Demons, Horror, and the Book of Psalms

November 1, 2023 | Philip Jenkins
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Psalm 91 has long had particular significance for both Jews and Christians. In the siddur, it appears in the Saturday morning and post-Sabbath prayers, and the pious say it every night just before going to sleep. Its sixth verse—as understood by such medieval Jewish commentators as Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) as well as many non-Jewish readers—contains a reference to two demonic forces from whose grip God will provide protection. Philip Jenkins explains how this passage inspired writers of modern horror fiction:

Fiction of all kinds often borrows biblical phrases for titles or motifs in stories, but the Psalm 91 instance is notable because authors deliberately cite it in archaic ways, often in the Latin Vulgate. By doing this, they are deliberately trying to put the reader back into an imagined Middle Ages. They use demonic-sounding phrases, such as the daemonium meridianum, the Noonday Demon, which the King James renders as “the destruction that wasteth at noonday.” Also popular was the cryptic phrase that in English appears as “the pestilence that walketh in darkness.” In Latin that becomes the almost comically non-specific negotium perambulans, which comes close to referring to a wandering thingamajig.

In 1934, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a much-anthologized essay, “Sleeping and Waking,” for Esquire. He addressed the wakeful hours in the middle of the night, “a sinister, ever widening interval” between the early and later spells of comfortable sleep. “This is the time of which it is written in the Psalms: Scuto circumdabit te veritas eius: non timebis a timore nocturno, a sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris” (91:5–6). He recalled the Vulgate text from his Catholic upbringing, but here he is offering it (untranslated) to a magazine audience that would find it exotic and even exciting, and that is the point.

In the King James, the text reads: “His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness.”

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