Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect?
The final free story in our month’s-long adventure of free reading is John Wiswell’s “Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect?” which shares a unique perspective on an experiment of sorts, gone very, very wrong. ~ Fran Wilde, July 31, 2022.
Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect?
By John Wiswell
The humans have no idea we’re here.
Preliminary data suggests all 3,105 residents of Delphi, New Mexico, are prone to believing in demons. They meet every major educational, cultural, and economic profile for superstition. Their strip malls are half-empty, and their prospects are little better. All three churches in town are preoccupied with the role of Satan in modern America, but Satan is just one of many demons. These people could believe in others.
These people will believe in others.
And nothing will come of it.
Did the recorder pick that up? My new junior researcher, Ezazel, is already making a mockery of our experiment by saying we are evidence of their belief. But we did not come into existence because of the beliefs of humans. Not one single demon wing has ever been believed into existence. I was trifling with this planet when the first monkey was born, Ezazel.
In our experiments in Delphi, we will demonstrate that human belief does not create demons. It creates superstitions, hysteria, and other factors that induce humans into believing they are in the presence of the infernal. Demons are certainly not creations of the human imagination. We are the masters of it.
No, I am not monologuing. Shut up, Ezazel.
* * *
For the first phase, we randomly selected three human youths from different communities for perturbation. Each perturbation lasted the standard fifteen-minute duration. The youths were afflicted by a night terror in which they experienced the undisguised face of my junior researcher, Ezazel. All three youths exhibited the typical distresses, with no convulsions or organ failures reaching life-threatening levels. The gravest response was one youth swallowing a few of her teeth—no more than six of them. It was hardly grounds to file an ethics report, but Ezazel is a stickler.
As predicted, the families of the youths displayed emotional distress and hyperbolic social responses. They shuttled their young to healthcare facilities, which proved each youth was not terminally harmed. Did you put that in your ethics report, Ezazel?
Oh shut up, Ezazel.
Regardless, the youths showed lasting psychological trauma and demonstrated the implanted traits. Each spoke for at least ten minutes in suitably atypical language. Aftershock convulsions and speaking in foreign tongues are triggered by being in a large-enough group. Their communities spread the word soon enough. Following a few trivial perturbations, such as causing the nearest church to burst into flame, the town of Delphi reached belief saturation of over 60 percent in the first hours of the morning. By dusk of the second day, belief saturation was over 90 percent.
Saturation of belief in infernal forces was at 88 percent among the human population for the initial five-day period. This was with no further perturbations. Delphi, New Mexico, is convinced a demon walks among them.
And yet it is just Ezazel and myself in the observation lab. Do you see the faces of any other demons spontaneously popping into existence, Ezazel? Do we have a third researcher who wants a byline in our study now?
No. We do not have any company. So unclench your wings for a minute. Thus far, human belief in demons has not caused any change in the laws of physics. This is because it does not work that way. Do you disagree, Ezazel?
Now, where did he go?
* * *
The humans of Delphi have given us a gift. One of the targeted youths we used to simulate demonic possession was the recipient of a bargain-basement exorcism that could not have evicted a turd from a mouse. While not potent in its ritual power, the exorcism was psychologically cruel and surely broke many of the local laws. If I were human, I would have some sharp words for exorcists.
As a professional demon who has never been caught by such rubes, I mostly have appreciation for them. Word of the exorcism sent belief levels soaring. For the ensuing three days, belief saturation in Delphi exceeded 95 percent.
We have stable records for lunar cycles, barometric pressure, tectonic movement, psychic discharge, and an array of extrasensory perception data. In no perceivable category has anything deviated from reasonable expectation. If a demon has spontaneously popped into existence due to human faith, it is being awfully quiet.
What? No, Ezazel. Your pranks are not funny. You did not “see” something.
Something you saw out of the corner of your eye is not data. It is barely an anecdote. After this experiment, I am never working with a junior researcher again. This is preposterous.
Ours is a standard laboratory on the standard astral plane. Direct human contact would be impossible. No one in their primitive, rational world can look in the direction we sit. We are alone here.
Fine. Fine, Ezazel. For the record: my junior researcher in this experiment claims to have observed a humanoid figure in our laboratory. Although I did not see this, nor did it appear in any of our recordings, it was allegedly sighted shortly after the three heads of the local churches held their joint press conference at the Delphi town hall. This was around when all electricity in town went out for a moment. It was only a moment. Easily explainable.
I’m saying it, Ezazel. Your imaginary figure was generally humanoid. It was androgynous and naked, with black horse hair along its legs, and cloven hooves for feet. It had humanoid facial features, although it had no eyes. And what? Yes, two small horns on its forehead.
