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.

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.

Body or Soul?

Something’s wrong with Buddy Love.  He doesn’t act like a professor.  Meanwhile, Sherman Klump, heavyset but brilliant, feels that human companionship is passing him by.  Still, he’s a professor and has the support of a major university—at least as long as he brings the grant money in.  The Nutty Professor, a re-envisioning of the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, is instructive to watch.  One of the immediately obvious things to those of us who’ve been professors, is that movie makers don’t really understand what it’s like.  And it’s not just comedies—Indiana Jones doesn’t get it any more than Dean Richmond does.  Academics who watch these films shake their heads, if they think about the presentation of their profession.  Indeed, for being high profile, it is a job the public does not understand.

That’s not really what this post is about, however.  Although it’s been a few years, I suspect The Nutty Professor still has some currency.  In case I’m wrong, here’s the gist: it’s a modern, funny version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  An overweight professor invents a formula that leads to instant weight loss.  The formula, however, also has side-effects, such as a boost in testosterone levels that leads to instability and violence.  In the climactic scene of the movie, Eddie Murphy transforms back and forth from Sherman to Buddy while on stage at the alumni ball.  Papa Klump, who has paid to attend, calls out, “Someone had better go and call the exorcist!”  

Now, this is screwball comedy.  Still, it reflects something that I’ve been struggling with in my current book—the public view of possession.  Demons aren’t generally known for changing body mass indices.  They’re after the soul, after all.  Still, there’s an element of truth, according to church teaching, about what Papa Klump says—demons are bodily afflictions.  Traditionally, they can’t impact a person’s soul.  In fact, possession is not considered a sin, and those under demonic influence aren’t held responsible for sins they commit while under that influence.  The soul is considered, unlike the physical body, something that cannot be “possessed.”  I know not to take movies like this seriously, but they do contribute to the pool of public “knowledge” about possession.  In this way, at least, it’s important to pay attention.  Such films may not really comprehend what the lives of professors are like, but they do reflect, even if in a nutty way, what people believe.

Changing Times

Demons are an embarrassment.  The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism.  You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis.  That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing.  Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table.  If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist.  And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing.  There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.

Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic.  As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did.  That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons.  Things have changed since the first century, of course.  After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor.  And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview.  This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.

Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word.  The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act.  It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world.  Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us.  The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise.  The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated.  It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect.  Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm.  If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion.  Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases.  But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.

Wolves Again

Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.

Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.

It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Secularcist

It should be fairly obvious that I’ve been researching demons lately. In the current political climate, it feels like a natural thing to do. Where there are demons, there are also exorcists. Many times those who write books on their experience in this realm will lapse into something along the lines of, “If there are demons, then Catholicism has to be true. All of it.” Or something like that. I have to admit that reading the better written accounts makes me start to think that way. R. H. Stavis’ Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist is another approach altogether. A secular exorcist, Rachel Stavis doesn’t use the time-worn rituals of movie fame. And her book offers an interesting rationale for her exorcisms—she sees entities.

I have often wondered if “growing up” isn’t largely teaching ourselves to discount what we perceive as children. I’m sure I’m not the only kid who was told there are no such things as monsters but didn’t fully internalize that “fact.” Besides, some things are worse than monsters. In any case, Stavis states that she sees entities and it’s clear from the book that she does indeed believe this. This isn’t for show. She describes various types of demons and how she learned to exorcize them. It’s a fascinating account. Her explanations won’t convince everyone, and her answers of where demons come from remain somewhat vague, but her clients swear by her methods. And she’s upfront about wanting her work to increase the good in the world by banishing evil.

I know many Christians who’d be ready to stone a pagan even for such a good deed as exorcizing a demon. Stavis doesn’t belittle any religion, however, and leans a bit toward Wicca herself. As I read I imagined what a reader convinced of the rectitude of one and only one religions would say. Only Jesus can drive out demons? (Judaism had, and still has exorcists, as do some sects of Islam.) Since a demon is a Christian monster, only a Christian can drive it out? One of the more interesting facts of the history of exorcism is that it was, in the Middle Ages, sometimes an interfaith exercise. The three major religions represented in Europe (the Abrahamic triad) recognized that any of the three could drive out demons. Each welcomed the help of the others. We’ve gone backwards since then. We haven’t again yet reached the stage where we realize that anyone doing good is on the side of good. Even demons, it seems, are conservative these days.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.

