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Here Be Demons

(c) Dark Dwarf

The notion of demonic possession has a long history, going back at least as far as the New Testament. The gospels of Mark and Matthew for example took seriously the existence of demons that impose physical and emotional trauma on people they possess. The casting out of these demons was crucial to Christianity (and to some extent other religions) because demons were fallen angels, angels who had pledged allegiance to Satan. Always a threat, demons needed to be cast out into the darkness from which they came.Like the notion of martyrdom, the concept of demonic possession has survived modernity and secularisation, albeit in much altered form. Apart from horror movies such as the Exorcist, demons in the modern self-help age are habitually seen as forms of emotional affliction, rather than supernatural entities. In the secular religion of self-improvement, the enemy is the existence of private demons, fears that originate in childhood and need to be cast out in order for the person to self-actualise, reach their potential, or just get happy.

While a modern take on an old tale, this notion of demonic possession as the affliction of irrational fears shares more with its religious counterpart than self-help gurus are willing to accept. The private fears that commonly cause emotional trauma – fear of not
being good enough, smart enough, popular enough, loved enough – do not originate in some kind of supernatural non-human world, but find their genesis in the unavoidable world of the relational. Troubled early relationships with parents, siblings, teachers and peers are the source of much of this demonic possession, other people the fallen angels of childhood. While an obstacle to self-respect, the fears of children that lead to adult trauma originate in a context of relationships that, for whatever reason, brought pain, suffering and damage. Contrary to both religious and secular versions, demons are neither supernatural nor manifestations of cognitive dysfunction. In the cold light of day, demons can only be one thing: other people.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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