The Exorcist

I was a terribly afraid child. From illnesses to rejection, I was on guard against danger almost all the time. There was one fear that stood out among the rests, one that almost ate me alive, and that was my phobia of demon possession.

I was Irish Catholic, but the priests and nuns didn’t teach me about how Satan could take over my soul. I suppose I can understand why they did this; it wouldn’t be a smart PR move for the Catholic Church to lead with Satan’s powers. Jesus probably coached his disciples to carry on the legacy of the Holy Trinity, not the Devil, which was a sage decision because three magicians working in tandem is far more dazzling than a seething cauldron of evil and hatred.

I learned of demon possession, instead, at Alexandra’s slumber party in fifth grade. It was here that the birthday girl’s parents, in their infinite wisdom, showed The Exorcist to 15 girls who, despite being on the threshold of puberty, still played with Barbie’s and stuffed animals. We may have felt very mature, but we were all still children.

Right before the movie started, another girl at the party, Tylane, informed me that The Exorcist was a lot like The Terminator. As I crawled into my sleeping bag to watch the cheap Terminator knock-off, I was annoyed I’d have to sit through an action movie I had successfully avoided the past eight years of my life. Ten minutes in, another girl whispered something about how Regan was kissing a boy when she said she was playing with the Ouija board. This development got me more interested, and I began to pay closer attention.

These two other slumber party attendees were gravely misinformed, which I learned about twenties minutes into the movie. I watched Regan flail violently on her bed and speak in demonic tongues. Despite innumerable nightmares depicted over the course of the next two hours, I continued to watch and held out hope that the movie would pivot; that the Terminator would come bursting through the walls like a 'roided out Kool-Aid Man and The Exorcist would end with an awesome make-out session between Regan and a neighboring boy.

When the credits rolled and I had witnessed nothing but horror, I got out of my sleeping bag, ran to the bathroom, and threw up. I begged Alexandra’s mom to let me go home, but she refused. I went back to the row of sleeping bags and was dismayed to find that, by getting up to barf, I had forfeited my safe spot in the center of the girls and had to sleep at the edge of the group. My sleeping bag was both closest to the door and the Ouija board, which some of the girls had been playing with earlier in the night. I was screwed.

I spent the rest of the night shivering and staring at the door. I was confident Regan would eventually open it to grab her Ouija Board. I stayed awake and prayed for the sun to come up. When it did, the fear remained just as intense as it had been in the dark. This terror remained strong for years after. I was convinced I was the prime candidate for demon possession and slept in my mom’s bed in the hopes that Satan, when he eventually arrived to take over my body, would get confused and take my mom, instead. 

By the time I went to High School, my fear of demon possession was under control, and I was back in my own bed. To this day, though, I still harbor intense anxieties and am in no way any braver than I was in fifth grade. I’m, in fact, just as afraid of ghosts as I was 25 years ago. I don’t even want to hear the word “ghost” too soon before I go to bed because there’s a small chance that doing so would grab the attention of whatever beings might be haunting my house. I like to fade into the background as much as possible when it comes to spirits and netherworld creatures. Even writing this post is a risky.

When Darla was born, I wondered when she would start to become afraid of ghosts. To my surprise, things were easy in this department; Darla wasn’t particularly fearful of ghosts and seemed even to relish being scared. Although she one time lost her mind when she saw the witch on the Snow White ride at Disneyland, she faced her fears and scrolled through picture after picture on my phone until she reached both the inevitable pornographic images bound to pop up on a google search and her conquered fear. I thought that maybe I might not have to ever deal with a terrified child. 

Once Jude came along, I knew I was wrong. He’s my emotional doppelganger in a lot of ways. He’s just as finicky of an eater as I was at four and he hates going out more than I currently do. He is also a terrified child. Every few nights in the past year, he has gotten overwhelmed by terror for disparate reasons. Last night, he refused to go to bed because he was afraid of a bucket in our backyard that Darla told him had a severed hand in it. Despite telling him that it was a litter of newborn kittens, not a disembodied limb, his fears multiplied. I felt ill-equipped to help him navigate his terror.

“I’m afraid someone’s going to come out of my closet,” he said. His fears were spreading everywhere.  

If I were to give him an honest response, it would go like this:

“Oh my god,” I’d say. “Isn’t that the scariest feeling? The feeling that there’s something in the closet just waiting for you to go to bed? Maybe you should stay awake all night and stare at the closet to make sure nothing happens.”

The answer I know I’m supposed to give, which is the one I did give him was this:

“There’s nothing in the closet,” I said, walking over to the door. I took a deep breath and pulled it open. My heart jumped in anticipation, believing I would see a possessed little girl in a white nightgown hovering inside of the closet. All I saw were toys and clothes, so I breathed a sigh of relief. “See. It’s totally safe. There’s nothing in there.”

Incapable of allaying his fears, I felt an urge just to close the door and let him deal with it because he was starting to freak me out, too. I stopped myself because I can remember how profoundly intense fear can feel when you’re a child. It’s overwhelming and all-encompassing. There’s no escaping it. I knew that closing the door would make him feel abandoned and terrified; a little man forced to deal with evil forces all on his own. A solution came to me, and I knew I would emerge from the night a hero.

“Want to sleep in Darla’s room?” I asked.

Jude gleefully jumped from his bed and ran to his sister’s room. When he showed up with his blanket and a grin, Darla screamed and demanded a promise that he would only be in her room for one night. I made that lousy promise, knowing full well it would be weeks before his fear of the scary hand in the backyard dissipated. Since she’s the one who told him there was a severed hand in the yard, his fear shouldn't be my problem. And if anyone in this house can talk a four-year-old boy out of his worries, it’s Darla. 

An hour later, both kids were asleep, and I was free to avoid my own fears in peace.