Jesus is a dead alien; Satan is a prehistoric sentient ooze; and “God” is the greatest supervillain of all time. This unique fictional theology helped me think outside the box, for sure!
It probably isn’t fair that so many of my favorite films are John Carpenter (or Carpenter-related) movies; but it happens to be true, and I’m sure no one is surprised by this. I’ve already discussed three of these flicks—Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)—but one of Carpenter’s lesser known masterpieces is Prince of Darkness (1987), in which the creator of Michael Myers gives us his version of “the devil.” And it is the single most original and engaging take on the subject I have ever seen. If you’re expecting to see anything like Tim Curry with big ass goat horns, or even Al Pacino leading a law firm, think again. In Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, everything we think we know about “Satan” is thrown out the window, and what turns out to be true about him is far more terrible than anything conjured by biblical scholars or Christian theologians.
Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) is a world-renowned quantum physics lecturer at Kneale University, and his graduate students are some of the best and brightest young minds in his field. There’s Brian (Jameson Parker, who resembles a younger version of Tom Atkins in Halloween III); Catherine (Lisa Blount, a mathematician); and Walter (Dennis Dun, a total wisecracker), among others. These up-and-coming scientists are all bewildered by their instructor, who creeps them out with tales of how our human notions of “common sense” break down at the subatomic level, evaporating into “ghosts and shadows.” Perhaps it wouldn’t be so spooky to hear such things if there weren’t so many weird astronomical phenomena happening lately. Something about the lunar cycle seems different, and there’s also a newly discovered supernova being reported on TV. Some distant star died countless eons ago, and the particles from that explosion are only just now reaching our galaxy.
Then a Catholic priest (the magnificent Donald Pleasence) requests to meet with Professor Birack. The Priest claims he has made a terrible discovery, and he asks for Birack’s help in doing something about it. Birack accompanies the Priest to an abandoned derelict church called St. Goddard’s. As they descend into the church’s labyrinthine cellar, the Priest explains that he was on his way to visit another clergyman, who unfortunately died before the Priest could arrive. After reading his departed colleague’s diary, the Priest learned he had been living alone at St. Goddard’s, keeping something hidden in the basement. The clergyman was part of a sect so secret and powerful that even the Vatican doesn’t question its actions. Known only as “the Brotherhood of Sleep,” the sect has protected whatever the clergyman has been hiding at St. Goddard’s all this time. The clergyman was the last remaining member of the sect, and now that he has passed away, the Priest feels it is his duty to continue the Brotherhood’s work somehow.
When Birack and the Priest reach the center of the basement, they find a shrine decorated with countless crucifixes, all of which surround an object that stops Birack cold in his tracks. It’s a huge container filled with a swirling, glowing green ooze, and something about that ooze makes both men feel like they are being WATCHED. When Birack asks the Priest what this object might be, the Priest refers to it with masculine pronouns (“he/him”), as if it were a sentient entity. He also suggests it might have something to do with the moon and the supernova, and that some even crazier bullshit might be ahead. Is there anything Birack can do to help get rid of this fucking thing?
After coming to terms with this encounter, Birack approaches his students with a one-time offer: a unique opportunity to study this crazy discovery and write a whole bunch of academic papers from it. He also wrangles a few other professors and their students into this plan as well. The team assembles one Friday afternoon at St. Goddard’s, where everyone gets a good look at the strange container in the basement. Suddenly no one wants to be there anymore, but they stick around just the same, working and gathering data from the artifact into the wee hours of the night. As they do, some homeless people who have been hanging around the church start behaving like Michael Myers, standing unnaturally still and staring in hostile silence. (One of them is even played by Alice Cooper, who wrote “Prince of Darkness” [from his 1987 album, Raise Your Fist and Yell] for the soundtrack.)
The scientists take turns napping through the night, and whenever they sleep, they each have the exact same dream: a vision of a TV recording someone has made. The footage shows a hideous figure lurking in front of the church in which they are now sleeping. There is also a distorted voice in the nightmare that says:
“We are using your brain’s electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year 1-9-9-9. You are receiving this broadcast to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness. But this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring. This is not a dream.”
When the scientists carbon date the container downstairs, they learn that its mineral content is over seven million years old, and that it came from outer space a well. There is an opening mechanism at the top, but strangely the lid can only be opened FROM THE INSIDE. No analysis of the glowing green ooze can be made, but everyone starts to feel it is ALIVE and WATCHING them somehow.
The team also finds an ancient Brotherhood of Sleep manuscript that appears to contain differential equations—several centuries before such mathematics were previously thought to have been invented! According to this text (which also appears to pre-date the New Testament), Jesus Christ was not a supernatural being, but an extraterrestrial from another planet in some distant galaxy. Jesus escaped from his homeworld when the sun of his solar system went supernova, and he reached our earth thousands of years later, landing in Roman-occupied Judea. There, Christ went around using his advanced alien medical science to heal people. He also tried to warn everyone about what destroyed his home planet. The aliens from Jesus’ homeworld discovered there is indeed a Universal Mind that can control the behavior of subatomic particles across all of time and space. But rather than a loving Creator, this Supreme Being is a wrathful Destroyer, seeking not to sustain but to annihilate all things.
