Possession, whether demonic or otherwise, is destructive and terrifying, frequently causing verbal abuse and physical damage to the possessed and his or her environment. Beneficent possession occurs in some societies whose shamans or other sensitives affect cures while in these states. Cathartic results may be had from apparently collective states of possession, during group religious practice, as exhibited by Pentecostal-type experiences, compulsive dancing, auditions, and incoherent speech in supposed supernatural or archaic language. Collective possession also may occur in the secular world. Thus the characteristics of societies in developed countries are described by some as demonic, and viewed as the possession of civilization and its motive forces, the wills of human beings, by the dark force of an evil transcendental cause.
The idea that a personality could be possessed by something greater than itself is an ancient one, and, in the western culture, is recorded by Homer and in the Old Testament; that possession could be by something less than human is also-well recorded. Both types of possession are reported in almost all cultures from time immemorial. The Catholic ritual of exorcism is rare nowadays since it can only be practised when there is an intimate and absolute conviction that a state of possession exists. This can be recognized by a whole range of signs, such as a pronounced aversion to religious values, adherence to a devil-worshipping cult, and a radical denial of God. The service of exorcism consists of three principal acts. First, the victim is offered the cross, then there is a laying on of hands and finally the sprinkling of holy water. There are readings from the Bible and litanies to the saints, and finally the exorcism formula is pronounced. It can be an imprecation if it is addressed to a demon, such as "Vade retro Satana!" ("Get thee behind me, Satan!"), or a supplication if it is addressed to God.
Reports of supposed demonic possession are dwindling with scientific knowledge of personality disorders advances, and as society reduces the conditions that contribute to mental illness and personal stress. Some instances have proven to be hoaxes, but priests and lay exorcists, working within the traditions of the major religions, without documenting their cases, claim a number of possession instances to be known to them. However, more than 1,000 Parisians resorted to the Catholic services of exorcism in 1991. The "possessed" were aged between 30 and 50; two-thirds of them were women, sometimes attending with their partners. They were generally of modest means and, if not Roman Catholic, at least Christian, although some agnostics also used the service. They variously believed themselves surrounded or inhabited by an evil spirit; tortured by inexplicable fears, caused by a series of accidents or sudden deaths, or perhaps an incident in their home; see horrifying visions, sense hostile presences; and many other symptoms of anguish and guilt. Almost all were treated by counselling and conversation to "bring them back to reality". The priests say what characterizes most is that they are extremely vulnerable psychologically.