Getting Spooked: Evangelicals, Superstition and the Supernatural

by Graham Veale

After the Second World War, many of the Filipino partisans who had fought the Japanese turned their guns on corrupt landlords. Fearing a communist takeover, the CIA sent Colonel Edward Landsdale to save the region from the Red Peril. Landsdale had two outstanding qualifications: he had prior experience of liaising with the Philippine guerrilla forces and he was a former San Francisco advertising executive. He knew that the Huk rebellion could not be prevented through force of arms alone. Rather, it required psychological and political warfare.

As well as winning over the hearts and minds of peasants and patricians to the American war, Landsdale used the ‘black arts’ of psychological warfare. One of his favourite psy-op techniques was to send soldiers into villages at night to paint “evil-eye” icons on the walls of houses facing the homes of suspected terrorists. Suspects were terrified by that they had been cursed; morale amongst the “Huk” rebels plummeted.

Bizarrely – yet effectively – Landsdale enlisted vampires and soothsayers in his cause. His agents spread a rumour that a famous clairvoyant called Ilocos Norte had prophesied that the asuang , a local vampire, would prey on the dark hearted. Commandos then seized a lone Huk sentry and strangled him. The body was exsanguinated, hung upside-down from a tree, and two puncture holes were made in the jugular.  Huk guerrilla units

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lived on the edge of their nerves in swamps and on mountains; the constant threat of betrayal or ambush made paranoia an essential life skill. So when the unfortunate sentry’s comrades discovered him the next morning they believed that the undead had taken sides with Uncle Sam and fled to a safer region.

In the worst years of Northern Ireland’s troubles, British military intelligence attempted a similar operation. They wanted Christians to believe that paramilitary violence had opened a door to dark forces. Agents leaked stories to newspapers about black masses, placed black candles in abandoned buildings, and rumoured that some murders were “ritual killings”. The operation was not successful. This campaign failed to slow the growth of paramilitarism; Ulstermen didn’t believe that the devil’s followers had rode out in the towns of Tyrone, Armagh and Down.

It would be nice to believe that the American operation succeeded and the British operation failed because Ulster’s evangelicals were a community of rational, critical believers. I’m not convinced. The Americans targeted specific individuals – suspected terrorists – with a specific aim – to shock and demoralise them. Whereas British Intelligence simply wanted to create a subtle link in the public’s minds between terrorism and supernatural evil. Someone should have told them that subtlety isn’t our defining characteristic. No-one linked Satanism with terrorism; but many gleefully accepted that supernatural forces were at work in our province…

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Getting Spooked: Evangelicals, Superstition and the Supernatural – Saints and Sceptics