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The Devils in the Details: Representations of Evil in the Satanic Panic Movement

My introduction to the satanic panic sub-genre of horror was The Omen(1976) and its sequel Damien: The Omen II (1978). I had a taped VHS copy of the Damien: The Omen II, which I watched religiously in part because of my pre-teen crushing on Jonathan Scott Taylor, the conflicted teen Anti-Christ who struggles and eventually accepts the cruel demonic destiny bestowed upon him by fate. It’s a story that many teenagers can relate to, the struggle to assert their own identity in the face of the pressures of family, religion, and social class. One of the core ideas in the Omen films and other Satanic Panic films of the 1960’s-70’s such as The Chosen (1978) is the rise of Satan through the corridors of political and corporate power. Based on the last book of the New Testament, The Revelation The Omen films depict the rise of the antichrist, in a morally bankrupt, sexually corrupted, and profit-hungry world. These films reflect the paranoia during the 1970’s where the Right Wing religious conservative element of the US and other Western countries pushed back against the free loving , left-leaning, liberal politics of the popular in the 1960’s, ushering in the return to the conservative Christian Values culminating the rise of conservative neo-liberal leaders leader’s such a Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher in 80’s.

The right neoliberal corporate machine’s relentless greed is fantastically illustrated in Damien: The Omen II by the Thorn Corporation’s desire to control the food supply and destroy the livelihood of small farmers, all in a bid to maximize profit. The ruthless policies of companies such as Monsanto mirror the actions of the fictional Thorn Corporation in the real world. In the face of the corrupt, nefarious, and morally dubious actions of the world’s elite who seem hellbent on the destruction of all life on earth, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to imagine the world is infected with some type of demonic presence. One only has to peruse the plethora of mad conspiracy bloggers & Reddit subs on the internet to find most of the world’s ills explained by some kind of overreaching Satanic conspiracy, which usually exposes the writer’s own fears, prejudices, and social anxieties.

At a psychological level, the devil is often associated with carnal desire and a representation of man’s animalistic nature, which must be suppressed by the civilizing authority of church and state. For thousands of years the idea of eternal damnation in the fiery pit of hell was the great social motivator to keep the masses in line. In the first half of the 20th century, the devastation of two world wars, and the subsequent rise of consumer-orientated middle class in the 50’s gave rise to youth culture. Suburban teenagers on mass began to rebel against their parents and the repressive and hypocritical institutions of the church and state. The invention of contraception meant that people were free to begin exploring sex without fear of pregnancy for the first the first time. By the time the 60’s arrived a generation of teens believed they could change the world. The Hippie movement explored free love and drugs and paganism. Repressed minorities rose up, giving birth to the Feminism, Civil Rights, and Gay Rights movements, and university campuses exploded with revolutionary fervor.

Mia Farrow in a scene from Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Anton LaVey began his church of Satan as a reaction to the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, advocating materialism and the indulgence of earthly desire, the traditional domains of the devil. In Hollywood, the restrictive Hays Code was lifted in 1968, allowing a new generation of filmmakers to explore taboo subjects such as sex, occultism, and death in a graphic detail never seen before. 1968 also saw the success Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. After Rosemary and her husband Guy move into a Manhattan apartment next to interfering and peculiar neighbors, Rosemary falls pregnant and is convinced her child is the product of a Satanic Ritual and is demonic. Throughout the film we are unsure if Rosemary is hysterical and anxious about her pregnancy or if the conspiracy she perceives is real. Themes common to many of the 70’s horror films emerge. The Faustian pact between Guy and the neighbors for power and wealth, the idea of the “hysterical” woman, and paranoia about the other (in this case the neighbors) manipulating the natural order for their own twisted end. Anxiety about childbirth and the corruption of children by the devil are tropes continually repeated in the Satanic Panic Film. The success of Rosemary’s Baby ensured the devil a prime position in the films of the next decade.

The end of the 60’s saw the hippies’s dream of free love die. The love-in of Woodstock turned into the violence and murder of the infamous Rolling Stones’s Altamont concert. The Manson Family Murders made the general public fearful of hippies and youth culture, labeling it as “Satanic”. This fear of Satanic Hippies could be seen onscreen in such films as 1972’s The Death Master, 1971’s, Werewolf on Wheels, featuring Satanic biker gangs, and 1970’s I Drink Your Blood, where a coven of Satanic hippies are infected with rabies as revenge for their rape of a young girl. Eventually, rabies infects the whole town, playing into the notion of society being corrupted by the Satanic forces in their midst.

