Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Growing up with God is often rough enough, but I also had the opportunity to grow up with his evil counterparts: the Devil and his evil underlings. In a lot of ways, demons were more real to me than God. God never spoke to me, but evil spirits did, and they manifest themselves in a variety of ways, while God never quite managed to solidify as even one satisfying image in my mind. And devils might show up anywhere, during almost any time.

In the very early days, I didn't put as much stock in the supernatural (not counting God, of course) as some of my immediate family. Perhaps it's because didn't watch horror movies, knowing they would scare me. My brother, however, would wake up in the middle of the night to see some little green hobgoblin jump into our chest of drawers. Or he would open his eyes and see Freddy Krueger sitting in our desk chair, right next to our bunk beds, menacingly curling his bladed glove. My sister's visions were even more odd, since they involved seeing me walking through the hallway or hearing my voice in her ear when I was -- in reality -- in the other room sleeping.

As for myself, I've always been able to open my eyes at night and see all kinds of visions: as a kid, little hopping gnomish creatures would appear and -- today -- spiders. I once woke up screaming, thinking our cat was clawing me, and it took a long time to convince me that the cat was outside, since -- even while this was being explained to me -- I felt the pain of claw marks on my skin. But I knew enough about dreams back then to know that that's what they were: nightmares, waking dreams, mind tricks.

Unfortunately, however, simple childhood dreams, in my house, were often given immense power through the backing of religion. (And no wonder, since religions are based on dreams.) Sometimes, luckily, nightmares were quickly and lovingly dismissed as "just a bad dream," but -- other times -- they were not. The Freddy Krueger episode, for example, did not lead to a speech about how maybe my brother shouldn't watch scary movies if he couldn't handle them at age fifteen. Instead, it led to a speech about how God was more powerful than the Devil and that our family, with God's power, could defeat him. I was nine years old and this was happening in my bedroom. I was learning not only that the Devil could bother you at night, but he could do so in the form of a cheesy movie character. I woke up annoyed at all this commotion in the middle of the night, but by the end of the overheard conversation, I was certainly leaning toward the idea that this could be real.

One does not always become more rational or intelligent as one grows up and -- sure enough -- I did eventually buy into the idea that demons existed, even if I could still distinguish dreams (and movies) from reality. Unclean spirits were in the Bible, so I pretty much had to believe in them. So what did I think I was dealing with? The usual: fallen angels. God created angels before he created humans. Lucifer rebelled against God and he became Satan (just as Milton told us). He gathered other angels to his side and, together, they became very interested in sticking it to God by tormenting his beloved humans, looking for bodies to possess and souls to thwart before one day -- at the end of time -- they would be cast into the Lake of Fire.

It wasn't just my immediate family feeding me this stuff. For example, while other kids were busy doing fun things with flutes at band camp, a lot of my pals spent their time dicking around with Ouija boards (from Hasbro!). Some for fun, some with trepidation, some wanting to see Satan face to face. My own response to it was a detachment from the stupid board itself, thinking that I was so spiritual that I didn't need it: by age fourteen, evil spirits wanted my holy ass. So sometimes I would hop on the witchboard to show what it looked like when someone with a real spiritual connection was involved. I would then get duly scolded by a few Christian friends who said I shouldn't be inviting that evil--but I figured the evil spirits were already messing with me, invited or no. What a godly prize I would be!

Whenever I saw movies in which people (even the priests) didn't believe in evil spirits or possession, I was always confused, since it was taken as a given nearly everywhere around me. Based on the (varying) poll results I now read, it seems that belief in the Devil and Hell is still rampant all over the country (though not as much as belief in God and Heaven), so it may not have been just my area. (So don't blame it on the hillbillies.) Anyway, belief in evil spirits wasn't something outside the norm or nutty in my neck of the woods.

Paul tells the Ephesians to "Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." I did indeed think the Devil was wily, that he knew me better than I knew myself, and that the more I found myself in "heavenly places," the more he was out to get me. If I went to church, he was after me. If I prayed, he was after me. If I read the Bible, he was after me.

My greatest fear, however, was that the Devil would no longer be after me. I could stop going to church, stop praying, and stop reading the Bible and the Devil would certainly leave me alone, but then he would have won. But here's the problem: even if I continued to do all of the correct heavenly things, but maybe I just decided to relax and stop thinking about devils all the goddamned time... he'd win then too. Why? Because if I didn't feel his torment, I must not be a threat to him anymore.

