Are You Seeing Demons, or Are You Just Mentally Ill?

ra2 studio /
ra2 studio /

Victor Sharrah, a 59-year-old man from Nashville, woke up one winter day to a chilling reality. The faces around him are distorted grotesquely, resembling those of the characters from a horror movie. His ordeal unfolded as he sat on his couch, watching TV with his roommate. The faces of his roommate and his girlfriend appeared nightmarishly disfigured, with elongated eyes and eerie scars etched deep. Sharrah likened the experience to staring at demons, a sudden transformation where everyone seemed like a creature from a nightmare.

What Sharrah battles is a rare condition known as prosopometamorphopsia (PMO), where parts of people’s faces appear distorted while other aspects remain unchanged. This condition, unlike face blindness, doesn’t hinder recognition but warps the perception of familiar faces, often in consistent patterns. He sees faces constantly moving, contorting, and gesturing, creating a surreal and isolating experience.

PMO presents diverse manifestations, from distorted facial features to surreal morphing resembling creatures or objects. Some individuals even perceive their faces as deformed, adding layers to the psychological toll of the condition. Unfortunately, PMO remains primarily misunderstood, leading to misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatments like anti-psychotic medications or institutionalization.

Dealing with the struggle with PMO, Victor Sharrah’s journey is marked by battles with mental illness, including bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), exacerbated by his time in the US Marine Corps. His condition led him to contemplate suicide, as the distortions evoked feelings of coldness and dread akin to a horror movie.

However, amidst the darkness, a ray of hope emerged from Catherine Morris, a seasoned professional with experience in visual impairments. Recognizing the potential influence of lighting on perception, Morris embarked on a journey to alleviate Sharrah’s symptoms. Through experimentation with colored light, they discovered a breakthrough. A specific shade of green light acted as a reprieve, momentarily dispelling the distortions and offering relief to Sharrah.

Their success culminated in Morris providing Sharrah with tinted glasses, enabling him to confront his estranged daughter and meet his grandchildren without the haunting distortions. It was a moment of triumph against the odds, a testament to human resilience and compassion.

In a world increasingly fraught with challenges, stories like Sharrah’s remind us of the power of empathy and innovation in overcoming adversity. While PMO may cast its shadows, it’s through collective efforts and understanding that we can illuminate paths to healing and restoration.

In the realm of conspiracy theories, there have been discussions surrounding the term “preprogramming,” suggesting the deliberate manipulation of information to influence perceptions and behaviors. In other words, there are theories online that suggest the mass media is preparing us not to ‘freak out’ when the ‘real’ aliens and demons appear and instead consider that it just might be PMO.

In the case of PMO, there’s no conspiracy but rather a complex interplay of neurological factors shaping perception. Yet, the notion of preprogramming serves as a cautionary tale, urging vigilance against misinformation and promoting critical thinking in understanding complex phenomena.

Today, Victor Sharrah collaborates closely with researchers Brad Duchaine and Antônio Vitor Reis Gonçalves Mello at Dartmouth College, contributing to groundbreaking studies to alleviate PMO symptoms.

Their research has yielded promising interventions, including using tinted lenses, mainly green, which proved effective in mitigating Sharrah’s symptoms. Furthermore, experimenting with different colored lenses has shown potential benefits for others affected by PMO, albeit with variations in the optimal colors for each individual. Exposing individuals with PMO to symmetrical faces has shown promise in reducing distortions, offering a potential avenue for future treatments.

A significant breakthrough occurred when the team discovered that Sharrah did not experience distortions when viewing 2D images. This realization enabled researchers to accurately capture and understand the nature of PMO by having Sharrah describe real faces while observing manipulated images that reflected his distortions—an unprecedented feat in PMO research.

Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Jan Dirk Blom commended the research as “wonderful work,” acknowledging it as the first accurate depiction of PMO. This breakthrough not only enhances scientific understanding but also holds the promise of preventing misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatments for individuals with PMO.

For Sharrah, his involvement in the research represents a chance to prevent others from enduring the same misfortunes he faced. Reflecting on his near-commitment to a mental hospital and the experiences of others who were wrongly institutionalized, Sharrah emphasizes the urgency of raising awareness about PMO among medical professionals to prevent misdiagnoses and unnecessary treatments.

In the quest to unravel the complexities of PMO, collaborative efforts between researchers and individuals like Sharrah offer hope for a future where those affected by the condition can receive accurate diagnoses and effective treatments, sparing them from undue suffering and misunderstanding.