In Burma the minor gods and nature spirits are known as nats, and this includes the area in the north inhabited by the Kachin peoples. In 1938, a British colonial official wrote about his fifteen years among them “in my youth”, which I take to mean the early part of last century. But it was a particular murder trial which we are interested in.
The spirit associated with murder is the Sawa nat, which is believed to take possession of its victims, causing them to kill right and left. This nat, by the way, is supposed to be very difficult to get rid of; people afflicted must be prepared to sacrifice all their belongings before they can hope to be freed from the murderous obsession.
An old man of seventy, said to be possessed of this evil spirit, took his gun, thrust it through the crevice of his son’s hut, and shot his little grand-daughter, aged six. When examined in Court he declared that he did not remember killing the girl, but everyone was so positive about it that he supposed he must have done so!
During the trial the ancient was suddenly seized with convulsions, shaking his hand-cuffs and kicking at his chains in [a] most violent fashion for about half-an-hour. This in itself was strange enough, considering his weak and emaciated state; but he also kept singing a Kachin saga, which ceased abruptly the fit passed. When he came to himself again he was unable to account for his behaviour, except to plead that it must have been due to the Sawa nat.
We tried to convince ourselves that the whole performance was just play-acting, but the grave countenances of the Kachin witnesses made it clear that they, at least, believed in and sympathised with the sufferer. After several more attacks, the trial was suspended and the accused sent for medical observation. The doctor’s verdict was that he was suffering from some curious form of epilepsy.
Reference: M. E. Yaw Yone, ‘Among the Kachins’, The Wide World Magazine, July 1938, pp 243-8, at 246-7
Now, obviously, we cannot draw any conclusions about the nature and origin of the old man’s condition without full details about the trial, as well as a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation, along with knowledge of his previous history. But it is surely disturbing that having a person go into a fugue state and murder someone should be taken for granted in a culture, and frequent enough for the condition to have a name. I reported the story because you are unlikely to ever see it elsewhere, and because it leads into something I want to discuss in detail: in a culture such as this, it is highly likely that many people are involved in what I call the Unholy Alliance: attempts by humans to deal with spirits, whether real or imaginary. Whether the outcome is slotted into the psychological or paranormal pigeon hole, ample evidence exists from our own society that such practices do not end well.
Take something often seen as trivial: the ouija board. There are two reasons for not getting involved. The first is that, in the vast majority of cases, it is a load of old rubbish. You end up corresponding with your subconscious mind, and bringing out of its basement items which should have stayed there. The second is, if anything, even more compelling: there is a slight chance that it is not a load of old rubbish. After all, there is no reason to experiment with them unless you consider there is a chance they might be genuine. But if you open the portal, who knows what might walk through? There is no guarantee that the beings “out there” are all benign, and I’ve never heard of anyone contacting angels in this fashion.
So off to the internet I went. I found about 1000 cases where people were reporting their experiences. I used the first 500 that I found to make a crude study. The weight of the statistics told [to my view] a strong story: OUI-JA experiences started out childishly and fun, turned odd and a bit creepy, then turned dark. The majority of the persons reporting said that the experiences were negative and were not going “back in”. A third said that the board was constantly into a morbid death theme and almost a quarter said that they themselves were given death threats. The most stunning element to me was the 40% reporting of poltergeist-like activities ultimately breaking out.
It gets worse if one deliberately seeks out darker spirits. “Catherine”, a West Virginian housewife, was a good Christian woman. But she hadn’t always been. To her psychiatrist she eventually admitted that in her youth she had joined with two female friends to form a small “witches’ coven”, and they pledged loyalty to the devil. They had even offered several aborted foetuses for ritual use, but the psychiatrist thought it best not to ask where they came from. Now, many years after renouncing the group, and despite having no prior history of mental illness, she was suffering symptoms she interpreted as demonic attacks. She would receive mental messages causing great pain, especially in the ears, but an E.N.T. specialist could detect no abnormality. She saw dark, shadowy shapes she interpreted as spirits. An interesting symptom was that her hearing was perfect for everything except religious references. She could easily hear about mundane things, but when the psychiatrist asked her, “Have you given up trusting in God’s help?”, her reply was “Trusting what?” After more of this, the psychiatrist returned with a colleague, and this time they gave her written questions. Again, she had no problem answering them, but when she got to the questions about praying or attending mass, she asked why they had given her blank pieces of paper. Sometimes she would go into “possession” type trances. And yes, she also occasionally displayed ESP. None of this fits any known syndrome. If this is ‘all in the mind’, then the mind is a very fertile field.
