The Devil as part of a rather American tradition.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse, 2000. Etching on paper, 228 x 78 mm.
© Jake and Dinos Chapman
My first material memory of the Devil is lucid and precise. I recall his weight, color, and size, in the form of a book. I was ten years old when I found a tattered copy of The Satanic Bible in the sand beneath a footbridge spanning a long-dead creek in Valley Stream State Park, Long Island. The year was 1983, it was summer, and my family was there on a church congregation picnic, visiting from suburban Queens, ten miles away. Raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, palpably aware of the Devil, I was afraid to take the book in my hands. So I cleared the sand from around it and became paralyzed by its alchemical properties. It changed the air, and the earth, and the surrounding woods, suffusing every afternoon shadow with menace. I had bestowed great power to an inanimate thing, and the physical world was made more animal-alive, the Devil was made real—he’d found me and sent me a message. I could hear his tongue whipping in the wind, and feel his spirit rumbling in my bowels.
Jehovah’s Witnesses live in an explicitly binary universe, in which Earth is the current battleground in a divine war between good and evil. As of now, with God’s permission, and until the Second Coming of the Messiah, the Devil runs the world, in absolute control and doing all he can to seduce, turn, or hurt as many humans as possible. He was a murderous threat and daily presence as far back as my memory reaches. He was a dragon, a wild beast, leviathan, snake, a hungry lion “roaming about the earth,” “seeking to devour someone.” In my dreams, I often imagined him in all his sinister brilliance stalking the streets of Richmond Hill, with a killer’s grin, like he had just escaped his cage. And before sleep, the Devil hid in the dark of my bedroom closet, peeking from between the hanging clothes and patiently waiting to sneak from that secret space and enter alive into my nightmares.
And yet, while his spirit might well have been beastly-shaped, he was of course, actually, invisible. One does not really “see” the Devil. Maybe this explains why I was so terrified of the dark. I remember standing thirsty at the bottom of the stairwell in my childhood home, in the deep of the night, the hundred-year-old house dead asleep around me and creaking, telling myself I needed only step to the floor and head to the kitchen for a glass of water. I stood there sometimes for ten minutes, twenty minutes, frozen, and afraid, convinced the floor was actually dark water lapping against the rise of the bottom stair, and that the even thicker darkness of the kitchen framed by its doorway was pulsing, swollen, and alive. A mouth. I’d stand there and shake, sometimes crying, only to wade back upstairs through the dark as if it were so many smothering curtains trying to stop my breath. The darkness, the nothing, the night air itself, unbound but pregnant with possible harm, was devilish. Darkness was inherently evil.
I was taught as much at church. Jesus Christ was “the light of the world.” He implored the unbelievers “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” Ephesians calls the Devil “the prince of the power of the air,” and refers to his “cosmic powers over this present darkness.” But these teachings also make a basic kind of human sense. We are afraid of what we do not know, what is different, what we cannot see, hold, contain, or understand. And darkness can indeed be frightening.
In the New World, darkness was realized literally on the frontier wilderness, on the shadowy edges of Puritan towns, in the forests, and on the dusky faces of Native Americans.
Before I found The Satanic Bible that summer afternoon, the Devil had no shape. But he now had edges, and stared up at me from the sand, as if emerging from the earth beneath my feet, like a hand reaching from its grave. I remember very clearly the cover: onyx black, and the title in an elegant white font. The author, in that same font: Anton Szandor LaVey—whose name alone seemed strange and demonic (unfortunately, “demonic” because it was “strange”). And the kicker: a violet goat’s head pentagram inscribed in a double circle. And that creepy symbol scared the shit out of me. Now I know that image is called the “Sigil of Baphomet,” the trademarked logo of the official Church of Satan, and contains about as much inherent evil as the Nike swoosh.
Actually, Nike is probably worse.
I started my disentanglement from the church at about eighteen, and the blame for that can be squarely placed on my discovery of literature and punk rock. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Bad Religion’s No Control became my gateway drugs into a love and need for art and the endless search for human truth. In recent years, though I am no longer a Witness, or a Christian (or anything, really), I’ve become increasingly interested in my religious heritage. And because the Jehovah’s Witnesses are an American invention, this has led me to a better understanding of the wider history of American religiosity. In fact, I now understand darkness and the Devil as part of a rather American tradition.
