His Nocturnal Majesty and Our Lady of Thrones both hinge on a central apocalyptic event that occurs sometime in the not-too-distant future, and which I first envisioned when I was in high school back in the 1990s.
The key to understanding this apocalyptic event is Ma’at, the Egyptian concept of truth, justice, and healthy reciprocal relationships between sentient beings and the rest of nature.
When Ma’at is upheld, human civilization, the forces of nature, and even Duat (the Spirit World or Other Side) are all made to flourish. But whenever Ma’at is forsaken, it makes a crack in the very fabric of Creation itself. And there are all kinds of nasty things out there in the nothingness outside Creation—the myriad Powers of Isfet—that would like nothing more than to rip our multiverse apart from within.
Chief among these malevolent forces is an entity so utterly toxic and poisonous, even lesser Powers of Isfet are afraid to speak its true name. For the purposes of my narratives at least, this ancient enemy of all gods and creatures is simply called the Ungod.
Each of the Netjeru or Egyptian gods and goddesses plays various roles in upholding Ma’at and repelling the Ungod at a higher, cosmic level of existence. This prevents the foul thing and its hordes from simply swallowing the entire multiverse whenever they want.
But part of Ma’at requires appreciating the autonomy of all sentient beings, and human mortals are sentient. This means the Netjeru can’t just come down here and uphold Ma’at for us in all of our affairs. We are responsible for upholding Ma’at in our own dealings with each other, our environment, and any other sentient species we might eventually encounter. And so long as there are enough people upholding Ma’at across the world, the Powers of Isfet can never just seep into our area of the multiverse…
The flip side to this, of course, is that when human beings finally become too rotten and despicable in general, all bets are off. The Ungod will slither through the cracks we have made in Ma’at and un-create us (physically, mentally, spiritually, etc.), doing so as slowly and maliciously as it can. The gods will be unable to save us, as well, for we will have chosen this fate for ourselves by our own catastrophic actions. And this is exactly what I saw in my nightmares as a teen. One day, when it seems there’s just no more hope for humanity at all, the Ungod physically appears to everyone as a giant mouth in the sky. Its massive tongues reach down to devour all the people below. And the damned thing is in absolutely no hurry to eat us all at once, either; it prefers to play with its food first, since we taste much better when we are insane with fear.
I’m pretty sure I dreamed all this up from reading the Lament of Hermes, a Greco-Egyptian “prophecy” that foretells of the world falling apart due to a complete absence of Ma’at among humanity. But in my version of events at least, we still have a chance of reversing all this bullshit and exorcising the Ungod. There are still handfuls of good people across the earth who try to uphold Ma’at, even after the monster breaks loose and slithers into our atmosphere. These include the protagonists of both His Nocturnal Majesty and Our Lady of Thrones, who fight to repel the Ungod and restore enough Ma’at so it can’t return.
Our Lady of Thrones is a double album, and the first disc takes place during the final years before the Ungod breaks loose. The second disc takes place after the events of His Nocturnal Majesty, in which the Ungod is repelled by the Shieldmaiden of Set and the Knights in Sutekh’s Service. Once that particular battle is won, the protagonists of Our Lady of Thrones set to work trying to rebuild our world, and they also face off against the Ungod’s surviving mortal allies (who actually want to bring the monster back).
THE SHIELDMAIDEN OF SET
There are actually two Shieldmaidens of Set: a mother and a daughter.
The elder Shieldmaiden was born and grew up long before the Ungod appeared, and she was a police detective. She earned her chops hunting and apprehending some of the most dangerous human predators imaginable. She first encountered Lord Sutekh during a near-death experience, when He warned her of the doom that was to come. After she recovered, she became a survivalist and a martial artist.
When the Ungod appeared, nearly everyone who looked up to the sky went dangerously insane…except for the Shieldmaiden. Somehow, she could look at the Mouth above without losing her nerve. And with this indomitable nerve of steel, she went forth to rescue as many lives as she could during the apocalypse.
One life she saved was that of the second Shieldmaiden, who was just an orphaned baby girl at the time. The woman adopted the child as her own; then they traveled the dying earth, following Lord Sutekh’s instructions. The mother found other people who remained sane at the sight of the Ungod, and she raised a mighty army. The Knights in Sutekh’s Service then launched a counterattack against the Ungod, and the elder Shieldmaiden worked a spell that banished the monster back into the void. She had to attract all of the monster’s attention entirely to herself in the process.
