I'm doing research on alleged testimonies and evidences of the spirit realm. In particular, I've been lately reviewing testimonies and live recordings of exorcisms, some of which I find particularly impressive. I say impressive because in my opinion the exorcisms look quite convincing, and I lack the expertise in psychology and neuroscience to provide a convincing explanation other than assuming that everything is staged (which I wouldn't be able to prove either).

Common patterns are that the allegedly possessed person seems to switch personality (as though the alleged entity's personality is taking over), sometimes the exorcist and the alleged entity establish conversation, sometimes the person starts to "throw up" the alleged entity out of their body right before full deliverance is achieved.

Here a few examples (timestamps included): example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4, example 5, example 6, example 7, example 8, example 9, example 10, example 11, example 12.

What is the psychological explanation for exorcisms?

Possibly related questions:

  • $\begingroup$ If you haven't already, I suggest reading about Anneliese Michel or watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. If you can find a record of the actual court hearings, I believe there was a Catholic Psychologist or medical professional who explained the psychology behind exorcisms. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ Will you accept a scientific explanation? Or will you counter any explanation given with some argument that it cannot explain the videos you've seen because you've decided they show something not explainable by science? $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause It depends, if the scientific explanation provided effectively accounts for what we observe in the videos, then sure, I don't see why I would not accept that. However, if the explanation presents limitations, e.g. corner cases that are not addressed appropriately, then I will probably point them out in the comments, and maybe accept the answer. Ideally I would like answers to be as honest as possible, e.g. "explanation X can account for 90% of what we see in these and other videos / reported cases, but there is a 10% we don't know how to explain yet because of blah blah ..." $\endgroup$
    – user25376
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah...sounds to me like you want to argue, so I won't take the time to write what is known. I don't think you're here in good faith, from the extent of comments I've seen here and on other stacks. No matter what someone says, you'll find a corner case or won't quite buy the explanation. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause Are you talking about the MPI answer to the question about shaking and trembling? The same user acknowledged in his own answer that his explanation is not truly scientific but rather speculative. Someone posted a similar answer about MPI to the cross posted question on Skeptics.SE and the moderators deleted his answer, so I'm not the only one who has legitimate objections to MPI. I haven't accepted that answer because there has to be something better. That's why I have a bounty on that question. Please, feel free to post an answer here. If your answer is good, I will accept it. $\endgroup$
    – user25376
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 2:36

1 Answer 1


Google Scholar reveals a substantial quantity of learned research on the topic of exorcisms, of which the items below are but a few:

  • Ferracuti, S., & Sacco, R. (1996). Dissociative trance disorder: clinical and Rorschach findings in ten persons reporting demon possession and treated by exorcism. Journal of personality assessment, 66(3), 525-539. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa6603_4

  • Ross, C. A., Schroeder, E., & Ness, L. (2013). Dissociation and symptoms of culture-bound syndromes in North America: A preliminary study. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 14(2), 224-235. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2013.724338

  • McNamara, P. (2011). Spirit Possession and Exorcism: History, Psychology, and Neurobiology [2 volumes]: History, Psychology, and Neurobiology. ABC-CLIO.

  • Henderson, D. J. (1976). Exorcism, possession, and the Dracula cult: A synopsis of object-relations psychology. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 40(6), 603.

  • Bull, D. L. (2001). A phenomenological model of therapeutic exorcism for dissociative identity disorder. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29(2), 131-139. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164710102900204

  • Pfeifer, S. (1994). Belief in demons and exorcism in psychiatric patients in Switzerland. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 67(3), 247-258. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8341.1994.tb01794.x

  • Rosik, C. H. (1997). When discernment fails: The case for outcome studies on exorcism. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 25(3), 354-363. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164719702500304

As for many religious behaviours, exorcism behaviours appear to exist between non-intersecting religious and cultural groups.

A review of the abstracts suggests that involvement in exorcism is considered to be a Dissociative disorder. The Mayo Clinic also has an interesting article on Dissociative disorder.

  • $\begingroup$ A pattern I've noticed in several of these exorcisms is that people seem to "throw up" the alleged entity or whatever is allegedly possessing them a few moments before they are declared fully delivered. That can be observed in examples 1, 2, 5 and 6. Do you know if any of these articles addresses the "throwing up" pattern observed? $\endgroup$
    – user25376
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ Google Scholar identifies over 6,000 references. I've only read the abstracts from about 10 of them. Not sure about exorcism, however, vomiting has been associated with dissociative disorder in other contexts - see doi.org/10.1080/00029157.1986.10402697. Also Google Scholar "dissociative disorder vomiting" for many other references. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Mobbs
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 4:30

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