Tag Archives: demons

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

Anneliese or Emily?

If it weren’t for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the name of Anneliese Michel would undoubtedly be less recognized than it is. Probably the first exorcism movie since The Exorcist to move the genre in a new direction, Emily Rose was based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel. There were significant differences between film and reality, however. Michel was from Bavaria, and she died at the age of 23 rather than being an American teenager like Emily. The story caught media attention because it was discovered that Michel had died after an extensive, months-long exorcism. Charges were made and the priests and Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of negligent homicide. The movie plays the whole thing out in the courtroom with flashbacks of the possession.

The book which led to the film was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman, who died in 2005, was a rare academic who wasn’t afraid to address the supernatural. Trained as a linguist, she had years of anthropological fieldwork experience and a medical background. She was also not dismissive of religious experiences. Naturally, this makes her suspect among academics, but her treatment of Michel’s case is both sympathetic and masterful. After narrating events pieced together from court records, diaries, tapes of the exorcism, and information supplied by some of those involved, she offers her own hypothesis of what actually happened. Anneliese Michel was a religious girl caught up in a religious altered state of consciousness that was treated scientifically by drugs. The result was fatal.

Throughout history, and even today, shamanistic persons exist. Whereas in tribal cultures they tend to become prominent, in the “developed world” they are often quite hidden. They experience what Goodman calls religious states of altered consciousness, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as requiring chemical healing. There have been many thoroughly documented cases where such individuals do “impossible” things. The rationalistic world has no place for them, however, for like capitalism, materialism takes no prisoners. Religion is part of who we are. Human beings do have spiritual needs. Such needs can be placated by other means at times, and we can continue to believe that everything in this universe is made of atoms, or super-strings, or quarks. Or we can perhaps admit that theres’s much we do not know. Goodman admits that her solution is an educated guess, but it does put all the pieces together rather nicely. And she doesn’t declare unilaterally whether demons are physical or not. In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, they were undeniably real.

After Dark

So many spooky things happen at night. If you’ve read much on this blog you’ll know I blushingly confess to a horror movie addiction. So much so that I wrote a book about it. Friends occasionally feed this fear by sending me stories of strange, nocturnal happenings that are frequently posted on the internet. All kinds of odd creatures roam the night: dog-men, goat-men, lizard-men (and they mostly seem to be male, for whatever reason). It’s enough to keep you inside once the sun sets. Of course, if you read this blog you know that I’m an extreme morning person. Sleeping in, for me, means getting out of bed at 4 a.m. instead of 3:00. Yes, it’s often dark at that time of day, and horror movies teach us that demons are particularly active around 3 o’clock. But then the sun comes up, and everything’s okay. Until the next twilight.

Now that December’s here, I find myself out in the dark more than usually occurs for a guy who gets up so early. After the time change—for which there exists no logical reason—it’s dark by the time I climb off the bus from my day job in New York City. The other day I was compelled to drive after dark. It was only just after 6 p.m., but that’s getting late for me. I scan the road looking for deer. A thought occurred to me—what if I see something weird cross the road? What would I do? A few moments later I was startled to see a woman and child beside the street. I was prepared to stop since—and this is apparently an unknown fact—it is the law in New Jersey to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. The young boy then made a dash in front of my car. The woman grabbed him and yelled. They weren’t crossing as they struggled at the roadside, so I slowed down but drove on. “That was weird,” my wife said, “that boy was in his bare feet.”

It was 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. This wasn’t one of New Jersey’s famed haunted roads, even. It was a comfortably affluent suburban street. The image stayed in my mind. There’s only so much you can do when driving in traffic. Yes, it was night, but this is New Jersey—there’s always traffic. Did anybody else see what we saw? What was happening here? Why was I so afraid? Fear is the most honest of our emotions. Without it no organism could long survive in this hostile world. After nightfall even governments are at their worst.

