Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sufferers of abuse and mental illness aren't Horror movie bad guys...

The BBC today report that child abuse due to exorcism and witchcraft is on the rise in Great Britain. In the article Terry Sharpe, from the Project Violet team, a project devoted to investigating child abuse due to faith and religion, comments on the increase in such abuse, he also states:
"You'll get the actual physical abuse and injuries taking place, and, in the worst-case scenario, we've had some homicides as well," he said.
"We've had a case within the last year where a nine-year-old boy had been called a devil child and thrown out of his address by his parents and was found by social services standing in his bare feet."
In another case a child was attacked by his mother, who bit him on the face and tried to smother him, because she believed he was a "witch possessed by evil spirits".
But is religion the only causal factor here. I don't doubt its the major factor, but does the entertainment industry also play a part?

Lets play a game of odd one out. Look at the above pictures and tell me which one doesn't fit with the rest. I'll give you a clue. Three of the above pictured individuals are fictional movie monsters. The other is a young woman, suffering from diagnosed medical conditions who was tortured and eventually murdered by the people she trusted the most. Her killers were motivated by ignorance and backwards 18th century religious thinking.

I'm sure you have got the point. Not only that but I'm sure that you are familiar with the case of Anneliese Michel, who died of malnutrition and dehydration at 23, during an attempted exorcism by her priests and her parents, you've probably also seen at least one of the two movies based on her death.

The film The Exorcism Of Emily Rose did fairly well at the box office and on home release, as of 2012 its made $144,216,468 worldwide for the studio that produced it. That's a pretty profit made from the death of a young girl.

Of course Exorcism of Emily Rose is hardly the first exorcism film. Hollywood has generated them at a pretty steady rate since the Exorcist was released to much hype and acclaim in 1973. And unfortunately Anneliese is hardly the first person to be harmed and killed by others acting on the belief that demons can inhabit the minds of the living. And judging from today's report she is unlikely to be the last. What's the harm lists over 300,000 individuals killed and a similar number injured by exorcisms.

Many of these supposedly "possessed" people are suffering from well understood, diagnosable and TREATABLE mental illness. Anneliese herself had been diagnosed with depression and likely would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia had she continued with medical help.

A 2012 study by Neuner, Pfeiffer, Schauer-Kaiser, Odenwald et al. (2012) looking belief in spiritual possession in Uganda concludes:
".. in many of the areas of the world where beliefs about spirit possession are widely held, such beliefs are a standard consequence of psychological trauma and may be a way of explaining the dissociative symptoms that often accompany intense traumatic experiences. These beliefs about spirit possession can then be used by various local agencies to manipulate the behaviour of individuals – even to the extent of coercing them into acts of extreme brutality. Explanations of mental health problems in terms of “possession” have taken many forms over the course of history, and it is a form of explanation that has meant that many who have been suffering debilitating and distressing psychological problems have been persecuted and physically abused rather than offered the support and treatment they need."

These people don't deserve to have their ordeals turned into horror films. They don't deserve to be turned into villains. Can you think of any other movie genre that would exploit abuse victims or people suffering from an illness in such a way?

As well as being exploitative the media attention of exorcism keeps it in the public eye, presented as "based on a true story" makes possession seem worthy of consideration as a phenomena that may actually occur, to those witless enough to believe that tag-line actually means anything when used in a Hollywood blurb.

This exploitation is only amplified when ACTUAL sufferers are treated as reality TV fodder, as  is about to happen on True Exorcisms, currently in development. Fingers crossed it will never happen. One TV exorcism that definitely WILL happen is that of the alleged St.Louis home of Roland Doe on October 30th, Destination America.

"Medium" Chip Coffey and the crew of the channel's Ghost Asylum, known as the Tennessee Wraith Chasers will scour the house for evidence of demonic infestation. Good luck with that.

The idea of evidence for possession is an interesting one. In all the stories we hear about possession there come elements of supernatural actions. Inhuman strength, levitation, speaking of previously unknown languages. Yet of all the hundreds of filmed exorcisms not one, that I've seen shows anything happen that isn't achievable under normal circumstances.

Sure many of these videos are quite unnerving, but is unnerving behaviour enough to justify the often brutal process of exorcism. another trait of the individuals in these exorcism videos is how closely their behaviour matches footage of seizures and psychotic episodes. This shouldn't be causing the same confusion that it was causing hundreds of years ago. Not with what we know about the brain now.

Along these lines there is much talk of Anneliese Michel displaying supernatural abilities during her exorcism, sadly the only witnesses to this were her family and priests, her killers essentially. Her superhuman strength could certainly be explained by her epilepsy. Individuals in a midst of an epileptic seizure are extremely hard to restrain. The only evidence that exist is a growling tortured voice recorded during the exorcism. This growling was enough, in one Bishop's eyes to justify starving a 23 year to death.

If you think I'm being slightly hysterical about the effect popularisation of ideas of exorcism and possession have on the public consider this: the Catholic church has confirm the number of requested exorcisms is on the rise.  From a 2014 Telegraph article:

"The rise in demonic cases is a result of more people dabbling in practices such as black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija boards, often exploring the dark arts with the help of information readily found on the internet, the Church said."
Whilst they put this down to increased frequency in experimentation with the occult and the internet, maybe there's a more straight forward cause. More people are aware of exorcism thanks to media attention. Its now part of the public consciousness. When some people see the tropes of "possession" in family members and friends they don't think "mental illness" they think "this is just like that movie!" Viewing seizure and mental illness, even Tourettes syndrome, view this pop-culture lens point to possession, when common sense allude to illness.

The only recourse for this is erasing ignorance of mental illness and perhaps Hollywood deciding that exploiting abuse victims and the mentally ill for cheap thrills is a bit of shitty thing to do.

If you want to know more about the psychology of possession and exorcism you could do worse than starting with this talk by psychologist Chris French of Goldsmiths for the Centre for Inquiry.

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