As was expressed in the short story "The Generous Player" by Baudelaire, "The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he doesn't exist!" For myself I wanted to be sure that I knew he existed and also that he existed in my life. If I didn't feel God's presence (and, usually, I didn't), no big deal. He was probably just testing me to see if I'd stick around even when he wasn't near. But if i didn't feel the Devil's presence, it meant one of two things for me: 1. I was so far off the godly path that I wasn't worth the Devil's time. 2. The Devil was already inside me and I didn't even know it.

Because, yes, I believed in demon possession. So maybe one or two times a month on average, I'd lie awake scared, with dark, sinking feelings in my stomach. The fluttery nervousness you might feel after a horror movie when you have to walk down the dark hallway by yourself, when you sense that you are unprotected or exposed, when you become sweaty and it's difficult to breathe, or you think about your breathing too much because you wonder which breath the devil will use to slide in on. I'd sing gospel songs endlessly to scare the bad spirits away. I'd pray and beg God to make me feel at peace again and -- above all -- just let me go to sleep (without nightmares). But then I'd feel what I know now to be a normal burst of adrenaline, some nervous butterflies or whatever, and I'd wonder: "Was that the evil spirit entering me?" I'd hear my thoughts and wonder if they were my thoughts or the demon's. And I'd wonder how many demons were in the room with me. Would I see them if I opened my eyes? Were they using horror tactics to make me scared because they fed off of my fear?

I was not always a small child or an early teen when these things would happen, I'm sorry to say. These feelings and episodes stayed with me through about half of my twenties. In fact, it was during my late teens and early twenties that things were at their worst. Even my short stories were about evil spirits. And although I would have loved the TV show Twin Peaks no matter what, it certainly made me pay attention even more when Laura Palmer's killer turned out to be possessed by a demon named BOB.

So I was fucked up. Richard Dawkins likens religious upbringing to child abuse, which sounds harsh, but -- when I think back on my own psychological suffering, which was mild compared to many accounts I've heard about -- I see his point. (Our church didn't even believe in a physical Hell, so my suffering was mild indeed.)

It doesn't take much to set one off toward crazyville when one's brain is trained to think about the world in this way. And these are waking thoughts. When nightmares enter the mix, it's potentially worse. Unfortunately, I also experienced something called "sleep paralysis" in which I would find myself in that stage between sleeping and waking, the body still paralyzed (since the body prevents extra movement during sleep), an overlap of dream images and real images in my mind, eyes open. This is a common experience, and many others have symptoms that are much worse than mine. For me, I'd usually hear a rush of wind in my ears, I wouldn't be able to move, and I'd get the feeling that I had to somehow move or something evil would overtake me, but it was more of a struggling claustrophobic feeling than anything. Strangely, I was more scared of my waking thoughts than I was of these actually-scary events (since it was then an unexplained thing for me).

Those who have sleep paralysis worse than I do see shadowy men or monsters in the corners of their rooms, or standing next to their beds, or sitting on top of them. The legendary incubus and the succubus were the creatures who sat atop the victims, often for sexual reasons. We see it everywhere in folk tales and collections like Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio in which supernatural things are always happening while someone is reclining or waking up or feeling drowsy: sexual visits from "fox-spirits" in which the man's "Yang essence" is drained (often fatally), ghosts of beautiful young girls appearing, tiny men parading across the floor (like my gnomes), giants and ogres barging in the room... The body and brain work this way during that "dangerous" time between waking and sleeping (or vice-versa): projecting whatever bogeyman is in the religious or secular culture, whether fallen angels or space aliens or Freddy Krueger.

The important thing to know is that these things aren't real. If you are a reader who is freaking out reading about these stories: don't. (I used to get scared reading about other people's sleep paralysis experiences, especially at night.) My paralytic episodes all but disappeared once I came to understand the nature of them and stopped associating them with the supernatural. No doubt my anxieties about demons (and God himself) brought upon my restlessness at night, and restlessness apparently is one cause of this phenomenon. I still see the spiders (probably just my dreams translating my eye "floaters" into visions), but I know they aren't anything to worry about; they're just kind of annoying. These days I also see images of my little baby in the bed, so often it's just whatever is on your mind. The point is, I no longer live in fear of nighttime, and no one should.

But now I go beyond childhood delusions and nighttime hallucinations and into broad day, in-public, among-adults "demon possession." These things, of course, usually have their roots in church. So now for an embarrassing admission: I've been "possessed by devils" and also have had them "cast out." Whee! Fun! When it comes to my religious past, I have several embarrassing admissions, but admitting I was once Linda Blair might be number one. It's just so--what? Silly? What will you think of me, no matter how long ago it was and no matter how rational I've become? It is still part of my history.

