A long time ago, back when I was a young teenager, my mother bought the book The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. This book is about the possession of a girl by a demon and her subsequent exorcism. My mother placed it in our book room. However, she thought that it contained things that were not appropriate for my age. So she called me over and explained that she had bought this book, but she did not want me to read it — Mom, really? Needless to say that as soon as I had a chance, I made a bee line for the book room and read the book: bad idea. The descriptions and the language in the book terrified me. I could not get the images and words out of my mind, and for about a week I did not sleep well. As soon as I turned off the light every sound and shadow in the room acquired a sinister nature, and I was be consumed by fear. At times I thought I saw things moving about my room. At times I thought I heard voices. It was really creepy, and the worst thing is that I could not tell my mother because she would figure out I had read the book! However, by the time I got to see the movie based on the book, I had gotten my act together enough to see the film without losing my composure.
Fast forward 20 years or so. I studied biology in college and later obtained a Ph.D. in Nutrition with a major in Biochemistry. I learned the ways of science and how matter and energy in this world operate based on specific physical, chemical, and biological principles. I published a weekly newspaper column entitled “The Scientific Truth” that dealt critically with pseudoscience and the paranormal. I still remembered my Exorcist-induced week of fright, but I interpreted what had happened to me under a whole new light.
What happened to me was due to the fact that human perception is not a passive event. We do not merely take input from the environment to directly construct our perception of the world around us, but rather we are constantly interpreting this input based on a set of parameters that the brain applies to make sense of reality, and these parameters can be changed by experience. That day so many years ago, I was exposed to very strong stimuli that reshaped the perception of reality by my brain. The noises and shadows in my bedroom at nighttime had not changed from the way they had always been, but my brain reinterpreted them in light of the new information obtained from reading the book and made me fear them. Fear is often a useful emotion that can keep us from harm, but when fear is too intense or not based realistic premises, it can have paralyzing and unhealthy effects.
I reasoned that my fear that night was a result of ignorance. Despite the claim that Blatty’s book was based on a real exorcism, not a single case of demonic possession has ever been conclusively demonstrated to be anything but mental illness. In the exorcisms that have taken place, objects don’t fly, lights don’t flicker, bodies don’t levitate, etc. The occurrences taking place in these events are within the realm of what’s possible when people experience mind-altering diseases. My fear that night was unwarranted. I felt a bit silly for having experienced it at all, and rolled my eyes at the gullibility of my former younger self.
So it happened that I found myself carrying out research that involved periodic trips to a faraway town by the sea, where I worked at a small research station. In one of these research trips, I was the only scientist working at the station. After I had been working for most of the day, there was a failure in the electric grid and the lights went out towards the late afternoon. Since my workroom didn’t have any windows, and I just had a rudimentary flashlight, I decided to call it a day. I had a quick dinner and headed into town right before dusk. There I came upon some of the local fishermen who had gathered around an improvised log fire. A couple of them worked with the research station, and I sat with them. The fishermen shared some of the local stories of the town’s past, and then as it got darker, they started telling ghost stories!
For the next two hours next to the flickering light of the fire and under a sky faintly lit by a crescent moon, I heard these adults talk about things they had seen or heard during their lives. The lore included screams and moans of unknown origin coming from the mountains adjacent to the town, strange vaporous figures floating around at night, things hovering over the sea waters or lurking just beneath them, open graves with missing corpses at the local cemetery, the doom that had befallen some people cursed by an alleged local witch, etc. I alternated between being amazed and amused. I didn’t know to what extent these people were exaggerating their stories, but most of them seemed very convinced that they were true. I knew that groups of skeptics had been systematically investigating one claim after another of ghosts, witches, paranormal occurrences and whatnot for decades finding nothing that could not be explained by science. However, I did not want to be disrespectful. These fishermen were bonding and apparently having a good time, so I kept my mouth shut.
After the group dissolved, I went back to the research station. It was quite dark and the silver glow of the moon gave the surrounding landscape a surreal pale phosphorescent tinge. Inside the research station it was pitch black and the faint light of my flashlight barely helped me make my way along the corridor that led to my bedroom. The shadows created by my flashlight seemed to move in strange ways, and I became aware of noises that I didn’t remember hearing before. Was there something lurking in the darkness beyond the glow of my flashlight? Was it moving towards me? The same sensations I had experienced 20 years ago came back in full force. This time, I was older. I knew better. I was not ignorant. I was not gullible, and yet, I was caught again in the grip of fear. Inside my brain an ancient program had been activated. A program derived from our animal ancestors, created by the forces of evolution, and amplified by superstition and ignorance. A program that for thousands of years made us fear what lay beyond the cave entrance or the perimeter of the campfire, even if there was nothing there. And I could not shut it down!
Thankfully an emotion stronger than fear came to my rescue: anger. I became extremely angry because, although I understood exactly what was happening to me, I was not able to control it. As I made my way along the dark corridor to my bedroom, I clenched my fist, waved it at the darkness, and screamed, “I’m a scientist”! This sounds stupid today, but that day it worked. I was able to counteract my fear with sheer outrage at how silly I felt at being manipulated by my own brain. After a couple of hours of more fist clenching, I was able to force myself to sleep. Next day the electricity returned, and that night I fell asleep uneventfully.
What I understood after this experience, is that mere knowledge and/or conviction that something does not exist and can’t harm us does not immunize us against fearing it. We have all grown up within a culture that through oral stories, movies, books, and other means has conditioned our brains to accept at a very primal level that things like demonic possession, ghosts, and other fictitious entities or occurrences exist, can harm us, and should be feared. This conditioning can at times manipulate us like puppets and make us feel things that we are not justified in feeling from a rational point of view.
But at least now I understand this: I am a scientist.
The cover of the book The Exorcist and the poster of the movie are copyrighted and used here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use. The ghost picture by Alexas_Fotos is from Pixabay and is licensed for public use.