“Switzerland would me a mighty big place if it were ironed flat.” ― Mark Twain
For the better part of the past 500 years, Switzerland has been an island of calm amidst a sea of geo-political, religious, and social insanity, a bastion for reserved neutrality and rational compromise. This has led them to turn their attention to perfecting the finer things in life – developing a genius for unrivaled chocolate, precision timekeeping, the creation of tiny, but masterfully utilitarian pocket knives, and a talent for international banking (if you can’t make money through large scale industry, it is an absolutely brilliant move to ensure that you are the place where all the money goes for the summer). Unfortunately, the human race likes a good fight, assuming it builds character, thus when the Swiss have their backs turned we make snarky comments like those of Orson Welles when he said, “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”. Perhaps unrestrained sanity has its drawbacks. Before we set about reorganizing human civilization on the Swiss model, consider the possibility that Switzerland has historically gone through its own share of preternatural weirdness. They just keep quiet about it. Certainly, some of the earliest and nuttiest pogroms of the “European Witch Craze” actually started in Switzerland, but more importantly, the sleepy little town of Morzine was epicenter to a 19th Century plague of demoniacal possession, perhaps proving J.G. Ballard’s maxim that “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom”.
These days, Morzine is an unassuming resort town popular with skiers, nestled in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France, part of the Upper Savoy area that abuts Switzerland and Italy. While essentially a Swiss hamlet (only half a day from Lake Geneva), it had been annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1713, and then officially turned over to the French by 1860. This was all accomplished very politely and without significant bloodshed. In short, for most of history, nothing much happened in Morzine worth getting excited about. Kingdoms rise and fall, boundaries change on maps, the political machinations of Europe’s great princes sent armies rampaging across the continent, but the remote valley of Morzine just toddled along tending to agriculture and leading a sedate and sober alpine lifestyle. That is, until they were invaded by legions of possession-happy demons.
Why the Devil would have selected Morzine as a beach-head for a diabolical D-Day is unclear, as contemporaries observed, “the worst said of the people was that they loved lawsuits, and were obstinate in their quarrels”. Nonetheless, in 1857, the infernal expeditionary forces encamped in the shadows of Mont Blanc. The first psychological casualty was ten-year old Peronne Tavernier.
In the spring of 1857, the village being in its usual quietude, Peronne Tavernier, a child ten years old, was engaged in eager preparation for her first communion. She was exceedingly intelligent and sweet-tempered, and a sort of favour had been made in admitting her sooner than her comrades of the same age, to the mystery of the Eucharist. Religious thoughts occupied her, she says, night and day, and she could speak of little but her joy in the prospect of the event that was at hand. One day, it was the 14th of March, as she came out of church after confession, she saw a little girl fall into the river, and felt strange fright and uneasiness at the sight. A few hours afterwards, as she ate at school, she suddenly sank down on the bench, and had to be carried home, where she remained as one dead for some hours. Three or four days later the same thing happened to her in church, and afterwards, the attacks recurred frequently wherever she might be. Again in April, as she and another child, Marie Plagnat, kept their goats on the hillside, they were both found insensible, clasped in each other’s arms. They were carried home, and after an hour, Peronne awoke and asked for bread, which, however, she could not eat. After that the seizures became frequent, and both children were attacked five or six times a day. Symptoms that strangely impressed the bystanders began to manifest themselves. The little girls in their trance used to raise their eyes to heaven; they sometimes stretched out their hands, and appeared to receive a letter. By turns it seemed to give pleasure and to excite horror. Then they made as if they refolded the letter, and returned it to the invisible messenger. On awakening they declared that they had heard from the blessed Virgin, who had shown them a beautiful paradise. When the missive, as they sometimes averred, came from hell, Peronne used to complain with terror of serpents that were twisted round her hat. Day by day the attacks became more remarkable. The children began to gesticulate, to speak incoherently, to utter oaths, and blaspheme all they had been taught to revere. Their limbs were convulsed, so that three men could not hold Peronne in her fits. In their trances they accused men in the village of having bewitched them. Among other predictions, they announced that two other girls, and Peronne’s father would be seized as they were, and that he would die. Their predictions were fulfilled (Howitt, 1865, p469-470).
