The Devil Went Down to Norwich: In Defense of the Existence of Medieval Horror
by Gina Brandolino
[page 61] Abstract: In her late fourteenth-/early fifteenth-century book, Julian of Norwich vividly describes a diabolical attack that she endures on what she believed was her deathbed. This harrowing scene is rarely discussed by scholars and has never been identified as an example of horror, partly because few medieval scholars have shown interest in or knowledge of the genre, partly because of the axiomatic notion that the genre’s point of origin is the Enlightenment. By exploring similarities among encounters with the devil in Julian’s text and two iconic modern examples of horror, the films Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, I demonstrate that Julian’s account is best understood as horror, and that recognizing it as such amplifies other priorities in her text. More generally, I argue that identifying other medieval texts that participate in the genre will enrich not only those texts but also horror, which has a longer history than is usually acknowledged.
Keywords: devil, medieval, horror, Julian of Norwich, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby
At the end of the fourteenth or start of the fifteenth century, an Englishwoman known to history as Julian of Norwich wrote a book describing sixteen visions—showings, as she called them—sent to her by God.1 She experiences her showings while lying on what she and those with her perceive to be her deathbed. These visions are overwhelmingly comforting to Julian and are replete with affirming imagery and avowals of God’s love for humanity. Just before the final showing, though, Julian receives a vastly different visitation while she is sleeping:
Ande in my slepe, at the beginning, methought the fende set him in my throte, putting forth a visage fulle nere my face like a yonge man, and it was longe and wonder leen. I saw never none such. The coloure [page 62] was red, like the tilestone whan it is new brent, with blacke spottes therin like freknes, fouler than the tilestone. His here was rede as rust, not scored afore, with side lockes hanging on the thonwonges. He grinned upon me with a shrewde loke; shewde me whit teth and so mekille, methought it the more ugly. Body ne handes had he none shaply, but with his pawes he helde me in the throte, and woulde have strangled me, but he might not. (333)
Julian’s text is considered notable for many reasons: for its status as the first book we know to have been written in English by a woman; for its sophisticated theology, in particular its notion of Jesus as a mother figure; and for Julian’s status as an anchoress, one of the most unique religious vocations not just in the Middle Ages but in the history of Christianity. But her encounter with the devil gets very little attention. As Liz Herbert McAvoy observed in 2004, “[a]mongst all of the multifarious commentaries and studies of Julian of Norwich, almost none has focused on these episodes of diabolic assault in any detail” (35). Time has not amended this oversight; only a handful of scholars have considered Julian’s encounter with the devil. They all agree that the scene reproduced above is disturbing.2 Some of them have noticed something more specific in that episode, explicitly identifying it as an attempted rape.3 But none recognize Julian’s encounter with the devil as an example of the genre we now know as horror.
The most obvious reason for this is that critical consensus dates the origin of the horror genre to 1818, with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, at the earliest, to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, well after the Middle Ages. Either origin point is attractive in part because it roughly coincides with the Enlightenment, which offers a teleological explanation for the genre; as Noël Carroll writes in The Philosophy of Horror, “to have a violation of nature, one needs a conception of nature—one that relegates the beings in ques-[page 63]tion to the realm of the non-natural. . . . [T]he Enlightenment made available the kind of conception of nature or the kind of cosmology needed to create a sense of horror” (57). Some scholars are willing to admit to the possibility that horror has earlier origins, or is perhaps timeless: for example, in 1921, Edith Birkhead argued in her seminal study of horror The Tale of Terror that horror “appeals to deeply-rooted instincts and belongs, therefore, to every age and clime” (15); Darryl Jones, in his 2018 survey of the genre, asserted that “[a] case could plausibly be made that the western literary tradition is a tradition of horror” (5). The Enlightenment origin point for horror is so axiomatic, however, that even these studies and others like them that gesture to the possibility of a longer history for the genre nevertheless begin their analyses with Frankenstein or The Castle of Otranto, nothing earlier.
For their part, medieval scholars offer little resistance to the absence of the Middle Ages from the history of horror. Searching the terms “horror” and “medieval” in library databases will yield a results list replete with sources about Beowulf, but precious few studies that venture beyond Grendel in looking for horror in medieval texts. Barry Beardsmore attributes this scarcity in part to “many medieval horror stories not having been identified as such, because they have not been properly analyzed” (84). Similarly, Helen Marshall observes that medieval scholars “seem to lack the appropriate tools” to talk about horror (105). Certainly, the “lowbrow” literary—and, more generally, cultural—status of horror does little to encourage scholars unfamiliar with the genre to learn to recognize its elements and explore how they work in a medieval text.
Another likely explanation for why Julian’s encounter with the devil has been neglected as an example of horror is that Julian’s narrative is overall not horrifying; as I mentioned earlier, the divine visions that Julian recounts and which comprise the bulk of her book are a source of spiritual solace for Julian within the text and have served a similar [page 64] function for audiences through the ages. Yet a text can be more than one thing, especially a medieval text. Ingrid Nelson and Shannon Gayk have explained that “[t]he hybridity and mutability of medieval genres have long challenged modern genre theories based on taxonomy” because “[m]edieval genre is fundamentally recombinitive” (3, 8). Julian’s book participates in the genres of devotional and visionary literature, parable, vernacular theology, personal meditation, and memoir/autobiography at least; simple attention to her encounters with the devil makes it difficult to deny that horror is another genre at play in Julian’s narrative.
