Satan - for many people the very name conjures up a feeling of unease, apprehension and even outright fear. For this reason it is no surprise that the archetype of the devil has been used by storytellers since the dawn of mankind. Tales of malicious demons and devils have been found which date back over 4000 years to the ancient civilisations of Babylon and Sumeria, and the diabolical narratives have provided a potent method to instil fear and a sense of moral righteousness in people ever since. Because devil figures stand in opposition to the moral good (and God) of their religion, it can be said that a fear of the devil – and indeed a fear of falling in league with the devil – stems from our own deep seated anxieties about our spiritual failings, as well as a fear of being outcast from any kind of salvation.
The very word “Satan” translates from Hebrew as “the Opposer” or “the Adversary” and so it is no surprise that as a narrative device it is used in this manner – with the demonic standing in obvious opposition to the “divine good” of the heroic protagonists. In fact nearly all diabolical films feature some kind of spiritual tug-of-war over some poor protagonists soul, and this resonates with us quite deeply – after all a research study in 2013 found that nearly 60% of Americans believed right and wrong in US Law should be based on God's laws. It's no surprise then that horror, a genre notable for finding the deep-seated fears of its audience and exploiting them, has taken such an interest in depicting the demonic. The devil and his acolytes have been a mainstay of cinema since the first grainy films of the 19th century and, much to the horror of the viewing public, he didn't always lose!
With this in mind, let’s take a quick trip through the various incarnations throughout history of the devil in cinema.
Be warned - many of these films are over 50 years old so some spoilers are ahead!
In 1896, almost at the very birth of cinema, French director Georges Méliès released one of his most famous films – Le Manoir du Diable, also known as “The Haunted Castle”. The film, which is now in the public domain, was ambitious for its era and has gone down in history as one of, if not the first horror film ever made. It had been presumed lost to the ages until 1988, when a copy was found in the New Zealand Film Archives.
Unsurprisingly, Méliès chose the diabolical as the focus of his film – the story focusing on a French nobleman being haunted by the demon Mephistopheles. The film was quite innovative for its time and used a number of “camera effects” such as turning off the camera, replacing the actor with a bat, and then filming again to create the illusion of a sudden transformation.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) was another now infamous silent film, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. It is primarily a semi-historical docudrama exploring the Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of the Witches - which was a handbook given to Inquisitors for hunting down and trying those accused of witchcraft.
This truly diabolical film explored the danger of unbridled superstitions and how misunderstanding of disease and mental illness can lead the masses down the path of hysteria and violence, as was witnessed during the Witch Hunts of Europe.
It is unsurprising that with its intense, unblinking look at the subject matter that the film was banned upon release in much of the English speaking world, despite performing well in it's home countries of Sweden and Denmark.
Like The Haunted Castle, Haxan is now in the public domain and can be watched in it's entirety for free.
The 1926 silent film Faust is really the quintessential “devil movie” of early Hollywood, and definitely follows the formula laid out by earlier films. It draws on a number of inspirations to provide the viewer with a story very similar to that of the Biblical tale of Job.
The demon Mephisto places a bet with the Archangel Michael that he can corrupt Faust, and destroy the divine spirit within him. If the demon wins then Satan gets to rule the earth. The story holds many religious parallels including the temptations of Faust to get his youth back (which he ultimately succumbs to) and the final sacrifice of his own life as atonement for his sins, ensuring Mephisto loses the bet and humanity lives on in relative peace.
This somewhat unknown Christopher Lee film about an immortal witch cult in a small Massachusetts town, is every bit as campy as you would expect (which is part of its enduring charm) and sadly quite formulaic (which is not). Its release, right at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties however, was a sign of things to come. The American version had several key pieces of dialogue cut from the film due to their “immoral nature”. The lines in question are invocations to Lucifer, and involve the evil witch “selling her soul” to the devil. One of the cut lines, as seen below, is quite tame by today’s standards but was enough at the time to cause serious concern among the moral minority and film boards.
"I have made my pact with thee O Lucifer! Hear me, hear me! I will do thy bidding for all eternity. For all eternity shall I practice the ritual of Black Mass. For all eternity shall I sacrifice unto thee. I give thee my soul, take me into thy service."
However, despite their attempts to protect the youth of America from the insidious threat of the devil and his minions, their efforts were ultimately in vain. On April 8th, 1966 TIME Magazine infamously ran a front cover boldly asking the question: “Is God Dead?” and on April 30th Anton Szandor LaVey officially founded the Church of Satan - an atheist philosophy utilizing the image of Satan as the ‘prideful rebel’ and opposer of Judaeo-Christian morality.
Both of these events outraged many Americans – that a major publication dared pose such a question barely a fortnight before the emergence of such a shocking and divisive organisation emerged from the shadows. The next few years saw Satanic weddings and even a Satanic baptism – all with mass media attention which firmly cemented the concept of home-grown Satanism in the minds of the public. It didn’t matter that the kind of Satanism advocated by Anton LaVey held no belief in either god or the devil, Churches across the land were shaking with righteous indignation that such a thing could even be permitted to exist!
And then came Rosemary’s Baby
Based on the incredible novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby hit cinemas in 1968 amid a national upheaval. Millions of people were questioning the role of traditional Christian spirituality in America, the Hippie movement had taken off and was fighting hard against the established status quo, street protests were common and all this was occurring in the backdrop of an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam - 1968 was the most costly year of the war, both in terms of Allied casualties and money spent by Congress.