This all-powerful Anti-God was somehow “banished” to the realm of anti-matter by Jesus and his people with their incredible technology; but this process required destroying their own sun for some reason (hence the supernova). Unfortunately, the Anti-God knew what was going to happen and created a “son”—Satan—which it buried in suspended animation on our planet, somewhere in the Middle East. Christ came to Earth specifically to find Satan and help the human race get rid of him; for when the devil wakes up, he will cause reality to unravel, allowing the Anti-God to slither back into our universe. But then Jesus was crucified, and the responsibility for all of this fell to the Brotherhood of Sleep. They found Satan and kept him hidden for all these centuries, hoping he would stay asleep until humans could develop a science sophisticated enough to destroy him. They eventually transported him here to St. Goddard’s, where the devil has been buried ever since.
No one really wants to come out and say it; but after hearing all of this, everyone knows exactly what—and more importantly, WHO—it is that’s watching them from inside that container down in the basement.
Then the scientists realize they have each been having the same nightmare. The Priest explains that historically, everyone who encounters the Brotherhood of Sleep starts to have this dream every night for the rest of their life. Brian and Catherine theorize that the dream might actually be a real message from the future, sent backward in time by scientists via “tachyon beam” signals that our brains can only receive as dreams. The message makes it clear that if something isn’t done about the entity trapped downstairs, the world will somehow end in 1999.
And it’s at this point in the movie when the glowing green ooze OPENS ITS OWN CONTAINER and starts spraying itself at people, right into their mouths. After they choke on the slime for a while, it takes complete control of their bodies, effectively “possessing” them. This explains what happened to all the zombified homeless people lurking outside the church, and why they butcher anyone who tries to leave. Being dead does not prohibit the slime from possessing its hosts either, for several of the scientists’ mangled corpses are converted into zombies as well. Most of the ooze absorbs itself into one scientist in particular, sending the poor lady into a coma. The remaining survivors are trapped inside the church for the entire following day, unable to call or send anyone out for help.
As night falls on the second day at St. Goddard’s, Satan’s primary host—who is now horribly disfigured and equipped with fierce telekinetic powers—awakens from her coma. The Prince of Darkness then transforms every mirror in the building into some kind of interdimensional gateway. On the other side of each gateway lurks the Anti-God, which is anxious to step back into this world and start the apocalypse. Just what the hell can Brian, Catherine, Walter, Birack, or the Priest do to stop any of this insanity? I ain’t gonna tell you; go watch the movie to see!
Without a doubt, Prince of Darkness is the most inventive and thought-provoking “devil movie” I have ever seen. Carpenter wrote the script under the pen name “Martin Quatermass,” which is an obvious homage to Nigel Kneale. (He even named the fictional college after his hero, calling it Kneale University.) The premise is very similar to Quatermass and the Pit (1967), in which another team of scientists battles a similar alien force that is likewise revealed to be “the scientific reality” behind a supernatural force. I think the concept for Prince of Darkness might have originated from when Carpenter was still involved with Halloween 4(1988) during its pre-production phase. He had pitched a script by Dennis Etchinson in which Michael Myers returns as some kind of reality-bending ghost. When this premise for Halloween 4 was rejected, Carpenter reworked it into the script that later became Prince of Darkness. (He even wrote in a character named “Etchinson,” who is clearly named after the horror novelist.) Carpenter was also reading tons of shit about quantum mechanics at the time, and all of this stuff collided together in his brain to form the idea of a cosmic supervillain: the all-powerful Anti-God.
If it seems unlikely that Prince of Darkness came from a rejected pitch for a Halloween sequel, just look at the Priest. He is functionally similar to Dr. Loomis from Halloween (1978) in almost every way; the Wise Elder who knows about the Evil, and who tries to do something about it. He even refers to Satan as his “prisoner” at various points, as if he were Dr. Loomis referring to Michael Myers. It also seems relevant that Carpenter chose not to give this character a name. When you watch Prince of Darkness with subtitles, the captions identify the Priest as “Father Loomis” for some reason (even though he is never addressed by name, not even in the end credits). Based on Pleasence’s performance here, I almost think Prince of Darkness is actually a direct sequel to Halloween from some alternate timeline. Perhaps in this cinematic universe, Dr. Loomis gave up on psychiatry after shooting the Shape at the end of Halloween, then launched a new career for himself in the Catholic Church. But now he is tasked with handling yet another unstoppable prisoner, and this one is even worse than the last!
