I am the sort of person that gets unreasonably excited about autumn and October in particular. That is neither an interesting nor unique fact about me, but it is profoundly true nonetheless. It is not just because I get to read H.P. Lovecraft’s “October,” which I leap upon the first of this month each year; nor still is it because of the marathon of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that erupts on my television each week from here through mid-November; nor yet simply the general aura of Halloween kitsch that, alone among the mountainous crap my culture produces, charms me more the older I get.
There is a lot to love about this time of year, but one very specific reason is that it is the one and only time of year that everyone is talking about things they pretend very hard they do not believe in, at least a little: the month-long celebration of Halloween becomes its own kind of cathartic social act of projection to avoid dealing with them, to try and make them safe through talk and controlled fright. And I love an ambiently secular liturgical season devoted to talking about such things—ghosts, ghouls, goblins, goeteia, demons, darkness, and death, malice and the macabre, the halls of hell—because I believe in them, and a window of social protocol opens for their consideration only now.
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For clarity: I have no idea if there are, in fact, literal, physical monsters of the flesh and blood variety beyond the ordinary human capacity for evil. If I am being truthful, I prefer that there were, not because I court the danger to the human that they would constitute, but because I live with a perpetual sense of suffocation by modernity’s well-publicized (but not always perfectly believed) dead and empty world, and monsters make for a more interesting one. Not all monsters are alike, either, on this scale; several constitute their own preternatural and psychological categories and cannot be reduced, even if a world where any one of them existed is one immediately more likely to house the others. Ghosts have such a universal and consistent attestation in the human experience that to disbelieve them seems arrogant even if they turn out not to deserve credence; hungry ghosts, the South Asian preta, the Greek brykolakas, the Eastern European vampire, are also widely experienced phenomena. Given that most human societies prior to the Industrial Revolution were communities of the living and the dead, it makes sense that for so many people historically the dead have been living, just alternatively: it is only we, who rarely feel tethered to the burial mound or tomb or mausoleum or cemetery or columbarium where our ancestors’ bones or ashes rest, who find it incredible that the dead should periodically stir from slumber and eat, reach, touch, kiss, make love, kill, feed. Lycanthropes are also a frequent experience of different human societies, though to what extent they involve physical transformation, magical ritual, or simply a return to the liminal status of the Wild Man by leaving the ordinary, settled space of the community and returning to life among beasts varies in lore. But we do not usually experience enough genuine wilderness to have much in the way of such unsettled desert in which to roam and hunt; our concrete steppe is poor romping grounds. That does not stop us telling werewolf stories: from Petronius’ Satyricon to The Phantom Ship (1839) to The Wolf Man (1941) toWerewolf by Night (2022), we like this story of the cursed individual, the lupified selenite, whether as bizarre curio of a late night spent in a graveyard, scapegoated impurity of evil magic, or tragic hero and sympathetic figure.In any event, the werewolf clearly exists, as I have argued all the monstrous does, in the imaginal realm, as a real entity of the psychic; whether someone can so wholly give themselves to the archetype as to manifest it in their bodies the reverted human I hope never to discover.
