Devil or Con?

You can’t believe everything you read.  That’s one of the first tenets of critical thinking.  This whole process is about how to get to the truth, and in a materialistic world that truth can’t involve anything supernatural.  These were my thoughts upon finishing Gerald Brittle’s The Devil in Connecticut.  Controversy accompanied Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigations and some of the people involved in these cases have later claimed the extraordinary events didn’t happen.  Others claim that the Warrens offered them to make lots of money by selling their stories.  The effect of reading a book like this is a blend of skepticism and wonder.  Among their fans the Warrens are held in the highest regard.  Anyone who begins to look into their work critically ends up frustrated.

So when I put this potboiler down—it is a compelling read—I went to the internet to find out more.  Then I realized what I was doing.  Using the internet?  To find the truth?  It’s a vast storehouse of opinion, to be sure, but what with fake news and alternative facts who knows what to believe anymore?  I found websites debunking the whole case as a hoax.  Others, naturally, claim the events really happened.  Both kinds of web pages have the backing of someone in the family involved.  It’s a pattern that follows the Warrens’ work.  In one of the many books I’ve read about them they claim to have ten books.  If my math is right this was number ten.  Even that remains open to doubt.

The word “hoax” seems a bit overblown.  Dysfunctional, maybe, but hoax?  Reading Brittle’s account it’s clear there were some issues in this family.  Having grown up in a working class setting, I’m aware such scenarios are extremely common.  Accusations were made that this was an attempt to spin gold from straw.  The nearly constant stress of blue collar families makes that seem less far-fetched than a stereotypical devil showing up in a modern house because a satanic rock band placed a curse on the family.  Lawsuits—the most avaricious of means for determining facts—apparently prevented a movie deal and have even made this book a collector’s item.  Somebody, it seems, is making money off the story.  As after reading the other nine books, the truly curious are left wondering.  My skepticism kicked in early on, but then again, I’ve always liked a good story. 

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Long Journey

Although it may be only a venial sin, overwriting is nevertheless an offense.  As a professor I read many papers from students who had great difficulty clarifying what they were thinking only to disguise it with too many words.  I have finally finished Andrea Perron’s House of Darkness, House of Light.  Because academics too often dismiss personal testimony, I feel compelled to consider it.  Now over 1,300 pages later, I have discharged my duty.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, despite being famous, are difficult to assess in book form.  Yes, they (ghost-)wrote ten books, but they never had permission to include the Perron story that stands behind The Conjuring.  The eldest daughter took on the task herself and even seems to be aware of (in the acknowledgements) a dubious talent for overwriting.  What the Warrens saw as demons, she sees as ghosts.  Who has the right to decide?

I wish the author well in her writing career—those of us who write tend to be natural boosters of others—but it would’ve been nice to have had a more condensed version focusing on the events in the Harrisville house.  One interesting thing caught my attention here: according to Perron the Warrens called by phone after the Perrons moved from the offending house and tried to talk Carolyn, the mother, into a book deal.  Offering a healthy income from the proposition, they gave a hint of what other writers have claimed—they had the business angle firmly in mind.  I’ve read enough from people who actually knew the Warrens to believe they sincerely believed they were helping people.  They also had to make a living, and ghost stories tend to sell well.  Some use that as evidence that they were only trying to make money.  I’d remove the only, without dismissing the financial incentive.

It’s nearly impossible to read a very long book and feel that you haven’t come to know the author.  Also, it’s difficult to dismiss material written, even if overwritten, so sincerely.  We live in a world that we don’t understand nearly as well as we think we do.  Call it old school on my part, but I believe in extending the benefit of the doubt to eyewitnesses, particularly when there are several of them and they have a decade to observe closely what many others never get a chance to see.  This set of three books is a window into a realm over which the drapes are usually drawn.  For those willing to do some hard mining, there’s something of value here.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

Strange Ending

Perhaps it’s from growing up as a biblical literalist, but I’ll probably always have problems with post-modernism.  You see, when you’re taught as a kid that there is one absolute right and you already know it (it’s Genesis to Revelation, no Apocrypha, please), you kind of get the idea that things are just what they seem.  Po-mo teaches, among other things, that there’s no true objectivity—reality is subjective and there is no neutral ground upon which to stand.  I’m down with that, but the old ways of looking at things remain.  This is a long-winded way of saying I finished Kohta Hirano’s ten-volume manga, Hellsing.  Over the past year I’ve been reading for a friend of mine, but manga has never really been my thing.  I read The Watchmen as a graphic novel, but looking at pictures somehow feels like cheating.  It’s that literalist thing again.

