What Possesses People to Go to an Exorcist?

Indie horror film Luz plays with sensory perception while tapping the collective subconscious.

Now that the evil Fox network cancelled The Exorcist, it’s getting harder and harder to get someone to evict infernal overstays. Satanic horror is the scariest of horror because it gets you where you kneel. The knee bone’s connected to the brain when you’re in a prone position and that’s where horror directors like to keep you. Invoking the devil in a movie conjures the memories of countless hours spent in pews on mornings you could have slept in if you hadn’t been strong-armed by threats of a dire afterlife for nonattendance. “When there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth,” genre master George A. Romero warned in Dawn of the Dead. In William Friedkin’s real-exorcism documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin mentions that 500,000 out every 60 million Italians in Italy have undergone exorcisms. Is that the result of an overpopulated underworld or too much psychic baggage from faith?

“Lucifer and the demons won’t waste their time on possessing people,” says Luciferi Baphomet, owner and founder at Followers of Lucifer and Education, and a teacher of Theistic Satanism. “Their main goal is to help guide others into and in Satanism.”

Devil movies like Ninth Gate, Angel Heart and Rosemary’s Baby reach into a spiritual collective consciousness drummed into the faithful from birth, while exorcism films tap a mass psychosis of personal religious zealotry. “Exorcisms are fake,” declares Baphomet, who as a Theistic Luciferian Satanist sees the devil is a supernatural force worthy of supplication. “Lucifer and I are very close. I know for a fact that he won’t go possessing people.”

Some of the faithful believe the first lie the devil sold was the devil doesn’t exist. German writer/director Tilman Singer wants to show what happens when demons lull people into an easy slide to the underworld. He shot the film Luz, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival 2018 and screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival, in 16 mm with immersive sound and a visual atmosphere reminiscent of Giallo and 1970s Spanish horror. The director wanted his sensuous thriller to bring possession home to the audience.

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Bending perception through a constant change of perspective in the sound, visual and story layers of the film, the director hopes “the audience is feeling hypnotized themselves in some way,” Singer told Den of Geek. “The synergy of those layers works almost like a hypnosis on the audience and was the closest to being possessed by a film I could think of. For example, we use an additional layer of sound that adds a past reality to a present reality. The credibility of both realities is questioned at all times. The viewer attempts to answer this question of credibility and therefore has to, with sharpened senses, fully engage in image and sound.”

While Luz is not described as a romantic horror, the demon who possesses the mysterious young woman in the opening of the film “longs for the woman it loves,” according to the poster, which makes it sound like one of the infernal flock is looking to reconnect with an old flame. Their relationship status on Facebook is listed as “complicated.” The object of the demon’s emotional affliction is a young cabdriver named Luz, played by Luana Velis. She was the rebel at a Chilean school for girls and now she’s on her way to make a statement at the “rundown police station.”

Nora Vanderkurt (Julia Riedler) also went to the Chilean girl’s school, but she graduated with more than a degree. She is possessed by a demon who recognizes Luz. With less subtlety than the demon in Fallen, the 1998 film directed by Gregory Hoblit which starred Denzel Washington and James Gandolfini, Nora’s body-squatting entity projectile vomits itself into police psychiatrist Dr. Rossini, played by Jan Bluthardt, who is called to the police station before any further hookup can come to fruition. The shrink in blue is called there to examine the dazed and numb young cabdriver. “Supervised by his colleagues, the doctor puts Luz in a state of hypnosis that initiates a series of flashbacks, unfolding the events leading to her arrival. But the entity that has taken control of the doctor wants something more. Bit by bit it slips into Luz’s reenactment and makes old memories come to light.”

The film weaponizes repressed memories in a much different way than the “satanic panic” of the late 1980s, lending itself to the possibilities inherent in infernal communion best explored by celluloid antiheroes. “Satanism has nothing to do with horror,” Baphomet declares. “Hollywood makes Satanism look bad. I am saying that because it is true.”

