Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I don’t watch much television these days, but I’m still a sucker for two reality shows: Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. I’m not so interested in “proving” the existence of ghosts or similar phenomena, but I’m very interested in the approaches people take to dealing with these “paranormal” unknowns. Paranormal is the right word, regardless of whether you believe in ghostly phenomena or not. By definition, to be “paranormal” is to be something anomalous with respect to our “normal” everyday experience. That doesn’t mean that we might not find an explanation for it; just that there’s no obvious logical reason for it. Some things are without explanation, and those are truly “paranormal”, whatever they might be. In any event, I would refer anyone who places too much emphasis on everything have a reasonable cause and effect to the late Mr. David Hume.

The two shows take two very different approaches to the paranormal, though there is some overlap. Ghost Hunters relies entirely on evidence caught on film or audio; personal experiences, unless they are of a very physical nature, are usually discounted. The idea is to be more scientific in their attempts to identify truly anomalous phenomena. Given the nature of reality TV, this doesn’t always happen, but at least they’re giving it a shot.

Paranormal State also has a tech department that records audible and visual evidence, but they also make use of mediums and demonologists in their work. Ryan Buell, the team leader, does not attempt to hide his rather Catholic approach to such phenomena (I’m not suggesting this is bad, it’s just something to be noted). Additionally, they will bring in priests or ministers to do house blessings, and may bring in professional counselors to talk to affected parties as well. While I don’t agree with all of Ryan’s assumptions (e.g., the idea that 3am is the time that “mocks Christ”, a medieval Catholic notion), on the whole I would say the team pretty good about separating legitimate phenomena from hysteria or other factors. Even Lorraine Warren, an occasional visiting demonologist on the show, has been a pleasant surprise. She’s much more cautious than she used to be about labeling things as “demonic”—in fact, she hardly does it at all. Truthfully, I don’t think “demonic” phenomena really happens all that often.

But what is “demonic” phenomena? I was revisiting some old Paranormal State episodes on iTunes last night, and was watching the “Devil in Syracuse” episode, where the demon they won’t name is afflicting a family. This is supposed to be the same demon that is or was following Ryan from place to place. Of course, I can read lips, and they show a scrambled version of the name, and I know exactly which demon it is. Interestingly, Abramelin and other grimoires have described this particular demon as holding principle sway over this world and its desires.

I like this particular episode, because it makes some good points about the demonic. First, the house they are visiting is a complete mess. A family friend comes over regularly to add fuel to the family’s fear. And the couple who live there has serious marital discord. Ryan accurately notes that the demonic feeds on fear, weakness, and depression.

Which leads me to my own definition of the demonic, for better or for worse. Like the divine or angelic, the demonic is a deep psychological phenomena that can manifest as something physical, or affect the physical—like any deep psychological phenomena. It’s not unlike poltergeist phenomena in this way (though it is theorized that poltergeist phenomena have a hormonal component as well). It affects people who don’t have sufficient psychological boundaries. I would say “spiritual”, too, but they are really bound up in the same thing. To be possessed or affected by such a thing requires a very unique set of psychical and mental circumstances—and an invitation or evocation.

So how can demons be named and labeled? Deities and angels can also be named and labeled. They are qualities, elements of human experience. The form and function of such qualities are part of what is observed in the collective unconscious.

The theology of the demonic is highly developed within Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity. The Church has special rites of exorcism to deal with these undesirable elements. Sometimes the rites work, sometimes they don’t. A lot of the rite’s ability to do good is based on the belief of those taking part in the rite. It would also depend on the psychology of the victim—sometimes the victim is unwilling or unable to let go of the offending influence that has taken over. But I would still say the offending influence is internal, not external, even though it may manifest in external ways. As one of my professors once said in seminary, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about psychology”. To call something psychological is not the same as saying “You’re imagining it”, or “It’s all in your head”, in a dismissive sense. Depth psychology is as tenuous an area as occult practice, and requires a great deal of caution when “jumping in”.

Which brings me to another assertion that Ryan frequently makes on shows dealing with the demonic. He refers to the encounters as a literal battle “between good and evil”. I would suggest that this is not exactly the case, though it is true on some level. The Eastern conception of the demonic is a bit easier to follow, and I think resolves some of the difficulties of the Western Christian perspective.

There is an extended prayer/chant/story in Hinduism called Srichandipath. It is part of a larger work called the Devi Mahatmayam. In this, the rishi (seer, holy man) explains to a businessman and a king the mysteries of the goddess Durga. To summarize—both devas (gods) and asuras (demons) populate the world. For many yugas (cycles) there may be a relative balance between the two, but eventually the asuras take over everything. This is characterized by a society that is greedy, self-centered, materialistic, and ignorant. The gods are forgotten, and the asuras “rule the Three Worlds”. Eventually the gods will call upon the great Devi (goddess) who is beyond the visible universe to help them. She appears as Durga, a goddess carrying weapons and riding on a lion (or tiger). In the Srichandipath, she comes on two different occasions, both times to do battle with and vanquish the asuras, and both times she is victorious.

There is another hymn related to the Srichandipath called the Mahisasuramardini Stotra. There is particular part of the seventh verse that I’ve always found interesting. It says:

Shiva shiva shumbha nishumbha mahahava tarpita bhuta pishacarate

It doesn’t translate nicely into English, but it basically says that the Goddess (i.e., Mahisasuramardini, or Durga) delights in both the “auspicious” god Shiva and the “inauspicious” Shumba (demon of self-conceit) and Nishumba (demon of self-depreciation), and the ghouls that feast on dead souls. What it implies is that both the “good” and the “evil” are manifestations of the Goddess (referring to Adiparashakti, the Supreme Primal Consciousness), and therefore all are “good” in the sense of being in the “order of things”, for lack of a better phrasing. The goddess doesn’t step in and get rid of the demons until they have completely tilted the balance of life in their direction. The goddess herself represents the Numinous, and is beyond concepts of good and evil. Life cannot happen unless there is a perceived split from the initial Unity of things. This is the basis of the Adam and Eve story (Eve is not a culprit in this view—worldly life can’t happen unless she and Adam recognize separateness), and it’s also the Kabbalistic and Gnostic view of life. Through pairings of opposites, life is created. We spend our days in separation, and eventually seek to become one with that essential Unity again. In order to do this, we need to “play” at life, deal with the demons, and eventually vanquish them along with our egos to achieve that final Unity. In such a world view, it’s hard not to believe in reincarnation—there is no way that this happens in one lifetime.

So, what is “demonic” is not particularly unnatural—all of us have both “divine” and “demonic” qualities, and we spend our lives trying to negotiate them. In rare cases, they can take shape and possess us—the same is true of the Archetypes that unconsciously rule our lives. In those cases, it takes highly symbolic acts (sigils, spells, prayers, whichever is used) to remove one from a possessed state. Other types of possession can lead to various forms of madness, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. In any case—the demonic is not all that abnormal, unless you are talking about possession.

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