Pleasence gives one of his very best performances here. When the truth about Satan is revealed, the Priest quickly accepts that the Catholic Church and its teachings are all a sham. But we can also see the terrible strain this knowledge puts on him. When the Priest hides from one of Satan’s hosts, he stands there quietly, whispering desperate prayers to his god. You can see on his face that he doesn’t really believe in who he’s praying to anymore. Something about Pleasence’s voice during that scene always makes me want to reach through the TV and tell him, “It’s gonna be all right, Father; let’s invoke SET into ourselves and BLUDGEON these slimy zombie fuckers SIX WAYS FROM SUNDAY!” Yet the Priest never becomes a problem or a liability for the other characters; he is nothing like Blair from The Thing(1982), who just totally loses his shit and tries to kill everybody. The Priest clearly isn’t having an easy time with any of this “Space Jesus” stuff; but his heart is still in the right place, and he does his best to stay useful and sane.
Another actor who is truly fantastic in this film is Victor Wong. You’ve probably seen this guy in tons of movies, but he also appears in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as the benevolent kung-fu wizard, Egg Shen. Wong is another character actor who was generally cast to play the exact same role in everything he did, usually appearing as a monk, seer, or martial arts master (as seen in films like The Golden Child from 1986 and Three Ninjas from 1992). But Prince of Darkness is one of the few films I’ve ever seen in which Wong is not typecast in this way at all. Here he gets to be a goddamn quantum physicist, a role that would have normally been reserved for a white male back in 1987. Professor Birack is also one of the main characters, which is especially meaningful since Wong was typically cast only for supporting roles. As a matter of fact, Prince of Darkness features not one but two Wise Elders who know about the Evil and are trying to stop it: Birack and the Priest.
As a Pagan, one of my biggest pet peeves in science fiction is the conflation of Pagan deities with “ancient astronauts.” We see this trope again and again in things like Doctor Who, Stargate, and any number of other media fandoms. This notion stems from the white colonialist belief that other cultures simply “couldn’t” have accomplished their own achievements by themselves. To claim the pyramids were built by aliens rather than the ancient Egyptians, for example, is to claim the Egyptians were not as smart or resourceful as the Greeks or Romans (who are almost never accused of having anything “provided” for them by aliens, likely because they were white). The Egyptians were a highly advanced people and they did not need any help from extraterrestrials to develop their religion, their art, their fantastic monuments, or anything else.
Almost no one EVER writes this kind of bullshit about Jesus Christ, and we know exactly why that is, don’t we? Because if anyone did, Christians would get all butt-hurt about people dehumanizing their beliefs and traditions. For some reason, this never seems to apply to other deities and religions; writers dehumanize Pagan beliefs and traditions ALL THE FUCKING TIME. But John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness gets revenge for this by unabashedly “alienizing” Christianity, giving Jesus and Yahweh the exact same treatment that things like Doctor Who give to Set!
(Incidentally, there are at least two other films I know of that “alienize” Jesus like this. One is Giulio Paradisi’s The Visitor , which is just awful, and another is Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To , which is actually pretty terrific. But neither of these films holds a candle to Prince of Darkness.)
I enjoy the fact that Carpenter completely deconstructs Christian mythology here. Compare Prince of Darkness to End of Days(1999), for example. The latter is an A-list, big budget exploitation movie that only exists to satisfy the demand for sex and violence. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but End of Days also tries to pass itself off as a “religious” movie that wants to “scare you back into church.” In Prince of Darkness, no sanctimonious lip service is paid to Christianity whatsoever; the entire religion is written off as simply being false. Absolutely none of the traditional Christian weapons against Satan (crucifixes, exorcisms, etc.) will work. The message I take from this film is, “God is EVIL, and the only way to stop him is with SCIENCE!” If End of Days wants you to get your ass to church, Prince of Darkness wants you to get your ass to a quantum physics classroom.
As a Setian, this film speaks to me very deeply, and in at least two different ways. It’s intriguing to think that Satan himself is not the true source of evil here, but just a facilitator for an even greater and more powerful villain. The Anti-God might as well be Apep from Kemetic mythology: an unstoppable disintegrator of reality that can be repelled, but which can never be completely defeated. It’s very easy for me to imagine the Brotherhood of Sleep and its new recruits (the Priest and the scientists) as a constellation of souls chosen by Set to try and cast this monster back into the void. On the other hand, the film also speaks to me in terms of my own religious conversion, in which I realized:
There is this thing in my life that I would call a God.
This God I experience defies everything I was told about “God” as a child.
Conventional religion just can’t seem to handle this God, because He scares most religious people too much.
So watching Prince of Darkness, in which the characters make these exact same discoveries about the Anti-God, really made an impression on me. The movie seemed to tell me, “Yes, G.B., it’s totally okay for you to THINK BEYOND CHRISTIAN IDEOLOGY!” When people around me learned of my love for Set, many of them insisted I was “worshiping the devil” and would “burn in hell.” (Some people still tell me this today.) Prince of Darkness helped me break out of this mental trap by reinforcing the idea that there CAN be higher cosmic realities that defy conventional religious expectations. This helped me come to terms with Set’s true identity as a Kemetic Netjer and understand that He is not, in fact, “the devil.” It also helped me understand that I am a Setian and a Kemetic polytheist, not a Satanist or a devil worshiper.
