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Decades ago, Dr. Richard Gallagher, an academic psychiatrist, awoke in the night to the sound of his two otherwise-docile cats screeching and clawing at one another. Gallagher was forced to separate the berserk cats into two rooms, then went back to bed, mystified by their strange behavior. The next morning, a priest with whom Gallagher was acquainted knocked at the door, accompanied by a woman with jet black hair whose eyeliner stretched to her hairline. “How’d you like those cats last night?” she quipped.
This was Julia, who claimed to be a high priestess of Satanism possessed by demonic forces. Her remarkable case was among the first of many that Gallagher would encounter in a long career spent distinguishing psychosis from alleged possession. Julia exhibited a series of behaviors that, as Gallagher sees it, constituted a “once-in-a-century” possession, from speaking in languages she claimed not to know to allegedly levitating for over half an hour during an exorcism.
“I know I’m possessed,” Julia later told Gallagher during a consultation. “I space out and then don’t recall what happens. They tell me a voice comes out of me. I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. It’s a demon, I’m sure.”
So began Gallagher’s long immersion into the world of supposed demonic possession. In the decades since encountering Julia, Gallagher has consulted with faith leaders from numerous religions on hundreds of cases, assisting them in the process of distinguishing “troubles of the mind” from what he believes are “troubles of the spirit.” As a result, Gallagher has been present at scores of exorcisms, leading him to become a sought-after resource on demonic possession. Since the early 1990s, Gallagher has been an active member of the International Association of Exorcists, serving for a time as a scientific advisor on its governing board. Gallagher recounts his experiences in Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal, a new book spanning the depth and breadth of his unusual medical career. Gallagher spoke with Esquire about his own faith, the rigorous process of gathering evidence, and the complicated interplay of science and spirituality.
Esquire: You mention in the preface that you were hesitant to write this book. What compelled you to write it?
Richard Gallagher: It involves a controversial subject and I'm an academic psychiatrist, so I wasn't sure that it was a great idea, professionally speaking, to publicize a belief that is unacceptable to a lot of people in my field. However, that wasn't the major consideration. I had another consideration about revealing people’s stories. These individuals were never patients of mine, but people about whom I consulted with clergy. I was hesitant about confidentiality. I eventually decided that I could disguise the characters well enough; I also had the permission of these individuals to write about them.
I think there are a certain people, both psychiatric patients and the rare cases of people who suffer, who should understand this. There are people with mental problems who think they're possessed and the reverse. I did think it could enlighten a certain population. I also thought it would be of public interest. Obviously it's a topic that people tend to be interested in, but often there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion. I thought I was in a unique position, both with my extensive experience in this field and having it studied scientifically, as an academic professor of psychiatry. I thought that my vantage point would allow me to write a book that would be enlightening to a lot of people.
ESQ: You write early in the book that some of your physician colleagues would agree with your findings, but would be reluctant to reveal their agreement openly. Why is that?
RG: In America, there are a lot of Christian psychiatrists. All over the world, there are plenty of spiritually-oriented psychiatrists, who truly accept the possibility of possession by spirits, sometimes with different ideological frameworks. A lot of them are reluctant to speak out. They may think, "This is a little out of the mainstream for the mental health field, so maybe I ought to keep this to myself." Also, many of them lack the extensive experience I have. It's not like they have a database or much familiarity with the literature on this subject, as I've developed over the years.
ESQ: What role does your own faith system play in your involvement with possessions?
RG: I'd be naive not to assume that my Catholic upbringing piqued my interest in the subject. I’m the type of person who has always questioned my faith, so it's not as if I accepted it without inquiry. I really tried to study it dispassionately as a phenomenon. It hasn’t come to be a central part of my thinking about religion, but it was certainly a set of phenomena that intrigued me, both as a doctor and as a thinking human being. I allowed myself to get involved with a few priests who asked me for my opinion; then I got involved with the International Association of Exorcists, who have taken a somewhat scholarly approach to this whole thing. I became versed enough in the subject matter that I then became considered an expert to consult.
ESQ: What are the typical conditions that lead to demonic interference in a person's life? Who is particularly vulnerable to these attacks?
RG: Possession is not something that's going to happen willy-nilly to anybody. People don't have to go to bed at night worried that they're going to wake up possessed in the morning. There’s a spectrum of attacks, but the people who become possessed are almost invariably—and I'm choosing my words carefully here, because there are a few exceptional cases—people who have turned in a serious way to something evil. That could mean serious dabbling or immersion in dark, occult areas of behavior, like Satanism. That said, you can't go around saying that Satan is everywhere. More people become involved in the serious pursuit of what they regard as magic or witchcraft.
The second category of people vulnerable to possessions, which often overlaps with the first, is people who have seriously turned to evil in their lives. Surprisingly, some people who have turned to evil in a serious way will turn to beliefs that we would regard as occult or dark, like cults. They get involved in that, then they expect favors in return, and after awhile, they find that it was a fool’s bargain. They’re in over their heads, and the occult forces they've committed to have spun out of control, effectively possessing them.
