Demonology 101

One of my favorite quotes (and I wish I could both remember it and attribute it properly) goes something like, “The smartest thing the Devil ever did was to convince man that he [Satan] doesn’t exist.” It’s been brought up in films here and there (the last time I remember hearing it, Rod Steiger said it to Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days). Usually, the thought is dismissed as naïve, since the Devil is still very much with us, according to the speaker.

My own religious beliefs aren’t really concrete enough to confirm or deny this, but I do wonder: if the Devil were to walk about in our society, would he take the form of a red-skinned man with horns and a tail? Or a sinister man in black, hidden in shadows, offering dreams for a soul?

I guess I mean, would he be that obvious? In the Middle Ages, the answer would be yes because that was both what people feared back then, and what they expected from demons. The world was largely an unexplored, unknown place then, and to any theoretical peasant anything could exist anywhere. You might recall people thought Hell was in the center of the earth, so certainly a demon, while unexpected (and unwelcome), would have a familiar appearance. He would be looked upon as ordinary (for a demon).

Here, in the early days of the twenty-first century, societal beliefs have changed quite radically from the Mediaeval Era. In large part, this is due to our advance in communication technology. In the Middle Ages, events in a town a few miles away might be unknown to another village for days or weeks. Back then, the world was a vast place, and no one (given an ordinary life-span) could know everything there was to know about it, or see everything there was to see.

Now, we can know what’s happening on the other side of the earth in seconds. We’re pretty sure that the earth is just a mass of rock and lava with a (non-supernatural) core at the center. Nowadays, we think we see and know most of what’s here on the earth. Things shouldn’t surprise us.

With this kind of knowledge, we can say that red-skinned men with horns and a tail simply do not appear on the planet. We’re familiar with such an image, of course, but it might seem a bit outdated to us. While we might fear such a creature, should he appear before us, our first reaction might be, are you kidding?

We can say that now, but back then? As noted, a typical peasant of the Mediaeval Age would find this appearance completely in accordance with accepted belief and would act accordingly.

So the question might be, if the Devil is still around, why haven’t we seen him? Perhaps we have. Perhaps the Devil has adapted himself to our perceptions. After all, he’s the one who wants something from us (our souls), so he has the motivation. Can he change his “appearance” so that modern eyes might perceive him accordingly? An old Ray Milland film, Alias Nick Beal, presents a Devil who looks like a normal person; only his sinister aspect makes him Devilish. Audiences in 1949 (when the film was made) would not have accepted a red-skinned man with horns who smelled of sulphur. So the producers created an image which audiences of the day would find acceptable. If Hollywood could change the Devil to suit, why couldn’t Satan himself?

Might he, in fact, do away with appearance all together, since most visual representations have already been played out for our media age? Even Nick Beal was recognizable in 1949. Can’t use that one anymore, we’ve assimilated that into our folklore.

Suppose, then, that Satan decided that appearing to us and offering us our heart’s desire in exchange for our souls is an outdated method. Everyone would suspect an offer like that made to us, since we’ve seen it take place in movies, not to mention cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, and so on.

What does the Devil do then? I’m sure that he’s not going to say, “Oh, they’re all on to me, I guess I’ll just retire and leave mankind alone from now on. Maybe now I’ll have some time to fix the shed.” Or you know, whatever Satan might do in retirement.

Now, what does Satan really want? I have no idea, really, but consider for a moment. Yes, he would like all our souls. Why? Not really for the souls themselves, since he just throws them on the fire. I think he wants them so that God can’t have them. If he can tempt souls away from us, he gains against God. It’s that eternal contest thing between God and his former second-in-command.

Okay. Given that we’re too savvy to fall for the old “Seven years of success and then I take your soul” bit, and given that Satan still wants our souls…as previously asked, what should he do now?

He wants our souls. How can he get them without appearing in a cloud of sulphur and asking us to sign a contract?

How about instead of asking for our souls, he just possesses them? (I know what you’re thinking, he wants us to give them up voluntarily. That has to be part of the contest between him and God. Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.)

I’m sure we’ll be here all day if we try to define what does and what does not constitute demonic possession. What if we say it’s inexplicable behavior that doesn’t benefit one’s fellow man and/or glorify God? (This would seem to cover both the modern and Mediaeval viewpoints. And don’t get the wrong idea about me.)

