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Identifying Demons

by Michael P. Orsi


This essay discusses the nature and behavior of demons, demonic possession, and the effects of demonic activity. Rev. Michael P. Orsi provides specific indicators of demonic possession and ways to rule out mental illness and / or the free will actions of a bad person.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


58 – 63

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, December 2006

Earlier in my priesthood, I would not have been able to write this article and I certainly would have looked askance at anyone who broached the topic of demonology. Though I was aware that the teachings about demons, prayers to ward off the evil spirits and the official rite of exorcism have long been part of the official teaching of the Church, I doubted a modern priest could take such a pre-Enlightenment topic seriously. However, now with more than 30 years of priestly experience under my belt and some growth in the Spirit's gift of knowledge infused through the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders, I no longer doubt the reality of malevolent spirits. As a matter of fact, I would be displaying great hubris to entertain such doubts. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus' encounter with demons. The topic is also discussed by pagan philosophers as well as in the writing of the doctors of the Church (Aquinas, On Evil, pp. 441-452). The reality of demonic spirits is also well documented in non-Christian religions, notably Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Tao (Cramer, M., The Devil Within, 1979, p. 81).

In my discussion of demons, it is first necessary to define what a demon is and how it acts. After having done so I will illustrate / explain misidentification of demonic possession as mental illness or simply the free will actions of a bad person. Finally, I will attempt to provide indications of demonic possession and the effects of demonic activity.

Traditionally demons have been described as beings without bodies that possess intellect and free will (Aquinas, p. 450). Surely, this description does not sit well with modern people since it presumes metaphysics which uses reason to know things that are not immediately available to the senses. Aiding reason, faith provides another vantage point for validating the activity of the spirit world. Saint Paul, for example, continually refers to the demonic forces present in the world and the damage they cause. For example, in Ephesians 6:12, the Apostle says, "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places." Also vital to the description of a demon is that the demon by a free will act turned from good, the natural state of God's creation of which the demon is a part, to embrace evil (Aquinas, p. 452). Though there are many demons, they describe themselves as legion in Mark's Gospel 5:10, "since there are many of us," they are all in effect minions of Satan who desired to rule like God over a multitude of angels (Aquinas, p. 467).

Moreover, a demon's influence, according to St. Augustine, can change the cognitive part of the person by changing his internal and external sensory powers. The demon, he says, "creeps stealthily in through all the avenues of the senses, it gives itself shapes, it adapts itself to colors, it adheres to sounds, it appends itself to odors, it instills with flavors" (Aquinas, p. 526). By its very nature "a demon intends to lead men to falsehood. He does so by inciting a man to cogitate about a particular thing and impedes the use of reason. This is commonly known as possession" (Aquinas, p. 535).

In a discussion of the demonic, it is important to be sure that certain psychological disturbances, whether chemically caused or due to an imbalance from emotional distress or trauma, be ruled out before demonic possession is considered. Of course professional diagnosis must be made to determine the potential causes of certain behaviors which may be indicative of, for example, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorders or other mental illnesses described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. It should be noted, however, that Satan does not like to be revealed. It is therefore conceivable that he may hide behind the facade of a psychosis. The late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his last book Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption (2005) became suspicious of this possibility in working with some patients whose problems indicated something beyond the norm for mental disturbance which led him to suspect a supernatural presence. His gradual understanding of the phenomenon led to a very careful use of exorcism. In the two cases he describes in his book his hunch was verified.

To corroborate Peck's findings my personal experience as a young priest assigned to the State Mental Hospital may add some insight. In those days, large numbers of patients were kept in what were called "closed wards" since they needed constant supervision. Some patients were even tied to their wooden chairs. Upon entering one such ward I saw a woman who was tied to her chair. She saw me and became extremely agitated, hissing and violently moving her chair backwards with her feet. Vile language and threats accompanied this outburst. This was certainly something beyond anything I had ever experienced. It was unnerving, to say the least. I think this woman would have been a case worthy of examination for demonic possession and possibly exorcism. However, I realized that talking to health care professionals of this possibility then and even now would in most instances be impossible. If I mentioned such ideas they may even have suggested that I needed professional help!