If I'm remembering correctly, this is how the event went down the first time. I was getting prayed for in church in our normal way, which involves the "laying on of hands," lots of shouting, lots of speaking in tongues, lots of crying, and me in the middle of this chaos feeling bodily exhausted (these sessions can last hours) and (even more importantly) feeling like a piece of shit because religion insisted that I was just that. We are born sinners because Adam made a bad mistake and we inherited his stinky DNA and now we have to grovel and sweat before a god whose death simultaneously (a) forgave us of our sins and (b) caused us to feel even more guilty about our sins.

It's not easy, you should know, for people to make me feel shitty. I've been told I have something of an ego, but more importantly I am simply a very happy and content person. I like myself and my life very much: always have. God and his ministers were pretty much the only people who could make me feel awful about myself. When you go to church, you're told how shitty you are and you're encouraged to go down for prayer. For no real reason. It's not like I was ever doing horrible things or even having spiritual doubts. Jesus was just all right with me. But apparently I was a shit-smelling sinner like everyone else, so I tended to get prayed for every now and then, just to make sure I was doing everything I was supposed to do.

So here I am, crying and pleading to God among a pile of men who are getting their Brute and Old Spice all over me and I suddenly hear the preacher that I love and respect the most screaming toward me, "Come out, you devil!" What? Me? Is he talking to me? "Come out, you old devil!" So I supposed, immediately, that I must have one. It's just that easy, folks.

Why did he decide I had a devil inside me? Who knows, but it could have been any number of things. Even though I tended to swallow the bulk of what the church fed me without much fuss, I was still something of a loveable troublemaker. I still questioned things. I had my own interpretations of the Bible that didn't fit with the church's old standards. My hair was slightly longer than the church norm (indie rock length, not hippie length). I didn't use preacher clich├ęs in my testimonies and typically spoke in my own voice at a reasonable volume. I smiled all the time and didn't complain about "trials and tests." I listened to pop music. I dated girls outside of the church. I didn't call up ministers in the middle of the night with personal problems. I valued education and knowledge. I had a sense of irony about me. I didn't think that being a Christian meant being a Republican. What a bad boy, right?

But, yes, I was told (via screaming) that I had a demon living inside of me (at least one: "Come out of there, all of you!" was another sentence screamed in my ear), and now it was being cast out through the power of the name of Jesus Christ, just like in the picture shows. So, as I was supposed to do, I start crying more and then I start screaming and then I kind of just hang there with my mouth wide open, drool coming out, and now someone is excited that they get to bring the little blue garbage can over for me to spit in. To spit the demon out!

I can speak about it with ironic detachment now, but how was I feeling then? Well, I took it seriously. I believed this was really happening to me. Afterward, when they told me that the evil spirit was gone and asked me if I felt better, I said, "I think so, yes." But I didn't really feel as if anything had happened during the exorcism. It's not that I thought I didn't have an evil spirit. I did believe that. It was that I didn't feel any different afterward, so maybe it was still there. Maybe the demon had tricked them into thinking it was gone, but it was still in there, hiding in the corner of my soul or wherever they're supposed to live. More worries to keep me up at night. They told me I needed to start thanking Jesus and asking him to fill in the gap where the demon was, else it would come back and bring his friends. This is Biblical. In Matthew 12:43, Jesus says that seven devilish buddies will come back to the "empty, swept" house so that "the last state of that person is worse than the first." How can you win?

I only remember one other time when I was delivered of a spirit. It was different this time, since it seemed to have happened without any prompting or suggestion from others. It was in church and people were speaking in tongues and others were translating those tongues and -- man oh man -- God was using this method to speak to us directly. New information. (This didn't happen often. This night was the only time it happened around me, though I heard reports of it happening other times.) God was speaking to his people using King James style English, which I found odd, but I reasoned that this church group was so used to God speaking this way (the KJV was the only translation of the Bible they read) that God felt he would have confused them if he had used contemporary American English. (The gist of God's message, if you're interested, was "Do better.")

