Demons. During the writing of Holy Horror, the chapter that most impacted me was the one on possession movies. Having been raised never to question the Devil or demons, I harbored no doubts. Seminary, however, changed that. Set off on the scientific exploration of religion, I’d come to see them as arcane entities mired in superstitious antiquity. My own views on them had moved firmly to the mythological. When I first saw The Exorcist (I was in my 40s) I didn’t find it that scary. There were no such things as demons.
Over time my certainty waned a little. Like Socrates, I begin to see that the more you learn the less you know. Reading more and more sources, it became clear that easy answers weren’t so easy. Educated, rational adults recorded events that aren’t easily explained. We all know implicitly that when we step out the door our behavior changes. We become what we want others to see us as being. In our own home, though, things can be quite different. Publicly we can be skeptical. The books I read, in addition to suggesting the very real danger of demons, emphasized that they are, for the most part, a behind the closed door phenomenon.
At the same time, I’d begun a sequel to Holy Horror. It started off as a consideration of sequels to possession movies. Then the editors of the new Horror and Scripture series contacted me and asked if I would consider contributing. A little backstory: I began a discussion with Kelly Murphy of Central Michigan University about starting a new section at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. We’d discussed monsters before. Since I don’t have an academic post, Kelly ran with the idea. She contacted Joseph Laycock at the University of Texas at Austin and the three of us put an initial proposal together that was eventually approved for the 2017 meeting. It was renewed for the 2018 meeting. Meanwhile Fortress Academic and Lexington presses announced a new series, Horror and Scripture, edited by Kelly Murphy and Brandon Grafius of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary. As soon as I learned of it, I began putting these two ideas, sequels and demons, together into a single proposal. After telling my wife about a strange dream I’d had (is it any wonder?) she said “Nightmares with Bibles?” That immediately struck me as a great title. (It also tells you what kinds of dreams I have.)
Demons in History and Film
Since this book is currently being written, some of this is subject to descent with modification. Taking seriously the idea that popular media reflects actual views of religion in real time, this book probes the concept of demons. The first half is an historical breakdown of the topic beginning with ancient Mesopotamia and taking it up through the Early Modern Period. Then movies take over.
About these demons: they are of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic variety. Of the three religions, Christianity has been the main explorer of demons. They exist in various forms in cultures throughout the world, in many different religions. What becomes clear, however, is that their origins are somewhat complicated. Tracing them through the western world makes the most sense. Then the second half of the book analyzes horror films that feature demons. As with Holy Horror, it doesn’t strive to be comprehensive. There are far too many movies with demons to try that.
Watch this space for updates.
A Reassessment of Asherah (1993)
Weathering the Psalms (2014)
Holy Horror (2018)