While the director “vigorously” denies he studied any demonic works beyond “most of the classic movies on possession” and “some broad research on the nature of evil and what culture perceives as the devil,” Den of Geek decided to play devil’s advocate with some experts.

The indie film’s premise implies hypnotherapy has the power to change past events. While, basic physics prevents this from happening, in this dimension anyway, the idea of implanting a demonic entity through the breakdown of their memories is not beyond the realm of possibility. Morgana Starr, author of Angel Whispers, A Journey into the World of the Earth’s Oldest Guardians and Angels Legacy, who performs past life regressions and is called on to perform exorcisms, believes demonic possession can be caused through hypnosis if “the hypnotherapist isn’t well trained or has their own agenda.”

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Elena Mosaner, a certified hypnotherapist who appeared on the “Superhuman” episode of In Search Of, hasn’t “seen any studies, research or any type of evidence to support” the idea someone can experience a demonic possession through hypnosis. But she is “sure someone could tell you it is possible, although it would be purely based on someone’s belief and belief only.”

Angel communicator Starr says she can you tell if someone is possessed by a demon rather than acting on an inner demon because “the person will act out of character. They may tell you about thoughts they have or nightmares. None of which are what you have known about the way the person thought or felt in the past. They will have emotional and mental blockages. They can’t concentrate on spiritual things or focus enough to read spiritual books.”

Grounded in the sciences of the mind, Mosaner admits she cannot tell if someone is possessed by the devil. “In fact, no one can. Because there is no evidence the devil exists. Absolutely no evidence.” Mosaner believes most cases of possession are merely people who are “acting out the emotions, the diabolic parts of themselves. Anyone of us can get angry, jealous, frustrated or envious. Emotions can get so ugly where a person could begin acting paranoid or switching moods. This doesn’t mean it is devil acting out, even though it may look this way. It is just acting out the inner demon,” though she is very quick to point out that even an “inner” demon is only a metaphor for the ego.

The hypnotist believes the rites of exorcism work because they enforce the religiously-induced suggestion of possession. “It is just a suggestion the devil exists,” Mosaner says. “Devil is a metaphor, maybe a negative energy or a bad feeling. That’s about it.” Starr hasn’t found “the religious rites of exorcism to be successful in all cases. They are usually rough on the person even if they do work.” She believes a person can be exorcised through hypnosis if the person is “trained in hypnotherapy and in exorcism. I had several attached spirits removed by a hypnotherapist over 20 years ago.”

Mosaner isn’t inclined to exorcise a demon, but she might suggest ways for fallen cherubs to stick to a weight loss program. Devils, angels and people can reframe negative emotions, habits, and beliefs “through hypnosis,” the hypnotherapist says. “They can gain control over their mind, like desires for bad food or anything that is harmful. A person can gain a new awareness on their behavior, get more enlightened. You can call it exorcism if you want.”

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Baphomet thinks possession is all an act, claiming “there are people who get paid to pretend they are possessed and will have a priest make it look like they are trying to cast a demon out of them.”

You say possession like it’s a bad thing

Films like The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose only show the dark side of possession. Many spiritual cultures revere the concept of surrendering their consciousness to the super-conscious. Even the inner circle of priests on the Fox series The Exorcist opened themselves up to let Satan take the wheel. “The first thing we have to do is distinguish spirit possession from demonic possession,” says Lilith Dorsey, an expert practitioner of Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, and Santeria, and a respected voice for Afro-Diasporan Pagan religions. “People can open themselves up to spirit possession by divinity, demon, or to whatever walks in.”

A 1969 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found spirit possession beliefs “in 74 percent of a sample of 488 societies in all parts of the world,” according to Wikipedia. “In many Afro Caribbean traditions possession and trance can be a beneficial connection to the Lwa or Orisha,” says Dorsey, author of The Book on Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, Love Magic: Over 250 Spells and Potions for Getting it, Keeping it, and Making it Last, and The African-American Ritual Cookbook. “People have been seen to heal themselves and others through this experience and also gain access to other worldly knowledge.”