I am submitting for the record that this description does not match any genuine demonic physiology. What does it match? Does it sound familiar? Because it precisely matches the Halloween decorations that citizens of Delphi put up around their homes. A suggestible demon could easily glimpse these decorations on our viewing portals and mistake them for something significant.
Stop whining, Ezazel. That is obviously what happened.
* * *
Naturally, there have been some exoduses from Delphi, but population retention hovers around 2,800. We always select communities like this one that do not have the resources to conveniently leave the testing area. If capitalism can exploit people, then so can demons.
The lowest belief saturation among the population was 94 percent in the 7:00 a.m. hour on Tuesday. You simply cannot expect a modern populace to believe in demons any more than these humans do. They are absolutely convinced that demons are out there and are harming them. What fools.
Some residents of Delphi have even taken to naming their fictional demon. What is it, Ezazel?
“Mr. Zed.” How creative.
Church attendance is skyrocketing. All Halloween festivities have been canceled. Most seasonal decorations have been removed, including all of them that bear any resemblance to their idea of Satan. It is quaint. Humans are taking to prayer as though God is running this experiment. I don’t see God anywhere in this lab, do you, Ezazel?
These God-fearing, Satan-fearing, decoration-fearing humans have begun displaying the traditional incidents of vandalism and violence. They are targeting the people they always do when they are angry. Adults accuse one another’s young of being the true Mr. Zed. They dread being alone, and they fear what lurks inside one another. These humans believe a demon could be anywhere among them.
They are wrong. There are only two demons in this town, and it is us. We wear the wings in this civilization.
If human faith had any special properties to it, their Mr. Zed would appear among them. Not one possession has occurred that was not merely a simulation by us.
No, those seven were not possessions. A few impressionable youths experienced some physiological distress as a result of the turmoil in their community. None of them were possessed by anything. Not only did those psychosomatic possession-like events not pass any validation test, but there was no reading of a demon exiting those youths. Where would this demon have gone? What did it do for the last four days?
Oh, right. My junior researcher feels like he’s being watched. A grown demon surrounded by surveillance equipment feels like he’s being watched and gives up on science. It’s pathetic. Do you also believe in—
Deuces! What was that? Ezazel, don’t you dare put your hands on me.
Don’t pretend it wasn’t you. It obviously was.
Oh, say you were across the room. Then who just threw me to the floor? I’m going to report you for this prank. You younger demons are all alike. No manners. No respect.
You will not make a mockery of my experiment. No one will.
* * *
Testing in Delphi continues today with nothing too out of the ordinary. We are in total control—
* * *
Is this on now? Good.
As I was trying to say, we remain in control of the experiment. Some unexpected weather phenomena may be related to interference in our readings, but it’s nothing I cannot—
* * *
It’s working again. I can take it from here, Ezazel. You can go back to hiding in your corner.
We lost power for a portion of this morning. Ezazel claims it was due to the weather. Sleet does not have an effect on demonic equipment. We are not an amateur outlet. We are in—
Did the power flicker again? Ezazel, go check on the portals.
Regardless of some technical issues, the equipment did come back online after the sleet terminated. The people of Delphi fully believe this unseasonal weather is the result of demonic activity. Attempted consecrations and exorcisms are skyrocketing. You could not make these people believe more profoundly in their precious Mr. Zed. They have gone as far as banning the use of his name. They dread a creature that is not there. Isn’t that—
Ezazel, I said if you put your hands on me one more time, I’d have your wings. I swear, I’m going to carve them off with a butter knife. Do you think it’s funny tossing me across the room? You think I’m scared of your games?
Don’t you dare abandon this project! Get back here this instant.
I can’t see that impudent brat anywhere. I’ll have your wings, Ezazel. These Halloween decorations are not funny! Where the deuces did these all come from? There are hundreds. Thousands.
I am not scared of this! This childishness ends right now. I’m going to count to three and you’re going to come out and confess, or I’ll have your wings and then I’ll have you barred from the entirety of demonic academia.
Ezazel, is that you? I’m not joking. Show yourself.
* * *
It’ll be all right. It’ll be fine. We’re in control of this situation.
I know you’re right there. But, still, stand closer.
No, there’s no reason we have to huddle together. Just, do it. Maybe hold my hand.
My junior researcher, Ezazel, abandoned his post in the middle of the power outage, seemingly to abandon the astral plane entirely. But he has returned to me. In a very different mood now, aren’t you? Calmer. Less clever of tongue. Like a brand-new person. I didn’t know what had come over you at first.
