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by David C. Downing

The Mystery of Spirit Possession(Part 2)

Those who associate "possession" with the gullible old days before the rise of modern science should consult Thomas B. Allen's Possession: The True Story of an Exorcism, a detailed and disturbing account of the actual case in 1949 upon which the novel and film The Exorcist were based.

Allen, who identifies himself as an agnostic, has located more than a dozen eyewitnesses who will attest to paranormal phenomena involving a 14-year-old boy whose aunt had introduced him to a Ouija board. Family members, neighbors, priests, and therapists claim to have seen objects floating in midair, a heavy chest of drawers sliding across the room, its drawers opening and closing at random, and welts spontaneously appearing on the boy's body, which formed letters and numbers. Most chilling perhaps is the testimony of the Jesuit priest who says that the boy, from a nominal Lutheran home, answered one of his queries in perfect Church Latin: "O sacerdos Christi, tu sci me esse diabolum. Cui me derogas?" (O priest of Christ, You know I am the devil. Why do you bother me?)

Of course, the Puritans' understanding of the symptoms they observed was inextricably linked to their supernaturalist world-view. Later commentators would dismiss not only their claims to have witnessed paranormal events, but also their credulity in believing such things were possible. The tragedy of Salem was not that the Puritans believed in the demonic, but rather that they equated demon possession with bewitchment. That is, they went beyond any scriptural precedent in assuming that the symptoms they observed were caused by human agents of Satan in their midst.

After centuries of commentary on Salem that often descended into caricature, Chadwick Hansen published a landmark study in 1969 called Witchcraft at Salem. Hansen exploded a good many popular myths, showing that accusations of witchcraft were rare in Puritan New England as compared to Europe, where thousands were executed as witches in the early modern era. Hansen ...

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