Growing up in Cache Valley, Erin Stiles was no stranger to the devil — or at least stories about him.
She remembers a number of occasions when one of her friends, all Latter-day Saints, would pipe up to inform the rest of the group that Lucifer had recently paid a visit, perching himself on the bed.
For years, Stiles, raised Episcopalian, filed away these memories as mere extensions of imaginative play.
“Growing up, [I] just knew that Mormons played the piano and had spirits come to them,” she said. Whereas, Episcopalians “drove Vanagons and my mom didn’t wear makeup. That was how I divided the world.”
It wasn’t until years later, when she was rifling around in archives at Utah State University, that the anthropologist of religion began to see these childhood recollections for what they are — examples of the rich lore regarding the spirit world that is central to “everyday Mormonism” in northern Utah.
In her new book, “The Devil Sat on My Bed: Encounters With the Spirit World in Mormon Utah,” Stiles, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, returns to these stories and the valley that raised her. In doing so, she comes to better understand how common these encounters are among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living there (and, to a lesser extent, in Utah generally), and the myriad ways locals share and understand them.
Her findings underscore, she said, a particularly Utah — and even Cache Valley — strain of the region’s dominant faith, that of an “enchanted way of being in the world,” where benevolent and evil spirits alike can appear at any time.
Missionaries and malevolent spirits
In her book, Stiles divides the types of spiritual encounters into benevolent and malevolent. The former, she said, are almost always kin — be it unborn future children or departed loved ones — and recognizable.
“The good spirits, you can always tell” who it is, she said. “They’re not just gendered, but named, like ‘That was Grandma’ or ‘I’m your future daughter.’”
Not so for the bad ones.
Latter-day Saint theology describes a war in heaven before the creation of the world. During it, Satan swayed a third of God’s spirit children. Those who followed him, so the belief goes, were banned from ever being born and receiving bodies. Bitter and envious of the living, these spirits roam the planet looking to sabotage the righteous and torment the wayward.
It’s within this framing that Stiles’ interviewees viewed their encounters with malevolent spirits, she said, noting that the church’s flagship Missionary Training Center, in Provo, and missions in general were especially fertile ground for run-ins with demons.
Her favorite example included two male missionaries serving in England who began hearing a female spirit in their flat.
“The evil spirits are never identified as individuals,” Stiles explained, “and aren’t always gendered. But this one was a woman’s voice, whispering in their ears at night to the point where they were accused of having girls in their flat, which is a big no-no, of course.”
Desperate, the missionaries, invoking their priesthood, cast her out through prayer, an event that turned out to be disappointingly mundane.
The man recalling the experience acknowledged he “was hoping it would be more dramatic, like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” Stiles said. Instead, the voice simply stopped.
“He explained that the reason that he thought the spirit was harassing them was because they were really quite successful,” Stiles said. “They had a lot of baptisms and in a place where it wasn’t easy to get a lot of baptisms.”
A text from a deceased mother
In addition to being identifiable, altruistic visitors from beyond are always portrayed as there to help, whether offering comfort, guidance or protection.
A woman Stiles interviewed spoke of a number of encounters with her mother, who died when the girl was 10. Now 53, “Lynn,” as Stiles refers to her in the book, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the messages she has received through the years have reassured her that her mother is still aware of, and engaged in, her life, and that there was a greater, self-sacrificial purpose behind her death — one that served to protect the family (like Stiles, The Tribune is not identifying the individual due to the sensitive nature of her story).
“I haven’t ever seen her, but that doesn’t surprise me,” Lynn said, referring to her mother. “When she died, I used to pray that I wouldn’t see her because I was afraid it would scare me.”
Instead, Lynn explained, she has heard her mom’s voice on occasion, and once received a text from her — sent from a friend’s number but which her friend has no record or memory of sending.
These experiences have taught Lynn “that there are agreements made prior to this Earth life” and “that loved ones are always doing their best, through love, to help future generations. I would never have thought that.”
Stiles said this kind of increased faith in family connections that extend beyond this life and world was a common takeaway among those she interviewed.
“It really confirmed for them the reality of the conception of the eternal family,” she said, “a key — if not the key — teaching of the church.”
While researching the book, Stiles never came across a Cache Valley Latter-day Saint who thought her inquiries about spiritual encounters were strange.
“Not one person said, ‘Oh, this is crazy’ or ‘This is silly. Why are you researching this?’” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, yes, these things happen all the time.’”
This free sharing of stories involving interactions with the spirit world among Latter-day Saints in northern Utah — and, to some extent, the Beehive State generally — acts as “cultural kindling” that, she argued, provides the fuel for additional, similar stories.
“Because you know all these stories and you grow up hearing these stories,” she said, “you’re able to interpret these experiences in a particular way.”
The result is a distinct version of the faith in which the dividing line between the physical and spiritual worlds is particularly porous.
A radical faith tradition
Latter-day Saint folklorist Christopher Blythe is less sure that Cache Valley and its environs are all that different when it comes to non-Utah members’ reports of interactions with the spirit world.
“I actually think her claims,” the Brigham Young University professor said, “are applicable to Mormons widely.”
Blythe spoke highly of the book, explaining that the stories Stiles uncovered matter far beyond whether they are true.
“These experiences tell us what Mormonism looks like when you forget about priesthood hierarchies and separating men from women,” said the co-host of “Angels and Seerstones: A Latter-day Saint Folklore Podcast.” “This is just the raw stuff.”
He added: “Interactions with the supernatural, the divine, the angelic — that’s what it means to be a Mormon.”
Referring to the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, Blythe said that “the idea that you can have an angel appear to a 13-year-old and you can see visions through a rock — it really represents just how radical this faith tradition is.”
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