Tag Archives: demons

Average Reality

One of the stranger dynamics of higher education is its unquestioning acceptance of a one-size-fits-all methodology. Don’t get me wrong—the empirical method works. The only real problem with it is that not all phenomena in the universe cooperate with human observation. It’s something I call the problem of occasional phenomena. Perhaps because of the rancid taste left in scientific mouths by lingering creationism, anything that isn’t slow and regular enough to be directly or theoretically observed simply can’t fit in this old world. The weird, the anomalous, the strange—these open the door to possible spirits and spirits have no way of being measured. At least not yet. The most convenient way to deal with them is to call them superstition and end the discussion right there.

The larger problem is that people see things. Unless said people are scientists, they are considered amateur observers, liable to mistake what they see. The classic example of this is ghosts. From the beginning of recorded history people have claimed to see them, or hear things go bump in the night. Some of the first modern people to make a profession out of exploring such things were Ed and Lorraine Warren. Unfortunately, they didn’t write books about their experiences. Largely because of movies made about some of their high profile cases, there has been a resurgence of interest in the couple and the books originally published by other presses, such as Prentice Hall and St. Martin’s, have been reissued by Graymalkin Media. These are co-written tomes of uneven quality. They’re also like candy—once you start on them it’s hard to stop. Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist is one such book. More than others in the collection that I’ve read, it concentrates on a single phenomenon that overlaps with the world of religion—demons. Unlike trained religion scholars, however, the Warrens aren’t shy about declaring what demons are (fallen angels) and how they differ from devils (it’s all about rank).

What makes these books so interesting is the dispassionate description of the cases the Warrens investigated. Unless they are pathological in their connection to telling untruths, there’s some very odd stuff that goes on out there. Although they declare once in a while that other religions and their practitioners can also deal with demons, there’s a simple kind of black-and-white view of morality that fits what you might have learned in Sunday School. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that most academics don’t take an academic interest in demons. Once they’re filed in the mythology folder there’s no reason to try to figure out what they might “really be.” The Warrens’ outlook, therefore, has become canonical among ghost hunters. They certainly have more credibility in that crowd than most Harvard Ph.D.s. It’s funny what can happen when you refuse to explore what the average person considers to be just as real as the physical world we all think we know so well.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.

Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.


A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.

Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

American Possession


Exorcism seems an especially appropriate trope these days. Embedded evil has to be faced squarely and forced out before it kills its host. I recently rewatched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a most unusual horror film in that the story is born by a courtroom drama over whether the priest overseeing the ritual was responsible for the death of Emily Rose. Famously based on a true story, the movie raises a more basic question than whether it “really happened”—what is the viewpoint through which we view the world? We see from the very beginning that the case is actually a contest between two powerful law firms. Each wants a lawyer that can shred the case of the other. The prosecutors engage Ethan Thomas, a very religious Methodist, against the defense’s Erin Bruner, an agnostic. Believing Emily’s case to be purely medical, Thomas asserts that had she stayed on her medication Emily would’ve remained alive with the prospects of a healthy life. Fearing a complete loss, Bruner takes a risky counter-approach: what is Emily really was possessed?

The obligatory scary scenes are shown, of course. They are flashbacks inserted into the course of the trial, but nevertheless disturbing for all their calm, rational framing. The real question, as the story plays out, is can a supernatural worldview be allowed in a court of law. Ironically, such a worldview is already present when a witness swears on the Bible. This particular movie doesn’t show those scenes, but it would’ve been a fair point for Ms. Bruner to make. Clearly the court can’t decide if demons are real, but it can allow that possibility. It’s a classic case of science versus religion. Nevertheless, both sides make use of science. The anthropologist on the stand is dismissed by the religious Mr. Thomas. He has no time for Catholic, or any other religions’, superstition.

Many strange choices were made for this particular cinematic piece, but the story works nevertheless. Those who believe in spiritual realities are allowed to live them out only to a point. The legal system decides if a religion has gone too far. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in a post-truth world, any clear standard of rationality can possibly hold. But questioning universally accepted truths and subverting them to personal preferences its almost if we’ve actually reached the stage of “all those in favor of general relativity say ‘aye.’” As I say, the film was more timely than anticipated. Demons, after all, often appear in the guise of an angel of light. Especially for those motivated by fear.

