The Lords of Salem is one of the most fascinating films in Rob Zombie’s oeuvre. Though he has never shied away from nightmarish visuals, in this film he eschews his chaotic rock sensibilities and embraces a story more deeply rooted in atmosphere and mood. At its core, it is a tragic tale of a life lost to forces outside of her control.

Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi Hawthorne (known publicly as Heidi La Roc), a radio DJ in Salem, Massachusetts. Though she skirts the rock and roll lifestyle, she largely lives a quiet life, keeping a small circle of close friends that include her co-hosts, her landlady, Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her dog.

Heidi’s life takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious record is delivered to her at the radio station. There is no return address and little information about the artist. The only clue regarding its origin is that it seems to be by a group calling themselves “The Lords.”

Heidi takes the record home and, upon playing it, falls into a trance. Over the following days, she begins growing weaker and experiences a number of horrifying dreams and visions – from a series of surreal and nightmarish images to a detailed narrative of the witchcraft and execution of Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) and her noted Coven of Six by the Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine) in the early days of Salem.

One evening, as Heidi returns home, she is greeted at the door by Lacy and invited to meet her sisters and have a drink. Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn) are particularly keen to meet Heidi and spend some time with her. The conversation eventually shifts to Megan’s work as a palm reader. As Megan examines Heidi’s hand, she explains the purpose of the Line of Fate on her palm.

“It reads your fate, not your destiny…with destiny, you can premeditate the outcome, but with fate, fate leaves you no choice. It is predetermined by forces stronger than ourselves.”

Heidi’s fate was determined centuries ago by Margaret Morgan, on the night of her death. According to Jonathan Hawthorne’s diary, Margaret and her coven placed a curse on the women of Salem and on Hawthorne’s descendants. She said that his bloodline would be “the vessel by which the Devil’s child will inherit the earth.”

We see this fate come to fruition over the course of the film. As the story unfolds, we learn that Lacy and her sisters are the newest generation of Margaret Morgan’s coven and that they are working her will to ensure that the curse is fully realized in Heidi. They deliver the record to the radio station (though its original source is never fully revealed). When Heidi’s friend and cohost Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) first goes to play it, the needle jumps and skips over the entire thing. Only when Heidi’s hand guides the needle will the record actually play. It’s as if the record has been waiting for her and will respond to her will only.

When they decide to play the cursed record on the air a few nights later, we see shots of several female listeners having dazed, trance-like reactions to the strange music. We come to find out later that this group is made up of the descendants of the original residents of Salem, and are intertwined with Morgan’s curse as well.  

As Heidi traverses the space between the waking world and Hell itself, she falls more and more under the power of the coven. In the final scene of the film, Heidi and the descendants of Salem have gathered at a concert hall for a live performance from The Lords. It is here that Morgan and her coven materialize and the ritual to birth the Antichrist is complete. Heidi delivers a hellish monster and Margaret Morgan’s curse has finally been fulfilled.

Despite any desires or plans that she may have, Heidi has been chosen to fulfill this role. Over three hundred years after Margaret Morgan’s death, her curse has come full circle and found its intended target. We see in flashback the attempts of Morgan and her coven to bring about the birth of the Antichrist in Salem, but to no avail. Her plans are now fully realized through Heidi, with the aid of three witches of the modern era.

As Megan says, Fate is predetermined by forces stronger than ourselves. As much as Heidi’s life has seemed to be her own, it is now fully out of her control. Her fate has always been in the hands of the coven.

This is what makes The Lords of Salem such a tragic tale. Yes, it is Satanic as all hell and insanely disturbing, but it is also the story of a woman whose future is taken completely out of her hands. Though this was always to be her fate, it was not a finishing line that she would necessarily have chosen to cross herself. The film highlights this sense of tragedy beautifully in the final shots. Instead of focusing on the fate that engulfs Heidi, it focuses on the life that she left behind when that fate rose up. We see footage of her playing with her dog in the park, smiling and happy. We see Heidi the person. The woman. Not the vessel that she was chosen to be. By the end of the film, fate has taken control and that person is gone.

Fate may be a powerful force, as is illustrated here, but it is not always a force that works on our behalf. In cases like Heidi’s, it takes on the role of an unbeatable monster that overwhelms us and washes us away. Zombie embraces that fact, and as a result, this story has an added dimension that allows it to devastate us as much as it frightens us.