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On demons and doctors

What does horror have to do with public health?

By Leigh E. Rich

American sportswriter Red Smith once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

Two Denver-based horror novelists have done away with the metaphor and are literally mixing their blood with ink, selling copies of their book, Chaosicon, signed in the ghastly concoction.

Whether this is wise from a personal or public health perspective is one matter. Perhaps Christopher Leppek and Emanuel “Mani” Isler fear not our genetic age. Perhaps neither are famous enough (yet) for the paparazzi to pry into (and pay for) their cellular secrets.

Perhaps the bloodletting (or blood-lettering, as the case may be) in which these two engage won’t amount to a hill of genes. Or a legal hemorrhage.

If one can buy sperm and eggs or the fat of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Holmes, 2007), why not a tissue sample or two of a writer? It gives new meaning to the phrase “blood, sweat and tears”—and the lengths humans will go to sell a bar of soap.

What’s more interesting about the authors’ Web site,, which explains their gruesome plans, is their ongoing blog about human fear. The two know something of which they write (and are even currently being haunted by one of their own creations). Leppek and Isler have been fans of the macabre for a decade and a half. Their first joint venture, a short story entitled “The Master of Fear,” won an Oxford University Press award in a competition judged by Stephen King, and they have two more novels on the verge of publication.

Much of the Chaosicon blog, however, focuses on film and the frightening stories that stick in our collective consciousness. Leppek writes from an environmental viewpoint, referring to noted genre writer H.P. Lovecraft and the recent film El Orfanato (The Orphanage, 2007), and how terror manifests only in the right place and at the right time. Isler takes a more individual route and suggests that personal experience and whatever’s locked in the subconscious are crucial to all that’s creepy and incomprehensible.

But perhaps there is an Aristotelian middle ground: Atmosphere and all those secrets we silently store go together like rigor and mortis.

For me, there’s no eerier atmosphere than Rosemary Woodhouse’s New York apartment, furnished with a struggling actor husband (come on, what’s scarier than that?), elderly neighbors who push homemade sweets and unsolicited advice with the oomph of a bubbe, and, oh yes, the devil lurking somewhere around your kneecaps.

I jest, but not indelicately: The first time I watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was with a friend in Tucson, Ariz. We had developed a habit of meeting at her house after our evening classes, scrounging around for take-out fit for the grad-school budget and visiting the local video-house (Casa Video, the film-lover’s answer to the intellectual desertification creeping across America). Problem was, Lisa loved horror … and my weak knees matched my weak will. Thus, horror it was.

I can’t begin to rattle off all that we saw, for I watched most through the gaps of my fingers or simply sneaked off to play with the cats in the kitchen. But with Rosemary’s Baby, I couldn’t look away. And after Rosemary (and my psyche) had survived an evening of violation, I hesitantly headed home through the unlit Arizona foothills, where one can’t catch a breath in the thin air and the stars are distant and cold. And where ghouls and fiends and devils lie in wait on dark desert nights.

It didn’t help, of course, that I was taking a course on ethnomedicine that semester and I spent my days entranced by witches and sorcerers and the evil eye. Isler, writing about The Exorcist (1973), asks if there is “really such a thing as demonic possession,” and the answer is, clearly, yes. (Find any ethnography on the bottom shelf of a library and demons will rise up through the dust.) Culture is a powerful thing and, although anyone living in America might scoff at the idea, were I a young woman in the southern Sudan or rural north India, possession could be par for the course.

I refer here to British anthropologist Jean Buxton’s work Religion and Healing in Mandari (1973) and Stanley A. Freed and Ruth S. Freed’s article “Taraka’s Ghost” in Spradley and McCurdy’s anthropology textbook, Conformity and Conflict (2008). In both, the researchers describe how young women can become possessed. Although the two cultures are unique and the possessions occur for different reasons, common human concerns run through both.

Buxton’s second ethnography from a decade of fieldwork conducted in the 1950s describes the elaborate rituals the pastoralist Mandari perform following the death of a loved one. Of interest here is the mortuary ceremony that signifies the end of the family’s mourning and occurs anywhere from 12 to 24 months after the actual death. Beginning the all-day event, “members of the extended family and close kin” gather early in the morning; the men carry in, raise and secure the grave poles, while the bereaved women lament, ululate, throw themselves on the grave and beat their heads on the ground. Distant kin arrive by noon for the sacrificial killing of oxen, the address to the deceased and his ancestors, and the ceremonial dance, called damaya.

During the dance, which is “in full swing by the hottest time of the day,” drummers “provide a very complicated and rapid beat pattern. There is also strong and well co-ordinated singing. … Further, the dancers themselves are singing and the rhythmic dance movements and singing may go on for several hours at a time” (Buxton, 1973, p. 298). In this setting, Mandari girls may become possessed and even fall down in convulsions. This only occurs at mortuary dances, not any of the recreational dances the Mandari will engage in at other times. Moreover, as Buxton notes, such “[a]dolescent female possessions … are incidental to, and not part of, the ceremony” (1973, p. 297).

So what’s different about the damaya? Buxton writes:

A mortuary rite assembles the largest concentration of persons for the purpose of performing ritual. No other rite brings together so many, linked by such random ties. This is particularly true of those for important persons, where massed dancing and, indeed, possession, most often feature. In a real sense it is possible to speak of a common emotion. All those who attend consciously, come to express a common sentiment about an important situation. Of course everyone present does not feel exactly the same. … None the less, people are affected by the occasion, which marks an overwhelming human experience. … An occasion which centres round an event as fundamental as death creates a special atmosphere, and evokes special emotions. (1973, p. 299, emphasis original)

This very passage could have been written of America following Kennedy’s assassination or that of John Lennon or the tragic events of Sept. 11.