I might be dropping some spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me be warned.  There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting here and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.  In a kind of homage to my childhood monsters there’s vampires, werewolves, and even a Frankenstein’s monster in the series.  All of them are engaged in a constant state of combat against which the Protestant Hellsing organization stands for a stable civilization.  The Catholics are associated with Nazis along the way.  It’s a fascinating look at how an eastern culture might view the religious wars of those in the west who all go by the name “Christian.”  I think this is the genius of the series.  The friend who lent me the volumes has no declared faith, but he finds the dynamic fascinating.  Real religious fighting has made it easy for him.

The story, however, falls clearly into the generation of those without absolutes.  For someone my age a plot clearly laid out is a thing of beauty.  In college we used to argue about how absolutes might exist.  Where did they come from, and which is the strongest?  Did God make them or does God have to conform to them?  Even without the answers, the fact that absolutes existed was assumed.  Argument-driven science tells us that a theory is never proven.  Science is the best explanation we have at the moment, based on the evidence amassed.  In its own way, it has become post-modern.  Hellsing is a kind of mind-blowing work.  It will likely be a long time before I attempt another manga series.  Although I accept the po-mo premise, I still find old-fashioned fiction my favorite.

Stranger and Stranger

Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit.  While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked.  If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away.  The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion.  Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems.  Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!

Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer.  As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work.  The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are.  Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity.    No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism.  Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life.  Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion.  While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it.  Or can it?

Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct.  Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it.  As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear.  That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver.  People fear being taken over by something else.  Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still.  We know it comes from the upside down.  We know it can possess people.  And we learn that it can be exorcised.  Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here.  It’s simply part of the human psyche.  We can deny it exists.  We can try to describe it only by analogy.  We can try to exorcise it.  It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.

How Many, Now?

One thing you can say for the Bible—it’s been interpreted six ways to Sunday.  This point was brought home to me in reading Michael Willett Newheart’s “My Name Is Legion”: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Part of the Interfaces series, now apparently defunct, it takes an unusual biblical character and explores it.  Them, in this case.  The story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac is one of the more famous episodes in the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and the possessed man runs out at them.  He has superhuman strength, and he lives among the tombs.  Jesus asks the man, or the demon, its name only to receive the reply “Legion.”  He then casts the demons into a herd of swine that drown themselves in the lake.

Newheart approaches the story creatively, first by considering the Gospel of Mark as a book, and then treating his version of the story via narrative criticism.  This was pretty good, and I learned quite a bit from his analysis.  The book then moves on to psychological criticism.  I have to admit that this approach is one I haven’t ever used and, like many reader-response methods, it can seem somewhat arbitrary.  That’s not to suggest it shouldn’t be utilized, but rather to note that results could be uneven.  Your psyche’s not my psyche, savvy?  Subjective approaches may be all that we really have when considering an ancient text, but I always tend to look at things historically.

This book caught my attention because I’m researching demons.  You can’t really ignore a book with this title if you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament looks at them.  In any case, the historical method seems to me the only way we can really engage the question of what the ancients thought demons were.  I don’t want to say too much or you won’t have any reason to buy my next book.  (That’s a joke, by the way, before anyone suggests I’m exploiting my readers.)  Newheart doesn’t really raise the question of what demons are.  He does briefly mention The Exorcist, but it isn’t his main interest.  The character of Legion, however, is difficult to place if we can’t really say what demons are.  I did find the allusion to the Roman occupancy to be worthy of consideration.  The demoniac, however, may have begged to differ.  It couldn’t have been easy being an unnamed character in the Good Book.  And demons are often not what they seem.