REBELS AGAINST THE LIGHT
By Maria Hsia Chang
(Maria Hsia Chang is a professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of "Peering Into the Abyss" in the October 2008 issue of the NOR. )
Author's Note: Many readers will find this article, a study of the nature of evil, difficult to read. In fact, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck noted that our instinctive reaction to evil is revulsion. Difficult though it may be, it is important that we know and comprehend evil's nature because that knowledge can help us recognize and combat evil, and protect ourselves from its effects. Remaining ignorant of it can only play into the hands of the Evil One himself.
It may be helpful for the reader to know my own experience of studying evil, which began some years ago. Simply put, I was frightened by what I found -- what human beings are capable of doing to one another. That first reaction of fear, however, was soon replaced by a melancholia that endured for quite some time. When I told my best friend, Judge Patricia Chaffin, about my constant sadness, she said, "Offer your suffering to Christ, who understands your melancholia more than anyone. Imagine the sorrow that Christ has, knowing all the sins of humanity." At that, I broke down and wept, tears streaming down my face.
But the melancholia also left me, then and there. Since that epiphany, although I still get alarmed, shocked, and repulsed by the subject, I am no longer fearful or depressed. Prudently guarded and cautious, I now am steadfast and determined, for "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13).
Lastly, from the very beginning of my study, I have had an abiding love and respect for St. Michael the Archangel, and all the good angels who choose to submit to and obey the Triune God. I pray for their protection daily.
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Thanks to Hollywood movies such as The Exorcist, most people know something about demonic possession, although many no doubt dismiss it as superstitious hocus pocus. Few, however, including Catholics, are aware that cases of possession that come to the attention of exorcists are only of the partial or incomplete variety. There is something worse -- total or perfect possession -- which is rarely spoken of even by the Catholic Church.
References to perfect possession are sparse. One won't find them in the books of Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's chief exorcist and president of the International Association of Exorcists. The diligent and careful reader will, however, find allusions in the works of Frs. Jeremy Davies and Malachi Martin.
In his 1992 book Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans, Fr. Martin wrote, "In every case of possession that comes to the point of Exorcism, the subject has reached a crucial crossroads. Some small corner of reservation remains, some glimmer or recollection of the light of Jesus still shines." It is from that last redoubt that the possessed manages to muster sufficient autonomy of will to call for help. That is why their possession is only partial instead of complete.
Not so with the perfectly possessed. Fr. Davies, in his 2008 book Exorcism: Understanding Exorcism in Scripture and Practice, observes that the far more terrible state is that of the possessed who are complacent. He calls such cases "perfect possession" because the individual has freely given himself totally to evil. It is instructive to note that although the Gospels recount numerous instances of Christ casting out demons, Our Lord did not exorcise Judas, nor did St. Peter exorcise Ananias, nor St. Paul Elymas. Those three did not want to be exorcised, and God always respects our free will. As Fr. Martin put it, unlike cases of partial possession, those who are perfectly possessed do not want the demons to leave.
So, who are the perfectly possessed?
To answer that question, we might begin with the factors that can render a person vulnerable to demonic possession in the first place. Fr. Amorth is of the opinion that a person can become possessed because of another's evil spell, or by associating with evil people or places, or as a result of a grave and hardened sinful condition (An Exorcist Tells His Story, 1999). The first factor is clearly not the person's fault. The individual does bear some responsibility for the second factor because he chose to associate with evil, becoming contaminated as a result. As for the third factor, it clearly is operative in cases of perfect possession because the individual has freely assented to evil either via an explicit pact with the Devil or as a result of habitual sinning.
Fr. Martin, however, disagreed with the no-fault view, insisting that no one can become possessed without some degree of consent: "The effective cause of Possession is the voluntary collaboration of an individual, through his faculties of mind and will, with one or more of those bodiless, genderless creatures called demons." For that matter, the individual does not even have to intentionally engage the demonic. Fr. Martin maintained that simply dabbling in the occult -- by playing a Ouija board or attending a séance or practicing transcendental meditation or the enneagram -- can dispose a person to possession because he has made himself an "aspiring vacuum" to "whatever happens along."
