The other evening I attended a fascinating lecture at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, otherwise known as the Mütter Museum -- aka that place where they have dead babies in jars. In 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter, a retired Professor of Surgery, handed over his unique collection of anatomic and pathological materials to The College, which includes everything from creepy but beautiful wax models, medical illustrations and photographs, wicked looking medical instruments and skeletal specimens. The museum boasts unusual and one of a kind specimens like the plaster cast of the torso of Siamese Twins, Chang & Eng, and their conjoined livers. Do I hear any Cronenberg fans going, "Ohhh ... "? This is truly one of my favorite places to visit. The College has started a free lecture series and when I saw that Dr. Kathleen Sands would be called Demonic Possession and Exorcism: Medical Explanations? I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to attend. The Mütter tends to shy away from "freaky" subjects in their programming selections for fear of becoming a magnet for unwanted attention. I can somewhat understand this as it detracts from The College's more serious or historical mission and that's what made this an event not to be missed.
Dr. Sands has lectured on exorcism, possession and even witchcraft at many universities and institutions before. For anyone interested in these subjects (as many horror fans are) a lot of the information she presented was fairly basic, but she did tap into several things that were quite interesting and a few that were unknown to me.
When talking about The Exorcist, she brought up a few possible medical explanations for the boy's behavior. First off, for those of you who don't know, the 1973 film was based on supposedly true events, though Dr. Sands confirms that there is actually very little known about this case -- including the boy's real name. He is often referred to as Robbie Doe and in 1949, the 13-year-old boy who lived in Washington, D.C. started experiencing bizarre symptoms including words appearing on his skin. Dr. Sands' possible explanation for this was a condition known as Dermatographic Urticaria -- a skin disorder in which the skin becomes raised and inflamed when stroked or rubbed with a dull object. She even showed examples of an artist who has the condition and uses her own skin as her canvas, so to speak. Dr. Sands also explained two other possible explanations for Robbie's "possession". This case happened during the time of the Red Scare, which as you can imagine must have been an intense social/political time in the boy's hometown of D.C. Also there may have been some religious turmoil in the boy's home because the family were German Lutheran Christians -- but Robbie had an aunt he was close to who was a Spiritualist. She introduced him to the Ouija board at a young age.
Another classic symptom of demonic possession is unnatural objects being ejected from the mouth of the afflicted. Her possible explanation for this is a disorder known as Allotriophagy which is basically "pathological swallowing" or eating/swallowing objects like coins, hair, stones and even glass (yikes!). Usually the objects are expelled from the mouth because the afflicted becomes ill, but that doesn't always happen. She showed us an x-ray of the stomach of a boy with the disorder who had swallowed so many coins his belly looked like the tin man's. But the most disturbing thing about the x-ray was the pins he had swallowed, which had made their way through his tissue by nature of their sharp points. Dr. Sands explained that when this happens, the pins are often then forced out through the skin. Honestly, if I saw someone with pins coming out of their skin and I didn't know about this condition -- I'd think they were total demonoids too.
Aside from The Exorcist, she seemed hesitant to focus on how demonic possession and exorcism are portrayed in films and popular culture, and when I spoke with her further on the subject she confirmed her distaste for these things in general. First, she explained that she believed a "real" exorcism that is being filmed is too akin to a performance and it also breaks a type of confidentiality between those involved and shows a lack of respect for the afflicted party. I asked her if she saw possession in the same way for films like The Exorcist, where the afflicted party hears voices from the devil, versus The Passion of Joan of Arc, where Joan supposedly heard voices from God. She made the clear distinction that possession is related to the devil or a demonic spirit.
Overall, Dr. Sands discussed popular diagnoses for possession behavior which include things like OCD, Tourettes (RIP Tourettes Guy), Alien Hand Syndrome (that name makes my skin crawl), Pseudobulbar Palsy and Capgras Syndrome. She explained that demonic possession is considered an elite affliction in some ancient cultures as it was believed those people were chosen by the gods to personally exercise divine authority. On the opposite spectrum, people who suffered from things like epilepsy before there was a diagnosis were greatly feared in some cultures. This emphasizes the idea that the community plays an essential role in validating the afflicted's distress and in some cases -- dramatizing or falsifying it. Dr. Sands also elaborated that it's her belief that an exorcism is not something that produces a placebo effect. She talked about Hippocrates' theory that if someone can instill faith in another who is suffering, then it's a success by any means.
Dr. Sands explored many theological issues regarding demonic possession and exorcism, some of which I'm still pondering. To summarize her main point -- exorcism exists as a justification of God. People don't want to believe they are suffering for no reason and therefore, exorcism becomes a test or punishment from God. We live in a world now where there is moral neutrality but it wasn't always like that -- you were either with God or Satan. The concept of demonic possession and the rite of exorcism have been around for centuries and seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. What Dr. Sands has done is merely offered up alternative theories for what might be causing some of these events -- theories based in the realm of science. Science and religion have always had an uneasy co-existence, but Sands' goal isn't to debunk the idea of demonic possession or devalue exorcism. Instead, she's more content to share ideas and allow her audience to draw their own conclusions.
You can read some of Dr. Sands' work by picking up a copy of Demon Possession in Elizabethan England and An Elizabethan Lawyer's Possession by the Devil: The Story of Robert Brigges. Mütter director Robert Hicks mentioned that there would be an interview with Dr. Sands posted on the Mütter's YouTube channel -- so stay tuned and check out their other informative videos while you're there!