We conjure up a deep look at the history of Satanism through horror films, just in time for the release of ‘The Witch’
“During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults…Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups…The following is based on true unexplained events…” – ‘House of the Devil’ opening title card
If you’re looking for him, you can find Satan anywhere.
He’s a completely universal topic and one of the history’s oldest antagonists. There is always going to be evil. That’s why this area continues to be mined for creative horror gold and will probably never stop. Concepts like morality and the ultimate battle of good versus evil will never go out of style. We’re about to have two shows on television dealing with some iteration of the Devil (Damien and Lucifer), and peripheral horror genres like witches and exorcism so usually go hand-in-hand with that of Satanism, too. Suddenly all of these different streams have been leading to us currently experiencing an oversaturation in Satan. We can’t get enough of it. With the imminent release of The Witch, a film heavily steeped in Satanism that is stirring up a lot of excitement, it makes sense to explore the relationship that horror films have seen with Satanic cults and the related territory through the years.
The trajectory that Satanism would take in horror films is that initially they were rather historically based examples of horror, where the mere concept of cults alone was enough to excite the audience. It makes sense for cinema needing to establish a palate when it comes to this area before doing anything too complicated with it. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is often recognized as one of the first films about witches, but the same can be said for the doors it opens towards Satanism as well. It’s still surprising that this film came out in 1922 considering some of the visuals that it manages to pull off. After focusing on history alone, the films would then shift into a pulpier, more exploitation style, as well as featuring the socialite, community-minded renditions of Satanists that would fill the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Here cinema is often depicting Satanists as WASPy, rich, upper-class socialites that are the ones pulling the strings behind everything. They almost approach their “ascension” as just another trend and the latest way of gaining power. It’s this sort of mentality that is so haunting in works like Rosemary’s Baby (and later again in Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, in the ‘90s), All the Colors of the Dark, or The Seventh Victim (which manages to carry this theme, despite seeing release in 1943). So often these Satanists have the power of a community behind them, as they face off against some sort of vulnerable outsider. It’s a formula designed for alienation, with other films from the time like City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) or The Devil Rides Out (with Richard Matheson adding his trademark Twilight Zone twist to the idea) hitting this feeling quite effectively.
We also see a lot of subversions on this basic principle going on, like in the case of the more recent Starry Eyes, where the evil cult comes in the form of influential, abusive movie producers. In the end, it’s all just people of power taking advantage of these sacrifice’s need for validation and acceptance. These victims also might want more out of life, but not in the same greedy way that their Satanic oppressors do. It’s usually more of a “Cinderella-esque” story where these ignored individuals finally want a place to fit in, which is even more devastating once they’re made victims.
There are still deviations from all of this that happen though, like when Satanists happen to fall completely on the other end of the spectrum. I Drink Your Blood for instance offers up Satan worshippers who are loose hippies that are simply interested in freedom and bucking the system by worshipping something iconoclastic, rather than being a part of the top 1% who are still hungry for more. There are of course also anachronistic depictions of Satanic cults, and with there being a considerable amount of crossover between films dealing with witches and films dealing with Satan, it’s not surprising to see a lot of earlier Satanic fodder being set in the 1600s, when this fear was at a fever pitch and “witches” were at their most rampant.
A lot of Satanic material from this period like The Devils, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Alucarda, and Satan’s Blood focus on this material. The ridiculous, The Return of the Walpurgis (aka Curse of the Devil) even has particular fun with these trappings by having its protagonist cursed into turning into a werewolf as punishment for witch execution. Just as popular for this time were also films where little villages in England would seem to be overrun with Satan friendly communities, much to the detriment of the passing visitors, as is the case in Night of the Demon, Horror Hotel, and Race With the Devil.
A lot of the time though, these Satanists are simply falling somewhere in between these examples. These Satanists are not skewing either extreme, but are instead the most milquetoast, “regular” people you’d ever encounter. These are slice of life people living on the outskirts of town. This often is much more frightening than some obvious sort of threat and films like House of the Devil and the “Siren” segment out of this year’s Southbound are all the stronger for it. The poignancy here is gained from the idea that these Satanists and cults are everywhere; they could even be those quirky neighbors from across the street. And what’s scarier than the idea of this deep evil just being a very swept-under-the-rug sort of problem? Who knows how many more are still out there…
As alluded to earlier, the ‘60s and ‘70s also fell during a time in cinema where Satanists and witches were nearly synonymous with titillation. Many of these films would star comely virgin girls that were big honking targets for those predatory Satanists. It’s not surprising to see words like “Cheerleader” crop up in a number of these films’ titles, as if they went as naturally together with Satan as werewolves do with silver bullets. It’s kind of hard to believe that exploitative Satanist fare like Satan’s Cheerleaders, Satan’s School for Girls, and Don’t Deliver Us From Evil are not just titles for pornos.
