by Perry DeAngelis
A local case of alleged demonic possession involving a 10 year old boy, is vividly illustrative of the high price we pay when credulity rules the day. With angels being discussed on the cover of Time magazine, and our television screens filled nightly with tales of the supernatural, these events are beginning to take on an almost normal pallor, and families are ever more ready to place their children in harm’s way.
Michael Jones, 10, of Manchester Connecticut and his mother Denise, now married to Michael’s step dad, have become the latest victims of the baseless belief in possession. The victimizer in this case is Keith Auriemme, founder of a local paranormal group called “ISSUES,” (Investigations of Strange Sightings and Unexplained Events). Don’t try and find this group if you are in need, they are not listed anywhere, and it is only through word of mouth that cases come to Keith. He has seemed to parasitically adhere himself to this family for the past three months. Mrs. Jones was very defensive of her decision to utilize Keith, and concluded our short phone conversation by saying, “We are only interested in Keith now, he is our friend and family. Don’t call here again.”
This behavior on Denise’s part is typical of those who have become the victim of pseudoscientists and their mesmerizing dogma. The alleged savior burns into the victim’s psyche that they must not listen to the ubiquitous naysayers who have, and no doubt will, materialized to discredit them. They will explain to the victim how they are the only one that can aid them, and how their “cure” is not accepted by the mainstream because it is too unconventional for their closed-minded narrow philosophies. They will claim to have volumes of “proof” about their snake oil, and legions of anecdotal testimonies. The pseudoscientist sells this conspiracy to his victim, who’s critical thinking skills are already compromised by their current crisis. In this case, a desperate mother with a troubled young boy has been sold this bill of goods, and her child must pay the price.
Keith, of course, was extremely defensive of the case and his practices. He made the determination that this poor child was possessed by the usual rote methods. He took multiple photos from different angles, he used thermometers to register the heat and/or cold of invisible entities, he made audio recordings and also brandished his ilk’s favorite toy, an electromagnetometer. These devices simply detect the electromagnetic fields that are generated ubiquitously in our electricity-driven world. If a spike appears on the meter, and its origin is not immediately obvious, these pseudoscientists instantly state that a “presence” has been detected. Yet this can be very dramatic to an unaware victim, as they hear words like “electromagnetic energy,” and “fields and forces spiking.” They watch as the pseudoscientist creeps about their home or loved one, and the meter fluctuates mysteriously, reacting to some unseen power in the bosom of their family’s most cherished places.
Keith also uses religious provocation, the practice of screeching the lord’s name and demanding the entity show itself. Again, a very dramatic ploy, utilizing the victim’s own belief in god to further bolster his hollow claims. One can only imagine what little Michael must have thought as this stranger was screaming in his home for Christ to compel some monster that he and his mother were convinced was present. Very traumatic to a boy already in aggravated distress.
Keith learned this showmanship from the two most famous practitioners of this ugly game. In fact he has a degree in Demonology, granted by our old friends, Ed and Lorraine Warren (see The Connecticut Skeptic, vol. 2 issue 3). Keith is an alumnus of the Warren’s “school” that they conduct in a local restaurant. The school is neither accredited nor recognized by any state authority. The fact that they give degrees is farcical. Yet, Keith waves his around like a proud parent. His methods of certifying that a place or person is possessed are pure pseudoscience. They do not stand up to any degree of scrutiny, and just like any good con man or deluded soul, he has been plying his trade and keeping legitimate investigators from the family, and little Michael. Nonetheless, his hollow findings are what he presents to the exorcist that he employs, “Bishop” Robert McKenna.
I first learned of the good bishop’s penchant for doing exorcisms during the Warren investigation, and it did give me pause that a prince of the Catholic Church would involve himself with the likes of these unsophisticated ghost hunters. Looking a little deeper, however, it was discovered that the bishop was in fact excommunicated from the church, and believes the Pope is not Catholic.
McKenna, now 70, has performed one hundred and twenty five exorcisms (100 places, and 25 people). This struck me as a great deal for one cleric, so I asked him what screening methods he used to weed out fakes, and he replied, “None.” He simply takes the word of those who present the cases to him, and all 125 of his cases have issued from Ed and Lorraine, and now, Keith, and that’s it. They are the only ones that present to him and he accepts their “investigations” on their face, and subsequently performs exorcisms for them. He has never turned down a case brought to him. This contrasts sharply with the legitimate Catholic Church, which discredits the vast majority of cases brought to them with only cursory investigation.