As a final note, John Carpenter typically scores most of his own films, and Prince of Darkness is no exception. The movie features 50 minutes or so of eerie electronic music by Carpenter and his frequent collaborator at the time, Alan Howarth. This score is haunting and beautiful, perfectly capturing the threat of total cosmic decay. Before I started composing my own tunes, this was one of my favorite albums to play during my rituals to Set. It has definitely been a major influence on my latest release, His Nocturnal Majesty, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys my work.
A preternatural Pied Piper turns people into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is my second-favorite movie of all time, right after the original Halloween from 1978. Though it is marketed as a “sequel” to the latter film, it is really something completely different. It has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis, or the town of Haddonfield, Illinois at all. By gods, it isn’t even a “slasher movie,” but something more like a British sci-fi/folk horror hybrid!
Season of the Witch is the story of Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), who decide to investigate a brutal murder their local police have chosen to ignore. In doing so, Dan and Ellie stumble upon a ghoulish plot masterminded by the one and only Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), founder and CEO of a major toy-manufacturing company called Silver Shamrock Novelties.
It turns out that Silver Shamrock, Inc. has stolen one of those monolithic rocks from Stonehenge and broken it down into countless microscopic pieces. They have inserted this debris into their world-famous Halloween masks, which children across the nation are buying in droves. They’ve also developed a TV commercial with a flashing “magic pumpkin” that activates the pieces of Stonehenge within the masks. This converts the masks into deadly cursed talismans, which transform their wearers into snakes and bugs (from the inside out!). Even crazier, most of Silver Shamrock’s employees appear to be killer androids with superhuman strength, and Cochran’s entire conspiracy is somehow tied to the fact that the planets of our solar system are currently in alignment.
You’re probably wondering why Halloween III has nothing to do with any of the other Halloween films. When John Carpenter and Debra Hill were approached for another sequel following the box office success of Halloween II (1981), they took the opportunity to conduct a most fascinating cinematic experiment. Starting with Halloween III, the series would now be an anthology like The Twilight Zone, featuring a different Samhain-themed story with each new installment. There are so many different things that we associate with October 31, including ghosts, witches, fairies, and druids; why then should a franchise called Halloween be limited to just an escaped mental patient?
Tom Atkins, who plays Dr. Challis, is what they call a “character actor.” This means he usually plays supportive roles and is more or less the exact same character in each one. To this day, Season of the Witch is still the only film in which he ever got to be the leading man.
We usually expect our male sci-fi/horror protagonists to be young, dashing, and athletic; but Dr. Challis is middle-aged, visibly tired, and very much out of shape. He apparently lives and sleeps at the hospital where he works, and he is a divorced alcoholic who can’t stand his ex-wife or his kids (and who seems to have a history of avoiding them whenever possible). Given a choice between (1) spending time with his estranged children or (2) investigating a murder mystery with some hot young lady he barely knows, he doesn’t even stop to think about it; he chooses the second option immediately. But despite all his faults, Challis is anything but reprehensible. Whatever else he might be, he is a doctor from first to last, and he takes this role very seriously. He is all about making people better, and when the chips are down, he does everything he can to save the world (including his family).
Tom Atkins might not be a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, but he really shines in this role. If you enjoy his performance here as much as I do, check out Night of the Creeps (1986). He plays Detective Cameron, an alcoholic cop whose girlfriend was butchered by a serial killer back in the 1950s. When Creeps begins, Cameron is on the verge of killing himself; but when he learns his town is being invaded by brain-eating slugs from outer space, he grabs a shotgun and starts blowing holes in everybody else instead!
Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin, seems to prefer older men; she takes a liking to Dr. Challis almost immediately, and as soon as they reach that motel in the mysterious little town of Santa Mira (where Silver Shamrock’s headquarters is located), she is all over him. Later, Ellie is kidnapped by Conal Cochran’s robot goons, and she is imprisoned somewhere in the Silver Shamrock factory. Challis busts in to rescue her, getting himself captured in the process. Then he learns the truth about Cochran’s dastardly scheme, escapes and finds Ellie, and torches the factory. Challis and Ellie drive off into the night, trying to plan how they can stop that crazy Silver Shamrock commercial from playing on TV and causing the apocalypse—
—and that’s when Ellie suddenly tries to kill Challis, revealing herself to be a goddamn robot!
Fans are divided as to whether Ellie is (1) human for most of the film (and replaced with a robot duplicate by Cochran during the final act), or (2) a robot the entire time. It makes no sense to me why Cochran would send a robot to seduce Challis into investigating his own damn conspiracy; but the idea of not knowing you’re sleeping with a killer robot is pretty disturbing. All I know for sure is, this sequence scared me really badly when I first saw it as a kid. To think you’ve just rescued someone you love, only to learn they’ve been replaced with a soulless imitation that wants to destroy you? That’s Grade-A nightmare fuel for me, right there!
