Supernatural Horror, Spiritual Awakening, and the Demonic Divine

Liminalities1The major theme that I have pursued in my books and other writings is the complementary nature of the divine and the demonic. Or rather, it’s the truth of the divine demonic or demonic divine, that searing fusion of the horrific with the beatific in a liminal zone where supernatural horror and religion are inextricably merged with each other, and where it’s not just the conventionally demonic that is the source of deepest dread and horror, but the very divine object itself: God, the One, the Ground of Being. If God is or can be the ultimate horror, then the experience of religious illumination or spiritual awakening is inherently dangerous, since it constitutes a true personal apocalypse, a removal of reality’s obscuring veil that can be experienced not just as a wonderful liberation but as an awe-ful nightmare. “It is a dreadful thing,” says the author of the biblical Book of Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” who is “a consuming fire” and should be worshiped “with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 10:31, 12:28-29). The experience of numinous horror thus reveals itself as a route to, and maybe a marker of, an authentic spiritual transformation, although of a sort whose unpleasant subjective aspects often call into question its fundamental desirability.

It has been one of my most passionate pleasures and obsessions in life to read and hear other people’s explorations of these things. This is why you’ve seen me refer so many times to, for instance, Rudolf Otto’s seminal formulation of the idea of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum and daemonic dread, and Lovecraft’s open recognition that the psychology of weird supernatural horror fiction and its basic emotional response is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it,” and William James’s assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an experience of cosmic horror and despair at the fundamental hideousness of life.

Right now I would like to call your attention to two items in this very vein that are distinctly separate in objective terms but intimately related in their articulation of the demonic divine conundrum. The first is a clip from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. The second is an excerpt from an interview with contemporary spiritual author and teacher Richard Moss. Both of them articulate a very important truth: that one’s individual perspective and inner state at the moment of a supernatural parting of the veil is what determines whether the experience will tilt toward the divine or demonic.


Jacob’s Ladder was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, whose other most famous screenplay is Ghost, for which he won the Academy Award. Both films deal with divine and demonic spiritual forces, and both were released, rather remarkably, during the same year (1990). Rubin himself is famous for his personal and abiding interest in deep spiritual matters, as seen in the widely reported fact that after attending film school at NYU he left the U.S. and went on a global quest for spiritual enlightenment, which led him to live for a time on the Greek isle of Paros and in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. After Jacob’s Ladder was released, he revealed that one of his major inspirations for it was The Tibetan Book of the Dead with its depiction of the bardo, the purgatory-like liminal state where a deceased soul must let go of all its attachments, including those of personal identity, on the way toward liberation into ultimate reality. Additional inspirations were Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and, of course, the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” in the Book of Genesis. “Hollywood is the dream factory, the place that takes people into the most secretive parts of themselves,” he told the Buddhist magazine tricycle not long after Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost were released. “Sitting in a dark theater staring at a big screen, people are very vulnerable. In this openness you can, if you want to, give very important lessons to an audience. You can touch the deepest part of the mass mind, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

In one pivotal scene in Jacob’s Ladder, the protagonist, Jacob  (Tim Robbins), is receiving a treatment from his beloved chiropractor and quasi-mentor, Louis (Danny Aiello). Jacob is a postal worker in New York City who happens to have a doctorate in philosophy and a painful personal history that involves the loss of a beloved child and a horrific wartime experience in Vietnam. The film begins at a point when his life is becoming increasingly disrupted by bizarre spatial and temporal dislocations that include hallucinatory assaults in which demon-like figures show up during his daily life to frighten him, threaten him, and in one instance even abduct and torture him. Louis is a warm and wise man who helps to stabilize and comfort Jacob during all of these traumas, and in this clip, after having listened to Jacob fearfully describe some of what he has been seeing and experiencing, Louis astounds him by offering an alternate perspective that recasts all of it in a dramatically new light.

How did you get your doctorate without reading [Meister] Eckhart? . . . Eckhart saw hell too. You know what he said? He said the only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life. Your memories, your attachments — they burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul. So the way he sees it, if you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.

This leads us to the case of Richard Moss, who is widely renowned as a spiritual author and teacher of the mystical and nondual variety, and who also, interestingly, has a deep connection to the Tibetan spiritual traditions. In the 1970s he was a practicing physician when he experienced a spontaneous, dramatic, and traumatic spiritual awakening. Its intensity eventually led him to abandon medicine and pursue a new path of full-time spiritual work.