I will argue in this essay that, though horror is just one of a number of genres discernable in Julian’s text, she deploys its tropes deliberately and to great effect. Specifically, I will show that Julian’s encounter with the devil in her bed contains parallels to such modern horror films as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin's The Exorcist—parallels that prove not only that medieval horror existed, but that in Julian’s text at least, it bears strong affinities to some of our most iconic modern horror. I will then show that Julian’s diabolical encounter allows us to see how recognizing horror in medieval texts can help us reframe our understanding of not only those texts and the Middle Ages more broadly, but the horror genre as well. My claim is not that the genre of horror originated in the Middle Ages, but that examples of it surely existed then, in Julian’s text and others.
Three Diabolical Encounters
Horror has designs on us; it wants a reaction. Scholars seeking to define the genre agree that horror seeks to make audiences feel two emotions, fear and disgust.4 Some stories tip more towards one than the other, but both are requisite to elicit the very visceral response that is horror’s hallmark—a response that harks back, Carroll reminds us, to [page 65] the word’s origins in the Latin verb horreo/horrere: to stand on end, bristle; shake, tremble, shiver (24).5 To be sure, fear and disgust are not timeless emotions; as Clive Bloom has explained, “elements that scared our ancestors may or may not scare us” (211). The protagonists in horror stories are valuable in this regard; not only does their behavior offer cues that guide our own reactions, but they provide us deeper access to the emotions that define horror by allowing us to stand in their shoes and experience the story from a virtual first-person perspective.6 In short, in most cases, to discern if a story is horror, let the protagonist be the bellwether. In this way, horror is like another infamous “low-brow” genre, with a twist—you know pornography when you see it, but you know horror when the protagonist sees it. Especially going by this rule, few would disagree that Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist is horror.7
In Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski, young housewife Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is drugged by members of a Satanic coven and raped by the devil, whose child she is deluded into carrying to term.8 As the story opens, Rosemary and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, move into the Bramford, a New York City apartment building with a rumored history of witchcraft and murder. They draw the attention of their eccentric older neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), who are secretly Satanists and who quickly identify Rosemary as the ideal woman to carry the devil’s baby. They invite Rosemary and Guy to dinner, where Roman pulls Guy aside for a private conversation, presumably about how Satan can benefit his career. Guy returns to talk with Roman the next night without Rosemary, who is mystified by his sudden interest in the strange and obtrusive couple. Shortly after, Guy lands the lead role in a play when the actor originally cast suddenly and without apparent cause goes blind. Guy, it is clear, has made a deal with the devil; in exchange, he helps the coven [page 66] carry out their plans on the unwitting Rosemary. As his career flourishes, he tells a delighted Rosemary that they should try to have a baby and, in collusion with the coven, chooses a night for them to try to conceive. As they settle in for a romantic dinner at home, Minnie knocks on the door with two homemade desserts, one of which, unbeknownst to Rosemary, is drugged. She complains it has a “chalky under-taste” (40:00) and is loath to finish it, but that angers Guy, whose job it is to make sure she eats the dessert, so she pretends to finish it, instead secretly spooning it into her napkin. Shortly after dinner, Rosemary shows clear signs of being drugged—though not as drugged as Guy believes her to be.
The bed proves to be a significant site of the devil’s attacks in Rosemary’s Baby. Guy carries Rosemary to bed and strips her, then the coven gathers around her, naked and chanting, while Roman paints her bare chest with blood. She is in and out of consciousness, at times hallucinating, at others aware of what is happening. In a disturbing two-and-a-half-minute scene, the devil (Clay Tanner), summoned by the coven, approaches the prostrate Rosemary, running his enormous red, rough, clawed paws over her body. He pulls her torso up towards himself and mounts her, then we see a close-up of Rosemary’s head and shoulders as she is vigorously rocked by an explicitly sexual motion. The devil’s head comes into the frame, his beard and the profile of his face clear against Rosemary. At one point, the camera shows us her view as she looks up and sees the devil looking down at her, red, mottled skin on his face, yellow eyes with vertical pupils. “This is no dream,” she says; “this is really happening!” (47:47-47:50).
This scene of total, gross violation is followed by a series of less intense but no less disturbing incidents in which Rosemary is robbed of her self-determination—and even her sense of self. She awakens the next morning nude, with deep scratches on her sides. Guy passes them off as his doing, claiming that he had sex with her while she was [page 67] unconscious so as not to “miss baby night” (49:24). Disturbed and confused, Rosemary says, “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman” (49:34-49:39). But she soon learns that she is pregnant and, in her joy, dismisses her distress over that night. She is persuaded by Roman and Minnie to seek the care of obstetrician Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), a close friend of the old couple and (unbeknownst to Rosemary) a member of the coven. When, shortly after becoming pregnant, she is stricken with debilitating abdominal pains, Dr. Sapirstein claims they are totally normal and will pass in days. The pains persist for months, but he is unconcerned, which suggests that they are an expected part of a demonic human pregnancy. Rosemary is ravaged by the pains, growing extremely thin and pale. She experiences revolting cravings, first for extremely rare steak and then for raw chicken livers. When she catches a reflection of herself ravenously eating raw meat, she vomits in the kitchen sink. Her pregnancy renders her not just weak and sick, but a stranger to herself.
