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Features

My dark pilgrimage

Peter Laws

How seriously should Christians take the idea of demon possession? Having begun his unconventional faith journey with The Exorcist, Peter Laws explores and defends his ongoing fascination with horror.

It's Saturday night in a University coffee bar and I'm sipping red wine with a witch. We've just attended a sold-out conference on demonic possession and we're trying to figure out if it still happens today.

This isn't a 'Christian' conference by the way; it's run by The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and their neutral approach means we've heard a range of fascinating views - from skeptical psychologists to sociologists, occultists to spirit mediums. (The church angle only lost airtime because a vicar meant to be providing it is ill.)

I've spent the entire day munching crisps and discussing demons with business managers and NHS staff, physicists and government workers. Ordinary people who just happen to have an interest in the spooky and bizarre. The fact that this conference is sold out is a tiny example of the massive interest people have worldwide, in the supernatural.

I'm here because I'm a Christian who learns best when I hear an argument from all sides. I'm also a church minister who was never formally taught anything on modern day possession at Bible College1, so I figure I ought to explore it myself.

FASCINATINGLY SPOOKY

But let me be honest with you: the main reason I got up at 6:30am to catch the train into London was for exactly the same reason everybody else did: I'm absolutely fascinated with the paranormal and all things spooky. The subject doesn't just intrigue me, it thrills me, it makes me feel alive. But to be fair, I was reading about this stuff and watching horror films long before I ever set foot in a church.

It's an odd story I suppose, but then spiritual walks are often slippery, unpredictable things. Brought up in a non-church going family I was a huge horror fan who was openly antagonistic toward Christians. Especially my RE teacher and the trendy young Jesus lovers the school invited in from time to time, who sat with their feet on the desk looking finger-pistol cool, while I just saw a campaign to strap me into an ideological straight jacket.

I look on those people with affection now but back then I saw crusaders on a spiritual scalp hunt with me being just another notch on their belts of righteousness. They told me God would speak through funky-covered Bible's and guitar-based folk music and of course my 'gothic' interests would be the first things to go. Christian ordained entertainment was apparently the key to unlock my soul.

The God they painted seemed so house trained and palatable it was like he'd never seen a film above a PG certificate. And I'm sorry, but a deity who had never cried at The Godfather Part 2 or clutched a cushion during Psycho seemed inconceivable to me.

I vividly remember thinking that maybe on my death bed, I'd reconsider the God question, but for now I set him aside because I was getting the impression that me and him…we simply wouldn't click.

DARK WHISPERS

It was surprising then, in the years that followed, that I slowly started to hear him whispering in unexpected places. Not in the light like they'd told me but rather, through the darkness. Mostly as I sat in the shadows of my lounge, crunched up on the sofa in the flickering light of a horror film2. The drip-feed notion of all those scary tales did something I wasn't expecting. They said: what if those Christians had a point?

You see that's what horror and the paranormal can do: they can re-enchant a jaded, cynical world. While I was a huge fan of the more normal fare too (Knight Rider, The A-Team; you know, the classics), it was horror that took my young heart, squeezed it and screamed at me a fundamentally Biblical question: what if there's more than flesh, more than blood? Soon I was paying more and more attention to the philosophy of horror and was shocked to see it was saying things no other genre was.

For a start it took the supernatural seriously. Horror narratives usually start out cynical ('Pah, there's no such thing as life after death! So yeah…let's move into this spooky old house!'). Yet by the end they always ended up in believing ('Whoah, there is life after death, and not all of it's friendly'.) What other genre preaches that message so consistently?

And horror kept pounding a seemingly outmoded concept into my post-modern brain: Maybe objective good and evil actually exist. Ironically, these were similar messages to what the Christians with their rainbow strap guitars were telling me: but when horror said it, it scared me enough to care.

THE EXORCIST

Ironically, it's the subject of demonic possession that really opened the door to God's existence for me, so let me tell you about my experiences with William Friedkin's notorious horror, The Exorcist. I'd always wanted to see the film but after a patchy cinema release and then a subsequent ban on home video, it wasn't available in my teens. Yet one sunny, Saturday morning I was leafing through videotapes on a market stall when I pulled out a bootleg copy of the most talkedabout horror I had ever heard of.

What shocked me was how scared I was, even then. That what I was holding in my hand might have some sort of supernatural power. I quickly set it back in the pile, walking hard in the other direction.

If those Christians had been present they'd have probably high-fived for my resistance, but what intrigued me was why I was so bothered anyway. Surely it's just a film, right? I'd have to test this out. I plunged my hand in my pocket, pulled out a crisp new fiver and hurried back to the stall. I had to smuggle it back into the house, because I knew if my mum saw me with it, she'd flip.