Magical practitioners are a fact of our world, whether magic is at all effective on the world or not beyond the minds of the people performing it. Mageia is, as I have had the chance to write, typically pejorative for religion or philosophy that one does not like, respect, trust, or want to be publicly available; one man’s magic is another’s faith, and one person’s sorcery another’s yoga. Magic is probably best understood as “a language, a theory, a belief, an action, a creative expression, an experience, and a cognitive tool. It is integral to religion and yet can be independent of it,”for all religion involves the magical in the form of prayers, mantras, liturgies, apotropaic charms, seasons, sacraments, and the like. Some magic, then, is licit and holy, other magic illegitimate and cthonic, and the agony of ambiguity between the two can be torturous for the Abrahamic traditions that include general prohibitions against “magic” but often do not clarify what sort is meant. In ancient Mesopotamia, good magic was typically the province of exorcists and physicians, bad or evil magic the occupation of witches; good magic protected against the evil divine and demonic entities that populated the universe, healed maladies, invested important individuals like the king with sacred power, facilitated altered states of consciousness for otherworldly journeys (sometimes by way of using psychedelic drugs to induce trance states), and divined information about the near and far future, often by consult of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. In Ancient Egypt, priests and other ritual specialists cultivated heka, a reservoir of magical power that could be drawn on for exorcism, healing, and thaumaturgy, the lore of which stands behind the accounts of showdowns between Moses, Aaron, and Egyptian wizards in the Book of Exodus (summoning sea-beasts from staves, turning the Nile to blood, invoking plagues) and to modern eyes reads like the powers of a D&D cleric or a tale about the Jedi. As the supreme religious officiants of their societies, ancient kings like the Egyptian Pharaoh were also thereby the supreme magicians, the ultimate repositories of the divine power that magic required in human form on earth. If the prohibitions of the Torah are against magic generally speaking, then Moses is guilty of that sin; if the Torah really does have a “polemic against sacral kingship,” as Jan Assmann insists, it is against other peoples’ sacral kingship, since Moses exercises a similar relationship to Pharaonic heka by being the dispensary of YHWH’s ruach to the elders of Israel (Num 11:25). The late antique and medieval traditions about Solomon as a magician have their precedent in this ancient background connecting gods, kings, priests, and magic in a swirl of associations, in shades of liceity and transgression. The evolved rites of the rabbinic synagogue, of Christian East and West, and of Islamic mystical practices are all clearly magical, to greater and lesser degrees, at least if by that term we mean ritual activity designed to connect with and evoke the divine and the cosmic, for the transformation of mundane reality, especially the finite ego. Go sometime to a monastic Divine Liturgy or Mass, watch carefully the priests assembled in their orders and vestments around the altar at the anaphora, think deeply about the words of institution: this is magic, albeit good, sacramental magic, not magic meant to connect with the powers of darkness.
It is also not fantasy magic: the magic of Orpheus or Merlin or Narnia or The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Doctor Strange. That sort of magic—the use of ritual and incantation to manipulate physical reality in real time, by the use of the mind to direct energy to the immediate transformation of matter to perform spectacles, of which the illusory sort of magic frequently spoken of by Greco-Roman authors and the modern tradition of illusionists are both performative, theatrical evocations—may or may not exist as a possibility; assuming that it does exist, it cannot be logically distinguishable from science that is simply beyond our present capacity to know or master, just as at a certain point the logical distinction between a Type II or III extraterrestrial civilization and an encosmic pantheon of deities would break down. In lore, fantasy magic is usually the magic of mythic, far-away, now-lost civilizations whose knowledge and magical prowess exceeded our own: Babylon, Shambhala, Atlantis, Avalon; only every so often does the competent thaumaturge or talented magician, the exceptional healer or holy man, appear to demonstrate once more those lost powers, but there is some collective hope that eventually the revolution of the ages will turn out once more a golden age of such wonders. As many scholars have pointed out, the modern natural sciences have as their direct ancestor the alchemical tradition that sought to replicate those powers by experiment; our contemporary science fiction and fantasy franchises, from Marvel and DC Comics to Dune to Star Trek to Star Wars to Stranger Things, all imagine that we shall perhaps once again unleash the arcane wisdom and become capable of wielding the mind this way again; modern transhumanists and tech wizards merely seek the same end, albeit by means of digital and industrial technology. The chaste hermeticist or trained kabbalist, the Sufi contemplative or the wise hesychast, the Jungian psychonaut or the accomplished yogi, are content to use magic for more spiritual purposes; the cosmic sympatheia they perceive between the occult realms they travel with the mind or soul and the physical world of the body is not denied, but the treasure they seek is obviously in heaven, “where moth and rust do not destroy.” The current proprietors of real-world fantasy magic are sadly those capable of dropping cataclysms from iron birds, a choice they make far more often than the redirection of their energies to, say, the magical restoration of the environment or the cultivation of better medicine.