The_Dance_of_Stillness_by_David_RiversIn an interview for the 2011 book The Dance of Stillness: Exploring the Nature of Spiritual Awakening, Moss talks about the way the experience of “the dark night of the soul” has been central to his spirituality, and how this has led him at times to encounter the demonic aspect of the divine with terrifying intensity. In particular, and right in keeping with the point Rubin makes in his Jacob’s Ladder screenplay, Moss emphasizes that one’s individual state and perspective determines which face the divine will manifest during a spiritual/liminal/daimonic eruption:

Formlessness is terrifying to our egos, to our sense of personal identity. I truly believe that deeper consciousness is a continuous process of descending into the dark, which is that which is beyond our ability to understand and often seems threatening to us. And as we’re being called toward a new consciousness, the ego perceives that as darkness. I mean, I would say that, if God got near us, and we were still in ego awareness, that would be terrifying, and our perception then of God would be as Demonic. If we weren’t in ego awareness, and we were able to relax and just rest into being, and God got near us, it would be an honor, bliss, nirvana.

But I think you don’t stay there. People don’t stay there and aren’t meant to stay there because their next cycle would be to go back into the world and try to reorganize matters, so to speak, in a more coherent, more integral, integrated process. So the dark night for me was the loss of meaning, the loss of wanting to live, the loss of anything in life that seemed fulfilling. And it was hard to trust, very hard to trust, and there was an enormous amount of fear. The more my mind tried to understand what was happening, the more fear there was. I had to make my peace with not knowing. I would wake up each day and I would say, “OK, if life gives me nothing but this, I will say ‘thank you.’ I’ll be grateful.” So for awhile after the extraordinary period of wholeness there was a period of fear, nothing but this incredible raw vulnerability. And like St. John of the Cross, I came to call it the Dark Night of the Soul.

I don’t think it’s one thing. There’s a kind of turning inward that’s almost contrary to everything that life had been about, that I experienced. I felt that I had been brought to the experience of union, and then afterwards sort of cast down into darkness and had to find my way again, slowly. It’s so far in my past now, yet when I talk about myself I say, “One hand reaches out beyond this world into another dimension, which we can call transcendence,”‘ — so I sometimes just use the image of holding an angel. And the other hand reaches down into something so dark and disfigured, anguished and agonized, that I call it almost demonic.

And I really believe that when people get too high, something tries to pull them down into the earth, into the body, which is what we often talk about when we mean demonic. And when people get too locked into the rigidity of ordinary life, then something comes to break that and lift us out of it. And so the Dark Night of the Soul is a kind of descent into a kind of “no man’s land” until you develop the ability to be present in it. Once you can, you are operating a wholly new consciousness.

And that, at bottom, is the entire point: to reach a state of “operating a wholly new consciousness.” In his tricycle interview, Rubin said, “I really look at the world as a depiction of the internal state of man. The external and the internal mirror one another, and I see that larger evil as basically a depiction of man’s own unconscious relationship to himself.” This is profound, fascinating, and, as those of us can verify who have done some of the inner work that Rubin and Moss recommend, undeniably true.

But the Shakespearean “rub” of the thing is that for those of us who, for some reason, are destined/doomed to have our primary means of awakening be a repeated encounter with the divine’s demonic face, it can sometimes be difficult, if not downright impossible, to know whether it’s really an awakening that we’re experiencing or a Lovecraftian, sanity-destroying encounter with a reality that is monstrous in its essence instead of just appearing as monstrous to us.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 25, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Liminalities, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great stuff! These forays to the liminal zone at the far end of everyday reality — this is what happens to the protagonist in most good stories. I’ve been hammering away at this notion for a few years now. Thanks, Matt, for bringing even more clarity to this essential issue.

  2. This is the best page on Rudolf Otto that I have found online besides the public archive scan of the actual book.

    It goes over just about everything to do with his philosophy

    • I’ve come across that Otto page several times, and I agree, it’s an excellent introduction.

      • I’d like to thank you again for helping me discover Rudolf Otto if I hadn’t already. One of the first novels that I had read as a child growing up was Communion by Whitley Strieber. My favourite television show as a child was Unsolved Mysteries. The sensations of daemonic dread DOGGED me for years. I was kind of already fascinated by it throughout my childhood. I realized that I was feeling a peculiar sensation for paranormal things for years. Rudolf Otto put a name to it and that just blew my mind.

  3. There is also the documentary about the making of Jacob’s Ladder, where Rubin expands on most of the themes touched here. It can be found on YouTube. A horror writer that often touches on the horrific aspect of the spiritual awakening and the dual perception of the divine as angelic/hellish, is Clive Barker [ and strangely enough, I do not think I have seen mention of him on the Teeming Brain]: in the Hellbound Heart, the puzzle box leads to where pleasure and pain are interchangeable [ I take this to indicate the point where the absolutely benevolent and the absolutely malevolent coincide and become indistinguishable]; the demonic Cenobites are addressed as Theologians of the Order of Pain. A lot of interesting lines could be drawn from these parallels and that particular use of language.