Another popular topic within this realm that began seeing experimentation with is that of the devil being reincarnated, or acting as some sort of fresh messiah for the dark lord. These films typically have various gatekeepers in place to make sure the birth goes according to plan, or to lure the mother into a false sense of security, usually in the form of the rich socialites that are already so present in the genre. This is what is going on in works like To the Devil a Daughter, Bless the Child, and of course, Rosemary’s Baby. At the same time, some of these films instead explore the concept through a fully grown offspring, with the focus not being on the protection of this individual, but rather them realizing and coming to terms with their powers and who they are, such is the case in Satan’s School for Girls, Fear No Evil, and most of The Omen series.
Naturally, as this genre would become increasingly established and Satanic stories were acting as less of a shock to the system, experimenting by placing you inside the fractured mental state of the possessed and the object of these cults would prove to be a fascinating design. There’s plenty of mileage to derive from a straight narrative showing you the dangers of Satanists while genuinely fearing for the safety of the protagonists, but to make you feel out of sorts and disoriented can be an even more powerful experience. Films like Possession and All the Colors of the Dark pull from Giallo horror sensibilities to deliver a Satanist experience unlike what you’re used to. Even the Asian horror film Jigoku from the ‘60s qualifies in a bizarre way due to the innovative anthology approach that it takes on the topic of sinners, devils, and cults. It literally has characters uniting at the Gates of Hell and meeting the Lord of the Underworld, yet still speaks volumes on the essence of evil and Satan.
After these decades would do solid work solidifying the genre, it would again re-invent itself, looking to the past for support. It’s at this point in the ‘80s and ‘90s (but sometimes earlier) that fantasy and comedy take on the territory and begin to see popularity. While they might not be staunchly Satanic cult films per se, there has still been a trend in the comedic and fantasy genres of films that have been wanting to indulge in Satan. Something like Legend, The Devil’s Advocate, Bedazzled (both versions), or even Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry all offer up unique visual interpretations of Hell or the Devil and surely wouldn’t exist without the prior work that Satanist films laid down. Even superhero films would begin playing with the territory, like in the case of Ghost Rider or Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy films, due to how plentiful the topic was becoming. Prolific director, John Carpenter, would play with form in his divisive Prince of Darkness that introduces Satan slime, and it almost feels like he’s doing a retake on The Thing, but with a Satanic angle instead. Even the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, End of Days, turns the idea of Satanism into a dumb action film as the Antichrist attempts to find a bride in New York City.
During the ‘80s actual Satanist cults were also at an all-time high with “Satanic Panic” in full effect and that reality obviously shaping the films of the future that would follow. Satanic Panic began from the spiritualism of the ‘60s not panning out, combined with the increased supernatural embracing on the ‘70s. This very much took on the feeling of McCarthyism, too, in regard to how anyone could be a part of this, and you’d have no idea. It’s at this point that the material becomes its most reflexive, having decades of previous films, as well as actual history now, to pull from. House of the Devil pointedly sets itself during the ‘80s specifically for this reason. Suddenly films are again going back in time and re-appropriating the past in order to tell new stories, or taking tired stories from the 1600s and rejuvenating them now. A film dealing with the same Satanist fodder as The Witch that came out in the ‘60s or ‘70s would likely have little impression on the rest of the genre’s landscape. However something like that seeing release now connects in a whole other way. People are losing their minds over it, even!
It’s in that sense that everything old feels new again, and with the sinister topic being approached from so many different angles in horror currently, it looks like we’re going to be frightened by the dark lord for many years to come. When you’re covering your face and watching through squinted eyes as you scream at The Witch this weekend, take a second to think about how far the genre has come, and be thankful that you’re not getting a bunch of DD-cupped cheerleaders turning into goats on the silver screen.