From there on out, things got ugly. In the next eight months, twenty-seven more children and adults manifested similar symptoms, and local physicians could find no underlying cause, except that those who succumbed commonly reported that they were possessed by the spirits of deceased folks who had been condemned to the fires of Hell for such grievous sins as the enjoyment of bacon on a Friday (In which case I am tempting eternal damnation, as if I can be said to have a core theology, it decidedly involves the conspicuous consumption of copious amounts of pork byproducts every day of the week). Medical, religious, and persuasive remedies were attempted with little effect. Typically, the Swiss like to keep things on the “down-low”, but when the rash of possessions reached epidemic proportions, the scale of the infestation attracted the attention of the rest of Europe.
It was only when the number of the possessed exceeded two thousand persons, and the case was attracting multitudes of curious enquirers from all parts of the Continent that the medical men, priests, and journalists of the day, began to keep and publish constant records of the progress of the epidemic. One of the strangest features of the case, and one which most constantly baffled the faculty, was the appearance of rugged health, and freedom from all physical disease, which distinguished this malady. As a general rule, the victims spoke in hoarse, rough tones unlike their own, used profane language, such as few of them could ever have heard, and imitated the actions of crawling, leaping, climbing animals with ghastly fidelity. Sometimes they would roll their bodies up into balls and distort their limbs beyond the power of the attendant physicians to account for, or disentangle. Many amongst them were levitated in the air, and in a few instances, the women spoke in foreign tongues, manifested high conditions of exaltation, described glorious visions, prophesied, gave clairvoyant descriptions of absent persons and distant places, sang hymns, and preached in strains of sublime inspiration (Spence, 1920, p396).
By the time the possession plague had spread significantly, Morzine had transitioned to its status as a protectorate of the Second French Empire due to the annexation of the Savoy under Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), and as emperors are oft wont to do, Louis-Napoléon declared he would have none of this demonic nonsense under his benign auspices. Pious mothers were blaspheming. Respectable girls were spouting unsavory language. Children were insolent, yet neighboring parishes were oddly exempt from the horrors that plagued Morzine. It was all downright disrespectful to the Emperor. Thus, on April 26, 1861, The French government dispatched Dr. Constans, with the dubious honorific “Inspector-General of Lunatics” to Morzine, affording him dictatorial powers to deal with the situation. Dr. Constans gave a rather dry and clinical report of his observations, concluding rather vaguely that the outbreak was “hysterical” in nature.
Dr. Constans examined sixty-four of the “possessed.” They were mostly celibates, hysterical, chloro-anaemic or scrofulous, and suffering from gastralgia, amenorhcea, or dysmenorrhea; the appetite was capricious, the sleep inconstant and light. Idle, loquacious, exalted, and fantastic, they flocked together, card-playing, exciting themselves, mutually and masking the insufficiency of their aliment by the immoderate use of black coffee. Everything gave occasion for a paroxysm, but nothing produced one so surely as the expression of a doubt that they were possessed. The paroxysm was ushered in by yawnings, pendiculations, startings, choreiform jerks, alternations of dilatation and contraction of the pupil, and a frightened aspect. Cries, vociferations, and oaths supervened. The physiognomy became dejected and assumed an expression of frenzy. The respiration was panting, and the movements, at first confined to the superior parts, extended successively to the trunk and extremities. Aggression commenced; furniture, chairs, or stools were cast at the spectators; then the convulsionnaires precipitated themselves upon their parents or upon strangers, struck them and struck themselves, bruising the chest or body, whirled about now in one direction, then another, and cast themselves on the hack, starting up again as if it were on the rebound of a spring. No erotism mingled with the idea of demoniacal possession, and the affected never uttered obscene words or were guilty of lubrical actions. In the most disordered actions they never exposed the person. The paroxysm endured from twenty to twenty-five minutes, the pulse becoming enfeebled or lost, but the beating of the heart remained normal, while the hands were icy and the feet cold. Towards the decline of the paroxysm, the noise became less, the movements diminished in rapidity, there were eructations, the affected looked around with astonishment, arranged their hair, replaced their caps, drank several mouthfuls of water, and recommenced work, declaring that they felt no lassitude, and remembered nothing. It was evident, however, that the first assertion was not altogether true, and they heard and saw perfectly during the attacks; closing the eyes if menaced with a blow in the face, and avoiding, under all circumstances, places or bodies which might injure them when they cast themselves upon the ground (Constans, 1862, p189-190).