Doesn’t that sound like obsession?

It’s an inexplicable behavior that consumes all one’s spare time and benefits neither one’s fellow man nor offers praise to God. Sounds pretty close to me.

We can pretty much look at people who are obsessed with counting ceiling tiles or washing their hand and say, They’re obsessed. Perhaps they’re actually possessed, as well. It would be just like Satan to use something that appears harmless on the surface to cause trouble. That’s how he got all those souls in the past, too…because the offer seemed harmless. Hm, I can be the world’s greatest violinist in exchange for my soul? Well, I don’t believe in souls, so it’s win-win for me! Then he finds out that without a soul, he no longer has any interest in playing the violin. Whoops! That’s classic Satan.

Maybe Satan is alive and well and working quite nicely through our civilization. I don’t really know. My own religious convictions are too vague. Am I saying that people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder ought to be exorcised? No. This is all just theory, just a chance to speculate. As Towelie himself says, I have no idea what’s going on. And I don’t really think people are going to Hell for washing their hands.

But, given what I’ve outlined above, we’ve seen how Satan can adapt himself to our modern culture so he’s able to move among us smoothly and without problems. With a little change in methods and appearance (since we store information, we catch on) he can keep going while we chuckle at the idea of a man with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.

It sounds pretty clever, actually. And one has to ask, is Satan alone in these methods? Are there other beings out there that might adopt this sort of adaptation, for their own ends? One imagines angels use this method as well, to inspire someone to eliminate world hunger or something like that.

And perhaps other beings, other independent concepts, use this method simply to continue their own existence. Lovecraft wrote often about Cthulhu manifesting himself through the dreams of the sensitive. Maybe he wasn’t far wrong.

Don’t you wonder why it is that Star Trek (as an example) seems to grip people tightly by the brain? Even now, in the Fall of 2005 with the latest series cancelled and no movies in production, there are still people out there so obsessed (a ha) by Star Trek that they seem to live and breathe it? Perhaps that guy you know who’s a total Star Trek nerd didn’t get that way completely by accident. I don’t think someone named Asmodeus appeared on his couch and started going, “Who hoo! Fire them phasers, Picard!” and that was it for your friend. But clearly something in the concept took hold in his mind and is still there.

What if that something is some sort of personification of Star Trek? Star Trek as an independent entity of some kind? They crew were always running into things like that. What if Gene Roddenberry didn’t invent Star Trek back in the mid-60’s, but instead he discovered it? Or perhaps it discovered him.

Is there a “demon” (for lack of a better term) that embodies not death, pestilence or famine, but Star Trek?

It’s a good question, I think. And it makes me wonder how many of our various obsessions (a ha) actually come from an inherent interest in the material at hand. How many of them are actual entities in and of themselves, who feed by creating various stages of mania in our minds? What makes a person see the same movie over and over? Or buy all the books by a particular author, or study the battles of the Civil War? Why does someone collect soda bottle caps or Buddy Holly paraphernalia? Let’s not even go into Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter and Batman. Not to mention football, video games, fashion, rock & roll, sex and so on. Religion and politics seem particularly ripe for the obsessively-minded. Way too ripe, in fact. Let’s skip over them.

Why (in the case of many of these people) never dare question the worth of their…obsession? Do we perhaps sense that there is some greater protecting body behind the person? My own political views seem perfectly rational and logical to me, while those who believe otherwise seem irrational and illogical. I’m sure everyone feels the same way. If I were to say, though, that anyone who believes X must be under the control of something outside themselves, then that entity would cause persons who do believe in X to start thinking I’m crazy and make them click to some other webpage. So you can’t win in this kind of argument.

(Just to note parenthetically, memes and phobias might also be under this sort of system, though I tend to think memes are human-generated and phobias can be the result of some trauma.)

How many of you have hobbies that, in the cold light of logic, you’d be hard-pressed to explain? I can think of several of my own, myself…. Even now, I’m nagged by the idea that I should make this essay better, clearer, more meaningful. Why?

Why, indeed. In the words of the Firesign Theatre, "Your brain may not be the boss."

Happy Halloween, everyone.

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