Vesagas: Demystifying superstitions, demonic encounters

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Monday, October 31, 2011

A THIRD world country such as ours is heavily infested with superstitions. As a matter-of-fact, the mere sight of a black cat obstructing the path of our way is almost always approached with such a frightening omen of an impending misfortune.

Despite the contamination of Western Modernity and the irony of colonial mentality in our daily lives, the Philippines remains, at least in my opinion, a metaphysical nation.

For the past few weeks, as we commemorate “Undas”, the Philippine version of All-Souls’ Day, a great number of paranormal activities such as spirit-possessions, demonic encounters and psychic phenomena have once again dominated the broadcast media like a fever. Stories related to such are traditionally selling like pancakes during seasons of “Undas”.


Just this Sunday, I watched three different news documentaries from two local giant television networks covering the horrific tales of individuals having said to have experienced a variety of paranormal encounters.

Having been trained in the discipline of sociology and anthropology for a time, I could not help but “test-drive” my working knowledge by critiquing what may seem an uncanny or eerie story for most with the use of a sociological eye and culling out sociological theories in an attempt to provide an intellectual explanation of the paranormal.

As early as the eighteenth century, sociologist August Comte hypothesized that the people’s way of thinking and knowing their world provides the kind of society in which they lived.

According to Comte, a society evolves into three stages: (1) Theological, wherein events that occur are explained in terms of supernatural interventions; (2) Metaphysical or the second stage of evolution wherein a rational, reasonable explanations to worldly phenomena exist but are not as readily observable on the phenomena themselves and the (3) Positive or Scientific, which Comte considered the ultimate stage, wherein individuals interpret things scientifically.

Using Comte’s theory, it simply follows that if we keep believing on those ghostly encounters to explain the phenomena which are not readily explainable at this point of time such as those mass spirit possessions and exorcisms that have been exaggeratedly magnified by the media, then we are more likely to be trapped in the former more primitive forms of society since our thoughts give shape to the society we live in.

My professor in Cultural Anthropology once shared that religion may pertain to any set of attitudes, beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural power, whether that power be forces, gods, spirits, ghosts or demons.

Borrowing his definition of religion, it establishes the fact that the existence of religion precedes the belief on the superstitions including the supernatural.

Recalling the mass spirit possessions featured in television, all of the alleged victims were turned to the Church for exorcism, blessed with holy water or at least prayed over as the mode of remedy. Ultimately, a supreme being was called upon for healing supporting further the theory that religion is accountable to paranormal phenomena.

Psychological theories claim that religion is a way of reducing anxiety or as a means of satisfying a cognitive need for intellectual understanding while sociological theories suggest that religion stems from society and societal needs.

According to sociologist Emile Durkheim, it is the society that declares what is sacred and profane. Simply put, if we place overemphasis on let’s say these alleged spirit possessions and supernatural phenomena, we are actually empowering them generating the basis of their truthfulness.

Another interesting point to examine is the place where these alleged paranormal encounters happened. Majority, if not all, spirit possessions and demonic encounters occur in remote provinces and very seldom in urbanized areas. This can be explained again by Comte’s theory that the collective thoughts of people create the world they live in.

In rural provinces, it is their way of living to dwell laboriously to tradition which includes the belief in the paranormal. Contrary, the opposite holds true to urban cities as Industrialization weakens tradition. So it is almost a rarity to hear these paranormal encounters originating in metropolitans, more so in highly-industrialized nations.

Going back to the controversial series of mass spirit-possessions, there was a segment that featured the possession of several high school students in a rural public school in Luzon. The alleged possessed students were rushed to the community hospital as they manifested convulsions and hallucinations on top of an incredible strength comparable to 10 men. Unfortunately, the attending physician and his medical staff failed to medically diagnose and treat the students, as they could not figure the problem. Thus, they joined the bandwagon of believers that their patients had been, indeed, possessed.

In a sociological standpoint, these medical professionals were either masking their ignorance of the condition by joining the believers or were merely unprepared to handle such cases. In medical literatures, there are alterations in health that are considered “no etiologic or known cause.” But conditions with no known etiologic cause as of the moment should not be attributed to the paranormal.

Centuries ago, leptospirosis, for example, in the Philippines was once thought to be caused by witchcraft or “barang” until the discovery of its etiologic cause.

No one can really blame those medical personnel as the poor medical facilities as well as the scarcity of specialized doctors in community hospitals are the norms in far-flung areas.

Secondly, the possessed students were allegedly speaking Latin. How can that be? Latin is a dead language and for anybody to be able to point that it was indeed Latin, they must have known how to speak Latin themselves. Is Latin even taught in provincial public schools?

And regarding the incredible strength that those possessed students demonstrated, one Psychiatrist explained that it could have been due to the high levels of epinephrine in their blood. You can think of an epinephrine as the “fight or flight” response. It is the same chemical that allows one to carry a 10-cubic meter twin door refrigerator when there’s a fire.

He also stressed that persons with psychiatric disorders may have elevated epinephrine.

But regardless whether these theories were too rational to gain acceptance, establishing the truth or falsity of any paranormal activity is a difficult and almost an impossible endeavor.

For me, the real demons at large are the corrupt politicians, the drug addicts, the criminals and the bandits responsible for the recent bloodshed in Basilan.

Nobody would argue that a black cat obstructing one’s path is way safer than an encounter with a drug-addict who possesses the potential of a demonic deed.

Happy Halloween!

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Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on November 01, 2011.


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