If you’ve never wondered if demons can enter your body through the nasal cavity, then you grew up different then I did. Your Sunday mornings likely resembled Saturdays: blissful, homebound, relaxing in ways that over-starched dress shirts under the oppressive weight of wool sweaters, were not. My Sundays were spent on hard pews, which, alongside the flagellation of my Sunday-morning fashion, seemed to be intentionally designed to snuff dozing and encourage wide-eyed, sermon absorption. But these tricks were far from necessary. Not when words like “Spiritual Warfare” rained down from the pulpit like Dresden firebombs with a splash of brimstone. See, Spiritual Warfare, for those of you who didn’t honour the Sabbath at an Evangelical Missionary Church, is the name for the ongoing, invisible battle between angels and demons raging around you at all times.
For it is written: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around you like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
On those Sunday’s when the focus lacked the military strategy one might need in such a battle, I would tune out the slow, rolling murmurs of the sermon, and open one of the leather bound Bibles that rested, eagerly, in the pew before me. I would skip ahead to the last pages, the Bible’s climatic finale: the Book of Revelation. Here was my intel, the prophetic field reconnaissance that laid out, step by step, how the culminating battle would unfold. I would read and re-read every gory detail as to how Satan would manifest, consuming it like religious erotica — endorphins firing, pointer finger quivering as I traced each vicious verb. I read and re-read every detailed, symbolic description of lamp posts and sealed letters, trying desperately to crack the code given to me. Clues such as how to identify when the world would end, and how to equip oneself against the schemes of the anti-Christ. It was exhilarating, brutal, and I couldn’t believe I was allowed to read it in Church.
For it is written: Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
This was the pillar to my faith, and as far as I was concerned, there were demons everywhere, just waiting to whip inside my body to remodel. Although, the battle plans were laid out for me, 8-year olds make poor soldiers, especially when vivid imaginations are paired with an invisible enemy.
I remember my mother finding me, crying on the stairs in the basement. I had been asked to grab something from the dim, demon-ridden corners of the furnace room and was absolutely sure that I had stumbled into a hotspot of hell-bent hooligans, casually leaning against the furnace like common hoods, smoking cigarettes, waiting to mug my helpless soul. I tried to stay calm, but the throbbing feeling of evil incarnate rose at my neck, screaming behind me, causing me to run up the stairs. Careless haste grabbed my heals and sent me toppling forward, shins careening into the sharp edges of the basement stairs.
“You’re safe here, Johnny.” My mother said upon finding me. She was crouching in the light that was now spilling in from the doorway at the top of the stairs; she was an angel. She put her hand upon my trembling shoulder and whispered firmly, “Look behind you. There’s nothing there.” I wiped my tears and looked. “They know this is a Christian home,” she added, softly. “They can’t harm you here.” I nodded and she kissed my forehead.
For it is written: Those who believe in me, in my name, will drive out demons.
This more or less worked to convince me, at home. But the logic behind such statements made sleepovers at my non-Christian, rational, science-loving family members, horrifying. There, I was behind enemy lines, and what made it worse was that my parents sent me there, willingly — for two nights at a time — knowing damn well that the head of that household, my uncle, was an atheist.
There, they watched The Simpsons, a show strictly forbidden in my Christian home. We did not pray before bed for our loved ones, or give thanks before meals, and we certainly did not go to church Sunday mornings. Instead, my uncle drank coffee and read the paper. “I’d like to see him evolution his way out of a good ol’ fashioned possession.” I’d think to myself. “There are demons literally everywhere, and instead of equipping himself against them, he passes his mornings reading the news. As if anything earthly, truly mattered!” Needless to say, sleepovers became “pray-overs,” repeating, over and over again the words I had been equipped with: “Get behind me Satan,” until, eventually, I nodded off into an unsettling sleep.
For it is written: Beware, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light … [and] I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray.
All is fair in love and war. And so if Satan was truly as cunning as he was depicted in the Bible, there was a very real potential that he had deployed a discrete counter-insurgency campaign years earlier. This meant, of course, that I could have been possessed a long time ago when my guard was down, and I might not even know it. This fear possessed me most while sitting in church. I was terrified to think that if some malevolent being was inside me, it might wait to override my good Christian programming at the worst possible moment. Throwing me into a fit of foul mouthed obscenities precisely at the quietest, most Holy of silences. I pictured myself rising, unwillingly, during a Congregational prayer, screaming: “Fuck!” at the top of my lungs — a word that never left my mouth during my daily, non-demonic discourse. I imagined every head turning to face me, eyes open-wide with shock, eternal shame placed upon my family like a wet blanket. Then, just like the white robbed healers on the television programs we watched every Friday night, the Elders would rush forward, placing the sweaty palms of healing prayers forcefully against my forehead. They’d scream, “In the name of Jesus!” and I would be cured.
