Tag Archives: possession

Skin-walkers of New Mexico

Context: H is a  23 year old American, born in California and lived there until moving to Denver Colorado for College. After spending nearly five years in Denver he moved to New Mexico where he currently lives and has lived for the past two years. This entry was collected over a Zoom call. 

Intv: “So a few years ago you moved out to New Mexico, have you heard any folklore from out there?”

H: “Oh yeah, people talk about these things called skinwalkers out here. I’ve been here for two years, and my first job out here was cooking for a diner up in the woods, in the national forest here. Which there’s not a lot of in New Mexico, but there are some forests. So I cooked out there, and I’d often hear about this old folklore of these things called skinwalkers. I think it comes from some of the native communities out here, but I’d be lying if I said I knew that for sure. I’ve just heard it mostly in conversation out here, a lot of the people, especially people who live out in some of the towns near the woods, like Cedar Crest, Tijeras, Madrid, and Edgewood, just like very much believe in these things. They all have a handful of stories of times when they’ve seen these things… I haven’t seen one of these things, but the legend is they’re kinda like these possessed animals, or kinda like shapeless amorphous things, that cause bad luck. There’s definitely a negative connotation, but most of the stories I’ve heard are like ‘I saw a deer stand up on its hind legs and look right at me.’ When I was working at the diner, everyone out there, very much believed it, and I know one of my coworkers who lived out in Edgewood. If you drive 30 minutes towards me you’re in the middle of the city, 20 minutes the other way and it’s the middle of nowhere, that’s where they went. They saw what they thought was a deer, but weren’t sure because it didn’t look much like an animal they had seen just standing in the middle of the street. They drove around it and tried not to look at it, because you’re also not supposed to look right at them, which obviously adds to the, you know, purposely not looking at something that’s supposed to be really strange adds to it. It’s just a really common thing to hear about out here, especially out of the city which is most of New Mexico. Lots of wild stories, lots of wolves or deer standing on hind legs and doing things wolves don’t do, oftentimes they can speak too. I haven’t heard a lot of folklore in New Mexico, but stories of skinwalkers are everywhere.”  

Analysis: While being a very spooky and interesting story, the theory that these “skinwalkers” are animals experiencing some sort of prion disease is quite high. Either way, if you were walking across the frontier in America in the 1800s and something with a prion disease is near you, coming up with a monster absolutely makes the most sense, as there wouldn’t have been any other possible way to explain what one saw. I believe that’s what we’re hearing about when it comes to skinwalkers but I couldn’t say for certain. To read more about Skinwalkers, see “Sacred Evil: The Dark Side of Life Along the San Juan.” McPherson, Robert S. “The Dark Side of Life Along the San Juan.” Dinéjí Na`Natin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History, University Press of Colorado, 2012, pp. 72–99. 

Durgashtmi – Ghost Festival

There is a festival in India called Durgaashtmi, and what happens is that ghost enter the human body – ghosts like past spirits. They enter the body because maybe they haven’t gone to heaven or something like that. Like they haven’t found piece in their life or death. On the festival day these spirits want to show that they are still around and need peace, so their enter some women’s bodies, and these women become uncontrollable. So people say that they have supernatural powers or force or energy and totally become crazy. That happens in India – you can watch videos and stuff. Sometimes they chain these kind of people up. So all these Indian priests come and try to provide peace to the spirits by saying mantras in Sanskrit. And basically these mantras are supposed to get the ghost out of their body. Many priests believe the ghosts are a ghost of this goddess called Durga. She is considered to be a mother figure that’s super angry that won’t go out off your body. Some people also die from this process because they get so crazy and start to drink blood and stuff. It’s a very weird festival, at the end of the day they try to get the ghosts to quit the bodies of the people and the people aren’t dead yet.

Context: [informant] The main aim of the festival is to provide peace to the spirits and get them out of the world of the living. And this is of course scary also, because if Google Durgaashmi ghost you can find that girls are really.. I don’t know… like there are really ghosts coming in the bodies.

Thoughts: Seemingly possessed people are a phenomenon all over the world, and I think it can be looked at from many different lenses. Psychologists might call it psychosis, and religious people might call it possession. Regardless, it is very interesting that India has created a festival around 

White Things: An Account of Demon Possession

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘S’. Explanations and translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 52-year-old Punjabi mother, born and raised in North India.

