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In Will Storr’s fantastic narrative exploring contemporary relationships with the supernatural (my fancy way of saying that he wrote a fun book where he talks to lots of people interested in ghosts and the afterlife), the British journalist spent time with Lou Gentile, “one of America’s TOP Paranormal Investigators and Demonologists” according to his website (the capitalized emphasis is his).

The triple overtime Philadelphia-based central heating engineer, radio host and paranormal enthusiast continues, “With a lifetime of experience and being trained by America's only Roman Catholic LAY demonologist, Lou strives to help people who are afflicted with Negative, Demonoic or Diabolical Entities all free of charge.” It’s not far-removed from the type of advertising the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (active in east England, 1645-47) would have handed out to God-fearing village folk to get his kicks. To my knowledge, Lou does not prick elderly women, seek the mark of the devil on their bodies or expose their imps, but he does get involved in pretty controversial stuff nonetheless which some may find to be a cross of demonomania and thrill-seeking ghost hunting.

This was highlighted in the climax of Storr’s highly engaging book Will Storr vs. The Supernatural when Will flies from England to join Lou in investigating an alleged case of a demoniacally possessed autistic boy from Kentucky. On the drive there, Lou told Will, “There’s a battle going on between good and evil. Between things that are in the light of God and things that are out of the light of God.” Once they arrived at the Kentucky residence, the family showed them video of a pastor performing an exorcism on the boy. Not surprisingly, it was heavy in dramatic evangelical religious fervor and included physical restraint of the boy, who was obviously under great duress from the situation, cursing, resistant, spitting and hissing. “Hissing is extremely common in cases like this,” Lou commented at one point. Watching the so-called exorcism shook Will up to the point where he took Lou aside, and told him point blank, “Where I come from that’s child abuse,” adding that the family and the pastor “would be locked up if Social Services got hold of that video. It was horrific. That poor kid.” Lou seemed humbled by the suggestion. I wonder if an outside observer like Will Storr had not been present, would Lou have made that connection on his own?

It beckons back to the many cases of early documented demonic possessions and made me think back to one case in particular, reprinted from a pamphlet in Brian Levack’s The Witchcraft Sourcebook. It took place in 1697 Scotland, involved an eleven-year-old girl named Christian Shaw, and was one of the last cases in which people were lawfully executed after being convicted of witchcraft. It all began when the Shaw’s maid, Katherine Campbell, stole some milk from the family. Christian witnessed this and told her mother. The maid was not very happy about the tattletale. “The devil harle (drag) your soul through hell,” she vengefully cursed at the young girl three times.

Not long after, Christian became afflicted with the symptoms of possession mildly reminiscent of the movie The Exorcist. One night, her family heard her cry for help from her bedroom. They witnessed her “fly over the top of a resting bed where she was lying... with such violence” that she could have seriously injured herself if someone had not broken her fall. Christian was in a horrible, paralyzed state, sleepless, crying and in apparent pain. Her body would bend, rigid. “She stood like a bow on her feet and neck at once,” it was reported. Such fits would come and go for eight days straight, with little more than a half-hour’s rest in between. After a two-week reprieve, her possessed state returned and intensified as if she were fighting and struggling “with something that was invisible to spectators.” When the doctor arrived, “extraordinary risings and fallings of her belly, like the motion of a pair of bellows” were reported, as well as “such strange movings of her body as made the whole bed she lay on shake, to the great consternation of spectators.”

Other dramatic physical events occurred, such as Christian opening her jaw in an extreme fashion, and then extending her tongue over her chin “to a wonderful length.” No doubt these things shocked onlookers who were easily drawn to demonic possession as an explanation. When Christian cried out that she was being injured by an invisible force, she blamed the maid Katherine Campbell and a neighbourhood widow Agnes Naesmith for causing it. At least 28 people were accused in the subsequent hysteria. (Not dissimilar to what happened in Salem, Massachusetts five years prior.)

Even more fantastic was how Christian produced objects from her mouth, including parcels of hair, coal cinders (included ones so hot “that they could scarcely be handled”), straw, a small pin and various types of small bones. Fits would follow these manifestations. This behaviour continued for months, and she claimed possession by the devil who she saw “in prodigious and horrid shapes, threatening to devour her.”

This is interesting from a parapsychological angle, and could even represent an early case of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (or RSPK, the potential explanation for much poltergeist activity) by the above manifestations. Add to that the religiously strict environment Christian resided in and a sense of deep repression. Equally possible, however, is that Christian had hidden the objects in her bedclothes and popped them in her mouth when no one was looking, and was either delusional or attention seeking. Psychiatrists have examined the case and suggested that she was mentally ill or delusional, and that such an illness could not be diagnosed at the time. Historians such as Brian Levack, on the other hand, question of the objectives of the anonymous author(s) who wrote the original pamphlet cited here. It is quite likely the prosecutor in the case, Francis Grant, and Christian’s uncle, a solicitor from Glasgow named John MacGilchrist wrote it. These men certainly would have had their own motives considering the times in supporting Christian’s claims of demonic possession. The witch hunts had died down by then, but had not altogether disappeared.

Four people, including Campbell and Naesmith, were executed as a result of the prosecution. Some time after the executions, Christian returned to her fits of possession, during which she repented and refuted the devil. A tidy ending to her sad tale.

Both of these situations of alleged demonic possession show that crucial steps must be taken to consider medical issues (such as the Kentucky boy’s autism), family tensions, repressive home environments, religious fervor and individual’s beliefs – whether or not you believe in the existence of demons or their ability to possess individuals. Not exercising these cautions is equivalent to endangerment of those afflicted and merely exacerbates the problems, evident in the escalation in Christian Shaw’s case that led to four executions to the placement of the autistic boy in a psychiatric institution. After all, people can create their own demons.

Further reading:

Will Storr. Will Storr vs. the Supernatural. New York: Harper, 2006.

Lou Gentile’s website: http://www.lougentile.com/

The Witchcraft Sourcebook, edited by Brian P. Levack. New York: Routledge, 2004.

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: http://www.shc.ed.ac.uk/Research/witches/