ESQ: Doesn’t it seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy that most victims of demonic possession are involved in a spiritual practice? What about people who are agnostics or atheists? Are they vulnerable to possessions?
RG: People will often say, "How come it's only these Christians, especially Christian fundamentalists, who get possessed?" It’s true that certain fundamentalist religious people are going to misinterpret psychiatric problems or other medical problems as possession. They may be the most exhibitionist about it, but possession can happen to anybody—and it has, throughout history. Possession has attacked any and all cultures. Pretty much all religions and all cultures have seen cases of possession; it doesn't in any way depend on the particular religious tradition, nor does it even depend on a person’s belief or disbelief in God. It's not going to happen to your average atheist of good will, but if somebody has no religious belief and they’ve turned to evil, in some ways, they're in a worse condition, because they don't know how to get help. I've met people with completely agnostic or atheistic beliefs who somehow dabbled in the occult, then found themselves way in over their heads. They didn't know who to turn to, so sometimes they were more willing to speak to a psychiatrist than to a clergy member. Although, an awful lot of the cases referred to me do come my way through clergy.
ESQ: You write that, in order to recover from demonic possession, a person has to work at it and want it. What does that work look like?
RG: Considering that these possessions usually happen to people who have turned to evil or the occult, you have to renounce that. You have to say, "I'm not going to do that again." Or, "I'm not going to get involved in Satanism. I'm not going to get involved in witchcraft." Some people are very reluctant to do that. Julia was one of them. I had the strong impression that she liked her activity in the cult, although she was also frightened by it and afraid to leave. She was afraid she would be harmed if she left the cult.
Julia was an extreme case, because she credibly convinced me that she was what she said she was, which was a high priestess in a Satanic cult. To be liberated, she would have had to renounce the cult and renounce a sinful life, because these cults are not innocent. They do some nefarious things. She also would have had to build herself up spiritually. She would have had to turn to God. She would have had to develop some kind of religious practices. That's how people get better, often in conjunction with prayers and exorcisms, in extreme cases. Many exorcists have said to me that it's 90% the patient's own efforts and 10% the exorcisms. I'm certainly not saying that exorcisms are inefficacious, but they're only part of the process of liberation. They're not magic.
ESQ: What’s a typical exorcism like, and how do you know when a series of exorcisms has been effective?
RG: In one sense, there’s no such thing as a typical exorcism, because they're all different. Different spiritual traditions have different ceremonies and rituals. The Catholic exorcism is perhaps the most ritualized. Orthodox Christians also have a fairly set ritual prayer that they say. A typical session may go on for 45 minutes. The prayers are said. Sometimes the demon surfaces; sometimes it doesn't. I’ve seen a person delivered in one exorcism, but I've seen other exorcisms that go on for months or years. Sometimes the person is never delivered.
ESQ: What’s the variance you see in these demons? What’s the range of personalities you've observed?
RG: They don't reveal their personalities very much. What they do reveal is invariably nasty, prideful, and arrogant. Some of them seem sillier than others. Some of them appear super silly while others are quite malevolent. Clearly you're dealing with different levels of personality, but we're seeing the side of them that is particularly bitter. They don't want to leave, so invariably they lie. They are constantly trying to confuse people, so they may say they're a dead soul. In ancient times, Jewish and Christian writers felt that demons pretended to be gods possessing people. This was a common belief in the Greek world.
In modern times, especially in the developed world, many people think the possessed are just mentally ill. There's a real difference. As I often say to people, mentally ill people can't all of the sudden speak foreign languages. They don't exhibit levitation. They don't have superhuman strength, and as Julia exhibited on many occasions, they don't have psychic abilities enabling them to reveal information called hidden knowledge. All of these symptoms are a good indication that there's a separate creature involved. I leave the official diagnosis process to the clergy, but I'm well aware that, to constitute a possession, you have to rule out psychiatric and medical illnesses, some of which have superficial similarities, but are really quite different. You must have clear and rigorous evidence. In the Catholic church, the diagnostic process is rigorous, intended to result in a moral certainty. You're not supposed to assume that this happens without a lot of very hard evidence.
ESQ: You write in the book that demand for exorcisms is rising. Why is that?
RG: There are two theories about that. I think they both have some merit. One is that there's more preoccupation with this stuff, so people think they need an exorcism when they don't. Young people nowadays are brought up on movies, TV shows, and paranormal beliefs. That's different from when I was a kid, when this stuff was dismissed and frowned upon. Part of it may be that there are more people who think they're possessed. They may even have prayer said over them when in fact they're mentally ill.
The second factor that most experienced exorcists believe, likely with credibility, is the decline of traditional religions. It's quite clear that mainstream religions, not just Christianity, have had a decline in recent decades. When people give up a mainstream or more orthodox type of religion, they generally develop some kind of substitute belief system. That often involves ideas about energy forces, occult themes, and visitation by spirits. A lot of exorcists feel that, through alternate spiritualities, these people have opened themselves up to evil forces and evil spirits, in ways that more mainstream religious people are protected from.