The above case history came from Richard Gallagher’s book, Demonic Foes: my twenty-five years as a psychiatrist investigating possessions, diabolic attacks, and the paranormal (2020). Dr. Gallagher is no credulous lightweight. He trained at Yale, and is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at New York Medical College. The book comes with a foreword by Dr. Joseph T. English, also a professor at the same college, and Past Present of the American Psychiatric Association. The book contains a chapter detailing the mental illnesses which might be confused with possession, and another about false memories and the “Satanic abuse” moral panic of the 1980s. The author emphasized that demonic possession is extremely rare. In all his clinical practice, he had never had a patient walk in suffering from the condition, although a number were deluded enough to think so. All the cases he considered genuine were referred to him by exorcists or, in a few instances, contacted him directly after reading an article he wrote.
So how did he get involved in the field in the first place? Simply by having a leading U.S. exorcist, whom he calls “Father Jacques” come to him, asking him to assess a woman who had travelled 2,000 miles to see him (Jacques) because she believed she was suffering from demonic oppression, or attacks. The doctor told him he was sceptical. The priest replied that was a good thing.
Dr Gallagher referred to an incident when an exorcist of Bulgarian background found himself been spoken to by the demon/alternate personality in his own language. How many Americans speak Bulgarians? Some of the Roman Catholic exorcists use the Latin ritual which, among other things, should ensure that the patient is not being subject to suggestion. However, he witnessed an exorcism where the patient responded to every Latin sentence. I need to remind you that this is not what is known as cryptoamnesia. Under hypnosis, or other altered states of consciousness, a person can remember phrases he had heard in the past repeated in a foreign language. But that is very different from knowing the vocabulary and grammar of the language in order to converse in it.
For a start, the night before she and Fr. Jacques arrived, the doctor’s two cats, which usually get on very well, suddenly went berserk and started fighting like, well, Kilkenny cats. Coincidence? But the first thing “Julia” said on arrival was, “How’d you like those cats last night?” It transpired that something similar happened in the home of another psychologist. Fr. Jacques then explained to him that Julia was a “high priestess” of a Satanic cult, and had allegedly been granted “special abilities” by her Satanic master, and the cult had threatened him directly.
Dr. Gallagher explained that he was not her therapist, but an unpaid consultant for Fr. Jacques. Over the following months, she told Dr. Gallagher her story in a calm, balance way. She was firmly committed to her cult, but lately she had been possessed. She would “space out” and a voice would come out of her, but she remembered nothing about it. She told her cult that she was attempting to infiltrate the church, because they were against her seeing an exorcist. You may notice a certain problem here. “Catherine” might be compared to a person who, in her youth, had got involved with a criminal gang, and now the gang was attempting to recruit her again. But Julia was more like a gang member who was still committed to the criminal underworld, but wanted protection by the police from the high level criminals. The prognosis was not good.
She had been baptized a Roman Catholic, but never took religion seriously. A priest had once sexually molested her. She eventually fell in love with Daniel, the leader of the coven. He appeared to be one of those high testosterone “bad boys” who often attract weak women. She became “Queen Lilith”, and described sex orgies and black masses. She was “the cult’s main breeder”, because she could get pregnant easily, after which a physician’s assistant would perform an abortion, and they would use the foetuses in dark ceremonies. Only now she feared she was losing her breeding ability, and her hold over Daniel, and she feared the cult. It is hard to imagine that anyone could report such things calmly, and I suspect a certain repressed conscience was involved.
Once she told the doctor that she “saw” Fr. Jacques walking along the beach, and described his clothing in detail. The doctor immediately contacted the priest by mobile phone, and it turned out to be completely accurate. She claimed special gifts: ESP and the ability to control things – like cats. Just the same, these don’t sound to me like terribly exciting gifts for which to bargain your soul.
At one point, the priest and the doctor were driving with Julia in the back seat, when suddenly, a deep, raspy voice issued from the back: “Leave her alone, you f***g monkey priest. She is ours. We we will never let her go” Julia’s face was vacant, but her fists were clenched, but the voice was coming from her mouth, and continued in the same manner for ten minutes. When it was over, she remembered nothing of it. The disturbing thing was that, some time later, when the doctor called Fr. Jacques, the same voice interrupted the phone, hissing, “We said leave her alone, you f***g priest. She belongs to us, not you. You’ll be sorry.” He asked Fr. Jacques if he had also heard the voice, and was told that the same thing had happened several times. Now, you must agree that, although it is always possible that Julia’s fugue state was a manifestation of her subconscious, it is a bit difficult to use that explanation for a voice over the phone.
There is much more involved. Sadly, Julia never renounced the unholy alliance, and so was never released from its bondage. At their last interview she told Dr. Gallagher that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He concluded by saying that, although doubtful, he hoped she was still alive somewhere. However, I greatly fear she is now beyond all help, either human or divine.