But the wracking pains do eventually stop, and Rosemary is relieved and happy—for a time. Towards the end of her pregnancy, she grows suspicious of Roman and Minnie when she recognizes Roman in a book about witches given to her by a friend. Suspecting a conspiracy against her and her baby and finally distrusting even Guy, she secretly visits another obstetrician (Charles Grodin) and unfolds her tale of devilish conspiracy. The doctor comforts her but ultimately calls Guy and Dr. Sapirstein. Back at home, terrified, she goes into labor, is sedated, and wakes up no longer pregnant. Guy at first says that the baby—a boy—is fine, but Dr. Sapirstein later tells her that it died. Rosemary is given pills to help her sleep, kept in bed, and told to pump her breast milk. Still suspicious, she stops taking the pills and remains awake to hear a baby crying in Roman and Minnie’s apartment next door. She bursts into the apartment and discovers the coven—Guy included—celebrating the birth of her baby, the devil’s own son, who is crying in a [page 68] black-swathed crib with an inverted cross as a mobile. Rosemary approaches and is alarmed by his appearance; among other horrifying attributes, “he has his father’s eyes,” Roman says (2:10:09). But by the movie’s end, she seems to be warming up to the idea, as Roman puts it, of being “a real mother to him”—and potentially losing even more of herself than she has already (2:11:43).
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist (1973) tells the story of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a twelve-year-old girl who becomes possessed by the devil.9 Regan is living in Washington, D.C., with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn); her parents are separated, and her father is in Europe. Trouble starts small and, at first, does not even seem to be focused on Regan: lights flicker and unexplained noises in the attic wake Chris at night. Regan, it is revealed, has been playing with a Ouija board, using it to talk to someone she calls Captain Howdy; “I make the questions and he does the answers,” she tells Chris (22:45-22:48). Soon after, we see Regan sleeping in Chris’s bed, complaining that her own was shaking, keeping her awake. We are shown scenes in which Regan experiences episodes of apparent psychic absence or emptiness, sometimes explained, as when she listens from another room with glazed eyes as her mother rants about Regan’s father, and at other times unexplained, as when Chris gets out of bed to investigate the strange noises in the attic and we see Regan awake and blank-eyed in bed. These episodes escalate when Chris has a party and Regan, shown asleep in her bed a few scenes prior, walks into the boisterous gathering in her pajamas, fixes a vacant gaze on one of the guests, an astronaut, and tells him in a flat voice, “you’re gonna die up there,” then urinates on the carpet (38:00-38:25). The next scene shows Chris giving an expressionless Regan a bath. She gently asks, “What made you say that, Regan? Do you know, sweetheart?” Regan does not answer, but after her mother tucks her into bed, asks a question of her own: “Mother, what’s wrong with me?” [page 69] (38:42-38:55). Chris assures her it is “just nerves” and that she will be fine if she takes the pills that the doctor gave her (39:45-40:03), but moments later, Regan’s bed begins violently shaking and bucking, suggesting that Regan’s problems are not medical.
Yet she is subjected to a battery of coldly clinical and surprisingly gory medical tests that are horrifying in their own right. Doctors first suspect the cause of Regan’s behavior is a lesion on her brain, but when they find no evidence of a lesion, they recommend a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist fails to make any progress with Regan, they drug her with Thorazine and sheepishly suggest an exorcism—not because they believe that the ritual will have any real power but because of “the force of suggestion” (1:04:54). While medicine fails Regan, the devil tightens his grip on her: she loses control of her body and is flung violently around on her bed; she exhibits unnatural strength and uses it against her mother, her doctors, and (though it is never conclusively proven) her mother’s friend, whom she almost certainly pushes out the window to his death; she speaks in voices not her own; she uses lewd language and performs vulgar sexual acts. Desperate and left with no alternative, Chris contacts a priest to ask him to perform an exorcism.
It is more difficult to see the devil’s molestation of Regan than of Rosemary because he possesses Regan; theirs is a struggle not between two bodies but within one. The story takes pains to make plain to audiences that Regan has not transformed into the devil; rather, the devil has laid hold of her body, and she is violated and victimized by him. Early evidence of this distinction comes before Regan is completely possessed, when a psychiatrist hypnotizes her. They have this exchange:
Psychiatrist: Is someone inside you?
Psychiatrist: Who is it?
Regan: I don’t know. [page 70]
Psychiatrist: Is it Captain Howdy?
Regan: I don’t know.
Psychiatrist: If I ask him to tell me, will you let him answer?
Regan: No! (firmly)
Psychiatrist: Why not?
Regan: I’m afraid. (56:12-56:44)
Regan’s replies point to a presence within her who is not her and of whom she is frightened. Moments later, the psychiatrist addresses “the person inside of Regan” (56:55). A deep growl comes out of the girl, who had previously been speaking in her own voice; those in the room with her turn away gagging and press handkerchiefs to their faces, suggesting that the girl’s breath has suddenly turned foul. Most alarmingly, she grabs the groin of the psychiatrist and brings him to his knees in pain. In this scene, we see a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” style transformation of Regan into the devil, but in others, we witness evidence of both Regan and the devil in the girl’s body simultaneously—and evidence that Regan is being viciously brutalized. For instance, in the most infamous scene of the movie, the devil violently rapes Regan with a crucifix. This scene is often misread as masturbation because the devil and Regan share a body, but two voices can be heard coming from the girl in this scene, one Regan’s, begging the devil to stop; the other the devil’s, gleefully taunting her while he plunges the crucifix into her bloody genitals. In another scene, one of the priests helping the MacNeils is called to Regan’s bedside to see a message scrawled into the girl’s torso, as if from inside her body: “help me” (1:31:30).
