John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987)

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 WhoStargate, 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 [1980], which is just awful, and another is Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To [1976], 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.

+2

It’s the End of Days As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

How a really terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie influenced my spirituality and art.

Previously I discussed the television series Millennium, a brilliant show that made a huge impression on me as a Setian teenager back in the 1990s. There was another apocalyptic-themed horror romp from that era which made a huge impression on me too, but it was not nearly so remarkable. In fact, it’s really a terrible production most any way you look at it. But in those crazy days just before January 1, 2000, when lots of people were kinda worried the world might actually fall apart on New Year’s Eve, there was one theatrical film that dared to exploit all that juicy endtime paranoia. And shitty as it was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the influence it has had on me.

That’s right, I’m talking about the one and only End of Days (1999), that magnificent shit show in which Arnold Schwarzenegger squares off against Satan himself, who’s prowling the streets of New York City in Gabriel Byrne’s body. Oh gods, where do I even START with this fucker?

Okay, so the story begins with a bunch of clergymen at the Vatican freaking out about a comet and some prophecy about a “satanic” child being born somewhere. Then, in New York City, Udo Kier kills a snake and baptizes a newborn baby girl with its blood. The girl just happens to be born with a birthmark that resembles some kind of glyph. Then, confusingly, we fast forward to December 1999, when a semi-invisible creature rises up from the sewers of NYC to possess some random business dude (Gabriel Byrne) so it can grab some poor lady by her bosom, then blow up a restaurant. Then we meet Jericho (Arnold Schwarzenegger), some kind of private security guy whose family was murdered and who is just one stone’s throw away from killing himself. Jericho is hired to protect the dude who’s possessed by Satan, which comes in handy when a crazy Catholic priest with no tongue tries to assassinate the guy.

Jericho does his job, but he doesn’t like the way things add up. So he decides to investigate the priest, which somehow leads him to track down Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman who was born and baptized at the beginning of the movie by Satanists. This is convenient too, because it turns out Satan is searching for her. Apparently, Christine was bred to be his bride at the End of Days. If the devil succeeds in raping Christine at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will somehow allow him to take over the world and burn the whole thing down to a crisp. This is all explained to us by another Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger) who leads an underground movement to find Christine and keep her safe. But at the same time, a rival sect within the Church has sent an army of assassins to kill Christine before Satan can get to her. Any way you slice it, Arnold—er, I mean Jericho—feels compelled to get Christine the hell away from everyone. The whole thing leads to a midnight black mass in the sewers, a subway chase scene, and then a final confrontation in some random church. Satan possesses Jericho at the last minute before midnight, and all seems lost; but Jericho resists the devil’s will to rape Christine and commits suicide instead, thereby saving the poor lady and canceling the apocalypse.

(Are you keeping up with all of this? Fascinating how much plot they managed to cram into this movie, especially considering how shallow and empty the film actually is!)

End of Days clearly wasn’t made by dogmatic Christians; otherwise the writers would have adapted the book of Revelation much more faithfully (pun intended). It is the pinnacle of absurdity when Rod Steiger rants about how Jericho should “read the Bible” to understand what’s going on, given the absence of any real biblical content in this story. The fact that Steiger comes across as angry and scolding while he does this is definitely a turn-off, too. The film presents itself as trying to “scare audiences back into church,” but it doesn’t care enough to get any of its own bullshit right! Instead of actually adapting the book of Revelation or anything like that, this is basically just a Terminator movie that swaps the supernatural for science fiction.

Consider this film’s version of the devil, for instance. Other cinematic adversaries of the time were quite a bit more interesting, such as Al Pacino’s take on Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Denzel Washington’s face-off against Azazel in Fallen (1998). Gabriel Byrne’s devil, however, is little more than a two-dimensional slasher movie villain who stalks and slashes people. This is quite a shame too, because Byrne is a magnificent actor and could have really owned this role if he had been allowed to do so. As it is, he just stands there, says a few cliches, and gets shot at. I suspect the director, Peter Hyams, is the real reason why Byrne’s performance in End of Days seems so forgettable. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Setian and I actually know the complex history of where “the devil” came from; but I personally prefer my satanic horror movies to be a little more innovative, thought-provoking, and weird. (Just wait for my NEXT sermon, in which I will give a most excellent example of what I mean!)

The magnificent Gabriel Byrne playing one of history’s most forgettable devils.