When I finally sat down in an empty house to watch the thing, I remember my heart pounding, my skin prickling and something kept saying: this is more than just a movie, this is a moment. Okay, so by the end of the two hours I wasn't quite as terrified as I thought I might have been (the expectation of our personal mythologies often outpunch the reality) yet the effect of the film was far more subtle. Its presentation of uncensored evil gave my spiritual ponderings an unexpected urgency: might it be wise that I connect with the good sooner, rather than later?

BATTLING EVIL

The Exorcist did something unique too: it said the church was the only real answer to true, primary evil. The priests in this weren't the corrupt perverts or sappy figures of fun, so common to culture. Here they were intelligent, brave and sacrificially heroic. Today - in a world where the supernatural and the church are increasingly under attack - horror films say something counter-cultural. That God might be real and that the church might even be filed under 'solution', not 'problem'.

In time I started noticing more and more religious themes in horror: from the vampire cowering at the cross to the brain and bodies lacking a soul, i.e. zombies. Horror to me seemed to be celebrating inherently religious ideas in a world that laughed and derided it.

So when at University, the Christian Union offered me God, horror movies had flexed my faith muscle enough to actually consider it properly. I avoided stereotyping church-goers, I listened to their arguments and eventually took the step that changed my life: I became a Christian.

NO DELETE BUTTON

However, it turns out that when you do that, God doesn't reach through a crack in space and hit delete on your personality, which meant my love of horror remained. This, I was told, would never do. I'd have to drop horror like it was hell-hot.

I did try. Kept it up pretty much for nearly a decade, actually. I stopped watching scary movies and sold or destroyed my books, my soundtracks. I'd stand in video shops (remember them?) itching to watch some new ghost movie but instead I'd trudge to the counter with Forrest Gump because Jesus would probably rent that.

It's weird, but the devil never felt more threatening, or more powerful, than in those moments struggling over 'what to watch' because when you think Satan is lurking in the grooves of a DVD, he feels way more powerful than he actually is.

Yet here I am today, at a conference on demonic possession. I write a regular horror column for the paranormal magazine The Fortean Times. Heck, last month I was in Transylvania writing an article on Romanian folklore and vampires. What on earth happened to cause such an epic backslide?

BANNED IN TUNISIA

Well, to save on space, let me share one piece of pub quiz trivia that for me represents this paradigm shift in my thinking. Here it is: The Exorcist was banned in Tunisia. You might think that's no big deal: after all, Billy Graham reportedly said that evil existed in the 'very celluloid of the film itself' and thousands of groups campaigned for its withdrawal. Yet, this is different, because on February 24, 1975 (when I was five months old) Tunisia banned The Exorcist not on the grounds of blasphemy, but because to them it presented 'unjustified' propaganda in favor of Christianity.

What if, like the Tunisian authorities, there are others who see God's fingerprints on horror? What if God himself understands the genre and the urge to watch it? Ever since, I've re-embraced my love of horror. I wrote my Theology masters thesis on it and I present the theology of horror in my podcast The Flicks That Church Forgot, which at present has well over 2, 500 unique subscribers worldwide.

I'm an oddball, I know it. It's controversial: I get that too, because seeing horror as potentially transcendent is clearly a minority view in the Christian world. When some Christians rail against the Satanic traps of Harry Potter, their heads would spin clean off at the sort of films I watch, and to be fair, I can see their point. At first glance it doesn't make much sense, for someone in the light to still be drawn to darkness.

AN UNLOVELY BOOK

To help make their point, the horror detractors often quote Philippians 4:8 which states that we must think only on that which is true, noble, pure and lovely, but we know that isn't saying Christians must never watch the news or think only of kittens in wicker baskets. Any reasonable Christian agrees that sometimes we have to acknowledge the un-lovely elements of life.

In fact, the verse specifically instructs us to engage with those things that are true and while it may well be true that God is love and light, isn't it equally true that in the Christian worldview, the supernatural is real and the devil exists? If we never engage with grim subjects through debate, study and art, we would be thinking only in half-truths, and 'there are no better lies than half-truths.'3

Maybe this is why the Bible itself sometimes reads like a horror film and not in the sense that the violence in it is always reluctant, historical reportage. Some of Jesus' parables hinge on violence and murder. He didn't have to use those, but he chose to. Both Testaments contain extreme depictions of historical violence (the knife disappearing into the flesh of Eglon is a gratuitous, 'unnecessary' detail - but it's in there4).

Or how about the gore-fest horror of Revelation where monsters torture people and others party over rotting corpses while a woman gets drunk on the blood of Christians. Or that demonic dragon crouching at the legs of a pregnant woman, waiting to devour a newborn. The author Will Self describes Revelation as a 'sick text…a portentous horror film.'5 Yet its first verse says that this is not the Revelation of the Apostle John, but the Revelation to him. It is from Jesus.

