In Praise of Demonic Possession [part 2]

28 October 2014


I offer this essay in two parts (find part 1 here), and I would first make clear again 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”.

Inviting the Stranger

Another objection one might raise against the framework of possession arises from what I will call legitimate nonconformism. Imagine a culture (like our own) where prejudice or bigotry may condemn open expressions of homosexuality. Here, we see an authentic human expression of self (i.e., a sexuality) that gets denounced not as an inherent part of the person, as the moralising framework would contend, but as some sort of alien or outside presence. In this case, the moralising framework “gets it right” insofar as sexuality depends entirely upon identity, though this moralistic recognition in no way comes with a bed of roses: as the history of incarceration, confinement to insane asylums, involuntary physical or chemical castration, lynching, beatings, religious shunning and so-called aversion “therapy” all attest.

When a child comes out and the parent declares, “It’s a phase,” this tacitly resembles the framework of possession; this temporary madness or obsession shall pass. With the moralising framework at least, and very unfortunately, it at least has no illusions about the duration of this “aberration”—and accordingly it submits the spirit and body alike to grievous torture in an attempt to “manage” it by driving it so far into the background that it never rears its head again.

I call this sort of gender nonconformity a legitimate nonconformism because it introduces into the social world where the person lives something (1) that the culture cannot rightly deny but also (2) cannot live with acknowledging, or so it believes at the time. All cultures must necessarily have these legitimate nonconformisms, whatever they consist of in different societies. They needn’t always hinge on strictly human rights issues, e.g., homosexual identity within a culture that refuses to acknowledge that identity. A person who wants to gad about town naked—or (in not so bygone times)—a woman who wanted to found and operate her own business might meet immovable resistance from the surrounding culture.[8] In Fiddler on the Roof, the father Tevye finally hits the boundary of nonconformism when his daughter tries to marry outside of her faith. Even the most permissive culture would necessarily reflect some limitation, if only in an immovable prohibition on nonpermissiveness.

At this point, any tidy distinction between the possession and moralising framework gets muddled by the specifics of any example. If Tevye responds to his daughter as possessed (i.e., “what’s gotten into you?”), then he does her existential self a disservice by not crediting her impulses as her own, but rather the will of some interloper. At the same time, however, he does not sever completely his past relationship with her. He becomes confused and (patronisingly) worried, insofar as she has “foolishly” fallen under some influence that he, her father, would never fall for. But at the same time, even this condescension arises out of his past experience with her as he actually remembers it.

By contrast, if Tevye responds to his daughter in a moralising mode (“how dare you!”),[9] he at least acknowledges the fact that she has fallen in love with a Gentile, though this also means she disgusts him by doing so. In this moment, she transforms completely and ceases to be the daughter he has always known; hence the common statement in this kind of situation “you are dead to me”. If she “really” feels that way, the moralising framework contends, then good riddance she should go because she “was” never his daughter in the first place.

In many cases—again, consider the case of children who come out to their parents—the acknowledgment of “monstrosity” (nonconformism) that the moralising framework necessarily assumes will sometimes contain the future ground of rapprochement (between parent and child). While the moralising framework more or less completely destroys the previous relationship, with sufficient time (and perhaps also the very real loss of the child following a dramatic disowning), the parents’ longing for their child makes them “choke down” the fact of the child’s homosexuality (nonconformism).

Here we find the muddle again, because if the moralising perspective gets associated with an actual and real (and abrupt and sudden) transformation that shocks the witness to the core, the possessing framework denies that change to the Self, and so leaves the relationship temporarily in abeyance, but liable to return to “normal” any moment. If the moralising perspective returns to “how my child was,” even with a struggling acceptance of the “change,” then the possessing perspective maintains “how my child is,” from the outset, even with a recurrent threat of “change” from time to time.

Now, this context of parent and child brings issues into the picture that in a way both clarify and confuse things. The assumed pre-existing bond between a parent and child already deeply embeds any “threat of change” by the child in a situation where parents must almost helplessly and always, in the final analysis, come to terms with that change. In both cases, the parents find themselves driven by an immense desire to continue the relationship with their child, whatever that takes. So whether a moralising parent manages to make some kind of peace with the fact of their child’s nonconformism (so that the relationship continues), or some possession asserting parent can never stop muttering about “phases” or “demons” even as they interact healthily with their child, the end goal of relationship results in both cases.

By contrast, in situations of social nonconformism, i.e., between citizens of a culture who do not have the sort of supposed bond that a parent and her or his child do, we find almost nothing in such relationships between individuals that all but inevitably “forces” the conforming member of society (whether moralising or demon possessing) from ever “coming around” to accept the position of the nonconforming member.

