February 27, 2014

Belief in Demonic Possession and Exorcism Causes Real Harm

A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performe...
A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performed on a woman by a priest and his assistant, with a demon emerging from her mouth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is difficult to question the fact that media content can impact attitudes and beliefs. We have seen countless examples of the effects that propaganda can have, and few would question whether what we see on cable news these days has any impact on our political climate. Moreover, there is a large body of scientific research demonstrating that television violence affects children in some unfortunate ways. Nobody is claiming that everyone exposed to certain media content will be affected by it in the same manner, but it is generally accepted that media content can have an effect on at least some people.

Having recently watched Insidious and The Conjuring, both of which I enjoyed, I cannot help wondering if there is any connection between the frequent depictions of demonic possession and exorcism in the horror genre and real-life exorcism. While I agree with those suggesting that religious institutions deserve much of the blame for the occurrence of exorcisms today, I wonder whether the horror genre I love so much might have at least something to do with shaping public attitudes toward things like demonic possession and exorcism. If nothing else, do they promote the idea that demonic possession is real and that rituals like exorcism are the solution?

The Conjuring was almost preachy at times. Not only did it present itself as being based on a true story involving "demonologists," but it explicitly repeated the message that demonic possession was real and that it was easy to let demons in. Somewhat less explicit was the implication that one really ought to be Catholic to protect oneself from this sort of thing. The special features on the blu-ray version I watched were even more explicit on these points. All the ghost hunting stuff was real because ghosts are of course real. Same for demons.

I understand that most people who watch films like this are well aware that they are fictional. I also understand that plenty of people (like me) do not believe any of this stuff and still manage to enjoy such films. My question, I suppose, is whether the prevalence of such themes in films like these contributes to the popularity of these superstitions. Do films like this at least make the existence of ghosts and demons or the power of exorcism, clairvoyance, mediums, and the like seem a bit more plausible than they would otherwise? I am not sure, but I think they might.

I think the question is relevant because we see so many examples of the damage caused by belief in demons and exorcism. We see how such beliefs fueled cruel treatment of the mentally ill, and it should make us nervous that the Catholic Church is still pushing this stuff.

Assume for a minute that such films do end up making it somewhat more likely that belief in demons and exorcism flourish. Would that mean I think they should be banned? No, not at all. But it might mean that skeptics need to be more vocal in such matters, devoting more attention to debunking this stuff and demonstrating the harm of such beliefs. It might also mean that the studios who make such films should be encouraged to include interviews with skeptics in their material every once in awhile.

The content to which the public is being exposed seems awfully one-sided. There must be 10 or more shows on TV about ghost hunting, all of which treat ghosts and demons as if they were real things. Contrast that with maybe 1-2 involving skepticism and science. Perhaps this should change.

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