Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Okay, I admit it: I have never seen a demon.
Not a real one, not a demon in the flesh, as it were.
I know a couple of people who have seen demons--or claim that they have, at any rate. Their statements are somewhat like those who claim to have seen extraterrestrial spaceships: they tend to contradict one another. Of course, “seem” is the key word here. Perhaps they are not contradictory at all. There may be enough demons to warrant varying descriptions of them. In all probability, one would think, there would be as much variety, at least, among the infernal hordes as there are among any other creatures. I mean, who would believe that such a creature as a starfish could be real, if one didn’t know that they actually exist? Or a jellyfish? Or a chameleon? Each of these animals seems highly unlikely, and, certainly, they are all quite different in appearance and characteristics, yet they all exist. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, in nature as in anything else, demons, one might conclude, included.
In any case, what I’m more concerned with in this post are the aspects of demons--the characteristics that make the, well, demonic--that is, terrible, horrible, and just plain scary. As usual, one can discover quite a bit by simply taking a gander at artists’ conceptions of these infernal fiends, seeking, where possible, to identify similarities that suggest generalizations and differences which suggest differentiae.
The first thing I notice, in perusing pictures of fallen angels, is that most of them have human--or humanoid--faces. They have eyes, noses, ears, mouths--the usual--but these features are not typical of the ones a person would see in the mirror--well, hopefully not. For one thing, the complexion is likely to be of a most unusual color--yellow, red, green, perhaps--which is, of course, nothing like any skin tone that one is likely any time soon to encounter among human beings. Their features are also likely to be deformed in some way. They may have no irises, for example, the whole of their eyes being a glutinous white, or their pupils may be elongated and elliptical, like those of a serpent’s eyes. Some demons’ eyes actually glow like hot coals, if artists’ conceptions of the infernal folk are reliable guides. Demons’ ears may taper to points like the ears of a goat. Their teeth may include one or more sets of fangs. Their tongues may be forked like a snake’s tongue.
Besides the deformity of facial features, demons also sometimes come equipped, as it were, with attributes borrowed from animals: horns, scales, tails, cloven hooves, claws, that sort of thing. Those who have wings don’t, as a rule, have feathery pinions, but leathery, bat-like appendages. A few artists depict demons, usually of the female sort, with snakelike, Gorgon curls. The ancient Greeks’ satyrs (fauns in ancient Roman mythology) served as models for the more traditional type of demon familiar to many.
From Wolfman’s Gallery
However, more imaginative artists, including Hieronymus Bosch, H. R. Giger, and Javier Gil have rendered demons with more individuality and grotesquery.
Bosch’s demons tend to be anthropomorphic birds and beasts, often armed with weapons, or strange mixtures of several animals, hybrids of his fevered imagination. His The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Garden of Earthly Delights showcase some of Bosch’s more bizarre concepts of demonic creatures, each of which has a symbolic character that is now, alas, largely forgotten. In the vision of hell that is part of the Garden triptych, Bosch includes a demon--perhaps Satan himself, seated upon a chair that is a combination of throne and toilet. The demon, which wears an upside-down cauldron for a miter, and clerical garb, but has a transparent, insect-like abdomen, which projects downward, through the throne-toiler, devours men alive, defecating them into a round cistern below its seat. Not far from this demon of apostasy, there is a fiend whose hindquarters alone are shown, its upper body hidden in the cannibalistic demon’s flowing sash. It exhibits its buttocks to a naked woman who is seated against one of the legs of the popish demon’s throne-toilet. Instead of flesh, however, the kneeling demon’s posterior is a mirror in which the woman’s face is reflected. Straddled by the mirror-bottomed demon, whose legs end in antlers or barren tree branches, the seated woman is gripped from behind by an ass-headed fiend. A toad, symbolic of sexual lust, rests above her breasts. Her besetting sin appears to be vanity or, as psychologists would characterize her personality disorder today, narcissism.