The second scenario which needs examination in the discussion of demonic possession is the case of the "bad" person. Not all wickedness can be attributed to Satan or his demons. Many have heard the story of a man who spots the devil crying outside a city gate. The man asks, "Why are you crying?" The devil's response is, "They don't need me in there. They're bad enough on their own." Because we are born with a free will we can make good or bad choices. Unfortunately, there are those who have decided to live an egotistical or fully self-centered life. Very often, the individuals may be perfectly presentable people, perhaps even regular church-goers. This, of course, does not preclude the fact that they are living in mortal sin. It also means that at least on some level they act knowing that what they do is wrong, having sufficiently reflected on the action and given total consent to it. Once again, Dr. Peck offers some valuable insights. In People of the Lie (1983), Peck's experiences as a psychiatrist enabled him to see that bad or evil people often attack others because of a sense of their own inadequacy. Peck explains that instead of facing their own failures, these people cover them by trying to bring others down with them. From my own personal experience I can provide two examples: one of a very self-centered old lady and the other of a priest under whom I once served.

A number of years ago I had a very elderly woman on my communion call list. For all intents and purposes she seemed to be doing everything right. She demanded weekly communion on Friday at a time she designated even if the time was inconvenient for me. When I arrived she was usually clutching her rosary beads. Before she would receive Communion I had to endure her list of complaints about her ailments and of course about other people. She had not one friend or visitor other than me. However, she did have a son who lived with her. He was an Annapolis graduate who had been married but his wife divorced him. In time I began to piece together a story of how the old lady continually interfered in the marriage. She often feigned illness to get her son's attention and eventually demanded that her son move back home to care for her. When his wife refused to live with her mother-in-law the son left her and returned home to his mother. These facts were corroborated by the ex-wife whom I met after the death of both mother and son years later. I actually dreaded visiting the woman. There was no doubt in my mind that this was one of those "people of the lie" mentioned by Dr. Peck in his book.

The second case, that of the evil pastor, further clarifies the picture being presented. This man had succumbed to many vices. First, he had a girlfriend. The affair had been commonly known for many years in the parish and diocese. He also took money from the weekly collection, once announcing to me and another associate that the twenty-dollar bills were his. He also gambled heavily.

On at least two occasions he tried to taint me with the same evil in which he was involved. When I first arrived at the parish he insisted that I not have a private phone. I agreed to avoid offending him. After a few months, however, he presented me with the phone bills, my calls highlighted and obviously investigated. On the bill, there were some calls to a local female musician with whom I was friendly and occasionally called for advice on liturgical music. The priest also knew the woman and mentioning her name, remarked, "Quite a few calls to your girlfriend." In another incident he came to me and asked if I had needed any extra money. I thought he was trying to be nice. I said no, explained I was fine and thanked him for asking. The priest then said, "Oh, I thought you might have needed some cash, the collection was low this week."

Evil people, and here I am not implying demonic possession at all, want to bring others down with them to feel better about their own bad choices. They want others to join in their wickedness. It provides a cover, allowing the person to justify his evil behavior because everybody is doing it. It can also be used as a source of blackmail. It is important to note that evil people will use any means they can, even seemingly unrelated things, to bring down an opponent or anyone in whom they perceive a threat. It is either, "everybody is doing it" or "if they try to get me in trouble, I can make trouble for them too." It must be made clear, we are not talking here about a sociopath — one who has no moral conscience — but of a person who has made a conscious choice for self and knows the difference between right and wrong.

This leaves the last category of the person possessed by demons. It is obvious from what I have said above that recognition of demons is not at all easy since Satan often works in disguise and evil may be of a person's own making. But there are some indications that perhaps what one confronts in some instances is just slightly beyond typical abnormalities. Here, I am relying on Dr. Peck's observations in his Glimpses of the Devil (2005), philosopher Louis Lavelle's What Evil is Like (1963), and my own personal experience to explain what is being proposed.

First of all, an indication of demonic possession is, at least in the cases reported by Peck, that the possessed person senses the presence of an unwanted other intelligence that is directing them to certain thoughts and actions. They may even report hearing internal voices and sometimes these voices (demons) identify themselves by name. These peoples' behaviors do not necessarily have to be off the charts or even bizarre. Nevertheless, they are not happy with these alien forces which are causing unhappiness and disruption in their lives. As a matter of fact they feel caught up in "untruth" about themselves, life, the world and reality in general. The traditional definition of truth is the conformity of mind with reality. In the process of exorcism the exorcist confronts the lies the demon speaks, which sometimes causes the demon to flee. After all, isn't Satan the father of lies? Peck uses the term "marketing of unreality" in describing Satan's work. This very much coheres with what Augustine and St. Thomas say in their description of the demonic described above. The distortions presented by the demons may be as simple as confusing one's obligations and performance, for example, in the tasks of marriage and parenting, or causing an inordinate desire for material things, which prevents a person from attaining true love and friendship. The key here is that the demon has some control over the possessed person. It is felt or recognized to be a power beyond the individuals' control.