It is not just the occult that poses a danger. Any activity that impairs our mind and will is a threat to the integrity of our selfhood. The activity can be engaging the occult, abusing alcohol and drugs, or indulging in "malogens." The latter is a word coined by former public defender Jay Gaskill to refer to malevolent ideas, images, and themes in popular culture that are "as dangerous to the developing mind as biological pathogens are to the developing body." Transmitted through pornography, death-obsessed music, violent movies and television, and macabre role-playing computer games, malogens celebrate violent, even homicidal imagery, and a nihilist, anti-life ethos. Teen subcultures are especially vulnerable because they are among the most under-protected targets in American society.
Fr. Davies counsels that it is partly through our faculty of reason that God protects us, so any activity that involves an abandonment of self-control can provide an opening to the demonic. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the invitation is extended for something or someone to enter in to fill the void. In that light, it is interesting that an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor once told this writer that a recovering alcoholic's mental age is much less than his chronological age; it is the individual's biological age when he first began drinking. In other words, the person was not really present during the alcohol-soaked years, which raises the troubling question of who -- or what -- was there instead.
The Catholic Church has supplied a collection of signs and indicators for partial possession, including blasphemous and vituperative language, preternatural knowledge, preternatural physical strength, levitation, the ability to speak an unknown language, a violent aversion to the holy, and voices in the mind saying evil things. But neither the Church nor her exorcists have given us the signs that point to perfect possession. Worse still, Fr. Martin warned that being absolutely controlled by evil, the totally possessed gives no outward indication, no hint whatsoever, of the demonic residing within. The individual will not cringe at the sight of a crucifix or violently react to the touch of holy water or hesitate to discuss religious topics with equanimity.
But how can this be? Human beings consciously and unconsciously telegraph the kind of person we are in a myriad of mundane ways -- our clothing and facial expressions, even how we walk and shake another's hand. What Fr. Martin probably meant was that those who are perfectly possessed do not display the usual symptoms that the Church attributes to partial possession. Given this, how can a perfectly possessed person be recognized?
Perhaps the answer is in the principle of Occam's Razor, commonly understood as "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best." It is here proposed that the person actually tells us -- by demeanor, word, and deed -- that he is perfectly possessed. Demeanor refers to an individual's appearance and comportment. Words refer to what the individual says about himself, specifically speaking of himself as a "monster" and a "devil," or of an alien or demonic presence residing within his body. Deeds are acts of great depravity, unspeakable cruelty, and the murder of innocents, as well as explicitly demonic acts of Satanic pacts and the employment of Satanic symbols and rituals.
Fr. Martin observed that the most obvious and striking effect common to all possessed persons is the great loss in human quality, in humanness. Since we are made in the very image of God, the spirits who hate God seek to thwart His purpose by attacking and perverting our very nature. A key attribute of humanness is empathy, which precisely is lacking in serial killers and mass murderers who count as among the most evil. Indeed, forensic psychiatrist Helen Morrison, in her 2004 book My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers, describes the serial killers she had studied and interviewed as "completely, utterly inhuman."
Empathy is the ability to infer and experience another's emotions. As such, empathy is the very foundation of altruism and human morality: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Scientists tell us that empathy is an innate human trait and that infants less than a year old already display a primitive form of "global empathy" when they bawl upon hearing another baby cry.
A person who tortures and kills innocent human beings would have to be devoid of empathy and compassion. Indeed, Morrison identifies their emotional disconnection to their victims as the most chilling attribute of serial killers: "For them, killing is nothing, nothing at all."
The notorious Charles Manson cult family, who in August 1969 slaughtered seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, certainly lacked empathy. Susan Atkins, one of the killers, said that she looked the eight-and-a-half-months pregnant Tate straight in the eye and said, "I don't care about you. I don't care if you're going to have a baby.... You're going to die, and I don't feel anything about it." When asked how she felt about the victims, Atkins responded, "They didn't even look like people.... I didn't relate to Sharon Tate as being anything but a store mannequin.... She kept begging and pleading and pleading...and I got sick of listening to her, so I stabbed her."
