So, demons. I’ve written on this topic before, but it’s been a while, and when I last wrote on this topic my children were too small to be scared of the dark. When I was a girl, I was taught that demons were real. My dad used to pray a “hedge of protection” around our house, to keep the demons out. My parents told me that there’s an invisible world all around us, in which angels and demons are at war, constantly.
At one point when I was girl, another woman in my parents’ Bible study group told a story about confronting a demon in her hallway late at night. It must have been let in, she said, by some rock music her teenage daughter had been listening to that afternoon. I found that freaking terrifying. I wondered, sometimes, what I might do that might accidentally invite a demon in? I was terrified—utterly petrified—of getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
All of this was brought back to my mind when I read Pat Robertson’s recent comments on whether it’s okay to listen to rock music:
It depends on what rock you’re listening to… Some of the stuff is just evil. They used to talk about killing your parents and there were just some evil things. There were odes to Satan. You don’t want that stuff coming into your mind.
There’s some beat that’s out there that, you know, probably isn’t all that bad, although in one Indian context, they were playing rock music, and the person said, “Why are you calling on the demons?,” because that was the kind of music they used to, you know, summon demons.
And it was so much more than just music. At one point my aunt came to visit and stay for a few days, and brought with her a book she was reading. This was a problem, because the book was Harry Potter. My dad made her leave it in the car lest it invite demons into the house. The irony is that, a decade later, they decided that Harry Potter isn’t bad after all, and my mom is now in the process of reading through the series. But at the time, it was incredibly serious.
My parents are college educated, and my dad, especially, is very intellectual. He was always reading new books, learning new things, and taking in new information. I adored him, and I trusted him, and so when he was the one saying these things—talking about keeping demons out of the house, and praying a hedge of protection around our family—I accepted it completely. And I was frightened.
I’m serious when I say that having to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night was a serious problem for me. I was so profoundly frightened. I would lay in the bed with the covers over my head and my eyes tight shut, afraid I might see a demon if I opened my eyes. I was terrified. But alas, my bladder was such that I couldn’t fall back asleep when it was full. Eventually, terrified, trembling, I would slip out of bed and make a mad dash for the bathroom, do my business, and then run back into bed and pull the covers back over my head.
My daughter Sally is now six, and somehow that makes all this feel only more relevant. Sally has read books about vampires and zombies, and once when it was time for bed, she was scared and told me she was frightened of vampires. I reminded her that they’re not real, talked with her about it a bit more, and then sent her off to bed feeling much better. And then it struck me—I am dismantling my children’s nightmares, as best I can, while my parents only fed mine. They told me that demons were as real as you and I, and taught me that I had good reason to fear. And fear I did.
And yes, my parents also told me that I had the power to cast demons out, in the name of Jesus. But being the studious child that I was, I knew my Bible well, and I knew that in Acts 19 a demon beat up a group of men who attempted to cast it out in Jesus’ name, because those men were not Christians. “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” the demon asked. I suffered from salvation anxiety—the fear that I wasn’t truly, really saved—and those words terrified me. I imagined myself being confronted by a demon at the foot of my bed, attempting to cast it out in Jesus’ name, and then looking on in horror as it laughed at me.
Now I am very sure that my parents had no idea how afraid I was. When I went to my mom about my salvation anxiety, she told me that if I was worried about whether I was saved, I most certainly was saved. That helped, though it didn’t completely fix the problem. And as for demons, well, the literature they encouraged me to read didn’t help, either. Frank Peretti’s books, which depict the demonic world and its integration with the real world, were particular terrifying. I think they thought it was enough that the good triumphed over evil, but the evil still terrified me—especially because I believed those books were a realistic depiction of our world.
I may need to do a page-by-page review of a Peretti book at some point. They’re terrible, and they very badly need picking apart.
I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. It would be easy enough to say that teaching children that demons are a real and present threat in their lives is misguided at best and abusive at worst, but evangelicals like my parents really and truly believe these things. It’s not as though they set out to terrify me. It’s just that their beliefs were terrifying. If nothing else, I think we need to call attention to the ways religion may affect children in different ways from how it affects adults—and, perhaps, to the fact that some religious ideas are just plain frightening whatever your age.
It’s not just religion, of course. Had I confirmed Sally’s fear of vampires, had I told her I had once encountered one and barely escaped, that could have serious consequences for her mental health as well. I could see Sally always carrying a wooden stake with her at night—she’s well versed in vampire lore—if I were to build up her fears rather than taking them apart. At one point in my childhood I became obsessed with UFOs, and checked out all of the books the library had on them. If my parents had told me that aliens from other planets did indeed roam our back roads looking for humans to kidnap, I imagine I would have been terrified too.
Of course, what they told me about UFOs had its own problems. They said UFOs were illusions created by demons to prepare the way for a mass deception after the rapture—Satan would make those left behind believe that those who had been raptured had simply been kidnapped by aliens, and thus prevent them from gaining true knowledge of what had happened and through it attaining salvation.
But the point I was trying to make before that digression was that I suspect run-of-the-mill UFO enthusiasts could probably easily frighten their children by teaching them to believe all the stories about UFOs and alien kidnappings as literally true. And some probably do. The point I’m trying to make here is that what we teach children matters, and that things don’t always affect children in the way they affect us as adults. We need to remember that.
I mean for goodness sake, when I was in grade school I read a story about a Volcano that grew suddenly in the middle of a field in Mexico, and I spent years having nightmares—nightmares—about a volcano growing in the field behind my house. At least in this case my parents tried to help by explaining that that wasn’t geologically possible, rather than confirming and encouraging my fear.
Kids don’t always process things the way we expect them to, and feeding their fears rather than dismantling them is a terrible idea.