I also have two very serious objections to the plot. First, I don’t appreciate the fact that this entire story hinges on the threat of Christine being raped. And yes, I’m aware that she says, “I’m scared I might WANT to sleep with him” at some point; but I don’t care. Being hypnotized into having sex with someone STILL COUNTS AS RAPE. (In fact, there are other lady characters in the film who are raped in this manner.) And since there is no mention of the devil actually raping anybody in the book of Revelation, a decision was clearly made to capitalize on Satanic Panic hysteria here. I not only find this distasteful; I find it disgusting. They could have just as easily written it so that Satan has to eat a ham sandwich on New Year’s Eve to start the apocalypse (which would have been much more entertaining, actually!)

My second objection relates to the main character, Jericho. Let’s be honest here: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly the greatest actor who ever lived. But his acting ability isn’t a problem for me; I enjoy him in many of his films just for his charisma. No, the problem here is that Jericho is written as a suicidal person who eventually HAS to take his own life (and at the Christian god’s behest, in fact). He has no character arc to speak of; he never grows or learns anything, he just stays exactly the same all the way through. So when Jericho has to kill himself at the end, it’s not like he says, “But wait, I’m not suicidal anymore!” or anything like that. No, far be it from End of Days to offer us any sort of character development. It’s more like Jericho has been waiting to kill himself this whole time, and now he can finally get it over with. The message I take from this is incredibly ugly, toxic, and mean-spirited. It feels like End of Days is saying, “Suicidal feelings are GOOD because they make men MANLY, and they make us better suited to serve God’s will!” And that is not a message I can ever agree with.

Dude, I fuckin’ LOVE this music.

By now, you must be wondering how on earth End of Days could have influenced my spirituality or my art so much, given that I am so hyper-critical of this film. Well, the answer lies partly in my criticisms, which I will explain further in just a moment; but it also partly lies in the soundtrack. And no, I am not referring to the compilation album with the Rob Zombie and Guns N’ Roses songs. I’m talking about the instrumental movie score by John Debney, which features a lovely fusion of choral, orchestral, and electronic music. As soon as I heard this stuff while watching the film at the theater, I knew I had to purchase it on CD. I fucking hated End of Days as a movie, but the Debney score continues to be one of my all-time favorite records, even today. I listened to it every day for a while in high school, and it inspired me to try and come up with my own crazy apocalypse movie. I tried writing this as a script or a novel for years, but I could never quite hammer out the details in a way that satisfied me. All I knew was that I wanted it to be a Setian take on Armageddon, rather than a Christian (or quasi-Christian) one. And now, twenty full years later, I have finally actualized this dark dream in a form that others can enjoy: the album, His Nocturnal Majesty (2020).

But while I despised End of Days upon my initial viewing, something about the movie kept making me want to re-watch it over the years. I still think it is an egregiously stupid movie, and I would never recommend it to anyone. But at least now I can appreciate the film for a few reasons. I do rather enjoy the action sequences; Byrne’s devil is boring, but it is fun to watch Schwarzenegger launch grenades at the bastard. (I really enjoy the subway sequence in particular, for some reason.) I also enjoy the fact that whenever I watch End of Days, it takes me back to December 1999. I remember being skeptical of the Y2K bug and all that stuff; but there was still a tiny little part of my brain that wondered, “What if the world really does end tonight?” on New Year’s Eve that year. End of Days is not really a “religious” movie at all, for it has nothing of any real spiritual value to offer. It is instead an A-list, big budget exploitation movie. The real point was to exploit all that apocalyptic fear everyone was feeling, and to show us as much gore and sleaze in the process as possible. While I would much prefer the story to have been written without any rape or romanticization of suicide, I do have to admire the filmmakers for being so damn eager to deconstruct Christian apocalypticism in this manner.

One thing I absolutely adore about End of Days, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attitude toward Satan throughout the entire movie. I mean, he actually tells the devil “YOU’RE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!” at one point. And cheesy as it might sound, I love it! I think it perfectly exemplifies what Set probably thinks and feels whenever He locks eyes with Apep

“Fuckin’ CHOIR BOY!”
+2

Same Shit, Different Millennium

How my favorite TV show—a 1990s police procedural with apocalyptic overtones—influenced my walk with Set.

 

Millennium is one of my favorite TV shows ever made. It was created by Chris Carter, who also created The X-Files, and certain characters have appeared in both shows. But Millennium is no mere “X–Files spin-off”; it features a completely different cast of characters dealing with entirely different problems. While Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully track down weird monsters and alien conspiracies, retired FBI profiler Frank Black (played by genre favorite, Lance Henriksen) gets sucked back out of retirement to track down some of the most evil human beings imaginable. This is because Frank has a preternatural knack at seeing into the mind of every rapist, serial killer, or terrorist he targets his attention on. He can read about a murder in the paper and start getting random flashes of whatever the perpetrator is thinking and feeling. Much of this is due to Frank just being really good at his former job; yet he also clearly has “the second sight,” even catching glimpses of ghosts, angels, and demons from time to time. And as much as he wants to stay home with his wife and daughter and pretend “the bad men” aren’t really out there, Frank just can’t help himself; he’s driven to track down every evil thing he can pick up on his psychic radar, no matter what.

