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From exorcisms to conversion therapy, we’re still casting the demons out

Demons are canonically horny. The Vatican, which holds that the pit lord Beezelbub walks among us, released revised guidelines for exorcisms in 1999. It was the first major revision to the rules since they were originally set down in Latin by the Roman Catholic Church almost four hundred years earlier. Even by the standards of the church, whose ban on contraception has held firm for centuries, they were due for an update. Some exorcists had already begun citing more modern signs of demon possession from excessive masturbation to caffeine addiction.    

When I was a teenager in 2010, my family told me I had the gift of spiritual foresight. It was not as pleasant as it sounds. This gift meant I was sensitive to the supernatural, that I could feel the realm of angels and demons nigh-imperceptibly superimposed over our own world. It also meant I was supposed to use my gift to battle malevolent spirits. There’s a whole brand of literature dedicated to the pursuit of “spiritual warfare.” This is not something every Christian denomination leans into so heavily, but I was raised evangelical. There were strict rules for proper conduct and content. I did not watch a horror movie until I was fifteen, and even then I watched it through my fingers. The world was horrible enough. Demons weren’t something to be trifled with; they were alive, swarming the night with claws chanting backward in Latin. I read the literature even when my family told me not to. I knew it would give me nightmares about battling ghouls and goblins, but I was already waking up screaming nearly every night. Never show up to a demon fight without holy water. Besides, the Bible wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. There are far fewer scenes with demons than you’d expect, at least not as many as I’d expected growing up in the world that I did. One of the biggest demons, Asmodeus, is only mentioned in the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit.

The sparse, and often impractical, discussions of demonology in the Bible didn’t square with the more recent evangelical literature I read. The manuals on spiritual warfare had fiery cartoonish covers that instilled an overwhelming fear in my heart. Even seeing them on the coffee table made me nervous—as if seeing the book would summon a demon that very night. While now I delight in the camp of Ethel Cain with her tattoos that mock the sign of the beast, as a child I remember staring at a clock firmly convinced the end times were about to begin. I read Revelations over and over, scouring the internet for signs of the apocalypse. Imagine my surprise when Covid hit. The end happened and we’re still going. The Antichrist has yet to reveal himself. 

I didn’t want my gift. There was no way I could fight back against the demonic. I was a soft-spoken, effeminate, terrified child struggling with night terrors. Waking and dreaming had turned against me. There was nowhere to run. Three in the morning is the witching hour, the time when spirits roam. Allegedly the opposite of the hour Jesus died on the cross. Coincidentally it was the time I always awoke from my night terrors only to find myself briefly stunned by sleep paralysis. Something lurked in the corner. A shapeless man in a hat. Darkness always seemed too real to fight at three in the morning. I took to insomnia instead, tiptoeing from three to four in the morning, waiting to go back to sleep after the danger passed. What I understood then is the same lesson we take from the likes of Hereditary or Poltergeist: demons persist in our culture because they give shape to a primal fear. Something is watching. Something wants control. 

The demons mentioned in the Bible are few, not legion. There are, however, plenty of false gods worshiped by the Israelites and neighboring tribes. Molech, Hades, Ra. The Witch of Endor is able to conjure a spirit resembling Samuel for King Saul. Meanwhile in Luke 8:30, Legion is one of the few demons to receive a proper name—he is given the opportunity to introduce himself “because many demons had gone into him.” Jesus battles him, sending the vile creature into a pack of swine who drown themselves. In Matthew 15:22, a woman of Canaan intercedes for her demon-possessed daughter and her faith is enough to save the girl from illness. Disease and demon possession often go hand in hand. In Matthew 10:8, Jesus is meant to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils” all in the same breath. See also Matthew 12:22: the only way to heal someone once possessed is through an exorcism. 

The end happened and we’re still going. The Antichrist has yet to reveal himself. 

Exorcisms were always a form of societal control. Hysterical women needed cleansing. After all, one day a woman is going to give birth to the Antichrist. The history of exorcisms is certainly racist, often relying on colonial views of other countries as pagan and primitive. Colonialism constructs Christianity as a settler waging holy war against petty local legends. Things that missionaries don’t understand frequently manifest themselves as demons. Spirits, shadows, idols, local deities. In the 1970s, the use of non-Christian religions in pop culture signified the uncanny. In the season four opener of The Brady Bunch, “Hawaii Bound,” the family is forced to deal with the curse of a Tiki idol. Scooby Doo is always encountering locals using voodoo to outwit Shaggy and the gang. The daytime television formula makes up with reliability what it lacks in discretion: white families with traditional values encounter the other—and restore the balance of morality. 

