***SPOILERS AHEAD for Season Two of Stranger Things***
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.”
Mark 5:1-2 (NRSV)
One of the last classes I took in seminary was “Spirit World, Global Church.” It addressed topics surrounding what we in Christian-speak call spiritual realms, namely dealing with angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and the like.
I entered the class with great fear and trembling. I used to be a Pentecostal who believed demons could possess my soul if I fell into any form of backsliding, from “engaging in witchcraft” (because of my love of Harry Potter) to doubting basic tenants of Christian orthodoxy. Even watching horror movies and doing yoga could open me to demonic possession and cause me to fall out of God’s favor.
This seminary class seemed tailor-made to bring me face-to-face with this upbringing from which I had run so far away. And as such, I feared being in the class would force me back into the mold of the person I had been years ago: narrow-minded with a black-and-white view of the world and the supernatural. I feared I would abandon my interests and loved ones in an effort to stay “pure” and “untainted,” something I had done in the past.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Mark 5:6-9 (NRSV)
Despite abandoning most of my old Pentecostal beliefs, possession still scares the shit out of me.
I have never seen an exorcism movie. If I see a picture of Reagan from The Exorcist or see a clip from The Conjuring, I struggle to sleep. When things go bump in the night, I wait for a shadowy demon to jump out from behind a door and take me over.
I am 27 years old and have not set foot in a Pentecostal church in over 5 years, yet I am still held captive by the theology of demonic possession.
I don’t mess with this stuff. Even though I do not 100% believe in it, I give it enough respect in the hope that it won’t happen to me.
I am fully aware that this isn’t a foolproof plan.
But when I took the class, I began to think about ways our spirits and our bodies, the so-called “spirit realm” and the “physical realm,” are connected, how there are times when it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
A couple of months after I completed the class, I binge-watched Stranger Things.
Last month, my husband and I finished the second season, and once again, I can’t help but think of possession and the blurred lines between the two realms.
Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
Mark 5:11-13 (NRSV)
Stranger Things tackles possession in Season Two. There is the “Mind Flayer,” a monster made of shadows and tendrils, who invades Will’s body, mind, and soul, forcing itself into its human host and causing Will to lose agency over himself.
It’s a parasitic relationship. There is neither camaraderie nor mutuality; the one uses the other for its own gain. In the process, the demonic force separates its host from his loved ones. It steals memories from and inflicts bodily harm upon Will. Under the Mind Flayer’s possession, Will unwittingly leads the soldiers who wish to close the Upside Down to their grotesque demise, and he is only able to communicate with his loved ones by tapping out Morse code with his fingers.
Fortunately, Season Two ends with the Mind Flayer fleeing for its life after a confrontation with some space heaters and Will dancing with a girl at the Snow Ball. But before we get our hopes up that all is well, we see a shot of the monster watching over Hawkins in the Upside Down while Sting’s creepy ass song fades out.
And as the music and monster fade, we are left wondering if everything really will be OK.
Stories about possession usually end on a happy note. Once the evil is gone, life seemingly goes “back to normal,” whatever that means. The possessed person has little to no memory of the horrifying experience, and they skip through life happier for having survived.
But how do we move forward after evil has touched and consumed us?
Some, like Will, go to the dance, hang out with their friends and family, and try to recover. Some, like the demoniac, work within their own communities to spread the good news of new life, new beginnings, and new hope.
But what about people touched by the physical evils of this world?
My church taught me it takes great trust in Jesus to cast out a demon, and where Jesus is, evil cannot dwell. But as the years went by, and I continued to see people possessed by real-world demons, I wondered if this meant not a lot of people trusted Jesus, or if Jesus is absent more often than he says.
I wondered how I’m supposed to look at evil and possession, not only through the lens of the supernatural, but as the very real and physical evils that nip at our heels every day.
Now, I believe we are possessed when we are separated from God, ourselves, and each other.
Systemic racism makes evil puppets out of us as much, if not more so, than a demonic entity can. There is demonic activity in our obsession with power and wealth at the expense of our human siblings and our very planet. Evil wins when we look at others, from our closest loved ones to strangers on the street, from avatars in cyberspace to our own reflections, and see anything less than the image of God worthy of honor and dignity.
I also continue to believe that good art turns our own reality upside down to show us how to confront and shape it. It creates monsters so we know they can be slain. It creates heroes and villains so we know how, as humans, we can rise and fall.
So while there may not be a physical Mind Flayer beneath our feet, there are powers that seek to do harm, first to the individual and then on a global scale. And we have the power to either destroy these powers or be drawn into doing their bidding.
We have the power to buy into white supremacy or break its stranglehold over us and over people of color. We have the power to buy into a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality or help those who are drowning under systemic oppression. We can go with the mob mentality of ignoring abuse and brutality when it happens in front of us, or we can call it out when it happens and prevent it from happening in the first place.
We have all received the holy calling to live in camaraderie and mutuality with each other, and we have all, at one time or another, answered that call by exploiting each other.
We have the capacity to be Mind Flayers, and we have the ability to slay them.
Which path will we choose?
By the grace of God, may we realize when the demonic entities of evil are possessing us, as oppressors and as victims of oppression.
May those possessed and used as tools of oppression find ways to break free from our destructive cycles. May those possessed by oppression find freedom, identity, comfort, and love in themselves and their communities.
And when we break free from our yokes of possession and oppression, may we exorcise the demon-possessed systems, that their evil work may die for good, and new life may be born.