Buxton’s analysis delves even deeper, further exposing the common threads of human experience:

For a few at least of the participants the rite will mark the end of the mourning year and the moment of radical role-changing. It may bring back memories of the initial trauma and feelings of anxiety and apprehension. Such emotions can be communicated to others. Feelings which have been held in check for a year are released in the dance; the demonstrations of older women and close female kin, their shrill ululations and the violence with which they throw themselves down in demonstrations of grief, are in keeping with the convulsions portrayed by young girls who have been “seized.” This emotional atmosphere is undoubtedly of outstanding significance. (1973, pp. 299–300)

Underlying possession, then, is trauma, uncertainty and the shifting of roles. It is, after all, no secret that humans sometimes have trouble with change.

While Mandari possession stems from the unavoidable grief of death, in “Taraka’s Ghost” the Freeds examine (also in the 1950s) the case of a young Indian woman named Sita, possessed by her cousin and close childhood friend, Taraka, who committed suicide at the behest of her father after she became pregnant as an unmarried teen. Sita’s possession doesn’t begin until she is married and must leave her natal home for that of her husband and the new obligations that go along with the role of wife.

Consummation of the marriage further adds to Sita’s stress, and so begins her possession by Taraka’s ghost. As the Freeds explain, it is not unusual for Indian brides to experience ghost possession:

At best, a North Indian rural woman must make an extraordinary social and psychological adjustment when she marries. At an early age, she moves from her natal family, where she is loved, cherished, and indulged, to her marital family, where she is chaperoned and required to restrict her movements. … A married woman and her kin are regarded as social inferiors to her husband’s kin. A new bride is expected to shoulder harder and more onerous household chores and farm work than the daughters in her husband’s family (they too, when they marry and go to live with their husbands, will go through a similar experience). A new bride also is generally uninformed about the relation between menarche and childbirth and is apprehensive about beginning sexual relations with her husband. The social and psychological vulnerability of a bride makes her a prime candidate for attacks by ghosts. (1990, pp. 86–87)

Possession requires a mix of atmosphere and individual susceptibility, and so I submit that all that’s fit to be feared is intimately connected to culture—which we create and yet creates us simultaneously. What scares us always contains an element of the possible, even if only symbolically.

Similar to the Indian and Sudanese possessions described by the Freeds and Buxton from their work in the mid-20th century, Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968. Rosemary’s plight parallels the concerns of the then-just cresting Second Wave Feminism: marriage, motherhood and unequal rights, unequal opportunities, unequal protections. Rosemary’s rape by the devil is really a rape by her husband, who sells her (body and soul) for a successful career.

It also symbolizes the significance of female fecundity for society. Healthy women beget healthy babies, which secures the present into the future. A solid society is built on the wombs of women, a metaphor that can be found in many cultures, including our own (see the 1908 Supreme Court opinion in Muller v. Oregon). What is healthy, of course, is defined by the powers-that-be, who often are interested in maintaining the status quo. Thus, the late 1960s were nothing if not a “moment of radical role-changing,” particularly between the sexes.

Just like Sita’s possession or that of the Mandari, American pop culture of the macabre is a blood test for the well being of society.

Frankly, I never needed those terrifying Tuesdays in Tucson to make me shiver like a meth addict—there’s plenty I fear every day. The mysteries of life (and death), and the cultural layers stacked on such an unsteady foundation, make sure of that.

“Can you imagine,” Isler asks in his blog posting, “speaking to a total stranger (and a non-human one at that) who knows your deepest, darkest secrets?”

Greek heroes, Shakespearean tragedians and modern-day presidents have crumbled from just such a scenario. This is why I stay away from journalists and I don’t go to dinner with my doctor …

Rich, L. E. (2010, March 8). On demons and doctors: What does horror have to do with public health? Leigh Rich Freelance: five2seven.


Berkow, I. (1986). Red: A biography of Red Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Blatty, W. P. [Writer], & Friedkin, W. [Director]. (1973).The exorcist. United States: Hoya Productions.

Buxton, J. (1973). Religion and healing in Mandari. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Freed, S. A., & Freed, R. S. (1990). Taraka’s ghost. Natural History, 99(10), 84–88.

Freed, S. A., & Freed, R. S. (2008). Taraka’s ghost. In J. P. Spradley & D. W. McCurdy (Eds.), Conformity and conflict: Readings in cultural anthropology (12th ed., pp. 315–321). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Holmes, A. (2007). How much? A miscellany of money madness. London: Thorogood Publishing.

Isler, E. (2008). Delivering chills. The Chaosicon blog (comment posted June 18).

Leppek, C. (2008). The orphanage. The Chaosicon blog (comment posted June 11).

Leppek, C., & Isler, E. (2001). Chaosicon: A novel of supernatural terror. Aurora: Write Way Publishing.

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908).

Polanski, R., & Levin, I. [Writers], & Polanski, R. [Director]. (1968). Rosemary’s baby. 1968. United States: William Castle Productions.

Sánchez, S. G. [Writer], & Bayona, J. A. [Director]. (2007). El orfanato. Mexico/Spain: Esta Vivo! Laboratorio de Nuevos Talentos.

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