Demons and the Consequences of Feeding Children’s Fears

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 21, 2016.

So, demons. I’ve written on this topic before, but it’s been a while, and when I last wrote on this topic my children were too small to be scared of the dark. When I was a girl, I was taught that demons were real. My dad used to pray a “hedge of protection” around our house, to keep the demons out. My parents told me that there’s an invisible world all around us, in which angels and demons are at war, constantly.

At one point when I was girl, another woman in my parents’ Bible study group told a story about confronting a demon in her hallway late at night. It must have been let in, she said, by some rock music her teenage daughter had been listening to that afternoon. I found that freaking terrifying. I wondered, sometimes, what I might do that might accidentally invite a demon in? I was terrified—utterly petrified—of getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

All of this was brought back to my mind when I read Pat Robertson’s recent comments on whether it’s okay to listen to rock music:

It depends on what rock you’re listening to… Some of the stuff is just evil. They used to talk about killing your parents and there were just some evil things. There were odes to Satan. You don’t want that stuff coming into your mind.

There’s some beat that’s out there that, you know, probably isn’t all that bad, although in one Indian context, they were playing rock music, and the person said, “Why are you calling on the demons?,” because that was the kind of music they used to, you know, summon demons.

And it was so much more than just music. At one point my aunt came to visit and stay for a few days, and brought with her a book she was reading. This was a problem, because the book was Harry Potter. My dad made her leave it in the car lest it invite demons into the house. The irony is that, a decade later, they decided that Harry Potter isn’t bad after all, and my mom is now in the process of reading through the series. But at the time, it was incredibly serious.

My parents are college educated, and my dad, especially, is very intellectual. He was always reading new books, learning new things, and taking in new information. I adored him, and I trusted him, and so when he was the one saying these things—talking about keeping demons out of the house, and praying a hedge of protection around our family—I accepted it completely. And I was frightened.

I’m serious when I say that having to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night was a serious problem for me. I was so profoundly frightened. I would lay in the bed with the covers over my head and my eyes tight shut, afraid I might see a demon if I opened my eyes. I was terrified. But alas, my bladder was such that I couldn’t fall back asleep when it was full. Eventually, terrified, trembling, I would slip out of bed and make a mad dash for the bathroom, do my business, and then run back into bed and pull the covers back over my head.

My daughter Sally is now six, and somehow that makes all this feel only more relevant. Sally has read books about vampires and zombies, and once when it was time for bed, she was scared and told me she was frightened of vampires. I reminded her that they’re not real, talked with her about it a bit more, and then sent her off to bed feeling much better. And then it struck me—I am dismantling my children’s nightmares, as best I can, while my parents only fed mine. They told me that demons were as real as you and I, and taught me that I had good reason to fear. And fear I did.

And yes, my parents also told me that I had the power to cast demons out, in the name of Jesus. But being the studious child that I was, I knew my Bible well, and I knew that in Acts 19 a demon beat up a group of men who attempted to cast it out in Jesus’ name, because those men were not Christians. “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” the demon asked. I suffered from salvation anxiety—the fear that I wasn’t truly, really saved—and those words terrified me. I imagined myself being confronted by a demon at the foot of my bed, attempting to cast it out in Jesus’ name, and then looking on in horror as it laughed at me.

Now I am very sure that my parents had no idea how afraid I was. When I went to my mom about my salvation anxiety, she told me that if I was worried about whether I was saved, I most certainly was saved. That helped, though it didn’t completely fix the problem. And as for demons, well, the literature they encouraged me to read didn’t help, either. Frank Peretti’s books, which depict the demonic world and its integration with the real world, were particular terrifying. I think they thought it was enough that the good triumphed over evil, but the evil still terrified me—especially because I believed those books were a realistic depiction of our world.