A more recent example is Dennis L. Rader, a Boy Scout leader and elder of the Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Dubbed the "BTK killer" for his penchant of binding, torturing, and killing his victims, Rader received ten consecutive life sentences in 2005 for murdering ten people between 1974 and 1991. In an interview with police after his arrest, Rader mocked his victims' pleadings as "yada yada yada." Detective Kelly Otis described Rader's casual demeanor in the interview: "It was like we were talking over a coffee, as if he were relaying a fishing story."
Scott Dyleski also lacked empathy. In 2006 the 17-year-old was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for bludgeoning to death his 52-year-old neighbor Pamela Vitale in her Lafayette, California, home. The murder was both senseless and brutal. After killing her, Dyleski carved a symbol resembling a double-crossed "T" into Vitale's back. At his sentencing, prosecutor Harold Jewett reminded the court of Dyleski's "depth of depravity," not just in murdering Vitale but in the casual remark he made to a housemate two days afterward that "these things happen." Judge Barbara Zuniga made an even more astute observation. Addressing Dyleski directly, she said:
This was a deliberate, planned murder.... As she [Vitale] lay dying at your feet, you proceeded to stab her. That was very unnecessary. It struck me from looking at the photos [of Vitale's corpse], you were emulating the serial killers you read about. And the mark [you carved into her back] shows you were proud of your work.... People have commented on the lack of affect [you displayed throughout this trial], but they were wrong. The one time when I saw an emotion was when the autopsy photos were projected on the wall. I saw you lean forward, mouth open.... You were absolutely fascinated by what you did. You do not deserve to be among decent people.
Lacking the essential human quality of empathy, the killers feel they're dead inside. On trial for conspiracy to commit murder, Charles Manson said on the stand, "I'm already dead, have been all my life." How many times have survivors of some murderous spree described the killer as an emotionless automaton? Fifteen-year-old John Jason McLaughlin, who killed two of his high-school classmates on September 24, 2003, in Cold Spring, Minnesota, was described by a classmate as having a vacant look: "It didn't seem like he was there." A more recent example is Seung-hui Cho, who on April 16, 2007, perpetrated the worst shooting massacre in modern U.S. history, killing 32 students and professors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Survivor Derek O'Dell recalled that Cho's demeanor was unfeeling, "like a stone."
Psychological professionals have identified lack of empathy as among the defining attributes of sociopaths or psychopaths. What the professionals do not address and cannot explain are certain curious statements made by sociopathic killers about themselves. Taken at face value, their words strongly suggest a supernatural dimension to their pathology.
As an example, Peter William Sutcliffe, an English serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, was convicted in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison for murdering 13 women. Sutcliffe told Morrison that he had "company" during his work as a gravedigger and that he was "haunted" by voices he believed to be God's. As the months went by, however, the voice that initially had been comforting now urged Sutcliffe to go on a mission "to get rid of" prostitutes. He eventually went from killing prostitutes to any female he desired to attack or kill.
In a letter to Houston television station KTRK, "Railway Killer" Angel Maturino Reséndiz, who was executed in 2006 for murdering at least 15 people, wrote of a "scary creature" inside him: "I've been fighting this creature all of my life and now I know it is me, so I fear, yes I fear and shake." When one of their victims asked the Manson killers who they were and what they were doing there, one of them replied, "I am the Devil and I'm here to do the Devil's business." Dennis Rader allowed that, although he knew his victims were human beings, he did not care because "I'm a monster." He also said, "I know it is a dark side that controls me. I personally think...that it's demons within me, at some point when I was young that controlled me."
Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels admitted he did not really know Adolf Hitler, although he worked with and saw the Führer almost every day. Goebbels told his aide-de-camp, Prince Schaumburg-Lippe, that there were times when Hitler gave him "the chills." After 1934 Hitler's insomnia became worse and his minimal sleep was frequently interrupted by crying spells. Hermann Rauschning, a Nazi leader who later fled to the U.S., claimed that Hitler was controlled by "malefic influences of which he was no longer the master." In his 1939 book Hitler Told Me, Rauschning related that Hitler regularly had night terrors, during one of which,
Hitler was standing there in his bedroom, stumbling about, looking around him with a distraught look. He was muttering: "It's him! It's him! He's here!" His lips had turned blue. He was dripping with sweat. Suddenly, he uttered some numbers which made no sense, then some words, then bits of sentences. It was frightening. He used terms which were strung together in the strangest way and which were absolutely weird. Then, he again became silent, although his lips continued to move. He was given a massage and something to drink. Then, all of a sudden, he screamed: "There! Over there! In the corner! Who is it?" He was jumping up and down, and he was howling. They reassured him that everything was all right, and he gradually calmed down.
Then there is Joseph Edward Duncan III, a convicted high-risk sex offender who began his criminal career at age 17 in 1980. On April 24, 2005, Duncan wrote in his online journal that there was a battle "of epic proportions" between him and "demons," and that the demons had him "tied to a spit and the fire has already been lit." He darkly warned that "a lot of people will be badly hurt" if the demons won, but that he no longer knew if the right choice was even an option any more. On May 11, 2005, Duncan ominously wrote in his blog that the demons were "loose" and the "bogeyman was alive." Four days later, he bound and bludgeoned to death Brenda Groene, her 13-year-old son, and her fiancé in their home near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Duncan then kidnapped Brenda's remaining children, nine-year-old Dylan and eight-year-old Shasta, torturing and eventually killing Dylan with a shotgun.
In 2006 Duncan was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the Idaho murders. In 2008 a federal jury found him guilty of the kidnapping, sexual abuse, torture, and murder of Dylan Groene, for which he received three death sentences. The jury reached a decision after enduring nearly three weeks of gruesome testimony that included a videotape of the torture and murder in which Duncan screams, "The devil is here, boy, the devil himself.... The devil likes to watch children suffer and cry!" Duncan periodically breaks into shouting, and at one point sings the Lord's Prayer in a high voice.
Richard Macek told Morrison that as a child he had horrible dreams of being attacked by a pink eraser. Under hypnosis, he recalled starting a fire in the apartment of one of his victims, to cover his tracks. As he recounted the incident, dime-sized red blisters appeared on his fingers -- a phenomenon Morrison called "an almost supernatural event...completely out of the realm of what I had learned or had ever experienced."
It was Hitler's deeds that convinced many he was possessed. As one author asked, "By what sorcery could a man, starting with nothing, in the space of a mere ten years totally vanquish seemingly insurmountable obstacles blocking his ascent to power, and how could such a man capture the confidence of millions of people: the unemployed, the workers, the middle class, the intellectuals?" Another writer noted the rise in 1920s Germany of occultism and the practice of the black arts by myriad secret societies, most notably the Thule Society. More recently, in an interview with Vatican Radio, Fr. Amorth said, "I am convinced that the Nazis were all possessed. All you have to do is think about what Hitler...did. Almost certainly they were possessed by the Devil. You can tell by their behaviour and their actions, from the horrors they committed and the atrocities that were committed on their orders." In fact, recently released Vatican documents revealed that wartime pontiff Pope Pius XII had attempted a long-distance exorcism of Hitler. But the effort failed because, as Fr. Amorth explained, the possessed person must be consenting and willing and in the presence of the exorcist for the demon-banishing to succeed.
Then there are deeds that are explicitly Satanic.
The most notorious Satanist in the 1980s was Richard Ramirez, whom newspapers dubbed the "Night Stalker." In 1989 Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death for 13 murders committed over the course of a year in Los Angeles. An acolyte of the Church of Satan and a fan of heavy metal bands such as AC/DC that sang about Hell and the Devil, Ramirez would enter homes surreptitiously in the night. When he was arrested, Ramirez reportedly said he was a minion of Satan sent to commit the Dark One's dirty work. At his trial he flashed a pentagram tattooed onto the palm of his hand and shouted, "Hail Satan!" in open court. He said he did not fear death because he believed in his heart he would go to Hell, where he would sit at the Devil's right hand.