In Rebecca Brown Yoder’s spiritual warfare manual, He Came to Set the Captives Free, a Black woman is singled out for her knowledge of the underworld. The woman has become a Christian but because of her “heritage,” she knows a thing or two about demonology. This book, still available on Amazon and to suburban prayer warriors everywhere, is written to be taken seriously as a way to understand and shield yourself from the satanic. Brown Yoder seems to think cults and satanists are everywhere, lurking behind every corner. All spiritual warfare authors do, a holdover from the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, when heavy metal and daycare centers were blamed for the seduction of the innocent. Sodomy and the black mass are their bread and butter. Yoder’s big bad is “The Brotherhood,” a supergroup of witches, satanists, tarot-readers, and swingers who commit human sacrifice with the same nonchalance usually reserved for setting the dinner table. The religious right has consistently conflated the sexual revolution with diabolism. Large satanic churches are out there, just beyond our imagination. Where? I would be curious to see the architecture. Is it the opposite of the oak-white churches of my childhood? Is the infernal double of the church forged with obsidian and bone, decorated by pentagrams of oxblood?

Yoder’s book charts the rise of a witch named Elaine through the Brotherhood as she learns Judo from a Chinese man, watches the cult perform human sacrifices, and encounters demons. Eventually Elaine encounters Satan himself. The sex is “brutal.” Elaine warns us that “the evolution of Rock music in the United States was carefully planned by Satan and carried out by his servants step by step.” (“So war-focused,” my roommate says when I read her the titles of the books I’m reading, now years away from my original night terrors.) “God called us to be soldiers not pacifists,” Brown reminds us before giving instructions on how to fight vampires and werewolves. The soul is our most precious battleground. Meanwhile Frank and Ida Mae Hammond’s Pigs in the Parlor presents demons as more of a theological problem. Individual demons exist for all sins from false idols to impatience. Demons enter through sin or circumstance, whether by one’s own sins or inherited from some indiscretion in family history. Alcoholism, child abuse, addiction, and the omnipresent homosexuality. I was told, for instance, that my homosexuality was the result of a family curse. 

Young arthritis? Demon. Cancer? Demon. “Rather dance than eat?” Clearly not an eating disorder. Demon. Premature death? Resurrection is possible if the demon is exorcized quickly. Please don’t ever try to resurrect me; that only seems like asking for trouble. Look what happened to Buffy. Yet somehow the author still has the gall to state, “One does not need to go around thinking [of] demons all the time.” I would love to go back to my childhood and not think about demons all the time. Unfortunately, it’s a feedback loop. The more you feed the beast, the more ravenous the fear. 

There are fifty-three groupings of demons in Pigs in the Parlor, most with at least three subtypes. One grouping, “cults,” includes Mormons, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other “false” religions are also collected as a demonic grouping including Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, Hinduism, and Taoism. Schizophrenia, something it seems the authors have no real knowledge of, is deemed one of the most difficult and important deliverances from the devil. The details are quite hazy even as the taxonomies pile up. Both books try to sell the skill of exorcism. They create the need and then fill it, like retinol or diet pills.

Catholic exorcisms, on the other hand, follow a strict protocol. Only certain invocations by the pre-ordained are allowed. Much more organized. I certainly don’t want to go up against the forces of Satan without the proper paperwork and I don’t like looking over my shoulder. Exorcisms, it should be noted, are rarely one-and-done. Some people go through dozens. 

Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, my hometown, claimed that he had received one thousand seven hundred requests for exorcisms in 2018 by early October, the most he had ever gotten in one year. An Atlantic article from the same year recounts one woman’s experience with possession—and how neither sleep paralysis nor psychiatry provided her satisfactory answers. (Personally, I feel both options are much more satisfactory than the idea that we are never safe from things that go bump in the night.) Louisa, the woman in question, is eventually clued in by her priest that an old experience with an ouija board could have created an opening for a demon to enter her life. Portals like this are fairly common in evangelical thought. Ouija boards, tarot cards, Harry Potter books, even grimoires stuffed with Pokémon can create openings for the devil’s associates. I was told that a bow and arrow from a relative who used to practice witchcraft could have led to my nightmares. Objects were an easy target for possession. They had no way to resist. When I let it slip that I was gay, oil crosses were painted on my window. A demon had entered my life and I had to banish him through heterosexuality. 

Unexplained phenomena always make me cry. If you have a story about haunted dolls or mysterious attics, I will start watering up almost immediately. Even positive mystery produces the same blubbering. When people talk about their belief in guardian angels I’m just as likely to let the waterworks flow. I have my own dim memory of seeing two strangers in a soccer field who vanished into the mosquito-filled Minnesota night. Somehow the feeling associated with this memory is the same as when people tell me about dolls moving in their room. It was probably just dark. We’re much more willing to recount these stories when the strangers we see are benevolent or at least neutral. My dad loved ghost stories. UFOs, Bigfoot, The X-Files. I remember trying to catch a peek of Scully and Mulder through his office curtains. I still wonder where his fascination with the otherworldly came from. It gave me mine. 