It can be difficult to fear witches in a world where decrepit warlocks do not need to summon demons to destroy lives; that does not quite mean there are no witches or demons, but simply that the venom of evil is currently being felt in humanity’s magical greed for ever greater power and wealth, the orgiastic joy of the rich and the mighty in the violence that secures their power. But October raises the question of whether indeed the evil human is the only monster lurking in our world. It is a popular enough theme in horror that humans are often more monstrous than the actual monsters; and the monsters of horror literature and film are quite frequently ciphers for human evil, psychic images of traumas experienced and feared, projection of the hellishness we sense in ourselves and one another into an archetype from the barzakh. Many of Lovecraft’s monsters were symbols for his utterly deplorable, racist fears of black empowerment (as so wonderfully called out in both the novel and its televised adaptation Lovecraft Country); but Cthulhu is a genuine thought experiment, in the 20th century depths of the mechanistic worldview as it was beginning to be shattered by Hubble, Einstein, and the early quantum mechanists, of what it would be like if the universe now visible to the sensible and intelligible eye were in fact unintelligible, a realm of simple chaos and confusion, where humans exist as a cosmic accident and are destined for eventual destruction by the divine madness of an evil, petty, and passing god, roused like the annunaki from slumber to villainous deluge. Gojira or Godzilla began life as a social critique of the horrors of nuclear capabilities, especially as they first emerged from the sea to wreak havoc upon Japan (that is, in the form of two American bombs); but as the franchise has evolved he has become more a symbol of nature’s titanic prehistory and possible future, sandwiched between which humans find themselves to the detriment of their hubris as at best the “pets” of the King of Monsters. If Godzilla is our culture’s Leviathan (or Rahab or Tiamat), the marine sea-monster that is usually the primordial enemy of the young creator god (Baal, Marduk, YHWH, whoever), then Kong is our kaiju stand-in for Behemoth, our fear of the uncontainable animality that we sense at the roots of our own nature, towering over our civilized personae and public accomplishments. If the werewolf is the bestial every so often released, Kong is the ape before and after our parted ways from the common cradle of our ancient and modern cousins, whom we both fear is ultimately stronger than our innovations but in whose death at our own hands we also find tragedy. Self and cosmos reciprocate—we cannot look out without simultaneously looking within, and vice-versa.
Even in a Jobean perspective, where these two are the pets of a more transcendent divine Creator and King, it is precisely the danger they pose to us and not to God that is underlined in such a view. God may well be king in heaven, and answer in the whirlwind: but his answer is largely to reinforce the smallness of humans in a cosmos of rampant power and ambiguous safeguards, where human suffering hardly registers in the divine providence of all things, and yet cannot be mistaken for final divine ignorance, unawareness, or absence. The monsters remind us that the power of God is evident even in those things that could with minimal effort destroy us, that the archetypes and glory of the Divine Ideas shines out in the corporeally and spiritually ferocious as much as in the orderly and safe. The “Dark Side” is a matter of perspective, as is the “demonic” or the “Satanic,” all possible to mistake (even for one’s self) only in the vale of tears, this plastic world of smoke and mirrors.