Another indication of a demonic presence is addressed by the French philosopher Louis Lavell in Evil and Suffering (1963). He says that evil causes a separation of harmony either in the same being or between beings. This, he says, is:

Because every bad will pursues isolated ends which, sacrificing the whole to the part, always contaminate the integrity of the whole and threaten to annihilate it. Evil always seeks to divide and destroy. Its actions create an interior rupture where perversity itself gives bitter pleasure. It causes conflict and enmity between persons creating harmony and discord. It militates against the common good.

In my own experiences with the demonic it is often the backlash when the demon is outed or confronted by truth that has been the greatest indicator of its presence. To speak the truth in love is abhorrent to a demon. This is especially true when the demon is recognized or Satan is identified as the root of the problem. The reaction is sometimes subtle and sometimes violent, but an attack will follow. I do not mean physically, although sometimes this may happen, but usually by an assault on the person's character or some other diversion that will remove the protagonist from doing battle with the demon. Priests are especially susceptible to this since Holy Orders which configures them more radically to Christ makes them bearers of the Truth in a most powerful way. This is a warning — every priest is a prime target of Satan. After all, did he not tempt Christ in the desert? Satan will try to get a priest any way he can, simply for doing his job! This will be especially obvious when one is defending or trying to preserve a Catholic belief, a truly Catholic institution, or an innocent person. Speaking truth, however, is not limited to religious matters. It may be simply articulating ethics for good human behavior. Once again, through the Holy Spirit's gifts of understanding and right judgment, insight and good advice on life's issues that will bring about peace and goodness is a thwart to Satan's plan.

Another way of identifying demonic possession is by carefully probing the suspected host's past. This may indicate a point of entry for the demon. First, those who come in contact with the occult, whether directly or indirectly, are very susceptible. Any association with black magic, tarot cards, ouija boards, seances, evil books, etc. should be carefully noted. Secondly, any involvement with a religious cult. Often in these circumstances, the transmogrification of belief and practice may well play into the hands of Satan, for example, groups like Jim Jones' "The People's Temple," or David Koresh's "Branch Davidians" provide openings for distortion of truth and evil actions that may lead to pedophilia, adultery, polygamy, false messianism, suicide, etc. A third area of susceptibility is trauma. Some event in the person's past that opened them to demonic penetration, for example child abuse, violence in the home, or divorce may have opened the person to evil due to a breakdown in love. It is possible that the loneliness and alienation caused by these events could lead a person to invite in an evil spirit to fill the vacuum. This could be conscious or subconscious. Finally, contact with an evil person who in time gets a foothold in one's life may give a demon entry to the other person. These are just possibilities, not guarantees of possession, but they must be looked at as corroborating data when diagnosing a person for demonic possession.

I do not make these observations to encourage the unprofessional to begin to exorcise all those they may deem to be possessed. At times, no doubt all of us might be diagnosed by others as being so disposed. But I urge serious reflection on the topic by those professionals involved with human physical, emotional and spiritual well being. They should give my presentation serious consideration in dealing with those cases which seem to be just a little bit different or outside of the norm, or even have an uncanny sense of the demonic at work. Psychiatrists, lawyers and priests should work together on these cases to make sure valid criteria are met for exorcism, that proper legal and medical precautions are taken to protect the subject being exorcised, and that competent persons are assigned to perform the ritual. The rites of exorcism, a long part of religious tradition, would not exist unless the truth of Satan and his demons were recognized as being real.

I hope this essay will stimulate further research and action in an area often ignored to the detriment of persons, their souls, civil and religious institutions and society as a whole.


Aquinas, T. (1995). On Evil. (J. Oesterle, Trans). IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Camer, M. (1979). The Devil Within. London: W.H. Allen.

Lavell, L. (1963). Evil and Suffering. NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Peck, M.S. (1983). People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. NY: Touchstone.

Peck, M.S. (2005). Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. NY: Free Press.

Reverend Michael P. Orsi, a priest of the Diocese of Cambden, N.J., is the author of four books and many articles. He has served as Assistant Chancellor and Director of the Family Life Bureau. Orsi has a Ph.D. in education from Fordham University. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Ann, Arbor, Mich. His last article in HPR appeared in June 2006.

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