It is worth noting how significant a setting the bed is in this story, as it was too in Rosemary’s Baby. The nocturnal shaking of Regan’s bed is the first sign that that the disturbances in the house focus on her; twice more before she is fully possessed, she is physically harassed in her bed. It is in the bed that the devil savagely molests Regan with the crucifix and from the bed that the devil makes obscene remarks [page 71] to doctors, priests, and even Regan’s mother. And, finally, it is in her bed that the entirety of the exorcism is performed. It is indeed arguable that so much of the devil’s onslaught happens in Regan’s bed because she occupies it for so much of the story—first because Chris assumes she is ill, then because, when she is fully possessed, she is restrained there. But one scene not included in the original film release (but included in the extended cut released in 2000) shows the possessed girl out of bed, spider-walking belly-up on all fours down the main stairs. This scene was cut because Friedkin considered it too big a special effect for so early in the film and because he felt the equipment facilitating the stunt was too visible, but it is nonetheless interesting that this deleted scene is the only one in which Regan is fully possessed and not in bed. Regan’s bed is unquestionably the single most important site of the devil’s attacks on the girl.
Two priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), do battle with the devil at Regan’s bedside and ultimately save her, though it costs both of them their lives. As the movie ends, Chris and Regan are preparing to leave D.C. and a priest (William O’Malley) who was a friend of Father Karras stops by. Chris tells him privately that Regan “doesn’t remember any of it” and then introduces Regan to him. Chris says her goodbyes and gets in the car, but Regan lingers a moment, staring at his cleric’s collar, then suddenly—and unexpectedly, given that she has just met him—kisses him on the cheek, then walks away. This token of affection suggests that, contrary to what Chris said, Regan does remember something of the ordeal—that she was in fact “in there” the whole time with the devil, and that she remembers too the priests’ help, her kiss being a silent token of gratitude for their aid.
What Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist share in their depictions of encounters with the devil is obvious, and obvious in their similarities is the fear and disgust that they inspire. To begin, each story’s devil is physically repulsive [page 72] and terrifying. Without doubt, their depictions of the devil rely on stereotypes that hark back at least to the Book of Revelation, but each inflects these stereotypes in ways that contribute to a particular profile of fear—one that is gendered and involves more than just simply physical danger.10 In both cases, it is a female protagonist who encounters the devil; he abuses her in her own bed, making the threat sexual; and the attack is intimate, a physical invasion of her body, but one that goes deeper, such that her sense of self is also at risk. These plot elements remain popular in horror films; in just the last twenty years, numerous movies have featured a demonically possessed female character tormented in her bed—for example, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers (2006), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018). At least two television series—season one of The Exorcist (2016), a show which serves as a (brilliant) sequel to the original movie, and season one of Evil (2019)—have depicted a female character being threatened in her bed by a corporally present devil.11 All these examples undoubtedly owe a debt to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, but the tropes that they employ have much older roots.
As films, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist provide us with protagonists whose fear and disgust we access through means other than first-person narration—for instance, camera work and audio cues. Julian of Norwich does not have these narrative tools at her disposal, but, as the protagonist of her own story, she addresses us directly, allowing us intimate access to her experience with the devil. And despite this perspectival difference, Julian crafts a depiction of her encounter with the devil that achieves the same ends as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist—and uses the same tropes.12 First, Julian’s devil is physically repulsive and terrifying. She describes his face as peculiarly drawn and thin; “it was longe and wonder leen,” she says. Much else about his appearance seems unnatural as well: His body is [page 73] not “shaply”—it is malformed—and he has “pawes” instead of hands. His skin was red, “like the tilestone whan it is new brent,” and his hair “rede as rust.” Next, the devil’s attack occurs in the bed in which Julian has lain ill. While she says that the devil comes to her “in my slepe,” if it is indeed a dream visitation, nonetheless in that dream, the devil attacks her in bed, looming over her menacingly, implying that a sexual violation is imminent. And like Rosemary and Regan, Julian also experiences a physical attack; the devil shoves his face into hers—“[put] forth a visage fulle nere my face,”—and “with his pawes he held me in the throte.” Julian says that the devil “woulde have strangled me, but he might not,” but the implication is far from being that the devil is harmless. As was the case for Rosemary and Regan, the threat to Julian is more than just physical; she is literally in the clutches of the devil; simple loss of life cannot be her only or even greatest concern. We get a glimpse of the less tangible threat she feels when she describes how the devil smiles at her: “He grinned upon me with a shrewde loke; shewde me whit teth and so mekille, methought it the more ugly.” The numerous teeth that Julian notices are another example of the physical threat the devil represents, but the grin itself is less decipherable, and because of that, more eerie. A smile during an attack is out of place; it is surely not a friendly gesture. And the “loke,” or expression, that accompanies the smile implies something more—and potentially more terrifying—than bodily danger. Julian characterizes it using the Middle English word “shrewde,” which can be translated as cunning, wicked, devious, or sinister. The devil’s grin implies that he poses more than simply a physical threat to her, and Julian’s account goes on to affirm that.
