Date of Completion

Spring 5-12-2013

Thesis Advisor(s)

Cornelia Dayton

Honors Major



History of Religion | Social History


My thesis compares analyses of early-modern understandings of demonic possession in the West to discussion of modern cases of mass conversion disorder, specifically focusing on episodes involving large groups of affected individuals. My research on the early modern period includes a literature review of the famous seventeenth-century case of mass possession at Loudun and a lengthy examination of possession from the vantage point of key societal players. On a parallel track, I have identified and recent psychological and medical literature pertaining to modern cases of what is called “mass hysteria,” “epidemic hysteria,” “conversion disorder,” and “mass psychogenic illness.” By examining both disorders through a societal lens, I have found that specific players react to the afflictions in nearly identical ways, perhaps suggesting that patterns of behaviors exist that bridge the distant phenomena together. This conclusion rejects the notion that the prevalence of early modern demonic possession can be dismissed as an embarrassing occurrence in societal progression, and instead argues that those very same behaviors and logic systems that made demonic possession possible exist to this very day.