Stacey Nelkin was also cast to play the sixth Nexus-6 replicant in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was released the same year. Her part was cut from that film during principal photography due to budget cuts. (Blade Runner fans will recall that in at least one version of the film, Captain Bryant recruits Deckard to track down six fugitive replicants; yet there are only five that are accounted for in the entire film, and this is why.) It’s eerie to think that Nelkin was cast to play two murderous androids in two different films during the same year, huh?
Conal Cochran, Halloween III‘s antagonist, is played by Dan O’Herlihy, an Irish actor of such stature that one wonders just how the hell anyone convinced him to do this movie. Unlike Tom Atkins, O’Herlihy was used to acting in things like Orson Welles’ version of Macbeth (1948), Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954), and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). He even went toe-to-toe against Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards once. (Brando won, but O’Herlihy gave him a run for his money!) Considering Halloween III’s budget, I highly doubt O’Herlihy was paid very much for his work. So what the hell was it about Season of the Witch that made this legendary thespian say, “All right, I’ll do it”?
Debra Hill once recounted that Dan O’Herlihy knew an awful lot about the true origins of Halloween . He told all kinds of folk stories about Samhain to the rest of the film’s cast and crew. These stories were apparently so enthralling that everyone took to calling O’Herlihy “Mister Halloween.” It’s unfortunate that Hill couldn’t recall any specifics from these conversations, but I can certainly imagine what they must have been like. After all, Halloween III is one of very few flicks ever made in which the word Samhain is pronounced correctly, and it is O’Herlihy himself who pronounces it in his native Gaelic tongue.
I have a hunch that Dan O’Herlihy was primarily interested in Halloween III for its references to Irish culture. Considering the long list of films in which he has appeared, it’s interesting to note that almost none of them have anything to do with Ireland (either culturally, historically, mythically, etc.). I sense this man was really proud of his heritage, and that when his agent handed him the script to Halloween III, he recognized the project as an opportunity to finally represent that heritage onscreen somehow.
The original screenplay for Halloween III was written by Nigel Kneale, creator of the British Quatermass films and TV serials. The first draft included a great deal more science fiction than the finished film does. Conal Cochran turns out to be some kind of daemon or alien; he simply impersonates a human being with his mask-manufacturing know-how. He also transports the monolith from Stonehenge to America by interdimensional means, and there is plenty more speculation as to what Stonehenge is actually made of (and why it becomes so volatile whenever the planets are aligned). More of Cochran’s genocidal plan is explained, as well. John Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace both felt that some of this material wouldn’t translate very well for American audiences, so they took turns re-writing the script to “Americanize” it a little. This led Nigel Kneale to demand that his name be removed from the credits; but it seems to me that his original ideas are still present (and mostly intact) in the film.
In 1979’s The Quatermass Conclusion, Stonehenge and other prehistoric places are revealed to be “landing sites” for a hostile alien force. It is difficult to be certain without reading Kneale’s original script, but it seems plausible to me that Season of the Witch and The Quatermass Conclusion were meant to be thematically linked in some way. The Quatermass serials also had a direct influence on Doctor Who, which explores many similar ideas and themes. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that Conal Cochran resembles a classic Doctor Who villain like Davros, the Master, or even the Black Guardian. I can totally see him as an evil renegade Time Lord, disguised as an Irishman.
Arthur C. Clarke’sThird Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the scene when Cochran explains his plot to Dr. Challis is a great example. “Advanced…” he says, pointing to a room full of computers, “…and ancient technology,” he finishes, pointing to the monolith he has stolen from Stonehenge. His machines are all arranged in a large circle formation that’s clearly modeled on Stonehenge; a visual hint that the original monument might be some kind of ancient “supercomputer” itself. The implications of this are staggering; who or what built this prehistoric machine, and for what purpose? Halloween III never answers these questions, but I suspect Cochran knows. And if just one piece of this “supercomputer” is sufficient to devastate the entire North American continent in one fell swoop, what the hell would happen if all of Stonehenge were suddenly “switched on?”
At the end of the film, Conal Cochran is zapped by a big blue laser that shoots out from the stolen (and newly re-activated) Stonehenge monolith. When this happens, Cochran’s features are momentarily distorted, as if his face were really just a mask. Then he vanishes into thin air, never to be seen again. Many viewers assume this to be Cochran’s “death scene,” but I beg to differ. The Halloween III novelization by Dennis Etchinson (writing as “Jack Martin”) makes it clear that this moment in the story is really just the beginning of Cochran’s evil. It also goes into detail on how Cochran isn’t just a crazy toymaker, but something that transcends time and space as we tend to understand such things.
