Today’s entry might be controversial to some of you because like ghosts, some people believe that these creatures actually do exist in some form or another. Regardless of your feelings towards them, no Halloween season is complete without demons.
The difficulty with writing about demons is that they’re so general and can be pretty much whatever the storyteller wants them to be, as long as they’re bad. This, however, was not always the case.
In ancient Greece—where the word “daimon” is likely derived from “daiesthai” meaning to divide or distribute—demons were simply spirits with divine power. They had no malevolent connotations, and in fact, the Greek word for good-spiritedness is “eudaimonia,” and some demons are even benevolent.
As the Abrahamic religions took foothold and spread throughout Europe, the Christians and Jews viewed demons as minions of the fallen angel who came to be known as Satan, the adversary of their god. From that point in time, demons became synonymous with other fallen angel characters or unclean spirits.
With Satan being the enemy of God, he and his demons are often deemed responsible for leading humanity into temptation to sin, hence the bestial features reflected in their appearance. They accomplish their goals in a variety of means like possession, disguising themselves to fool others, or sometimes it’s something as simple as telling a lie.
In the epic of Faust, a demon named Mephistopheles makes a pact with a human scholar, granting him unlimited knowledge and pleasure in exchange for his soul. In more recent times, a legend was told that the American blues musician, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great guitarist.
The motivation of a demon is pretty simple: make bad things happen in any way possible. Perhaps that’s why demons are so feared as villains. Aside from their true form usually being grotesquely alarming, to fight a demon is tantamount to taking on a god. Like gods, they aren’t always bound to the same rules of the natural universe as we are. That’s why exorcisms—at least in movies—tend to only remove the demon from the host and either force it into another host or cast it back to hell. In the end, the demon never really dies unless attacked by some divine source like an angel or by a good-natured god. Humans rarely are able to complete the task.
An even scarier aspect of demons is that while they are out to torment humanity, there are some amongst us who not only welcome their coming but worship them as gods. For this example, we’ll take a very brief–and I do mean VERY BRIEF–look at satanism. While various satanic groups are very loosely connected at best and often misrepresented in their true beliefs by the opposition, the thread that is constant throughout all of them is an admiration of the character of Satan. Writers like George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain viewed the Devil as a brave hero who had the courage to stand up to a tyrant god in a battle he knew he would never win. And that ultimately is what the demon represents: chaos.
But even in modern times where the biblical ideal of the demon is still most common in people’s minds, there have been recent versions of these monsters that have rediscovered their roots of not necessarily having to be evil and can actually do mankind some good.
Characters like Hellboy have not only redefined what it means to be a demon, but he also teaches the audience the notion that despite where we come from, it’s ultimately up to us who we want to be, and with all the powers of hell at his disposal, he chooses to fight against evil…in his own reckless way, that is.
Whether it’s Hellboy flying in to push back against the things that go bump in the night or Samael flying in to reap the dead, demons will always be a force to be reckoned with.