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HomeFeaturesDemonic possession: All in the mind?

Demonic possession: All in the mind?

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By Hannah A. Papasin, with reports from Jose Aaron Abinosa

The year was 1953.

It was a balmy day in the month of May when the country was shaken with what was considered to be the first ever recorded “demonic possession” in Philippine history.

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The dark and disturbing event, with the backdrop of a Post-World War II, Philippines, took place in a very unlikely setting.

It happened in a prison cell, in the historic, Old Bilibid Prison that has witnessed countless horrors throughout ancient history, built during Spanish colonization and became a torture place during the Japanese occupation.

The story rapidly traveled from one person to another, from one place to another, from one country to another. From one publication to another, headlines after headlines, it was the “bites of two demons” on Clarita Villanueva that took over the world that time.

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It has sparked people to believe in “unearthly beings”, “unseen demons” or “satanic supernatural forces” entering the human body that only miracles from prayers can cause it to disappear.

Such event has also greatly influenced the spiritual climate of the Philippines with an estimated 150,000 people accepted Christ as their saviour after the incident.

Demonic possession in the eyes of many at the present time, six decades after the Villanueva incident, remains to be a terrifying force of the unknown that may happen to someone at any time – mostly to those who live in the more rural parts of the country, surrounded by trees and hectares of sugarcane fields.

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For instance, just last July, news headlines in the city were flooded with what was considered a case of “demonic possession” involving several students in a school in barangay Granada.

But how is the phenomenon viewed by various fields?  DNX digs deeper.


“Demonic possession can possibly happen,” Parochial Vicar Fr. Hubert Javellana, PhD, tells DNX.

Demons, such as this one, inhabit bodies, especially those in a state of din.
Demons, such as this one, inhabit bodies, especially those in a state of din.

He describes demonic possession as a state where one is controlled directly or indirectly by a force often believed to be Satanic.

Javellana believes that a person who is in the state of sin and continues to live in sin is more likely to be vulnerable to demonic possession.

Psychological problems, he added, can also be factors the “devil will use as an opportunity” to take over the body.

Javellana advises everyone to always remain in the state of grace, confess and attend masses frequently, always think positive, and do not entertain witchcraft, fortunetelling and the like.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (O’Donnell, 1911, p.1) claims that demonic possession happens when a demon decides to “assume control of [a person] from within”.

The book cites several cases of possession in the Bible (one in the Old Testament, quite a handful in the New Testament), as it points out that the phenomenon has been around for quite sometime.

The Catholic Church also cautions against dismissing demonic possession by explaining it from the standpoint of psychiatry, or reason (calling such a practice “infidel policy”), saying that such cases do exist (O’Donnell, 1911).

The Bible is also very clear about how to deal with cases of demonic possession, and that is to cast out the unclean spirits (Matthew 10:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1), which is why the rites of exorcism exist.


Mass hysteria. 

It is the condition where a group exhibits the same physical or emotional symptoms caused by a fear that escalates to panic.

This was how the Joanne Marie Jomalesa, the psychologist in charge of the Granada case explains to DNX about the incident that happened in the high school last July.

The case of of the possession of Clarita Villanueva had been reported as genuine.  Photo from The story of Clarita Villanueva FB page.
The case of of the possession of Clarita Villanueva had been reported as genuine. Photo from The story of Clarita Villanueva FB page.

Jomalesa shared that most of the students in the Granada school believe that “riit ang lugar [the place is full of bad spirits”, “may gapakita nga white lady [a white lady is haunting this place]”, “may gapakita nga whole family asking for justice [there is a family looking for justice, haunting this place].

These notions triggered mass hysteria.

Some of the students were also already suffering from conversion disorder – a physical disorder that is made worse by a mental factor that manifests neurological symptoms like seizures and fainting but cannot be proven by any medical evaluation.

Tests also show that most of these victims already suffer from depression and anxiety, heightening the risk of them acquiring such disorders.

