Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Post by: Jessica
Last week I watched the new season of Haunted on Netflix, and if you have not checked it out yet, I would recommend it. Haunted is a reality series brought to you by the producers of The Purge and Lore and it provides first-person accounts of those who have either witnessed or experienced supernatural events or real-life horrors. I find every episode of this series chilling but the one that stayed on my mind was titled “Cult of Torture.” In this episode, James recalls the horrors he endured, at the early age of six, when his family tried to “exorcise” a gay demon out of him. This occurred when the family joined a religious group called the Worldwide Church of God which has since been labelled as an extreme Christian cult. The pastor of the local sect claimed that due to James’ effeminate nature he was possessed by a gay demon. Between the ages of six and 16, James endured hell on earth; from living years in complete isolation to being sexually molested by his mother to get him to respond to a woman’s touch. He was sent off to the New Bethany School for Boys, where for 17 weeks he experienced inhumane torture and rape in the name of God to convert him away from being a homosexual. Upon his release, his family disowned him, believing that he did nothing to be cured from this supposed gay demon. What James experienced was not supernatural at all but human evil, which is the worst kind.
While some people may think this story has some embellishments, it doesn’t really matter because we know things like this have happened and in ways it continues to happen. Sadly, religiously motivated conversion therapy still exists today. I remember on Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dusty Ray Bottoms came out about his own experience with conversion therapy. He describes being forcibly outed by his parents who brought him to their church to have him exorcised because they also believed he was possessed by a gay demon. Dusty and James were told by their ‘loved’ ones that their sexuality was evil due to a demonic presence within them and it required purification via an exorcism. They were made to feel, at the time, that due to this ‘evil’ within them that the abuse they received in the name of love/faith and therapy was justified. This is complete rubbish; motivated by ignorance and fear of the unknown. I find all of this to be really upsetting because those who commit these terrible violations are often heard preaching about compassion, forgiveness, and understanding - completely ignorant to their grotesque hypocrisy all in the name of “love”.
This month’s exploration into demonic possession in horror films has been an interesting one for me. I was raised in a Roman Catholic household. As a child I believed that Satan lurked around every corner, and I was in constant fear of demonic possession. This belief followed me into adulthood, where for years I refused to watch horror movies about religiously themed demonic possession, afraid that they would make me more vulnerable to the potential of becoming possessed. However for Spinsters of Horror, I decided to watch these types of films to not only expand my knowledge of the genre but to challenge my own beliefs and reflect on my experiences. Over the past year I have been receiving vicious emails from my stepmother and more recently the emails have been direct attacks on my life, the work I do with Spinsters of Horror, and being a witch - oh, and how apparently I’m possessed. She claims some odd things like that I am a member of the occult and spreading the work of Satan, that I am in league with devils, and that she has the power of Christ’s love behind her as she exorcises demons. This is all intermixed with the ugliness and hate she continues to write to me.
What’s even more depressing is that it is unsolicited because I broke all contact with my family 11 years ago. Normally, I ignore every attack as I don’t like to give her rantings of hate an audience. However, this time I was motivated to share my experiences with something that is still common and rarely talked about in today’s enlightened society. I felt like I needed to say something because I am not the only one who has experienced such religious aggression towards them because of their life choices. I have known others as well, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community, but also women who do not conform to societal expectations and anyone who lives outside of what is deemed “normal”.
Does demonic possession really exist or is this just another means of control that authorities have used to keep us afraid? When people are told they are possessed, is it just a case of religious intolerance?
We know historically that religious intolerance exists. This is when a group specifically refuses to tolerate practices, persons, and beliefs based on religious grounds. Many groups have experienced the harmful impact of religious intolerance: pagans, Native Americans, homosexuals, the mentally impaired, feminists, racial groups and other non-monotheistic religions. Often what comes on the heels of religious intolerance (at least in Christian contexts) is the demonization of the other. Monotheism demonizes any beliefs and practices that diverge from the worship of one god by spreading fear, ignorance and hate. They claim that other gods are actually demons in disguise misleading followers. This tactic was often employed by Christian missionaries to convert pagans and Native Americans to Christianity. Nonetheless, it has expanded to be used not only to focus on the condemnation of religious practices and beliefs, but that of various schools of thought or movements. Demonization has also found its way into the secular world, disparaging individuals or groups. It is used to instill hate and fear against the ‘Other’, those people who are not the same or live differently from ‘us’, who have aligned with evil to mislead the faithful and often this brings about violence. This has also been known to create moral panic which was prevalent in the 1980s to 1990s and famously known as Satanic Panic. Several horror films over the past decades have depicted this from Rosemary’s Baby, The House of the Devil, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter, just to name a few.
When I watched The Last Exorcism, I was angered by the way that the father, Louis, treated his daughter, Nell. He believed her behaviour was the result of a demon and that she needed to be exorcised. He believed that if she was not going to be cured through an exorcism, the only other option was her death. Louis strongly believed that in the name of God, he would kill his own daughter to free her from the clutches of evil. He would not hear any other reason, nor trust any other theory. Nell was just a young girl on the brink of womanhood who had been isolated from society by her father after her mother’s death in order to protect her from the ‘evils’ of the world. This idea that she was possessed by a demon was the only way to explain her actions, not the fact that she may have been mentally unwell or just becoming the woman he did not want her to be.
The means to cure mental illness can be an argument used for other supposed cases of demonic possession, the most prominent one being the case of Annelise Michel (1976), who was a mentally ill woman who underwent 67 exorcisms because she believed she was possessed by demons. Her delusional beliefs were encouraged by those around her and ultimately led to death from malnutrition and dehydration. The two priests who performed the exorcism rites, and facilitated her death were later charged with negligent homicide. This is not the first time that mental illness was confused with demonic possession. As early as the Middle Ages, people believed that those who were mentally ill were the results of possession by a demon, and sadly in some religious fundamental groups, this is still the case.
For the past month I have been questioning my old beliefs and wondering if demonic possession is real, or if it is just another case of fear-mongering to control others. Or perhaps it is just something people use to justify their acts of hatred towards others because it doesn’t fit into what they believe is good or evil. I remember when I was a young woman and I hadn’t come out as either a witch or bisexual yet when my father caught me looking at a website about vampires and witches. I remember he took me outside and told me that I was to never look at anything like that again, and that “he has raised a good Catholic girl.” I remember feeling ashamed that I disappointed my father, but also very angry. When I reflect back to that moment, I was being told to deny who I am and to live my life based upon what he believed was the way life should be lived, which was founded upon his monotheistic ideas.
When I hear other people’s stories of how religion has been used against them to change who they are, and to deny their very being because they may be in league with demons, it infuriates me. This is because of my own experience of such religious intolerance, even if minor. But frankly, it caused me emotional distress for several years and it has only been in the last few years that I have been able to recognize these attacks that have been levied against me for what they are: the means to keep me in a place of fear, unhappiness, and under control. I am realizing that I don’t believe in the concept of hell, Satan, and demons but instead see these ideas as concepts that are used to control others through demonization.
Real evil exists when people use elements of religion to justify the terrible ways they attack and dehumanize others. This prompted all the dangerous situations I’ve talked about and more, like performing an exorcism to remove a gay demon, cure a mental illness, or belligerently slander another’s spiritual practices. How could anyone justify these malicious actions as battling against a supernatural evil, when they themselves are performing acts of evil to do so?