When I was two years old, my mother became a born-again Christian.
She’d made friends with a married couple in her apartment complex, who invited her to their charismatic Pentecostal church. They believed in powerful supernatural forces that were at work in people’s everyday lives.
At this church, my mother saw people speaking in strange, inhuman languages. Women became ecstatic and fainted when they prayed. Men cast out demons. They taught her that demons and the forces of darkness took human shape to persecute God’s anointed, and that His children were spiritual warriors, attended by angels, to do battle in the world in His name.
As a child, all I knew about religion was that Jesus loved me. Jesus loved everyone. The devil tempted us to do bad things, but we didn’t have to listen. We could just be good instead. The devil seemed like a weak, silly character to me at that age, like a cartoon villain, easily thwarted by children.
The first time I realized that the devil could do bad things to me even though I had Jesus, I was four years old. I was running from my bedroom down the hallway to the living room, where my mother was sitting. There was a wire clothes hanger lying on the slick tile floor, and I slipped on it. I crashed, hard, and got a goose egg on my forehead. It hurt like nothing I could remember hurting before.
“Why did that happen?” I asked my mother, after she picked me up and hugged me.
“The devil made it happen,” she said seriously.
After that, the world was a slightly more dangerous place. I realized that even the love of Jesus wouldn’t protect me from the devil all the time.
For a few years, I was permitted to be ignorant of the larger spiritual dangers awaiting me. My mother protected me. On Halloween, she kept me home from kindergarten. She didn’t explain why, she just said, “We don’t celebrate Halloween.” I went to my church’s Harvest Festival instead of trick-or-treating like the rest of the kids in my class. The candy haul was about the same, so I didn’t mind too much.
I was in the second grade when my mother deemed me old enough to be made aware of the larger conflict we were embroiled in. Once again, it was nearly Halloween, and once again I was being kept home from school. But this time, the restrictions were more severe. I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike around the block, or even to play in the back yard.
I’d already heard all of the usual “stranger danger” lectures, both from my parents and at school. But I’m pretty sure I was the only person in my class who got the expansion pack to that lecture. We were in the car, driving the long commute home from my private school, and my mother turned on the radio.
“I want you to listen to this,” she said, using the tone of voice that meant sit up and pay attention.
The man on the radio was named Bob Larson. He had a high, excitable voice. He was talking to a caller, a young woman, who was telling him that she was locked in her room. Her family wouldn’t let her leave the house. She said a room full of people in dark robes were forcing her to drink blood and eat human flesh. She said that robed people had sacrificed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little boy while she was tied up and forced to observe.
“They drive around looking for little boys and girls with blond hair and blue eyes to kidnap,” my mother told me, when the show was finished. I remember that she was clenching the steering wheel hard. “We have to be very, very careful.”
Shortly afterward, I found a box of comic books in the back of my mother’s car. My mother said they were tracts—pamphlets that were handed out to nonbelievers explaining what they needed to do to be saved, i.e. become born-again Christians. I’d seen tracts before, but never with stories and pictures in them. At that age, I read everything I could get my hands on, so I picked one up.
It was called “The Thing”. It told the story of a young girl named Maria, who was being tortured by an invisible entity. The tract went on to explain that because Maria had been reading tarot cards and telling fortunes, she’d opened herself up to demon possession. Demons masquerading as the kindly souls of departed human beings had given her great power and insight in her fortune telling—but soon they invaded her body, for the sole purpose of torturing her for their pleasure.
I took the tract to my mother. She looked disturbed. She said, “I didn’t mean for you to see those until you were older.”
But since I had seen them, she decided she might as well explain. My mother told me the same thing that most kids are told by their parents: there’s no such things as ghosts. But she went on from there. She told me that the things we call ghosts are all actually demons, who appear harmless in order to trick us into inviting them into our lives. Even a person with Jesus in their heart could fall victim to them. She told me there are doors in the mind that we must keep shut, or the demons will enter. They could bite, scratch, tear our flesh, make us hurt ourselves and other people. Make us lose our minds…
From that point on, I was always afraid.
When I was small, I’d never been afraid of the dark, or of ghosts, or monsters in my closet. But ever since I could remember—since I was 3 or 4, probably—I’d had recurring nightmares. In my dreams, I would be walking through a parking lot a few feet behind my mother. We’d get into the car together—her in front, me in the back—and she would remind me to fasten my seatbelt. As I did so, I got a strange feeling that something was terribly wrong.
“Are you really my mother?” I would always ask her.
And then she would turn around and grin, her green eyes flashing. “No,” she’d say. “I’m the other mother.”
(For reference, I’m 32. This was decades before Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline came out.)
My dreams always ended with me trying frantically to get out of the car, only to find that the seat belt wouldn’t unfasten. My mother would reach for me, grinning horribly, and I would wake up with the feel of her hands around my throat.
