Salvo 07.14.2022 12 minutes

What the Hell

Ouija Board On Dark Background

The Demonic in Contemporary Culture.

I am not religious—at least, I don’t think I am. And I do not know if our institutions are capable of being saved. But our nation’s downward spiral of nihilism needs to be called out, and ideally arrested or even reversed.

Fertility rates are plummeting across the developed world. Doom and gloom over climate change dominates the discourse in advanced economies. Pro-choice activists have shifted their stated stance from “safe, legal and rare” to “it’s a birthing person’s choice” even at full term. Proabortion activists paint their faces red and scream “I love killing babies.” Teachers instruct kindergarteners about their own peculiar sexualities as well-funded international organizations remake pedagogy in the image of “Drag Queen Story Hour.”

The signs of evil are everywhere. But many of us, overwhelmed by the scope of the situation, struggle to make sense of just what we’re facing. “Evil” feels too abstract and uncontrollable. But something less religious-sounding, like “craziness,” is too vague and dismissive. When the supposedly “marginalized” demand a supposed “right” to twerk in front of children, or read books to them in drag, we are dealing with a pathology that is more than neurochemical. Something spiritual is at stake—something demonic.

The various extremes and excesses of this new movement are united only in their relentless attack upon meaning. The woke work, with collectivist fervor, to destroy what’s left of society’s institutions, all but ensuring the worst does in fact come to pass. Since nothing stands in the way of the demonic like childhood innocence, it is particularly and continually targeted. It is as though we are caught in a gravitational force—akin to that exerted by black holes on celestial bodies—cycling down to the pits of hell, with too few of us reaching out for the life rafts of tradition, asking “What the…?” of the latest obscenities.

How to make sense of this? What if present difficulties in sense-making are preconditioned by, or are concurrent with, this pull into the demonic? Is the “demonic” something like the nihilistic and gravitational pull into meaninglessness and its erasure of individual agency and free will? It would seem so, with the only way to truly grasp it being with reference to the religious tradition it itself appears to be situated within. Now more than ever, “the Devil” will find you whether or not you believe.

At the Limit: School Shootings and the Demonic

There is surely nothing more obviously Evil, and senseless, than school shootings. What meaning can we make of the indiscriminate murder of innocent lives, of innocence itself? Within hours of the Uvalde shooting on May 24, 2022, political and media narratives proliferated. We were bombarded on the one side with demands for gun control, and critiques about police incompetence or malice from the other. What’s important here is just how fast these narratives sprang to life, how quick the attempt was to put a frame around the traumatic event, how quickly everyone wanted it to mean something—even falsely.

These pat narratives all seem like a form of deflection, made to avoid the question: what really happened? Why did it happen? False—but seemingly meaningful—narratives around mass shootings ultimately function to cordon off the demonic meaninglessness at the core of these events. Nearly 25 years after Columbine, society has perhaps learned better defense mechanisms to quickly box off these traumatic core questions. No one is asking this time about the intent of the shooter.

They did at Columbine, at least nominally. Immediately after the shooting stopped, but before the crime scene was even established, national media floated the idea that the Columbine shooters were “outcasts” motivated by simple resentment towards “jocks” and “preppies.” It didn’t seem to trouble those advancing this account that most high school students are gangly “outcasts” who do not murder their peers. That the shooting victims were not limited to jocks and preppies was also ignored. The narrative was comforting, and even today most lay people believe some version of the story. But for anyone paying attention, it unraveled over the months that followed the shootings. To this day, no real motive can be ascribed to the killings. This only makes them all the more terrifying. Columbine still sticks out like a sore thumb, the primal archetype of all subsequent school shootings. To truly understand the demonic, we need to jettison the false narratives that try to explain it away. We need to really wrestle with the senselessness of Evil and its relationship to self-erasure.

Let’s ask: are school shooters demon-possessed? Does it matter, even, if school shooters are literally possessed or only metaphorically so, given the result is the indiscriminate murder of innocent lives? Is this a distinction without a difference? The diary entries, as well as the psychological profiles, of the school shooters make clear the shooters were not psychotic, as much as it might comfort us to believe so; on the contrary, every last aspect of the events was meticulously considered and planned. However, their writings do effectively describe the scenes of their own seduction by the demonic, of their subsequent possession by it. In one of the killers’ short stories, he writes about the moment his narrator encounters the protagonist, who has just indiscriminately murdered a number of townspeople:

“I was still, as he came my way again. He stopped, and gave me a look I will never forget. If I could face an emotion of god, it would have looked like the man… The man smiled, and in that instant, thru no endeavor of my own, I understood his actions”

Interestingly, the shooters sometimes write in the past tense of future events, as though the acts involved have been predestined and those who commit them no longer have agency. The prose sometimes reads like “automatic writing,” the text a mere conduit for the demons speaking through the writers. In what appears to be a video confessional, the suspected July 4, 2022 Highland Park shooter similarly narrates that he is a “sleepwalker” controlled by “cosmic” forces, overriding any “free will.” It is as though their seduction and possession by the demonic paradoxically meant their total “freedom” in the leadup to their heinous acts—freedom from agency and responsibility.

