In 2005, seasoned Special Forces machine gunner Caleb Daniels lost eight members of his unit in a Chinook helicopter crash in Afghanistan. As Jennifer Percy describes in her recent book, Demon Camp, Caleb was haunted afterward by images of friends’ charred bodies. When he left Afghanistan, something he called The Black Thing followed him home. Caleb struggled to adjust to civilian life, certain The Black Thing was trying to kill him. Then he met a minister, who persuaded him the apparition was a Destroyer Demon, just one in a pantheon of demons and angels fighting a war between good and evil. Caleb needed an exorcism. Soon, he comes to believe that Percy needs one, too. Caleb sends her to demon camp, where she goes through deliverance and tries to understand how soldiers deal with the trauma of war. She sat down with me to talk about demons and metaphors, war and PTSD, and how soldiers carry war trauma for us all.
How did you come to write about Caleb?
I was reading articles about men who were killing themselves after being visited by apparitions that had followed them back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was more interested in characters than in the science of PTSD. I was specifically interested in Sgt. Brian Rand, about whom I talk in the book, who killed a man in Iraq, and the man visited him by his bedside night after night. I became obsessed with his story and with trying to understand this apparition as a way for him to tell the story of his trauma. I was interested in how traumatic memory can destroy our ability to communicate effectively, how you might need another kind of narrative when the expected verbal narrative fails you. The first time I called his sister, she refused an interview, so I called some other veterans. I came upon Caleb by accident. There was a small newspaper article about his company in a local paper in Georgia, and I also found out about him through a friend of a friend. When I emailed him, he didn’t mention anything about demons. He did, however, mention that he had seen the charred bodies of his friends come into his room at night—that was the extent of ghosts and apparitions at that point.
When did he start telling you about the demons?
He started talking about God right away, questioning whether I was religious or not. I think he was trying to get a sense of whether I would be the right person to write about him, trying to gauge my reaction to a belief system that most people might not respect or listen to. He had talked to some other writers and turned them down. But he said that I had been destined to talk to him.
And how did you react when he started telling you about the demons?
He has this loud booming voice and he’s a dramatic storyteller, so it was kind of terrifying. It wasn’t just that the demons came and attacked, this was something that came from the war, so it was already working on the level of metaphor, for me. There was never any sense that he was being dramatic for the purpose of storytelling; this was the most terrifying thing he had ever experienced. It visited him at night, and he really believed it was born out of the Chinook crash and the terrible things he had done in the war. I took his emotions seriously. The story was pretty scary.
The minister and his wife—and everyone around them—talk in terms of a war between good and evil, between angels and demons. They keep saying that you have to choose a side. Did that make it hard to remain neutral as you were reporting?
The moment you walk into their orbit, they’ll ask you where you’re coming from, what’s your problem. They’ll try to find your weakness and hit on that, not necessarily in a cruel way, but to find how you can fit into their world. They try to make you tell your story of greatest sadness and track that pattern in your life. Some people cling to that—they think the minister and his followers recognize things about their habits that they can’t see themselves, and they submit, allow themselves in a way to be tyrannized.
Did you ever feel manipulated?
The whole thing is sort of a manipulation, so yes. I definitely felt like an outsider, but most of the time they were just trying to convert me. I was aware of what was going on. Actually, the first time I went to demon camp, I ran away. They sent me angry emails, said that I hadn’t submitted to God. They were really aggressive. The problem is that they take this all very literally. If you run away and don’t respond to them, you’re being attacked by demons.
Fear is a tool to get people to believe a certain narrative. But you can also fear things you don’t believe in. At some point, you don’t really know where to draw the line. I was spending so much time with them. I never got a break from it. It was almost like I was adopting Caleb’s psychology, which is all about signs, looking back on his life and finding patterns and making sense of things. So a mangled deer leg in the road feels like a sign, even though it might just be a deer leg. Same thing with the bats. There are probably coincidences that happen all the time in our lives that we’re not aware of, and that maybe we would be aware of if something had preceded it.
If you weren’t looking for the pattern already, because you had decided there might be a pattern.
Right. So, of course I began looking for these signs everywhere, because that’s how they were training us to think.
How do you think about it now?
I think for a moment I was really confused, when I was down there. Now it’s obvious that I was responding to being immersed in that culture. But I had this weird experience when I was finishing the book, as well. It felt like it was impossible to finish. Caleb told me a demon didn’t want me to finish, and he kept calling to give me these prophecies, and it was really weirding me out. The day I finished the book, I was on a boat trip in Oregon on the Snake River, and we went through this tunnel, and hanging from a sign that said “Do Not Enter” was a dead bat twisted in fishing line. I took its picture. It was like the signs kept coming up to the very end.
Maybe it’s because the book made me think about signs, but as I was reading I wondered if it showed signs of a romantic relationship between you and Caleb. There’s a moment near the beginning of the book where his friend tells him he is going to go home and fall in love…
Oh, that wasn’t me!
That was Eden, the minister’s daughter?
There’s also a moment where Caleb tells you you’re going to marry a farm boy, which a reader could interpret as Caleb. The believers say that they see a pink cloud around you, that you’re going to have this great romance with Jesus—and then there’s the last scene with you and Caleb in a hotel room having this intense, intimate moment.
The parts that I left out of the book would have explained all that. The whole time I was talking about breaking up with my boyfriend, but I was like, I can’t talk about this in the book because it’s so awkward. He came with me to demon camp. If he were my husband, maybe I’d have left him in, but he was just this guy. Maybe that would explain things. People want to know about the pink cloud!
Is there anything you wish people would ask you that no one asks?