I may need to do a page-by-page review of a Peretti book at some point. They’re terrible, and they very badly need picking apart.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. It would be easy enough to say that teaching children that demons are a real and present threat in their lives is misguided at best and abusive at worst, but evangelicals like my parents really and truly believe these things. It’s not as though they set out to terrify me. It’s just that their beliefs were terrifying. If nothing else, I think we need to call attention to the ways religion may affect children in different ways from how it affects adults—and, perhaps, to the fact that some religious ideas are just plain frightening whatever your age.

It’s not just religion, of course. Had I confirmed Sally’s fear of vampires, had I told her I had once encountered one and barely escaped, that could have serious consequences for her mental health as well. I could see Sally always carrying a wooden stake with her at night—she’s well versed in vampire lore—if I were to build up her fears rather than taking them apart. At one point in my childhood I became obsessed with UFOs, and checked out all of the books the library had on them. If my parents had told me that aliens from other planets did indeed roam our back roads looking for humans to kidnap, I imagine I would have been terrified too.

Of course, what they told me about UFOs had its own problems. They said UFOs were illusions created by demons to prepare the way for a mass deception after the rapture—Satan would make those left behind believe that those who had been raptured had simply been kidnapped by aliens, and thus prevent them from gaining true knowledge of what had happened and through it attaining salvation.

But the point I was trying to make before that digression was that I suspect run-of-the-mill UFO enthusiasts could probably easily frighten their children by teaching them to believe all the stories about UFOs and alien kidnappings as literally true. And some probably do. The point I’m trying to make here is that what we teach children matters, and that things don’t always affect children in the way they affect us as adults. We need to remember that.

I mean for goodness sake, when I was in grade school I read a story about a Volcano that grew suddenly in the middle of a field in Mexico, and I spent years having nightmares—nightmares—about a volcano growing in the field behind my house. At least in this case my parents tried to help by explaining that that wasn’t geologically possible, rather than confirming and encouraging my fear.

Kids don’t always process things the way we expect them to, and feeding their fears rather than dismantling them is a terrible idea.

14 comments

  • That was a wonderfully enlightening accounting of fears as it relates to children, and yourself, personally. I wholeheartedly agree that a child’s expressed fears should be address, and dismantled age appropriately. Parents and adults should be mindful of the fears that they create and perpetuate in children, as a form of redirecting behaviors. If it is behaviors that are to be discouraged, then we should confront the specifically, not metaphorically, esp. when children’s cognitive awareness is incongruent with explanations.

  • The terrifying delusions of parents get owned by children. Your father was college educated and an intelligent man but this has nothing to do with delusional behavior.
    The everyday abuse of young children by believers who speak about demons and evil roaming and seeking the innocent, is rampant in religion.
    I was saved as a little boy who could not sleep at night because of the images of hellfire put into my head by a preacher who happened to be my dad. Children have to bear their parents’ histories… it gets passed on unless a person is brave and fortunate enough to get help.
    Your words are very very important and mean nothing to the delusional believer. What is primary in this kind of belief is to harm children, methodically, with prayerful diligence. Their spirits must be broken and they must understand they are in need of dear Jesus. They broke me with their love.
    What you had to endure borders on criminal abuse. I am sorry that your parents were so sick. Thank-you for speaking about your life.

  • Frank Peretti? Is he still at thing? While we’re picking apart books that really need it, I wouldn’t mind also reading a scathing snark-fest about those darn Amish romance books the girls in my Sunday School years ago kept sneaking from their moms.

    • Ha! I have written bits of that review about Amish-themed fiction in comments around the web, but nothing full-length. Since that is my culture of origin, I really should get on that!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        They’re called “Bonnet Books” or “Bonnet Romances”.
        Just like Harlequin, except with Amish as the Perfect Christian Heroine.

        “When I read a book about the Amish, I want to read about the Amish. Not what some Evangelical thinks the Amish are like.”

    • God I would love to see Libby Anne rip apart one of those Amish books
      Such drivel.

