Pop-culture, Demons and Philosophy

Exorcism Woodcut, 1598Recently, I enlisted a friend to see The Conjuring with me. The movie claims to be based on real events, which seems to be a standard feature for these types of films, and depicts the haunting of a family upon moving into a new home with a grisly past, yet another fairly standard feature. The family enlists the help of self-proclaimed demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who nearly immediately confirm the affliction as having a demonic source.[1] Spoiler alert, by the end of the film, after many thrills and chills, the Warrens eventually exorcise the house and its occupants.


I was disappointed by the movie (the reveal too blatant, the exposition too obvious, etc). However, in the course of justifying my decision to drag my friend to a two-and-a-half star movie, I explained to him some of my philosophical interest in paranormal, particularly possession narrative, movies.

1. Possession narratives are culturally persistent. Our monsters say as much about who we are as our heroes. Zombie movies betray our confusion about the consistency of consciousness in the face of our ever increasing ability to engineer biological life. Although they feature monstrous occurrences as opposed to monsters as such, disaster movies display our fear that nature persists in wanton wildness despite our best efforts to civilize it. In the same way, possession narratives whisper of a subconsciousness superstition that the organized religion we eschew in the rational light of day may be the nightlight we suddenly will miss at midnight. In fact, in a culture that is becoming increasingly religion ambiguous, possession accounts repeat a fairly predictable and therefore, popularly recognizable, depiction of our Christian tradition. This leads me to my next point.

2. In American culture, the demonic is closely associated with the Christian tradition.[2] Most fictional narratives take it for granted that Christian relics or rituals are effective remedy against paranormal affliction. Not only are the paranormal entities depicted as being particularly sensitive to Christian symbols, but apparently, Christians are especially susceptible to experiencing hauntings and demonic activity. In years of watching paranormal shows, I’ve only seen one or two episodes that involve a family from another faith tradition. Off hand, I can think of only one recent movie set outside the Christian context, The Possession. Before we can safely dismiss this as a manifestation of the prevalence of Christianity in American culture generally, I think we have to admit that the New Testament is conspicuously full of accounts of demonic activity. I don’t bring this up to add any voracity to the argument that demons exist as such, but it does suggest that the experience of “demonic” activity is a traditional part of a Christian context.

3. Narratives of demonic activity center around a violation of self/identity. While I realize that we have plenty of other culturally popular motifs that involve violations of the self (e.g. torture, rape), as I’ve already described above, accounts of demonic possession are distinctly religious and conspicuously Christian. Given that so much of the conversation about religious experience in postmodern treatments centers around the conversion of the subject ego to the object of call, I think it is significant that demonic activity is suffered as a violation of personal identity.

Before I go any further, I certainly don’t want to mistake the popularity of pop-culture depictions of possession with an uptick of reported cases of demonic activity. However, I think in admitting the three points above, we can conclude that demon possession is a culturally recognizable Christian religious experience. It is part of the stories that people tell about the tradition and that people tell from within the tradition. Further, these stories are shaped in ways familiar to descriptions of other Christian experiences. As such, I think it is valuable to consider what is at work within that described experience and why the description is so compelling.

But, if demonic possession is religious experience worthy of acknowledgement, then there remains the question of how it might be thought in terms of postmodern philosophy of religion. To my knowledge, Jean-Luc Marion only directly references demons once. The comment is more of a cast-off contrast than a substantive statement.

“For to give up on even the possibility that someone loves me would be like operating a transcendental castration upon myself, and would bring me down to the rank of an artificial intelligence, a mechanical calculator or a demon, in short, very likely lower than an animal, who can still mimic love, at least to our eyes.”[3]

It’s an interesting mention, but not a profitable direction. However, I think within Marion’s work, there are preliminary suggestions for future study.

In my introductory philosophy class, I show the German movie Requiem to help my students contrast a supernatural worldview with a philosophical one. In the film, the main character, Michaela Klingler, suffers from spells that she alternately attributes to either demonic affliction or mental illness. Our discussion of the film centers on the reasons why Michaela flip-flops over favoring one diagnosis over the other during the course of the story. Based on actual events (yep, standard), she finally cements her experience in context with tragic consequences. The movie is intentionally ambiguous and does a remarkable job in maintaining that suspension throughout the film.[4] Invariably, my students split down the middle of the class as to whether they believe Michaela is sick or possessed. However, they all agree that Michaela is genuinely suffering and needs some kind of intervention.

In Prolegomena to Charity, Marion discusses at length the logic of evil. To begin with, evil causes suffering. Marion writes, “Evil is experienced as the only indisputable fact, short of all delusion, that is exempt from the need for any proof or argument.”[5] In this statement, we can suggest two points relevant to our sketch. First, although it remains persistently in fashion to attempt to “scientifically verify” paranormal experiences, suffering is its own token of troth. Suffering is not open to doubt. Secondly, it is a small movement from “evil causes suffering” to “suffering is caused by evil.” It is certainly not novel to suggest that medical symptoms might be mistaken for demonic affliction. Although we might want at first to dismiss this confusion considering our current state of medical advance, it is worth noting that our ability to prescribe treatment has been outstripped by our ability to detect abnormalities. In cases in which the  confirmation of illness does not coincide with an ability to alleviate symptoms, patients may feel  left to their own devices to seek out causes and effect “treatment.”

The next chain in Marion’s logic of evil is the victim’s instinct for self-defense: to suppress suffering through an accusation of another. The accusation is also equal parts protest of innocence on the victim’s part. In this way, the need to accuse another seems more pressing than identifying the root cause of evil. The point of the accusation is first and foremost to suppress suffering. Marion writes, “To put a face to the cause of one’s suffering is to be able, at once, to plead one’s cause efficiently. I can only accuse a face, and the worst of sufferings consists precisely in not having any face to accuse.”[6] It is possible to conceive that demonic experience might be an accusation, the accuracy of which is irrelevant to the exercise.

At this point in Marion’s argument, the accusation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, propagating violence and suffering. “By paradoxical but unavoidable logic, I can struggle against the evil that affects me only by affecting the world with an evil first reified, unveiled, and fixed by me.”[7] In an attempt deliver myself from evil, I lodge an accusation against another, in effect, calling evil out with evil readily answering. Without even referencing the traditional importance given to demonic names, it is easy to see how suffering might lead a person to accuse demonic activity, thereby making it an experienced reality.

I think there is certainly more to be explored here. From Marion’s work in particular, I wonder if demon possession could be described in self-reflexive terms, in other words, as a form of idolatry. I would be interested to investigate how the suffering associated with demon possession might interfere with our ability to suffer vanity, the loss of human agency that formulates the perspective from which advent may be possible. In the end, I think the experience of demon possession is too big a bump in the night to ignore. And, to my mind, postmodern philosophy of religion seems particularly well suited to explore it.


[1] The Warrens were very famously involved in the Amityville haunting, which was fictionalized in its own film in 1979.

[2] I am well aware that the experience of demonic possession is not exclusive to Christianity. However, in America, it is the dominant context.

[3] Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 20.

[4] The American version of the film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has none of the subtlety of the German movie.

[5] Marion, Prolegomena to Charity, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2002), 1-2.

[6] Marion, Prolegomena, 4.

[7] Marion, Prolegomena, 4.