New wave of exorcisms seen; some people can be convinced they witnessed a demonic possession as a child

October 16, 2000

Couple the re-release of "The Exorcist" and the up-coming Halloween broadcast of "Possessed," a TV documentary about a purported exorcism in a mental hospital, and you've got a prescription for a sudden jump in the number reported demonic possessions.

"Quite a number of people who watch these exorcism films will be affected and develop symptoms of hysteria. These films will be a full-employment bill for exorcists," said Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychologist and memory expert.

Loftus recently completed a demonic possession study that is to be published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. She conducted the study with Giuliana Mazzoni, a Seton Hall University psychology professor and a UW visiting scholar, and Irving Kirsch, a University of Connecticut psychology professor. The research demonstrated that nearly one-fifth of those who previously said that demonic possession was not very plausible and that as children they had not witnessed a possession later said possession was more plausible and they may have witnessed one. These changes in belief and memory were accomplished in several steps. Subjects read several short articles that described demonic possession and suggested it was more common than believed. Later they were asked to list their fears and then were told that witnessing a possession during childhood caused those fears.

"When you realize what we did with a few stories and a suggestion and then think of the very vivid depictions that are in these movies, I know these films are going to have a very powerful effect," Loftus said. The publication of the book "The Exorcist" in 1971 and the film's release at the end of 1973 generated reams of publicity and a mini-epidemic of people requesting exorcisms, she added. Loftus will talk about demonic possession and the results of the study in a campus seminar on Halloween. In the study, the researchers recruited nearly 200 college students in Italy, where the idea of demonic possession is considered somewhat more plausible than it is in the United States. All of the students initially rated possession as highly implausible. They also had strong beliefs that they had not witnessed one as a child.

The researchers conducted three experiments. In the first and key experiment, students filled out questionnaires that rated the plausibility of a number of events and asked about their life experiences. Students were divided into three groups, two of which were exposed to a plausibility manipulation a month later. The two groups were given a series of 12 short articles to read. Among the articles given to the first or "possession" group were three that promoted the idea that demonic possession is quite common in Italy and that many children witnessed such events. They also described typical possession experiences. The second or "almost choked" group was given three similar articles to read about choking. The third or control group was not exposed to the manipulation.

A week later the first two groups filled out questionnaires about their fears, such as being afraid of spiders. Then the students were told that their individual "fear profiles" signaled that they probably had witnessed a possession or had almost choked in early childhood. After another week these students and the control group filled out the original two questionnaires. The researchers found that the manipulation not only increased feelings of reality about an already plausible event, "almost choked," but also of an initially implausible event "witnessed possession." More important, according to Loftus, 18 percent of the students now believed that the events had probably happened to them. There was no change in the control group.

The other two experiments tested variations of the manipulation.

Loftus said the three experiments tell a consistent story. When people are exposed to a series of articles describing a relatively implausible phenomenon, such as witnessing a possession, they believe the phenomenon is not only more plausible but also are less confident that they had not experienced it in childhood.

"We are looking at the first steps on the path down to creating a false memory," said Loftus. "There is controversy about whether you can plant memories about events that are unlikely to happen. As humans we are capable of developing memories of ideas that other people think occurred. Just being exposed to credible information can lead you down this path. This shows why people watching Oprah or those in group therapy believe these kinds of things happened to them. People borrow memories from others and adopt them as their own experiences. It is part of the normal process of memory." In addition, she said the study reinforces the idea that therapists need to be careful in using potentially suggestive procedures that could change a patient's perceived likelihood of unremembered events. These include UFO abductions, serious trauma suffered in a past life, or participating in or witnessing satanic rituals (common elements in abuse claims).

"This study can help us understand how you can take normal people and create this kind of effect - make demonic possession seem plausible," Loftus said. "It normalizes this process and shows it can happen to a lot of people, not only to those who are considered to be 'kooks.'"
For more information, contact Loftus at (206) 543-7184 or

University of Washington

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