The re-release of the movie The Exorcist may actually spark a dramatic increase in the number of demonic possessions reported. According to the results of a new study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, even skeptics can be swayed when exposed to so-called plausibility manipulation. Quite a number of people who watch these exorcism films will be affected and develop symptoms of hysteria, surmises University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. These films will be a full-employment bill for exorcists.

Studying a group of 200 college students from Italy (where people are more persuaded by the idea of demonic possession than they are in the U.S.), Loftus and her colleagues first asked the subjects to evaluate the plausibility of a number of events and inquired about their life experiences. All asserted that demonic possession was highly implausible. The second round of experiments involved dividing the participants into three groups: one was given a series of articles promoting the existence of demonic possessions in Italy and the notion that these events are commonly witnessed by children. Another received similar articles pertaining to choking. The third group was not exposed to any manipulation. A week later subjects in the first two groups were handed questionnaires to fill out concerning their fears, after which they were told that their fear profiles indicated that they had most likely witnessed a possession or choking event as a child. The week after that, all three groups answered the original questions again.

The results were surprising. Participants who received manipulation changed their minds about the possibility of possession. Moreover, 18 percent now believed it had happened to them. Even a few stories, it seems, can exert considerable influence. This study can help us understand how you can take normal people and create this kind of effect--make demonic possession seem plausible, Loftus says. It normalizes this process and shows it can happen to a lot of people, not only to those who are considered to be kooks.