Paul Tremblay: My 1970s Satanic Horror Childhood
Paul Tremblay is an asshole. He’s an asshole because he’s supremely talented, and really nice, and actually not an asshole at all, which makes me think he’s secretly an asshole. His two newest novels — Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock — are so good, they make me mad at him and make me mad at myself that I’m not him. Like I said: asshole. And then he goes and gets praise from Stephen King? Okay, let’s not gild that lily, dude. Jesus. Anyway. He writes these novels that, like the first season of True Detective, are what I call “supernatural-adjacent” — they live in a world where people believe in the supernatural, but you’re not quite sure how much of it is real or not. That they believe it is enough. Anyway, I said to Paul he was free to take the keys to terribleminds any time he wanted, and he wrote something that falls right in line with what I’m talking about. Please to enjoy. Oh also he wrote 23 footnotes.
* * *
(Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fear the Bomb, and Cultists? Don’t Forget the Cultists…”)
Was I shouting, “Hail Satan1,” dressed in cute little paisley bellbottoms, while eating breakfast cereal and watching Saturday Morning cartoons? No, of course not. It wasn’t that kind of satanic childhood. I was just your normal child of the 1980s who grew up watching 1970s satanic horror movies on TV. Okay?
I was a painfully skinny, quiet, not all that popular, and overly sensitive oldest child who kept to himself. From ages 9 through 14, my afternoon routine consisted of walking home from school by myself and then camping out in front of the TV. I’m sure some of you imagine life before Netflix, the Internet, and DVDs as akin to a digital dark age2. In those wild-wild-west days of early cable television the movie menu of HBO was hardly an exhaustive cataloguing of our vast cinematic culture. Most of the movies HBO broadcasted were crap, and those crap movies ran in an endless loop just in case you hadn’t seen Seems Like Old Times3 fourteen times already. Besides Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn movies, I watched satanic horror movies; semi-classics like The Omen4 (1976), The Omen II5(1978), The Amityville Horror6 (1979), and the weird and terrifying Phantasm7 (1979).
Luckily, that new fangled cable TV was far from the only place for a kid to get his satanic horror fix. On Saturday afternoons a local UHF channel8 ran a program called Creature Double Feature. Score, right? But there was also plain old network television. Yes, I know, it’s now hard to imagine the three major networks filling the horror movie viewing void, but they did. After their morning game shows and soap operas, mid-afternoon network TV was the dumping group for so many movies, and 1970s horror movies in particular. One such afternoon TV mainstay was Race with the Devil9. Produced in 1975 and starring Peter Fonda, the underrated Warren Oates, and Loretta Switt10, two young couples are vacationing in the desert in their groovy RV when they stumble upon (oops!) a satanic cult ritually sacrificing some shmoe. Sort of a live-action Scooby Doo, they spend the rest of the movie on the run from Satanists. The movie is goofy and hokey, yes, but its ending with their RV trapped in the middle of the desert at night and suddenly encircled in a ring of fire and the Satanists chanting as they closed in, aye that scene still works. Another afternoon network favorite was the made-for-TV masterpiece Devil Dog: The Hound from Hell11 (1978). It’s sort of like The Omen, but with a dog. A nice suburban family adopts a, well, devil dog. Cue the Satanists in robes12, and a devil dog transformation scene in the climax that’s the special effects equivalent of a flying saucer on a string.
Despite my full-fledged scaredy-cat status13, the satanic movies weren’t as scary to me as movies about hauntings, invading aliens, sharks, and psycho killers14. The satanic movies featured clearly delineated sides in their portrayal of good vs. evil. It was obvious who was good and who was evil and what team you wanted to be on. In that way those movies were like so many of the comics and cartoons I also enjoyed. Even in the movies where the evil won or wasn’t destroyed, there was the promise that good would always be on the right side of a robe-less history. It really didn’t matter if Satanists were afoot, plotting their flawed plots because, thanks to the movies, I would always be able to tell who was good and who was evil, and I would surely prevail. Plus it was kind of fun pretending to be chased by hapless satanic cult members while out on my bike heroically completing my paper route15.