In short, the good Dr. Constans quickly concluded they were all full of crap, and thus is likely deserving of his title “Inspector-General of Lunatics”, although not in the dignified sense that he no doubt took it. Unable to successfully affect any cure for what he regarded as a combination of hysteria and overacting, Constans called for reinforcements in the form of a brigade of gendarmes and a detachment of infantry. He then dispatched the most severe cases of possession to hospitals in distant districts, replaced the local priest, and threatened criminal prosecution of anyone who publically manifested symptoms of possession. Demons are notoriously unconcerned with human judicial sanctions and immune from the disdain of learned doctors, and while there were a few months respite from the possession plague (likely due to under-reporting), the next year saw a fresh outbreak. When the rash of posessions started up again, a local political notable, the Prefect of Haute Savoy determined to visit Morzine, gather an audience of a number of women recently possessed and dissuade them from their madness with good old-fashioned common sense and stunning oratory. The women, manifesting unnatural strength, beat the Prefect and his police escort senseless. As logical appeals, individual exorcisms, medical treatment, and the threat of legal action had been exhausted as means to quell the outbreak, it seems drastic measures were needed. Monsignor Maginn, Bishop of Annecy, much respected by the common folk of Morzine, but who saw little value in exorcism, concluded there might be some value in gathering the community together for a High Mass. On May 1st, 1864, at 7 A.M. in the morning, Maginn began the service. A few moments into the ritual, all Hell broke loose. A spectator reported in a letter to the reputable journal Union Medicale that “The church became a perfect hell. Nothing was heard but cries, blows, oaths, and blasphemies, that made one’s hair stand on end. It was the bishop’s entrance that particularly set all the people agog. Blows with the fist, kicks, spitting, horrible contortions, handfuls of hair and caps flung about, torn clothes, bleeding hands, met everywhere my ears and eyes. The most frightful moments were at the elevation of the host and at the benediction of the holy sacrament after vespers, as well as when the bishop first appeared. It was so dreadful that the bystanders were all in tears. The victims of the disease, above a hundred in number, seemed to fall into simultaneous convulsions without any previous warning. The noise was perfectly infernal. Within a radius of two yards I counted eleven. The greater number were young girls and women from fifteen to thirty years old. There was a child of ten, five or six old women, and two men. The bishop confirmed some of them, whether they would or no. As soon as he came in front of them they were seized; but by the help of the gendarmes and some men who assisted he put his hands on them, even in the midst of their fearful maledictions. ‘Damned carrion of a bishop,’ they said, ‘why dost thou come to torment us?’ They tried to strike and bite him and to tear off his episcopal ring (which we have heard was actually trampled underfoot). They spit in his face; but it was noteworthy that when the bishop touched their heads in confirmation they sank down, and remained in a stupor that seemed like deep sleep”. With the failure of ecclesiastical authority, the French government decided enough was enough. The doubting Dr. Constans was sent back in, this time with absolute authority, a veritable army of police and soldiers, and a new priest. He rounded up the possessed, sending them to asylums and hospitals, and failing that had many exiled or deported. He mercilessly stomped on any suggestion that the madness of Morzine was caused by demoniacal possession, and fined anyone who even dared to suggest diabolical or sorcerous origins. Surprisingly, this slash and burn approach to combatting demonic infestation seems to have done the trick. By 1865, the Morzine plague of possession had completely subsided. Presumably, the Devil judged the operation a failure and moved on to more receptive audiences.
Human beings simply weren’t built to be polite and peaceful every minute of every day. It makes us nuts. We didn’t spend the last 200,000 years clambering to the top of the Great Chain of Being by relying on our charm and wit. Meaningful dialogue has its place, but failing that, apparently sometimes your only recourse is to knock some heads. Everybody has that one insufferable friend that claims an inconceivable impartiality with phrases like “I try not to treat anybody differently,” or “I don’t see race”, or “pop music has cultural value”, but all the folks around them, while agreeing that the world might be a better place would that it were so, it is largely pretense. Consider all the things that would have never been invented, all the discoveries undiscovered, all the unrevolted revolutions that incrementally improved our relationship to our fellow man, if the human capacity to be homicidally annoyed was suppressed. As Elizabeth Taylor wisely observed, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues”.
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