June 5, 2018

Demons: The Inner, the Outer, & the Downright Silly

Demons, devils, fallen angels, imps, djinn, trolls, oni—there isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t have a name for what it considers to be a malicious spirit of some kind or another. The word, “demon,” itself evokes different images and ideas for all of us based on our particular upbringings, cultural lenses, religious affiliations, and even entertainment. Most folks in the vein of modernity will say that demons are, at best, only metaphors or psychological phenomena or, at worst, the archaic remnants of unenlightened superstition. Some clergy will still say that demons are very real spiritual persons—monsters that stalk us every waking (and perhaps sleeping) moment of the day—constantly seeking to orchestrate our ruination through subtle manipulation of our moral faculties. And, of course, there’s everything in between. Regardless of what you believe about the concept of “demons,” it’s a real presence in our world and culture, whether mythically, spiritually, physically, or merely psychologically.

The inner kind of demon is something I think we all, regardless of religious or cultural background, can agree is a very real and dangerous animal. Sometimes it’s nagging guilt over past mistakes or wrongdoings, perhaps it’s some kind of emotional trauma that’s resulted in a long-term personality shift or insurmountable bias, or maybe it’s a deep and subconscious fear that drives us all to do all sorts of nasty things like hate, discriminate, subvert, and oppress. All of these things and more represent thoughts, emotions, and other psychological phenomena that simmer over time in the stew of our mind until they coagulate into an almost tangible and always destructive form—our inner demons.

Most of us almost automatically dismiss demons as fictional and silly.

It’s nothing new, and countless folks with many more and more appropriate letters behind their names have written exhaustive volumes on such psychological constructs. So, I bring this topic up here not to revisit what’s already been better articulated elsewhere, but to present it in the context of what we might think a “demon” is. When we hear the word, especially in today’s world of cultural secularism and CGI movie monsters, most of us almost automatically and even subconsciously dismiss it is fictional and silly. But, think of it in terms of how the people of the ancient world might have.

In our enlightened, Wikipedia accessed world, where we can answer almost any question (no matter how ridiculous or obscure) by glancing at a smart phone for thirty seconds, we tend to have the misconception that there were no dissenting opinions, no disbelievers, and no critical atheists in the “superstitious” and “uneducated” ancient world. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, was sentenced to death in the 4th century BC, in part, because he was accused of atheism. Although he cleverly argued against the charge, his lifestyle and history were defined by one who thoughtfully and critically doubted absolutely everything he came across. That being said, there are many ancient stories and scriptures that were written specifically to be metaphors for the purposes to teaching about and coping with very real human problems.

It’s easier to tear down a physical wall than to dismantle a psychological one of our own making.

Humans being the material animals we are have inherent difficulties dealing with abstract concepts. We like to see an obstacle in front of us in order to physically overcome it. It’s much easier for us to tear down a physical brick wall with a sledge hammer than to carefully dismantle a psychological one brick by brick and accept that we built it in the first place. This problem is as old as humanity itself. So, it’s not surprising that some of the ancient stories of monsters and demons at least address (if not represent) the inner struggle of man with himself. In a psychological sense, it’s much easier to analyze and overcome our inner turmoil if it takes on some sort of visualization or comprehensible form. Even if you believe in the presence of real demons as spiritual or bodily monsters, there’s a bounty of wisdom to be had from reading stories about them in the context of the demons we create for ourselves. More often than not, a story doesn’t have only one meaning—it has layers of meaning from the physical to the psychological to the transcendent—even if the author didn’t intend for it to. This is just a manifestation of the astounding complexity of the human brain.

However, I very seldom, if ever, seek to completely dispel the spiritual in favor of the material, or vice versa. So, I also don’t intend to idly dismiss the notion of outer demons absolutely in favor of the inner ones. It’s far more profitable to look at everything in life as a potentially whole system—inner and outer, real and metaphorical, spiritual and material—else we risk limiting ourselves to a myopic, bigoted, and altogether uncreative worldview. That being said, demons of the “real” sort, or malicious spiritual entities, are like everything else of a spiritual nature. They’re neither provable nor disprovable through empirical or scientific faculties. They’re not matters of fact, but matters of believe, the same as you can’t (regardless of what some might think) believe that the world is or is not round, because it’s a proven fact—you either know it or you don’t. Demons in the conventional sense, at least as of our contemporary scientific resources, can’t be matters of knowledge because they aren’t measurable, physical bodies—you either believe in them or you don’t.

You might at this point, very justifiably, be wondering why we even consider the outer demons if they can’t be physically perceived or taxonomically catalogued. The point is that they all get dealt with in roughly the same way. If you choose to believe in the personal presence of spiritual evil, whether it be Lucifer, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, or a host of wicked little imps constantly clawing at your psyche to do evil and wreak chaos in the material world, there is always, in every culture of the world, an accompanying remedy for every monster that ails the human person. Many Judeo-Christian traditions still perform ritual exorcism to drive a troublesome devil from the body while some other cultures of the world even invoke possession by good spirits to drive out evil ones. In almost every case though, the remedy involves the addition of positivity to drive out or counteract the negativity (much like medicating a disease).

Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, once said:

“The best way to drive out the devil... is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

With cultural icons like The Exorcist having burned images in our mind of ichor-spewing, bone crushing demoniacs, such a suggestion sounds rather silly. If you ever did encounter someone exhibiting symptoms of a supernatural invasion, the last thing you might think of is to make jokes about it. But, this idea is a very old one, and similar in a way to the notion behind the tradition of the gargoyle.

The architects and artists of the ancient world have been constructing images of hideous monsters for centuries, not just to represent spiritual evil, but to repel it through fear and mockery. This isn’t much different today with how we weave stories and make films with ridiculous rubber monsters of all sorts that vaguely represent what we imagine a “demon” might look like in the flesh. Television shows like Tales from the Crypt and Buffy the Vampire Slayer made a routine tradition of whipping up a new and more fantastic (and sometimes incredibly silly) demon-of-the-week. While we tend to see these stories as just entertainment, they’re really expressing an indescribably old human compulsion to put comprehensible form to abstract ideas of evil, dread, and malice.

Even the silliest of demons on the screen and in books are the most feared and hated parts of ourselves made manifest in a form that not only embodies abstraction, but makes it something we can comprehend and ultimately defeat. More often than not, we defeat these things through mockery. While we may not make humorous jokes directly about representations of evil, we nonetheless best it in battle or invoke a higher power to aide us in its defeat, and in doing so, humiliate the demon through its pathetic loss to a higher and greater good, be it our own or our affiliation with the divine.

While fighting smoke is a futile effort, throwing water on the fire itself is pretty effective.

Again, I urge you never to totally discount the spiritual in favor of the material or the metaphorical. Doing so would be the proverbial “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”—the spiritual demon (be it real or fictitious) is both evil personified and what gives us the means to overcome evil. It’s a form for that which we can’t easily perceive without form, and therefore have tremendous difficulty in facing in battle. While fighting smoke is a generally futile effort, throwing water on the fire itself is pretty effective.

Maybe demons are just inside our heads in the form of our own fears and self-destructive tendencies, clawing at our subconscious to urge us into vice and despair. Maybe they’re actually clawing at us invisibly from the aether to bring about the ruination of our souls through temptation to sin. In any case, they can only be dealt with and dispatched by a humble and respectful acknowledging that they are present in one form or another. Demons are like diseases—they have to be understood but not indulged, defeated while not contracted. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

“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. The devils are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”