Julian’s demonic attack is brief, but the sense of terror it evokes is undeniable. That is no accident; manuscript evidence demonstrates that Julian took pains to characterize the horror of the encounter. Julian’s text exists in two versions: sometime between 1373 and 1388, she composed a [page 74] short version to capture the substance of her deathbed experience soon after it occurred; then in 1393 at the earliest, but perhaps as late as the early fifteenth century, she composed a version six times the length of the short version containing more rumination, careful description, and interpretation of her visions.13 The account of Julian’s encounter with the devil is significantly expanded in the longer version.14 The short version describes the event in a single sentence: “And in my slepe, atte the beginninge, methought the fende sette him in my throte and walde hafe strangelede me, botte he might nought” (109). This brief account includes nothing more than a cursory description of the physical attack of the devil. The longer version retains that and adds many more horrifying details—details that align Julian’s demonic encounter with those in Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. It describes the devil’s preternatural color, his malformed body and paws, and his numerous teeth; it depicts the devil as physically repulsive and terrifying.15 Too, it makes explicit how intimate the attack is; he looms over Julian in her bed and thrusts his face into hers. Most distressingly, it adds the devil’s uncanny and foreboding grin that threatens so much more than physical violation. Her efforts to describe the encounter more fully in the longer version suggest she wanted her audience to experience the fear and disgust that she herself felt. To put it more plainly, she revised this scene so that it more effectively elicited a reaction from us—the reaction for which horror strives.16
The devil torments Julian twice more in two less physically threatening encounters. In the first, which occurs soon after the devil attacks her in bed, Julian notices “a littil smoke cam in at the dorre with a grete heet and a foule stinch” (335). She cries out to her caregivers, who assure her that she is hallucinating; then she concludes that is no “bodely fyer” but “the fende that was come to tempest me” (335). The second, which occurs after her final divine vision, again involves heat and stench, and also an auditory compo-[page 75]nent: “I harde a bodely jangeling, as it had been of two bodies, and both to my thinking jangled at one time, as if they had holde a perlement with greate besines. And all was softe muttering, and I understode not what they said. And alle this was to stere me to dispere, as methought” (341). These scenes evoke fear and disgust in ways that are easy to understand but hard to distinguish with words; Julian is unable even to see what troubles her, and the unknown origins of the smells and sounds make them even more terrifying and disgusting. These attacks are not physical but psychological; the devil tries to unnerve her and undermine her faith in even her own senses. They are the fulfillment of the peril implied by the devil’s grin in Julian’s first encounter with him. And while these brief scenes undergo no significant changes between the long and short versions of the text, the long version’s amplification of the horror of Julian’s first encounter with the devil—including especially the description of the devil’s grin—intensifies the horror of these scenes as well.
To be sure, the devil was an expected, even commonplace, component of religious narratives in general, and especially depictions of deathbed scenes in the Middle Ages.17 Indeed, earlier in her text, Julian describes anticipating, earlier in her life, a deathbed experience complete with “all the dredes and tempests of fiends” (63). The devil’s presence at Julian’s bedside is thus not remarkable. What is remarkable is how similar Julian’s encounter with the devil is to some of our most iconic modern tales of demonic encounters. It need not be the case—and to me, it seems far-fetched to think—that Julian’s text specifically served as inspiration for these other stories. But it seems obvious that these stories draw on the same tropes to convey horror. Recognizing this should make us think differently about not just Julian’s text but medieval literature in general, as well as the horror genre. [page 76]
The Advantages of Recognizing Medieval Horror
The revisions to the scene in which the devil attacks Julian in her bed in the longer version of her text demonstrate that Julian strives to make her audience react viscerally to the encounter—to feel the fear and revulsion she herself felt. It is a confusing move in a text otherwise replete with positive, affirming messages from God—or, confusing only until one considers how Julian’s encounter with the devil serves the abiding themes of her text. Perhaps the best-known line in Julian’s text is, “alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle manner of thinge shalle be wel” (209). The words are an unqualified promise of well-being—security, comfort, and happiness. The sense of reassurance this pledge evokes pervades much of Julian’s text, and it recurs often enough to act as a sort of refrain.18 Julian first reports Jesus saying these words to her in Chapter 27, when she worries about the debilitating effects of sin on humanity. Several times thereafter, Julian quotes them directly or obliquely, including once between the account of her encounter with the devil in her bed and her reports of his two later attacks. In that lull between diabolical visits, Jesus assures Julian that if she trusts what she learned in her showings, “thou shalt not be overcome” (339). Julian interprets Jesus’s advice to her by relating it more explicitly to her encounter with the devil and linking it to “alle shalle be wele”: “He saide not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempestid, thou shalt not be traveyled, thou shalt not be dissesed,’ but he saide, ‘Thou shalt not be overcom.’ God wille that we take hede at this worde, and that we be ever mighty in seker trust, in wele and wo. For he loveth us and liketh us, and so wille he that we love him and like him and mightely trust in him, and all shall be welle” (339, 341). This articulation of “alle shalle be wele” implies a close, resounding connection between the phrase and Julian’s encounters with the devil.
That may be difficult to see because, when the devil torments Julian, all is emphatically not well; she finds [page 77] herself in the midst of not only an appalling physical threat but the ultimate spiritual threat. These moments are the opposite of “alle shalle be wele”—or, more aptly put, the counterbalance to it. They undergird “alle shalle be wele,” giving it integrity. “Alle shalle be wele” could be understood to apply to Julian’s debilitating illness or her anticipated death, and Julian would likely say it applied to these situations and many others. But to apply it to the devil’s attack, as she explicitly does, confers upon it a unique gravity, making it all the more impactful. Indeed, McAvoy rightly asserts that the “episodes of diabolic invasion are far more central to Julian’s radical insight into the nature of divine love than [is] generally recognized” (35); Peters goes a step further, arguing that “an accurate understanding of Julian’s diabolic confrontation leads us to the argument that such a thing is necessary to the deeper levels of spiritual life” (201). So it is not surprising that, like Julian’s encounter with the devil in her bed, “alle shalle be wele” is only barely present in the short version of Julian’s text: Julian does not report Jesus saying the words to her, and two of the three passages where the phrase recurs in the longer version do not even exist in the short version.19 The emergence of “alle shalle be wele” in the longer text with a more fully developed account of Julian’s encounter with the devil in her bed suggests how deeply intertwined the two elements of the text are. To make sense of Julian’s text without a full reckoning of the horror of the devil’s attack is to rob it of some of its potency—potency Julian took pains to give it in her revision.