People are so obsessed with the idea of the exorcism that I think some people are missing the fact that it’s a metaphor. They’re just obsessed with the act. But I think one of the reasons we don’t want PTSD to be in the world, or don’t like to think about PTSD, is because it means we’ve experienced traumatic events, and perhaps we can’t deal with that fact. To acknowledge PTSD is to acknowledge that we have a capacity for evil.
You remark in the book about how easy it is to slip, given extreme circumstances.
That is the moment that binds this experience with the war in Iraq. I guess I’m a subtle writer when it comes to reflection, and I wish I’d been a little more direct. Scene and description are sacred to me and I want the reader to figure everything out based on those things. But I’m not sure if it’s actually effective or not.
Do you see the psychological experience of demon camp as heightened in a way that can make one lose touch with reality, similar to traumatic experiences?
It’s really easy for us to move from an individual to a group mentality and completely change our identity in the process, and not be able to get back to who we were before. The military is like a surrogate family, and it can do that. Religion can do that for people, too. You have a group that lays down a script for you to follow, you dress in a similar way, have similar ambitions, hang out with each other all the time, and don’t question each other’s beliefs but uphold them. You have your own language, your own vocabulary. So, for some soldiers, religion is an easy alternative. But this book isn’t about alternatives to the military, it’s about the desperate measures some people have had to take to recover from trauma.
Part of what is powerful about your book is that demonology becomes another kind of language to talk about trauma, and PTSD in particular. Did learning the language of demons and deliverance make you think differently about trauma?
As a society we’re unable to accept the fact that war traumatizes soldiers. And by not being able to accept that, we’re also looking away from the war and its consequences, from what we’re actually asking these people to do when we send them abroad to fight. It makes me question our delusions about our own goodness.
There’s a phrase in the book, the “hallucination of a sterile war,” that I found striking. I was also struck by a Mozambican ritual you describe: When soldiers come home it’s assumed that they’re carrying ghosts of dead people or demons with them, and the whole community gathers together to watch them reenact the terrible things they’ve done. There’s a way they bring the war home to the community, and the community is forced to watch, both in a kind of purging for the individual but also in the way that the community has to engage with what happened when that individual was gone. I found the description of this ritual notable in the context of this particular war, which has been so invisible in this country.
It’s a particularly American situation, to be so distanced from the war.
Are there historical precedents for this or do you think we are in a unique historical moment?
After so many traumatized soldiers returned from WWI, they started intense practices for eliminating anyone who might have PTSD. Instead of dealing with any post-traumatic stress disorder, they decided to eliminate weakness in the first place.
Like when they started shooting soldiers in the trenches?
Yes. Even before that, though, recruiting methods were strict. German soldiers were made to look at paintings and analyze them, and if they analyzed them in ways that showed signs of weakness, they kicked them out. If they were nail-biters they kicked them out. They had them write stories based on sculptures. The tests drew on psychoanalytic theory. And, of course, it had no effect on the number of soldiers who came out with PTSD. In a way, it’s also just a matter of denial—whether or not a society wants to look at these things head-on.
Do you think soldiers dealing with trauma through the metaphor of demons and deliverance exhibit a different form of denial, or is that actually a way to deal with it?
It is a form of denial, in way. Exorcisms aren’t real, so it’s an easy fix to a problem. But the great part about these exorcisms is that the believers think they work, and then the demon still attacks you afterwards. So they’re almost writing the narrative to deal with the reality that that trauma doesn’t actually end. I like that part of it. It felt close to the reality of the experience: The demon’s out and we’re still screwed. There’s a scene with Caleb where a buffalo demon comes to the trailer, so he fights it; it’s a moment where the evil or demonic force is separate from him so he can interact with it. That’s also a way of denying that the demon is part of the self without denying its existence in the world. But I think any vocabulary we have to talk about these things is, in order to be able to bear it, going to have to have a buffer zone. Otherwise we’re all going to go crazy.
What about this particular war that you don’t state outright do you hope readers will take away from your book?
This is the war that I’ve lived through, and that has taken up most of my life, so for me it feels like the most important war. I mention in the book the terror of someone in close proximity committing suicide, someone down the street from me, the feeling that I was part of a society that’s invading these countries and I was just sitting there doing nothing. Not engaging it in any way. I don’t think reading the news counts as engagement.
What was it like listening to your own exorcism tapes?
I had to turn them off, actually. I was typing in my kitchen in Iowa—it was this huge house, three girls lived in it, and a professor who was murdered on campus used to live there, so we already thought it was haunted—and I played the exorcism tapes and the power went out. I mean, three seconds after I start playing the tapes, it goes. So I sprinted out and went to the coffee shop and called my roommate. She says she’s going to be there in five minutes and she’ll see what’s wrong. She gets there and she’s like, yeah, actually the power is on. It’s fine.
Did you ever go back and listen to the tapes after that?
I did, but with someone else in the room with me. I actually cut out a lot of the exorcism material, because the transcription didn’t match my lived experience. In my memory it was terrifying, but in the tapes it’s a bit silly. It’s still scary because they play creepy music the whole the time, but actually it was just an exhausting process. It’s three days of isolation, so by the time you get to the exorcism you’re so tired. They tell you you’re evil and that you’re carrying evil, and that everything you say is false because a demon is speaking out of you. You hear that over and over again for days and it gets to you. It’s scary because you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t get to see an exorcism before you do it. You go behind this closed door, and you don’t know if they’re going to kill you, because that’s the narrative that America has handed you about this sort of thing. The scariest part was that all those people were believing in it at the same time, creating this world, and I was in the middle of it. It was sort of like being underwater. I felt like I was drowning.
Meehan Crist is Writer-in-Residence in Biological Sciences at Columbia University. She is working on a nonfiction book about traumatic brain injury.