The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.
Move along. Nothing to see here.
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)
From Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith:
The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depth of the human heart. . . .
There is within us — in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us — a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles — Gauguin’s Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? and de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Infinite — but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
From a 1930 letter by H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith:
My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalising mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas, especially in connexion with a sunset. Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association — the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface — & fill me with a sense of wistful memory & bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future.
From a 1930 letter by Lovecraft to James F. Morton:
It is never any definite experience which gives me pleasure, but always the quality of mystic adventurous expectancy itself — the indefiniteness which permits me to foster the momentary illusion that almost any vista of wonder and beauty might open up, or almost any law of time or space or matter or energy be marvellously defeated or reversed or modified or transcended . . . that sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorption, surprise, and cosmic wonder (i.e. the illusory promise of a majestic revelation which shall gratify man’s ever-flaming, ever-tormenting curiosity about the outer voids and ultimate gulfs of entity) . . . the illusion of being poised on the edge of the infinite amidst a vast cosmic unfolding which might reveal almost anything.
From Smith, Why Religion Matters:
Release from those walls calls for space outside them, and the traditional world provides that space in abundance. It has about it the feel of long, open distances and limitless vistas for the human spirit to explore — distances and vistas that are quality-laden throughout. Some of its vistas . . . are terrifying; still, standing as it does as the qualitative counterpart to the quantitative universe that physics explores, all but the fainthearted would switch to it instantly if we believed it existed. . . . Our received wisdom denies its existence, but that wisdom cannot prevent us from having experiences that feel as if they come from a different world.
From Lovecraft, in his essay “Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction”:
I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best-one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.
From a recent blog post by psychologist and author Thomas Moore, in which he elucidates one of the key insights from his mentor in depth psychology, the late, great James Hillman:
“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” — James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.
James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.
An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.
. . . If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.
And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs — all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”
More: “Real Presences“
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a kind of companion piece to this one, see Ryan’s “Have a Very Scary Christmas!” over at Dreamstudies.org.]
This Christmas Eve as you lay the children down to sleep and lock the doors, you will have the chance once again to notice that feeling of holiday vulnerability creeping on up. You may feel it especially when you hang the stockings with care or leave out a plate of cookies for Santa. Something feels hollow. It’s a subtle, diffuse sense that we usually dismiss as misplaced nostalgia or a bit of underdone potato or undigested beef. A vague foreboding on the periphery of awareness. A nagging intuition that something important has not been acknowledged.
Many of us, perhaps even most of us, simply ignore the feeling and go to bed (perhaps to be plagued by unpleasant dreams of unformed menace). But if we take the opposite approach, if instead of forgetting this annual sense of emptiness and dread we focus on it, follow its thread, and let it take us where it wants to lead, what we will discover is nothing less than an ancient tale about the horror of the holidays: the real nightmare before Christmas.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
Although there are many roots buried beneath the Santa Claus complex, American Christmas traditions come mostly through the Pennsylvania Dutch, those German-American settlers who arrived in large numbers in the Eastern woodlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. The name “Santa Claus” appears to be a corruption of the Dutch settlers’ “Sinter Klaus,” or St. Nicholas.  But in the German Alpine traditions, jolly old St. Nick does not ride alone. His wingman is the Krampus, a beastly “anti-Santa” that has been present throughout the last three hundred years of Christmas tradition in Europe. Read the rest of this entry
Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps up all of these genres, themes, and concerns inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.
Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry
The first installment of Numinosities, my new column for [Nameless] Magazine, is available for free reading at the journal’s Website.
[Nameless] is a newly launched “Biannual Journal of the Macabre, Esoteric and Intellectual.” Edited by Jason V. Brock and S. T. Joshi — a fine team indeed — its stated goal is “to meld divergent (even challenging) critical perspectives on a variety of subjects — fiction, music, art, film, social commentary — and present them with the best content (literary, artistic, and, in the case of the website, multimedia) we can muster from the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism, slipstream, and dark fantasy.” The format is a biannual print journal and electronic edition combined with a Web magazine.
The debut issue, dated Summer 2012, is now available, and is a really impressive piece of work featuring a beautiful visual layout and contributions from the likes of William F. Nolan, John C. Tibbetts, and Gene O’Neill. So it was a welcome thing when Jason contacted me with an invitation to contribute a recurring column about horror, religion, and philosophy to future issues.