Susan Atkins told her prison psychiatrist that before she met Charles Manson in San Francisco in the late 1960s, she had entered into her "Satanic period" and became involved with Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of the Church of Satan. Another Manson family killer, Patricia Krenwinkel, would doodle during the Tate/LaBianca murder trial. Her two favorite subjects, according to bailiff Bill Murray, were devils' heads and the Mendes goat, both Satanist symbols.
The Satanic also held a morbid fascination for Scott Dyleski. Described by many as intelligent and artistic, he was a former Boy Scout, a vegan, and an animal-rights advocate. But there was a dark side to the teenager. By the time he was 16 years old, he had already consumed a veritable cornucopia of illicit drugs -- heroin, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, and absinthe, a liquor-like spirit made from the herb wormwood which contains a neurotoxin. Dyleski was also a fan of the nihilistic Goth-industrial rock group, Velvet Acid Christ, whose song titles include "Dead Flesh," "Decay," "Fun With Drugs," "Fun With Knives," "Hell Two," "There Is No God," "Hopeless," "Misery," "Murder the World," "Serial Killer 101," and "Satan Complex #42."
For about a year beginning when he was 13, Dyleski dyed his hair black and wore dark makeup (black eyeliner, lipstick, and nail polish) and black clothing, shoes, and socks. Even his underwear was black. Dyleski's interior life matched his morbid outward appearance, as evidenced in his drawings and poetry. One poem ends with the following: "You raised me to hate, and hate I will / Because now I, live for the kill / For the kill, for the kill, for the kill." In its entirety, another poem reads: "Freak god, lifeless / meaningless and pointless / mysterious emptiness." Dyleski also wrote two odes to the fallen angel, titled "Genesis of the Angel" and "Serpentine," in which he calls Satan "sweetest flower" and "sweetest angel." If these poems can be outdone, it would be by Dyleski's macabre drawings, some of which are of knives, razors, and autopsied human body parts. Several drawings portray a Dyleski-look-alike boy holding knives dripping with blood. One drawing is particularly striking and disturbing: It depicts a devilish seated figure with a goat's head and human body, whose right arm clasps a small grinning boy holding a severed human head.
With the exception of those such as Seung-hui Cho who killed themselves rather than be captured by the authorities, all the murderers discussed here had been examined by psychiatrists and judged to be mentally sane and competent to stand trial for their crimes. They were not dissociated from reality and knew precisely what they were doing, but still chose to torture and kill because they are without conscience and empathy.
Psychologists describe these sane killers as psychopaths or sociopaths, or as having anti-social personality disorder, the current favored term. By whatever label, these individuals are notable for their lack of empathy, lack of affect (or hollowness), narcissism that borders on grandiosity, and remorselessness. Psychologists also would have us believe that the "demon," "monster," or "bogeyman" referred to by killers like Duncan and Rader is really the individual's superego. Freud had called the superego a special psychical agency that constantly watches the ego and measures it by that ideal. Recognition of the superego, Freud advised, enables us to understand "the so-called delusions" of being watched, which are symptomatic of the paranoid diseases: "Patients of this sort complain that all their thoughts are known and their actions watched and supervised; they are informed of the functioning of this agency by voices which characteristically speak to them in the third person." Freud further maintained that this "power" that watches and criticizes exists "in every one of us in normal life" and is none other than the superego -- the "censoring agency" experienced in those who revolt against it "as a hostile influence from without."
In calling serial killers psychopaths, what psychologists have done is to describe the most evil among us and give them a diagnostic label. Simply naming something, however, does not explain the phenomenon, and the problem is that psychology cannot tell us the etiology of psychopathy -- whether it is genetic, biological, chemical, or developmental. Likewise, calling "demonic possession" the workings of the "superego" is nothing more than substituting one term for another, albeit for a word that is more acceptable to our secular culture. As Fr. Martin observed, "technical names and jargons...are nothing more than descriptive terms," and descriptive terms are simply tags for phenomena; they do not explain.
Secularists eschew "possession" in favor of "superego" because they reject a priori the existence of pure spirits, of fallen angels, although the same skeptics readily countenance the reality of other non-observable phenomena. But the Church believes that there is an invisible power, a spirit of evil, and that this spirit can take possession of a human being. The simple truth is that psychologists can no more confirm the existence of superego than we can of demons. Perfect possession therefore is at least as good a label as psychopathy; it is also more useful and illuminating.