Here’s a snippet from the novel, in which Dr. Challis considers Cochran’s true cosmic nature:
Cochran was nothing new, whatever his latest disguise. He and the dark forces he represented had been around in one form or another since the beginning of time; there was no good reason to believe something so ancient had really been destroyed in a blaze of fireworks in a small town on a cold autumn night. This year’s dark venture was like a rerun on the Late, Late, Very Late Show, an endless loop re-enacting the last reels of the same relentless stalking of the heart of the American dream. It had always been so…He would come to movie theaters and TV screens over and over in untiring replays for as long as people turned away and pretended he was not really there; for that very refusal gave him unopposed entrance to their innermost lives. Nothing ever stopped his coming and nothing ever would stop it, not for as long as people deferred the issue of his existence to the realm of fantasy fiction, that elaborate system of popular mythology which provided the essence of his access…For now, he was still advancing, merely shifting from one field of view to another, larger one, from a single television screen to the televised psyches of a nation. Challis shuddered.
Before he pulls his disappearing trick, Cochran says “we” a lot. This suggests that he actually has peers; yet no one who works for him at Silver Shamrock seems to really qualify as such (especially since most or all of his employees are robots, anyway). Cochran’s “we” must therefore be referring to some other group of peers whom we never get to see. He also mentions “those who came before” him, and he speaks of human beings as if he thinks we’re all insects. It seems clear to me, at any rate, that Conal Cochran is not a “human being” at all, but some preternatural creature that has been visiting our world since ancient times. This is sustained not only by the novelization, but by what is known about the Nigel Kneale script as well. In fact, I suspect Conal Cochran is actually what Celtic folklore calls a “Fae of the Unseelie Court.”
The popular image of fairies as “cute little Tinkerbells” is utter horseshit. The oldest stories depict these creatures as being much darker and more sinister than any Disney movie would have us believe. Celtic folklore is full of benign fae who are willing to live in balance with their human friends and neighbors; but it’s also full of malevolent fae (the “Unseelie Court”) who just want to commit horrific atrocities, like kidnapping babies or tricking people into cannibalizing each other. These entities can make themselves look like anything as well, including animals, trees, furniture…or even Dan O’Herlihy!
Wearing masks for Halloween started as an apotropaic ritual for keeping the unseelie fae away. But as Cochran notes in Season of the Witch, people today think “no further than the strange custom of having [our] children wear masks and go begging for candy.” He says “the last great” Samhain was over 2,000 years ago, “when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” This is curious, given that Irish people have been observing Samhain each year right into modern times. There is also a historical discrepancy in Cochran’s claim, since the first recorded literary references to Samhain date back to the 10th century CE (which was only 1,000 years ago). We know the Celts did not sacrifice children or animals like that, either; so what is Cochran really talking about here?
If you ask me, Conal Cochran was actually there in Ireland 2,000 years ago; he and his fellow unseelies roamed the land, murdering children; and he was probably what motivated the druids to develop their Samhain traditions in the first place. This would explain why there hasn’t been an October 31 to Cochran’s liking for 2,000 years; all that quality Halloween magic was just too strong for evil creatures like him to stomach. But now that it’s 1982 and Halloween has been completely trivialized, the magic is no longer effective. Now unseelie fae like Cochran can intrude upon the mortal realm as much as they please, and they can even weaponize the things that once kept us safe, as Cochran does with his deadly Silver Shamrock masks.
While John Carpenter neither wrote nor directed Halloween III himself, he did score the music. His partner in crime on this task was Alan Howarth, a Hollywood sound designer who co-wrote most of Carpenter’s 1980s film scores, including: Escape From New York (1981), Halloween II (1981), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1982), and the incidental music for The Thing (1982). Howarth also scored Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), and Halloween 6 (1995) by himself, weaving Carpenter’s familiar 5/4-time piano melody into some truly impressive soundscapes of his own.
Carpenter and Howarth were an excellent team; I enjoy listening to their music by itself as much I enjoy watching the films for which it was all composed, and Season of the Witch boasts some of their very best work together. Since the entire point was to break away from the first two movies, the aforementioned 5/4 piano theme is nowhere to be heard (except whenever Halloween III’s characters happen to catch a glimpse of the first Halloween on TV!). We are instead given a host of new original tunes, all performed on classic Moog synthesizers and sequencers. “Chariots of Pumpkins” might well be considered the main Halloween III theme, and it is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written.
So given its fascinating plot, terrific performances, and outstanding musical score, why on earth did Halloween III: Season of the Witch tank in theaters?
Well, it’s all about marketing. Though John Carpenter and Debra Hill tried to make their creative intentions very clear, this information was only relayed to the general public by publications like Fangoria magazine. Considering that Fangoria didn’t have half the fanbase in 1982 that it has today, this meant that Carpenter and Hill’s plan went completely unnoticed by most audiences. At the same time, Universal Pictures found the notion of a “Shape-less” Halloween unsettling, and their advertising department actually tried to hide the fact that Halloween III would be different. Nothing about the new artistic direction was mentioned in any trailers or TV commercials for the film. As a result, most audiences in October 1982 were basically walking into the movie blind.