When the Knights saw the gigantic red hand of Sutekh reach into our atmosphere and grab the Ungod in a chokehold, they knew they had won. Then the heroes all dispersed and went to live out their lives in the wilderness (as recounted in His Nocturnal Majesty).
In the years that followed, the elder Shieldmaiden taught the younger everything she knew. The two became known far and wide among the various civilizations that developed after the apocalypse. They were beloved as heroes in most places, but were also feared for being friendly with Lord Sutekh and other Powers people couldn’t understand.
As an adult, the second Shieldmaiden reunited the Knights in Sutekh’s Service to help prevent another visit from the Ungod, which is just part of the story in Our Lady of Thrones.
Like the elder Shieldmaiden of Set, the Sorceress was born and grew up long before the coming of the Ungod. When she was still a young girl, Lady Isis showed her the coming apocalypse in her dreams. These nightmares were terrifying, but the Sorceress took them to heart. Lady Isis told the girl everything she needed to do to plan for and survive the apocalypse as an adult, and the Sorceress followed Her instructions faultlessly.
When she came of age, the Sorceress traveled the world and brought women of different backgrounds together. They became the Church of Many Mothers, and they pooled their resources to buy land and build the town of New Sennebytos somewhere in the West. Not only would this town be dedicated to Lady Isis and the Church’s way of life; it was also equipped with plenty of bunkers and provisions for when the apocalypse began.
In time, the Church of Many Mothers became subject to greater scrutiny and was even perceived as a dangerous terrorist group by the federal government. Members of the Church were hunted down, arrested, even murdered. But the majority survived and hid deep within the bunkers of New Sennebytos when the Ungod appeared. After the monster was banished by the Knights in Sutekh’s Service, the Church returned to the surface and began to rebuild human civilization.
Members of the Church regarded the Sorceress as their prophet and Queen. Some have said she could even raise the dead. Later, she and her Church joined forces with the Knights in Sutekh’s Service to try and prevent the return of the Ungod.
AUTUMN AND RAE
Autumn and Rae were two of the greatest warriors in the Church of Many Mothers. Both thought the Church was just another “doomsday cult” until they saw for themselves how safe, happy, and powerful the women of New Sennebytos really were. After a few years of being members, Autumn and Rae fell in love and were married by the Sorceress.
Shortly before the Ungod appeared in the sky, the monster’s human allies tried to systematically exterminate the Church of Many Mothers. Members were targeted for death in every major city. So the Sorceress appointed a special team of warriors to go and save as many of their sisters in Isis as possible. Rae was chosen to lead the rescue team in Atlanta, and though she managed to save her sisters there, she did not return home herself. Autumn was mad with grief when she and the rest of New Sennebytos were finally forced to retreat underground.
After the Ungod was defeated and the women of New Sennebytos returned to the surface, Autumn trained like hell to become the deadliest warrior in the entire Church. Years later—when the second Shieldmaiden of Set was fully grown—Autumn would lead an excursion back to Atlanta and try to find Rae, assuming she was even still alive…
No one knew the Witchfinder’s true name or origin, but he first appeared long before the World Fell Apart, when the Sorceress was still a young maiden. His existence was really known mostly to the Church of Many Mothers. What little media coverage he received was very closely monitored and censored from the general public.
The Witchfinder was absolutely impervious to any physical injury; he never became ill, and neither blades nor bullets nor blasts could bruise him. He was also a born psychic and could hear thoughts. He knew when other people had paranormal abilities, and he relentlessly stalked and killed as many of these “witches” as he could. He did this because he heard a voice in the sky telling him to do so—the insidious hiss of the Ungod.
The Witchfinder first attacked the Sorceress shortly after she started receiving her prophetic visions from Lady Isis. He relentlessly stalked her entire Church (among others) for decades afterwards. Then the end came, and after the Ungod was repelled, the Witchfinder became the second highest authority in the Kingdom Guard. He would eventually lead the armies of this brutal regime to war against the women of New Sennebytos, and with zero intent of taking any prisoners.
THE REVEREND PRESIDENT
The Reverend President began his career as a televangelist. He heard the hiss of the Ungod, whispering to him from the sky. He mistook it for the voice of “God,” and things always seemed to go his way when he heeded its advice.