For it is written: that, when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
I’d seen it happen. We were at our denomination’s summer Bible camp and a young boy grew agitated in the front row. It was a feeling I knew well. Bible camp had two services every day with children’s programming in between. But outside that stuffy, mothball chapel were playgrounds, bike trails through the woods, and the tallest swing set I had ever seen. Every child grew restless on the wooden torture devices called pews inside that sweltering summer sanctuary. But this boy, took it too far. He was drawing attention to himself, and after several attempts from his mother to silence the outbursts, the boy proceeded to throw a tantrum, kicking and screaming, throwing himself on the floor before the pew. I remember watching as the boy’s single mother grew embarrassed, panicked. I remember that the sermon stopped and that the Pastor, perturbed by the interruption, stepped forward, looking down at the boy. I remember him asking the congregation for patience and for prayer, stating that this little boy seemed to be very “troubled.” I remember him talking like an Uncle Sam war poster, pleading for any able-bodied men, fathers — like this boy did not seem to have — to come forth and help this woman with her “troubled” son. I then remember watching as they dragged the boy screaming out of the sanctuary and into the humid piles of pine needles that seemed to part underneath his anchored heals. The congregation sat in silence as the pastor comforted the mother, praying for her and her “troubled” son — in front of the whole congregation. I remember the women being grateful, but most of all I remember the feeling that something horrid fluttered within me, the same torturing spell, perhaps, waiting and ready to twist me into oblivion.
For it is written: When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest.
The night after writing this reflection, I woke up screaming. I had dreamt that a demon possessed women was trying to pass her perdition onto me by touch. She was reaching for my face, and the look in her eyes conjured goosebumps that plagued my entire, shaking body. I panted for breath and curled up against the soft shoulder of my sleeping partner. “Are you OK?” she mumbled, quietly. I wanted to laugh but couldn’t; a grown adult, still terrified by the literal demons of his childhood, completely unable to communicate the complexities of why he was whimpering. “I had a bad dream,” I said. “That’s all.” And she fell back to sleep.
Fear is the lump found upon a loved one’s breast, it’s the first day of high school, it’s the shadowy alley hiding the glint of watchful, deviant eyes. It’s the sudden awareness of something horrible on the brink of happening, and it’s rooted in the black, murky waters of helplessness. I have often thought that the “War on Terror” was perhaps modeled as a spiritual war. The good people of America, pitted against an invisible, omnipresent enemy. America was stronger, and deep down the country knew it was safe. But fear has a remarkable half-life and there’s something about an ambush that wreaks havoc on one’s sense of safety, something that sends our imaginations into a frenzy. And so, I did what America has refused to do: I welcomed the terrorists.
I was 28-years-old, a long since defector of the Evangelical Missionary Church, and I was home alone. I found myself pondering the fact that, even though I had moved away from the faith and rules of my childhood, I still found myself fearing the metaphysical menace that once plagued me. I wondered if Nietzsche had it wrong. Perhaps the more pressing question for this post-Christian crusader was not whether God was dead, but whether Satan was. I realized that I had been living in a world without the hope of a deity, whilst never really having said goodbye to his arch nemesis, the devil. Good had been slain, while evil ran rampant. And so, I recreated the very breakup conversation I had had with God so many years earlier. I found myself saying the words that my 8-year old self would have never said; I called out that roaring lion from his metaphysical hiding place. “Satan, if you’re real, prove it! Possess me!”
First, I should say that I have never used a Ouija board, I have never watched The Exorcist, The Possession, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or basically any scary movie, I have never walked through a cemetery at night, especially not on Halloween, and I certainly didn’t read Frank Peretti books — the “sanctified Stephen King,” aka, the Godfather of the Christian-horror genre. But there I was, alone, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my home, talking to Lucifer himself. The lights were off and the worldliest of rock music was screaming out of my record player. I felt nothing, so I lifted up my arms and said it again, “Come on in Satan, prove me wrong!” I was trembling. A grown, agnostic man, shaking with fear at the idea that I could be making the worst mistake of my life. I waited. And as I did, tears began to roll down my cheeks. It was a laughing sort of cry that only someone on the brink of madness could fully muster. It felt familiar. Like my mother standing in the light at the top of the stairs. A feeling that only comes after running so long your shins have finally given into those hard wooden edges, and you realize that being chased is only terrifying until the moment you stop running.
Johnny Wideman is a playwright, actor, short story author, and the artistic director of Theater of the Beat. Following the cinematic masterpiece that was Home Alone, Johnny was terrified of home invasions, methodically looking out windows and locking doors before bed. He now lives in a farmhouse in Stouffville, Ontario, with his partner Leah, three friends, and two cats. They never lock the doors. Reprinted with permission from the author and originally published by Geez (Winter 2017), an independent quarterly Canadian magazine dealing with issues of spirituality, social justice, religion, and progressive cultural politics.