Mystery Theatre Supplement:
The Strange History of Devil’s Doors

October 11th, 2021

This guest post is a response to Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s opening act of “A Trap Full of Monsters.” 

If you have not yet listened to that episode, you can do so by clicking here.

Also, you’ll want to be sure to check out Act II when it drops on Thursday, October 14, where we’ll be sharing more listener responses and playing portions of an audio recording of Dr. Wisker’s thoughts on devil’s doors.

I’ll meet you there!

Devil’s Doors

by Gina Wisker
University of Bath, UK: University of Tromso, Norway.

It is a wonderfully alternative idea that the safe sanctity of a church could be architecturally challenged by having a back door a devil’s door through which the devil can enter and exit.

I lived and worked for 14 years in Brighton in Sussex, home to devil’s doors in the beautiful ancient medieval churches, many of which were built upon the very spots used by previous generations of pagan worshippers. One of these medieval churches, in Ditchling, is at the top of the hill on the lovely Sussex downs, half a mile from my seaside apartment, on my route to work.

East Sussex is a place historically popular with of which many writers been found, with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group coming down from London for writing weeks, lounging in the gardens, at Monks house where Thomas Hardy also wrote and, latterly Sussex Gothic writers Tanith Lee and Kate Mosse have used local villages in their work with Susan Hill, author of the Woman in Black (which is set in Lincolnshire) locating one of her own ghost stories ‘The Small Hand’ in a decaying mansion in Sussex where a bullied child is pushed his death in the water feature, remaining as a ghost in the gardens until he can lead his murderer to his death. Sussex it seems is replete with folklore, and beloved of Gothic and horror writers.

Legend has it that in the Middle Ages, babies were exorcised in the church porch. This happened before they were baptized to banish the devil from the newborn so the baby could be brought safely into the church. But there is a myth concerning babies, devils, baptism, and north doors which persists, and this is where devil’s doors first appear. Devil’s doors are the small North doors in churches. Popular folklore tells us that the north door was left open during baptism so that, once it left the baby, the devil would quickly exit from the church. However, the devil’s door is there for more than just a quick exit at baptism.

The devil is not just in the church and its surroundings during baptisms at the start of life, while conformity and celebration operate in the main church entered by the front door, the devil’s door also suggests alternative powers, worldviews, and values running alongside the Christian religious practices within and the sanctity of the church.

North doors, devil’s doors were made for witches and demons, for the devil to make a sharp exit. Dr. Nicholas Groves suggests we can see their historical use when looking back in time to the liturgy and when pre-Mass processions were conducted around the church. So why are many of these north doors now blocked up? Perhaps they were blocked up in the C16th when processions were banned, so the north door was no longer needed. But others say they were blocked up to stop the devil from getting into the church.

Medieval comments about the North noted by Nathaniel Harris suggest it is seen as the direction of criminality and references the Evil One, the devil, coming from the north are found in the Bible. So In Jeremiah 1-13/14 it says ‘What seest thou? And I said, I see a seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north. Then the Lord said unto me, out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.’ And later In Jeremiah 46-20; ‘..destruction cometh; it cometh out of the north’

A.E. Waite comments ‘Just as there is a door which opens unto God, so is there a Devil’s Door which opens upon the recremental deeps. Let the aspirant be in no doubt that once this door is opened that the deeps will come in.’ – and in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene we find ‘The cornerstone that the builders rejected is the place from which I come. The gate that is not a gate is the source of the living One.’

While devils residing in the spirit of an unbaptized child, are exorcised during the rituals in the porch and escape out of the back door the North door the devil’s door, it is also suggested that aspiring initiates of the Black Arts may meet their Master the devil at such a door and make their pact. In ancient Britain and the Germanic lands, the north was central to pagan mysteries and mysteries of Woden the Sorcerer-God a master of Darkness and knower of the dead and this might also inform the lore of the devil’s door as might The God Tyr, also associated with the North. We are also told that in Fairy lore humans who wish to make contact may do so by circling anti-clockwise a mound beneath which these hidden fairy folk live, ending up facing the North. There are Zoroastrian exorcisms casting out the devil in the North, in Cabalistic texts the North is the abode of evil, from which Satan comes, and in Witchcraft Lore, candidates meet their initiator at the Devil’s Door following midnight rites over several nights and circling the building anticlockwise or Widdershins.

We can find out about both them in fiction The Devil’s Door by Alastair MacNeill and Devils Door by Robert Neill and local books such as 20 Sussex Churches by Simon Watney and An Eccentric Tour of Sussex by Peter Bridgewater and talented local Illustrator and creative writing tutor, Curtis Tappenden, one of my own current Ph.D. candidates.

If you should visit Sussex then, look closely when you admire a lovely medieval church set in sunny rolling countryside, its churchyard replete with daffodils and leaning tombstones, since at the back, facing North, you might see one of the devil’s doors blocked up, or perhaps leaning open, invitingly.

Thanks to Dr. Wisker for providing this illuminating response to last week’s Mystery Theatre question.

If you enjoyed this supplement, please take a moment to check out Dr. Wisker’s books, which you will find listed on her Amazon page.

Also of interest is Dissections: A Journal of Contemporary Horror which she co-edits with Michelle Bernard and publishes out of the University of Brighton in East Sussex, UK.

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