I do not want to take a starry-eyed view of this, but let us consider a “mild” case first. At root, the moralising standpoint will say of the nonconformist, “You are not (what my/our culture recognises as) human. I will not have anything to do with you.” In this context, the nonconformist will live under the shadow of a social stigma (as those labelled “criminals” now do) and at perhaps the best will live out a marginal existence not necessarily (or at least hopefully) not under the conformist gaze. By contrast, the demon possessed point of view will publicly harass the nonconforming individual, asking what has gotten into them and why won’t they act right, &c. One will face an experience often that whatever they say cannot even reach the ears of those hearing, because the “demon” not the speaker gets taken as speaking. Rather than (preferentially) getting driven from the public sphere to the margins, one’s presence in the public sphere will continuously attract attention that feels pitying, condescending, or tediously well-intentioned. Of course, moralisers might direct this kind of talk at the nonconformist as well, but in these milder cases, we can contrast the solicitous but patronising nattering of those who see demons compared to the silence or disgust of those who moralise.

A more concrete example may help. For six years now, I have worn a tail every day. I do not assert that this kind of “article of clothing” strictly speaking embodies what I mean by a legitimate nonconformism, but it functions in the public imagination something like one. I mean, people both react and do not react to it. For those who don’t care either way we need say anything. I failed to anticipate when I started wearing the tail that some people might like it (and would say so), while others grant themselves the license to ask me, out of a kind of curiosity, why I wear the tail. I would rank these inquiries in the framework of demonic possession (“what’s gotten into you?”). Because I have a ready answer to the question, I can usually elicit an “ah, that makes sense” response from people, but their curiosity originates in a sense that a human being (me) has taken to acting strangely somehow. This curiosity places me as a real (if strange) object in the social world; it does not marginalize or make me disappear.

By contrast, I can only assume that some of the silences that accompany seeing the tail do not arise out of indifference. In six years, no one has ever mocked me to my face for wearing the tail, but I have definitely heard (more rarely than I might have anticipated) derisive laughter, almost invariably from small groups of people. These gestures create a sense of them/us and, especially because it involves a group (of them) and an individual (me), usually engenders a sense of disinvitation in the public sphere. No one has run me off, of course, but as an object of ridicule in their public eye, the probability (much less the plausibility) of engaging them in a conversation seems very small. And thus, this much more resembles the erasure of the individual that the moralising view supports.

Now, if we up the ante and consider less “mild” cases (i.e., where confinement gets deemed by a society as necessary), we wind up looking at people engaging in legitimate nonconformisms who become subject to quarantine (indefinitely, in the case of demonic possession, since they will never “recover” from their legitimate conformism except by suppressing their expression of it; or indefinitely, and most likely in conjunction with various “management” regimens like lobotomies, electroconvulsive-shock therapy, psychotropic medication, incarceration, five-point restraint, aversion therapy, &c, in the case of moralising). In the case of demonic possession, we may find a mob surrounding the nonconformist as she tries to live out her day in public, or we might find vigilante groups of moralisers going door to door to sniff out nonconformists.

A perhaps important difference here centres on the reification of the nonconformism. For the moraliser, the nonconformism has a literalized reality and therefore becomes something almost like a disease that others might contract. For example, in the history of homosexuality within England, despite some very draconian anti-sodomy laws, remarkably few cases were ever brought to the attention of the courts until the seventeenth century. Even then, with the emergence of molly houses (and what we would call the articulation of a “drag queen” identity for men), it still took some time before Queen Victoria felt compelled to pass even more draconian laws against homosexuality, which were subsequently vigorously prosecuted.

I would say we may speak of this as the reification of the idea of homosexuality in England. Previously, untold numbers of males buggered other males and little ever came of it. I want not to put the cart before the horse here. However homosexual behaviour gradually becomes an available homosexual identity remains obscure. Partly this involves social visibility, and at the time when the molly houses (i.e., gay brothels) started springing up, people living in the vicinity generally knew of them and imposed the moralistic tactic of marginalization. However, later this crystallization (of “homosexual identity”), its reification, provided the lightning rod for Queen Victoria’s extremely punitive laws. Pathologising homosexuality (in a psychiatric sense) involved one more, initially humanistic but ultimately even more problematic, gesture. One hardly exaggerates to say that in countless instances, torture resulted. Where “mere marginalization” did not suffice to keep the nonconformism sufficiently out of public view that Power could overlook it, then this elicited a dramatic and frequently horrific application of disciplinary regimes to the nonconforming body and spirit.