Devotional trance exists in many traditions, including Buddhism, Wicca, Hinduism, Islam. When spirits possess you in Vodou, it’s called chevalier, which means “‘being ridden by the gods,'” says occult expert Marie Bargas, who straddles the entertainment and spiritual world as the Hollywood Witch. “The difference between possession and chevalier boils down to consent. The freedom of choice that we have and the angels don’t. That caused Satan’s fall, poor bastard had no choice, and so he reminds us often what it is like not to have one.”

Mosaner says the trances that occur in ritual are “very similar” to the hypnotic state when “characterized by alpha waves or theta waves captivity around the brain.” The only difference is hypnotherapy sessions usually occur in a “room where you are physically relaxed, with eyes closed” while rituals are done when a person is “usually moving with eyes open. In a ritual setting you tend to get into trance through some sort of repetition of a movement, mantra or music. Like dancing around the fire, repeating the same word, or some ritualistic sequence of a behavior.”

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Trances that occur in ceremony can be more dramatic than what is usually recorded in the state of routine hypnosis. “Ritual trances allow for a spirit to enter,” Starr says. “The person’s eyes, face can change shape. Their voice and demeanor can change to someone you don’t recognize.”

“A person is usually more receptive in a ritual based trance, because they believe in some higher power, supernatural beyond them outside or maybe some other person possessing that power in the space where ritual occurs,” Mosaner says. “Their critical thinking is bypassed. In hypnotherapy sessions, we use hypnotic inductions to bypass critical thinking, but there is no association with any super powers to anything supernatural in anyone or anything.”

From the sacred to the profane, magical practitioners believe it’s pretty mundane. “In my opinion, spirit possession is different than hypnosis whose goal seems to be to manifest a physical state as opposed to a divine intervention,” says Dorsey. “If we then also consider this in the light of past life regression we must discuss cosmology in the Afro-Diasporan world. Many of these religions believe you are reincarnated into your ancestral line. That said you can certainly be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor. This may occur in ceremony when you need that particular individual’s guidance and wisdom.”

Reincarnation is a subtle undertone to the film Luz, but it doesn’t go as far as to suggest possessions could be extreme cases of past life recognition. Audrey Rose, director Robert Wise’s 1977 film adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s book, used regressive hypnotherapy to put a more human flavor to possession. Anthony Hopkins’ Elliot Hoover character believes the daughter of Marsha Mason’s Janice Templeton was the reincarnation of his dead daughter. Ivy Templeton was born two minutes after the death of Hoover’s daughter. During a hypnosis session, the young Ivy re-experiences the fiery auto accident which took the life of Audrey Rose, to the point of suffering burn wounds.

Extreme exorcism cases document the physical symptoms brought about during possession. “Channel mediumship is a form of possession, as you allow an entity to enter and use your body and voicebox to speak,” says witch and Divine Mother expert Laura Lenhard who runs Talisman and Cauldron in Derby, Connecticut. “Possession and channeling are kissing cousins.”

“The whole demon possession around the world thing is not real,” says Baphomet. “People who say they were possessed by Lucifer or the demons were either pretending or they just have a mental illness.” The Merriam Webster says possession is a psychological state in which an individual’s normal personality is replaced by another. The father of psychiatry Sigmund Freud saw possession as hysteria. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder published by the American Psychiatric Association suggested a diagnostic category called “dissociative trance disorder” for possession.

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“Honestly I think the increase in exorcisms as reported on by Friedkin as a result of people being more open to the experience and also being unaware of how to handle themselves in that situation,” concludes Lilith Dorsey.

Director Tilman Singer stops short of claiming the psychology of fear as a religious experience. “I’m really unfamiliar with true religious experiences myself but in Luz we made everything a ritual,” the director says. “I guess going to the movies can be a religious experience and I definitely have an insatiable craving for scary stories with a supernatural element. I wouldn’t call it religious myself. It’s just therapy.”

You can see Singer exorcise his inner demons when Luz makes its U.S. premiere at the genre event Fantastic Fest this September.