Of course when I was a kid I had no idea that these movies were a reflection or a symptom of the satanic panic of the 1970s and 1980s. The fundamentalist Christian fear that there was in fact an underground network of Satanists secretly controlling society went totally mainstream. Satanists were to blame for a rise in secularism, the decline of morals, and for wild, logic-defying tales of ritual child sexual abuse and even sacrifice. It sounds downright silly now (I hope) but there were police departments in the US giving talks and departmental instructions about how to deal with the heinous crimes committed by upwards of 50,000 Satanists operating in the United States16. Of course the 50,000 number has no basis or foundation in factual data, just as repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse were faked/coerced/debunked and many people who were accused (some convicted17) of crimes supposedly linked to Satanism were innocent.
As I got older and became a teenager in the Reagan 1980s, my interest/obsession evolved away from satanic horror movies and instead I became fixated on the idea that the world would almost certainly end in a nuclear war. That fear wasn’t as much fun. At times it was near incapacitating. My nightmares no longer were populated with sharks, monsters, and creepers, but a boom, a blinding flash of light, and the earth rumbling beneath my feet18. I remember adults and classmates discussing the geopolitical climate of the Cold War in the cinematically clear lines of good-vs.-evil. We were the good guys and the Soviets were the devils with their finger on the button. Americans were as certain and fervent in our righteousness as zealots. Our president even said we were the good guys. Ronald Reagan famously dubbed the USSR and the spread of communism as the Evil Empire and he referred to the age old struggle between good and evil.19 An awkward new-teen, I couldn’t articulate it then, but I knew the simplistic reduction to good vs. evil that I so enjoyed in my movies was more than wrong in practice, it was disastrous. The good-vs.-evil reduction removes empathy and tolerance from the equation, which leaves us only with enemies and hateful, dangerous acts and decisions, and it helped push humanity to the precipice of nuclear annihilation. Yet somehow, despite all of the Satanists scurrying around and the Evil Empires in our midst, I managed to survive the 1980s. Phew.
Circling back to the movies, I didn’t watch the most famous and popular 1970s satanic horror movie of all time, The Exorcist (1973), until I was a young adult safely ensconced in the early 1990s. I had yet to see it because my parents had deemed it too scary for the kid-me20. By the time I watched that iconic movie my understanding of good vs. evil had evolved, thankfully, and I realized that those lines were blurry if they were there at all. The movie was shocking and frightening but in not quite the same way as it would’ve been if I’d seen it as a kid.
There were scores of other 1970s movies featuring Satan or with the words devil or hell appearing in the title even if Satan wasn’t actually in the movie21. As an adult I’ve returned to many of those films from my childhood and I’ve watched other classic and not-so-classic occult, or what people now call ‘folk horror,’ movies from the 1970s that I’d missed.22 There are, of course, more recent satanic/occult revival films being made today that are well worth your time, and I highly recommend House of the Devil (2009), Kill List (2011), and A Field in England (2013).23
All those movies I watched as a kid, though, they’re still there. They blend together to form this cumulative kaleidoscopic memory, a mishmash of garish colors and psychedelia, blinding sunlight filters that were supposed to be gritty and realistic, religious iconography and the reddest blood you’ve ever seen, those musical cues and chants, those wonderfully over-the-top arias of occult insanity, and the hoards of robe-wearing wild-eyed cult members. Those movies are not at their scariest when the devils or the dogs or the devil dogs are finally on screen for the climactic battle of good vs. evil. It’s the blinding as a nuclear-bomb-flash fervor within the cult membership that is the scariest part because it’s so recognizable. The lazy, soothing irrationality of the us-versus-them mentality, the seething anger and hate of our currently toxic political climate, and the unwavering ecstasy in the madness of righteousness and belief is what terrifies the adult-me now.
- That most famous of lines, equal parts camp and terror, was uttered at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1968. I know but it might as well have been the 1970s. Work with me, people.
- Sans bubonic plague. My childhood was rat-free generally, except for the water rats my cat killed and left on our doorstep. So there were rats after all. My bad.