Lance Henriksen as “Frank Black” in Millennium (1996-1999)

Frank is approached by a private investigation firm called the Millennium Group, which consists of various ex-law enforcement personnel who’ve drawn some terrifying conclusions from all the horrific cases they’ve worked. For them, evil isn’t just a human ethical failing; it’s a real supernatural force that actively seeks to destroy our world (and which gets closer to achieving this goal every day). Every single rape or murder that happens is really a part of this gigantic plot, whether the human perpetrators fully understand what they’re doing or not. The Millennium Group also worries that the world might actually end in the year 2000, or perhaps not too long afterwards. Even though many members are deeply religious Christians who look forward to an eventual Second Coming, they nevertheless believe we can’t just sit back and “hope for a happy ending.” If something isn’t done about the state of things right fucking now, there may not be any human civilization left for Jesus to save when he comes back. So the Group uses a wide variety of resources to apprehend the human monsters that live among us, trying to save the world one case at a time. These resources include everything from all the best forensic science units to vast libraries of astrological, theological, and magical texts. And the Millennium Group is especially interested in Frank Black since he’s not only a total wizard at criminal profiling, but apparently an actual seer or oracle of sorts as well.

Terry O’Quinn as “Peter Watts,” a prominent Millennium Group member.

This show was inspired by many of the apocalyptic fears that ran rampant toward the end of the 1990s. (Does anyone else remember the Y2K scare?). This leads some people to think its subject matter is no longer relevant today. Let me just say, I beg to fucking differ. If there is one horrible truth that Millennium taps into, it’s the fact that people will always have apocalyptic fears that drive them to do terrible things. Even more terrifying, certain people actually want the world to end and will do everything they can to ensure that it does. This is every bit as true today in 2020 as it was back in 1996, and I would go so far as to say that Millennium is actually far more frightening and disturbing now than it was back then. I always found it much scarier than The X-Files because it was willing to take so many more risks. This is a show in which literally anyone can die at any time, and the fact that it lasted for three seasons (in the era of more popular shows like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is nothing short of amazing.

In the very first episode, Frank picks up his newspaper and learns that a local stripper has been horribly butchered. He then starts having visions of how (and, more importantly, why) this happened. That’s when Frank realizes he can’t just stay home and be with his family; he has to go back to work. (And the look that crosses Lance Henriksen’s face at that pivotal moment always makes me tear up and cry a little). So he approaches some old pals in the Seattle PD and offers to help them investigate the case. They eventually catch the killer, who thinks he’s the Messiah and is “passing judgment” on people by doing things to them that would have made Josef Mengele proud. But not before we see two of the most disturbing things that were ever shown on TV in the 1990s. First, Frank’s gift allows us to see just how Mr. Serial Killer sees the world, and it might as well be called “Hellraiser in the Park.” Then we get a scene where Frank and the cops uncover a man who’s been buried alive…and whose bodily orifices have all been stitched shut. They don’t just refer to this stuff off-camera, either; they fucking show it to us, clear as you please. That might not seem too impressive in today’s post-CSI world of gory police procedurals; but this was in 1996, and nothing like that had ever been seen on prime-time network TV before. Not even Law & Order or NYPD Blue went that far at the time, and this was all in the very first episode of Millennium, to boot! It scared me to death when it first aired back in October 1996, and it still gives me the shivers today.

This still ranks as one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in any TV drama.

The three seasons of Millennium are drastically different from each other, as well. Apart from Frank Black’s psychic gift, there is almost nothing of the supernatural to be seen in the first season at all; the show is mostly just a police procedural at first, with our heroes chasing a different serial killer or terrorist each week. But as the season progresses, more explicitly supernatural things begin to happen. I will never forget the episode, “Lamentations,” in which Frank and the Millennium Group realize the killer they’re chasing is really a shapeshifting demon. The episode “Maranatha” is also terrific, featuring a Russian dignitary and mob boss who might actually be the Antichrist. These episodes were so brilliantly written, they completely caught audiences off guard at the time. Here we were, thinking this was just a police procedural with entirely human antagonists to be defeated; and then all of a sudden Chris Carter changes the rules on us and turns things up to 11. I remember being scared shitless by the scene in “Lamentations” when “Lucy Butler” walks down the staircase, showing us her real face between lightning strikes.

