Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.