painting The gates of hell

A Short History of Evil (REL S-581)

Instructor: Dr. Drew Thomases

This course explores “evil,” both its meaning, and how the language of evil has been used by diverse religious communities. We will address a wide range of subject matter, including but not limited to portrayals of Satan and hell, conceptions of vampires and demons in poetry and pop culture, literature on the Holocaust, and contemporary conversations about war, terrorism, and torture. Ultimately, the goal is not simply to identify instances of evil, but instead to see how different people use the word and concept of “evil” in order to articulate complex feelings of loss, fear, and alienation. What, according to different peoples and different religious traditions, really counts as “evil”? Why call a thing, person, or event “evil” when you could choose a different word? The course combines scholarly material with literature, art, and film, the idea being that all types of media inform the way we perceive and understand evil in our world.

In the fall of 2016, the final project for this course was not a final exam or a final essay, but a podcast. Podcasts are digital audio files that, through incorporating narration or music or interviews (or all of the above), tell a story. The stories that students chose to tell were remarkably different, the only requirement being that every podcast both engaged with the very broad concept of "evil," and presented the topic in a way that was creative and thought-provoking.

Listen to the podcasts below, and stay tuned for when this class will be taught again!

William Blake Painting

Diabolus in Musica

By Chris Conner

This podcast uses historical context and musical examples to examine the current status of the tritone. I examine how the interpretations of music and symbolic meaning change over time, specifically in the case of the tritone and its relationship to the idea of evil.


William Blake Painting

Cowboy Hell?

By Dee Reed

The purpose of this podcast is to identify the concepts of evil specific to the western/cowboy set, and to contrast those found perceptions, feelings, and fears with similar but more general thoughts on the topic of evil. More specifically, the podcast deconstructs the lyrics of a legendary Country-Western song that describes a cowboy’s interaction with an evil-inspired scenario. The encounter ultimately warns of the consequences of a cowboy hell.


William Blake Painting

The Evil Other

By Coleen Geraghty

"Othering" is the process or technique of characterizing a person as different—or wholly “Other”—in order to dominate that person. This is the subject of the following podcast. We begin with the man who first wrote about “Othering,” and end with thoughts about how such a technique is used in the United States today.


William Blake Painting

Dungeons & Dragons, and the Devil

By Brian Mallard

This podcast is essentially an examination of the historical and religious inspirations for one of the most powerful examples of evil in the popular roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons: Asmodeus. Asmodeus has been altered dramatically from his original depictions to a form in the game wherein he basically amounts to Hollywood’s ideal of the devil. This means that D&D has possibly opened themselves up to criticism about devil normalization, which we explore in the conclusion of the podcast.


William Blake Painting

Evil Othering in the AIDS Crisis

By Mathew Wros

The AIDS virus is a deadly epidemic, killing thousands of people each year. When it first appeared, anti-LGBT bias prevented the government from taking action to stop it before it spread too far. Here, I look into why Reagan did not react immediately, focusing on the rhetoric used by the right against LGBT groups and its very deadly effect on the community.


William Blake Painting

Doctor Doom: The Construction and Nature of Evil

By Jamey Keeton

This podcast offers a brief background on Doctor Doom and his appearance in Doomwar. Through this lens, I explore the construction of evil in contemporary pop-culture, and how American comic-books engage with notions of evil through the archetype of the supervillain.


William Blake Painting

This is Halloween!

By Austin Maass

This is a podcast discussing the origins of Halloween. I discuss the origins of the holiday and the traditions of the pagans who originally practiced it.


William Blake Painting

The Story of Lilith

By Leah Gregory

This podcast offers an exploration of the “evil” depiction of women, exemplified by the extra-canonical character, Lilith, from the Biblical story of creation in Genesis. This research is set against the backdrop of “anonymous” male commentary from public online video sources, offering listeners a small glimpse at the continued social relevance of the Lilith narrative.


William Blake Painting

An Interview on the Topic of Magic

By Samantha Young

When talking about magic a number of things come to mind. Movies like The Craft and Harry Potter have made magic a mainstream fantasy, but there is also historical evidence for the practice of magic. The most popular examples of this are the Salem Witch trials or witch-hunts in Medieval Europe, but few know about magical practices in the ancient world. Here, I interview Dr. Elizabeth Pollard, an expert on witchcraft in the Roman Empire.


William Blake Painting

The “Real” Vampires of Eighteenth Century Serbia

By Thomas Murphy

For eighteenth century Serbians, vampires were considered a very real “evil,” responsible for countless deaths and curses. Today we view vampires as mythological creatures, and often portray them in fiction and pop culture as complex or even sympathetic characters. Is “evil” universal? Can our world always be broken into clear-cut “good”/“evil” sides? The eighteenth century case studies of Petar Blagojevich and Arnold Paole show how the definition of “evil” can often be heavily dependent upon our era, region, knowledge, and culture.


William Blake Painting

Magical Language and the Manufacturing of Evil

By Brian Walnum

Working from the premise that language is magic, this podcast investigates the question: Does the evil other truly exist, or is it created by social engineers via propaganda to control the masses?


William Blake Painting

Buddhist Hell

By Sarah Kemp

This podcast looks to Naraka, the Buddhist Hell realm. We will be discussing the history of Naraka, the type of actions—evil or banal—that cause a person to be sent to this realm, the numerous levels of Buddhist hell, and one monks’ version of a hell house.


William Blake Painting

Demons in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser

By Wade Templeton

The concept of demons has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. In this podcast, I explore the concept of demons through the lens of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser movie series, focusing specifically on the figure of Pinhead.


Paintings by William Blake (1757–1827)