He preached that “the Lord” was displeased with society recognizing the freedoms of women, the LGBTQ+ community, minority religions, and atheists and agnostics. He wanted his creeds made into law, requiring Americans to convert and obey upon threat of public execution by the state. The Reverend further taught that if this were not made to happen very very soon—within the next seven years, in fact—”the Lord” would give this world to Satan, and it would be forever destroyed.
As if on cue, the country was besieged by a cult of domestic terrorists who claimed to worship Satan. Even normal rational people started buying into the Reverend’s wild-eyed claims. It wasn’t long before the Reverend was voted into the White House and started issuing executive orders that tyrannized anyone who didn’t worship him and follow his every command. Suspected “witches” were harassed, assaulted, even murdered by their neighbors all across the country, and institutions like the Church of Many Mothers became Public Enemy Number One.
Then the Ungod appeared, and the World Fell Apart.
While the Knights in Sutekh’s Service fought to repel the Ungod back to the void, the Reverend President and the Witchfinder joined forces in Atlanta, which became the capital of their new empire. Known as the Kingdom Guard, this regime invaded and enslaved as many surviving communities across the country as it could. All who were occupied were either converted or exterminated. Those who encountered the Kingdom Guard and escaped with their lives have consistently described its citizens as monsters in the shapes of men.
Our Lady of Thrones culminates in the final confrontation between the Kingdom Guard and the Church of Many Mothers.
The Warlock or “Disciple of the Worm” was known by many names across multiple universes. He wasn’t human, though he had a thousand human faces. Each world he visited soon decayed into nothingness. He used the same method for interdimensional travel as beings like the Fae—by walking between the worlds on different Halloween nights in history (a theme also explored in Summer’s End II)—and he first arrived in this reality in 1982. The Warlock then used (at least) two fake human identities to engineer the end of our world.
In one of his roles, the Disciple was a multimillion dollar media tycoon whose TV programs made him insanely rich. He pretended to be a born-again Christian, and he used his media wizardry to help the Reverend President win the White House.
In his other role, the Warlock was a psychiatrist who worked with the criminally insane. He discreetly hypnotized his patients and helped them all escape. Once free, his patients burned down entire neighborhoods in the name of Satan. The Warlock then encouraged the Reverend President to capitalize on these “satanic terrorists” and seize more and more power over time.
When this evil spell had spread across enough of the globe, the World Fell Apart and the Ungod appeared in the sky. The Warlock was seldom seen afterwards; yet his presence continued to be felt, especially in cities occupied by the Kingdom Guard. His true appearance remained unknown, and it was rumored he could create doubles of himself. Perhaps not even the Reverend President had ever seen the actual Disciple of the Worm face-to-face.
How could anyone know who, when, or where this master of misdirection really was?
A rambling discussion on horror movies and spirituality with two of my brethren in the LV-426 Tradition!
I am proud to announce that for our next two adventures, I will be joined by two of my brethren from theLV-426 Tradition, Tony and Patrick. Together we will discuss some of our favorite horror movies, and what they mean to us spiritually!
Tony and I met in Texas in 2000, and when we started meeting for Sabbats back in 2003, the LV-426 Tradition was born. Tony was also the frontman for an awesome death metal band called Hexlust, which released the album Manifesto Hexcellente in 2015.
Tony and Patrick are not just my friends, but my brothers in Set. We treat each other like family, and we are truly blessed to know each other. These gentlemen are also two of the most brilliant and analytical Setians I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. So without any further ado, please welcome Tony and Patrick to the show!
G.B.: Welcome brothers! Thank you so much for joining me today, just in time for Halloween, the Season of the Witch, to discuss two of my favorite things with me: our spiritual orientations and our favorite horror movies, something that many people probably don’t think would be readily connected. But as we know in our circle, a monster romp can often be much more divine, thought-provoking, and life-changing than any Kirk Cameron movie!
Tony: Well, he did save Christmas, even though it didn’t need to be saved in the first place! [Laughter.]
G.B.: Horror movies have definitely been a part of my life ever since I can remember, from being a little kid. I think probably the earliest movie I ever saw was the old universal Boris Karloff Mummy movie from 1932, where he plays Imhotep, who I learned was actually a real person in ancient history, not just a meet-up monster villain. The actual Imhotep was nothing like the Boris Karloff monster. He was like a fucking doctor or physician, and he was one of the first people in history to develop medical treatments for people that were completely scientific and not magical. His methods didn’t have anything to do with repelling spirits or anything like that; it’s more like, “No, this is something to do with some kind of disease.” And he also constructed the Djoser Pyramid, so seeing The Mummy was kind of a big deal for me. There’s just something about killer mummies that I love, but it was also very educational because it opened the door for me to learn about Imhotep.
