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'Demon in the White House' is all spooky, no substance

Television

‘Demon in the White House’ is all spooky, no substance

Unless you really want to believe Franklin Pierce’s wife is responsible for all our national woes.

No, the title in the headline is not a commentary on contemporary American politics, or of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Rather, it refers to a new “Shock Doc” from Discovery+, which premiered on November 26.

Based on the novel The Residence, by Andrew Pyper, the Demon in the White House “uncloaks the historic origins of the horror of two grieving First Ladies. Did they unwittingly invite an evil presence with a malevolent agenda that may still torment America’s presidents, as well as their families, visitors, and closest advisors?”

For nearly an hour and a half, self-professed paranormal experts and authors argue, what *IF* the White House is a focal point for negative energy?  What *IF* seances were held in the White House? What *IF* a demonic spirit inhabited the White House and exerted an influence on the President of the United States?

Those are some pretty big “what ifs”, so what’s the evidence?

'Demon in the White House' spooky figure

Within the first five minutes of Demon in the White House, author Jeff Belanger makes an appeal to authority, arguing, “Presidents have had ghostly experiences. First Ladies, military aides; when those folks say they’ve seen a ghost, that’s the most credible witness you will ever find.”

There are a couple of important (and unjustified) assumptions being made here. First, why should Presidents, First Ladies, or military aides make any more credible witnesses than the rest of us? Second, it’s a well-established fact that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. People are prone to make cognitive errors, and even those memories which witnesses have a high degree of confidence in may consist of details that have been modified or substituted, or be missing in details altogether.

Demon in the White House alleges that the history of haunting in the Executive Residence began with the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce in 1853. Two months prior to taking office, Pierce’s oldest son, Benny (alternatively spelled “Bennie”), was tragically killed in a train wreck. First Lady Jane Pierce, described as devoutly religious and coming from a strict Calvinist background, nevertheless participated in seances in the hopes of contacting her dead son.

Demon in the White House also alleges that Pierce invited Maggie Fox, one of the infamous Fox sisters responsible for starting the Spiritualism craze, to the White House to conduct a spirit circle session, a fact corroborated in the book Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. It was these seances conducted by Fox which the show suggests was responsible for unleashing a ghostly or demonic entity into the White House.

Author John Buescher refers to a letter written to Fox by her husband, Elisha Kent Kane, in which he orders her, “You have to stop meeting with Mrs. Pierce. I know you’ve done it and more than once.” Demon in the White House portrays Spiritualism as risky business, and Kane’s admonishment to his wife as coming from a place of genuine concern for her safety, which supports the show’s narrative. However, the letters of correspondence between Fox and Kane, published in 1866 in a volume called The Love-Life of Dr. Kane, reveal what Kane actually said was:

Don’t rap for Mrs. Pierce. Remember your promise to me. A promise my hand has just told me has been twice broken within these forty-eight hours. How much oftener I don’t know.

Furthermore, it becomes clear that Kane’s motivation for trying persuade Fox to give up the Spiritualist racket had nothing to do with the supernatural, but were entirely carnal:

Maggie, if I had my way with you, I would send you to school and learn you to live your life over again. You should forget the r-pp-gs (I never mention the name now), and come out like gold purified in the furnace; a pure simple-hearted trusting girl. Once that, Maggie, and you would love me.

Amusingly, self-proclaimed paranormal expert Joshua Warren further supports the idea that the seances conducted within the White House invited a demonic force, stating, “When they start pursuing these methods and they don’t know exactly what they’re doing, I believe they can let terrible things into the White House.” Bizarrely, he supports this by citing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which exacerbated the already violent national divide over the issue of slavery. Journalist and independent historian Jason Emerson states that when the Act was first proposed, “[Pierce] opposed it. He was not in favor of it. And then all of a sudden, his opinion was turned around.”

While the show implies this change of heart may have been due to demonic influence, the reality is much simpler — Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas met with Pierce through Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, the-future-leader-of-the-Confederate-States-of-America Jefferson Davis), and persuaded the president to support the Act. And in fact, Emerson’s short quote was taken out of context, as he told me through email:

As a historian, my response to the interviewer was a historical, fact-based explanation of Pierce’s change of mind, which was due completely to his conversations with Stephen Douglas along with other political pressures. I did not state, suggest, or imply in any way that there was anything supernatural about it …

Ultimately, Demon in the White House presents nothing in the way of evidence for either of its central claims — that a ghost or a demonic entity (the show can’t make up its mind which) was invited into the White House by seances conducted by First Lady Jane Pierce, and that whatever this spirit is exerts a negative influence on the President of the United States. The self-proclaimed paranormal experts are just anomaly hunting, pointing to events and saying, “This happened, and then this happened. Isn’t that weird?”

To someone who already believes that ghosts and demons are real? Maybe. To more skeptically inclined folks, Demon in the White House is just another example of people exploiting actual tragedies for the sake of spinning a supernatural narrative.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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