The formidable Lucy Butler in another of Millennium‘s freakiest moments.

The second season of Millennium is my personal favorite; we get into some really crazy stuff here. Frank’s psychic powers become much stronger, he becomes more involved in the Millennium Group’s internal affairs, and he meets a lady named Lara Means (played by Kristen Cloke) who can see angels. (Whenever she sees the angels, it means something real fucked up is about to happen.) Frank also learns the Millennium Group consists of different factions that are bitterly opposed to each other, and that some high-level members are every bit as evil as all the serial killers and terrorists they help to catch. This leads to some truly remarkable stuff, including a civil war within the Millennium Group, a battle against Nazis for the Cross of the Crucifixion, and even the outbreak of a deadly supervirus! In some ways, Millennium Season Two almost feels like a totally different show; but the changes all worked, and every Millennium fan I know considers this era of the series to have been the very best. 

Another of Millennium‘s most disturbing scenes, from the Season 2 Finale (“The Time Is Now”).

Unfortunately things did not turn out quite so well for Millennium Season Three. I remember waiting patiently through the entire summer of 1998 to see how Frank and his daughter Jordan (played by Brittany Tiplady) were going to escape a plague-infested Seattle. But when Season 3 begins, Frank and Jordan are suddenly living in Virginia with Jordan’s grandparents. We are told the outbreak in Seattle “wasn’t actually as bad as it seemed,” and nobody but Frank even seems to remember that it happened. Meanwhile, Frank teams up with FBI Special Agent Emma Hollis (played by Klea Scott) to try and bring down the Millennium Group, which has become completely evil. Peter Watts (played by Terry O’Quinn), who was Frank’s sidekick in Seasons One and Two, is now re-cast as Frank’s arch-nemesis. None of this has anything to do with where Millennium appeared to be going in Season 2, and it alienated most of the fan base pretty badly. Plus, most of the stories in Season 3 make no fucking sense at all; they are more like rejected X-Files episodes that are just weird for weirdness’ sake. It took me several years to finally watch the entire season all the way through, and I have zero interest in ever trying to doing so again. It felt like Chris Carter lost his marbles and decided to just give all of us Millennium fans the finger.

To add insult to injury, Carter included Frank Black as a guest character in an episode of X-Files after Millennium was canceled in 1999. In this episode (rather creatively titled “Millennium”), Frank is living in a psych ward when Mulder and Scully come to ask him some questions about the Millennium Group. This leads to a so-called “final confrontation” between Frank and the Group at a cabin in the woods, where the last remaining Group members have been turned into zombies. I for one do not know what the fuck Chris Carter was thinking when he wrote all of this. During Millennium‘s three-year run, viewers learned the Group is up to all kinds of crazy shit, including biological warfare. But according to The X-Files, the Millennium Group is really just a handful of zombies locked up in a basement. What the FUCK? To say that Millennium fans were disappointed by this is an understatement. 

Frank Black and Fox Mulder watching football in “Millennium” (X-Files, Season 7).

In Egyptian cosmology, our universe is sustained and held together by Ma’at, which is both a principle and a goddess. As a principle, it essentially represents helping others to help yourself, both in this life and in Duat (the Otherworld). The ancient Egyptians believed Ma’at is always endangered by the forces of isfet, which are led by the Chaos Serpent. Should Ma’at ever be completely dismantled, the entire cosmos would cease to exist. The “apocalypse” was not a “future” event that had yet to occur, but an ever-present threat that could happen at any possible moment. And the Egyptians believed it was really everyone’s responsibility to help prevent this from happening. The key to upholding Ma’at and fighting isfet was to be a good neighbor and citizen, treating others as you yourself wished to be treated. In this way, every human ethical decision has some part to play in the never-ending war between the Netjeru and Apep, no matter how small or insignificant such decisions might seem.

Even the powers of isfet need a coffee break. (From Season 2, “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me.”)

Millennium really speaks to me on this level. Though it is mostly inspired by Christian themes, the idea of the Millennium Group trying to save the world one case at a time struck me as being more of a Kemetic concept. It was especially meaningful to me that Season 2 aired during my freshman year of high school, which was my very first year of walking with Set. My first weekend Sabbats were spent watching Millennium with Big Red and wondering how I could grow up to become just like Frank Black. I even considered studying to become a criminal profiler myself at one point, if you can believe it. (But then I came to my senses and remembered I struggle with depression enough as it is; so investigating murders and such is probably the last thing I should be doing). If there is any particular character from popular culture who has shaped my concept of “What it means to be a Setian,” it is most definitely Frank Black, who taught me that even the smallest acts of human kindness can be major victories for Ma’at!

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