A disturbing encounter with the demon Shax and other “war stories” from dabbling in the occult may not be the usual fare for a university conference.
But those were topics up for discussion at an event held this month at Goldsmiths, University of London that brought academics sceptical of the paranormal face to face with ghoul-hunters.
Seriously Possessed: Discourse on Demonology was organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena and the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths. It forms part of a series – previous events have included Seriously Staked and Seriously Spooked – that brings together historians, psychologists, sceptics and “believers”.
Chris French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, opened proceedings by casting a distinctly “sceptical eye on paranormal claims”. Although he acknowledged that “no one has solved the mind problem” and that most people are “intuitive dualists”, alleged cases of possession could be explained either in terms of psychiatry and neurology (eg, epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome and schizophrenia) or as forms of “learned behaviour” drawing on different religious traditions.
Next up was Duncan Barford, who has worked in the occult for 10 years. He invited delegates to “perform a magic ritual involving demons” through the use of a Sanskrit mantra and a special “banishing” movement. The basic methods were simple: “Put a circle on the floor and the demon’s seal in a triangle and you’re pretty much good to go.”
Mr Barford went on to describe his experiences with a book known as The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, a directory of 72 spirits, magical equipment, curses and conjurations. Although he acknowledged that “occult texts are just a load of stuff people have made up” and that magic can be seen as a form of “self-delusion”, he regarded occultism as a religious belief system and cited evidence that “religious people are happier”.
He added: “If a belief is irrational but makes you happier, would it not be rational to be irrational?”
Yet Mr Barford also recommended leaving The Goetia well alone, since he had “learned the hard way and had some bad experiences with it”, not least when the demon Shax – said to appear “in the Form of a Stock-Dove, speaking with a voice hoarse, but yet subtle” – tried to tempt him into stealing some money.
He ended his presentation with a slide bearing the words: “Thanks for listening – evoke safely!”
The conference also heard from Ciarán O’Keeffe, senior lecturer in psychology at Bucks New University and the sceptical voice in the paranormal “reality” television series Most Haunted. He described how professional exorcists still regard an “aversion to the sacrament and all things sacred” as a sign of genuine “possession” and are seldom aware of the full range of alternative explanations.
Other speakers included a medium carrying out research into “first-hand experience of exorcisms and spirit possession” and a sociologist looking at “the range and variety of possession beliefs”.