Article: A Study of Spirit Releasement Therapy for Individuals Who Believe They are Involuntarily Possessed – Jacqueline Whitmore (Is.15)

Jacqueline Whitmore, Ph.D. Saybrook Institute, 1995

Although there have been many definitions and little agreement as to what constitutes “possession,” for the purposes of this study possession was defined as “a subjective belief in the involuntary, non-culturally and non-religiously sanctioned, undesirable influence by an outside entity such as a spirit, power, deity, or other person.” The participants were twenty-two healthy, basically well-functioning adults who had chosen to experience Spirit Releasement Therapy (SRT) because they had come to believe that they were possessed. The researcher was not the SRT therapist, but had the therapist’s full cooperation.

Before SRT, 24 hours after SRT, and one month or more after SRT, participants were interviewed and completed pre- and post-treatment measures: the Hardiness Scale, a Semantic Differential Scale, the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES), and the Conversion Hysteria Scale (Scale 3) of the MMPI-2. The research questions were: 1) Will these individuals perceive differences in themselves after experiencing SRT? and 2) Will there be conceptually meaningful, statistically significant correlations between any of the pre- and post-treatment scores?

The statistical answer to the first question was, for the group as a whole, “no.” However, the findings for the second question temper this somewhat and raise some interesting further questions. To examine the second question, Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was used to identify significant correlations between 25 sets of pre- and post-treatment scores. There were four significant correlations that held through the one-month post-test.

1) On Scale 3 of the MMPI-2, a high score indicates the use of hysterical reactions to stress. Participants who scored high on this scale reported a higher post-treatment level of “harmoniousness” (as opposed to “dissonance”) on the Semantic Differential Scale. In short, greater use of hysterical reactions to stress correlated with a greater sense of harmoniousness after SRT. This was the opposite of what was expected by the researcher.

2) Another finding was that low scores on the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) Amnesia Subscale correlated with a decrease in scores of “unsafe” (as opposed to “safe”) on the Semantic Differential Scale. In other words, individuals with fewer dissociative experiences involving amnesia rated themselves as having a greater sense of safety after SRT. Whitmore notes that all the people in this study scored low on the DES relative to the population at large; none had the high scores that suggest Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). She suggests that for people who do, SRT might be contraindicated, or at least should be used with caution.

3) A third finding was that individuals who experienced lower numbers of amnestic experiences on the DES Amnesia Subscale (low scores) reported being more “intentional” (as opposed to “unintentional”) and “active” (as opposed to “passive”) on the Semantic Differential Scale after SRT.

4) Fourth, people with low scores on the DES Absorption Subscale reported a greater sense of “safety” (as opposed to “unsafe”) on the Semantic Differential Scale after SRT. This subscale measures a person’s ability to become absorbed in an experience and is sometimes regarded as a test for hypnotizability. Also, DID patients tend to score high on this subscale. In this study, individuals with fewer past experiences of absorption (low scores) reported an increase in their sense of safety after SRT. Whitmore suggests that since high scores on the DES Absorption Scale are typical of dissociation disorder patients in general, and there were none such in this study, the participants’ belief that they were possessed may be more likely to be correct than that they suffer from a dissociative disorder.

These four correlations held from the 24-hour post-test to the one month post-test. A fifth significant correlation was found; participants with low DES Absorption Subscale scores reported a greater sense of “harmoniousness” (as opposed to “dissonance”) on the Semantic Differential Scale at the 24-hour post-test, but this correlation had disappeared at the one-month post-test.

As Whitmore says, her research raises as many questions as it answers, and she suggests more research that would fine-tune these findings. One important suggestion is that a phenomenological study, using open-ended interviews, might yield more information about the perceived effects of SRT upon people who believe themselves to be possessed. It is noteworthy that of the 22 participants in the study, seven had experienced SRT before, and one can speculate that they, at least, did perceive some benefit from it, or they would not have selected it again. Also relevant might be careful research with people who are known to suffer from dissociative disorders; none of the participants in this study did so.

Whitmore also suggests that other forms of “exorcism” need to be examined. For this study, SRT was chosen for familiarity and convenience, and for consistency it was the only form examined, but there are many forms of “exorcism” and the results from other forms could be measured in similar ways.

Noting the practices of many shamans, who integrate the possessing entity rather than release it, and the goal of integration of alters typically used in the treatment of DID, Whitmore also suggests that a treatment model designed to first release the possessing entity and then integrate it might hold potential for helping people who believe themselves to be possessed as well as people who suffer from dissociative disorders such as DID.

However, since the people in this study did not suffer from dissociative disorders and were well-functioning adults who believed themselves to be possessed, the question must be asked: “Were they really possessed by an invading entity?” This question remains open. Although statistically, as a group, they did not perceive differences in themselves after SRT (Question One), in fact the results for Question Two indicate that there were some differences that the participants themselves might not have perceived but that were statistically significant and that were changes in positive directions. As Whitmore says, more research should be done to answer the many questions raised by the findings of this study.


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