December Demons

Conversations with friends, inevitably, turn to the fiasco this country faces with Donald Trump. My response, apart from attempting a measure of optimism and combativeness, often involves escapism. Regular readers know that I watch horror movies. They may not know that I watch such films to help me cope with the very real fears of living in what has all the signs of being an out-of-control autocracy. With this in mind, I’ve been reading about horror films to try to understand myself a bit more. Perhaps a roundabout way to psychological insight, but it is cheaper than seeing a therapist. Over the weekend I again watched The Exorcist. A classic of the horror genre, it is rare in having been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and having received mainstream critical acclaim. What made it particularly interesting at this particular viewing is the fact that demons are such poorly understood monsters.

Mikhail Vrubel's demon, Wikimedia Commons

Mikhail Vrubel’s demon, Wikimedia Commons

One of the reasons for this is that no single entity known as “demon” fits all the ancient ideas about such spiritual beings. The earliest demons we know about, from ancient Mesopotamia, aren’t necessarily evil. They seem to be in control of natural forces that harm people, but that isn’t always intentional. From the human perspective this is bad, but from the point of view of the divine world, it’s neutral. Sumerians and those of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires did not believe in Hell. There was no Satan and therefore “fallen angels” intent on harming people weren’t part of their worldview. The Greeks, who gave us the word, referred to as “daimons” nature spirits that were generally benign. In the biblical world, influenced by Zoroastrianism, a dualistic understanding of the universe emerged and eventually demons came to be understood as angels that followed the Devil in revolt against God.

Complicating the picture, possession, in world religions, is not always a negative thing. In some cases it is a way of having a deity inhabit one’s body—something of a blessing. In the New Testament demons may have been an explanation for epilepsy. They were, however, understood in that day as possessing spirits of evil intent, in league with Satan. Thoroughly evil, they could evoke paranormal phenomena and could completely control a person unless expelled. In modern media, where reality television dictates the terms, demons are responsible for some hauntings. They are disembodied entities “that were never human” and they are always malevolent. One of the reasons they are so scary is that no one really knows what they are. And in cases where one has no idea what to expect, fear is a natural result.

The Grammar of Evil

I stepped into a devil of a situation. Elevators are strange spaces. Given the choice, I’ll take the stairs any time. At work, however, as one of the many quirks of Manhattan, our elevators only stop on certain floors and we’re not able to use the stairs unless it’s an emergency. After a meeting on a floor where the only option was to elevate out, I stepped into a crowded elevator where a conversation was going. “You always capitalize Satan,” someone was saying. The usual questions among non-religion editorial staff ensued. Why is that? What about “devil”? “It’s never capitalized,” came the reply. My profile at work is about the same as it is on the streets of New York. Not many people know who I am or what I do. Although I’ve struggled with this very issue before, on a professional level, I kept silence and waited for my floor.

So, was the elevator authority right? “Satan” has become a name, rather along the lines of “Christ.” Both started out as titles. In the Hebrew Bible “satan” is “the satan.” The accuser, or the prosecuting attorney—something like that. As one of the council of gods, the satan’s job was to make sure the guilty were charged of their crimes. Diabolical work, but not evil. By the time of early Christianity, however, Satan had evolved into a name. It is therefore capitalized. It was specifically the name of another title, “the Devil.” Or is it “the devil?” Do we capitalize titles?

The Devil wears underpants.

The Devil wears underpants.

In seminary and college the received wisdom among those of my specialization was that there is only one Devil and the title should be capitalized. My elevator colleagues were discussing the number of devils when I stepped out. Traditional theology says there’s only one. Not that the Bible has much to say about the Devil—he’s surprisingly spare in sacred writ. Demons, however, are plentiful. Some people call demons devils, just as many believe that when good people die they become angels. The mythology behind demons seems to be pretty well developed in the biblical world, but again the Bible says little. Demons can be fallen angels or they can be malign spirits who cause illness. Either way they’re on the Devil’s side. But should we capitalize his title? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help, giving examples of both minuscule and uncial. I suppose that’s the thing about the Devil; you never really know where you stand.