G.B.: And then of course, I think everybody who stands within 20 to 30 feet of me probably knows the Halloween movies are fucking religion to me. I always make a big deal every year, on October 31st, about actually celebrating the holiday as a time for remembering our sacred ancestors, the Blessed Dead; they might not necessarily be relatives, but it can be observed for anyone who has passed away and whom we miss.
G.B.: So Tony, what have been some of your favorite monster romps that make you think about spiritual shit?
Tony: Many horror movies I see, the older I get, the more I review them, the more I see them; unfortunately, the same tale is told over and over again, and it’s a very straight, narrow Christian viewpoint of temptation, lust, punishment, and redemption. This same theme is used over and over and over again, whether it’s added with blood, added with sex, etc. That’s why I really enjoy The Wicker Man (1973). If that movie was remade yet again today, they would really play up on the fact that everybody’s having copious amounts of sex without being observant of the monogamous lifestyle. Or the fact that they’re “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” but in their Pagan god viewpoint. But in the 1970s film, you don’t feel like the people on that island are bad people. It’s just “Hey, we got a job to do, and we have a set of rules that we follow. We have a set of beliefs and creeds that we follow, and you’re coming in here and trying to destroy all of that.” We all know the twist at the end, but that’s what I like about that movie; it’s a very spiritual film, but at the same time it’s an excellent piece of horror, because it’s taking that Christian viewpoint of being judgmental and showing how that can bite you in the butt. As opposed to other movies where the shrewd, straight, and narrow people get to live. Not in this movie! That’s what’s so great about it.
G.B.: A really good point. Another thing I like about that movie is the fact that Sergeant Howie [Edward Woodward’s character in the the 1973 original] is actually a pretty fully developed character, he’s very multi-dimensional. Yeah, he’s a judgmental asshole, but he’s also right. And he’s also a good dude who’s just trying to do his job, he’s just trying to save this girl. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but you kind of feel like if you were ever in trouble, Sergeant Howie would be a good person to have along with you. So [The Wicker Man] is not like a “good versus bad” movie, it’s like there’s good and bad on both sides, because the island people… Well, we won’t spoil it for anybody out there, but apart from that, the island people are actually very friendly and happy people, very celebratory of life, very liberated and very feminist, from the standpoint that the sexes are truly equal on this island.
Tony: That’s why I didn’t really care for the [Nicolas Cage] remake. What I loved about the original is it seemed like there was no power structure; yes, there was Lord Summerisle [Christopher Lee’s character in the 1973 original], but he was just the figurehead of the place. He didn’t necessarily say, “I demand all of you to do that,” versus in the other movie, where Hollywood is going, “Oh, let’s have a feminist outlook” and I’m like, “Okay, cool.” But they have one woman ruling everything, which is not really a feminist outlook, that’s just a woman controlling everything. “Oh, we’re gonna have all the men with their tongues cut out, we’re gonna have all this…” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no! That’s not feminism. There shouldn’t be any power struggle between the sexes, everybody should be the same, the women can have power and the men can have power. That’s why I like the original 1973 movie, rather than the remake. I like the fact that there was really no no dictator of the island. In any other traditional horror movie, there would have been a clearly evil bad guy; but it’s very ambiguous as to who the true bad guy was, as you pointed out. That’s the good thing about that movie, that’s why I think that movie is something to recognize. Plus, just the fact that it’s also a quasi-musical is something that you need to respect! The music isn’t anything groundbreaking, but this flick is still more dimensional than just, “Stab, stab, stab! You’re dead!”
G.B.: Yeah you’re right, it IS a musical! There are random sequences in the movie where people break out into song and dance. Sometimes naked!
Patrick: What’s wrong with that?
Tony: I mean, it’s basically just a Renaissance Faire caught on tape!
Patrick: [Laughs.] Well, there’s the parking lot. And then there’s the fair part. And then, if you go to the wooded clearing that’s beyond the falconing field, across the highway where everyone sleeps… That’s where it’s real!
Tony: We’ve all been there! [Laughter.]