Certainly, Julian’s isn’t the only medieval text to use horror to support a message or theme. While, as I noted earlier, medieval texts are largely overlooked as examples of horror, some scholars have recognized the genre’s presence in them. David Wallace argues that, in Cleanness, a late fourteenth-century homiletic poem which uses biblical stories to extol the benefits of purity and hazards of impurity, “the terrorization of his readers” was “a deliberate rhetorical strategy” used by the poet (94n10). In an article [page 78] published nearly fifteen years later, Eleanor Johnson doubles down on Wallace’s reading of Cleanness and, further, makes the case that the late fifteenth-century Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a virulently antisemitic text meant to assert the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist by portraying a group of Jews desecrating it in ways that lead to a great deal of bodily violence and harm, should be read as horror (104). Alicia Spencer-Hall argues that the early thirteenth-century hagiographical text The Life of Christina Mirabilis, in which Christina returns from death to perform her purgatorial punishments in her community, horrified its contemporary audiences in ways strikingly similar to the way zombie movies, also stories of the revived dead, scare us today. Helen Marshall asserts that the fourteenth-century lay spiritual manual The Prik of Conscience “is a text whose chief literary concern is horror”—horror used, as the title suggests, to urge medieval Christian audiences to examine their consciences and “approach salvation through the contemplation of the horrors of this world and the next” (106). Many other texts that have not yet received scholarly attention would similarly demonstrate the presence of the genre in the Middle Ages.
Some have objected to narratives like the ones described above being categorized as horror because of their pedagogical slant. For example, Marshall notes Georges Bataille’s view that “when horror is transfigured through an authentic artwork, it becomes ‘a pleasure, an intense pleasure’—the pleasure of fixation, of ravishment without death—except in the case of the religious imagery of Hell in the Middle Ages, which, attempting to reform its viewer, was ‘hardly separable from education’” (103). Beardsmore makes a similar but more general objection when he claims that the orthodox Christian worldview of medieval England was not “conducive to the development of a flourishing horror story tradition in medieval literature” (99). But even modern horror often has didactic overtones: consider the commentary on the insidious pervasiveness of racism in America in Jordan [page 79] Peele’s Get Out (2017); the inherent corruption of middle-class suburban life depicted in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982); and the indictment of consumer culture in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Wes Craven’s film Last House on the Left (1972), still considered scandalous for its unflinching depiction of violence, is particularly illustrative of horror’s moralizing tendencies. In a 1987 interview, Craven said that his making of the film was influenced by the disparity between the graphic television coverage of the Vietnam War and the “distorted, filtered reality” of films. His goal with Last House was to try to show audiences the reality of violence, that “one stab did not do it and one shot did not do it” (“‘Fresh Air’ Remembers”). Under his direction, “the violence was treated [as] absolutely real and thus the outrage. The audiences were, in a sense, tricked. They went into a movie expecting to be entertained in the pure action or horror sense, where the blood is ketchup and the violence is simple and cartoonish. And instead we said, now that we’ve got you here, by the way, this is what violence is really like” (“‘Fresh Air’ Remembers”). These examples are not exceptions; the goal of most horror is not simply to get a reaction by creating fear and disgust but to use these tools of the genre to engage deeper themes or articulate larger messages. Many medieval texts do the same.
Still, not every text with a stereotypical terrifying figure and a point to make strives to stir feelings of fear and disgust in audiences; not all are examples of horror. This is no less true of modern texts than medieval ones. Films like David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) or Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams (1989) depict ghosts that are meant to inspire awe and nostalgia, not fear. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) or the Charlie Daniels Band’s song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979), the characters facing off against the devil win handily; there is nothing to dread. Similarly, in William Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, when Jesus harrows Hell, bursting through the gates and [page 80] sending demons skittering off to hide in the corners, the tone is unequivocally celebratory (211-213). In the popular late medieval miracle story of Theophilus, Saint Mary visits Hell to retrieve a document signed by a man who sold his soul to the devil. She can do so, we learn, because one of her titles is empress of hell: she comes and goes there as she pleases (Hamer and Russell 189-198). This is not horror; it is hagiography, meant to inspire hope and wonder. In the mid-fourteenth-century text “The Gast of Gy,” the lengthy exchange between the prosaic ghost Gy and the prior summoned to communicate with him is informative and even consoling—emphatically not scary. These are the kinds of stories people expect from the Middle Ages, but they aren’t the only stories that the Middle Ages has to tell.20
Acknowledging as much does more than just allow us to better understand specific medieval texts like Julian’s; it benefits medieval studies more generally. Showing how medieval texts contribute to the horror genre is a way for the field to assert its relevance. Medieval studies’ struggle for relevance is nothing new. As Paul Freedman explained in 2002,
A considerable amount of medieval historiography until recently was predicated on the desire to demonstrate the modernity, rationality, and innovation of what was too easily dismissed as an age of picturesque backwardness. It was only a short time ago, after all, that medieval historians emphasized their period as the point of origin for prized attributes of modernity such as the rational and effective nation-state or the importance and significance of the individual. (14)
Demonstrating medieval texts’ participation in the horror genre offers medieval studies somewhat more, in terms of scope, than claims of inventing the nation-state or modern notion of selfhood ever could: horror is a popular genre, and a consideration of medieval examples could extend recognition and appreciation beyond scholarly audiences. This is [page 81] especially true given recent interest in what some critics have termed “elevated horror,” stories less reliant on gore and jump scares and more interested in intellectually and emotionally charged narratives—in what is often recognized, in short, as “more literary” horror. And medievalists need not make so extreme a claim as that the Middle Ages is the origin point of horror; I do not do so here, for it not only seems unnecessarily proprietary but also is simply not true. Merely attesting to the existence of medieval horror could garner new and enthusiastic attention for medieval studies that could help dispel tired stereotypes about the Middle Ages.
