Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.

New Age Present

Okay, so I admit I’m curious. As my “six month” subscription to TAPS Paramagazine continues into its second year, itself somewhat paranormal, I get the feeling that I’m witnessing the birth of a new religion. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that new religions are hardly rare, but this one seems an accidental entry into the field. Now ghosts and religion are natural enough as corollaries. Both involve afterlife concerns and the unknown. Having watched TAPS Paramagazine feature fairies, tarot cards, and zombies, however, I wonder if the distinctions are becoming blurred. In this latest issue (January/February) many of the articles make explicit mention of God. God and ghost in the same breath, with the exception of a particularly holy spirit, is an odd combination, given the biblical injunction against mediums.

Spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was descried by famous debunkers such as Harry Houdini and accepted by famous intellectuals like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is that liminal area that stays out of the reach of traditional Christianity and Judaism, but strays into the afterlife-prepared psyche. If the dead are out there, they should be able to communicate. Right? And with God’s full approval, so it seems. This latest issue alone suggests that UFOs may be demonic, that clergy may be legitimately interested in ghosts, God may speak through dead children, and that one may become addicted to paranormal investigation. Sounds like a recipe for a New Age mythology. Throwing in light-hearted contributions about the Walking Dead, and suddenly zombies become real as well. Oh, and skunks have a special wisdom.

Traditional Christianity cautions against all of these things (except skunks). When it comes to the supernatural, it claims, there is only one super, supernatural being. The rest are charlatans and wannabes. The Bible certainly does not encourage consorting with ghosts, and yet, in this New Age milieu it is possible to find any remotely spiritual entity touted as proof of reality beyond reality. As Bader, Mencken, and Bader observe in Paranormal America, citizens of this country are inclined to believe. Where does belief lead when there is no pole-star to guide the ship? I sense that we may be steering into uncharted waters. Anyone want to volunteer to be captain? Religions always get to make up their own rules, so feel free to devise your own compass.

Holy Horror

Back in October, in the spirit of the season, I attended a local lecture by a ghost hunter at a nearby public library. This sincere young man struck me as perfectly normal, but haunted by his ghostly encounters. During the question session someone asked about TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society, of “Ghost Hunters” fame). The lecturer indicated that TAPS is not above fabricating evidence for ratings, a disappointing but not unexpected factor when it comes to television. He even gave some evidence to back his assertions. Nevertheless, my wife’s whimsical six-month subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine has continued on well past its expiration date, and when the November/December issue arrived, I was interested to see a piece entitled “Sacramental Horror: What scary stories can tell us about what is real.” Well, this was too good to pass up.

The article, written by Presbyterian minister Jonathan Weyer, discusses the value of horror films. The juxtaposition of a clergyman and horror films is a little unexpected, but believable. After all, many horror films feature religious ideals clothed in monstrous form. Dividing horror films into Uncanny/Unsettling horror, gross-out horror, and torture porn, Weyer goes on to explain how uncanny or unsettling horror underscores the moral order of the universe and is therefore appropriate for Christian contemplation. He even draws the Nicene Creed into it. Gross-out horror serves the function of making the viewer contemplate death and perhaps even helps to make fun of it. This is a less noble, but still acceptable Christian enterprise. Torture porn, on the other hand, simply has no redeeming value. Sacramental horror really didn’t enter the discussion. Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror takes this issue on more directly.

I really don’t expect much insight from a fanzine that treats the reality of fairies and the prognostications of tarot cards next to the genuinely mysterious, such as ghosts. Finding morality in horror films is often a matter of eisegesis. The fear in such films often emerges from the sacred, either in pure or distorted form. Even if “the pure of heart or, often the virgin” survives while “Wrongdoers get put to the axe,” as Weyer states, seldom is that the intended point of the movie. John Carpenter denies that there was a moralizing message in his Halloween, often cited as the movie that established the “good girl survives” motif. The fact is that horror relates to the sacred in the element of fear. If people were not afraid, there would be little for religion or horror movies to accomplish.

Religion in the Underworld

One of the unspoken truths of the study of religion is that it has an unacknowledged, problematic sibling in paranormal studies. There are many obvious differences: for one thing, religious study is respectable, if not really considered essential, whereas paranormal study is suspect and not generally acknowledged by established scientific or mainstream research institutes. Nevertheless, both religion and paranormal phenomena deal with unquantifiable experiences, aspects of human perception that cannot yet be measured. So it was with a large grain of salt that my wife signed me up for a year’s subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine. I’ve posted on this particular magazine before, but a new issue arrived just yesterday that contained so many references to the Bible and mainstream religion that I thought it worthy of reiteration.

In general I am skeptical about supernatural claims. At the same time, I am aware that we understand only a fraction of the universe and some aspects of theoretical physics are more bizarre than your average ghost story. When the magazine arrives I read through it with my salt-shaker within easy reach. Nevertheless, a feeling haunts me that at some deep level my specialization is connected with paranormal activity. The first article in the current issue concerns the Underworld. The author suggests that biblical and Mesopotamian references to the Underworld may be supported by the findings of ghost hunting investigators.

I’m all for a couple of working guys (plumbers Jason and Grant) daring to tread where scientists fear to go, but the problems of using ancient materials to bolster ghost-hunting claims are legion. Just a glance at the popularity of Zecharia Sitchin books warns against a simplistic reading of complex, ancient civilizations. We don’t need ghosts in the machine to explain the Sumerians or Babylonians. At the same time, we don’t have many academic options for uncovering the many, many ghost claims that have made throughout history. Mass neurosis is less believable than occasional hauntings. So although I have to disagree about the viability of a literal Underworld – a good understanding of ancient mythology helps to clarify that one – I do reserve some space for wondering if religious studies might not end up in the same final resting place as paranormal studies once science is able to penetrate the veil.

My all-time favorite ghost photo

Zoroastrian Odyssey

Clinton's Red Mill

Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.

The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.

A Zoroastrian fravashi

The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.