All of this may surprise those not in the nonsecular swing of things. Evangelicals have a unique, fulfilling, wild spiritual life. When people discover that things like exorcisms or conversion therapy are contemporary occurrences they blink at the lack of modernity. When I tell people these things in casual conversation, they are stunned into silence. Many are waiting on the Rapture with bated breath, a Marvel-like showdown between the forces of good and evil replete with dragons, the Four Horsemen, and the Whore of Babylon. I’ve spent so much time waiting. Maybe I still am. But when even jolly Pope Francis believes Beelzebub is coming to get us, it’s difficult not to imagine the worst. I suppose in the end it all makes sense. God has to save us from something. 

C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is a more cautious take on the genre. Lewis begins his work of hybrid fiction with a warning: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” (I have somehow found myself on both sides of this paradigm.) Lewis’s tale unfolds in letters sent between two demons, Uncle Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. Screwtape gives Wormwood advice on leading an ordinary everyday British man into the wonderful world of sin. The letters were originally published in the Guardian during World War II. Screwtape struggles to teach the art of temptation. We’re not given Wormwood’s replies, and Screwtape relies on unseen letters and gossip from his colleagues. (The Good Place was not the first cultural object to imagine the afterlife as bureaucracy). Both Antonin Scalia and Ronald Reagan have quoted or uplifted The Screwtape Letters. A disservice to Lewis, I think, who struggled a great deal to grapple with ambiguity.

Lewis wrote many classics on a variety of theological debates—miracles, doubt, grief, the problem of pain. His work holds up precisely because it isn’t polemical. The mystery of faith is held in the face of terror, whether war or depression. He is most famous for The Chronicles of Narnia, a series I read as a child who was not allowed to read Harry Potter. I had to take my magic where I could find it; now I think, thank God I did not develop any cloudy-eyed nostalgia over the TERF wizard books. Narnia builds a world and builds it well, chronicling creation myths and voyages into the unknown. Still, it’s a closed world, built on virtues I no longer hold. Many, including the TERF queen, disagreed with Susan being cast out of Narnia for her interest in lipstick and sex. I preferred A Wrinkle in Time for its stranger mystical take on love, witches, and space travel—but I digress. Lewis holds his own in the canon of fantasy. 

The Screwtape Letters is a strange work. Readers are taught the art of temptation: Don’t use science as a form of doubt, as science forces people to reckon with the unseen. Do exploit the weakness of humans during lunchtime. Temptation is successful when a subject’s thoughts are directed away from God, however innocently. Many Christian books espouse the doctrine of right thought. Wrong thought can easily lead a Christian astray. Intellectualism is praised only in narrow instances, as it can lead to wrong thought or pride. The narrow circuit between thought and practice would hardly come as a surprise to somebody suffering from OCD. Imagine then, as a child, being afraid of wrong thought as it relates to demons. One wrong thought pops into your head, and you too could be possessed. Enjoy freedom while it lasts.

Lewis’ demons are practical, not the stuff of myth. Screwtape’s advice has more to do with psychology than black magic: “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.” Screwtape notes that “the Enemy” (God) wholeheartedly believes in every human’s uniqueness. When I was taught doctrine, this was always a touchy subject. I argued that if everyone was special, no one was. Simple arithmetic. If everyone has a trait, it’s worthless—worse than worthless, it’s nothing. Our shared humanity neither stops us from tearing each other to shreds nor from falling in love. The congregation couldn’t fathom it: “He loves each of us specially.” Christianity has a lot of built-in tautologies. We’re special because God says we’re special. God loves us because he loves us, his beautiful children, one and all. If the whole population of earth were my children, I would play favorites. If my child had the wandering eye of King David, I would be hesitant to give him more responsibility, like writing a book of Psalms for instance. I never got the feeling he was a complete stranger to fruitiness anyway; he seemed awfully cozy with Jonathan. 

Screwtape finds depression and anxiety alluring material for leading man astray. The past and the future are minefields, ripe for our own self-destruction. I can see why a demon would want me to dwell in either place, both cold lands of exile. There’s a lot of room to corrupt someone lost in nostalgia or anxious about the future. In novels, they are often the Achilles’ heel of heroes. Jay Gatsby. Madame Bovary. And Achilles, I guess. The Screwtape Letters contains many of these rock-and-a-hard-place analogies. One must appear blameless—but appearances are also deceptive. Appearances lead to facsimiles of holiness and divinity. We mustn’t forget the Pharisees, those hardline paragons of stringency, and their fidelity to the letter of the law. Security and guilt pose another problem. Feeling guilty may be a prerequisite to heaven but one should also never doubt their faith in God. Count on your mansion in the great hereafter but also never stop hating yourself as a little treat. 

