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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

– ALBERT EINSTEIN 

A few years ago the release of the supernatural movie ,‘The Conjuring’ had many people speculating about the existence of demonic powers, paranormal presence and psychiatric validity of hallucinatory experiences. The questions that most people asked were… “is this real…is it possible?” Or rather “who is to say they didn’t imagine it…perhaps a shared psychosis of sorts…?”

There exists a fine line between the paranormal and psycho-pathological and this movie strikingly elucidates the possible existence of supernatural entities. It leaves you wondering whether psychiatry has you fooled into believing that your ‘spiritual encounters’ are ‘symptoms’ or has the church got you convinced that your psychosis is a ‘gift’ from God?

There is a tremendous amount of literature in the area of paranormal activity, affirming the existence of spirits, ghosts, demons and various other forms of transcendental experiences, throughout the world.

In the realm of psychology, a field known as Para psychology  emerged in the early 1900’s and it exclusively deals with instances of paranormal activity and its psychological implications. In addition to the supernatural and paranormal, religion and spirituality also significantly contribute to this field of interest and research.

There is a whole lot of debate about the scientific validity of this field and the psychological necessity of it. It not only brings up the cultural significance of religion in assessing mental health, but, acknowledges and even accepts the relevance of spirituality as a driving force in human existence.

There’s no denying that for centuries, religion has played a central role in human existence. It provides man a system of faith and allows him to experience a sense of peace and belonging to a larger community. Some scholars argue that religion is a powerful coping mechanism, that enables people to make sense of suffering, and provides control over the overwhelming forces of nature. Also, Religion is often believed to have a positive, civilizing influence on mentally ill patients, allowing them to find solace in ritual, prayer and religious tradition. On the other hand, Spirituality is more difficult to define than religion. It is a personal quest for understanding of the ultimate questions of life, about meaning, as well as the relationship with the sacred and transcendent.

 A Spiritual Revelation or a Psychotic Break?

Over the years, there has been increasing interest in the relationship between Psychosis i.e. experiences of hallucinations and delusions and spirituality/supernatural experiences. There are various similarities between the experience of psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and the content of religious belief and supernatural phenomena. Especially when you consider movies like ‘The Conjuring’ or even ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’, it brings up the question of  how do you differentiate one set of experiences from the other?

This subject is of particular interest because many religious beliefs hold exactly the same features as psychotic delusions, yet are not universally considered delusional. Similarly, religious hallucinations or conversations with God, are often pathologized and diagnosed as a symptom of a larger disorder, such as Schizophrenia.

Several movies have depicted incidents of supernatural events, such as ‘possession’ and subsequent exorcisms, to help the person overcome the demonic invasion of their body. In ‘ The Exorcism of Emily Rose’, a young girl suffers from a condition described in the movie as possession. Similarly ‘The Conjuring’ deals with a case of haunting of a family and the mother’s possession by demonic entities. The chilling aspect of both these films is that they are based on true events; the former occurred in Germany over 3 decades ago, the latter in America in the 70’s.

From a psychological perspective, Emily Rose suffered from a severe psychotic break resulting from a combination of severe stress and possibly a predisposition to psychosis. However, the movie as well as the life story of Emily suggests that she was a victim to demonic forces and all attempts to exorcise the demons failed. The sad reality in most cases of ‘possession’, is that attaching a supernatural connotation to the person’s condition not only worsens their condition, but prevents them from receiving the appropriate treatment.

Psychotic delusions such as the unfailing belief that one has mystical powers and can control external events, are  often considered as a spiritual revelation. Thus the question arises whether religious and spiritual phenomena are a manifestation of psychotic behaviour or spiritual and religious experiences are mistakenly diagnosed as psychotic episodes?

Does faith harm or heal?

Psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia and Delusional Disorder are highly disabling conditions that adversely affect a person’s ability to function normally. The conditions are often worsened by an overemphasis on religious intervention, which results in an increase in the severity of symptoms. However, there are also cases where religion and spirituality play a positive role and aide in the process of rehabilitation of psychotic patients.

Researchers continue to investigate the phenomena, trying to derive some conclusion about the real forces that trigger such experiences. Most often, evidence is not conclusive, but merely suggestive, or leads to even more questions, thus resulting in a ‘Pandora box’ like situation.

The important thing to remember is that sometimes the reason does not matter, it does not matter whether a person is being possessed or haunted, whether the person is suffering from a psychiatric breakdown or transcending into an alternative state of being. What is of essence is our reaction, treatment and consideration of that person’s condition. How we deal with an individual experiencing supernatural/psychotic phenomena, will determine whether that person is able to successfully recover from that struggle.

Whether it’s psychiatric remedy or divine intervention, the ultimate goal should be to aide such people, to help them to heal, to bring them back to a semblance of reality, that allows them to function normally and productively.

Of course there are several people who ask the question…what is normal? Why is our perception of reality more accurate than those people who have these magnanimous experiences…? Others suggest that over inquisitiveness might lead to uncontrollable consequences and that such mysterious forces should not be tampered with. The question is left unanswered; like Pandora all those centuries ago, many people are trying to put the lid back on the box, but many more are engaged in the relentless journey of unraveling all the secrets of this  area of research; because the answer to the question of what is normal?  Or what is paranormal…could change the way we view life, religion, spirituality and psychiatry, as we know it.

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