Plenty of kids grow up being fascinated by the supernatural world and stories about witches, ghosts and vampires. Most of them do not grow up as did Mikki Brock, associate professor of history at Washington and Lee University, to become a scholar of demonology and witchcraft. Brock brings her expertise to Gallery 5 on Jan. 22 when Profs and Pints Richmond presents “Speak of the Devil,” an afternoon devoted to one of her favorite subjects.
Just like it sounds, Profs and Pints brings college instructors into bars and cafes to speak and spark discussion. Brock gave her first talk in D.C. in 2018 and was immediately sold on the experience. She’s since averaged two such talks a year about Satan over the ages. As she sees it, Profs and Pints taps into the most exciting and engaging parts of learning.
“It offers the ability to hear talks on fascinating and wide-ranging topics by experts in their fields, without the pressure of exams or note-taking,” Brock explains. The talks are always informative and often entertaining, followed by the opportunity for participants to engage in an extended Q&A with the speaker. “The energy in the room during these talks is always positive and upbeat and the enthusiasm of the audience is really rewarding as an educator. Plus, there’s always good beer.”
As a professor at Washington & Lee, Brock teaches about things that go bump in the night, including classes on the history of the devil, witches and ghosts, along with more traditional classes related to British and European history. Scottish history is her specialty, but at a small liberal arts college, she’s able to teach classes such as England in the Age of Shakespeare and Saints and Sinners in the Puritan Atlantic, both on tap for the spring semester. She sees the ongoing interest in the devil as the result of how thin the line between fear and fascination has always been, with Satan continuing to skate that line. And because the devil can be comedic, dangerous, tantalizing or horrifying, his malleability gives him staying power.
Moreover – and this is the dark part of her answer – the devil offers society a useful tool, a way to demonize others. He helps offer a movable, useful fiction: the idea of an anti-human society in league with Satan committing things like cannibalistic infanticide and harmful magic. The ideas that underpin belief in demonic witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries derived in many ways from the beliefs about supposed heretics in the 12th and 13th centuries engaging in satanic activity. Ideas about heretics came largely from fantasies about Jewish communities, blood libel, and other anti-Semitic tropes. And those ideas closely resemble some of the charges levied against early Christians by Roman authorities. It’s a long, ugly pattern.
Her point is that using the devil as a tool of demonization, not just of a few but of a whole group, has a long and powerful history, one that’s still with us. “At the core of conspiracy theories like QAnon and “Pizzagate,” you’ll find the same thing that’s at the core of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and at the core of the witch trials,” Brock explains. “It’s this malleable, dangerous fiction, a way for a community to define itself by who and what it hates.”
As for how interested in Satan and demonology 21st century college students are, she’s emphatic. “Very! I teach an 8 a.m. course on the History of the Devil and it’s always full,” she marvels. “Sometimes I joke that 8 a.m. is a bit too early for some of the conversations we have about things like demon sex.”
She’s convinced students remain interested in the devil for multiple reasons. They wonder, is this actually the subject of serious academic study? How can a figure like Satan have a history, and what is it like to actually study it? Whether they’re believers or not, 21st century American students live in a culture saturated with the demonic, from craft beer names to TV shows like “Supernatural” and “Lucifer,” to the ongoing demonization of others. Perhaps most important, the devil remains a personification of the concept of evil.
“As such, the devil acts as a black mirror for society, a repository for thinking about and understanding evil and the bad things that happen in the world,” Brock says. “Satan is a tool of negative self-definition, and when they study the demonic, they’re really studying their own world and the history that made it.”
Of course, once demon sex becomes part of the conversation, it begs the question as to whether Satan remains a strictly religious character or part of the greater culture. Brock says it’s hard to separate religion from culture more generally because while Satan is a character who comes from scripture, he’s always been shaped by the culture of a given time and place. “Even now, in a world that is more ostensibly secular, the devil maintains his fundamental religious meanings,” she says. “Even if it isn’t explicit, the ways in which we understand Satan are very much a product of his long and potent role in the Christian tradition.”
Profs and Pints’ “Speak of the Devil” promises an afternoon devoted to the changing role of Satan, who remains an influential figure in culture, literature and even political discourse. The difference, as Brock points out, is that not believing in the devil is a possibility now in ways completely unthinkable a few hundred years ago. The good news is that because of that shift, Satan is now compelling fodder for discussion in an art/music/bar space such as Gallery 5. As for whether the evil one would find that acceptable or not, Brock has an educated opinion.
“Strong drinks and cutting-edge art? I think he’d approve!”
Profs and Pints Richmond presents “Speak of the Devil” with Mikki Broth will be held on Jan. 22, 3-5 p.m. at Gallery 5, 200 W. Marshall St., Tickets at gallery5arts.org