"Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
I could hear the demon’s tread on the stair, his hooves light, his baritone breath thick and snorting and heavier each moment. From where I lay, unmoving in my bed, it sounded the way sulphur smells.
My only shield was a 1964 hardcover edition of the Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends that my great-grandfather had given to my mother on her 12th birthday and which, when you stood it open, could shelter a small family from the wind—cold comfort when the Minotaur was dragging his hideous form up the stairs of our little house in the dairy country of Central New York.
I was, let’s be clear, a rather hard-boiled eight-year-old, equally at home among the San Francisco street toughs of Dashiell Hammett and the Stasi interrogators of Cold War spy fiction. But the Continental Op and George Smiley had been stepping to human adversaries who obeyed the more prosaic laws of physics and of evolutionary biology. Neither had encountered Cretan demons in a modern domestic setting. I lay in the sheets, wishing I had a gun instead of a baseball bat, urging myself to move and failing. At last, in counterpoint to the evil mouth-breather on the stairs, I heard my own voice: Your baby sister’s room stands between you and the beast, it said. Stop being stupid. DO SOMETHING.
Obeying, I cracked the door and—brandishing the book like a two-by-four—prepared to do battle.
The stairs were empty. The Minotaur was gone; had never, in fact, been under our roof. Stripped of its distorted echoes, the ancient growl revealed its true origin. My father had been snoring.
As demon stories go, mine is pretty tame. Nothing, for example, as cool as that of my friend who met a ghost-witch in a cemetery only to discover that he’d been living in her house down the road for the previous year—not to mention the stories you’ll read this week: sons watching their fathers exorcise Satan from women’s wombs; granddaughters watching female elders chide the churlish Lord Shani on the streets of Calcutta; communities in Madagascar that fear the ill-omened gaze (and accusatory index finger) of the world’s most wicked lemur; and the people of Oman for whom hourly negotiations with jinn are no less a part of life than the preparation of lamb or the call to prayer.
Does my Minotaur chestnut count as a demon story, then? From an etymological standpoint, the answer is an absolute yes: The Minotaur was a demon (daimon) because of his grotesque hybrid identity—equal parts beast, man, and God. From Hesiod to Socrates through the late Hellenistic period, demons were fascinating and sometimes scary precisely because of their hazy, intermediary status. They were demigods, sometimes identifiable merely as impulses, that operated in unseen ways on the human spirit, without the full-voiced authority of Zeus and with only the partial complicity of man. Nonetheless, pagans are less frightened than we by moral ambiguity and divine mysteries; for Socrates—and later, among certain strains of Platonism and Neo-Platonism—the daimon was a presence of divine inspiration.
From the fourth century, as progress in science and medicine ground to a halt, it is not a very great stretch to say that demons came to take the place of clinical diagnosis.
In the more rigid categories of monotheistic religions, this inscrutability and general unfixedness run counter to the closed-system, streamlined hierarchy—"Local Integrated System Architecture," say—that God, like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, demands. We see this unease reflected, in the first centuries after Christ, in Christian Greek of the Middle East and Mediterranean, as daemon begins to indicate or connote a being unmoored from a place in God's order, occupying dark places between angels and men. Saint Jerome, the fourth-century church father who translated the Bible into Latin, inveighed frequently in his homilies against the “false testimony of demons.” Pat Robertson frequently reiterates St. Jerome’s message, though somehow with less panache: “There are demons. Jesus dealt with demons. They are real, and they will possess, and they will destroy."
From the fourth century, as progress in science and medicine ground to a halt, it is not a very great stretch to say that demons came to take the place of clinical diagnosis. Demons were used to explain diseases of the central nervous system, as well as certain instances of learning disabilities and many varieties of mental illness. We still use “demons” to address such maladies, and our usage here is something more than metaphorical, something less than literal. Demons begin not in symbol but in experience—in nervous afflictions, in the deliria of high fever or of alcohol withdrawal, where the spirit dissociates from the body and even from itself. Whether you’re Ray Milland in the Lost Weekend or St. Theresa being pierced by an arrow, possession is the name we give to profane ecstasy. In depression or anxiety or addiction or grief (or, indeed, in battling the actual minions of Satan), when we become dispossessed of ourselves, we return to the vocabulary of real estate, of ownership, as though by repossessing the terminology we can re-claim our birthright, which is to say some saner, less painful mode of moving through the world and knowing, more or less, who we are.
“Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell,” Milton’s Satan declares in book four of Paradise Lost. It’s a touching lament from the Dark One about the prison of being oneself. There are those, like Justice Antonin Scalia, who believe in the literal devil, and Public Policy Polling reports that a growing number of 18- to 29-year-olds believe in demons. For the rest of us, the power of the demonic lexicon itself is the source of fascination.
No matter your stance on things unseen, this week’s series of reports is packed with insights both secular and divine. Lane Severson tells us about the first time his father performed an exorcism, but also about himself (“When we lose the battle completely, when the wolf at the door consumes our identity, I call that a demon.”). Nandini Balial writes of her great-grandmother scolding the invisible gods of Calcutta, a story that says as much about family as it does about Lord Shani. Alex Palmer reports from the world’s oldest paranormal research society, and asks, “what happened to man’s capacity for wonder?” Asher Kohn recounts the Persian romance of how Alexander the Great used demons to build a border wall, and then parses Alexander’s xenophobia for the benefit of an American electorate steeped in 21st-century border anxieties. Caleb Caldwell investigates the lucrative fear-mongering of proselytizing hucksters David Hogan and Frank Peretti. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib chats with his neurotic dog, Liebs, about loud vs. quiet demons, and why the worst anxiety is often the softest.
Finally, our own Madeleine Thomas visits Killjoy’s Kastle in Los Angeles, a lesbian-feminist riposte to the scare tactics of evangelical hell-houses; at Killjoy’s, “demented women’s studies professors” and “demon lesbians” lead guests through yonic gateways that glisten with fangs. Look past the jokes, and you’ll see that Killjoy’s has dramatized the worst paranoias harbored by the men’s-rights set—the point being to ask what, exactly, those paranoias are really about.
As with most questions involving irrational panic, the answer rests somewhere between the metaphorical and the literal. —Ted Scheinman
Why We Love the Myth That Most Americans Believed the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ Broadcast
The real legacy of the War of the Worlds is how we think about mass media.
My Demons and My Dog and This Anxiety and That Noise
Anxiety is clearest when it’s loud—and most dangerous when it’s quiet.
How Alexander the Great Used Genies to Build a Great, Great Wall
What ancient myth can teach us about demonization, xenophobia, and the comforting fiction of a wall.
My Great-Grandmother Versus the Invisible Gods of Calcutta
Memories from my father—and the curse of Lord Shani.