Demons are a part of ancient spookiness that most religious people do not question, even if they can rarely name having encountered a real such entity, and even while rejecting most other ancient paranormalcy (ghosts, witches, etc.) or else believing it in a gullible and puerile manner (cue evangelical Satanic Panic). Daimon, in Ancient Greek, meant something like divine spirit or entity, and in later hierarchies meant “lesser god” or “godling,” encompassing everything from nature spirits to aerial angeloi (“messengers”) to the genius of the emperor or the paterfamilias. When, in LXX Ps 95:5, the Psalmist says that “the gods of the nations are daimonia,” it was not originally an insult. In fact, it was a promotion: the Hebrew text says they are but idols, that is, merely figments of their makers’ imaginations. Over time, daimon acquired a negative connotation: in pagan religion and philosophy, as a lesser god whose alignment to the Good might be questionable (or at least unconcerned with human health and wellness), resulting into the bifurcation of agathodaimonia and kakodaimonia; magical specialists might focus on invoking and channeling the former and on controlling, repelling, and exorcising the latter. In Persia and Central Asia, these entities corresponded roughly to ahuras and daevas, a sub-class of the Nasu; in Vedic religion, the terms have the opposite meanings. In Persian and Greek-ruled Judaism, this meant the reconceptualization of the panoply of gods YHWH ruled over as king as myriads of angels (Heb: malak’im; Grk: angeloi) and demons (shedim; daimonia). Jews mythologized the existence of demons in the world in a way comparable to the existence of human daimonia in the Greco-Roman world in the form of deified demigods and heroes: evil demons were the divine spirits of the Nephilim, cursed to wander the earth until Judgment Day, while several heroes of Jewish and Israelite antiquity were thought of as divine humans or deified after death. But they functioned in ordinary Jewish consciousness just as they did in ordinary Greek consciousness: if one was a peasant, a divine being could be quite bad for one’s health and difficult to be rid of. When people in the Gospels implore Jesus for his skills as an exorcist, one can hear something of the desperation that must have motivated people who believed they were dealing with demonic possession and the hope someone skilled in dispelling it could offer.
It would be wrong to say that ancient people were insensitive to the concept of physical ailment treatable by medical means or that they used demons as a metaphor for sickness; but they certainly connected the two. “Evil airs,” ponera pneumata, was for them what it still is in our folk medicine, with the exception that they typically thought of air as constitutive of the bodies of gods and angels. Demonic possession included and was more than what we now think of as bodily and mental illness; someone can be described as both a selenite, a “lunatic,” and as demonically possessed in the Gospels, suggesting that they have been stricken by the Moon or a lunar spirit with a neuro disorder. When modern Christians attempt to differentiate between illness and demonic oppression, they are on the one hand trying to be responsibly aware of the gains in medical research from antiquity to the present and respectful of the professions they ought to heed; but on the other hand, they are underestimating the degree to which ancient people would have seen psychological disorders and demonic infestation as perionymic. We know better than to associate ailments baldly with “demons!” (or at least one hopes we do); but not all ancients did.
Yet we continue generally to talk about demons, to fear demons, and to depict demons. Theologically, most Christians on earth both believe in them and are required to believe in them, just as they do angels. There have been rationalist streams in all three major Abrahamic traditions which has wanted to relegate angels, demons, and the like to the status of textual metaphor or vestigial cosmology; in some ways doing so may lead to a more sane and healthy relationship with the modern world, where demons seem so much less frequent than do, simply, massive numbers of inculcated traumas poorly handled in body and soul. But people do still have experiences of demons. People meet the Devil, sometimes when they’re looking for him and sometimes not.
I have. Once when I was in college, I had an experience of what I thought of as mild sleep paralysis during which it felt very strongly as though some devious thing was leaning very close to my face, as though I could feel its breath pounding out in small bursts upon me from time to time. While aware of the goings-on in my body, I also had present to my mind a dream: in the dream, I stood in a clearing, hedged roundabout by brush and trees, in which there prowled an animal of some kind. I had fallen asleep, as I used to in those days, with a komboskini wrapped about my wrist and the cross in my hand. I began reciting, with both body and dream-avatar, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”), until the thing simply left.