In my experience at least, people who prefer slasher movies usually don’t “get” other kinds of horror, and viewers who prefer other subgenres tend to find slashers distasteful. So on the one hand, every slasher fan in the world went to see Halloween III and was greatly disappointed; on the other, fans of other subgenres avoided the film precisely because they thought it would be a slasher. An entire decade would pass before Season of the Witch finally started finding its audience on VHS and during late night monster movie marathons.
I first saw Season of the Witch in 1995. I understood it would not be a slasher film going in, but I think I was probably expecting something more like Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead (1988), with old crones conjuring medieval hellbeasts out in the woods. I sure as fuck wasn’t expecting to see some alien Pied Piper, turning children into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers. This was all WAY too much for my 13-year-old brain to process in just one viewing. The whole thing was somehow ludicrous and terrifying at the same time, and it kept me awake at night for weeks.
The scene where Conal Cochran mentions the Festival of Samhain was a complete mystery to me at first. It wasn’t until I re-watched the film with subtitles that I realized he is even talking about Samhain, because I didn’t yet know the correct pronunciation of this term. In reading up about Samhain in real life, I learned that people still celebrate it today, including many Pagans. It would be a couple more years before I learned about Setians, but Season of the Witch facilitated my awareness that there is even a Pagan community in general at all. And while I’ve never felt drawn to the Celtic pantheon in any religious capacity, Samhain or Hallowtide has always been a huge deal to me. So in a weird way, Halloween III didn’t just expand my mind on how people can tell stories; it expanded my mind on how people can believe and live their faith, as well.
I consider Halloween III: Season of the Witch to be the absolute best follow-up to the original Halloween (1978) that has ever been made, and it is unlikely to ever be superceded in this respect. None of the sequels or remakes with Michael Myers can hold a candle to it, because even the best of them are essentially just copies of the first movie, a story that was never meant to be continued in the first place. And while the Myers follow-ups have each been motivated primarily by box office avarice, Season of the Witch is a unique and original story that demanded to be told, much like its thematic predecessor from 1978. John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s pitch for an anthology is equally interesting, but I think it would have been neat to see Conal Cochran a few more times before Dan O’Herlihy passed away in 2005. One reason I love the Halloween movies as much as I do is because this series features not one, but two of the scariest horror movie supervillains I have ever seen. Only one of them visibly wears a mask and stalks people, stabbing them with kitchen utensils. The other one wears a much less obvious mask—a handsome human smile—and tricks people into purchasing their own deaths.
Martian grasshoppers. Genetically modified super-apes. Invisible forces only certain people can see. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) has it all.
I love those old Hammer horror films from the 1960s and 1970s: the ones with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, filmed in vivid Technicolor, with some of the most atmospheric set pieces you’ll ever see on screen. Hammer revamped all the traditional gothic horror film monsters, and they weren’t afraid to use gallons of blood in the process (which really pissed off the British censors at the time, even though the gore looks pretty fake by today’s standards). They turned Dr. Frankenstein (portrayed by Peter Cushing) into a psychopathic killer who prefers to get the parts for his monsters fresh (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). They turned Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) into a frothing-at-the-mouth sexual predator who can break mere men in half with his pinky finger. They also cast some of the most beautiful demigoddesses to have ever graced this earth. (Seriously, these ladies make their Victorian costumes look more provocative and exciting than even the skimpiest of modern beach attire.) Whether we are addressing The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), or even The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer films are fucking awesome and warrant multiple repeated viewings.
If I had to choose just one Hammer film as my personal favorite, it would not be easy; but surely Quatermass and the Pit (1967, also known as Five Million Years To Earth) would be counted among my Top Five. This is a sequel to an earlier 1955 film called The Quatermass Xperiment and its immediate 1957 successor, Quatermass II. All three movies are theatrical adaptations of TV serials that were originally broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s. These serials were written and created by Nigel Kneale, who is also known for writing The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), The Stone Tape (1972), and the original screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Kneale was a fantastic science fiction writer whose work fits rather nicely with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, and he has been a major inspiration to such horror maestros as John Carpenter and Stephen King, whose Prince of Darkness (1987) and The Tommyknockers (1987) are both directly inspired byQuatermass and the Pit.
The Quatermass films are named for their main character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, a British rocket scientist who contends with various alien forces that seek to wipe out the human race. (In many ways, the original serials also provided a great deal of inspiration for Doctor Who.) Of the trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit is easily the best; and despite being the third film in sequence, it is written in such a way that you don’t have to view either of its predecessors to understand the characters or plot. All you really need to know going in is that it’s about a small British town called Hobb’s End (which should sound familiar to anyone who enjoys John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness). Some subway workers uncover a bunch of weird fossils and an object that looks like an unexploded bomb from the German air raids during World War II. This was not an uncommon problem in England in the 1960s (hell, it’s still a problem today), so panic immediately ensues, and the military is called in to investigate. But it is soon determined that the excavated object is not a bomb after all, and that’s when Professor Quatermass is called in.
