It’s time for me to wrap up this strange little series in which I discuss the criteria Father Thomas outlines for diagnosing an instance of demon possession. In this final article I’m going to summarize and evaluate points 3, 4, and 5.
3. New Language
We begin with the third point which involves the demoniac suddenly speaking in other languages (a phenomenon that is called xenoglossia). Father Thomas observes:
“Another sign would be being able to speak in a language they have no competency in. This would usually occur either in a deliverance prayer or a formal exorcism.”
This certainly would be an extraordinary sign, all the more so if the language were off the beaten path … like Latin or Akkadian. Of course, there is always the danger that unfamiliar babble might be mistaken for a language, so for this sign to have veridical force, it would have to be documented by a speaker of the language or a trained linguist. But if that documentation was made, and it was established that this individual did not already know the language, then this would be potentially powerful evidence of supernatural activity.
4. Inordinate strength
The fourth sign of possession is the demonstration of great strength. As Father Thomas puts it,
“The person possessing inordinate strength—that will often come out in an exorcism in cases where the demons are very violent.”
At first blush, this would seem like a potentially helpful criterion. However, a closer look presents a serious problem since the phenomenon of people exhibiting so-called “hysterical strength” under great duress is well-documented and is attributed to a rush of adrenaline. Robert Dearnley writes:
“Normally the body sets limits on the proportion of muscle fibres that can voluntarily contract at once. Extreme stress can cause the body to raise these limits, allowing greater exertion at the cost of possible injury. This is the basis of the ‘hysterical strength’ effect that notoriously allows mothers to lift cars if their child is trapped underneath, or allows psychotics the strength to overcome several nursing attendants.” (“Live Wire,” in Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze and 114 Other Questions, ed. Mick O’Hare (New Scientist, 2006), 12-13.
Overcome several nursing attendants … or one might add, several priests. Given the fact that hysterical strength is a well documented and relatively well understood natural phenomenon, the manifestation of great strength would not seem to be a useful criterion for identifying instances of demonic possession.
5. Extreme facial and vocal changes
Finally, Father Thomas refers to changes in the appearance of the face and voice:
“The person can have very extreme facial contortions and a change in the voice. Sometimes their whole body language, including their face, can take on the look of a reptile or a snake, and I’ve had that happen a number of times.”
Let’s begin with facial contortions. Here I would simply issue a caution that the face can contort in all sorts of ways without requiring appeal to supernatural agency. Consider this unsettling video of a man who is attempting to gain the world record for bulging his eyes out of their sockets.
I’ll say this: if I saw an alleged demonic with their eyes bulging in this extreme manner, I might be inclined to attribute it to supernatural factors as well. But clearly that wouldn’t be sufficient.
What about changes in voice?
In this humorous clip Jim Gaffigan demonstrates how easy it is to make a very scary sounding demon voice. One can only imagine the range of vocalizations a psychotic person could make whilst under extreme distress. Consequently, I’d be very nervous about anybody rendering a diagnosis of demonic possession based simply on voice change.
Incidentally, this fascinating video demonstrates the technique of polyphonic overtone singing wherein a single individual sings two different harmonious notes simultaneously:
I’m mentioning this case because I have also heard people in the past refer to polyphonic vocalization as evidence of demon possession. But if human beings naturally possess a potential to produce two vocalizations simultaneously then this is not necessarily evidence of demonic possession.
In conclusion, of the five hallmarks of possession that Father Thomas identifies, only two — supernatural knowledge and supernatural language ability — seem potentially useful as a means to identify genuine demonic activity. The other criteria can all be plausibly explained by purely natural causes alone. And thus, while demonic activity could be manifest in the aversion to holy things, the acquisition of great strength, and extreme facial contortions and voice change, these signs are not sufficient to warrant inferring supernatural demonic agency over-against mundane psychological and psychosomatic causes.
That said, this is certainly not all Father Thomas says about possession and exorcism. The interested reader would do well to read (or listen to) the entire interview and draw your own conclusions.