Anyway, hearing the actual words of the actual God made me feel all kinds of weird emotions. I suppose it would be weird for a believer not to feel emotional if the creator of the universe began giving a private lecture in a room you're sitting in. I mean, I got pretty nervous when I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak, especially when he looked me in the eye, and he was just a human (and a heathen!). So I started crying and soon I was bent over in the pew doing the old mouth-open drooling thing like last time. God was right there in the room, so there was no way an evil spirit could stay inside me. What really happened, of course, doesn't require much of a rewrite of that sentence: I believed that God was right there in the room and so there was no way an evil spirit, which I believed that I maybe still had, could stay inside me. I was completely wrong, of course, about all of it, but my mind and body didn't know that, so it behaved in the only way it could. Psychosomatic.

So now poor Rusty -- honors student and second prize winner of the state science fair -- is sitting there spitting out a nonexistent fallen angel because he thinks that a nonexistent deity's power is flooding the room through the manifestation of a nonexistent supernatural language which is being made known through a nonexistent translation into a version of our language once used by William Shakespeare.

This is why I have the right to feel just a little embarrassed.

But, hey, it happened to friends, family members, and the one girlfriend I ever dated within the church, so whatever. Just another religious rite of passage, like water baptism or learning that every denomination except yours is the Whore of Babylon. (The scary thing is that I'm only skimming the surface of my first-hand demon experiences. Most of it is too personal or weird to share.)

One problem with Christianity is that it just isn't humble. (The humility that you do find is a major source of pride.) It's not enough to promote a philosophy in which humans are supposed to take care of each other or deal with personal issues or discover an inner life. It's a lot more sexy to believe that you're in a war with fallen spirits who existed before the beginning of humanity. Your life becomes an epic battle. You're like a character in Lord of the Rings, maybe Gandalf fighting the Balrog. "You shall not pass!" I know I felt this way when I supposed myself to have cast out demons from other people. Prayer warriors! Pretty decent compensation for feeling like shit all the time.

And angels and devils are so much more interesting than God himself, since God -- in contemporary times -- has become this invisible, abstract not-quite-personality, some vague force of good. He's not, anymore, the powerful superhero who fights Leviathan, as detailed in Job 41 and mentioned in Psalms 74. Angels, however, are still magical creatures circling around your car to protect you when you're skidding off the road, and devils are psychologically crafty bad boys who could one day make you write a blog denouncing their existence so that others might more easily be trapped by them. Tricky, tricky!

As I began living in the real world more and more (showing here), as my rational mind eventually defeated my childish attachments (the real battle, by the way), devils left me alone... and this time, I didn't consider it a bad thing. They faded before God did (since he tends to be the last to go), though it wasn't until after God was gone that, one day, I realized: "Oh yeah, I guess evil spirits don't exist either." So much for all that late night worry.

In closing: for any readers who find belief in devils to be ridiculous (readers I imagine I've been writing to for most of the above), I hope this post helped you get either a good laugh or at least a good (perhaps pity-filled) mouth-drop at how gullible someone like me (an intellectual and creative genius!) could be. But for those readers who are currently suffering because of the supposed existence of devils, listen: they don't exist and you don't have to suffer anymore.

I'm not saying you have to stop believing in God (and I know you might find listening to an atheist about religious matters difficult to do, though I've certainly paid my dues), but -- please -- just let these little guys go. Or, hey, believe in them all you want but just don't think about them. Don't fall into the circular trap I did, the one where you worry because you're not worried. I'm not the Devil's instrument. I'm just a guy who grew up in a religious background -- as you did (as of course you did) -- who has come out the other end alive, to tell the tale.

You know that phrase "fighting your personal demons"? That's all "demons" are. They are personifications of fears, anxieties, neuroses, etc. They're no more real than the "monkey on your back" is to a drug user. These colorful characters and handy ways of thinking of abstract things get converted into "real" things, through misunderstandings, through ancient people stupider than you taking poetic images literally. You're not the dumb one here. Neither are your parents or my parents or my old ministers or anyone who taught us this nonsense. They couldn't help it either. Do you know how difficult it is to break these old habits and beliefs? I do! It's taken me most of my life. But it can be done.

So, if you're the person I'm -- here at the end -- writing to, this my Halloween gift to you. Look at the face of the beings who seem scary, evil, against God, hellish, whatever. Look at them and realize that they are just rubber masks. Laugh at them. Turn on the lights and see what you were really looking at. When I was a child having a nightmare, I was smart enough then to realize, within the dream, that I could stick out my tongue at the monster and it would go away. It's true that we are more powerful than devils: not because God is on our side, but because illusions lose all power the moment we realize they aren't real.


Ted and Lori said...

Yep, you're gonna be on Stephen Colbert one day.

Rusty Spell said...

Ted and Lori: I was looking for the "like" button for your comment.