And though—or perhaps because—it contradicts deeply-entrenched ideas about the genre, disrupting modernity’s exclusive claim on it is actually good for horror, too. First and foremost, the history of the genre will become more honest and thorough if it accommodates stories from earlier eras. Thinking will have to shift in some respects: we will discover longer legacies than we have heretofore known (as is the case with the encounters with the devil discussed here); recognize unfamiliar variations in tropes; and realize that the tools of the genre have served different ends, narratively and culturally, in different eras. We will adjust to understand the Enlightenment not as the beginning of horror but rather as a moment of significant generic transformation. But the genre will not disintegrate with the addition of more historical examples; quite the contrary. It will evolve and grow.
Being Willing to See Horror
Horror stories usually resolve by the end. The monster is destroyed or at least definitively eluded. Fear is beaten back. Order is restored. But now we know monsters are out there, we have breathed the fear, and we have been tangled in the disorder. One sure mark of horror is the enduring hold of fear and disgust on its protagonists—and through [page 82] them, on us. Rosemary survives the devil’s rape and the coven’s manipulation of her; she can walk away. But the end of her story shows her teetering on the edge of staying and raising the devil’s son—and her own. Regan seems healthy and restored as she prepares to leave Washington, D.C., with her mother at the end of The Exorcist, but her eyes linger on the clerical collar of the priest there to see them off; does she, as her mother insists, really remember nothing of her possession? Julian withstands the devil’s attacks by busying her body with activities rooted in her faith:
My bodely eye I set in the same crosse there I had seen in comforte afore that time, my tong with spech of Cristes passion and rehersing the faith of holy church, and my harte to fasten on God with alle the truste and the mighte that was in me. And I thought to myselfe, mening: “Thou hast nowe great besenes to keep the in the faith, for that thou shuldest not be taken of thine enemes. Woldest thou now fro this time evermore be so besy to kepe the fro sinne, this were a good and a sovereyne occupation.” For I thought sothly: “Were I safe fro sinne, I were fulle safe fro alle the feendes in helle and enemes of my soule.” (343)
It works; “alle” is “welle” with Julian at the end of her story. But the fact that she returned to her first written account of her diabolical confrontation to rewrite it, capturing more of her terror and disgust, reveals that vivid memories remain. Rosemary, Regan, and Julian are all permanently marked by their encounters with the devil; each of their stories is a powerful example of horror. If Julian’s text is harder to recognize as such, it is perhaps because we have failed to expect, let alone look for, horror in medieval texts. “If we are to be entertained by horror,” cultural critic Nick Ripatrazone has said, “we must open ourselves up to being marked by that horror.” In my experience, this is truer still if we are to see horror at all. [page 83]
1. Dating Julian’s book has proven difficult; see Nicholas Watson, “The Composition of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love” (Speculum, vol. 68, no. 3, 1993, pp. 637-683). Julian was the name that the author took when she became an anchoress. There is no known record of her birth name.
2. The scholars who have made these observations are so few that they are easily cited. Judith Dale calls the devil’s actions an “attack” on Julian (131). David F. Tinsley describes the devil as “immediate and threatening” (210). And Jay Rudd emphasizes the devil’s “blatant display of raw masculine power” (195).
3. While Peters (187) and McAvoy (46) fully acknowledge this scene as an attempted rape, Rudd will only concede that it is “rape-like” (197). One wonders what more would need to have happened to convince him to remove the language of seeming.
4. Carroll has most clearly articulated this definition (22-23), but it is widely held, though some divide fear in this formulation into two categories, the fear that we create by being forced to imagine the horrifying thing and the fear that is generated when the horrifying thing is revealed to us. See Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry” (New Monthly Magazine, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, pp. 145-152), p. 150; Stephen King, Danse Macabre (Gallery Books, 1981), pp. 22-25; and Orson Scott Card, Maps in a Mirror (Tor Books, 1990), p. 3.
5. Mary Carruthers says more about the Latin origins of the word horror and related words. See “Terror, Horror, and the Fear of God, or, Why There Is No Medieval Sublime.” ‘Truthe Is the Beste’: A Festschrift in Honour of A.V.C. Schmidt, edited by Nicolas Jacobs and Gerald Morgan, Peter Lang, 2014, pp. 17-36.
6. Horror’s pairing of protagonist and audience produces an effect similar to catharsis in tragedy. See Carroll, pp. 18-19, and Philip Tallon, “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art [page 84] Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection” (The Philosophy of Horror, edited by Thomas Fahy, UP of Kentucky, 2010, pp. 33-41), p. 34.
7. The exception is director William Friedkin, who has always refused to call The Exorcist a horror film.
8. The movie is based on the 1967 book of the same name by Ira Levin.
9. The movie is based on the 1971 book of the same name by William Peter Blatty. In the book, the demon that possesses Regan is identified as Pazuzu, an ancient Assyrian demon, but in the movie, he is identified only as the devil.
10. The Book of Revelation describes “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads” who is identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan,” who is full of “great wrath” (RSE Revelation 12.3-12). These lines created the template for the stereotypical image of the devil—red, beastly, savage.
11. It is unusual for female characters in modern horror to interact with the devil standing up; The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and possibly Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) are rare exceptions.
12. Another commonality Julian’s text shares with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist is the presence (or in Regan’s case, presumed presence) of physical illness. Julian describes her illness as “a bodily sicknes in the which I ley three days and three nightes, and on the fourth night I toke alle my rightes of holy church, and wened not to have liven til day” (129). While I do not in this essay count physical illness as one of the tropes of tales of demonic encounters, I do not rule it out.