  • I too spent many sleepless nights as a child worrying about demons. We only listened to Christian music and Christian radio programs growing up. I still clearly remember one radio broadcast about demons. The preacher said that satan and his demons were most active from midnight until 3am. ?????!!!!!! No idea where he got that info from! Anyways, for years, if I woke up between midnight and 3am I’d be terrified demons where at work in my room. I wouldn’t go back to sleep until after 3am. Even now, as an adult, if I wake up during that time period, my tired, foggy brain will sometimes “remind” me of this “fact.” My mom probably wasn’t even paying attention to that radio broadcast and has no idea how this one idea affected me. I think it shows that kids pick up on a lot more than adults realize. But kids don’t always have the knowledge and context to process the things they hear or read.

  • I looooooved this post so much.

  • I like that she mentions that this issue of fearmongering, while a classic tool of religion, is not limited to religious practice but transcends that realm to include any irrational and threatening beliefs imposed on children.

  • I’ve been thinking recently about this near-obsession with demons and eschatology that I grew up in. As a child, I had recurring apocalyptic-themed nightmares and would silently recite the sinner’s prayer whenever it occurred to me on the off chance that I had unwittingly lost my salvation and Jesus was about to return. This wasn’t my parents’ and ministers’ intent, but what was so pernicious about it was that if I admitted fear, I expected to be told that I must have a guilty conscience otherwise I wouldn’t be fearful. (The irony of the situation was that we didn’t have TV because of all the violence in TV shows.) I can so identify with Libby Anne on this one when I look at my young daughter now and can’t imagine her sitting under the kinds of sermons I did growing up.

    On a side note, I recently came across an article written by a sociologist critiquing Peretti’s novels. I haven’t read it yet, but the first few pages were intriguing. If you Google “Vilifying the Enemy: The Christian Right and the
    Novels of Frank Peretti” by Jay R. Howard, you should be able to find it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Veteran of the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay here.
      Your childhood is very typical of a kid growing up immersed in that scene, where (in the words of J Vernon Magee) more emphasis is put on The Antichrist than Christ.

      I was raised totally secular but introduced to God in my early teens through Jack Chick’s This Was Your Life and The Beast, followed by Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth. After an intro like that, Jerry Garcia says it best:
      “What a Long, Strange Trip it’s been.”

      Also, some years ago I read online (RHE’s blog?) that psychologists actually recommend that Aspergers or creative types or kids with strong imaginations best “steer clear of certain types of religious environments”.

  • I grew up very sheltered in an educated family much like yours and due to my mother’s influence I am a deeply anxious person. I have since married and my in laws are delightfully ordinary secularists. However, since it is a large family of mostly men, they enjoy pranking everyone, even the children. Things like “chicken flavored candy” (boullion cubes) or sneaky tobasco drops in soda pop. Things like this are wacky and mostly in good fun, but they also can terrify the younger children. One told his daughter that he could “replace” her if she misbehaved. One seems completely indifferent to R or even Xrated tv his son sometimes sees. I have tried to explain to them that they are having an adverse affect on these children, that a childs’ mind is highly absortative, but no one cares. I never wanted to raise sheltered children but I worry about their exposure to our own family.

  • Loura Shares A Story

    I certainly appreciate the author’s experiences and reflection, but it should be remembered that having fears (as the author wrote about the backyard volcano), expressing them, and later analyzing them, is all a part of growing up. Sometimes I think I have more fears now, as an adult and momma, than I did as a child. Then, I dealt with unlikely fears, like the volcano, or for me, those African vines that are supposed to kill you while you sleep. Now my fears are harder to deal with because I have been through some really hard stuff, and I know how bad life can get.

    One book I read called, The Kingdom of the Occult, went into great detail about all the little ways demons could get into your life and wreak havoc or terrorize you. In Christ, though, you had the power to “wrestle” those demons in prayer and drive them out in His name. They cited poltergeists, Ouiji boards, and stuff like that. Exactly like the lady who wrote this post.

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