Last week the world’s media woke up to the story of Latoya Ammons. This mother of three from Gary, a suburb of Indianapolis, claimed she and her three children became possessed by multiple demons in March 2012. This was to be the start of a long string of sensational claims.
The Indianapolis Star newspaper first reported that her physician Dr. Geoffrey Onyeukwu became convinced of the possibility that her story might be true when medical staff at his clinic claimed to witness one of her children being lifted and thrown against a wall by an invisible force. This incident had been documented in an almost 800 page report by the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS).
One DCS employee Valerie Washington and registered general nurse Willie Lee Walker claimed to have seen the child become violent, his eyes roll back in his head and place his hands around his older brothers neck threatening to kill him while speaking in a strange demonic like voice. They then claimed to witness the most bizarre incident of the boy walking up a wall backwards and onto the ceiling before then flipping back to land on his feet. They go on to state that the experience caused them to flee the building in a state of terror.
Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed her 12 year old daughter levitate above her bed unconscious, only to suddenly drop back down without having any memory of the event. DCS eventually took temporary custody of all the children on grounds of neglect due to poor school attendance.
With her children in custody, DCS and the Gary police division conducted an investigation into the property. Even DCS chief Samantha Ilic claimed to be struck by panic while conducting an investigation at the property. She also attested to having a string of bad luck including the breaking of ribs in the following weeks. Gary Police officer Charles Austin claimed that the new batteries in his radio drained out while in the property and that one of the pictures taken on his iphone showed a silhouette figure in the window of the property. He claimed that although he always believed in ghosts, he now very much believed in demons.
Local Catholic priest Father Michael Maginot claimed to perform three exorcisms on the premises, the last one said in Latin. This was the last disturbance that was recorded in the property. After a period of six months Latoya Ammons was reunited with her children under the strict condition she was not to discuss demons or use religion as a punishment for her children and they were to receive therapy to deal with past issues. She has since moved house and has had no more untoward experiences. It is also worth noting that no one else reported unusual phenomena at the property either before or after this incident.
The original article in the Indianapolis Star:
Ammons was sent for psychiatric evaluation and no obvious signs of psychotic illness were reported but the team noted that she appeared guarded. The clinical team wondered whether her intense religiosity could mask “delusional ideation”. Her youngest son was examined by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two other children were assessed by Joel Schwartz. They both came to the conclusion that the children appeared to be mimicking the delusional behaviour of their mother.
They found no evidence of supernatural ability and Stacy Wright noticed that the youngest boy only reverted into the role of being possessed when the conversation became confrontational or when asked questions that he did not wish to answer. Her notes state that the boy was rational until such questions were asked, then his account became bizarre and illogical and that his answers were inconsistent every time he was questioned.
In the days following the original publication of this story in the Indianapolis Star, media from Australia to Ireland also published the story. Reporters from the Daily Mail wrote that the Chief of Police in Gary believes her house was a portal to hell. They sensationally reference the statements of DCS agents Valerie Washington and her boss Samantha Ilic. If high ranking police officers and a chief from child services can be convinced of the claims of Latoya Ammons then could they be true? Is it possible that malevolent forces were at work at the house on Carolina Street in Gary Indianapolis?
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan
While the assertions made by high ranking officials are indeed stunning and genuinely disturbing, skeptics will be immediately concerned at the lack of credible evidence for any of the claims made. The story boasts claims of witnessing levitation and a child walking up a wall backwards. Samantha Ilic, chief of DCS testifies to having witnessed the presence of an inexplicable oil like substance on the window of Ammons’ house. Police claimed that after removing it and locking up the house, it returned again.
Ammons’ mother, Rosa Campbell, claimed that while an exorcism was being performed, the blinds in the living room started to shake as if being lifted by a storm but the room was not windy. Given the series of bizarre events documented by all concerned, I am extremely questioning as to why no one decided to place a video recording device in all rooms. Both the police and child service authorities are presumably trained in how to gather evidence. Why did Samantha Ilic not take a sample of the strange liquid that was believed to be appearing on the window to have it tested?
The only evidence that is offered is a photo of the outside of the house with a shadowy image that appears to be human like and an electronic voice phenomenon recording (junk science). While I am not accusing any police officer of creating a hoax picture, this image or others like it can easily be created using photograph software. There is even an android app for creating ghost photographs.