It wasn’t that I thought my mother was possessed by demons. In some ways, it might have been easier if I had. But those dreams gave me a context for what the horrors of demonic persecution would feel like in real life. I already knew what terror felt like. And now that she had explained to me the danger I was in, that terror seeped into the daylight hours.
The problem was that my mother had told me quite plainly how people became susceptible to demonic attack. It happened when they “opened a door in their mind”. It happened to people who became fascinated, obsessed with the occult. I knew that I wasn’t like Maria in the comic—wild horses couldn’t have dragged me anywhere near a ouija board—but now that I knew about demons, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
We listened to Bob Larson’s radio show every day on the drive home. Sometimes my mom would turn it off abruptly when the nameless girl described the sexual abuses of her Satanic cult, but I heard most of everything she said. I remember my stomach knotting with anxiety when she hung up abruptly in the middle of one her interviews, after saying that her parents had become suspicious. I thought, they’re killing her right now.
I started having constant stomach aches, and regular head aches. I knew that sometimes demons made you sick, so I became even more worried, which made the pain worse. I didn’t dare tell my mother that I was afraid to so much as go upstairs alone after dark, because then I would have to admit that I was opening doors in my mind to the demons. Making her angry was almost as frightening to me as the threat of supernatural attack.
Human brains have a perverse tendency to fixate on things that they should avoid, and on top of that, children are insatiably curious. My mother wouldn’t always answer my questions about the demons. Sometimes she would bring it up, other times she would snap at me, tell me that it wasn’t safe to talk about. Sometimes she would get angry and scared and want to know why I was thinking about it so much. It frightened me when she got like that because it made me think that she was scared too, and maybe she didn’t really know how to keep us safe from the demons after all.
I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids in my neighborhood, so I was always alone when I was at home. I filled up the hours of isolation with constant reading. My mother never looked at the books I brought home from the library. I began reading ghost stories, tales of haunted houses, possession, poltergeists, urban legends, folklore. I don’t quite know why I did that: rebellion, recklessness, early self-destructive impulses, or possibly just a desperate need to understand. Sometimes my mother found the books where I’d hidden them away. Sometimes she threw screaming tantrums. Other times she got deadly serious. Every time, she told me what a terrible risk I was taking. “This is how they get in your head,” she’d tell me.
I believed her. I believed every word. But I couldn’t stop. I worried that the demons were tempting me, grooming me for possession. But it was a temptation I couldn’t resist. Alone in my room at night I heard strange noises and lay awake under the covers, paralyzed with terror. I prayed desperately for Jesus to protect me. I told God how sorry I was, and swore I would stop listening to the demons. But the next day, I would read more.
Halloween passed. Christmas approached, and I became a little less frightened. It was a holy time, when the demons weren’t as strong. Then Christmas was over, and the weather turned warm. I didn’t stop being afraid, but my mother stopped listening to the radio program about the girl in the cult. She said it had turned out that the girl was lying about everything. It didn’t make the demons any less real, but I didn’t hear about them quite as often. I kept reading ghost stories, and I was still frightened of the dark.
I hated being alone upstairs at night. When my mother sent me up to my room to lay out my clothes for school the next day, I raced up the stairs and dashed into my bedroom where I could turn on the light and shut the door. It was scarier when the door of the guest room was open. The light in the guest room had burned out, and every time I stood outside that dark empty room I thought the demons might be waiting there to leap out at me.
I was still in second grade, near the end of the school year, when it happened.
Whenever I had to go up to my room at night, I would stay there for as long as possible, even though I was supposed to come right back down because my mother didn’t like it when I was in a different part of the house from her. I would read, or play dress-up, or dance around in front of the mirror, singing, in order to put off the moment when I had to walk past the empty, gaping darkness of the guest room again.
When I couldn’t delay any longer, I would burst from the bedroom and run as fast as I could out of the bedroom and down the stairs. So fast that nothing could catch me, I thought.
That night, I tore out of the room as usual. In the darkness of the stairway landing, something leapt out and grabbed me. It was immensely strong, and it was cackling. I felt long, sharp claws grazing my throat.
I screamed and fought wildly. Then I blacked out, I think.
When I opened my eyes again, the light was on, and my mother was standing over me, laughing.
“Were you scared?” she said, grinning. “You’re silly. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
As I lay there on the floor, looking up my mother, I had the kind of realization that eight year old children don’t come to unless there’s something very wrong in their lives. I was numb, heartbeat roaring in my ears, trembling in long shudders. There were tears running down my face. I couldn’t speak.
I looked up in her laughing eyes and I realized that my mother enjoyed my fear. She enjoyed it so much that she’d become the thing I was afraid of.
And I knew I would never be safe from her. Unlike the demons, not even Jesus could make her go away.