement, it remains more humane and thus human to view those in confinement as temporarily afflicted rather than inherently “insane” or “criminal”. Or, to continue the example, we may think of the difference between a dog and a rabid dog. Nothing in what I’ve said pretends that irremediable conditions can never exist. Rather, I’ve suggested that the case of a rabid dog makes a misleading and deplorable template for how we should deal with all “problem” dogs. But just as the framework of demonic possession doesn’t shy away from confining (quarantining) certain violent or destructive victims of demon possession, we would lose nothing if we imagined even those irremediable conditions as demon possession as well. In fact, we would gain from doing so, if only in the sense that those who had dealings with the confined individual would never give up on the belief that, perhaps (however slim the chances), even this “hopeless” case would prove ultimately only temporary, like all of the rest. Once again, we see a more humane and thus human approach embodied and protected in the framework of possession, rather than the moralising framework.


[1] Whether aliens, fallen angels, or “entities from another dimension, visitors from a spiritual plane or real flesh-and-blood animals” (from here).

[2] Whether from incubi, succubae, or any exciting and “new deviant compulsions to be hyper-sexual or to savage others sexually” (from here) or in the consequences claimed for pacts with infernal beings.

[3] Or how it differs from the demonic variety, but if you crave an argument, you may find a brief answer in this:

Is angelic possession possible? The answer is actually pretty simple. It is the explanation that is a bit more complex. And the answer is YES, Angels can take possession of a human – but only if it is ordered to them to do so by God. Without God’s Will, they cannot and would not engage in such an action. Also noteworthy, is the fact that unlike the demonic, Angels of God actually respect the will of mankind, whereas the demonic do not. For an Angel to take possession of a human without that persons will or the Will of God, it would be an offense against God, and therefore, they would simply never do this (from here).

[4] A premise that serves to lay the groundwork often enough for victim-blaming.

[5] La Barre, W. (1984). Muelos: a Stone Age superstition about sexuality: Columbia University Press.

[6] I say we must, though historically and currently we very often simply confine, incarcerate, or murder those we deem irremediable. Every culture will contest, explicitly or implicitly, what constitutes a consensus of mass belief—whether that means (for instance) believing in demons or declaring any belief in demons aberrant—while those who fall outside of the consensus will risk the confinement, incarceration, or murder mentioned above, or simply social shunning, which operates as tantamount to death. I myself have little patience for those intolerant monotheists who claim to believe in some form of YHVH and I feel as enthusiastic about addressing their “delusion” rationally on its own terms as psychiatrists do about coddling their deranged cognition of their mentally ill patients. A major difference here, of course: those who embrace the delusion of intolerant monotheism do so with the blessing of the dominant culture; most experiencers of mental illness fall instead under a condemnation of dominant culture as non-normative, i.e., ill.

[7] Again, if you think not, then remember society deals everywhere (in the US) with the craziness of intolerant monotheism (i.e., Judeo-Christianity).

[8] Jung, CG (1911). On the doctrine of complexes. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 598–604 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[9] In the interests of quoting the entire passage, Jung adds here, “Faulty reproduction” [another aspect of the association experiment he and a colleague conducted] is also to be regarded as a sign of the complex, and this is theoretically interesting because it shows that even the moods associated with a complex are subject to certain exceptional conditions, that is, they are inclined to be quickly forgotten or replaced. The uncertainty of the subject towards the complex-associations is characteristic; they are to the individual either of an obsession-like stability, or they disappear totally from the memory, and may even cause false memories …”

[10] Peter Hammill, one of our great living troubadours, realizes this from another direction in his “The Unconscious Life” from his (1982) album Enter K:

I’m in command,
I’m in control,
I am the captain of my soul.
Still, I’m uncertain in one major role…
oh, I drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
lift up my unconscious eyes:
beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure the unconscious life.
We’ve got our reasons for most things we do,
we could surely rationalise them through.
A false ring of confidence
would characterise us true –
oh, we’re deep in the unconscious life
asleep in the unconscious life,
peeping through unconscious eyes.
Beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure,
treasure the unconscious,
treasure the unconscious life.
Something makes me nervous,
something makes me twitch,
something makes me scratch that Pavlovian itch,
(Wonder what that is now…?)
Someone that I barely know must unpick the stitch
to unravel the unconscious life,
travel the unconscious life,
gather the unconscious eye…
far from shedding light on any motive
the candle is votive when it burns at both ends.
I’m not in command,
I’m out of control,
I am the Ship’s Boy of my soul….
Oh, we drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
live through the unconscious life.

[11] Jung does not make this equation in any literal sense.

[12] Disregard, of course, that spontaneous recovery remains the most likely outcome for cases of “mental illness.” I mean that recovery from psychological (not psychiatric) experiences occurs more often by “doing nothing” than by undergoing treatment.

[13] Freud voiced this fucked up position when he declared the purpose of psychoanalysis as merely unbreaking human beings just enough so that they could function within society.

[14] I do not mean to suggest by this that within any such culture every single kind of behaviour must forever remain immune to calling down some wrath of interdiction, expulsion, or reprisal upon it, but only that we see often—such as Isaiah’s naked preaching in Jerusalem—a largesse toward behaviours we’d more quickly act against.

[15] Pun intended.

[16] But, in the first place, it remains unclear why anyone should think that viewing others as “possessed” must mean no social means would exist to protect against such periodic possession. From an economic standpoint, the temporary character of possession means more limited confinement and expense, except in the (much rarer) case of someone suffering from a condition that, in fact, never improves. Whatever the various rationales for menstrual taboos in different cultures around the world, they generally operate by imposing a temporary quarantine on the menstruating woman. Inasmuch as menstruating women get construed as extremely magical and therefore dangerous—and thus just as potentially socially dangerous as an uncontrolled “madman”—social technologies exist to quarantine this danger until the danger passes. Were the condition to persist indefinitely, presumably confinement would persist indefinitely.

[17] The greatest number of people in prison currently committed nonviolent drug offenses, if even that.

[18] This system, as we may still see to this day where indeterminate sentencing persists (e.g., in capital offenses, &c), permits various abuses. I don’t cite it to claim it works ideally but only to contrast its assumptions and premises compared to determine sentencing regimes.


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