The Devil as darkness had long been part of Christianity, but only as metaphor. In the New World, darkness was realized literally on the frontier wilderness, on the shadowy edges of Puritan towns, in the forests, and on the dusky faces of Native Americans. As early as 1662, in Michael Wigglesworth’s long Puritan poem “God’s Controversy With New-England,” the New World was “A waste and howling wilderness, / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That Devils worshipped.” The “dark and dismal western woods” were the “Devils den.” The New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather called the work of the Devil “a Work of Darkness” in his 1693 The Wonders of the Invisible World: Observations as Well Historical as Theological, Upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils. Mather claimed, “never were more Satanical Devices used for the Unsettling of any People under the Sun, than what have been Employ’d for the Extirpation of the Vine which God has here Planted.” Translation: the Devil was especially alive and well on American soil, and he was here to eat American souls. For Mather and Wigglesworth, early America was Hell itself, unearthed, a land ruled by Devils, Satan’s own backyard. Why? Because it wasn’t Christian. At all. The people were, in Wigglesworth’s words, “Blind Heathen, and brutish men,” dark, and strange.
Come the nineteenth century, in the wake of the major American religious movement known as the “Second Great Awakening,” New York Baptist preacher William Miller added his own spin to biblical literalism. He basically declared the Bible, especially the prophetic books, an eschatological math problem waiting to be solved. His solution: “in these days of darkness,” the world will end on October 22, 1844. Miller was wrong.
But his tens—some say hundreds—of thousands of followers eventually split into several still-active sects of American-born Christianities, including the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My people.
Be sure, the Devil and his love of darkness are as real today for millions of Americans as any hovering enemy drone. From Rick Perry, current governor of Texas, and one of the nearly 100 million evangelical Christians in the US, who also sprang from the Second Great Awakening: “Let me go on the record as saying, I believe in Satan… If you don’t want to think there is forces [sic] of darkness and spirits and spiritual warfare, that’s your call.”
I should also say that when I ran from that book, I was running to find my church buddies. We all went back under the bridge, and one of my friends dared pick it up. He pulled it from the sand, too easily it seemed, and briefly held the book in his hands. He never opened it. Instead, he cried out and said the book had burned him. He dropped it to the ground. And then we all fell and crouching there dug a hole in the sand, as deep as we could make it. We buried the book, covered it like a coffin, and left, convinced we’d saved the world from birthing some great new malevolence.
I never dreamed of the Devil again.
Don’t get me wrong. I still had nightmares—lots of them. But they were different as I now dreamt of serial killers, violent kidnappings, and being chased by maniacs through abandoned warehouses. In other words, I was dreaming of people, bad people. Which makes sense because New York in the 1980s was full of bad people—just think of the Howard Beach race killings, the disappearance of Etan Patz, and John Lennon’s assassination. The Devil was ever present. No longer an invisible force that haunted physical things, he was conflated with everything wrong and fearful in the world. He was fear’s motivating force, the fearful acts committed by people, and the people themselves. Not to mention I’d discovered The Exorcist, which had come out a decade prior, but hey, it was new to me, and it fully confirmed my discovery.
It seems I was not rid of the Devil, after all, because apparently he could enter me at will.
I’d cut class and gone to a friend’s house to watch the movie. We pulled the blinds for ambience, plastic bottles of Coke and a Pringles can on the coffee table, and we put on the movie. VHS. We hardly said a word as we watched, horrified, and convinced some of the footage was real after hearing it had been “based on a true story.” What was so unforgettable about The Exorcist was Regan, who was just twelve years old, and looked a lot like the girls in our class. Plus, Regan was not “bad.” She’d been possessed, entered, owned, and the Devil lived inside her until he shed her like a snake does its skin.
Possession! The word alone was terrifying. I’d heard of such a thing in church, and read of it in scripture, but here it was onscreen, in color. How did it work? Did he enter through the mouth? The skin? And work you like a puppet? Did he make you do things you would normally never do? Maybe whatever bad things I had done before, or whatever terrible things I would ever do, might be blamed on him. It seems I was not rid of the Devil, after all, because apparently he could enter me at will.
The first possession I’d ever heard of came from the Book of Matthew, the famous account of Jesus casting spirits out of two men “possessed with devils” and into a “herd of swine.” Pigs. And more famously, those same pigs then ran off a high cliff into the sea, and perished. It’s a story attractive to many Protestant Christians. I’ve always had the impression this has mostly to do with iconography. Protestant symbology tends to privilege the cross over the crucifix (the Catholic favorite), which is to say a Christ resurrected, and alive, implied by his absence on the cross.
The story of the swineherd, too, provides a fitting picture of the Devil without having to show his face. It suggests a living and ubiquitous presence, by way of absence. There is no “Devil,” per se, only his spirit within the bodies of the animals. Whereas anthropomorphic representations of the Devil himself, drawings or paintings of his pitchfork, horns, and tail, no matter how classic or modern, date immediately upon viewing, are always insufficient, and die in the imagination. Ultimately, they are not believable. Not to mention, what more just fate for the Devil than to be depicted as a bunch of unclean pigs falling off a cliff and drowning? Not a shred of dignity is granted.
