Finally, back to the theme of demon archetypes in literature. If you don’t remember, I have already covered demons as presented in mythology, the ravager, and the demon god. Today I want to address the possessing demon, an archetype that is very common in horror but fairly rare in fantasy. This post will be reasonably short and so is not intended to cover the topic completely (or really anything even close).
The possessing demon can be, and usually is, combined with another archetype. The key factor in a possessing demon is the ability, or necessity, to possess the bodies of others (or sometimes an inanimate object) in order to manipulate the world. For instance, in the TV show Supernatural, the demons are usually possessing demons with no physical bodies of their own. On the other hand in the movie Chucky, the doll itself is alive, not possessed by a demon, and therefore it is a living doll and not a possessing demon. Possessing demons usually require a subject in order to have any significant interaction with the world.
Several authors have used this to good effect. Patricia Briggs, in Blood Bound, combines a possessing demon with a ravager demon to create her villain. In the Demon Wars series, R.A. Salvatore creates the character of the Demon Dactyl. The Demon Dactyl is, in the beginning, a demon god with a physical body bound to a specific location. However, after this body is destroyed, the Demon Dactyl is freed and becomes a possessing demon (though still a demon god) that infects specific individuals and controls their actions. It is also interesting to note that in the Demon Wars series Salvatore presents certain magic users who have the ability to leave their bodies and possess others in the same way that the Demon Dactyl does. This is not to say that these magic users become possessing demons but that they can create a similar effect.
It is arguable that Sauron, from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fits into the archetype of a possessing demon as well because, in Lord of the Rings (and in The Hobbit as the Necromancer), Sauron is never presented as having a physical body. The movie by Peter Jackson took this implication and emphasized it by presenting Sauron as a spirit or force which took possession of a suit of armor rather than having a physical body of its own.
In Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson presents the character of Sorry as being possessed and controlled by the god Cotillion. Although this is not technically an instance of a possessing demon, Erikson’s gods often walk very fine lines between god, demon, and mortal in a manner similar to that found in many ancient mythologies. Because of this I feel comfortable giving this as an example of a possessing demon. The character of Sorry is a particularly good example as she becomes a major character through the rest of Erikson’s ten book series and the reader is able to see the fallout of this possession in her life. Erikson does an excellent job of presenting both sides of the story as neither Cotillion, nor Sorry, are flat characters. Through the course of the Malazan Book of the Fallen the reader becomes deeply invested in both characters and sees the connection forged between them through the initial possession. There are aspects of fear, betrayal, frustation, dependence, and forgiveness all within the single subplot of Cotillion and Sorry’s continuing relationship after the initial possession.
However, despite these few examples, it is generally difficult to find clear examples of the possessing demon archetype in the fantasy genre (You might note that even some of these are less than clear). This archetype is more clearly presented in the horror genre such as in the movies, The Exorcist, Fallen, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or the TV Shows Supernatural, Millennium, and The X-Files. Theologically and historically speaking possession is a difficult issue to approach because, while it is clear to many that demonic possession does take place, it is easily confused with mental illness, addictive behavior, or a change in personality resulting from a traumatic event.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose deals with the issue of whether a priest, or doctor, can differentiate mental illness from demonic possession at all. This issue, with appropriate research, is one that can be very effectively addressed through fiction as the creation of hypothetical examples is often necessary when discussing it. The movie Fallen also, though obliquely, addresses the question of responsibility. One of the minor themes in the movie is the question of whether an individual is responsible for their actions if those actions are controlled by a possessing spirit.
Ultimately the possessing demon is an archetype which can be used very effectively in fiction. However it must be used more carefully than many of the other demon archetypes because of its closer relationship with real world questions.
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Among the Neshelim
Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.
Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?