  4. Matt, this is a phenomenal essay. I’ve always thought Jacob’s Ladder was one of the best horror films ever made—primarily because of its deeply spiritual and esoteric content.

    The best, most deeply affecting horror writing and film always has one hand stretching up to the angelic realms (to use Moss’s metaphor) while the other is being pulled into the demonic. Without the balance it’s just simplistic schlock and fear pornography. Keeping the reader/viewer suspended in that middle-state is the key.

  5. yes yes yes. powerful essay — in a few words, you’ve articulated my chief interest in the divine, and also my greatest challenge: that paradigmatic uncertainty that rears its head during experiences with the autonomous Other (for me, in sleep paralysis visions and occasionally lucid dreams).

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve faced an entity and thought something like, “Maybe I need to die. My ego needs to die. I need to surrender to this process… oh yikes, that really hurts, oh god that really really hurts, this thing is for real…what if it’s not a projection of my fear after all but a destructive force out to control my mind .. no, don’t do it … don’t do it… screw it, I’m out of here!”

    Often, in the lucid dreaming culture, people talk rather flippantly about entities being projections that need to be integrated, but I think that really reduces the experience. it doesn’t take into account what is really happening. which is sometimes, quite awful and painful and overwhelming. you can’t meditate it away. it comes back. and back. But it is true in my experience that sometimes, when I account for my fear, center myself, surrender, etc, that the entity can transform and go from daemonic to beutific, or at least neutral and more human like capable of discussion and information exchange. Accounting for fear and protecting yourself/grounding yourself doesn’t whitewash the spirit away, but it’s a good thing to do anyways.

    thanks for recognizing this very slippery beast.

    • I’ve been studying Korean and Vietnamese mediumship. The process of their initiation involves surrendering their life force to the undead. In fact, they use their ch’i to entice the descent of the numinous. This is in direct contrast to shamanism which is commonly ecstatic trance through which the shaman is said to ‘rise’ and greet the numinous. However, in my studies this has increasingly become problematic. It is my belief that the initiation through descent and transubstantiation of the mediums energy with the divine is crucial for ecstatic trance to ever bridge to that Other-World. Not all writers of shamanism agree on what it should encompass and the definition has become very problematic. I believe that early writers on shamanism were.. simply wrong. They saw shamans use trance and assumed that that was how they met with the spiritual realm. But other anthropology refutes this. For instance, Korean shamans may only use ecstatic trance a few times in their entire lives.

      This is a far more useful description of how a shaman communes with spirits, and you will see the daemonic-dread come into the picture as the essential mechanic of the entire ritual itself. ,

      -A Haunted Feeling-

      Soh Bosal started the kut ritual with a drum, sitting together with Oki’s Mother on the mat. It was a very cold and windy night even though it was spring. Everything seemed to be frozen in the spring cold. It was so cold that I came back to the car for a rest while Soh Bosal performed the first phase of the kut. I was not keen to observe the first phase, because it just consisted of routine procedures. I took a cigarette out of my pocket and put it in my mouth. Suddenly I felt a strong haunted feeling in the air around me. It felt as if a ghost was going to jump in front of the windscreen. I was so scared that I felt goose bumps appearing on my skin, and a shiver ran down my spine. I turned on the car’s interior light and looked in the rear vision mirror, because it felt as though a ghost was about to enter the car through the rear windscreen and squeeze my neck from the back seat. I locked all of the doors. But still the spooky feeling did not go away. So I switched on the radio and turned up the sound … I began to talk to myself … [What] is the reason I was possessed by a haunted feeling just now? … What did Mirim’s Mother say to you? She said, “I do not like to see kut rituals, where there seem to be lots of ghosts around. I feel as if worms are going around my body.” Yes! The haunted feeling … Chisun’s Grandmother said to me, “… The waves of life made me know this way.” … Linda … asked me in a letter “Why do they take responsibility for the ‘dark’ side of life?” … I continued to talk to myself… Because of the dark side of social life, there is a cultural domain dealing with the experience of misfortune in Korean culture. In contrast to ordinary domains, the field of misfortune is full of darkness and dampness. Look at this kut for Oki’s Mother! Isn’t it full of darkness? … It is my impression that shamanism looks like a poisonous creature. Korean shamanism is very colourful: its dances and music are dynamic, and costumes are full of bright colour. However, most adult Koreans know that its poisonousness. This is why Yongki’s Mother said, “I’m not going to a kut ritual because I am afraid of being possessed by the spirits!” (kwisine ssiuiulggaba). Is there any ordinary Korean who likes to be possessed? This is why they don’t like to be involved in shamanic practices. This is why shamanism has been stimatized in Korean history. This is also why my research has encountered such strong resistance in the field. The field which I have been investigating is the field of misfortune! Why do people seek shamanic practices even though they don’t like shamanism? How can this paradox be explained? Yes! Like cures like. The mode of shamanic healing is homeopathic. It is like using derivates of poison when one is bitten by a venomous snake. In Korean society, there is no one who suffers from misfortune more than the shaman, and no man or woman ever wants to be a shaman. The shamanic illness, an extreme of misfortune, makes the shaman a healer. … the Stick held by Oki’s Mother still showed no sign of being possessed, even though it sometimes shivered a little bit. Soh Basal asked again, “Is it like something has come?” Oki’s Mother replied shakily, “Well… I don’t know. The Stick shivered a little bit… ”

