I obviously have my bones to pick with Penny Dreadful, but from a horror series point of view, I was pleased with its level and style of horror. The clear stand-out performances came from the one and only Eva Green, whose character Vanessa Ives had some extremely notable scenes in which she was possessed by malevolent forces. These scenes got me thinking about an extremely common plot device in demonic/spirit possession stories: when possessing a body and in general wreaking chaos in the lives of those around the possessed, a demon loves to ruin everyone’s day by… telling the truth. Truth is something that is extolled as a virtue and associated with goodness and morality, and one of Satan’s many nicknames is “the Prince of Lies”. Yet we consistently see demons using not lies, but rather the truth, when seeking to unsettle or harm humans. Let’s take a closer look.
In the second episode of Penny Dreadful, some of the protagonists went to a séance led by a somewhat dubitable medium; the whole thing seemed to be literally a parlor trick for a fancy upper-crust party. Things took a turn for the wild when Vanessa very clearly started channeling supernatural forces. Okay, so they did it again—the main spirit possessing Vanessa was some demonic version of an ancient Egyptian deity, Amun-Ra. Repeat after me: other peoples’ ancient gods do not equal demons. Yet in the finale, the demon says to Vanessa that “her God” (she’s Catholic) cast him out and sent him to hell, putting him squarely within the Christian mythos of demons.
In this first remarkable séance scene, the entity speaking through Vanessa launches a volley of cryptic lines, directed primarily towards Sir Malcolm Murray. While the exact events are not entirely clear, the viewer can ascertain that Malcolm had a heretofore unmentioned deceased son, whose death Malcolm may in part be responsible for, as well as the fact that Malcolm was involved in some illicit sexual activity with someone (a female someone judging from the, uh, vulgar anatomical vernacular used). In later episodes, these accusations are confirmed to be very much based in fact: Malcolm let his son Peter accompany him on an expedition to Africa despite Peter’s weak constitution and he got sick and died, and Malcolm was secretly having sex with Vanessa’s mother.
Vanessa spends nearly the entire penultimate episode possessed, and she continues with her preternatural truthbombs. She prods Dr. Frankenstein about being a virgin, and also confronts Ethan about his sexual encounter with Dorian Gray. While she did grow up next to Sir Malcolm’s family and would have known about the situations brought up during the earlier séance, Frankenstein’s and Ethan’s scenarios would have been unknown to her. According to the Roman Ritual, the official text used when dealing with the rite of exorcism, one of the signs that can point to a true possession is “the faculty of divulging future and hidden events”. (Check out some text from the Roman Ritual here; scroll down to Part XIII for more details about exorcism. The third paragraph enumerates a few signs, including the one I quoted.)
In American Horror Story: Asylum, we also have a character possessed by the Devil, or at least some demon. The being inhabiting Sister Mary Eunice also displays this sort of clairvoyant or possibly telepathic ability. Most notably, the demon is aware of Sister Jude’s secret past and uses it to taunt and torment her. Before coming to the convent and taking vows, Sister Jude was an alcoholic lounge singer who accidentally hit a young girl while driving drunk—something that Sister Mary Eunice would have absolutely no way of knowing. Ultimately this leads Sister Jude to confront her past, and she goes to make amends with the family of the young girl she struck—only to discover that the young girl survived after all.
So where does this leave us? It’s a very curious point; truth is typically considered a tool in God’s toolbox, yet it ends up being used often as a weapon in the arsenal of the devil and demons. Obviously, evil spirits are more interested in the uncomfortable truths than more mundane ones (“You had French toast for breakfast, I know it!”). These uncomfortable, hidden truths are often brought up as a means to cause the characters psychological distress, but sometimes they cause said characters to face their own issues by having their secrets brought to light. Did Malcolm become a saint after having his dirty laundry aired by the unclean spirit? No, but I would say it did at least cause him to acknowledge his shortcomings and admit his past transgressions to himself. Similarly, by confronting her past sins, Sister Jude actually got some resolution about the guilt that had been haunting her for so long.
Does “the truth set us free” (John 8:32) even if it’s a demon speaking the truth? Is this perhaps a case of the devil secretly being a good guy? Or maybe evil inadvertently or unwittingly working for good? Hard to say. The matter is further complicated because the devil, demons, and possession are very real things to some pop culture consumers of faith. More than just a plot device for a short TV season, these are real questions that their religious traditions have tackled and strive to answer. So for once, gentle readers, I do not claim to have a definitive answer or stance, I merely point out to you a curiosity.