Even a cursory survey of the supernatural horror genre reveals the important role that the angel and the demon have long played in it. From texts such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (written 1308-1321) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which straddle the boundary between religious devotional literature and outright fiction, to fictional works such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), the demon has provided ongoing fodder for creators of supernatural horror. And while the angel has most often served as a mere foil for the demon, and has often been ignored in favor of focusing exclusively on demonic horrors, it has still made its presence known. Paradise Lost, for example, begins with a dramatic narration of the fall of Lucifer and his fellow angels from heaven and their subsequent transformation or transition into demons. More recently, American popular culture portrayed the angel in a context of supernatural horror in the Prophecy movie franchise from the 1990s and early 2000s, which flouted modern Western conventions by abandoning the cute, cozy angels of Victorian art and the greeting card industry and returning to a more ancient and traditional portrayal of angels as powerful, terrifying beings.
Nor are these figures influential merely within the confines of the supernatural horror as such. In 1973 the cinematic adaptation of The Exorcist became a sensation among audiences and was subsequently recognized as the first true “blockbuster,” predating the likes of Jaws and Star Wars. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won two of them. Its earnings made it one of the top grossing films at the U.S. box office that year, and in the succeeding decades it has steadily remained in and around the top ten highest grossing films of all time both domestically and internationally. Upon its first release it ignited a national conversation about theological matters within the United States, just as its author (William Peter Blatty, who penned the screenplay from his novel) had hoped it would do, and spurred many fear-based conversions and reconversions to Christianity.
Angels have shared a similar widespread influence. Director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which begins and ends with angels, received only a middling response from audiences and critics when it was first released in 1946 (although it was nominated for five Academy Awards). Then in 1974 a copyright lapse due to a clerical error placed the film in the public domain. When television stations around the country began to take advantage of the opportunity to run the film free of royalty charges, a new generation of viewers rediscovered and fell in love with it, thus transforming it into a widely beloved “holiday classic,” and thus making the supporting character of Clarence the most famous cinematic angel of them all.
Over the course of subsequent decades, angels became the subject of a bona fide national obsession in the U.S. A slew of television programs (Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel), movies (Angels in the Outfield, City of Angels), and best-selling books (A Book of Angels, Ask Your Angels, Where Angels Walk) arose to cater to a rising fascination with the idea of winged heavenly guardians and messengers. In 1994 the NBC television network aired a two-hour primetime special titled Angels: The Mysterious Messengers, and PBS ran a well-received documentary titled In Search of Angels. A 1993 Time magazine cover story about the angel craze included a survey indicating that 69 percent of Americans claimed to believe in angels, while nearly half believed they were attended by a personal guardian angel. Newsweek, which ran its own angel-themed cover story the very same week the Time issue appeared, reported that the angel craze appeared to be rooted in a very real spiritual craving: “It may be kitsch, but there’s more to the current angel obsession than the Hallmarking of America. Like the search for extraterrestrials, the belief in angels implies that we are not alone in the universe—that someone up there likes me” (quoted in Nickell, 152-3).
Not incidentally, this sentiment closely echoed Blatty’s expressed motivation for writing The Exorcist. As he has explained in numerous interviews and also in his 2001 memoir If There Were Demons, Then Perhaps There Were Angels: William Peter Blatty’s Story of the Exorcist, when he was a junior at the Jesuitical Georgetown University in 1949 he encountered a Washington Post story about a fourteen-year-old boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland who had undergone an exorcism under the official sanction of the church. Blatty had long been concerned about the spiritual direction of modern Western society—The Exorcist, let it be noted, was published in the immediate wake of the 1960s’ “death of God” movement—and in the account of this boy and his apparent demonic affliction, Blatty thought he could discern “tangible evidence of transcendence.” Two decades later he fictionalized the story in his famous novel. But it was a fiction with a serious existential purpose; as he later explained, in his view the reality of demons serves as a kind of apologetic proof for the existence of God: “If there were demons, there were angels and probably a God and a life everlasting” (quoted in Whitehead). In 1999, at a time when movies such as The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes, The Blair Witch Project, and Stigmata were flooding movie theatres and video rental stores, he invoked a version of the same idea to account for the resurgent popularity of supernatural thrillers: “One of the prime allures of the supernatural thriller is that there is a world of spirit and that death doesn’t mean our final destiny is oblivion” (Bonin). In this he echoed twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, as quoted by Victoria Nelson in her exploration of the psychological and spiritual “underside” of modern popular entertainment, The Secret Life of Puppets:
Lacking an allowable connection with the transcendent [in our Western intellectual culture where the religious impulse is deemed unacceptable], we have substituted an obsessive, unconscious focus on the negative dimensions of the denied experience. In popular Western entertainments through the end of the twentieth century, the supernatural translated mostly as terror and monsters enjoyably consumed. But as Paul Tillich profoundly remarked, “Wherever the demonic appears, there the question of its correlate, the divine, will also be raised” (Nelson 19).
In the early 1970s it seemed the Roman Catholic Church, or at least the Pope, agreed with at least the first half of Blatty’s demon-angel apologetic. In November of 1972, Pope Paul VI delivered an address to a General Audience in which he expressed his concern over what he viewed as demonic influences at work in the world: “Evil is not merely an absence of something but an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and that perverts others. It is a terrible reality, mysterious and frightening. . . . Many passages in the Gospel show us that we are dealing not just with one Devil, but with many” (Pope Paul VI). These statements ignited a debate both inside and outside the church and embarrassed many priests whose outlook was more in tune with the secularist, demythologized tenor of the time than with what they viewed as the mythological belief system of pre-Enlightenment Christianity. But the international phenomenon that was The Exorcist demonstrated that the Roman pontiff obviously spoke not only for himself but also for an enormous public that either believed as he did or, at the very least, suspected or wanted to believe in the literal existence of a transcendent spiritual reality. The fact that the pope’s remarks were bookended, temporally speaking, by the 1971 publication of Blatty’s novel and the 1973 release of the movie makes it difficult to avoid speculating that all three statements—the novel, the movie, and Paul VI’s speech—were expressions of a common, burgeoning cultural phenomenon that also encompassed the aforementioned angel craze. It was and is a phenomenon whose central, guiding obsession is invoked by the character of the psychiatrist in The Exorcist when he asks a hypnotized girl the most psychologically and spiritually potent question of all: “Is there someone inside you?”
All of which brings the argument back to the matter at hand. It will be the task of this essay to explore the ancient origins of the iconic Angel and Demon (henceforth referred to as proper nouns) in folklore, history, religion, literature, philosophy, psychology, and art. The overall purpose will be to demonstrate how and why a knowledge of the deep history of these ubiquitous horror icons dramatically illuminates their frequent appearances in works of supernatural horror. As indicated by the foregoing discussion, such an investigation will inevitably illuminate widespread popular religious conceptions as well, which are often not very well demarcated from the images presented in popular entertainment.
To preview what will be explained in detail, supernatural horror as it has developed in the West has generally employed the concepts and iconography of Christian theology in dealing with demons and angels. The stereotypical images of the iconic Angel and Demon have their roots in old Christian, pre-Christian, and extra-Christian ideas, and result from a synthesis of concepts that occurred throughout Europe and the Middle East during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This synthesis arose out of the rich cross-fertilization of various ancient currents of thought extending back into history and prehistory, and was finalized and codified for the modern West by a few significant literary works during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The overall picture is rich and complex, but the rewards of grasping it—the benefits of seeing, knowing, understanding, and appreciating more as one observes the Angel and Demon striding through the outpourings of the supernatural horror genre—are significant.