or, That Time I Got Exorcised, Sort Of
Oh make me over/ I’m all I wanna be/ A walking study/ In demonology
— Courtney Love of Hole, “Celebrity Skin”
Welcome, my fellow bugbears, to this inaugural (and presumably annual) Halloween Edition of the The Bugbear Dispatch. Tomorrow is the day that people don costumes; children go from house to house asking for candy; and evangelicals either participate but feel vaguely weird and guilty about it, offer their kids sorry Christian knock-off celebrations in the form of church “harvest festivals,” attempt to scare people straight via their (genuinely terrifying) “hell house” haunted house knock-offs, or spend the evening praying against demons.
When grunge singer-songwriter Courtney Love sang about demonology in “Celebrity Skin,” she meant the term in the every-day metaphorical sense people use when we talk about “facing our demons.” But as Carl Sagan understood very well, demons are terrifyingly real to many, many people, particularly here in the United States. I haven’t reread Sagan’s 1995 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark since probably the late 90s or early aughts, when I read it as part of what I now understand as a process of the deconstruction of my evangelical faith and identity. I did, however, grow up in that demon-haunted world. And at the end of this post, after some social and historical contextualization, paid subscribers to The Bugbear Dispatch will receive not only reading recommendations on the Satanic Panic and Christianity’s relationship to the horror genre—they’ll also get to hear about that one time I got exorcised, sort of.
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Demons and Disinformation among American Evangelicals
America’s conservative, mostly white evangelicals tend to believe not only that demons are literal entities that can harm humans, but also that demons become especially active and aggressive on October 31. Many are convinced that Halloween is the most important holiday for Satanists, as opposed to an excuse for having fun and playing with the macabre at a time of year marked (in the Northern Hemisphere) by the waning of the day’s length. This sort of “twilight” period, when the summer sun has faded and the darkness grows, is regarded by some neo-pagans and occult believers as a time when the “veil” between the world of the living and the dead is thin. Halloween has its roots in this lore and specifically in the ancient Celtic pagan festival of Samhain.
However, the notion that Halloween is the (un)holiest day of the year for some monolithic and conspiratorial group of Satanists is pure fiction. Evangelicals spread a lot of disinformation around this, including passing around a phony quotation from Anton Lavey that often circulates online in October: “I am glad that Christian parents let their children worship the Devil at least one night out of the year.” Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan and the author of The Satanic Bible, is not on the record having said any such thing, and in fact neither he nor those who joined his movement worship Satan, in whom they do not in fact believe.
Organized Satanists (in both the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple) in fact do not believe in the supernatural at all; they simply find empowerment in the symbolism of Satan rebelling against a petty and narcissistic deity (a view I honestly find congenial). In other words, they flipped the script on Christianity in a powerful way, embracing pomp and ritual in the name not of any supernatural entity, but of a quasi-promethean, godless emphasis on humanity and reason.
Of course, Christian extremists never let facts stand in the way of the stories they tell to inspire themselves and those around them not to color outside the lines set down in their authoritarian ideology. Nor did the bombastic talk show hosts of the 1980s and 90s, not least Geraldo Rivera, who in 1988 played to conservative and Christian audiences by releasing an absurdly sensationalistic “documentary” called “Devil Worship: Exploring Satan’s Underground.” (If you want to watch it, you can most likely find the entire thing on YouTube. It was there the last time I checked.)
In this faux-documentary—a classic and indeed quintessential artifact of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s—Rivera gives pride of place to law enforcement officers pushing stories of “ritual abuse” and “ritual murder” that the officers associate with occult and satanic practices, while letting a couple members of Lavey’s church weakly protest that Satanists are not engaged in any such thing. The broadcast made a huge splash, and, anecdotally, I’ve heard from a couple of exvangelicals who remember their childhood churches hosting watch parties, even though as kids in strict evangelical families they were not normally allowed to watch Rivera or similar programming.