Even McKenna had to disagree with Keith this time, however. When the case of Michael Jones was presented to him by Keith, McKenna decided that it was a classic case of possession. However, after performing the rite on the boy for an hour, McKenna decided that Keith’s diagnosis was in error. Michael did not react throughout the exorcism, and in fact did not manifest any signs of possession. From this lack of evidence McKenna concluded that this must be a case of obsession rather than possession, which is being haunted from without, rather than from within. McKenna apparently did not consider the simpler alternative that perhaps no paranormal phenomenon was present. McKenna was then done with the case, as he leaves any further ministrations and follow-ups to Ed or Keith, his involvement in these cases being limited only to listening to the presentation and performing the rite.
Having completed 125 exorcisms, it might be disappointing to true-believers to learn that McKenna’s most compelling “evidence” that he has witnessed were cases in which the possessed had to actually be tied down, growling like lions or howling like banshees, while the entities spoke through them. It is very demonstrative that such occurrences, which could be duplicated by almost anyone at anytime, are accepted as evidence, if not proof, by the credulous of supernatural inhabitation.
In fact, many people who are thought to be possessed are simply the victims of various forms of mental disorder, including schizophrenia, epilepsy, and even Tourette’s syndrome, or are sucked into a perverse form of role-playing by their superstitious kin or credulous charlatans like Keith Auriemme. There has never been a documented case, in all these thousands of alleged cases, where anyone said to be possessed by an entity has ever done anything that could not have been performed by a person with normal faculties and abilities. We were denied the opportunity to evaluate and possibly help Michael ourselves. Dr. Novella offered to give the boy a free neurological screening, (he has already had psychiatric evaluation) but all such requests were met with the same dark veil of secrecy, and denied.
This case was also illustrative of another interesting aspect of alleged demonic possession, namely its treatment by the media. The NESS was asked to be on the Gayle King show, but this fell though when Denise Jones refused to be on the stage with “any skeptics.” It turns out that a previous agreement with Prime Time Live, for which they had already filmed a segment, seemed to preclude Keith, Denise or Michael from appearing on the show in any case. We therefore contacted Prime Time Live, and were put in touch with a young assistant producer named Dean, who clearly had no idea what this phenomenon or skepticism were about. After explaining that we wished the views of the New England Skeptical Society to be articulated on the Jones case, he asked “So, do you guys believe in this stuff?” After this stunning question, a crash course in the phenomenon, and details of our personal knowledge of the people involved were given. In the end he said that we had given him a lot to think about and that he would pass all this on to a senior producer. After faxing him several relevant articles from our newsletters, we waited for the contact. None came, and when we called Dean again he informed us that he had passed the material along, but that they felt it was best to simply “present the case to the public and let it decide.” We had been dismissed with the standard answer from people in all media. They want to be able to present their pseudoscientific hogwash without having to water it down with insight and facts. They could care less about what the quality and depth of information which the public is fed via their massive vehicles, caring more about ratings, and reason be dammed. Despite this all to commonplace reaction, we will continue to contact the media and attempt to make our voice heard in this wilderness of neglect whenever and however possible.
One of the primary ways we will be endeavoring to do this is through the New England Committee for Paranormal Investigations, the official investigative arm of the NESS. We will place ourselves in the media’s eye, and be available for any investigations that fall under our purview. As always, we would like the assistance of anyone who can give their time and talents to the committee, so that we can truly become the best source of scientific investigation of controversial claims in New England. It is our hope that the future Denise Jones’ of the world will turn to us for help in their times of crisis, rather then the likes of Keith Auriemme.
Exorcisms can be Hell
In a case in Pawtucket, Road Island, Mario Garcia decided that his brother-in-law’s depression about his ailing mother was due to demonic possession. He performed some home-borne rite over him, and declared that the evil spirit was indeed cast out. Unfortunately, it had sped across the apartment, and took up residence inside his mother-in-law. Soon, Mario gathered the family around to support this new expulsion with prayers. During his new rite, Mario crammed not one, but two eight inch steel crucifixes down the hapless woman’s throat. When the police arrived, the woman was gagging on the front porch, blood spouting from her mouth. Garcia was screaming that she had the devil in her, and he told police that her injuries were caused because his mother-in-law would not sit still while he jammed in the crucifixes.