- Not satanic. At least not overtly.
- Gregory Peck and Lee Remick adopt Satan’s kid. He had the number 666 etched on his head and everything. I used to look for those numbers on my brother’s noggin. This is all for you, Damien!
- More Damien, this time getting his antichrist on at a military academy. I’ll admit I was rooting for Damien in that movie.
- Terrible “based on a true story” claptrap starring Margo Kidder and James Brolin’s beard, plus a fly covered priest. Get out, indeed.
- The creepy mortuary and the Tall Man and his flying spikey ball of death gave me nightmares.
- UHF was not just a Weird Al Yankovic movie, but a real thing! A radio frequency designation on which local stations would broadcast and… Okay, it’s a Weird Al movie.
- Check out the glorious trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqv6PIH_ymY
- I had no idea until the writing of this essay that M*A*S*H’s Major Houlihan was in this movie. Ten bonus points awarded to RwtD.
- It starred Richard Crenna and Kim Richards, and it’s not really a masterpiece. It barely qualifies as camp. You can watch the movie in its entirety on YouTube if you wish. Why would you wish that? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSAmUDlUUhQ
- They always wear robes. But it totally slows them down in chase scenes, and fist fights in those things? Forget it. There should be a The Incredibles-esque no capes! rule for Satanists. Except, you know, it would be no robes!
- Seriously. I wouldn’t go in the basement by myself. I always forced my younger brother to go up the stairs to our shared bedroom first as bait? an offering? just in case? I slept with a fortress of stuffed animals built around my head to help protect me; a sleep strategy that I employed for more years than I care to admit.
- Burnt Offerings (1976), the Donald Sutherland Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Halloween (1978), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Jaws (1975) were among the movies that gave me nightmares for years afterward.
- As opposed to imagining the real-life serial killer and purported Satanist the Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez)—thousands of miles away, mind you, in Los Angeles—had somehow dropped in on the east coast to terrorize my paper route.
- 50,000 Satanists Can’t Be Wrong! That’s a record by that Elvis guy, yeah? The number 50,000 mysteriously first appeared in the cultural consciousness during the Satanic panic. It was nothing but an imaginary scare figure, a figure Geraldo Rivera bumped up to a cool one million during one of his embarrassingly shoddy and sensationalistic TV specials. Others claimed that 50,000 represented the number of children slaughtered by Satanists. Yikes! Oddly enough, no one ever claimed it represented the number of cans of Deviled Ham sold or consumed in a fiscal year. Anyone remember the “It’s a devil of a ham!” catchphrase, anyone? Anyway, the very same 50,000 number appeared again in a less supernatural form in the early 2000s as major network news breathlessly and erroneously reported that 50,000 pedophiles were prowling Internet chat rooms and attempting to prey on our children. Read Dan Gardner’s excellent book The Science of Fear for more on the odd cultural role of 50,000.
- re: The West Memphis Three http://www.wm3.org/
- Watching the nuclear war aftermath films The Day After (1983) and Testament (1983) remain two of my most scarring pre-teen experiences.
- “Let us beware that while they [Soviet rulers] preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination over all the peoples of the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world…. I urge you to beware the temptation …, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of any evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.”—Ronald Regan March 8, 1983— in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-quotes/
- They were right.
- The Legend of Hell House (1973) is a fine example. It’s really a weird haunted house story (based on a novel by the excellent Richard Matheson) with a self-amputated dude in lead-lined room. Seriously!
- Not-so-classic: The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1973), oddly earnest and trippy, but ultimately disappointing. Classic: The Wickerman (1973). The ending with the villages signing a folk song while Edward Woodward’s unflappably pious police Sergeant reciting Psalms as he burns inside the giant man made from wicker is one of the most horrific scenes in film history.
- House of the Devil, directed by Ti West is made to purposefully look like a 70s/80s satanic panic film and it’s fantastic. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England both turn to occult/folk horror but in different ways. Kill List is a brutal hammer blow. A Field in England isn’t trippy, it’s the trippiest.