      There was an excellent Korean drama that has just finished airing called The Master’s Sun. I recommend giving it a watch.

  6. is a great service to watch Korean dramas in HD. You can use a box like roku to stream to your TV. A lot of Korean television series are available to watch for free. Like, the moon that embraces the sun. The master’s sun is a newer show. It syncretizes gnosticism , the Gothic, and traditional Korean shamanism. It’s set in modern times. It demonstrates how shamans don’t occupy the field of traditional healers such as accupucturists. Shamans bridge the triple world to reconcile misfortune. They have the same powers as reiki new age healers, but they don’t treat clients the way a reiki healer would. This is so important. In fact, as Chongho Kim’s book titled Korean Shamanism: the cultural paradox, explains, the shaman in fact would only end up making those people more sick. At least, that is the superstition. I raise this point to draw contrast to how different it is from something like reiki.

    In the master’s sun, a shaman is used as a talisman to draw out the misfortune plaguing the young king. It’s more akin to reiki, but not. Yet, in that case she is also in fact aiding him through her love so it’s a bit confusing. In those scenes she is more like a reiki healer. You’d have to watch the show to understand the context.

    In kut:: happiness through reciprocity by hyun-key Kim hogarth , she uses Marcel Mauss’ theory of reciprocity through gift giving to explain the shaman’s regular ritual of communion. The reciprocity in this case is a gift , through daemonic dread as it were, see above , to the spirits that descend for the offering, and then a gift of the spirits ch’i to empower the shaman, and hence reciprocity.

    This is the high sophistication these writings and television dramas are on. And it’s all mass marketed and published with the help of the Korean government.

    No other writings on shamanism and esoterica this public and accurate exist in the world.

  7. And it’s very Lovecraftian! That’s the whole kit and kaboodle. How the shamans draw the spirits with their energy, that they release in spooky shudders, how they regularly commune and empower themselves and how they get sick, Which is, that initial draw of power results in a manic psychotic episode, a spiritual emergence crisis , that initiates the neophyte. Commonly known as qi gong deviation or kundalini crisis. Or Wendigo psychosis. In Vietnam as well it is the same.

    It’s extreme, really crazy, really powerful, and authentic. I have references for it all. The psychosis is reported in Dr. Chang Soo-kyung’s translation of Dr. Kim tae-kon’s Korean Shamanism Muism.

    I should publish a paper.

  8. Beast. Yes.

    In Vietnam, haunting spirits from the war torment their kin. The only way out is to placate them.

    I hear it all the time from reiki practitioners. In public, they’re jovial. In private, when they speak and confide in me, they’re terrified. So I try to help them, and I raise that point about Vietnam, placate and the experience will lighten up. Maussian principle of reciprocity, gift for a gift, would turn their frightening experience around.

    Maussian principle is that predation is opportunity.

    It’s give and take.

    But to let them take, is the enticement to give. And then the circuit completes.

  9. I should make one clarification. Qi gong deviation. Solitarily it will tend to happen in crisis. Through lineage person to person not so much. Paying for reiki attunement lessens the blow.

    Rime of the ancient mariner, if you read through that he goes through the whole process,

    When he sighs and laments, the albatross falls off. Then, he enters a pact. He gets reciprocated. He climbs the ladder. The albatross represents his dread, and is his offering.

    Coleridge and the daemonic imagination by Gregory lead better is a great analysis.

    I even have reference of explicit psychosis from motohisa yamakage’s essence of Shinto. And Alex Owen’s darkened room is analysis of Victorian spiritualism wherein mania is a rite of passage. In fact, psychosis and hysteria was an epidemic . many people were hospitalized from this very thing.

    I bet they were fans of coleridge too. *sigh*

  10. Again, the master’s sun, Korean TV show,

    Syncretizes Korean shamanism, gnosticism, and the Gothic.

    A real masterpiece. And it’s all there but just watch the show to see how it plays out. All of the reading and references are helpful.


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