Nicholas Kaufmann has had his work nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the International Thriller Writers Award. He is the critically acclaimed author of Walk in Shadows, General Slocum’s Gold, Chasing the Dragon, Still Life: Nine Stories, Dying Is My Business, and the latest, Die and Stay Dead. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 3, City Slab, The Best American Erotica 2007, Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War!, Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk, and others. He used to write the “Dead Air” column for The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but you can visit him at NnicholasKaufmann.com and follow him on Twitter as @TheKaufmann.
Of all the monsters from mythology and imagination that have found their way into popular culture, it is perhaps only the demon that has the distinction of still being seriously believed in by large numbers within certain religions. Recently, these malevolent, supernatural beings have shown up in several horror films with explicit Christian overtones, films that tried to cash in simultaneously on the enormous horror and Christian evangelical markets, such The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Rite (2011), The Devil Inside (2012), and The Last Exorcism (2010), whose advertising tagline was, tellingly, “If you believe in God, you must believe in the Devil.” Even The Conjuring, 2013’s most popular horror film, featured an evil, possessing spirit undone by Catholic ritual and brandished crucifixes.
The Exorcist has a lot to answer for. The tropes William Peter Blatty employed in that seminal work have remained strong in the pop culture consciousness ever since the novel hit the bestseller lists in 1971 and the film ruled the box office two years later. But must all demons be incorporeal, possessing forces of darkness that can only be defeated by the power of God and religious faith?
My latest novel, Die and Stay Dead, the sequel to last year’s Dying Is My Business, finds Trent and the Five-Pointed Star hot on the trail of Erickson Arkwright, a madman intent on summoning the demon Nahash-Dred, Destroyer of Worlds, into New York City, where he will bring about the end of, well, everything. But this demon isn’t a possessing spirit; it comes from a different tradition of demons as physical, corporeal entities. Nahash-Dred is less Pazuzu from The Exorcist and more Moloch from the current Sleepy Hollow TV series.
You could be forgiven for thinking most demons in pop culture are little girl-possessing Pazuzu clones-hell, in the 1970s and ’80s the Italian film industry produced an entire subgenre of cheap, lurid Exorcist rip-offs because it was so immensely popular at the time-but in actuality, there are plenty of examples in entertainment of demons as corporeal creatures with their own bodies and no need for anyone else’s, thank you very much. One of my favorites is Etrigan from the DC Comics universe. This rhyming demon with superhuman strength and close ties to Hell has crossed paths with superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and even Batman. Unfortunately for him, Etrigan often finds himself allied with the forces of good-or at least often doing the right thing in the end-which makes him distinctly unpopular with his fellow demons. Another favorite demon of mine is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Like Etrigan, Anung un Rama-Hellboy to his friends-is a powerful demon who was destined for evil, but who chooses to do good instead. Either on his own or with the help of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Hellboy investigates and takes on supernatural threats, including demonic entities that have a teasing and dreadful knowledge of Hellboy’s true destiny as the harbinger of the apocalypse. Unlike other demons, though, Hellboy is so disturbed by his heritage that he regularly files down the horns on his head.
But of course, not all demons are so honorable or heroic. Take Azal from the 1971 Doctor Who serial “The Daemons.” This giant, satyr-like creature with red skin, goat-like hooves, and a booming voice was actually an alien from the planet Daemos who had landed on Earth thousands of years ago and, as an experiment, influenced mankind’s education and development, simultaneously inspiring the common representation of demons and devils in human culture in the process. When Azal awakens after his long slumber to check on his experiment, he judges humankind a failure and tries to destroy the world. It is only the selfless act of sacrifice by Jo Grant, the Doctor’s companion, that eventually stops Azal and indeed destroys him. A similar fate befalls the Lord of Darkness in the 1985 film Legend. This hulking, red-skinned, black-horned demon, played memorably by Tim Curry, tries to plunge the world into endless darkness by killing the last unicorn, who safeguards the light. But Mia Sara’s Lili tricks Darkness, freeing the unicorn instead of killing it as she promised, all the while knowing Darkness will kill her for her betrayal. But this selfless act enrages and distracts Darkness long enough to allow Tom Cruise’s Jack to send the demon into the void forever.
The list of pop culture demons who have corporeal forms instead of being possessing spirits is a long one. Gozer from the 1984 film Ghostbusters. Bartimaeus from the eponymous book series by Jonathan Stroud. The demon from the 1957 film Night of the Demon, which itself is based on M.R. James’ classic 1911 short story “Casting the Runes.” The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s creepy 1999 episode “Hush.” Mephisto and Dormammu from the Marvel comics universe. Morgoth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Randall Flagg in Stephen King’s novel The Stand. Any number of characters on TV shows like Millennium, Angel, and Supernatural. The list goes on and on.
It’s clear that demons don’t always have to be bodiless spirits looking to possess little girls or test the faith of doubting priests. It’s also clear that demons don’t always have to be entities rooted in or foiled by religion. But what is clear is that, for the most part, demons throughout pop culture are malevolent and destructive creatures. Nahash-Dred in Die and Stay Dead is certainly no exception. Lost civilizations all over the world can be traced back to this powerful demon’s presence, which is why Trent and the Five-Pointed Star are so desperate to prevent Erickson Arkwright from summoning Nahash-Dred to New York City.
One of the things I love so much about horror and fantasy is how capacious they are. There’s room for all kinds of demonic entities, from the incorporeal, possessing, religiously-based spirits of films like The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to the invisible monsters of films like Paranormal Activity and The Entity, to corporal, physical entities like Etrigan and Gozer. It makes me happy because I happen to love demon stories, and the more kinds of demons we allow for, the greater the number of demon stories we get to enjoy.
guest post, Nicholas Kaufmann, demons