The History of Psychological Treatment: Demons, Witches and Exorcism

For much of our recorded history, “odd” or deviant behavior was considered to be a reflection of a battle between good and evil. Where people saw inexplicable, irrational behavior, they saw evil. As a matter of fact, in the Great Persian Empire from 900 to 600 B.C. all physical and mental illnesses were thought to be the work of the devil.

Barbara Tuchman (a renowned historian) recounted the second half of the 14th century in A Distant Mirror (1978). This was a particularly rough time for humanity. In this book she describes the conflicting opinions on the origins and treatment of insanity during this dark and rowdy period.

Demons and Witches

One strong school of thought put the causes and treatment of psychological illness in the realm of the supernatural. During the last quarter of the 14th century, religious and lay authorities (who dealt with the reformation of the English church) fostered these superstitious beliefs. Society as a whole began to believe more strongly in the existence and power of demons and witches.

More and more often, people turned to magic and sorcery to solve their problems. Those with psychological disorders were thought to be possessed by demons or evil spirits and were accused to be the cause of the misfortune experienced by the townspeople. This lead to quite drastic action against the “possessed”.

Treatments for possession: exorcism, shaving, binding, drilling holes…

A room where hydrotherapy was performed

“Treatment” of their possession included exorcism, in which various religious rituals were performed to rid the victim of his demons. Other ways of treating the sick included shaving the pattern of a cross in the hair of the victim’s head and securing sufferers to a wall near the front of a church so that they might benefit from hearing the Mass.

A trepanned skull

Hydrotherapy was another form of treating “possessed” patients: they were shocked “back to their senses” by being submerged in ice-cold water.

Another common type of treatment of insanity was “trepanation”. This was “release the evil spirits” taken literally. The town’s physician would drill a hole in the sick person’s skull to release the demons. Consequently, the person often died shortly afterward, or they suffered such brain damage that they remained in a vegetative state for the rest of their lives.

Trepanation is still performed to this very day, but mostly to relieve intracranial pressure when there is no other way. (There are, however, groups of people who advocate more use of trepanation.)

The conviction that demons and witches are causes of madness and other evils continued into the 15th century, and evil continued to be blamed for unexplainable behavior.

What do you think of these treatments? Please share your thoughts :)


Source: Barlow, D.H., & Durand, V.M. (2009) Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach (5th Edition). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

8 thoughts on “The History of Psychological Treatment: Demons, Witches and Exorcism”

  1. “making a opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”

    Um . . that’s just nuts. I’m not a doctor, but I like to think I have common sense, and that quote doesn’t make any sense IMO. A few years ago I watched a science documentary which included a segment on trepanning. They interviewed a trepanning enthusiast, and even filmed her performing self-trepanation. Of course, she was conscious the whole time. I remember she had a parrot on her shoulder. Seriously. Cue Twilight Zone music.

    As for the rest of the “treatments” for “evilness,” some of those are still being practiced today by certain religious groups. In some parts of Africa, Christian groups maim and burn children to death if somebody from the group claims the children are “witches.” Albino children are especially targeted, so much so that adult albinos from Africa have formed an organization to try to protect the juvenile albinos, and educate the adult Christians.

    1. I know, when I read that bit you quote it made me giggle. I’m trying not to judge here because I’m sure there’s a good reason for why they think that trepanation helps them (especially since they filmed someone who did it to herself)… But man, I do wonder if they became crazy because they were trepanned. Pff.

      It’s horrid that they still practice those treatments in Africa. I’ve been there a few times myself and I have seen how the albinos are treated. It’s harsh and very.. well, medieval. :( It’s a good thing that they’re educating those people know as that’s often the problem.

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. I recently wrote a short story (flash fiction) and had researched a bit into witches and witch hunts in England. In one particular case
    “Lady Cromwell reportedly grabbed a pair of scissors and cut a lock of hair off Alice, and gave it to Mrs. Throckmorton to burn (a folk remedy believed to weaken a witch’s power). That night, Lady Cromwell had nightmares, became ill and later died in 1592.”
    When I read that I thought it was a tad odd and naive; though there were worse treatments it seems…

    , this is an interesting post and I cannot imagine the torture the victims must have gone through. As I read above I wanted to say ‘of course they would unlikely to survive or live favourably after having a hole drilled into their skull!’ I can’t imagine such treatments taking place in this day and age but then again there are places in this world where people are naive and closed into social circles be it religious or not that prey on their naivity and faith/beliefs.

    1. @twitter-198106969:disqus Thanks for stopping by! :)

      That sounds like great material for a flash fiction story. Indeed an interesting way of treating a person, but yeah, they had much worse ways of “treating” people (witch burnings I think are the worst, but isn’t particularly a kind of treatment…)

      It’s interesting to see these treatments are still around, right? It too strikes me as a little nuts, but I think those people will probably stand by their own ideas, whatever you might tell them.

  3. Expert medical advisors to help them prepare the strongest possible brain injury compensation claim, irrespective of whether they are claiming for traumatic brain injury compensation for a road traffic accident victim, or acquired brain injury compensation to the person responsible for this.

  4. I am currently doing an article about this, and I connect demonization with literalization. They seem to go hand in hand, literally. I was inpired after reading a recent news report of a young boy brutally tortured by relatives qwho believed he was possessed by evil spirits. The caused him so much pain he begged to die! The evil people who did this to a young boy belonged to the Congolise witccraft Kandoki cult which is a terrible twinship between tribal and christian beliefs in evil demons. This cult is known for beliving even little children are possessed with ‘demons’ and will torture and kill them, and we know this happened in the religious Inquisition. So it is a very toxic dynamic, and this is reason I want to make it conscious, cause a great part of this is unconscious isn’t it?
    As your article says, this demonization is part and parcel with the mental illness myth which we still are under, though now supposedly all the demons are superstitious whjilst they call people machines and push their toxic medication into them—–no care nor feelings nor love. Hmmm I wonder if the ones who abuse others like this are possessed?! What could it be they are possessed with? Silly thinking!

Comments are closed.