S: We’ve had a possession in our own family! If you talk to mama (the informant’s mother), her own sister died… she was like that. She was a very bright, bright, exceptionally bright kid. I think she was just younger than mama, the second born. She was in college, one of those typical toppers, this and that, very bright. And… now I don’t know too much, but there was a family gathering, and it was like, “kisi ne kuchh khila diya hai,” (someone has fed her something) because she was… [she acts it out, makes a face by crossing her eyes and rolling them back, making a strained noise] like, as if she was possessed at times, she was acting crazy. And, I think she got… I don’t exactly know how she went, but she went (died). She was in college when she went, so young. I don’t remember exactly how, but I remember that this whole thing, I remember as a personal thing, I was always told this, we all were, in the family, because sometimes mama would tell us she was still around because her going wasn’t peaceful, not content, she would… like, feel the spirit sometimes.

I: Was this pre-partition or post?

S: Post, post. This was mama’s younger sister. She died when she was in college, but she was born pre-partition. See, what they said to us was that one of the relatives who was jealous had fed her something, haan (yes), that’s why they told us, “Safed cheez kisi se mat lo.” (Don’t take anything white from anyone.) Even when we were little, mama always told us, be careful of things people offer you, but never accept something that is white. She specified that. Like kheer (a white staple dish, like a sweet rice pudding), so never take kheer from anyone. Jaadu tona (Urdu and Punjabi for witchery, sorcery), is what it’s called in Punjabi, where someone’s fed you something, or you’ve ingested something, you’re spelled and then you act differently like you’re possessed or cursed, under nazar (bad luck, evil). You do weird things, then, act like you’re… you know, crazy, so you dance, or tremble, or shake, sometimes make weird noises. This story became, kind of… a teaching, a lesson for us, even though nobody really knows the whole story, not even mama.


Within Indian culture, the idea of nazar is common, something you need to caution everyone about and physically ward off—a method of warding off nazar is detailed, in part, in “The Lemon-Chilli Bad Luck Repellent” (http://folklore.usc.edu/the-lemon-chilli-bad-luck-repellent), and a method used to ward off demon possession is detailed in “Don’t Kick the Watermelon!” (http://folklore.usc.edu/don’t-kick-the-watermelon!)—whenever it’s suspected to have fallen upon someone. Simultaneously, the act of “behaving weirdly” is often generalised and exaggerated, the concern can be misplaced when put down to nazar or possession. This is why I asked the question about the partition: the partition was a turbulent time, after finally gaining independence from their colonizers after centuries, having to uproot and move from one region, now in Pakistan, to another, in modern India, through all the trials and tribulations of the time… well, it would have been very traumatic for anyone, especially a child. Therefore, I wanted to ask that question to bring another idea into play: the idea of untreated and un-recognised trauma, manifesting as this “weird behaviour”, being thought of as possession or nazar, leading to an early, unexplained death… it’s a grim thought, but that sequence of events is familiar, even without the supernatural explanation and course of action. However, this woman’s story is now a lesson to the children and adults of this family, a mysterious thing, the story being exaggerated and mystified further with time, while also being a lesson to not take things, especially white things (a common superstition), from anyone, rooted in a folk belief that these invite nazar, or even witchery. The evil eye, or nazar, is also observed in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideology and texts, where they used incantations to ward off negative spirits and witchery, resulting in odd behaviour or sickness. [For more on this, see: “MESOPOTAMIA AND EGYPT.” Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World: -Volume 1 Introduction, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, by John H. Elliot, 1st ed., The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 77–104. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cgf2hs.9.]

Disease as a result of Possession


BH: “So when I got chicken pox in like 7thgrade, no wait 10thgrade, yeah, and I remember we came back from the doctors’ with medicines and everything and my mom called my aunt and said “she has chicken pox”, which implied uske andar mata aa gayi hai [she’s possessed by the mata] so for the first three days, I was only allowed to have sponge baths and on the fifth day, the uh fourth day or the fifth day, a pandit [priest like figure] came and he put some oil and coins in a [bowl] and did something – I don’t fully remember but he performed some sort of ritual, uh he touched that oil on my feet. And then – uh it was only then that I was allowed to fully bathe in proper water. Before that I wasn’t allowed to bathe, and they all just saying “uske andar mata aa gayi hai” which like I don’t even know what that really means. And I asked my mom, and she didn’t really have an explanation either.”

