For centuries there has been the idea that insidious entities from beyond our physical realm have come here to stir up trouble and even invade our bodies. Demonic exorcisms and cases of possession have been around for a long time, and while this may seem to be just some dim little corner of history populated by the superstitious and the insane, this seems like it could not be further from the truth. The Catholic church still recognizes demons as real, fully condones exorcisms in certain circumstances, and the belief is pervasive enough to have survived well into our current age of scientific enlightenment and technology. Every once in a while there is even an academic and scientist that comes along to join the discussion, and one of these is a respected psychiatrist who found himself against his better judgement drawn into the dark world of demons, evil spirits, and possession.
Dr. Richard Gallagher is not the sort of person one would expect to be one of America’s top consultants on demonic possession and exorcisms. An Ivy League-educated, board-certified psychiatrist, who trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia, and who teaches at Columbia University and New York Medical College, demons and spirits are what one would think would tyopically be a little out of his wheelhouse. Yet Gallagher has come to be one of the most respected and foremost scientific authorities on the matter, the go-to guy for numerous exorcists all over the United States, and a specialist on demons and exorcisms. He didn’t start off with the intention of being what he is today, and although he had a religious upbringing he did not start out having any sort of true belief in or literal interpretation of demonic phenomena. Indeed, he had always been extremely skeptical of claims of demonic possession and exorcisms, writing it all off as merely psychiatric anomalies and mental illness, but one strange encounter in the late 1980s would change his entire mindset and lead him down a dark and very bizarre path.
At the time, Gallagher was working as a professional psychiatrist, and his solid reputation as a dependable man of science was one of the reasons he was sought out by a Catholic priest who wanted his honest professional opinion on a patient. This patient apparently was a middle-aged woman known only as “Julia,” who claimed to be a witch and a high priestess who worshipped Satan as his “queen,” so already his eyebrows were a bit raised, but he was even more skeptical when he heard that the woman was claiming to be possessed by demons, possibly even Satan himself. Thinking he was not really the right guy for the job, he tried to decline, but the priest was adamant that it had to be him. Gallagher would explain:
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder. The priest who had asked for my opinion of this bizarre case was the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, an erudite and sensible man. I had told him that, even as a practicing Catholic, I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus. “Well,” he replied, “unless we thought you were not easily fooled, we would hardly have wanted you to assist us.
The patient in question would turn out to be an eccentric woman who claimed to be a witch and in league with Satan, complete with flowing dark clothes and black eye shadow around to her temples. She looked like she was dressed up for Halloween, and with her outlandish claims of being a witch and Satanic high priestess Gallagher didn’t take her seriously at all at first. Nevertheless, when he started observing the ensuing series of exorcisms the priest was carrying out his mind would change. During these exorcisms Julia would speak in voices that weren’t her own, make animalistic sounds, and speak in languages she could not possibly have known. Objects would move on their own, the room would suddenly become chilled even in the middle of summer, and Julia would perform incredible feats of strength, on one occasion requiring six grown men to hold her down. She also displayed hidden knowledge or dark secrets about the people around her that she could not have possibly have known, could describe events happening out of her line of sight, and most spectacularly of all she was even seen to levitate right in front of nine witnesses in the room, although Gallagher was not actually present at that time. On every occasion, Julia would come out of these trances with no memory of what had transpired, and it all had Gallagher completely baffled. He has said of all of this:
I was at first inclined to skepticism, but my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. Mentally troubled individuals often ‘dissociate,’ but Julia’s trances were accompanied by an unusual phenomenon: Out of her mouth would come various threats, taunts and scatological language, phrases like ‘Leave her alone, you idiot,’ ‘She’s ours,’ ‘Leave, you imbecile priest,’ or just ‘Leave.'” She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. Some of the most dramatic manifestations went 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. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed.
Julia purportedly even exhibited strange abilities and behavior when an exorcism wasn’t in progress. On one occasion Gallagher’s cats “went wild in the middle of the night” and the next day Julia creepily asked “Dr. Gallagher, how did you like those cats?” On another occasion Gallagher was on the phone with the priest when Julia’s voice materialized on the line and she was “screaming at the priest in a demonic voice.” She would also often tell people what they had been doing the day or night before with complete accuracy, as if she had been there watching them somehow. Whatever demon was supposedly possessing Julia was also able to tell when the priests were using real holy water or just regular water in an attempt to trick her, something she would have had absolutely no way of knowing. It was all completely beyond rational explanation.
It was all very convincing to even a hardened skeptic like Gallagher, and it was really opening his eyes to a world he had never truly known about. Here was a scientist and someone who had spent their whole professional life dismissing the notion of actual demonic possession, but now he was being faced with things that were shaking his notion of reality to the core. In a way, he was being initiated into an entirely new universe from the one he had thought he had known, and although he still believed that many cases of possession could indeed be explained by mental problems, he now was convinced that at least some of them were the real deal. It was from there that his life would transform, and he would go on to be a consultant for hundreds of other exorcisms, and an active member of the International Association of Exorcists, serving for a time as a scientific advisor on its governing board, trying to weed out the real demonic cases from the ones with more rational and mundane explanations. He says of it:
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions. Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
Of course Gallagher and demonic possession in general have their critics and detractors. Mainstream psychiatry still largely holds that possessions are the result of delusions and other mental problems, or that some might be hoaxed, and that there is no evidence at all that any of it is caused by outside demonic agents. They even go so far as to say that the work Gallagher does is having a detrimental effect on his patients, making them further embrace their delusions rather than seek proper medical help. In his defense, Gallagher is quick to point out that he always approaches these cases looking at all of the evidence with a skeptical eye, and that he is not as quick to jump to the demonic explanation as some seem to think. He has also drawn attention to the fact that the Catholic church itself, while acknowledging the existence of demons has a very rigorous vetting process for determining if a case is a real demonic possession or mental illness, and that the lack of evidence for demons could well be the fact that they are unable to be studied under traditional scientific methods. He has explained all of this and of the criticism and sometimes downright vitriol he has received from others in his field:
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. There was one woman who was like 90 pounds soaking wet. She threw a Lutheran deacon who was about 200 pounds across the room. That’s not psychiatry. That’s beyond psychiatry. 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.
I am aware of the way many psychiatrists view this sort of work. While the American Psychiatric Association has no official opinion on these affairs, the field is full of unpersuadable skeptics and occasionally doctrinaire materialists who are often oddly vitriolic in their opposition to all things spiritual. I have been told simplistically that levitation defies the laws of gravity, and, well, of course it does! We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. 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?” As a man of reason, I’ve had to rationalize the seemingly irrational. Questions about how a scientifically trained physician can believe “such outdated and unscientific nonsense,” as I’ve been asked, have a simple answer. I honestly weigh the evidence. As a psychoanalyst, a blanket rejection of the possibility of demonic attacks seems less logical, and often wishful in nature, than a careful appraisal of the facts.
Gallagher has written a memoir of his several decades consulting exorcisms, called Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal and continues to speak frequently on his experiences and how he went from staunch skeptic to believer. Is there anything to this? Why would a respected psychiatrist get pulled into this world if there wasn't? Gallagher speaks of strange possession phenomena witnessed by numerous people, so just what is going on? Is this all mental illness, or is there something more to it all? It certainly adds a new twist to the age old discussion on demonic possession, that such an expert in his field should be so drawn in by it all, and although we don't have the answers we want, the phenomenon still swirls out there past the fringe of our understanding.