I’ve always had questions about this story, serious theological and moral questions: What does it say of spirit? Can it separate? Can it concentrate? If the Devil was everywhere, then he was not just in those poor pigs, but in the people watching, too, even the writer of the Gospel… In me? How much? I turned to a minister in my church. He said to stop asking so many questions.
My first encounter with human possession happened when I was sixteen. It was a Saturday, which I remember because it was my family’s turn to lead the cleaning of our church, or Kingdom Hall, so called in the Witness tradition. A Witness hall is a modest place, lots of white, beige, and mauve. They’re usually carpeted. There are no statues, crosses, or candles. And so cleaning them was a lot like cleaning your home. Get out the vacuum, Windex, and spray polish.
That Saturday morning we arrived early, my family and about ten friends from the congregation. The morning service and prayer for the house-to-house ministry (when the Witnesses come knocking on your door) was still in full swing. There were scenarios, questions about possible “conversation-stoppers,” and then a brief sharing of recent positive experiences. This usually meant comments like: Well, I had a great talk about the Bible with a stranger on the subway and we planned to meet for a coffee and talk again soon, etc. Until one woman told a story of how just last week she’d visited her sister who was extremely alcoholic and also dealing with a husband who hit her. In this woman’s presence the alcoholic sister was suddenly filled with a rage so visible and extraordinary it was clear she’d been possessed by a demon—later she would admit that in fact she had been. She erupted in the kitchen, screaming obscenities, utensils flying about the room of their own accord, and when the violent husband came home and the alcoholic sister attacked him—she actually flew, she raised up in the air, floated about the room, as pots and pans, spatulas and spoons, all orbited about her—the non-alcoholic sister, the one telling the story, shouted out and commanded the demon to leave the woman in the name of Jesus Christ and our heavenly father Jehovah. I was entranced by this story, and thrilled, and scared, and thankful I was hearing it within a House of God because, who knows, maybe even hearing such a thing might invite possession. The entire audience felt the same, I’m sure. There were tears, and there was that laughter of relief that often follows tears. There was applause for the sister who cast the demon out.
I now encountered possessions pretty much all the time.
That same year we moved to Georgia, a place steeped in the lore of its own American Devil, a trickster who challenged souls to fiddle competitions, a wager with eternal and cosmic odds, remembered in country song, and animated by laser on the Confederate bas-relief face of Stone Mountain, followed by hands-on-hearts and fireworks. I now encountered possessions pretty much all the time. And when I say “human possession,” really I mean people either claiming to have been possessed (rare), or people claiming to have witnessed human possession (weekly). It was a new life for me, and a new Devil. One summer, I attended a bonfire church party in a cornfield. We roasted ears of corn in their husks on the fire and peeled them after they cooled. We made s’mores. There was no beer. And then the fire stories started, typical stuff, ghosts, and monsters, and haunted houses, but with a Southern Christian spin. The ghosts were demons, and all the haunted houses were demonic, under Satan’s control.
It seemed I could not go a week without hearing of someone under possession, or, the more polite version, that someone’s behavior was demonic. It was often used to describe some wildly and obviously wrong criminal act—like murder (“That Jeffrey Dahmer is so demonic”). But it was also used with regard to regular people, to neighbors, who happened to disagree with our Christian perspective. I can’t tell you how many times we knocked on someone’s door, Bible in hand, and found there someone different, someone “strange,” an atheist, a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jewish person (all of these having healthy representation in the South), or some other kind of Christian, a Catholic, or a student of philosophy, who passionately and smartly disagreed, and sometimes asked us not to come back, maybe even got annoyed, or angry, or perhaps, even worse, politely invited us in, to talk, I mean really talk, about the complex human need for making meaning, and how, afterward, this person was referred to as “demonic.”
It’s easy to be a humanist alone. It’s another thing entirely when confronted with the great and strange mosaic of the world.
What I should have learned back then, but did not, and in fact took at least another twenty years to fully learn, is that such claims are not at all about “demonic power,” “demonic possession,” or even “the Devil,” but are actually about demonization. I learned instead to no longer only imagine evil as contained in a physical thing, like a book, but rather as a colonizing alien presence that could displace human consciousness, free will, the soul. Those kitchen utensils had not been thrown, and the alcohol was not responsible for that woman’s rage. Nor was her husband for his violence. Nor were the atheist, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Catholic, or Jewish persons simply expressing other facets of human experience. They were strange, and sounded different, they acted different, looked different. Their skin and clothes were not like ours, and their houses smelled of different spices. Their prophets and gods were strange—the bearded swarthy prophet Muhammad, the dark elephant-faced Ganesha of Hindus, the godless black-hole void of the atheist. It was all the Devil’s work, they were under his control, and so they were not wholly human.
I had learned to dehumanize.
