Angels, Devils, and Falling From Grace into Fiction
Sara Flannery Murphy on Leaving Her Charismatic Catholicism
Let me tell you one of the stories that scared me as a child. A miller’s daughter ventures into the woods to gather kindling, accompanied by her sister and a friend. Though the girl is poor and sickly, she possesses a virtuous heart. When the group reaches a stream, the other two splash across carelessly, but the miller’s daughter is more prudent. She lingers behind, seeking a spot shallow enough to keep her stockings dry.
As soon as the girl is alone, a strange atmosphere descends over the glade. A noise like a great rush of wind emphasizes the stillness of the woods around the girl. Not a single leaf moves. From the darkness of a nearby grotto, a figure emerges. A woman, pale and glowing. She smiles at the miller’s daughter. She beckons.
Many of the stories that kept me sleepless as a child involved this same veiled woman. She appeared to outsiders, to the impoverished and overlooked, to children without parents. She brought warnings about the end of time. She performed miracles, making the sun dance in the sky like a flashlight beam against a bedroom wall. Those she visited were favored, drawing reverent crowds, but also vulnerable. They were subjected to private visions of hell. Their very bodies could become evidence of a miraculous presence, forced to walk ceaselessly at unnatural speeds.
Sometimes, as a child, I’d feel her watching me. I was, by most standards, a poor and pious girl. During Lent, I prayed all three mysteries of the rosary. I aspired to become a nun.
The worst part was this: if the Virgin Mary materialized from the shadows, I wouldn’t be able to run. I’d be paralyzed by virtue. A good Catholic would never hide from the Virgin Mary. I am the handmaiden of the Lord; a line I’d heard during countless Christmas nativity plays. Who was I to refuse a similar role if Mary selected me as her messenger?
Those who saw the Virgin were consumed by a sense of peace verging on ecstasy. But my brain warped even this comforting detail into a problem. What if something went wrong? What if it was like one of those horror stories about anesthesia not working during surgery, the patient prone and helpless, aware of every slice? I imagined it: the bliss refusing to kick in. Me, stranded and terrified, with nothing to ease the panic. Alone with a woman from a different world who wanted things I could not give her.
The particular brand of Catholicism that I was born into held an undercurrent of strangeness, a thorny paganism lingering from pre-Christianity. Flickering red votive candles, statues that cried rusty streaks of blood into nests of cotton balls. A boy I liked kept a framed image of St. Therese’s incorruptible body on his bureau, the same way other teenagers might have displayed bikini-clad models or popular athletes.
A sheltered child, I thought that all religion was like this. Mystical and prickly. Uncomfortable but mesmerizing. The rules could feel arcane: bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in front of a property you hope to sell. Whisper a rhyming prayer to summon St. Jude if you’ve misplaced your favorite bracelet. Catholicism smelled like incense, so thick it made you cough. It was rich with the fluttering of angels’ wings, beribboned with murmured prayers. I was shocked the first time I found out that other religions, as well as other Christian denominations, took a more practical and earthbound approach to theology.
My parents didn’t follow a staid trajectory of donut socials and Lenten sacrifices. My father was lapsed, my mother a convert. They met in the halls of an English department and came to Catholicism together on the heels of their wedding day. Before this, my mother read tarot cards. They collected healing crystals and unicorn statues with jutting horns. Well into my teen years, our bookshelves held a mix of prim Bibles and dog-eared issues of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Looking back, I believe Catholicism was a compromise for my parents, feeding their appetite for the weirder side of life while still creating the appearance of faithful Christians. It was family-friendly packaging for oddballs in the conservative South. We bounced around between different subsets of Catholicism, but my parents found their most enduring home with charismatic Catholics.
Though Roman Catholicism dates all the way back to the beginnings of Christianity, the charismatic movement is infinitely younger, having started in 1967. The movement sees Catholicism merged with Pentecostal beliefs in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These spiritual gifts, called charisms, are often focused on creating a deeper relationship with God, but some of them can seem baffling to outsiders. Miraculous healing, speaking in tongues, prophecies: supernatural abilities with holy underpinnings.
A homeschooler, I was largely cut off from pop culture. My mother didn’t let me read R.L. Stine paperbacks or watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? The names Lois Duncan and V.C. Andrews would remain meaningless to me until I entered my twenties.
The closest I got to horror movies was furtively scanning the VHS jewel cases at Blockbuster. The pulpy cover art of the 1980s and 90s lingers in my brain: I was fascinated by the man who resembled a hair-metal band member, his jaw stretched to accommodate the wolf’s muzzle pushing out. Much later, I’d come to love Angela Carter.