I align this with the moralising point of view, because the moralising point of view asserts, “You are not human. I will have nothing to do with you.” It severs the human connection, if not completely, then sufficiently so that nothing becomes disallowed in how one “manages” the nonconforming body. BY contrast, the demonically possessed body must also experience quarantine, if not lynching outright or exile, if the community feels safe in driving the violent and destructive body out. This involves risk, of course, since someone exiled might return—hence, extermination (as done with rabid dogs) seems more humane, both for the rabid individual and society alike.

All the same, where the moralising tendency tends also to reify the nonconformism into something like a disease that can spread (to other individuals), the one demon possessed does not so much carry this risk of infection. Many types of demons might exist, and even the one demon in question (who currently possesses someone) might get chased out only to take possession of someone else. But, curiously, the actually impersonal character of the affliction makes it more difficult for people or Power or societies to turn possession itself into a thing.

In general, a legitimate nonconformism in this context may simply analogize with the Other in the first place. I mean that to the extent that we identify “our” cultural behaviour as “human,” then the behaviour of “other people” (outside of our tribe) will lend itself to a description of “demonic” more than whatever bizarre behaviour an individual unregenerately gets up to. Perhaps this exposes even something human in “exile”—a punishment we no longer appreciate the terror of whatsoever. But if the cultural consensus will insist your nonconformism simply won’t play in this Peoria, then driving you out at least may compliment itself with the farewell, “Well, then, go find your people, wherever they are.”

I do not want to understate this. Taken to its logical conclusion, a culture informed by a framework of demonic possession will, in extreme cases, have exile and execution (these hardly differ in effect, ultimately, for the nonconformist) as necessary “tools” where quarantine over the course of a person’s lifetime becomes unfeasible. Not that one cannot experience a validity of life while under perpetual house arrest, in this extreme case, however, one exists as a pariah, untouchable—albeit one who might (even if no one really feels sanguine about it) recover.

One may weigh up in the calculus of sorrow whether tis more nobly existential or desirable to suffer the tortures of disciplinary moralising or risk the death or exile of the unendingly demon possessed. In social terms, the former strikes me as far more problematic, since it actually calls forth an entire apparatus and regime for dealing with something that does not exist to the extent that it believes it does. In the worst-case scenarios, like Orwell’s 1984, torture becomes the implement for disciplining away nonconformism; for the demon-possessed, they become the haunting of the house at the end of the street, itself the magical circle that confines and pins them down. In the prison and the mental asylum, one may live, but only when the gaze of it turns away; for those demon-possessed, culture erects a circle, but not an institution, around the ones that evade “correction”—a circle, a haunted house, assuredly that if they slip from its confines may call down their death and destruction, but that risk exists for the imprisoned as well, if not the even more terrible damnation of return to confinement.

But to leave behind these operatic situations, in the more day-to-day social tug-of-war involved in the confrontation between a culture and those embodying its legitimate nonconformisms, the paradigm of demonic possession reflects and embodies the notion, “You are human; what’s gotten into you?” Just as I may attempt to counter a sceptical curiosity about why I would wear a tail, and at least provide a comprehensible answer to people for why one might do that, one may similarly challenge a culture even on the point of these inadmissible nonconformisms. When African-Americans said, “Okay, no more fucking around; we want equality now” this met, as it had long met, with violent reprisals—death and exile remain “necessary” tools in the face of demonic possession. The nonconformism did not (in general) encounter “friendly curiosity” and getting across to that hostility the comprehensible answer why African-Americans had taken up “acting that way” rarely happened.


Ultimately, it seems that to view undesirable human behaviour in terms of complexes [demonic possession] rather than character defects—that is, as cognitive errors that originate not with what we identify as the ego or self of the person behaving badly—has far more desirable social consequences than the (moralising) alternative.

If you become demonically possessed, then not only your relationship to me but also your very humanity itself remains intact, however inexplicably interrupted from my point of view, whether we know one another already as friends or have just crossed paths as strangers. As a matter of social policy, those we feel compelled to quarantine as possessed would also therefore keep their humanity intact as well, and we will less likely subject them to horrific forms of “management”. Moreover, the infrequent, transitory, and impersonal character of demonic possession will inhibit not only the reification of possessed identities but therefore also the building of systems of disciplinary control to torture those identified and quarantined as “evil”. And lastly, in as much as the paradigm of possession serves as a check against the moralising and predatory extension of the exploitation of Power over those it would seek to control, we may understand why our current social structure dismisses demonic possession as a cranky superstition.


[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] Sexual examples tend to most readily suggest themselves in this kind of category.

[9] Notice the change of punctuation between “what’s gotten into you” and “how dare you!” This neatly, if perhaps a bit too obscurely, signals a major difference between the possessing and moralizing frameworks.

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