Curiosity led to my PhD

Behnaz Zarrabi never thought her interest in studying religious violence would result in a PhD about exorcism.

Behnaz has been researching the topic of deaths during the ritual of exorcism for the past four years. Her thesis is a socio-legal case study comprising five cases of exorcism which ended in the death of the alleged possessed individual. The cases occurred in the past 25 years in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In her study, Behnaz examines how the legal community (e.g. judges, legal advocates and academics) interpret cases of death during exorcism, and how legal constructs, such as consent and intention, are applied to the domain of supernatural. The research is unique as it brings to attention cases of death and injury as a result of beliefs in supernatural.

Behnaz shares her insights into her experience as a PhD student, and the challenges she has faced and been able to overcome.

Still to this day I don’t know how the movie, The Exorcist, ended up in the VHS collection in a girls-only high school in Iran.  For two hours, only the screams of teenage girls could be heard coming out of the media room. I only survived the first 10 minutes of The Exorcist.

My name is Behnaz - or Bernie, as most call me and I was born and raised in Iran. More than eight years ago, I moved to Australia. After a period of uncertainty, struggle and confusion about what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to do a PhD. Perhaps not the best decision when you don’t know what to do with your life, but it turned out to be a pretty awesome decision for me and I’ll tell you why.

I have always been interested in topics like religion – how people interpret religious messages differently, and the truth claims made in different religions. The origin of this interest goes back many years, probably around the time I was at the school with the media room or even before that. So, it wasn’t a surprise when I chose ‘religiously motivated homicide’ as the broad topic of my PhD. But it is a surprise to many when I say that I am investigating cases of death during exorcism. Yep, that’s right, ‘exorcism’ not ‘extremism’, as most people assume when they hear the title of my PhD for the first time. I have to clarify for them and give them a reassuring smile while saying, “Yes, exorcism still happens, and demands for it are on the rise.”

For the first two years of my PhD, I was really scared and confused. Not scared of demons and exorcists—they hadn’t entered my life yet. I was scared of revealing how much I did not know. Some call it the imposter syndrome. But no, truly and honestly, there were important things that I didn’t know. I was confused because I did not know where to start. Worse still, I tried too hard to pretend to my supervisors and everyone else that I was fine and in control. I was wrong.

Everything has changed since I decided to face my fears (i.e. learn about what I did not know). Also, I stopped thinking about ‘what ifs’ (e.g. if I had studied fashion design, I would be making millions of dollars by now). I decided to appreciate what I had and focus on reality rather than dreams, saving the creative and imaginary parts of my brain for writing up my PhD, and designing the next step in my methodological journey. Yes, methodology can be fun!

More importantly, I started talking to my supervisors instead of hiding from them. Soon I realised that one cannot pretend to be ‘fine’ in front of his/her supervisors. Great supervisors know you better than you know yourself. When I talked to them, I found out that from the start, they have known what I knew and what I didn’t. In other words, I was always worried about my lack of knowledge about certain areas of law. This lack of knowledge put me under constant stress and affected my confidence to work independently on my PhD. When I discussed these fears and anxieties with my supervisors, their answer was simple but lifesaving for me. They were always happy to help me, to answer my questions, and direct me to different sources to find the answers to my many questions. As my supervisor said to me one day - there is no dumb question.  Most certainly, it was me who had to conduct the research, analyse, and critically think and write the thesis.  That’s when I felt like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings – I had a map (a research methodology) and a ring (an awesome topic), and a challenging journey to complete.

But Frodo had great companions - so did I (and still do). The friendships I have made throughout my PhD are worth a lot more than the floppy hat you get at graduation, the ‘Dr’ title, or even a job at a prestigious university. If I don’t get any of the above, I still consider myself a winner because I’ve had the privilege to learn from really amazing people (my supervisors, mentors and friends) and build friendships that will last forever. Throughout my PhD, I had the opportunity to travel to different countries and present my research. Travelling makes you wiser, but it also makes your PhD journey more exciting.

A PhD for me has been a series of coincidences, like many other events in life. It was a coincidence from the start; it was a coincidence when at a conference someone gave me an article about a case of exorcism in Australia; and more coincidences when I found the third, the fourth, the fifth and unfortunately more cases of exorcism involving death.

However, we have power over the coincidences, don’t we? We follow them and shape the results. We can ignore them or wear our curious glasses and follow them. It was the latter for me.

The girl who was too scared to watch The Exorcist is now delving into the world of demons, fairies, exorcists and djinn to question whether a so-called possessed person’s consent to exorcism is valid; to question the criminal responsibility of a ghost-killer and a witch-doctor.

I think my story proves one thing – the beauty of being curious and doing research. As long as you dare to question and challenge, and are ready to learn and listen, you can write the big book - a PhD thesis. Even though you started the journey coincidently, you’ll find the purpose to keep going.


Last updated:
14 September 2018