Together we have agreed to let bygones be bygones. We are more comfortable together, yes?
Ezazel reminds me that I have had my doubts as well. It’s true, Ezazel. I may have witnessed something out of the ordinary before the most recent power outage. My wings still aren’t fully healed from the event.
I’m willing to admit that this project may have overlooked certain factors about Delphi. Perhaps it is the potency of its population, or the pluckiness of the human spirit that poets like so much. Who is to say, beyond the data?
We may have something interesting. And if it is conclusive that a being were to be believed into existence, and that being is now listening to our records, well, wouldn’t it be nice if our data got back to the rest of the civilized world? If we could bring that great and awful being the fame it likely desired and deserved?
Which we could only do if we were unharmed.
Obviously, we’ve meant no offense by performing this research. We’re mere servants of knowledge and peace.
In the interest of peace, I propose reducing the level of belief on demonic presence within Delphi. Ezazel is worried, but he’s inexperienced. It will be simple. We can possess key town members like the mayor and priests in order to spread information debunking the presence of Mr. Zed. We can pin these freak storms on climate change, and the unusual behavior of youths on narcotics and tainted groundwater. With lowered belief saturation, we hope to see a reduction of undesirable incidents.
* * *
I think you made him mad, Ezazel.
No, it was not me! It was your idea to try to convince his believers that he wasn’t real. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work.
Now you’ve gotten us trapped. I can’t evanesce out of the lab anymore—not through a single surface. Basic demonic transcendence is broken. And since every square inch of my laboratory is papered over by Satanic Halloween decorations, I believe I know who is angry with you.
Your plan failed us, Ezazel. You’re going to have to take accountability.
Given the townspeople are chanting about a sacrifice, I also think I know what Mr. Zed wants. Let’s get it over with. Consider this your contribution to the sciences, Ezazel.
Oh yes, it’s going to be you. Who the deuces else would it be?
Why are you laughing? Why have you acted so strangely all day?
You’re going to make Mr. Zed even angrier. Do you want me to hit you?
Fine. Fine, I’ll— Ah!
How did you do that to my hand? What is this? Is this stigmata? What the deuces?
Ezazel? When did you get so tall?
What do you mean, when did we meet? You were assigned to this project against my will. I was saddled with your incompetence. You probably have some powerful uncle in the infernal academia.
Yes, we met on our first day in Delphi. When I said you were like a brand-new person because of how sour you’ve gotten, it was a figure of speech. You are not renewed.
You’re not from Delphi. Demons aren’t born on Earth, Ezazel. Make sense.
No. What’s happening to your voice? How are your wings doing that?
Ezazel, make sense this instant or I’ll . . . Oh no.
No, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry, Ez. . . . Ez. . . .
Mr. Zed. Is that what you prefer to be called?
I apologize, Mr. Zed. Please let go of my wings. I’ll do anything. Please, not my wings. Anything but my wings. I’ll say whatever you want. I’ll record whatever you want. Tell me what to do.
Yes, I believe. Of course I believe. I do better than believe: I know. What can I do? What will appease you? I didn’t realize you’d possessed Ezazel. I’d never seen a demon possess a demon before.
How did we get so high up? You can see all the fires they’ve lit from here. Deuces.
Yes. I know what’s down there. I can hear everyone in Delphi singing for the sacrifice. You care for those people, don’t you? Because they made you? Because their fear and faith are your sustenance? I’m sorry. I’ll apologize to them in person for the harassments of my project. It was Ezazel’s idea. I’ll never do another human experiment again.
How isn’t that enough? What more can I do?
Me? I’m supposed to interrupt their human sacrifices? You are fonder of them than I’d expect. Some demons enjoy their home culture, the way someone gets attached to office furniture. So you don’t want them to kill one another for you. You have principles. I can respect that.
If you detest sacrifices so much, then I can go tell them that. I’ll do it for you. Just release my wings.
Wait. You do like sacrifices? What kind?
You like humans and you don’t want them to sacrifice one another? I don’t follow. If they can’t sacrifice one another to appease you, then what are they supposed to sacrifice?
Oh. Oh deuces.
Thank you for joining The Sunday Morning Transport’s journey this week.
John Wiswell is a Nebula-winning author who lives in the middle of the woods. John's work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, LeVar Burton Reads, Nature Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, the No Sleep podcast, Nightmare Magazine, Cossmass Infinities, Daily Science Fiction, Cast of Wonders, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and more. He has been a finalist for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards.
“Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect?” © John Wiswell, 2022.
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That managed to be a real hoot, despite (because of?) the real hints of darkness. I work in academia, and I absolutely recognize the personalities at play here, hahaha.