Hieronymus Bosh, The Garden of Earthly Delights
Better known for his extraterrestrials (Alien, Species), H. R. Giger has also offered his own highly imaginative take on a ancient, albeit not particularly well understood, demon known as Baphomet. In his painting, a nude white woman--white not in the sense of Caucasian, but literally white, both of hair and of flesh--is suspended before a wheel, above and behind a bust of Baphomet, below whose head, upon the pillar which it tops are the heads of entwined serpents (or maybe birds with long necks; it’s hard to say which). The nude woman wears an inverted cross about her neck and brandishes, one in each hand, a pair of sharp-pointed objects that resemble the ends of a demon’s horns. Mounted upon the wheel, and facing in, toward her, are a series of hypodermic syringes whose needles appear to penetrate her outer thighs. The Baphomet head seems half dead: its ears are at half-mast, so to speak, its whiskers look wilted, and its eyes are half-closed, one showing only its whites, the other an iris that is rolling upward, into the skull. In lieu of a necklace, a hinge or metal plate resembling the end of a belt is fastened to the neck of the pillar, a buckle seeming to fasten it in place. The goat-head’s beard is tightly braided, one lock extending into a tail-like strand that ends in an arrowhead shape.
Two long, curving horns rise from the demon’s head, a third, smaller, straight horn ending in a bony crown, between them. The long horns frame the nude woman, and the crown atop the third horn rises between the woman’s spread thighs, occupying the space at which her sex would appear, were it not so obstructed. In viewing the placement of this decidedly phallic horn, one gets the impression that penetration is occurring, although it is not: the horn is in front, not inside, the woman’s sex. She seems both to be crucified and to float. Above her, in place of INRI, the acronym for the Latin phrase “Jesus Nazareth King Jews,” is the Roman numeral “XV.” There is no indication as to what the number signifies. It seems clear, however, that the nude woman is a demonic, probably satanic, priestess, possibly a temple prostitute, who worships the devil, mocking the sacred work of Christ by the inverted cross she wears as her necklace.
Although some moviegoers might not make the connection, supposing that the appearance of the beautiful woman who turns into an ugly old hag in Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Stephen King’s The Shining is just another of Jack Torrance’s many hallucinations and is, as such, a manifestation of his madness, the temptress is a modern-day example of an ancient demon, the succubus, a female demon that was believed to have sex with men, usually in their sleep. (The male counterpart is the incubus.)
H. R. Giger, Baphomet
As I observe in my “Sex and Horror” series, sex, as it is depicted in horror fiction, is typically of a perverted sort that is intended to defy God’s commandment to humanity (through his directive to Adam and Eve) to “be fruitful and multiply” in order to “replenish the earth” with future generations of the human species. Anything that is not reproductive (and, by definition, therefore, heterosexual) is sinful, mainstream theologians argue. Indeed, non-reproductive sex between heterosexuals is also sinful, such thinkers contend. Javier Gil’s demonic art (i. e., his work which features demonic figures) typically portrays just such sexual activity--activity that is of a non-reproductive character, including orgies, homosexual unions, bestiality, and assorted perverse behavior. Most of his works of erotica which include demonic revelers are too pornographic for display in Chillers and Thrillers, but I offer the following picture as a milder representation of Gil’s demonic art.
Javier Gil, Untitled
What may we conclude from our examination of demons as they appear in artists’ conceptions of them? They resemble us, but they represent the worst aspects of ourselves, or of humanity: unbridled animality, sin, moral and sexual perversion, disobedience to God, an elevation of the fleshly aspects of human existence above the spiritual elements of human nature, blasphemous and sacrilegious communications, false religions or religious doctrines, and of a concern for pleasure without regard for propriety (or sanctity). These are the demonic aspects of human nature, reflected in artistic conceptions of demons as personifications of such impulses, conditions, and conduct. Writers of horror and fantasy fiction can take a clue or two from their more visual counterparts concerning what is evil and how it may be represented. (The article, “Demons,” in the online edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia has some interesting insights into the subject matter, too, especially concerning the positive and negative, or good and “sinister” senses of meaning that the word had in the original Greek usage!)