BH: “Oh yeah, and I also wasn’t allowed to have onion or garlic because that is what apparently what you do when the mata [possesses you] and I wasn’t allowed to eat non vegetarian food also.”

BH: “I was only allowed to eat all this after 14 days when I wasn’t contagious anymore.”

BH: “The person [affected by the disease] is already in isolation – the family members are already treating you like some sort of untouchable and you’re basically being discriminated against at that point of time – it’s just not a good headspace to be in because you can’t go meet people, and people who visit you can’t come close…And on top of that you hear these terms that you don’t fully understand but seems negative so it just makes you feel even more low. I mean if there was some scientific basis, I would understand, but I just wish there was better terminology for it than using such words.”



The informant is a college student from India. The conversation was in response to my question about any odd things that happened in the informant’s past that she did not agree with but had to partake in anyway. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. Certain key terms have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.



It is interesting how even now cultural practices and beliefs like possession as an explanation of a disease like chicken pox, which is pretty well understood scientifically, persist. The informant talks about the feelings of isolation and prejudice she faced from her family which put into perspective the harmful effects of such folk beliefs when they are forced on people who don’t understand them or do not want to partake in them. Her confusion also arises from the fact that even the people around her whole seem to truly believe in this tradition don’t have an explanation for it. Often, folk beliefs are so integral to identity that they are not questioned by people who are involved in them.

Ghosts Affecting Crying Babies


The informant and I are sitting in the USC Gould Law Cafe around 3:00 pm. She is a Chinese American student at the University of Southern California who was born and raised in Shanghai until she came to America for high school in Maryland. She is describing Chinese beliefs about crying children and how there is a belief held that babies cry the most loudly when they have a ghost that is connected to them. 


J: “So ya know when babies cry really loud during the night? This is blamed to ghosts. Because what they say is that babies are really vulnerable since they are just born and this is kinda like a life stem. When a baby is born, it’s like a small stem then they grow into a tree later. So it refers to their life as a stem and when they are first born, they are really vulnerable so little things like the wind can hurt them so that’s why babies sometimes can see ghosts because they’ve just been born and are more likely to see ghosts than adults.

So when they see a ghost, they can’t say it because they don’t know how to talk. So sometimes when a ghost haunts them in the night, they start crying and crying and crying and some kinds of ghosts will stick to the baby so that they baby will cry for a long time. Like every night they will cry. So what they do is some ritual ceremonies to get it out. Because a lot of babies tend to cry, but only a certain amount of babies cry really loud at night…every night. They have a certain name for them. **See image below for Chinese characters** So that’s the name.”IMG_1342

A: “So that’s for children that cry a lot at night?”

J: “Yep, like during the night some people will hear a baby cry at night and they will call them this.

A: “So to calm the babies at night then, they perform rituals to calm them down?”

J: “Yep”

A: “Have you ever heard of this happening in your family or friends lives?”

J: “One of my mom’s friends actually. But he is kinda old and my grandpa’s age. His grandson would always cry during the night. It didn’t happen after the day he was born but it actually would happen when he was two years old then he would always cry at night. So our friend actually found someone to perform the ritual and he stopped crying at night! It’s weird!”


This contribution that babies cry loudly during the night due to a ghost “sticking” to them can be seen as rational especially since babies don’t know how to communicate what they are seeing or experiencing except for them to cry. This can also be seen as more credible due to “FOAF” (Friend Of A Friend) where the informer had a family friend where the ritual was a success to calm the crying child! The ways of ridding the ghost seem to be rooted in ancient teachings and practices that were passed through from generations. The child’s crying can also be associated with a ghost because a child’s cry can be very aggravating as I am sure it would be to have a ghost possessing your body. To stop the crying and thus, “rid the ghost,” performing such rituals to make it go away would help the child sleep better and thus the care takers as well.