The first Numinosities column is about the perennial entanglement of religion with horror in a way that makes each imply and entail the other. Here’s the gist:
In point of fact, horror and religion have always been bound together in the most intimate of entanglements. Look to the ancient Sumerians: you’ll find in their cosmogony the tale of Tiamat, the great chaos dragon who formed the original, primal substance of reality until her children, who were more anthropomorphic, and who were therefore the gods worshipped by humans, overthrew her. Observe that horror came first, before divine solace, in the most ancient creation story of which we’re collectively aware. Check the ancient Egyptians, those vital quasi-neighbors of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, and you’ll find similar instances of daemonic monstrousness built right into their reigning theologies at nearly all points. The same goes for the ancient Greeks, some of whose creation myths involved the progressive overthrow of primal chaotic monstrousness — think the Titans, think Kronos devouring his children — in order to produce the ordered cosmos we have today.
So why, then, should people today still find it necessary to ask about the connection between religion and horror? When it would be more reasonable to ask if they have ever not been connected, why do so many of us moderns find it odd or shocking to hear their deep linkage called out and explicitly identified?
Perhaps — and here I may simply be indulging my own temperament and mistaking it for insight, or perhaps I may really be onto something (a judgment I will invite the reader to make for him- or herself) — perhaps it has to do with an unconscious recognition that only a few have ever named aloud, a recognition that is simultaneously implicit and explicit in all of those great biblical images of a wrathful God whose transcendent nature is categorically other than the natural world, so that, even though this nature is technically termed “holiness,” it emerges in human experience more as a tremendous, awe-and-dread-inspiring eruption of supernatural nightmarishness that is fundamentally corrosive both to the world at large and to the human sensibility in particular. In other words, perhaps it has to do with a psychologically subterranean sense of unsettlement at the notion that the divine itself, not just in its conventionally demonic aspects but in its intrinsic essence, may be fundamentally menacing.
— Matt Cardin, “Things That Should Not Be: The Uncanny Convergence of Religion and Horror,” Numinosities, [Nameless] Magazine, December 1, 2012
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Image: “”Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco de Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Do nihilism and cosmic meaningfulness stand in fundamental tension with each other at the heart of the horror genre? Were Lovecraft and Machen getting at fundamentally different moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical points with their respective horror stories? Does the (possible) tension between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Machenian sacred terror constitute a fault line running right through the center of the horror genre and impacting its literature and cinema today?
These are the questions driving this first-ever Teeming Brain podcast, which has been, if you count back to the blog’s original launch, six years in the making. More immediately, it was recorded between November 20 and 28, 2012. Its origin can be found in three items: first, an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” — about Lovecraft, Machen, and the moral and philosophical ideas playing out in the current horror movie scene — written by Christian horror novelist Jonathan Ryan and published in Christianity Today; second, a response to and rebuttal of Ryan’s argument by Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin in “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness“; and third, the vigorous conversation that grew up around that response both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online. There is also, fourth, John Morehead’s suggestion that this could all be turned into a stimulating podcast.
This debut episode presents a roundtable featuring eight authors and thinkers in the areas of horror, philosophy, and religion, all of whom engage the questions described above plus a whole lot more.
- Peter Bebergal, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the widely praised memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood.
- Matt Cardin (host), founder and editor of The Teeming Brain and author of Dark Awakenings, Divinations of the Deep, and the forthcoming To Rouse Leviathan.
- Nicole Cushing, author of the forthcoming horror novella Children of No One and the trippy bizarro fiction collection How to Eat Fried Furries.
- Richard Gavin, author of the numinous horror collections At Fear’s Altar and The Darkly Splendid Realm and the Teeming Brain column Echoes from Hades.
- T. E. Grau, fiction editor at Strange Aeons, author of the Teeming Brain column The Extinction Papers, and co-author (with his wife, author/editor/screenwriter Ives Hovenessian) of the forthcoming horror fiction collection I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
- John W. Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, creator of the blog Theofantastique (“A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture”), and co-editor of The Undead and Theology.
- W. Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.
- Jonathan Ryan, author of “Meaning to the Madness,” the highly praised supernatural/spiritual horror novel The Faithful (as Jonathan Weyer), and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel 3 Gates of the Dead.