There are sadly many such cases. In Cambridge, Ontario, Ana Maria Canhoto believed she had the ability to see the devil in people. Unfortunately for her two year old granddaughter, Kira, she saw the devil in her, and proceeded to force her to drink five cups of water. When the child resisted, she forced open her mouth by squeezing her cheeks, Kira eventually vomited and lay still. Two days later when she was taken to the hospital she was pronounced dead, the autopsy revealing that she had choked on her own vomit.
Just last year in Malibu California, three men were arrested for stomping on a woman’s chest and abdomen during a six hour exorcism that resulted in the her death.
In our last issue, we reported the case of a Long Island mother and daughter who asphyxiated a younger daughter with a plastic bag that they were using to drive a demon from her.
The following are Letters To The Editor concerning this article
The article on demonic possession published in the Spring 1998 issue of the NEJS gives me the impression of being written by a very exasperated individual. The tone of the article seems biased and it would sound more academic if it were written minus some of the “adjectives.” I do not know the detailed facts of the case and I’m sure your good society would have over the year uncovered a good bunch of charlatans, but does that mean that everything not within the realm of contemporary science must be viewed with skepticism? To think we understand enough about the nature of this world and to dismiss the unusual, borders on intellectual arrogance. People need solutions, not research, analysis etc. A family of a boy possessed would rather see him brought back quickly to a state of normalcy and go on with their lives than have to put up with a bunch of researchers for long periods of time vehemently opposed to other belief systems. My question is, can your society find quick, effective solutions to such problems with all the harshness? Some food for thought.
The NEJS publishes several types of articles. Some are fairly dry and analytical, and others are more editorial. The article written by Perry DeAngelis did indeed take a harsh editorial tone, but that was the point of the article. The basis of the criticism was that children who are suffering from a psychological or even psychiatric problem are being denied appropriate care in favor of a medieval superstitious approach.
The writer asks, “does that mean that everything not within the realm of contemporary science must be viewed with skepticism?” The short answer to that question is a resounding yes! The more unconventional a belief or claim, the more it contradicts established facts or prevailing theories, the more extraordinary or fantastical – then the more skepticism it deserves and the greater is the burden of evidence before it should be accepted as probably true.
Such skepticism, however, does not mean “dismissing the unusual,” as you state. Good skeptics and scientists do not dismiss anything out-of-hand, but subject it to critical analysis. There is also a difference between the unusual and the demonstrably absurd. Some ideas are of such little intellectual value, or are already so thoroughly contradicted by well established facts, that they deserve little time or attention. I would not, for example, advocated the launching of a million dollar NASA probe to determine if the moon is really made of cheese.
The statement, “To think we understand enough about the nature of this world and to dismiss the unusual, borders on intellectual arrogance,” is the classic argument from ignorance. We may not know everything, but we know some things, and we can make intelligent judgements about claims.
The writer seems to contradict themself, however, when they go on to say that, “People need solutions, not research, analysis etc.” Therefore, we cannot dismiss claims of demonic possession, nor can we research or analyze them. What is left but abject surrender and acceptance.
Finally, the writer asks, “My question is, can your society find quick, effective solutions to such problems with all the harshness? In the case of alleged demonic possessions, the prevailing scientific interpretation is that the individuals are suffering from a delusional state, or perhaps just oppositional behavior. Either way, this is a complex and difficult problem for which there are no quick and easy solutions, although standard therapy is more likely to help than to hurt. Having a self-proclaimed authority figure, however, step in and proclaim the demonic possession to be genuine is likely to exacerbate the delusion and frustrate any attempts at standard therapy.
It is not reasonable to advocate an intervention which conventional wisdom dictates is likely to be harmful, which is without scientific or rational basis, and which is based upon medieval superstition as the default, unless a “quick, effective” solution can be substituted.
The position of the author of the original article, and the editors of the NEJS is that demonic possession is an extraordinary mystical claim which is not substantiated by the evidence. Our goals are to investigate those who claim to have scientific evidence to back up their belief in demonic possession to see if they truly have new and interesting evidence, or are just engaging in self-delusion and fraud. Further, we seek to educate the public about the potential hazards of legitimizing the idea of demonic possession, especially since the victims are usually children, and facilitate those who are so labeled in receiving more appropriate care. Finally, we wish to remove the false image of scientific legitimacy from those practitioners who seek this image in order to promote themselves and their potentially harmful ministrations.