Exercising Exorcism

About the last people, ironically, that you’ll find researching demons are religion scholars. That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but there’s an embarrassment to the topic that serious academics just can’t shake. Nobody wants to be thought truly believing in that stuff. Michael W. Cuneo, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, isn’t afraid to look. His American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty is a user-friendly, often witty look at what is an amazing phenomenon. Exorcism had pretty much gone extinct by the middle of the twentieth century. Then The Exorcist happened. Cuneo makes no bones about it—Hollywood wrote the script on what was to become a somewhat bustling business through the end of the millennium and beyond. And it wasn’t limited to Catholics. Protestants, mainly of Evangelical stripe, cottoned onto Deliverance ministry and joined the fray against the demonic.

American Exorcism reflects Cuneo’s personal account of attending exorcisms. As he puts it at the end, no fireworks occurred. In fact, he’s skeptical that demons exist and he strongly suspects exorcisms work in the same way that a placebo does. He’s well aware that the majority of people he met and talked with in the making of this book disagree on that point. Cuneo himself attended at least fifty exorcisms, both Catholic and Protestant, and shysters among the exorcists were rare. Most were sincere, devoted people who are helping others in distress for no fees, no glory, and no promotion. They see a need, believe they know the diabolical cause, and take the devil by the horns (metaphorically speaking).

There is a solid mistrust between academics with their studied skepticism and exorcists with their eyewitness accounts that defy belief. Cuneo suggests that even what they think they see may not really be happening in the real world. My question, coming down to the end of the fascinating book, revolves around what exactly this real world is. There can be no doubt that present day concepts of exorcism are largely based on “the movie.” Cuneo seems just a bit reluctant to say what I also declared in my forthcoming book—pop culture, the movies, dictate reality for many people. At least in the realm of religion. Sacred institutions have lost their authority to make ex cathedra pronouncements about what is real and what is not. Few bother to, or can, delve into the tedious work of reading academic studies on the subject. It’s far easier to let the unseen presences behind the camera take over. Isn’t that what possession is about, after all?

The Art of Commuting

You can tell when the holiday season settles on the city. The commute home takes longer because developers simply can’t ignore a highway and the potential it has for shipping in the lucre. Highway 22 is built up in several spots—it’s kind of like a 20-mile long roadside mall between where the bus enters it and my exit. Holiday shoppers right after work clog this artery faster than fried eggs for breakfast every day. We crawl, penitent, wanting only to reach home. You get to know the regulars on the bus. You may not know their names, but their faces and personalities become clear enough. The man sitting across the row from me was someone I couldn’t recall having seen before. Lots of people, of course, go into New York occasionally. A stranger on the bus isn’t exactly rare.

Near my stop I slip into the empty seat next to the aisle to get ready to disembark. He looks over at me and asks if he can give me a bookmark he’s made. Worse than talking to strangers is taking candy from one. He encourages me by telling me he does it to promote his work, since he writes haikus and does paintings. I accept one and learn of the website unfoldingmind.com. He then asks what I’ve been reading. If you read my posts in order, you can see my last book was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. There’s a reason I don’t tell my fellow passengers about my literary choices. I say it is a book about an exorcism and he takes it in stride, asking if it was an actual case.

I had my own unfolding moment then. Not only was it the case that I could mention exorcism in casual conversation, but a man considerably younger than me knew what it was. Stop and think about that: prior to the movie and novel, The Exorcist, very few modern people even knew about the rite. Strangers on a bus, both artists in their own way, I like to think, knew what this was. I look at my bookmark, some original art with a haiku on it, and think of the many interesting people that make this bus their temporary domicile. Occasionally, amid the snoring phone-movie watchers, is another passenger using the long ride home to open his or her mind. The bookmark is now amid the artifacts of my personal museum. And my words, hardly poetry, are a tribute to those who practice the arts that make us human.