Being raised on the fringes leaves an enduring string of gaps where your path has diverged from everyone else’s. I feel that absence most keenly when it comes to my interests. Part of the pleasure of being a fan is connecting with other people, learning that your obsessions were incubated by the same books and the same movie scenes. Interacting with other horror fans, I’m always aware that I lack that bond. Nancy Drew sneaking into abandoned houses was as dark as my entertainment ever went.
Maybe my childhood self would have been surprised to look into the future and discover my current preference for horror and thrillers. Or maybe not. After all, my childhood was rich in the uncanny—just not from the usual directions. For all the sweetness I gleaned from Catholicism, the comforting prayers and the hope-filled hymns, there was also a dark underside.
Because growing up Catholic, I shared space with an unseen world, one separated from the material realm by a tissue-thin membrane. That world wasn’t confined to book pages or TV screens; it was my everyday reality.
Catholicism has always had a slightly macabre reputation. The Gothic genre owes everything to Roman Catholicism. Early works like The Castle of Otranto and The Monk feature corrupt friars and broken vows, and Hollywood continued this tradition. The Exorcist, The Omen, Stigmata, John Carpenter’s Vampires—the list goes on. The Church has taken a disapproving stance toward most of these films; horror movies, after all, play fast and loose with theology. But it’s hard to fault filmmakers for being drawn to Catholicism. The stark cassocks, Latin masses, and ashy crosses sketched on foreheads all nurture a certain morbidity in the public imagination.
As a child, my fear didn’t have the buffer of fiction. My anxiety came directly from the source. My mother kept a few volumes of angel stories. I’d leaf through the pages for hours, fascinated in spite of myself. Many stories had an inspirational bent. Strangers appearing out of nowhere in an hour of need and then vanishing. But mixed in with the guardian angels, the uplifting holy-card angels with their pastel wings, there were more unsettling tales.
Angel anecdotes were my earliest ghost stories. Strangers appearing suddenly in homes, unannounced and unexplained. Specters with cryptic motivations. I curled up on the couch beneath the big, ungainly floor lamp that served as my reading light and felt these invisible presences all around me, lifting from the pages.
We’d sometimes seek out services where parishioners were slain in the spirit. When the priest touched their foreheads, people plummeted backwards like teenagers playing a trust exercise, landing in the waiting hands of the deacons. I remember walking into a church mid-service and spotting the prone bodies already arranged at the front of the church. As my confused brain tried to make sense of the image, I decided they must be napping, tired from a long prayer service.
I lived under the shadow of end-time prophecies. Three days and three nights of an impenetrable darkness; the only source of light would come from blessed candles. Anyone who so much as looked out the window would die immediately.
My father was glibly unconcerned: “It will probably be a good time to catch up on rest,” he said. In retrospect, I can see the humor in it. At the time, I was consumed with worry. An odd blend of functional concerns and mystical problems characterized my childhood. I found myself worrying over logistics: how could we fully cover each window in the house? What if my father was at work when the darkness fell, unable to make his way safely back to us?
My mother comforted me when I imagined ghosts stirring in the back of the closets, monsters creeping up my bunkbed ladder. The age-old maternal refrain: Don’t worry, they’re not real. But she couldn’t comfort me sufficiently when it came to demonic possession or angelic apparitions. These fears felt supernatural in form, and yet they were, in function, the truest part of my life. Denying the dangers of demons bordered on the sacrilegious. This fear was good for me, a fear as bracingly necessary as eating my vegetables or flossing my teeth.
Ultimately, I was a coward, my trepidation winning out over my piety. I didn’t want to be visited by the Virgin Mary, no matter how faithfully I prayed for her intercession. When I felt the priest’s hands touch my forehead, I didn’t want to let go and fall backwards into a Holy Spirit-induced trance: my heart beat wildly, terrified, keeping me upright and conscious. I couldn’t relax until he’d passed on to the next parishioner.
Because I knew people who’d seen angels or been terrorized by demonic presences—my mother’s friend spoke of the sensation of a knife blade to the back in a certain room of her house—it felt like a matter of time until the same happened to me. Like a house fire or a diagnosis of a serious illness. One day, I wouldn’t be listening to other people’s anecdotes. I’d be the one in the thick of it.
I dreamed about demons. The nightmares were small and understated. Nothing gaudy, nothing graphic. Just a light switch turning on by itself in an empty bedroom. A door swinging open and shut of its own accord. The dreams always took place in my own home—not in creaky Victorian mansions or shadow-choked alleys, but in my bedroom, plain and familiar, with its uneven bureau drawers and crayoned pictures taped to the walls. The very intimacy of these dreams was unsettling: everything exactly the same except for that presence, manipulating the world around me just to prove that it could.