It was in this fiery, emotional environment that saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby – a film which dared push the boundaries of what audiences were expecting. It was a film in which the audience expected the cult to take the baby for a sacrifice – as per the established narrative – and yet ended with the cult taking good care of both the child and Rosemary, all while Sidney Blackmer stands with hands held high triumphantly echoing and answering TIME magazines infamous question with “God is dead! Satan lives!”
Watch the famous, climactic scene below:
Audiences were outraged, and protests, pickets and boycotts of the film were quickly organized. As rumors swirled that Anton LaVey had acted as a consultant on the film protesters handed out “Pray for Anton LaVey” badges alongside the promotional “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” badges handed out as merchandise.
“People got very angry—stomping their feet and showing general disapproval. Sometimes the reality of Satanism is a lot more terrifying to people than their safe fantasies of what it’s supposed to be. For the first time, they’ve been confronted with a Devil that talks back.”
– Anton LaVey
By now Hollywood had realized that the public was both increasingly aware of, and increasingly concerned by Satan and his minions – and so the floodgates opened as studios looked to cash in on the public interest in and fear of Satanism. Hollywood productions such as “The Mephisto Waltz” (1971) ensured American audiences were well looked after, while overseas productions such as Italy’s “Black Magic Rites” (1973) and the now cult classic “Alucarda” (1977) out of Mexico ensured that worldwide a significant portion of B-Movie history would be devoted to the Devil. Even across the sea the land of Hammer Horror saw some of the biggest films of the late 60’s and 70’s devoted to Satanism – which in Hammer lore was almost inextricably linked to either vampirism or the late, great Christopher Lee.
It is an interesting trend – and perhaps one which can be tied down to the cultural pessimism brought about by the violent end of the Hippie movement at Altamont and the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam - that many of the films from this era end on bleak notes, either with the bad guys outright winning or the good guys losing in some major way.
The Wicker Man (1973) – that staple of classic British horror is a great example of this. While not technically a “Satanic” film it explores much of the same conceptual ground and follows many of the same rules: The virtuous Christian is lured to the island by malicious forces and is ultimately defeated and then sacrificed to the ancient gods. The sinister undertones, and the idea of the God fearing man falling victim to a violent, underground cult are parallels it is impossible to ignore – more so as the film ends with the diabolical imagery of the hero being engulfed in flames while shouting prayers to the heavens.
But not all films followed this formula. The same year as the Wicker Man was released, The Exorcist opened to audiences across the world. With its demonic narrative and intense imagery it is easy to think of the film as yet another demon film, released in a time where the genre was at its peak. However The Exorcist can be viewed as a direct, religious response and counterattack to the “Satanic Cult” films surrounding it. As James R. Lewis, a noted scholar on new religious movements, explains:
“The Exorcists narrative was the crisis of faith of the younger priest, who had to regain his faith in order to save the possessed girl. Thus by the end of the film the devil is thwarted and the power of the Christian God is reaffirmed.”
– James R. Lewis
But despite the box office success of The Exorcist it was soon back to business for Satanic Cinema – with the late 70’s seeing the release of a number of notable films. The Omen (1976) kept up the trend of letting the devil win (at least until the lackluster Omen 3: The Final Conflict, released in 1981).
This period also saw the release of “Race with the Devil” – starring Loretta Swit during the height of M*A*S*H’s popularity and is both an incredibly fun car chase film and a rather effective satanic cult film to boot!
The same year also saw “The Devils Rain” hit cinemas. This film holds a special place in my heart, purely for how insane it is. Starring John Travolta (briefly) in one of his first roles, alongside William Shatner as the hero/rancher/cowboy and Ernest Borgnine as a 300 year old Satanist. The film ultimately culminates in the Satanic cult melting after being rained on by the magical 'devils rain' (!) – a process which takes a staggering 10 minutes of screen time! The experience of watching Shatner and a goat faced Borgnine fight in slow motion (anyone familiar with Star Treks slow-mo fight scenes will feel right at home), followed by dozens of cultists stumbling around in the rain for 10 minutes, slowly melting a la Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my top 10 bizarre cinematic experiences.
This film is also notable for bringing Anton LaVey onboard as technical adviser, and even features the Black Pope in a cameo appearance during some of the ritual sequences.
By the time the 80’s rolled around horror was moving on to greener pastures. The rise of the slasher film had taken over the B-Movie scene and the Satanic Panic throughout the 80’s meant Hollywood was unwilling to take any great risks depicting what was at that point a religious philosophy at risk of being banned by an act of Congress. What was left in its wake was a furious two decades of films – far too many to list and discuss here – in which some of the most diabolical and anti-establishment figureheads both flourished and won. It was a period in cinematic history in which the devil was the victor and audiences lapped it up and looked for more. From the films of early cinema in which the religious good always won Horror did what it does best and throw our greatest fears back at us – and let the religious good lose for the first time in Hollywood history.
And now, almost two decades after the mass popularity of the Satanic Cult films is it possible we are seeing their re-emergence? Satan has permeated our cultural consciousness to the point of becoming a trope - and what was once a subject mater controversial enough to warrant a film being banned and it's dialogue cut is now beamed into millions of homes during prime-time programming.
Modern films such as the Paranormal Activity franchise, Devil, Drag me to Hell, The Last Exorcism and the incredible tribute the genre – House of the Devil have kept the diabolical in the forefront of our psyche, and all point to the idea that the idea of Satan is just as potent and culturally relevant as ever.