The greasy markings on my family's front door had been there for as long as I could remember, but it wasn't until one day in high school that I really noticed them—remnants of a cross smeared right above the peephole. What if someone asked me about it? How do you explain why cooking oil is always on your front door? They'll probably just think our door is dirty, I told myself.
The cross on our door, drawn in canola oil, was a symbol that our house was God's property; demonic forces had no right to be there. It was a spiritual "No Trespassing" sign. Friends, neighbors, extended family, the mailman, and the Jehovah's Witnesses who stopped by every Tuesday afternoon all stood on that same welcome mat without looking closely at our door. The evidence that my family wasn't like all the other families on our nondescript suburban block was literally under their noses, but no one ever noticed.
The grimy oil smudges were everywhere, not just on our front door. They dotted the outside walls of our house and lined the halls inside. Throughout my childhood, my mom would often walk into my bedroom holding a mug of oil. "Don't mind me," she'd say with a smile, drawing an oily glob on my door and then reaching down to put some on my forehead. "Just doing an oil line."
As a kid, I knew we were the only family in our neighborhood, maybe even the entire state, with canola oil on our front door. But back then, it wasn't embarrassing. My parents' diligence in claiming our house for God was comforting, and I felt lucky to be a member of such a small group who knew the truth about what was going on in the spiritual realm. No one else at our church, not even the pastor, seemed to understand that.
As the head of our household, Dad had more spiritual authority when it came to rebuking demons. It was his responsibility to maintain the protective barrier around our small lot. "I'm going to go draw an oil line around the house," he would say.
"Okay, Daddy!" I'd reply.
Dad almost always made his oil lines at night. Maybe it was because of his unusual work shifts. Maybe it was to prevent odd looks from the neighbors. But I wonder if the real reason was because there's something about darkness that makes it easier to believe in monsters.
I was afraid of the dark for much longer than my friends. Usually a kid's imagination invents the monsters that live in the closet and lurk under the bed, but my parents were the ones who taught me monsters existed. Demons weren't a metaphor for evil, or some sort of non-sentient spiritual energy. They were literal fallen angels, Satan's henchmen, and they were dangerous. Demons were everywhere. They were the main cause of many mental illnesses; they could cause severe sickness, or even death. And they would intentionally and strategically target Christians like us.
Since I was a devout child, my parents said demons were likely to be after me. When I had a nightmare one Saturday night in elementary school, Mom and Dad said a demon was trying to keep me from going to church. After that, I had nightmares every Saturday night for a long time. I'd stay up late, afraid of the dark and the demon out to get me. I'd recite the demon-clearing prayer my mom had taught me: "In the name of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, I bind and break any demonic curses, hexes, spells, and incantations. My soul has been covered in the blood of Jesus. You have no power here. I command you to leave!"
My parents said that all Christians were potential targets for demonic attack, but my family was one giant red bullseye because we knew the truth about what demons were up to; we knew how to look out for them, and how to send them packing. We were a threat. This meant we had to be on constant guard.
When I was around eleven years old, I bought a silver cat necklace on a blue velvet ribbon from a vendor at the Saturday market. He was an aging hippie with long, wild gray hair and a tie-dyed tunic. Before I could fasten the clasp at the back of my neck, Mom told me to put the necklace away.
"Don't touch it," she said.
I let it slide back into the paper bag, feeling confused.
"You have to be careful buying things at places like this," Mom explained in a hushed voice. I knew it had less to do with the location and more with who was running the stall. She hadn't been concerned when I'd bought an apple from the fruit stand, and she wouldn't have batted an eye if I'd bought a wooden bear statue carved with a chainsaw by an urban lumberjack. "The seller seemed . . . weird," Mom said. I knew she meant that he looked like he might be into "demonic things"—tarot cards, astrological signs, crystals.
I suddenly felt as if I'd done something wrong. "Should I return it?" I asked.
"No, it's fine," Mom said. "I'll show you how to take care of it once we get home."
But even after Mom prayed over the necklace and told me it was safe, I never wore it. I put it away in a box. I felt guilty for putting myself—and my family—at risk.
A few years later, when I was in middle school, I went shopping downtown with my friend Erin. "Let's go in this one," Erin had said, pointing at an import store. Import stores were weird. Incense, little Buddhas, fertility goddesses, and pillows with the yin-yang symbol. There were objects everywhere that could have a demon hitchhiker dying to get inside a Christian's home to cause hell. If it didn't say "Made in the USA," I'd been taught, an object might have been used for witchcraft, or have picked up a demon.
