The Demon Within

Even the demons believe—and shudder!James 2:19 (ESV)

C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is a satirical series of letters from a demon to his nephew about temptation and spiritual warfare. This classic apologetic text is a whimsical take on serious Christian theological issues. In 2023, the film Nefarious was released, based on the novel A Nefarious Plot by Steve Deace, which is also a fictional exploration of the influence of the demonic realm upon our world. Unlike the lighthearted nature of Screwtape, however, Nefarious is a horror/psychological thriller movie. It centers on the conversation between an atheist psychologist (Dr. James Martin) and a convict scheduled for execution (Edward Wayne Brady). Edward has been granted a final evaluation to determine whether he is insane and ineligible for the death penalty or if his claims about himself are true—that he is possessed by a demon named Nefarious.

Nefarious explores a wide range of theological and apologetic topics, but most prominent are the nature of evil and the sanctity of life. Dr. Martin is a self-professed atheist who doesn’t believe in God, demons, or objective good and evil. Ironically, Nefarious understands perfectly well how real those things are. That is what is truly horrifying about this film—not the traditional horror movie fare, such as blood, gore, grotesque monsters, jump scares, etc. No, the most terrifying thing about this film is that the demon—a being set on the destruction of all humanity—understands the world better than an intelligent, well-educated psychologist. As Nefarious says, “I am the most rational being you will ever meet.” Prior to meeting with Edward, the prison warden warns Dr. Martin that Edward is an expert manipulator. Nefarious does not manipulate Dr. Martin with lies and deceit, however. Rather, he uses spiritual truths about reality that the psychologist refuses to accept.

Desensitized to Evil
Nefarious claims that the demons have achieved their goal by completely blinding society to evil. People see it and either don’t recognize it or simply don’t care. How has this been achieved? Through the media we consume. Humans enjoy evil or are desensitized to it. The film illustrates this through Dr. Martin’s “three murders.” Although Edward has murdered at least eleven people, he claims the psychologist will have committed three murders of his own by the end of the day. Nefarious reminds Dr. Martin that he had his mother euthanized. He claims she was sick and suffering, yet the demon reminds him that he also gained millions of dollars from it. Nefarious knows that the doctor’s girlfriend is pregnant and is in the process of having an abortion while the two speak. The demon states that the girlfriend was in love with Dr. Martin, but he values his career more than his unborn child. In what may be the most chilling moment of the film, the demon informs Dr. Martin of the exact moment the baby is being killed and declares that all of Hell rejoices at the destruction of the unborn child. The third murder is Edward himself. Dr. Martin is prepared to declare Edward insane, which would spare the inmate from execution. But when Nefarious attacks the psychologist and threatens his life, the doctor declares Edward sane, thus permitting the execution to continue.

The grand irony of the situation is that while Edward is set to be executed for murders he did not willingly commit, Dr. Martin is knowingly responsible for the death of three people. However, those deaths are all legal, and thus acceptable according to the law and to many people in society. Nefarious scoffs at Dr. Martin’s rationale and understands that no matter what we call the act of taking an innocent person’s life—abortion, euthanasia, death with dignity, or assisted suicide—it is still murder.

Agents of Evil
In many horror films the villains and monsters are obvious: knife-wielding murderers or grotesque monsters. While Nefarious shows us the terrifying reality of demonic forces who seek to destroy humans, it also illustrates that humans are capable of great evil. We kill the elderly because they are a burden. We destroy the unborn because an unwanted pregnancy may derail our career or other life plans. Yet, while Nefarious openly acknowledges that his cause is evil, we rationalize such acts and treat them as societal goods.

While Christians who are discerning about their media consumption may be skeptical about watching a horror movie, Nefarious is an important wake-up call for believers. It reminds us that demons are real and seek our destruction. It also shows how we overlook and allow terrible things as a society. Thus, the most horrifying aspect of the film is not the obvious evil, the demon Nefarious, but the fact that we humans can be agents of great evil as well.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at