Many of the mindfucks of contemporary Christianity can be found in Screwtape’s letters. The things my youth pastor or friends told me to watch out for. The critiques of Christianity that we were given pat answers to. Critique too is seen as a slippery slope into temptation. That’s how the church closes its ranks: accept the simple explanations or else. I met few Christians with contemplative practices. Questioning was never a sign of deep engagement. How many pastors throw smokescreens on personal controversies with the idea they are being set up by the devil? When I first started trying to find a church that could handle my homosexuality, I was terrified of leaving the one I’d grown up in. I was told loyalty to a church was important, that a church was a church and God was God; these things worked in mysterious ways. “Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches,” Wormwood tells us. I played right into his hands. After I left, some pastors from my old church tried to set up coffee with me. They told me they just wanted to “check in.” I only met up with one of them. The youth pastor walked in and saw I was reading Nietzsche—I was seventeen once too—and asked me how I could reconcile nihilism with my desire to make art. I drank my coffee and let my stomach turn sour. 

Lewis’s work was about morality, giving instruction to the devout and deviant alike. His work exercises a different kind of control than the exorcism handbooks, something much more palatable, perhaps even capable of redemptive readings by some nonbelievers. Even so, I heard rumblings about his inclusion of witches in Narnia. Even reading a book about demons by a Christian was sometimes viewed as suspect. The different factions of evangelicalism I encountered from frenetic spiritualists to suburban denialists all had one thing in common. I was not to be gay, and I was to stay in line. No Nietzsche, no girly things, no TERF wizard movies. I was certainly not supposed to become a woman. 

The link between exercising control and exorcizing demons is all too simple. To control queer kids, drive them insane.

Love is the ultimate difference between the demonic and the divine. To Lewis, this means a certain kind of love. It’s fitting that much of the book centers on temptation around the concept of marriage. Novels, Screwtape argues, create the idea that marriage is based on a feeling, and demons can use this feeling to warp a sense of duty into a sense of lust. Screwtape can’t understand love as something beyond mere feeling; he doesn’t think anyone is capable of love. Instead, demons work to define the beauty standards of each age to distract humans from what really matters. To God, love is a higher calling toward kindness and justice. Screwtape can’t comprehend this. If he was open to love, perhaps he would be back in heaven. There’s something to Lewis’s take on Christian morality as a communal ethic, though politically he was wary of communism. Lewis distrusts the state in any form: he finds nationalism yet another vehicle for sin. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. We are a nation of God’s people. Any political zeal, Screwtape would argue, is good. Passionate obsession of any kind can lead us astray. 

In one of his letters, Screwtape claims demons are “comic figures in the modern imagination.” That wasn’t my experience. They were real. They tried to drag me into the earth when I was camping in the mountains. They haunted me in the shower. They stood at the end of my bed at three in the morning. I’ve tried to bottle my grief, like Toni Collette with her mother’s journals in Hereditary, but trauma feeds on cluttered closets. A video from 2009 shows a teenager lying on the ground in a Connecticut church as men scream at him, believing he has a “homosexual demon” (“Rip it from his throat! . . . You homosexual spirit, we call you out right now! Loose your grip, Lucifer!”). In 2014, an Australian man recounted looking in a mirror and reciting a prayer I know word for word, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command the demon of homosexuality to leave me. I bind its power and I rebuke the schemes of the enemy.” Last year a gay man in the UK exposed the church he joined in his twenties for cornering him into undergoing conversion therapy. “They told me to speak to the gay part of myself as if speaking to a wild dog coming up to me—and for me to say to ‘leave my body,’” he said. “The people I was with told me they could see demons leave me and go out the window.” 

These demons gather the psychological framework of Lewis and mash it with the helter-skelter demonology of exorcism handbooks. Here the link between exercising control and exorcizing demons is all too simple. To control queer kids, drive them insane. Tell them they are evil. Don’t ever let trans kids think they have the option to receive puberty blockers. Always say “hate the sin, not the sinner,” but let the look in your eye say otherwise. People like this believe gender is shaped by absence. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick summed up this view in her essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” in the following terms: “The reason effeminate boys turn out gay . . . is other men don’t validate them as masculine.” Thank God I didn’t get validated as masculine. I could’ve ended up cis. 

It would be easy to dismiss my old demons as nightmares, figures created from sleep paralysis. I was highly susceptible to guilt, clinically depressed, and overmedicated. But sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t something else at work. Sometimes I still utter the little prayers that were supposed to keep the demons at bay. “Demons go away in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” I whispered over and over when I couldn’t fall asleep. “Amen.” All those years I spent shadowboxing with demons, I always woke up with bags under my eyes and skipped breakfast. I turned on NPR and drank coffee from a mug that did not fit in my cup holder. I drove past misty Indiana farmhouses and frost-covered fields, wondering who the family was that always kept lit candles in their window. What were they keeping at bay?