Was it a demon? How could I know, and why not something more mundane? As someone who believes there are demons—and the rest of it, too—I do not feel confident in my ability to know. Nor do I take it for granted that the most intimation I got of the thing was not so much with my body (where my sense of it was vague) as in the imaginal realm. Ibn Arabi would have insisted: demons and angels alike appear to us there, in the barzakh, that liminal space where the Ideal takes on quasi-physicality and the physical becomes noeticized. Perhaps nothing stood in my room; perhaps something did; either way, whatever I met in my dream may well have been a demon, even if nothing really stood over me. Likewise, the archetype of the demonic is surely present even when attributing one’s illness to demons would be simplistic or inappropriate. Anyone who has ever really struggled with their mental health knows the feeling, that the darkness and evil one encounters within and without the Soul feels both personal and discontinuous, disassociated and rhyming, the Shadow or Otherself. There is genuinely hell within all of us, deep in the abyss of the soul. But heaven is there too, at its heights, making all below it heaven as well. The cosmic mountain—Meru, Zion, Qaf—is there, and so is the World Tree, and so are all the gods who travel in their viharas from branch to branch, realm to realm, and their angelic entourage. A strange and sublime thing, this heart.
Yet the divine, whether we encounter it with eyes of flesh or soul, is also terrifying. There is a horror to the angelic: a just fear of the otherness of beings whose intentional consciousness may immediately dictate their embodiment and form, and whose carelessness to watching human eyes often has them appearing as divine serpents and chimerae and spinning wheels within wheels full of eyes, undulating swiftly in and out of one another. Meeting a god in person is usually a dreadful thing; “Be not afraid” is a borderline ironic imperative coming from a living fire standing betwixt this profane world and the infinite empyrean. How much more frightening when the angelic is humanized—in the saints, in Mary, in Christ? Have we considered what it really means to say that they experience, the former by grace, the latter by the communicatio idiomatum internal to the hypostatic union, the simultaneous experience of humanity and transfiguration into infinite coextension with God that full deification involves? Have we sat with what God himself means—the “all-consuming fire” of infinite, raging, romping existence, in one moment of eternal contemplation beholding that infinite existence in an infinite act of mind of which all finite minds are as though frozen instances by comparison to his “ever-moving rest” of epistrophic celerity in the peace of pure actuality? Have we let ourselves sit with that long enough to be properly scared by it—that there is an eternal, mostly silent (to our deaf ears) anyway to our thoughts, all thoughts, all minds, all beings, everywhere, all at once, forever—a lurker behind every lurker, a perpetual suspense from which every monstrum emerges?
Spookiness, then, is essential to sanctity: there is some element of the holy which is properly fascinans et tremendum, as Rudolf Otto realized, some attribute of the divine which is not only contingently spooky but in some sense the transcendent ground of our own capacity for horror. That is not to say that God is evil. By analogy I would say that that eternal moment is the epiphany of the Beloved that God experiences in comprehending himself in and as the Divine Nous or Wisdom, which at one and the same time evokes from the Father the ecstasy of the Spirit’s procession from him upon the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal return from and through the Son to the Father. It is the moment when, crudely, God experiences what we might call goosebumps: the thrill of inventio, of a genuine apocalypse, of himself to himself, in the supernal divine eternity. In our fallen, distended universe, where the misfiring of being into what we call evil is possible, we often experience that as the essence of horror; but this is also arguably why we so desire horror in our culture, because it offers us the sense of holy panic that other cultural institutions so rarely offer us. When was the last time one experienced a moment of genuine ecstasy? Religion infrequently offers it, one is sorry to say: the banality that so many experience at Mass or Liturgy is frequently blamed on the inattention or poor orientation of the laity, but one does not have to go to many instances of whatever rite to realize that it is, in fact, because the celebration itself is often so woefully dull, the preaching so mundane, that no contact with the otherworld is possible. I wrote on this not long ago, when I attempted to express what it was that made autumn such a sacred time to my mind; I offer it here, now, as a justification for all the occultishness that people simply must let out this time of year.
