If youâ€™ve never heard of Jay or Jayâ€™s Journal let me explain. Jayâ€™s Journal is a slim volume, published in 1979 and edited by adolescent psychologist and Provo resident Dr. Beatrice Sparks. Itâ€™s a series of journal entries that detail a sixteen year-old Mormon boyâ€™s descent into the occult, culminating with his encounters with an evil spirit, the mysterious deaths of his friends, and eventually his suicide.
Itâ€™s a cult classic in every sense of the term.
When I first came to BYU in 1990 I heard about Jay and his journal, about the underground world of teen Satan worship along the Wasatch front, and about the fact Jayâ€™s grave glows red at night. Some of my classmates even ventured to a cemetery South of town to see Jayâ€™s final resting place with their own eyes. I understand that there was a headstone that did in fact glow red, but a little investigation revealed that it was reflected light from a nearby neon sign.
I love a good scary story, so I never forgot about Jayâ€™s Journal. Last time I was in Provo I found myself in a used bookstore downtown (a spooky place to begin with) and decided to ask about the book. They had a copy and I bought it and read it.
Let me just say it was disturbing and unnerving in many ways. Itâ€™s great as a flat-out horror story, but itâ€™s also a blatantly transparent fraud.
The tone of the book was way too didactic to be anything but the work of an adultâ€”the most likely suspect, the middle-aged â€œeditorâ€? and committed Later-Day Saint, Dr. Beatrice Sparks.
I became obsessed with the book for a few weeks and did a little research. Once again truth is stranger than fiction. The true story surrounding the origin of Jayâ€™s Journal is twice as disturbing as the actual work itself. (The best article Iâ€™ve ever found on the subject was recently published and can be found here. Itâ€™s definitely worth a look).
Essentially, Dr. Sparks used the actual journal entries of a Pleasant Grove teen that did commit suicide as a starting point. Only about 21 of the 212 entries in the finished work were written by the original teen. More importantly, the original teenâ€™s journal makes no mention whatsoever of occult worship or interest in the supernatural.
Dr. Sparks claims to have filled in the rest of the story through letters Jay wrote and interviews with Jayâ€™s friends (many of whom did coincidentally die very young). She changed the name of the boy to Jay, but it was easy for the residents of Pleasant Grove to figure it all out and the ensuing chaos contributed to the divorce of Jayâ€™s parents and the disruption of their family.
Iâ€™m interested in a discussion of the ethical issues involved in Dr. Sparksâ€™ actions. Did the ends (frightening kids out of exploring the occult) justify the means (taking considerable license with another personâ€™s story)?
Itâ€™s a shame the book wasnâ€™t originally presented as fiction. If you approach it simply as a piece of horror fiction itâ€™s pretty dang good. Plus, it is delightfully 100% Mormon. It has great detail about growing up in Mormon culture. For example, Jay starts his journal in the first place because his scoutmaster and Sunday school teacher keep hounding him to do so. The book may be a fabricated, but itâ€™s a personal historyâ€”a type of storytelling Mormons are particularly receptive to. Itâ€™s no wonder that Mormon kids to this day enjoy reading about Jay because heâ€™s a lot like they are, struggling against the boundaries of their faith as they emerge into adulthood.
The book also incorporates Mormon doctrine in imaginative and frightening ways. In the bookâ€™s scariest moment Jay meets Raulâ€”a spirit from the third of the host of Heaven in search of a bodyâ€”in this case Jayâ€™s. In fact, the zeal with which the author goes for the scares makes me wonder if she didnâ€™t always hold an interest in horror and the occult and presented her story as true to legitimize writing in a genre that Mormon culture generally frowns upon.
Finally, it may sound strange, but in a roundabout way reading Jayâ€™s Journal increased my testimony of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. In its failure to convince me that it was a product of a teenage mind Jayâ€™s Journal made me contemplate how difficult it is to pull off a believable hoax that can withstand intense scrutiny. Obviously not the best way to strengthen a testimony of the Book of Mormon, but every little bit helps.