The ideological war between the conservatives and liberals in the 70’s played out in cinematic representations of the devil. Films such as France’s Don’t Deliver us from Evil (1971), famously the only film to ever be banned in France for blasphemy, and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1970), banned in several countries , were both highly critical in their depictions of Catholicism. The Devils based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devil of Loudon tells the true story of a reported mass possession of nuns in the 17th century. Father Grandier, a sexually-adulterous priest is accused of witchcraft and held responsible for the Nun’s possession by the church authorities. The possession is depicted as a form of mass hysteria born from sexual repression and more tellingly as a pretext for the state to seize power from local authorities and destroy the city’s fortifications. In Don’t Deliver us from Evil, two teenage girls rebel against their rich and neglectful parents and their Catholic upbringing to serve Satan, commit sin, and define their own fate against the repressive environment that surrounds them. Both Films are explicit in their use of blasphemous imagery, such as nuns masturbating with crucifixes, humping statues of Jesus, and the young girls whipping a mock Christ and throwing communion hosts in the water. Both these films are highly critical of Christianity and are representative of a generation that uses Satan as a metaphor for liberation against the social and sexual control of the church. Horror, exploitation, and pornographic films also used the idea of the devil as a form of sexual liberation in such films as Ted Mikel’s Blood Orgy of The She-Devils (1973), the porn film The Devil in Mrs. Jones (1973), Le Moine (1972), Jean Rollin’s Les Demoniaques (1974), Asylum of Satan (1972), and Mexico’s Alucarda (1977).

Christmas Eve 1973 saw the release of the scariest film of all time, The Exorcist. Again, the protagonist is a young girl in the grip of adolescence. Some could argue that female sexuality is long depicted as the domain of Satan and it is no coincidence that Regan’s possession coincides with her passage into Womanhood. In the height of her possession she is sexually lewd and provocative. Reagan is also the child of divorce. Her mother, Chris McNeil is a representative of the “new woman”–independent, defining her own destiny, and in control of her own life and finances, without assistance from men. The Exorcist depicts a world where the whole world is corrupted. Even the priest Damien Karras has lost his faith and the devil is able to take possession of the innocent. One reading of the film is that Chris brought about Reagan’s possession by her rejection of male authority. Reagan can only be saved by renewing her faith in the priesthood and patriarchal authority represented by the priests. Regan has no agency over her own body, and it is up to the priests to save her from the devil. When interpreted in this way, The Exorcist can be seen as representative of a conservative ideology that re-establishes the role of the Church as the protector from the demonic forces of the world. Without the church, even the most innocent would fall victim to the devil’s temptations and vices. Further to this reading I would argue that The Exorcist is also about love conquering evil. Chris’s love for her daughter and Father Karras’ sacrificing his life for Regan’s is the ultimate act of love that saves Regan’s soul.

The Exorcist was a massive success and spawned many imitations such as the blaxplotation film Abby (1974), Hammer Studios’s swansong To The Devil A Daughter (1976) , a bizzare take on Dennis Wheatley’s novel somewhat based on Alistair Crowley’s magical moonchild concept, Beyond the Door (1974), and the Turkish ripoff film Seytan (1974). Mario Bava’s surrealistic nightmare Lisa And the Devil (1973) set in a Spanish Villa was disastrously and nonsensically recut for release in the U.S. as The House of Exorcism with Reganesque possession sequences added into the film.

Michael Winner, the director of The Sentinel (1977), was well known for his conservative values. The Sentinel was his only horror film. He was known mainly as an action director. His most famous film, Death Wish (1974), can be read as a reaction by the conservative upper middle class against the poor in the midst. The Sentinel can be seen to enforce patriarchal stereotypes about the role of women. The main character Alison is a model and wishes to assert her independence by moving out of her boyfriend’s house into her own apartment. By rejecting male authority, she literally opens the door to hell in her life. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, the sentinel depicts Alison as an hysterical, delusional woman lost in a surrealistic nightmare, whom, despite her initial act of independence, plays little role in her own destiny. She has a choice: accept the role of the church, patriarchal authority, and sexual repression, or give in to her suicidal urges and unleash hell on earth. Again, sexuality is seen as the root of the devil’s influence. Alison’s “neighbors” are lesbians and murderers, living without men. Michael Winner controversially chose two real-life freaks depicting the legions of hell. This plays into the idea of “The Other”–that which is strange, inexplicable, or different, as being strongly linked to the devil–during the early modern period, Strangers, people of different ethnicities, and with deformities were often linked with witchcraft and devil worship, and this fear of the other and deviant behavior is often at the root of racism and bigotry in society.

How we view the devil defines what we believe to be good and evil in the world. The role of the devil defines the society as a whole and our place in it. As a cinematic device, the devil affords us the opportunity to examine our values, repressed desires, and our fears. We each bring our own biases and doctrines to our viewing. The devil can act as a metaphor for the ills of this world or an agent of social control. Satan can be the liberator or the enslaver.

About Lisa Rae Bartolomei

Lisa Rae Bartolomei is an artist, musician, composer, sound designer and writer from Melbourne, Australia working across disciplines such as painting, drawing, photography, video and a multifaceted sonic practice that includes musical, electroacoustic and multichannel sound compositions . She has grown up with a love of film and has a particular fondness for the dark and mysterious world of Film Noir and Horror Films. She is a current Board Member of The Cinemaniacs Film Collective.

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