An alternative explanation (and possibly more credible) would be the phenomenon of pareidolia. This refers to our bias for facial detection. Evolution has conferred us with a bias towards facial recognition which is why we automatically identify a face when we see two horizontal dots with a vertical line in the middle. We see faces in clouds and images of Jesus in slices of toast. This is not nature playing a practical joke on us. It may have been a useful trait in our early history to enable babies to identify human help, thus giving them a better chance of survival.
The Daily Mail UK received an EVP recording that was taken by the police in the property that supposedly had a segment where a demonic voice utters the word “hey”. EVP has been thoroughly discredited as a science. It is just our mind creating patterns out of background noise. If you look to the tree on the right of the picture, it looks as if its branches and leaves could generate the shadow that we see in the window. Apart from this photo and the less than impressive recording of demons supposedly saying the word hey to a Gary Police officer, there is absolutely no other evidence of anything going bump in the night at this Carolina Street family home.
The interview of Father Michael Maginot by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News depicted a man that is quite possibly very prone to suggestive baloney. He was quizzed by O’Reilly as to why he performed an exorcism on the house without actually seeing any of the children who were in DCS care at this stage? His belief was based on Ammons becoming uncomfortable when he placed religious objects on her face. Given the extreme lack of substantial evidence in this case, what could drive people of high authority to lay their weight behind the extraordinary claims of the family at 3800 Carolina Street? Here is Father Maginot being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on the O’ Reilly Factor.
Could the whole story be an elaborate hoax involving many individuals wishing to cash in on fame and fortune? It is a possibility. However I believe there may be an element of human nature at play that is almost as sinister and terrifying as the concept of the devil himself and that is mass hysteria and mass delusion.
In the next part I will document just how terrifying mass hysteria can be and how it can have disastrous consequences for society. It can bring about temporary symptoms that mimic psychosis in people who are otherwise mentally sound. It can even result in physical illnesses such as temporary blindness and epileptic like seizures (psychogenic seizures) in what is known as conversion disorder and even lead people to do the unthinkable.
Just as fire needs the essential ingredients of heat, a fuel source and oxygen so too does mass hysteria. For its fires to ignite, we need the three elements of credulity, fear or other overwhelming emotions and people sharing a common belief system. Just like a raging inferno that has gone out of control, it can continue unabated before finally dying out when eventually reason prevails.
What is mass hysteria?
The term is used to define the escalation of irrational anxiety and fear affecting more than one individual who share a common belief and is usually the result of exposure to what is perceived to be a strange, threatening, alarming or overwhelming situation. The term relates to a phenomenon whereby this irrational fear spreads like an epidemic through the population. Both mass hysteria and conversion disorder have also been used as terms to identify the development of physical symptoms that occur as a result of irrational fear among a group, that lack an organic component. This is also referred to as mass psychogenic illness.
Collective delusions are most common during times of societal stress or economic recession. They are most common in women under 35 but as these cases will illustrate, it can affect anyone anywhere at any time. In the absence of physical illness, mass hysteria is sometimes referred to as mass delusion. One can leave it to the medical profession to debate the terminology of this bizarre and poorly understood condition, but it is important that the general population understand just how pernicious this condition can be and why it is almost always associated with cases of exorcism.
Possible role of mass hysteria in those treating Latoya Ammons and her children
The account given by the Indianopolis Star in relation to Ammons would not be out of place in Salem Massachusetts during the witch trials of 1692-1693. It is worth noting that Dr. Geoffrey Onyeukwu is one of the first high ranking medical professionals to show a potential belief in Ammons claims, following his initial notes describing her as showing signs of delusion.
I looked up Dr. Onyeukwu’s profile in an online physician directory. He appears to have been educated in Obafemi Awolowo University in Osun State Nigeria. He later completed an internship residency at Murtala Mohammed Hospital, Kano. Nigeria has a rich history of religious and cultural superstition. This may be an important element in a possible lapse of judgement on the part of Dr. Onyeukwu.
