Huntington’s Disease (HD) is a rare inherited disorder that breaks down nerve cells in the brain over time, affecting the patient’s behavior and movement. In its early stages, HD symptoms can vary among patients. Mood swings are a common early symptom and HD patients may become depressed, irritable, apathetic, or angry. In some cultures, psychological disorders that also have a motor component, such as Huntington’s Disease (HD), Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia, can result in the individual being labeled as possessed. The notion of possession, in which a person becomes demonized, possessed, or controlled by a demon, was present in many ancient religions and is still present in many beliefs today. To drive out the demons or evil spirits, family members or religious figures turn to exorcism. An exorcist is typically someone of religious faith who is thought to be able to channel benevolent powers and cast out evil spirits from otherwise good people. The concept and practice of exorcism crosses cultural and historical boundaries.
In Catholicism, priests undertake prayers for repentance, divine intervention and protection before engaging in ceremony. The patients then undergo counseling to enhance their spiritual life after the ritual. Buddhist exorcism involves prayer and meditation to persuade the spirit to leave the body. Taoists mainly use chanting, praying, and physical movements to drive away the evil spirits. Among Muslims, the belief of demon possession is not universal. Mr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, head of the Office of the Mufti at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, said, “We believe there are unseen creations of God such as the ‘jinn’ or spirits.” However, he added that although, “One could possibly be possessed by the unseen, but one should not simply blame everything on this. In fact, some people do not believe in possession, although they believe that the unseen exist.” For Muslims who do believe, however, he said that there were those in the community who specialized in the exorcism ritual.
As a case study for practiced exorcism, this paper will examine North Thailand Hill tribe Shamans. There are Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Hmong and Lawa hill tribes. Among these hill tribes of Thailand that migrated from southern China, Laos and Burma, Lisu hill tribal villagers believe in exorcism and possession. According to their belief, there are two beings that can take possession of a person, including the ‘phi pheu’ or tigers as well as ‘phu seu’ or vampires. The hill tribe believes that ‘tai’ or black magic that is implanted in the body of the afflicted person by another person causes many of the illnesses they experience. This object must then be sucked out by the shaman in order for the person to be cured.
While the process of exorcism varies across many cultures, the act of restraining the patient is common; and these restraints can sometimes lead to injuries. The illusion that exorcism works on people with a disease experiencing supposed symptoms of possession can be attributed to the placebo effect. However, there are 370,000 reported cases of people killed during exorcism and another 310,000 reported injuries. These numbers are an underestimate as there are still unreported fatal cases in many rural areas of developing countries where mental illness is stigmatized. Scientifically, demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-V or ICD-10. Patients with symptoms associated with physical or mental illness can be mistaken for victims of demon possession. For example, a shaman beat a mother of two from Thailand with a dried stingray tail because the family had suggested it as a way to rid of her mental illness (later revealed to be a form of motor disorder). Despite her efforts to flee, the shaman abducted her and continued until she died. Even though the shaman was later on charged with murder, this case study shows that the process of exorcism can be fatal and victims can been bound, beaten, burned, starved, and even tortured.
In conclusion, it is difficult to come by documentation of any outcomes of official exorcisms, harmful or beneficial. Exorcisms are supposed to be low-key. Although they are not necessarily a secret, exorcisms are not performed in public or in front of press representatives. However there have been reported cases that victims of exorcisms, whom the officials believe to have mental illnesses, had past away from the rigorous ritual. Therefore, it is imperative to raise awareness about treatments for mental disorder in areas where exorcism is prevalent and mental illness is a social stigma.