ESQ: For somebody seeking the services of an exorcist, how can they tell a true professional from a huckster?
RG: There are many hucksters. People find these topics outlandish, but there are plenty of shamans in New York City and California. There are the people who call themselves psychic healers. There was a craze in France a couple of years ago where a lot of people were styling themselves as alternative healers and exorcists. I’m sure some of them are well-meaning, but they often charge a lot of money. One criteria is to find someone who does this as a spiritual ministry, or someone from a more mainstream religious tradition rather than someone who sets themselves up as a self-styled expert in exorcisms. I've almost never seen anyone who goes to someone who charges money get successfully delivered.
ESQ: You mention late in the book that your colleague Father Jacques felt endangered by cult members, and that those cult members wanted to suppress his testimony to the media. Can you tell me more about that tension between cult members and clergy?
RG: I'm a psychiatrist, and in at least part of my professional life, I was exposed to a lot of people who were hysterical about cults and Satanism. The famous Christian writers said, "Demons are happy that we don't believe in them, and they're also happy that we become over-preoccupied with them." There were subcultures in America where people were seeing Satanists and cultists everywhere. I don't think organized Satanic cults are very common. However, there are certain people who turn to a type of true Satanism or diabolism. Those people hate all authentically spiritual people, but they especially hate clergy of the different key faiths, because they see them as the enemy, teaching people to lead righteous lives and to combat evil forces.
ESQ: Plenty of people will view your findings and your experiences with skepticism. They might say it's unscientific or superstitious. What do you say to skeptics?
RG: I wouldn't say that I proselytize in any way. I'm not overly ambitious about convincing people. The victims of these possessions are suffering in the extreme. I'm a physician, so I try to help suffering people. One can say, “I don't believe in that stuff." Okay, so what are these people supposed to do? Just assume that this is all nonsense when they know that it’s a real condition they're suffering from? In the last few hundred years in the western world, this has been a very controversial subject. I think people have misconceptions, which I try to address in the book, about what science can verify and what it can't verify.
You can't do experiments in this area. I went to medical school and I went to a mainstream residency at Yale. I was taught science and the scientific method. The scientific method of the modern age is built on what we call methodological naturalism. In other words, we don't assume that spiritual forces are operating, because you can't study them in the same way. You can't study them empirically. You can't do experiments on them.
You're also dealing with creatures who know you're studying them, observing them, or trying to tape them. A lot of people think they're going to capture evidence on a camera and prove the existence of demons to the world, but these creatures know when they're being filmed. They're not about to cooperate when a large part of their efforts has been to hide themselves. They're not about to make their existence obvious to people.
What people don't understand is that you can use a broader definition of science, which was the classical view of science in the western world, where science was knowledge. Then you have to decide: “Is there enough knowledge based on historical evidence?” You can't really prove how many people crossed the Delaware with George Washington; you have to accept it on the basis of sound testimony. It's the same with exorcisms. You have to look at the testimony. Does it seem to be reasonable? Is it consistent with other teachings? For instance, teachings of the major faiths, all of which believe in evil spirits. It's a historical subject.
I never suggest to people, “I want you to believe me.” My job is not to convert anyone. My job is to present the evidence for the reasons that I want to help people and enlighten those who are open to the evidence. I belong to an organization called the International Association of Exorcists, comprised of about 400 exorcists. They all have stories like those I tell in the book. I get calls from all over the country and all over the world. I tell people, "Look, I don't care if you believe me. If you're interested in the subject, talk to these exorcists." They're usually perfectly willing to talk to somebody.
ESQ: Is there any verification process to what you do? When family members of the possessed come to you describing strange behavior, how do you verify their accounts?
RG: I try to verify things as much as I can. Some of it is based on personal observation. With Julia, as I described in the book, she would tell me things about people that I could verify. She told me about my mother, who died of ovarian cancer. I don't know what her motive was to tell me that, but that's exactly what happened. She once told me what a priest was wearing even though they were hundreds of miles apart. I've gotten verification through my personal observations, but I often speak to family members and to priests, as well as to people who conduct the exorcisms, to find out what happened in the exorcism.
Some of the most dramatic manifestations go on during the exorcisms. I've never seen a levitation, but I've had about thirty people tell me that they've witnessed a levitation. Julia had a levitation, and there were eight or nine people at that exorcism. I've been to many exorcisms in my life, though I didn't go to that one. These are salt of the earth, honest people who are just trying to help by doing all this pro bono. They swore to me that she levitated for half an hour. Many priests have told me that. A renowned professor in Europe and his assistants told me they performed an exorcism, and the person levitated.
It becomes a question of when to start believing people. 400 of these exorcists at the International Association have similar stories. I'm sure there are many Protestant ministers in America who have seen some very weird phenomena, both during exorcisms and outside of exorcisms. You listen to them and you decide, like anything else. But it's a historical question; it's not going to be decided by lab tests or X-rays. Do you believe the testimony? Does this make sense to you, and do you think the testimony is sound enough? Otherwise, why would you believe it? I wouldn't have believed it until I had a lot of experience with it.
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