One mistake about the darkness is to bifurcate it into an either/or of the human psyche or the actual physical and metaphysical cosmos; but another mistake is to presume that by virtue of being dark, it has no revelatory value for the God “who is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). For that God also “clothes himself with darkness” (Ps 18:11), and the encounter with him in unknowing is superior for Moses to the spectacle of the burning bush. God’s Light is a mystery, always summoning us deeper and further, and like any good mystery, there is an interplay of light and darkness both regular, like the succession of day and night, and cyclic and epicyclic, like the death and birth of the Sun across the seasons as days grow longer and shorter, which coaxes us forth. This is why great saints weep for the demons and often do not try to chase them off for their own sake: like St. Isaac the Syrian, they recognize that at the heart of what they are shines their original goodness which is also their final destiny, of which their current Shadow is but a passing obscurity; like the Desert Fathers, they accept that the demons are part of the spiritual and cosmic landscape and simply live as neighbors among them. Other traditions have similar encouragements. South Asian traditions embrace both practices of exorcism and attitudes of chaste appreciation for the demonic world: the asuras, too, are faces of brahman, or suffering beings in need of liberation, however much suffering they inflict on others. It is not my intention to encourage an untoward friendliness to the demonic, whether one believes that there are demons or merely that the demonic personifies, if only halfway, the darkest impulses of our nature. The ego, even the crucified and risen ego, is appropriately the enemy of the demons, the contender in the arena like St. Perpetua in her dream. But after the fight comes the reconciliation, the acceptance and integration of the Shadow into the overpowering Light of the Self which the ego preserves within. (I do not labor under the illusion that all my readers are Jungians, and hope those who are not will forgive the indulgence.)
So take advantage of this time, of whatever meaningful experience of space and time—what Mircea Eliade would define, by that very concept of meaningful spatiality and temporality, as “sacred”—that our culture permits itself. There is a necessary phase in any healthy spirituality of resistance to the cultural and public liturgies that animate our culture; there is then a further stage of maturity which recognizes, like the initiate of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, that one must after all go back down into the cave with a deeper appreciation of what the shadows are, and with some desire to illumine one’s fellows there as well; for us, that means accepting that, at some level, when and where we live, with its virtues and vices, is what we have to work with and where (and when) we are called to be. Likewise, we periodically behold the Paschal light of God in Christ emerging from the darkness so that, descending once more back into it, we might find it again in newer and richer hues. The suspense and tragedy of Cosmic Horror are unavoidably part of the Cosmic Liturgy.
See Daniel Ogden, The Werewolf in the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
See Owen Davies, Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 113.
See Daniel Schwemer, “The Ancient Near East,” 17-51 in The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West from Antiquity to the Present, ed. David J. Collins, S.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univresity Press, 2015).
See Friedhelm Hoffmann, “Ancient Egypt,” in The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft, 52-82; Flora Brooke Anthony, "Ḥeka: Understanding Egyptian Magic on Its Own Terms" TheTorah.com (2017);
Hey, don't undersell old Howard Phillips Lovecraft; he hated Jews, Irish, and Italians just as much as black people. Ironically, it's only his pathological fear of miscegenation that makes The Shadow Over Innsmouth (a personal favorite of mine) work at all, even though I'd imagine most people read it are more horrified by the bodily transformation aspect and the blending of man and monster (so, bestiality?) and miss what was actually tormenting the author.
Despite being a millenial, I can't say I find much allure in the commercialized "spookiness" of Halloween, and I say that as someone who listens to extreme metal, loves old horror movies, and reads Dracula every October with my wife. I'm also a loner when it comes to most of my interests, and having a bunch of other people jump on the spookiness bandwagon ruins the fun.
I've never encountered a demon, ghost, or witch, but I have watched a Bimoist shaman sacrafice a chicken and drink its blood. I grew up in southern China, where malicious spirits apparently run wild, but I somehow never managed to encounter anything even remotely supernatural. I know many of my Chinese friends would disagree, but like you, I feel nostalgic for a more demon-haunted world.
However, I fear demons have died out in the West only because we've replaced them.