I left Catholicism behind in my teens, sliding headlong into an obsession with brooding vampires, Fairuza Balk, ankh pendants from Hot Topic. Anne Rice novels served as a decompression chamber between Catholicism and secular life. Gothic fiction was a tutorial, teaching me how to interact with this side of life as entertainment rather than religion. Vampire novels and ghost stories were like ideological methadone. Here was the general shape of what I’d grown up with, stripped from its morals and its heaven-or-hell stakes.
When I was 23, I moved to St. Louis to study creative writing. I found a new appreciation for my Catholic roots; surrounded by talented writers, living away from my home state for the first time, I struggled to find the thing that would set me apart. My ex-Catholicism became a convenient organizing principle for my identity.
I lavished my stories with stained glass windows and holy water founts. My first workshopped story involved a silent Marian apparition; another was set in a home for unwed mothers, operated by nuns. Even stories that were ostensibly about other things were bedecked with references to communion wafers and beheaded martyrs. One of my MFA classmates finally said, gently, “I’d be curious to see what your characters would be like without all the Catholicism.” I tried to take this advice to heart. But when I graduated, my thesis centered on a religious boarding school, complete with characters named after obscure saints.
It wasn’t until I’d graduated and spent a year focusing on other things that I landed on the concept for what would, years later, become my debut novel. An idea that has little to do with religion, though it does play with a secular interpretation of possession, an idea that obsessed me as a child.
The narrative has a speculative premise, but its original draft wasn’t as matter-of-fact as the final product. In the novel, grieving clients seek solace at the Elysian Society, an organization where workers swallow pills to temporarily channel spirits. In my initial approach to the idea, I was fixated on themes of belief: would the clients ever have crises of faith? Were the workers well-meaning, or manipulative charlatans? All my initial questions revolved around the legitimacy of the Elysian Society.
Most of my ideas for novels involve speculative elements or supernatural threads. When I look back on the evolution of these ideas, I find that I’m constantly trying to rein myself in. I wind up stuck in a limbo between speculative and realistic, always trying to compromise my wild ideas by giving them a dose of skepticism.
My hesitancy could be due to genre. I’ve noticed that literary fiction often borrows genre elements but infuses them with ambiguity. Turn of the Screw, for example: are the ghosts real or are they projections of tortured psyches? Ambiguity feels more highbrow, familiar territory for lit-fic bookworms who pride themselves on questioning everything. Genre fiction, meanwhile, thrives on decisiveness. Either accept the premise or move on; no second-guessing.
In the case of The Possessions, it was only with guidance and patience that I finally allowed my premise to fully bloom. I assumed that removing the ambiguity would require a major overhaul of my existing draft, but to my surprise, it didn’t. So much of the story was already there. Stripping away the ambiguity only meant that the plot grew richer, brighter, and deeper, that certain moments became more intense. Without the baggage of uncertainty, the idea revealed its truer, sharper silhouette.
I don’t gild my work with Catholic imagery anymore. Readers might never guess at my religious background. Still, my Catholic upbringing and subsequent loss of faith has lingered in this way: I’m drawn to worlds that are knocked slightly askew, and yet I’m suspicious of these worlds. My ideas thrive when I add some unexpected element, something otherworldly, but I’m guilty over this tendency—I have a sense that my writing would be more sophisticated, more mature, if I could stick to unadorned realism.
Many people leave their faith in their twenties or later, and in some ways I envy them. I was so young when I left my religion that all my memories of being a believer are inextricably bound with memories of childhood itself. I never had a chance to examine my faith from the angle of an adult. Back then, the whole world felt malleable, infinite with possibilities, not yet locked into place.
But was I faithful? I thought I was—I went through the motions. I sat in the dim confessional booth and unloaded my small sins, walking away light with relief. The seasons of the church—glittering candlelight vigil on Holy Saturday, explosion of poinsettias at Christmas—defined my own calendar year. And yet I was quick to turn my back on my faith; it slipped off my shoulders like an old dress. Many of my childhood friends have remained Catholic, and though my piety felt just as bright and true as theirs, I’ve now been non-religious for as long as I was Catholic. Something in me was more willing to turn my back and walk away.
Maybe it was that thread of fear. My unease with the aspects of Catholicism that extended beyond a moral code or existential fulfillment. When I left my religion, my world lost some of its strangeness, its magic, but it also became a safer place to navigate. I could instead look at the things that had frightened me from a distance, questioning them and challenging them, taking the parts that resonated with me.