After I left the Witness church, some twenty years ago, I eventually realized I was not in fact a religious person at all, and yet still I immersed myself in the belief systems of others. I read the Torah. I read some Talmud and Mishnah. I read the Upanishads. I read much of the Quran. I discovered my love for Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. I found philosophy. William James. I spent my twenties and thirties recalibrating my brain, all in an effort to better understand my relationship to the cosmos, to the world, and at some point realized I was what others referred to as a “humanist.”
I had no idea.
Despite the fancy new moniker, I was spending much of my time alone. It’s easy to be a humanist alone. It’s another thing entirely when confronted with the great and strange mosaic of the world.
A few years ago, I had a job downtown, I took the train there every day. Living in New York you come to recognize, even expect, on some days depend, on those familiar strangers you see in the subways. The old man in the wheelchair with an empty Folgers can on his lap and a sign that says, “veteran, homeless, tired.” The young man playing drums on an overturned five-gallon bucket. The stout lady by the stairs selling churros from a rusting pushcart. And the older Hispanic Jehovah’s Witness woman who, several days a week, stood by my turnstile exit, fanning a handful of Watchtower magazines, English and Spanish.
The Witnesses call this “street work,” and it is usually the most devoted, the most pious, who engage in this kind of ministry. It is thankless, tough on the legs, and often invites public ridicule. No matter how quietly and politely they stand there and hope for your interest, it is easy to confuse them with the street and subway preachers who obnoxiously bellow on about Jesus and the end of the world. And people usually do. She seemed to be a sweet woman, maybe sixty. She reminded me of my grandmother, who I was very close to, who was Chilean and tried to teach me Spanish. And yet whenever I saw this woman in the subway I filled up with a brimming and frustrated indignation. She made me angry.
I will admit, on my very deliberate mission to try to live the life of a “humanist” out in the world, a blind spot stubbornly remained: Jehovah’s Witnesses. I actively avoided them when I saw them on the street, and when I was a younger man, God help them if they knocked on my door. Their mere presence, the reminding unwelcome intrusion on my day, would set my heart in a sulk and poison my mood. For years, my wife joked how they got under my skin, and stayed there. I said I had no idea what she was talking about.
I have been reading a lot about evil lately, research for a new book. And this has involved some reading on the Devil, histories of his religious and popular development in the human imagination. It has been enlightening, but also disturbing to find my own inclinations mirrored in the faces of some truly terrifying people. I don’t mean to suggest there’s a killer in me. In fact, I mean the much more frightening truth—that a killer’s motives, all too banal, reside in me as well: jealously, anger, resentment, fear. They reside in you, too.
I have read interviews with some of the most heinous human beings who have ever lived and they usually have a pretty clear understanding of their actions. Some believe in a devil, many do not. But most of their talk reveals a deep and abiding fear of death, an overwhelming borderless blanket of fear and mortal sense that smothers. What evil they do resembles that of a threatened rattler—they strike first. Evil as I see it, and as many of them do, is a strike-first defense rooted in fear. This makes for a spectrum as wide as all of human experience allows, spanning from killers killing out of morbid fear to the demonization of others, fear of others’ sexuality, gender, creed, or color, and, yes, it includes—this is a difficult admission—those minor passing invisible crimes that no one ever sees, but which within my heart I know come from that baser version of myself, and which given the right (wrong?) circumstances might some day bloom into more substantive and destructive behavior. Perhaps on some lower frequency, on your lesser days, when the Devil shows his face in your bathroom mirror, I also speak for you?
And so there I was, on my way to work, on a morning like any other. As I left my train and headed for the exit, I saw her standing there, the older woman, helpless, and kindly offering magazines. I saw her and felt a rising tide of annoyance and dislike. She was me. She was my family. She was my first marriage and divorce. She was my failure, and my history, my shaking fist at infinity, at God, or the void. She was everything I was afraid of.
Of course, she was none of these things at all.
And yet as I got closer, there was a bilious upswell from my stomach, and I knew that I would speak to her. What would I say? I thought of how there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, more frightening to a Witness, to any old-school Christian, than the Devil, because he is a beast alive and real, hungrily roaming the earth, taking on any human guise, and looking for you. I walked toward this woman, I beelined, actually, and using what little Spanish I knew from my grandmother, I slowed just before her, and leaned—I leaned!—and whispered to her, sweetly and menacingly, not yet knowing what shame I would feel after the poor woman’s face paled, and fell, afraid. I said to her: “Yo soy el Diablo.”
Scott Cheshire earned his MFA from Hunter College. His work has been published in Harper’s, Electric Literature, Slice, AGNI, Guernica, and the Picador anthology The Book of Men. He lives in New York City. High as the Horses’ Bridles is his first novel.
To contact Guernica or Scott Cheshire, please write here.