Christians might understand this notion of possession as perversely echoing the leap of faith into Christ, an instant that completely transforms one’s horizon of understanding and one’s reality. Suddenly, through that leap, everything is understood and thereby redeemed. But whereas in the Christian leap one’s individual subjectivity is created and affirmed by being granted a redeemed soul, here the shooter relinquishes his subjectivity in the moment of seduction by the demonic. The Christian leap opens up a horizon of meaning upheld by fantasy, which will subsequently shape reality and build civilization. The demonic fall erases all possibility of meaning, giving a kind of perverse joy in ridding the possessed of the burdens and responsibilities that come with meaning. It is as if the shooter were reverse baptized, freed into chaos.

In some sense, the possessed becomes a demon in this fall. But demonological texts throughout history are clear that the possessed always in some way invites in the demon. There’s always a pact of one sort or another, a seduction. This implies, of course, that there is a way back for the possessed. Their soul lingers. The demon only needs to be exorcized—with individual agency restored. This is the crucial difference that distinguishes the language of demonology from that of psychosis: a psychotic episode dispossesses the patient of free will. This is why exorcisms are not performed upon psychotics: there is no hope of success.

Put another way, the leap of faith is anti-gravitational, rendering one weightless into an open horizon of meaning—angels have wings. With agency comes responsibility, but also free will. As its mirror-image, the fall is gravitational, pulling us down into the bowels of the earth in closing down the potential of the human will or soul. The wings get clipped. As our societal structures of meaning and morality continue to collapse, demonic logic proliferates. Taking the demonic fall into the abyss is a form of coping—the most extreme form of coping—for those who feel they cannot meaningfully contribute to what remains of the social order. It is everything we must guard against.

The Demonic in Contemporary Culture

The school shooter is the most obvious limit case of the demonic today. But he is merely the extreme archetype of a pattern we see everywhere—the pattern of self-negation and erasure. Does this imply that any surrendering of agency is demonic? Yes. Is there not a way in which to be a good “liberal” subject today means to not assume individual agency, but in fact to make a big show out of not having any? “I support the Current Thing.”  The demonic may be at its most obvious in the school shooter, but it’s everywhere now. This is why so many observe that things just keep getting worse; today’s Left never seems to be satisfied with its victories but insists on pushing its logic to the nth degree. We are caught in a demonic vortex.

COVID hysterics have succumbed to this logic, with people in many places still hiding their faces behind masks long ago shown to be ineffective at their stated purpose. Wearing a mask absolves one of the burdens of social recognition, agency, and responsibility. The social order is instead supplanted with its parody, that of a non-thinking collective in which one is at once an atomized and a fully integrated node in the very act of wearing the mask, like a node in a network. The entire COVID narrative was about surrendering one’s own free will to the new priestly class of “experts,” shaming anyone daring enough to think otherwise (“what, you’re going to do your own research?”), anyone daring enough to create meaning. We weren’t supposed to create meaning; we were only supposed to parrot the experts’ message of the day, however much it contradicted yesterday’s. In doing so, we affirmed our lack of agency and our compliance. And we accrued virtue in the renunciation of subjectivity, the premise being that were we all to do so we would achieve a perfect harmonious Good. The road to Hell was paved with good intentions—and, more importantly, via collectivist compliance. Predictably, children suffered most.

Transhumanists, too, have succumbed. It is in fact the whole point of transhumanism to surrender one’s free will in exchange for eternal life in the machine. There is no more obvious “pact with the devil” than the transhumanist bargain. To even theorize that one could merge one’s being with a machine is to surrender one’s soul. Of course, transhumanists are just the latest nitwits trying to cheat death; notice the theory always conveniently involves the Singularity—the merger of man and machine—within the theorist’s lifetime. And notice too how every transhumanist advocates anti-aging products and services, like injecting themselves with fetal stem cells to prolong their lives just long enough for this messianic merger. A life that cannot confront its own mortality is a cursed life, a meaningless life, as the existentialists articulated so well in the aftermath of WWII with its atrocities and absurdities.

When conservatives in the 1990s were mocked for their arguments about a “slippery slope” leading from gay marriage to bestiality, I was among those mocking them. In retrospect, they were more right than wrong. Of course, worldwide there are millions of happily married gay couples that do not espouse the right of drag queens to sexualize children, with many actively opposing the practice. I think it’s not so much that to be pro-LGBTQ+ is to be on a path to the demonic as much as the demonic has latched onto this movement as the means to get its work done in the world. This might sound like I’m ascribing agency to the demonic itself. Not exactly. It is more that people are now joining the movement in order topurge themselves of agency and subjectivity—which is just a way to answer the question, “what is a furry?” The more meaning, backed by individual agency, is diminished, the further afield one must continually venture for novel identities that provide just enough frisson and cultural capital to keep anxiety at bay. There is thus an inverse relationship between meaning and the proliferation of pronouns, sexualities and identities, the latter multiplying to the extent the former degrades or is degraded—a downward spiral. Think of individual agency as the “gold standard” of meaning; as we lose it, meaning inflates but with diminished value. “Meaning” is everywhere, and it is practically worthless.

The school shooter knows this and accelerates down the vortex at warp speed; he’s seen enough. For most others, nominally choosing to remain in the land of the living, as our structures of meaning and morality degenerate there is a similar perverse motivation to debase them ever further in the renunciation of individual agency—claiming virtue all the while. Anyone who doesn’t renounce their subjectivity must be denounced; indeed, what is being denounced is their subjectivity, the fact that they still stubbornly lay claim to it. And the unfortunate end point of this logic is that something “must be done” with those who refuse to renounce; it is in part the anticipation of this fact that leads many commentators to talk of impending “national divorce” or “civil war.”

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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