It’s Halloween and there’s evil all around: scary movies on TV, fright parks designed to scare you out of your wits, gory displays on lawns and in stores.
But those who have brushed up against real evil in their professional lives say it’s nothing to celebrate.
Judge Edwin Kelly, administrative judge of the Circuit Court, said true evil is rare — but he’s seen it, in child abuse and domestic violence cases.
The Circuit Court handles nearly 200,000 cases a year, Kelly said. “And I would say 99.5 percent, maybe even higher, of the people that we deal with are people who are struggling, people who have made mistakes, people who have addictions that cause them to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.”
Then there are the rare cases when people commit terrible acts against those they supposedly love. And while mental illness plays a role, Kelly said, such cases go beyond that.
“I think it’s malevolence,” he said. “I think evil is really the right word. I think it is possible to look at people and say, ‘That person is evil.’ It’s the only way to explain it.”
The face of evil
It doesn’t happen often, Kelly said, “but it has happened often enough that I know the feeling of sitting on the bench and saying, ‘I just can’t understand it. It’s incomprehensible.’ And that’s the face of evil.”
Tim Carpenter is the pastor of family ministry at Bethany Church in Greenland. He said people use the word evil to describe “things that we find significantly wrong with the way we think the world is supposed to be.”
“We look at Newtown, we look at 9/11, and say there’s something evil about that,” he said.
From a Christian perspective, Carpenter said, “Evil is anything that operates outside of the way God ordained the world to be.” And, he said, “The biblical perspective would be that there are things outside of just this physical world that are connected to evil and darkness.”
Carpenter said you don’t have to look far for evidence that “this world is a broken place.” But he said the message of Christianity is that hearts can be changed, and good can triumph over evil.
Besides, he said, “If we’re dealing with supernatural realities, the God that we follow is the one who trumps all powers. There’s no demon or devil who wins the battle if you’re on his side.”
David Frankfurter of Durham spent years immersed in a study of evil for his 2006 book, “Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History.” The former director of religious studies at the University of New Hampshire now chairs the religion department at Boston University.
Frankfurter defines evil as “a label that people use to cast an action, an event, a person outside everyday human interaction or acceptable human interaction.” But he said such labeling is intellectually “lazy.”
He has studied times when people persecuted certain groups after labeling them as “evil,” including the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust and lynchings in the American South. His book also explored a more recent sort of witch hunt: “A series of panics that arose in the late 1980s that there were satanic cults all over America that were abusing children.”
“If I were to make sense of the worst things that take place, it would be that they have all begun through some process of dehumanization which often involves labeling the opponent evil,” Frankfurter said.
In the end, he said, “I don’t find any value in throwing around the word evil. It’s terrible stuff, but I also think in every one of these cases, it shows some aspect of who we are.”
Russell Dorr is a physician’s assistant from Merrimack. He recently retired, which gives him more time for his other job: chief researcher for the Master of Horror himself, author Stephen King. The two men have been friends for years.
Dorr said he doesn’t actually like “scary stuff.” When he was reading King’s new novel, “Doctor Sleep” (a sequel to “The Shining”) during the editing process, “I would have nightmares for a couple of nights because it’s really scary stuff.”
Still, Dorr said he understands the attraction of horror books and films. “I think that’s part of us, that vicariously we can sort of escape and sort of be an observer … of someone else’s pain and discomfort.”
He believes there is such a thing as real evil. In his professional life, he said, “I’ve run into people that are incredibly evil. And it’s very real, and it’s palpable when you meet it.”
“It’s frightening. You begin to get a metallic taste in your mouth, and your stomach is churning, and you just want to get away from it as quick as you can.”
An absence of light
There’s a concept in Judaism called “yetzer hara,” or evil inclination. It’s the opposing force to the inclination to make the right choices, explained Manchester Rabbi Levi Krinsky, “to be godly, to be holy and to sanctify everything around us.”
Krinsky said he’s never encountered evil in his work, which includes spiritual counseling for prisoners. “Do I see evil in them when I speak to them? No. I don’t look in their eyes and say, ‘These guys are doomed.’”
Certainly, horrific crimes such as mass murder defy human understanding, he said. “The ultimate evil doer, as we know it, is Hitler,” he said. “Taking people, separating children from moms and dads and throwing them in the (gas) chambers. What drives a person to be that evil?”
However, he said, “Darkness is just the absence of light.”
Krinsky is convinced that evil is “a scaredy cat” that runs from the light. “With enough good deeds and random acts of kindness, evil will disappear,” he said.
“And the next generation will not know the word.”