Creating Annabelle

You might go crazy trying to piece it all together. The buzz for The Conjuring had a spinoff prequel, Annabelle, in the making even as the movie hit theaters. Love it or hate it, horror makes money. A more traditional sequel, The Conjuring 2, is leading to two further spinoffs, The Nun and The Crooked Man. And this summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, came out. Only Annabelle isn’t really so much a prequel since it doesn’t have to do with Ed and Lorraine Warren. In any case, I finally had a chance to watch Annabelle: Creation and found it one of the more stunning examples of the genre in a long while. Intelligent, intricate, and slotted into the series in ways that required serious thought, it works as a stand-alone film or as part of a series. And, like much horror, it is deeply invested in religion.

First of all, the orphans moving into the Mullins’ large home are from a Catholic orphanage that has been closed. They are overseen by Sister Charlotte, so we expect religion to interdigitate with the horror here. Confession of sins, prayer, and crucifixes appear amid the unfolding lives of the girls in an isolated house inhabited by a demon. Some of the tricks we’ve seen before, but there’s enough new here to reinforce the thesis that religion and fear are close kin. Despite all this, and having a priest on call, no exorcism takes place. The doll, Father Massey declares, is just a doll. After the house has been blessed, there’s no need to fear. Of course we’ve already seen what comes next so we know the priest is wrong.

Some people watch horror to be scared. Others of us watch it looking for something a bit deeper. Not for everyone is religion a source of fear. We do, however, tend to cling to our beliefs because the world is such an uncertain place. We’re aware that we won’t last forever. Horror exploits that openly and without shame. Threats are constant and unrelenting, even if contrived. Religion is often a place to find consolation in the face of fear, so it becomes even more frightening when the place to which you’ve fled is the very place that’s out to get you. Annabelle: Creation is aware of this dynamic. The crucifixes, the Bibles, the prayers—none of this helps. What’s more, the girls manage to pull themselves together for safety when there are no men around. The real danger, after all, is inhuman.

Amityville Revisited

Remakes, standard wisdom holds, are seldom as good as the originals. When the original wasn’t great to begin with, the bar should be lower. Should be. I’ve been curious about the Lutz haunting in Amityville, having just read the book that started the phenomenon back in the late 1970s. I saw the movie first. That was several years ago now, but I do recall that even as horror movies go it had its failings. Some of that goes back to the book (presuming that anything happened)—nobody had a solid grip on whether this was a ghostly haunting or a demonic infestation. What the movie did do well is show how fragile family relationships can be, especially when under the pressures of supernatural supervision, not of the positive kind. Although, as is to be expected, the book was scarier.

Overcome by curiosity I finally watched the remake from 2005. Clearly I’m not the only one still curious about this alleged haunting, alleged hoax. I also have the alleged burden of looking for religion in horror. Only on this final count was it not disappointing. Well, that and in featuring burgeoning scream queen Chloë Grace Moretz. Although Father Callaway’s role is late in the film and brief, early on religious ideas are implicated. If the movie hadn’t tried so hard to be The Shining these themes might’ve been developed to good advantage. Instead it introduces Rev. Jeremiah Ketcham (also late in the film) as the first owner of the house in 1692 (did the real-estate agent’s mention of that date make you shiver?). Ketcham was a sadist to the Indians under his care, torturing them to death in the house. No time is left to explore the sinister minister’s motivation as the family implodes in its attempt to escape the house by boat.

As is frequently the case with the supernatural, we’ll likely never know what happened at the Amityville house. The story Jay Anson told is now generally classified as a novel. The preternatural can be judged neither in the courtroom nor the laboratory. The best that we can do is make celluloid adaptations to make some money on the deal. The DeFeo murders happened in living memory. The Lutzes left the house in a hurry shortly after purchasing it. Anson’s Indian “asylum” was never really there—and there were no such Native American practices in any case. What the remake left out was demons. Although the movie attempted other religious scares, the house just isn’t the same without them.

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.