I Know Satan When I See Him

Why I love all the dark and scary stories my fellow Christians tell me to avoid. 

I am drawn to the dark.

I’ve known this was true about me since I was a little girl, when minor chords first grabbed my heart and spooky stories stoked my imagination. I’ve known ever since my first haunted house exhilarated me, leaving me breathless and wanting more, ever since I snuck horror movies late at night and went to bed smiling. Long before I discovered a key part of my Enneagram Type-5-ness was a fascination with “dark and disturbing elements,” I sat rapt—fascinated—as my cousins spun stories about ghosts that floated up and down a secret staircase to their attic. How I wished those stories were true.

My love of the dark and the disturbing and the things that go bump in the night has never left. It’s spread like moss on a dungeon wall.

Today, I’m the nice Christian mom who puts her kids to bed with stories of monsters in the closet and sneaks in episodes of American Horror Story on her iPhone. I’m the nice Christian writer whose Muse is stoked by the ook-and-spook of storm clouds and dark corners and passageways.  I’m the nice Christian church staffer whose heart jumps — then falls — upon realizing she misheard: her colleague wasn’t in a demon program, but a D.Min. (yawn) And I’m the nice Christian neighbor who clicks on the “haunted mansion” for sale dirt-cheap in a nearby suburb and sighs If only….

I love the dark, but for long time my love scared me. I worried it was not merely “the dark” but The Dark — and the Prince of it — drawing me in. Even if Satan didn’t succeed and Jesus’ hold on my heart was secure, I wondered how my being drawn to the dark jived with my attempts at living in the Light.

Certainly my love of the dark and gruesome, creepy and curious seems to run contrary to St. Paul’s words to keep our minds on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8).  At least, that’s what folks who don’t — or won’t — watch Insidious or read The Shining tell me.

And yet, I could argue — as I am about to do — that they are wrong. Especially if we believe some of Paul’s other words: that “we know that in all things God work for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28).

Indeed, I’ve discovered God can — and does — work my love of the dark for the good. Because I love God, he can actually turn it true and noble, right, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy. And not just by using my love of the dark to spark creativity, to make me a better writer, but by using it to spark discernment, to make me a better Christian.

Not afraid of the things that fright

Thing is: I may watch, read, imagine the ominous for fun, for the sheer joy of getting goosebumps and shivers. But it’s not fruitless. My body’s bumpy and shivery response may be telling me something good is at work. And it is. Scary movies and scary stories (whether read or imagined) offer perspectives and interpretations of evil in the world with benefit beyond the sheer joy of getting goosebumps: we experience evil as others have, and we become more aware.

Not being afraid to look into the dark, to imagine the creepy, to give ourselves over to the spine-tingling, to hear or watch the gory stories that make others plug their ears, look away, helps us recognize, understand and battle evil in its various, insidious forms in real, everyday life.

Evil is everywhere. Although most of us are happier when we can explain it away, call it by other names. We smile at the end of the Dirt Devil exorcist commercial when it’s the vacuum, silly, not the devil, making the woman levitate. We blame guns and mental illness for school shootings. We blame anxiety and stress and negative “self-talk” for what torments our souls.

I imagine how much this delights Satan when his (or her — for us feminists out there) work not only goes undetected, but when the blame gets placed elsewhere. When we believe more or different legislation will keep us out of harm’s (and demons’) way, when our fear of our neighbors who are depressed or manic or schizophrenic rises to the level that we can hardly stand to love them.

I imagine how the demons cheer when we dismiss the spiritual warfare that happens in our souls, when we take credit for the lies that whisper through our minds and tell us we’re failures, disappointments, unlovable. And when we believe we alone have the “power” to change this thinking, to stop the lies, to still the voices that make us doubt our callings, our purpose, our lovability, our very belief in God.

And far from being of the devil — as so many say — I imagine how Satan smirks when we block our ears to scary stories and turn our eyes from ominous things, when we refuse to imagine evil, face it and get through it. Because when we stop imagining evil in our minds, we stop seeing it in our world. We stop acknowledging it. And we stop trying to stop it. At least, in the right way. The only way.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in laws. I believe in psychiatry, in medication, in therapy. I believe in positive, right thinking (viva la orthodoxy!), and I do believe in Paul’s words to focus our minds on what is pure and excellent and praiseworthy.

But I also believe in Satan. And a clever Satan at that. One whose evil was not hindered by perfect people in a perfect garden and certainly is not hindered by gun control laws or anti-psychotic medication or happy thoughts.

His evil is hindered only by one thing: The Name of Jesus.

And here’s where I start getting really weird. And really grateful to Pope Francis. While most of my friends love this pope (rightly) for his compassion, his focus on the poor and for his rejection of much of the pomp and circumstance and luxury afforded to a pope, I love him for calling Satan out. Literally and figuratively.

Because it’s in spotting and naming, in looking into its face and calling out evil in the Name of the One who can defeat it that evil loses steam. It’s in pulling back the “metaphor” curtain we like to drape around our demons and exposing their darkness that those demons dissipate. In the Light.

I suppose after all this, this is what my love of the dark, of ghost-stories and creepiness has taught me: Evil exists. Satan and his (or her) demons do not rest. They aim to destroy, to torment, to spread hate and doubt. But they are overcome-able. As Jesus promised.

But we cannot overcome an enemy we do not acknowledge. As one exorcist has said, “When you don’t believe [in the Devil], the Devil wins.” True enough.

We cannot believe in a Devil we do not see. So let’s take a look. Let’s sharpen our senses by indulging in spine-tingling and goose-bumping stories for the thrills and the perspectives they present. Let’s learn to better detect — and defeat — the demons in this world. And let’s do it by spending more time in the dark.


Caryn Rivadeneira
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  • Martin Hughes

    If we see some ‘natural evil’, (if that idea is acceptable), like an earthquake with many casualties, do we see Satan at work? If we do, we know that we cannot stop such things by using the name of Jesus, otherwise they would have stopped long ago:they are in any case inherent in the nature of the world. If we think of the only true evils as evil human acts then once again we could ask why we have been unable to stop them simply by calling on Jesus’ name: indeed some people who call on Jesus’ name quite loudly seem to be responsible for some evils and meanwhile some good is done by those who do not make that call. Therefore there seem to be powers inherent in humanity, rather than in superhuman agencies, that are relevant: I have to accept the power of Jesus, summoning my resources of reason and will-power, if I am not to do evil. Therefore it is said in the Epistle of James ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you’. So the truly dangerous thing is us, not Satan. Our sad ability to become confused about right and wrong, to be weak, to be erratic in our free choices, to be blinded by religious traditions that mislead us.
    I don’t know if you know MR James’ ghost stories. They are about people who cannot escape – or escape only with difficulty and the help of others – from various moral or psychological traps that somehow come from the past. I think that these stories show how people can feel that they are dealing with more than a mere human being can deal with and how religious ideas explain this feeling, on the other hand how religion, the main transmission belt of ideas from the past, is, to put it mildly, dangerous as well as helpful. I am not one who finds the Pope helpful, I must admit.