13. For the dating of these two versions, see Watson, “The Composition of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love.”
14. The long version’s account of the devil’s attack is 123 words; the short version contains only a 24-word account. [page 85]
15. Tinsley and Rudd focus in particular on how much more concrete (a word that they both use iterations of) Julian’s depiction of the devil is in the long version (Tinsley 210, Rudd 194).
16. One additional detail about the efforts to intensify the depiction of the devil’s attack in the long version of Julian’s text: in two of the three complete surviving manuscript copies of the long version, Julian’s encounter with the devil in her bed occurs in Chapter 66—not quite 666, “the number of the Beast” (RSE Revelation 13.18), but as close as you can get in a book of only 86 chapters. This seems no accident, but rather an engineered outcome meant to give the encounter an extra sinister edge. The two manuscripts, Sloane 2499 and Sloane 3705, originated in the seventeenth century, and the latter is a copy of the former. It is unclear if these manuscripts represent the long version’s original chapter divisions or the work of a scribe who took editorial liberties with the text. The third surviving complete manuscript, Fonds Anglais 40, is dated to the end of the sixteenth century and, among other differences from the Sloane manuscripts, slightly adjusts the divisions separating Chapters 66-68 so that the demonic attack in bed occurs in Chapter 67. The short version, which has considerably fewer chapters overall, survives in only one manuscript copy which relates the scene in Chapter 21.
17. Readers interested in learning more about demonic encounters in other medieval texts should see Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (U of Pennsylvania P, 1998).
18. The phrase recurs four more times: Julian returns to it in Chapters 32, 63, 68, and 85 (221, 321, 341, 379).
19. In the short version there is no text parallel to the longer version’s Chapters 32, 63, and 85, so those articulations of the phrase do not exist in it. The text parallel to Chapter 68—the chapter between demonic encounters—[page 86] does include the phrase and exegesis of it similar to that in the longer version quoted above.
20. Medieval narratives like the ones briefly mentioned in this paragraph engage the supernatural but strive for audience reactions other than terror—for instance, awe or adoration. For more context on the range of emotions such stories evoked, see Glenn D. Burger and Holly A. Crocker, eds., Medieval Affect, Feeling, and Emotion (Cambridge UP, 2019); Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Cornell UP, 2007); and Caroline Walker Bynum, “Wonder” (The American Historical Review, vol. 102, no. 1, 1997, pp. 1-26).
Beardsmore, Barry. “A Study of Two Middle French Horror Stories.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 46, 2002, pp. 84-101.
Bloom, Clive. “Horror Fiction: In Search of a Definition.” A New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 211-223.
Birkhead, Edith. The Tale of Terror: A Study of Gothic Romance. Constable and Co., 1921.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Dale, Judith. “‘Sin Is Behovely’: Art and Theodicy in the Julian Text.” Mystics Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, 1999, pp. 127-146.
The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Brothers, 1973.
Freedman, Paul. “The Medieval Other: The Middle Ages as Other.” Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, edited by Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger, Medieval Institute Publications, 2002, pp. 1-24.
“‘Fresh Air’ Remembers Nightmare Director Wes Craven.” NPR.org, 4 Sept. 2015, www.npr.org/2015/09/04/437320291/fresh-air-remembers-nightmare-director-wes-craven.
“The Gast of Gy.” Translated by Mona L. Logarbo. Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation, edited by Anne Clark Bartlett and Thomas H. Bestul, Cornell UP, 1999, pp. 71-84. [page 87]
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Johnson, Eleanor. “Horrific Visions of the Host: A Meditation on Genre.” Exemplaria, vol. 27, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 150-166.
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Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Translated by E. Talbot Donaldson, W.W. Norton and Co., 1990.
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McAvoy, Liz Herbert. “‘The Fend Set Him in My Throte’: Sexuality and the Fiendish Encounter in Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love.” Reading Medieval Studies, vol. 30, 2004, pp. 33-55.
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Peters, Brad. “Julian of Norwich and Her Conceptual Development of Evil.” Mystics Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 181-188.
Ripatrazone, Nick. “God Alone: Divine Absence in Horror Films.” Image, vol. 102, 2019, imagejournal.org/article/god-alone-divine-absence-in-horror-films/.
Rosemary’s Baby. Directed by Roman Polanski, Paramount Pictures, 1968.
Rudd, Jay. “‘I Wolde for the Loue Dye’: Julian, Romance Discourse, and the Masculine.” Julian of Norwich: A Book of Essays, edited by Sandra McEntire, Routledge, 2013, pp. 183-206.
Spencer-Hall, Alicia. “The Horror of Orthodoxy: Christina Mirabilis, Thirteenth-Century ‘Zombie’ Saint.” Postmedieval, vol. 8, no. 3, 2016, pp. 352-375.
Tinsley, David F. “Julian’s Diabology.” Julian of Norwich: A Book of Essays, edited by Sandra McEntire, Routledge, 2013, pp. 207-237.
Wallace, David. “Cleanness and the Terms of Terror.” Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet, [page 88] edited by Robert Blanch, et al., Whitston Publishing, 1991, pp. 93-104.
Gina Brandolino is a lecturer at the University of Michigan jointly appointed in the Department of English and the Sweetland Center for Writing. A medievalist by training, her scholarship and teaching has turned increasingly towards horror. She is the co-creator and -author of the nationally distributed zine Gina and Joe Talk about Queer Horror, one in a series of horror review zines.
MLA citation (print):
Brandolino, Gina. "The Devil Went Down to Norwich: In Defense of the Existence of Medieval Horror." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2022, pp. 61-88.