“Twenty years, and I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” he said. “I was scared myself when I walked into the room.”He said he would not speak in more detail unless Ammons had “psychiatric clearance” for the waiver of confidentiality she had signed.In his medical notes about the visit, Onyeukwu wrote “delusions of ghost in home” and “hallucinations.” He also wrote “history of ghost at home” and “delusional.”What Ammons and Campbell say happened next also was detailed in a DCS report of a family case manager’s interviews with medical staff.Chaos erupted.Campbell said Ammons’ sons cursed Onyeukwu in demonic voices, raging at him. Medical staff said the youngest boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him,” according to a DCS report.
The account mentions the boy becoming aggressive and using foul language and disturbing tones. Again the failure of Dr. Onyeukwu and his medical staff to video record any unusual or supernatural behaviour leads me to believe that he was indeed terrified and may have been of the opinion that the children exhibited behaviour that was not of this world. Medical staff could have used their smartphones to document the strange and disturbing behaviour of the boy they claimed to have observed.
This lack of rational evidence gathering leads me to believe most of the staff were indeed hysterical and quite possibly suffering from temporary psychotic like symptoms borne out of genuine terror. The detailed examination of the youngest boy by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two older children by Joel Schwartz, found no evidence of anything paranormal and the clinical psychologist who examined Latoya Ammons questioned whether her extreme religiosity could be masking delusional ideation.
The levitation of the 12 year old girl was not witnessed by either Dr. Onyeukwu or Officer Charles Austin. It is not clear whether Dr. Onyeukwu claims to have witnessed the throwing of the boy by an invisible force at his clinic either. Most of the claims of supernatural phenomena appear to be made by women. (the only exception being the case of the boy walking up the wall which was made by DCS employee Valerie Washington and corroborated by nurse Willie Lee Walker). The article in the Indy Star states that Willie Lee Walker had a history of belief in ghosts and demons. Women are considerably more likely to suffer from hysteria of this sort.
In the case of the levitation episode, the claims were made by Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa. Latoya Ammons’ 12 year old daughter described how she would go into a trance and have no memory of the events. She also described the sensation of being choked or something pressing down on her chest. This is a common testimony of those who suffer a condition known as sleep paralysis. The fact that Latoya Ammons and Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed the girl levitating may be due to the girl having what is termed a psychogenic seizure. This would also explain the girl’s account of going into a trance and losing memory.
A psychogenic seizure is usually bought about by extreme stress and hysteria that is without an organic cause. While the patient is unconscious there is often an arching of the back, which in some cases is so extreme that it could be mistaken for levitation phenomena. This may be one of the reasons for the levitation myth in demonic possession. As the seizure comes to an end, the muscles relax and the body would appear to drop. This would be all the more convincing if the body was covered by bed clothes. Add a pinch of extreme terror and one has the making of a Hollywood blockbuster!
In the case of the child walking backwards up the wall, again the witness was DCS employee Valerie Washington. Neither Officer Charles Austin, Dr Onyeukwu or indeed Fr. Maginot claim to have witnessed anything definitively supernatural in this story. During the exorcism on the property, Rosa Campbell shouts to tell Fr. Maginot that the lamp is flickering but by the time he arrives it has stopped. She again shouts to the priest to tell him the blinds are shaking but again the priest performing the exorcism does not testify to witnessing anything that amounts to damning evidence of paranormal activity.
The real heroes of the story are clinical psychologists Stacy Wright and Joel Schwartz
When the children were taken into DCS custody, the youngest was examined by Stacy Wright and the other two by Joel Schwartz. This is what Stacy Wright had to say according to the Indy Star.
”The boy tended to act possessed when he was challenged, redirected or asked questions he didn’t want to answer. In her evaluation, Wright wrote that he seemed coherent and logical except when he talked about demons. It was then that the 8-year-old’s stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” Wright said. His stories changed each time he told them. He also changed the subject, quizzing Wright on math problems and asking her about outer space.” Can you die if you go to space?” he asked. “How do you get to space? Do you have to wear a helmet and suit?” Wright believed the 8-year-old did not suffer from a true psychotic disorder.” This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced” by other relatives, she wrote in her psychological evaluation”.