The concept of perfect possession reminds us that human beings are free agents, created with free will. Although we may have certain predispositions, whether by nature or nurture, we still exercise autonomy of will within those parameters. The person who becomes a serial killer is not overcome by infectious pathogens but has chosen to do evil. As Jeffrey Burton Russell, a professor of religious studies, put it, "Each of us has within us a ‘still, small point' of freedom of will where we can stand and decide for good or for evil. We are not entirely determined by our genes and our milieu." The concept of perfect possession also reminds us that those who make a Satanic compact for whatever self-interested gains will eventually be betrayed because the Devil is no fool. His agenda is not our agenda; he hates humanity and is the father of all lies. Above all, the notion of perfect possession provides a much-needed warning to our postmodern culture, which is saturated in moral relativism and malogens, that the consequence of habitual sinning is deadly.
Before he was executed on January 24, 1989, infamous serial killer Ted Bundy granted his only interview to psychologist James Dobson, founder and president of the evangelical organization Focus on the Family. Bundy had confessed to thirty murders, although the actual total number of his victims remains unknown and may exceed one hundred. In the interview, Bundy related how, despite having been brought up with regular church attendance in "a wonderful home" by "dedicated and loving parents," his obsession with pornography, especially violent pornography, which began in his teen years, eventually led him to murder. In his words, although he had "very strong inhibitions" against criminal and violent behavior, simple porn was no longer enough, which led him to seek "more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material." He called the grip that pornography had over him as "almost a separate entity inside" and as "being possessed by something so awful and alien." Alcohol further reduced his inhibitions. Eventually there came a point where he "couldn't control it anymore." He began to crave "something which is harder" that could give him a greater sense of excitement which pornography could no longer deliver -- "that jumping off point" of actually "doing it" instead of just reading about and looking at it. And so he killed his first victim. After each killing, however, satiation was only temporary. And so he killed again.
In other words, Bundy was describing the enslaving effect of repeated sinning. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm observed that if a human being does evil, he becomes more evil. Abiding in evil, the heart will harden "to a point where no more change or repentance is possible." Oscar Wilde, in his astute portrait of evil, The Picture of Dorian Gray, likewise warned that when a nature is dominated by "the passion for sin," the individual eventually loses freedom of will and moves to his "terrible end as automatons move." The more we sin, the less our autonomy of will, until a point is reached when perfect possession takes over. As theologian Thomas R. Kopfensteiner explains:
This kind of moral tragedy occurs over time.... Our orientation toward the good can become dulled through repeated offences and omissions.... As we make individual decisions the contours of our moral identities take shape...to the point that there emerges a profound consistency and transparency between our identity and our actions, between who we are and what we do.... It becomes progressively more difficult and increasingly less probable that we will regain our moral equilibrium. We are beset by a progressive moral decline.... We truly experience the death of our souls.
In his last statement before he was executed by lethal injection, "Railway Killer" Reséndiz said, "I know I allowed the Devil to rule my life. I just ask you to forgive me and ask the Lord to forgive me for allowing the Devil to deceive me." Bundy, too, at the end of his interview with Dr. Dobson confirmed that he had sought Christ's forgiveness and had become a convert. He expressed sorrow for the pain and grief he caused the parents of the children and young women he had harmed. He did not expect their forgiveness because that kind of forgiveness is only "of God."
Admittedly, there are skeptics who maintain that Bundy's conversion was just a last-ditch effort at obtaining clemency. They point out that if his conversion experience were genuine, he would have confessed to all his killings, as well as revealed the location of more bodies. We will never know.
At the same time, however, we are reminded that we are not our own, "for you have been purchased at a price" (1 Cor. 6:20). We cannot simply dismiss the possibility that, given the infinite mercy and grace of God, even the perfectly possessed can repent and find redemption. As the Church teaches, the only unforgivable sin is the stubborn refusal to be penitent, presuming that a creature's sin can actually exceed the Creator's infinite capacity to forgive.