These findings made by the City Health Office were closely similar to early findings in an examination made to Clarita Villanueva when examined by doctors of the National Center for Mental Health in 1953.

The doctors concluded that Villanueva was suffering from a disorder called “hysterical fugue” or “hysteria psychoneurosis”.

It was claimed that this was brought by “Villanueva’s desperate need to escape from the life she was trapped in.”

But these findings were later on discarded which led the way for the incident to be considered as the first historical demonic possession in the Bilibid.


The dichotomy in dissecting the phenomenon between two fields – religion vs science – have spawned several studies that dig deeper into apparent cases of demonic possession.

A deity of Sri Lankan culture, Paththini is said to have conversed with a Buddhist fortune teller in one of the cases studied in Sri Lanka.
A deity of Sri Lankan culture, Paththini is said to have conversed with a Buddhist fortune teller in one of the cases studied in Sri Lanka.

A series of case studies in Sri Lanka (Hanwella, 2012) document the case of three individuals with different religious beliefs – a Catholic, a Buddhist, and a Muslim – who all claimed incidents of hauntings and even conversations with spirits or deities that were unique to their religions.

The Buddhist, for instance, was a fortune teller who claims to be able to converse to a deity called Paththini.  The Muslim, meanwhile, exhibited signs of possession while the Catholic claimed to be haunted by a family that died in a tragic accident.

All three were “cured” of their conditions after a series of psychotherapy sessions. 

The paper concludes that religion and religious beliefs play a very important role in the nature and cases of spiritual encounters, as each encounter in the three case studies seemed to be tailor-fit to the respective belief systems of the three participants.


Cases of possession in the Philippines seem a little more complicated than the textbook demonic possession described by the Catholic Church.

The Granada case, for example, could not be pegged as demonic since the possessed apparently made the sign of the cross, something someone possessed by an evil entity could not do.

It also mirrors other cases of “possession” or claims of possession, either by a kama-kama (mischievous dwarf), or some deity in Kanlaon.

If, in Sri Lanka, the cases of spirit encounters mirror the beliefs of those who experienced it, the Philippines could be a similar case.

Hislop (1971) did a survey on anitism in the Philippines, or the pre-Hispanic belief systems that were prevalent in the country.

The Philippines, Hislop says, has either pre-Hispanic deities (Bathala, Laon, or Abba), the belief in the diwatas and engkantos (our version of the Tolkien elf) and their cousins (the nuno sa punso, etc), or the anitos, or spirits or spirits of the natives’ ancestors.

All these have an influence in the way Filipinos practice their brand of Christianity, and this could have influenced the way possession in the Philippines work.  Thus, we have cases of students being possessed by dwarves, for instance, or by engkantos.


Is possession real then?  

Or what about the case in Granada, where students talk about the place being “mariit” (the Hiligaynon concept for haunted)?  Is it a real case of possession or, as Jomalesa says, a case of mass hysteria?

For religious people like Fr. Javellana, demonic possession is real, and the only way to drive the spirit out is through a carefully conducted ritual done by a competent, highly-qualified exorcist.

For the likes of Jomalesa, the phenomenon could be explained away by science.

All in the mind?  Is possession real or are they merely psychiatric cases?
All in the mind? Is possession real or are they merely psychiatric cases?

In the Philippines where science and religion invariably clash, the subject of demonic possession is a cause of controversy, even conflict.

The so the debate rages on. 


  • Hanwella, R., de Silva, V., et al. (2012). Religious beliefs, possession states, and spirits: Three case studies from Sri Lanka. National Center for Biotechnology Information, vol. 2012: 232740.
  • Hislop, S. (1971). Anitism: A survey of religious beliefs native to the Philippines (PDF). Asian Studies. 9 (2): 144–156.
  • O’Donnell, M. (1911). Demonical Possession. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 31, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12315a.html

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DNX News Desk
DNX News Desk
Pioneer digital-first news and information source based in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental province. We are committed to providing high-quality journalism to our audience.
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