Joel Schwartz who examined Ammons’ daughter and older son give a similar verdict
“There also appears to be a need to assess the extent to which (Ammons’ daughter) may have been unduly influenced by her mother’s concerns that the family was exposed to paranormal experiences,” Schwartz wrote. Ammons’ daughter told Schwartz that she saw shadowy figures in the Carolina Street home. She also said she twice went into trances. Ammons’ older son told Schwartz that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.”
Wright documents how the youngest boy gave differing accounts of his perceived paranormal experience each time when questioned. If we look back at the Delhi monkey man case, this is exactly how the authorities became convinced that the story was a figment of peoples imagination, bought about by a case of mass hysteria. There is disparity between the nature of supernatural claims made by men and by women in this story. The only definitively supernatural event claimed to be witnessed by a male was initially made by DCS employee Valerie Washington. Nurse Willie Lee Walker who corroborated her claim, is documented with a previous history of belief in ghosts and demons.
When the boy started to speak in a menacing tone and threatened to kill his older brother with his hands around his neck, it is quite possible that this event triggered hysteria in Valerie Washington that then spread to her male nurse companion Willie Lee Walker. The fact that both attested to fleeing the building in a complete state of fear show that they were not thinking or acting rationally. It is quite possible, in fact almost certain, that the boy never walked up the ceiling and that the backward walk up the wall was simply accomplished with the help of holding onto his grandmother, Rosa Campbell’s hand. Mass hysteria can alter our perception of the simplest mundane occurrences making our mind interpret them in fantastic and sometimes terrifying ways.
US law enforcement and critical thinking.
The apparent willingness of some high ranking US police officers such as Charles Austin to go public with his claim of believing Latoya Ammons’ story illustrates the need for critical thinking skills to be promoted within some elements of US law enforcement. A number of police departments across the US have been bamboozled into carrying out investigations on the basis of the supposed evidence of self-proclaimed psychics. One of the most prominent cases of this had disastrous consequences for Texan land owners Gena and Joe Bankson, when they were accused of harbouring a mass grave on their land.
In 2011 Liberty County Sheriff’s department arrived at a rural property in Hardin Texas, about an hour outside Houston, with a search warrant and cadaver sniffing dogs. They were acting on the basis of a phone call by Rhonda Gridley. In the phone call she made a statement that up to 30 dismembered bodies of men, women and children were buried in a mass grave on the Bankson’s property. Gena and Joe Bankson were later shown to be innocent of any involvement in the macabre claims, but not before the story had reached the global news media. Gena Bankson later went on to tell reporters that she believed that the self-proclaimed psychic Rhonda Gridley, who goes by the name Angel, who made the claim, was mentally unstable. It is very concerning that law enforcement officers in the 21st century would act on the word of those who claim to have psychic powers. In June 2013 Rhonda Gridley was hit with a $6.8 million defamation verdict at 193rd State district court in Dallas for making false and libellous claims to the police. No disciplinary action was taken against officers who acted on the misinformation.
As a society we are all too willing to assume the claims of those in high office are genuine. This case goes to prove the old adage that you should not believe all that is said in the newspapers. Such unreasoned hysteria is not without harm. It is the fire that caused the witch hunts of the dark ages and that go on to this day in less enlightened parts of the world such as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. Deaths due to botched exorcisms are on the increase and are no longer just a concern for impoverished countries with low educational standards. Deaths have been reported across Europe and America and some have received much media attention such as the case of Latisha Lawson yet again from Indiana.
Court evidence showed how she and another woman believed her four children were possessed and tried to force them all to drink a mixture of olive oil and vinegar in which she believed would force a demon by the name of Marzon to leave. When one of her children, 2 year old Jezaih, vomited after being forced to drink the mixture, she held her hand to his mouth and forced him to swallow the concoction. It did not go as planned and an autopsy report later confirmed the cause of death to be forced compression of the neck. She was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Despite the Vatican citing such things as (1) levitation (2) speaking in unfamiliar languages and (3) the presence of superhuman strength as evidence for demonic possession and the need for an exorcism to be performed, I have yet to see any credible evidence that such phenomena even exist, let alone, the opinion that certain people have the unique power to cast out malevolent agents from such possessed people. Superstitious belief is an extremely potent catalyst of mass hysteria. Perhaps the greatest metaphorical demon of all is our very belief in such entities.
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