Getting Exorcize

Supply and demand may seem to be an odd framework to apply to religion, but it obviously exists within the polity of churches, synagogues, and mosques. What the people want does influence what’s on offer. Watching movies about demonic possession isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Demons are scary, and it doesn’t help that, historically speaking, they’ve never really been properly defined. Francis Young has provided a service to the curious with his book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. The book is just what it says, an examination of how Catholics have formally dealt with demons, or more properly, demoniacs, over the centuries. Young notes the protean nature of demons at the beginning—they meet cultural expectations of their time rather than obeying theological niceties. What to do about them?

Long relegated to the realm of epilepsy and mental illness, possession has gone through several periods of ascendency and decline. Indeed, in the nineteenth century it looked as though exorcism, in Catholicism, might have been on the endangered species list. Science was calling the reality of the spiritual world into question and nobody likes to be thought naive. With few exceptions, the move toward eliminating the role of the exorcist was gaining steam. Then in the twentieth century the demand for exorcism revived. As Young notes, a large part of the increasing interest arose from the novel and subsequent movie, The Exorcist. Possession was something so little talked about for so many years that it proved a rich ground for a new kind of monster that was eminently believable. The church, after all, never said there weren’t demons. Since that time, interest has been waxing once again.

Part of the reason would seem to be that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. When our main sources of authority in that realm are eroded, we start looking elsewhere to find succor. Ironically, outside Catholicism the mainstay of exorcism has been among various evangelical Protestant groups. They may not have an ancient ritual to use, but what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. Their demons are culled from a literal reading of the Bible. And interest among Catholics, in this strange supply and demand rubric, has meant that more exorcists are being trained and made available. The world that Young leads his readers through is one in which strange things reside. He makes no judgment about demons or their reality. He does, however, provide a very thorough history of what the Catholic Church has done about them, when the demand exceeds supply.

Night of the Museum

I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.

For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.

Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.

What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.

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.

Getting Exorcise

ExorcismTo be honest, I can’t recall having heard of Johann Joseph Gassner before. Given his role in the European witch-hunting culture, however, I must have read his name a time or two. As with most names out of context, it was quickly forgotten. H. C. Erik Midelfort, therefore, is to be congratulated with bringing out not only Gassner’s name, but his remarkable career. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany, like so many other books, came to my attention in a bookstore. Books on demons have a strange kind of draw to someone interested in both religion and monsters, and since it was on an overstock shelf, I found it impossible to let it lie. This proved to be a wise decision.

Midelfort proves himself one of the rare academics who doesn’t talk down to his readership, yet makes what could be a complex topic understandable. Complex is about the only word to describe what would become Germany in the Eighteenth Century. The remnants of the Holy Roman Empire left a divided region with prince-bishops—clerics with political control outside their own dioceses—vying for all kinds of authority. Although the Enlightenment was well underway, the region was embroiled in the controversy of a priest by the name of Gassner. Gassner was a healer, but also an exorcist. Believing that many torments suffered by the populace were demon-spawned, he used highly public and, to some, incredible exorcisms before healing those in need. His success was unquestioned, but the church, struggling between Catholicism and Lutheranism, as well as struggling to find a place in the Enlightenment world, found Gassner a bit of an embarrassment. What do you do with demons in a world where science says they don’t exist?

One of the most notable takeaways from Midelfort’s book, for me, is that the Enlightenment did not suddenly change the world. Even fully aware of empirical experimentation and the use of reason, the scholarly world did not utterly acquiesce to a subdued materialism. It still hasn’t. As the case of Gassner demonstrates, our comfortable, physically predictable world holds some surprises for us yet. At least for Gassner, believing demons don’t exist doesn’t stop them from tormenting people. As he cured his thousands, skeptics gathered (including his contemporary Franz Mesmer) to explain away what was happening. Even today, as Midelfort points out, we can’t explain the placebo effect. There’s no question, however, that it works. As does, if the media is to be believed, the occasional exorcism in the twenty-first century.