Quatermass discovers that the object is actually a spaceship, and that it contains a couple of ancient alien corpses. (The aliens look like man-sized grasshoppers.) The weird fossils that were discovered close to the ship appear to have been primates that the aliens were using as experimental test subjects. Quatermass also learns that Hobb’s End has been subject to all manner of paranormal disturbances since time immemorial; whenever someone disturbs the ground where the spaceship now rests, ghost and hauntings are soon reported throughout the surrounding area. And when a man accidentally scrapes the spaceship with a wrench, it causes all these weird telekinetic phenomena to start happening.
Quatermass figures the aliens are from Mars, and that they came to colonize the Earth before humans evolved. He thinks they planned to transfer their consciousness to the ancient primates they found, so that they could live more comfortably in our ecosystem. But something went wrong, and the aliens all died. Yet the super-apes they created survived, and some people today are actually descended from them. Such people tend to be born with weird psychic abilities, and Quatermass theorizes that this may be where all our legends of magic and witchcraft come from. The aliens even resemble Satan, with tiny horns poking out of their skulls. But there’s just one problem: even though the aliens and their super-apes are dead, the powers they evoked continue to exist in human beings today, and the alien spaceship is still functional. Quatermass fears that if anything is done to disturb the vessel, it could re-awaken the dormant Martian hive consciousness that resides within every person who is descended from the modified apes. And this is exactly what happens when the British government decides to hold a big press conference at the excavation site. Some knucklehead drops some live electrical wiring on the ship, and it wakes up.
The awakening of the Hobb’s End spaceship is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in any horror film. Approximately half the local population is suddenly possessed by the Martian hive mind, which then drives them to murder all their neighbors, co-workers, and families. These people even kill all the animals they encounter as well; there’s one ghoulish moment when we hear them slaughtering a bunch of cats and dogs outside, and it never fails to make my blood run cold. To think that someone can just flip a biological switch and make hundreds of people suddenly murder their own loved ones is scary enough; but the situation is made even scarier by the fact that this is all caused by an accident. The Hobb’s End Massacre is not caused by the aliens (who are all deceased), but by an act of human ignorance that totally could have been prevented (had anyone heeded Quatermass’ warnings).
The heroes end up using a big iron crane to discharge the Martian spaceship’s energy back into the Earth. As in a great deal of folklore, it is the apotropaic power of iron (a substance most sacred to Set) that dispels the forces of evil in the end. But unlike most other science-fiction/horror films from this period, Quatermass and the Pit does not conclude with the male and female survivors hugging and kissing each other like everything’s going to be all right. Here, Professor Quatermass and his friend Dr. Judd (played by Barbara Shelley, my favorite Hammer glamour girl) are left standing alone amidst a sea of urban ruin, not breathing a word to each other. They’re too frightened to even look at each other, much less touch. (Perhaps they fear that doing so might spark up the Martian hive mind again?) They just stare fearfully into the night, forever traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced. Roll credits!
One sure way to make me want to read a story or watch a film is by telling me, “It’s horror AND science fiction.” Some of my favorite films fall into this category, including Ridley Scott’sAlien (1979) and John Carpenter’sThe Thing (1982). But Nigel Kneale’s work is distinct because it combines science fiction with supernatural horror, using science to plausibly substantiate the paranormal (rather than dispelling it). The genealogical descent of all witches and wizards from Martian-engineered apes is just one example. Another would be the concept behind The Stone Tape, in which Kneale has scientists discovering that “ghosts” are actually residual “recordings” of past events that have been embedded into certain rocks. (This hypothesis is now called “the Stone Tape Theory,” which still carries considerable weight among paranormal researchers today.) And of course, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proposes that the mineral content of Stonehenge is catastrophically dangerous and can actually be weaponized by any corporation with the necessary know-how. As far as I’m concerned at least, Nigel Kneale belongs in the same company as such hard science fiction masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
In Quatermass and the Pit, the Christian concept of “the devil” is revealed to be nothing more than a genetic race memory of the Martian colonists who experimented on our primate ancestors. These aliens were not necessarily “evil,” either; they were simply doing what they could to survive. As a Setian, the idea that “Satan was originally something else, and it wasn’t evil” has been a very old recurring theme in my life. And the idea that a sufficiently advanced or “magical” technology can be misused to wreak unspeakable havoc is also familiar, given what I have seen when ill-prepared occultniks fuck around with things like qliphoth or the SimonNecronomicon. Finally, I can identify with the idea of there being a scientific basis for “superstitions” like the use of iron objects to execrate evil spiritual forces. Indeed, Quatermass and the Pit is not only scary, but incredibly thought-provoking for anyone who takes an interest in the esoteric side of life. For Pagans and witches, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.