Really Real Realities


  • Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Faith, University Press, 2002. 
  • Hilary Evans. Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal. John Murray. 2002.

Walter Stephens asks an interesting question: why did early modern demonologists get obsessed with the idea of demons having sex with witches? Why were they determined to prove that witches really did physically travel to sabbats, when previous generations had been content to view these claims as delusions of the devil?

Stephen's answer and his perception of witchcraft, are of particular interest to us. It is that such phenomena were regarded as important because they were seen as providing empirical evidence for the external, corporeal existence of devils. They were proof that devils and therefore the whole supernatural realm was 'really real' and not as one commentator put it "... that demons do not exist, except in the imagination of the common people, so that a man imputes to himself by the exercise of his own imagination, and that on account of a vehement imagination, some figures can appear to the senses exactly as a man has thought of them

In other worlds what Stephens called the 'witchcraft theorists' (a term concocted in imitation of conspiracy theorists) saw in stories of the sexual congress of demons, was as evidence against a psychosocial hypothesis, as against the idea that demons, and by extension God and religion, were 'all in the mind'.

The reason for this search, Stephens holds, was not that the witchcraft theorists were total, unquestioning believers in a wholly credulous society; no it was that they and the society in which they lived was already entertaining doubts. Questions were arising in their mind which could not be publicly asked. Witchcraft stories were presented to try and assuage doubts. It was not so much that the witchcraft theorists believed the stories they recounted, it was that they could not not believe them. For that would imperil the whole theological world view. Witchcraft theorists tried to believe in such things, not because it was easy to so believe, but because it was difficult.

Horrifying though the witchcraft stories were, they were also reassuring, by providing empirical evidence. Forbidden by their religion to try to encounter demons themselves, they could meet them second hand as it were. Someone else, groups in society who were disposable, could do the meeting and collect the evidence for them.

The exact nature of the witches' and the demons' tricks caused deep philosophical problems. How could angels and demons gain bodies for example, how could they have sex with humans, could witches really turn into cats? If you didn't want to believe in the physical reality of all this, then there was a get out: the devil could quite literally get into your head and mess about with your senses from inside as it were. But this was a dangerous line to lake, for it could always lead to the heretical belief that angels and demons, and ghosts and boggarts were nothing but the product of the unaided human imagination.

These arguments are still with us, Stephens draws our attention to the alien abduction theorists and their search for empirical evidence. Modern paranormal theorists of one sort or another look around for evidence that the suprahuman forces, whether spirits of the dead, extraterrestrials or the latent psychic forces, are not 'all in the mind'. There are nuts-and-bolts spaceships, paws-and-pelt mystery animals, and so on.

In this light we can understand something of the ease with which psychical researchers were prepared to dwell on the deeply earthly nature of ectoplasm and its emanations from 'unclean' orifices. Its as though its very polluted nature ensured its 'really real' physical reality. Anomalists search out witnesses and, like kindlier more PC inquisitors, interrogate them to encounter the 'other' at second hand.

Hilary Evans book would in many ways have seemed familiar to the witchcraft theorists, for it is essentially a metaphysical treatise on the nature of ghosts and spirits, asking questions such as whether ghosts are just the products of "an imagination so vehement that it can make figures appear to the senses". Or do spirits of the dead confuse the senses and provoke hallucinations; or can they acquire 'airy bodies' as the demons were thought to do, and appear to the senses?

To a great degree Evans tries to push the third agenda. He is looking for evidence of a separable soul or 'extended self'. Reading his account, we can sense Evans goes this way, not because he finds believing in the quasi-physical nature of ghosts easy, rather he finds it difficult, and will be quite aware that he is writing in a far more hostile climate than any 15th or 16th century witch theorist. Rather it is because he cannot not believe. What Stephens calls the "terror of the imagination and of nature", the idea that the natural forces and the human imagination can account for the supernatural, and that we are on our own in a wild and empty place. still holds us in thrall.

This gives us a clue as to another puzzle: why the limits of belief are often pushed back. Ufologists back abduction and crashed saucer stories that a generation or so ago they would have laughed at. Psychical researchers go for evidence that the founders of the SPR would have recoiled from. As an example Hilary Evans builds his case in part from letters to Fate magazine, and uses well known free-floating tales among his evidences. The answer must be that as the 'terror of nature and the imagination' creeps ever closer, paranormalists seek more and more frantically for any countervailing evidence they can find. The witchcraft theorists went through the same processes.

The escalation of what can believed goes on. In a way this may lead to its downfall, the more extreme the claims, the more the proponents become isolated,, indeed they themselves tip the scales toward scepticism. The price of belief eventually outweighs the price of scepticism. Better see the world stripped back to nature and the imagination than reduced to total chaos and absurdity. -- Peter Rogerson.

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