Am I suggesting that God's son was a violence- loving psycho? Obviously not! Yet when he used his palette of communication, he seemed more than willing to use the darker shades to make his point. The grotesque had, and still does have, the ability to become revelatory. In short, there is theology in horror.

DARK STORIES

Plus, there's human nature to consider. To deny people's fascination with shadows is to deny humanity full stop, because since the dawning of time we've told each other frightening stories.

The church has long been aware of this and has even utilised it. Think of Dutch Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch whose horrifying depictions of surreal and hellish sadism were not only informed by the religious opinion of the day, they even helped form it. In 1563 the Council of Trent issued an ecumenical decree to artists 'encouraging the deliberate depiction of horror'.6 The idea was that the fear of damnation and hell might rekindle religious fervour.

The Puritans did the same with preachers like Cotton Mather, crafting sermons that were more like gothic rainbows. 'God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire.' Yikes!

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting we should all now engage in scary, threatening preaching. Yet every day modern parables of cosmic good and evil are being played out on TV and cinema screens and I'm up for pointing out where some of those stories might point to the divine.

I'm not evangelical about horror, either. If you don't like scary movies then please…do not watch them. Yet there are millions of people like me who don't only love this stuff, it speaks to us; it's part of our psyche; in some ways grim stories even comfort us.7 I've lost count of how many people turn to the book of Psalms when they are in distress, and not all of those chapters end on a cheery note.

A HUMAN FASCINATION

Horror and the paranormal are a theological comfort too, because while I have no desire to see poltergeist activity in my own house, there would be a bizarre silver lining to that experience. My belief in God would increase, not decrease.

At the conference today I ask a few atheists how their worldview might be affected if demonic possession could be proved. Not all, but most, say it would force them to re-consider the concept of God, and that they would actually welcome that.

Even the education system and the tourist industry get the appeal of horror. Books like Horrible Histories concentrate on history 'with the gory bits left in' and kids don't only love it: they learn. Guides at museums and Stately Homes regularly thrill visitors with gruesome or spooky tales. Are they all sickos for being interested in this stuff? Of course not! They're just guilty of being human beings, who might not talk about it much, but they're aware that one day they'll have to face their own mortality.

In a society which stigmatizes death-talk, horror and the paranormal are one of the few places that let us reflect on both physical death and the potential afterlife, yet they somehow do it in a way that doesn't depress us.

HORROR WITHOUT METAPHYSICS

Interestingly, I meet many Christians who would disapprove of horror and yet avidly watch crime dramas like Broadchurch or Silent Witness on TV. I don't watch those things much and you might be surprised why: I find them disturbing, because like many horror fans, I abhor real life violence.

Crime drama or documentaries present hideous crime without any spiritual dimension so I'm just left with gut wrenching death and its human consequences. Strangely enough I find more hope in horror, because the supernatural leaves the door open for God. That's not to say crime drama is wrong, it still feeds this human need for shadows, but for me it's just horror without the metaphysics.

So here I am, chatting with sceptics, mediums and witches because we're all fascinated with this stuff. We share our distinct perspectives, we learn and laugh and I head home on the train writing the following tweet: 'Great conference. A reminder that Christians, Skeptics and Paranormalists don't need to be scared of one another.'

Yet the truth is, we are, because the horror narrative really is unhealthy when it spills into life itself. When we paint those who are politically, religiously or cultural different from us as devils. We love to see demons in each other and we push each other apart. I guess I am weird, and maybe a bit naive too, but I prefer to see monsters in horror and humanity in humans.

Rev Peter Laws is a freelance speaker and writer. His Masters Thesis on Christianity and Horror was shortlisted for a theology prize. He writes a monthly horror column for The Fortean Times and hosts the popular horror theology podcast: www.theflicksthatchurchforgot.com.

NOTES 1 It got mentioned once, in a Q&A in a seminar on Pastoral Care. The lecturer simply said 'I know ministers who have been called to houses where objects are flying about the room'. Then he moved on. 2 While horror films may well have violence and gore, remember they don't all have to. Some of the creepiest films I've seen are almost bloodless. 3 Brian Godawa: Hollywood Worldviews (IVP, Illinois, 2002) p199 4 Judges 3:22 5 W. Self: 'The Revelation of St. John' in Revelations (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005) p381 6 Nigel Spivey: Enduring Creation - Art, Pain and Fortitude (University of California Press, California, 2001) p113 7 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9847523/ Depressing-books-could-be-just-what-the-doctor-ordered.html