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In "Blaming Batman, Forgetting God," I raised the possibility that James Holmes, the man who committed the horrific massacre at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, was not "driven" to do so by outside forces but simply chose to do so. In other words, James Holmes exercised his free will, not as God wishes us to—to love Him and our neighbor—but as both Satan and Adam did, to place himself above God.
Americans find any discussion of human evil profoundly uncomfortable; even Christians, I noted, tend to cope with such evil by discussing the possibility of demonic possession. In saying this, I did not intend to downplay the reality of possession—far from it. I know missionary priests in Africa who perform exorcisms almost as frequently as they say Mass. The devil and his fellow demons are quite real, and we ignore that fact to our peril.
But many Christians who are quick to chalk up acts such as those committed by James Holmes to demonic possession sometimes—often—see this as mitigating the responsibility of the presumably possessed person. As disturbing as the thought of demonic possession is, it's more comforting to think that James Holmes did what he did because he wasn't fully in control than to consider the possibility that he wanted to do what he did—and, indeed, probably wanted to do much worse.
Our understanding of demonic possession has been shaped by popular culture, which almost always gets it wrong. Novels, TV shows, and films present good people who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves possessed by a demon. In this view, when the demon enters in, the person, for all intents and purposes, disappears. In the language of the popular teen/young adult TV show Supernatural, the possessed are simply "meat sacks."
The reality is much more terrifying. Demonic possession requires our active participation. We have to let the demon in.
That doesn't necessarily mean that those who become possessed have sought out possession. Rather, they have engaged in behavior that allows a demon to find a home in their soul. Here, the faithful Catholic Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, got it exactly right, and to his credit so did William Friedkin, who directed the film version. As I have mentioned before (see "The Exorcist, Horror, and Faith"), the pivotal scene in the movie is one of the most simple and understated: Regan finds a ouija board in the basement and begins to use it. And in that simple action, she starts down the road to demonic infestation.
Infestation, not possession: As Fr. Dwight Longenecker explains in an insightful article on "The Aurora Murders and Demonic Possession," there are four stages of demonic influence, and the one that we normally think of as "possession"—when "signs of preternatural strength are seen, horrible alien voices come from the person, vile blasphemies are heard and perverted and violent actions are witnessed"—is really infestation. "This is the stuff of exorcism movies," as Father Longenecker writes, because true possession, the final stage of demonic influence, is much more quiet:
The person will appear to return to normal, but there is a shadow within. Even if they do so in a respectable and "normal" manner, they will live only for themselves and the darkness within.
In other words, those who are truly possessed are no longer fighting the demon (if they ever did); they are now cooperating with him. The terrifying reality is that they are exercising their free will in seeking to do the evil that the demon, too, wants them to do.
We need to understand this: If James Holmes is possessed, he did not get that way against his will. And if James Holmes is possessed, it wasn't the demon who purchased the weapons and ammunition, booby-trapped his apartment with bombs, and pulled the trigger—over and over and over again—in that theater in Aurora, Colorado.
It was James Holmes who did all of that, even if he is possessed. And that is the terrifying reality that we so desperately wish not to face, because it reminds us that we, too, have free will, and all too often misuse it.