As we walked through the store, Erin picked things up and showed them off to me. I wanted to tell her we weren't safe and needed to leave, but I wasn't allowed to talk about demons with people outside our family. They wouldn't understand. They'd think we were strange. So I kept my hands firmly fixed at my sides, afraid of accidentally bringing a demon home if I brushed up against the wrong item.
Once I got home, Mom asked which stores we'd gone to. When I mentioned the import store, she said, "I knew something had happened! I could just feel it. I prayed while you were gone."
"I didn't touch anything in the store," I said, hoping that would help. Mom looked slightly relieved, but she still prayed over me and put an acne-inducing canola oil smear under my bangs.
The task of battling demons became even more intense a few years later, when I was in high school. My family had experienced one bad event after another: illness, strained relationships, financial problems. My parents feared our family was under the biggest demonic attack yet. They worried someone was cursing us.
"Headaches can be a sign of curses," Mom told me as I held my head. "Who did you talk to at church?"
My parents believed the demonic attack was coming from a woman at our church, a woman they'd decided was a hex-wielding witch. Witches were extremely powerful people who were in league with the Devil, and they could masquerade as anyone—even a Sunday school teacher.
I told Mom that I hadn't talked with the witch or any of her family members or friends. But despite avoiding the woman, my headaches continued every Sunday. When I finally went to the doctor, I was told they were tension headaches. Mom said this wasn't surprising, as being attacked by a witch is stressful.
Things grew even more stressful when my parents began talking about how a demon that looked like a werewolf was hanging around our house. Somehow it had gotten past the oil line, despite it being reapplied as often as twice a day. Dad reported seeing the demon in our backyard; he said it had been standing on its hind legs and jumped over the fence when he opened the door. Mom said she'd heard a large dog breathing outside her bedroom window. "I knew it was demonic," she said. "I knew if I got up to look at it, it would kill me."
She told me that very powerful witches could summon werewolf-shaped demons to kill someone. A witch could put a curse on some small, everyday object—like a coin or piece of jewelry—that would allow them to summon, and then control, the demon from a remote location. My parents feared this meant the witch was trying to kill us because we knew too much about the demonic realm. Mom scoured the backyard, looking for anything that might be out of place, afraid the witch at our church had thrown something over our fence.
I'd been so spun around by my parents' fears and demon stories, so isolated, that I wasn't able to compare my reality with anyone else's. But watching my mom down on her knees in the grass, trying to find the object that would give a witch remote-control access to a werewolf-demon, I just felt sad. I wasn't sure what reality was anymore, but I knew this wasn't it.
Our family moved about a year later, shortly after I graduated from high school, and since we were already moving my mom saw this as the perfect opportunity to cut ties with everyone associated with the witch from our church. I'd never been allowed to hang out with people who weren't Christians, so all of my friends were from church. And in order to ensure that the witch never found out where we were, I was forbidden to tell any of my friends I'd moved: I simply disappeared into the night, losing touch with everyone.
My parents' obsession with spiritual warfare, with canola oil crosses and demonic forces, had always meant I could only get so close to people; I hadn't been allowed to let anyone know what really went on at our house. But now my family's demon-battling had stripped me of every friendship, every outside connection I'd ever had. Instead of feeling like one of the blessed few who knew the truth, safe thanks to my parents' diligence, now I could see how much my parents' fears had taken from me.
I told my mom that I was embarrassed by how paranoid our family had been about the "witch." Mom insisted they hadn't been paranoid. "I'm offended that you'd say something like that!" she exclaimed. After that, I kept my frustration and doubts to myself. But, more and more, I resented and lost faith in the demon-haunted little world in which I'd been raised.
One day, when Mom wasn't home, I noticed—again—how smudgy and oily one of the bedroom doors was. When I was younger I'd been too afraid to wipe off any of the canola oil, afraid that might remove my parents' protective barrier. But now the dirty door just made me feel self-conscious. I went into the kitchen, grabbed a dishrag, and scrubbed all the oil off.
There, I thought, admiring our clean door. That's how it's supposed to look.
"What kind of oil was it?" my counselor asked during one of our weekly sessions, when I was in my late twenties. "Did it have to be blessed by a priest or something? Where did your family buy it?"
"It was just regular canola oil," I said. "We bought it in bulk at the grocery store."
My counselor said that despite their worries about witches, she thought my parents were the ones who were into witchcraft—just their own unique canola-oil-flavored version of it. "I saw a psychic once," she confided. "She did exactly the same thing, cleansing the area of unwelcome supernatural beings. Only I don't think she used canola oil."
"She should," I said. "It's probably cheaper."