G.B.: So Patrick, how about yourself? Are there any particular movies – horror- and/or monster-related, supernatural and/or sci-fi – that have really appealed to you during all the years of your walk with Set?
Patrick: Yeah, definitely! So there are two movies that come to mind, and they happen to be my two favorite movies. I’ve always had an interesting relationship with spirituality in general. In some ways, you could make the argument that I am in fact an atheist, because I’ve always felt there is a sort of explanation, if we were to have all of the facts, all the tools, all of the information. I think what we experience with “the supernatural” is valid and exists, and the concept of divinity is compatible with how I’ve always looked at the concept of spirituality as a whole. But I think that much of the mystery and mysticism around our interactions with the Divine, the supernatural, and/or the spiritual comes from a lack of understanding. It’s like we’re looking at a three-dimensional image in two-dimensional space, basically.
Patrick: So that is partly why these two movies have always really appealed to me. First is the original Alien, the first film from the Ridley Scott franchise; and the second is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). First of all, they’re just my favorite movies to watch from an enjoyment perspective, just putting everything else out of the way. But the things happening in Alien are so interesting to me because there is so much mystery, and when you first see the eggs on the Engineer ship, there is a religiosity to the way all that stuff is portrayed. The derelict craft is shot in the same way you would shoot a cathedral or something, with these huge, wide shots of this beautiful interior space that is just haunting, with an architecture that is clearly aesthetic. It is not just mechanical or practical, like the Nostromo (the human spacecraft in Alien), which doesn’t look pretty, doesn’t look good, it looks like an industrial machine floating through space.
Patrick: I think that dovetails so well with my own relationship with spirituality, both as a larger topic, and then when you get into specifics of how the Alien is a kind of “stand-in” for
Apep, the Apophis beast. It is horrifying, not because it is malicious, but because it is simply doing what it’s programmed to do, a concept that is later explored in movies like Prometheus (which I enjoy, even though it has nothing on the original Alien). It speaks to the concept of this force that just exists, and there’s nothing we can really do about it existing, all we can do is our best to survive its attacks. To me, Alien is such a pure representation of that, because you have this small localized group of characters who each have their own flaws and experiences, but none of them necessarily deserve to die. In contrast to many horror movies of the 1980s, it doesn’t feel like Scott is saying, “These are bad people and they deserve to die” in any way. If anything, the film paints a picture of working class people who are struggling to make a paycheck, and who are visited by this horrifying daemon and try their best to survive. And there’s nothing you can really do to stop it, except try to get away from it.
Patrick: Ellen Ripley [Sigourney Weaver’s character] is the one who figures out how to survive. One of the things I love about her and the arc of that film is, yes, she is the hero. Yes, she is the force for good in this movie. But she also doesn’t save anybody but herself and her cat. It’s like an examination of hope and resilience and fighting adversity, and of how there is only so much you can do in the face of something that powerful and inevitable. So Alien deals with how the universe works, and with how we emotionally deal with trauma and adversity. There are so many lessons to be had there, that’s part of why that’s always been my favorite film. And The Thing handles a lot of these exact same issues, but from an even darker, more bleak and cynical place.
Patrick: In Alien, the creature is biological and not mystical in any way; but in The Thing, we understand even fewer of the circumstances as to how it got to be there. At least in Alien we know there were eggs in this big ship; clearly these creatures were either captured or created by these people, and that’s why it’s here. So there’s this slight anchor point where you can kind of understand why the thing that is happening to the Nostromo crew is happening. But in The Thing, yes, we know it’s because a UFO crashed; but we can’t even begin to imagine what the world that being came from looks like, and that makes it so much more terrifying. Then you get the scene when they’re estimating the model of how long it’ll take before the Thing conquers the world, and it’s very terrifying, and also particularly relevant for 2020. For anyone who has not seen this movie, it will be a little unsettling, but it’s definitely worth watching this season, because it has a lot of relevance.
Patrick: I also enjoy the way both films approach feminism. Alien is explicitly feminist and is brilliant for that reason. Then you look at The Thing, and it’s a cast that is all male; but the men aren’t necessarily portrayed as these disgusting pigs either. It’s very interesting that John Carpenter was able to take this all-male cast, and when you watch it, you don’t go, “Wow, what an asshole, you didn’t cast a single woman!” It’s not made in a way that feels exclusionary to anyone; this is the situation that we’re in, and all the people in the film feel like they fit, like there aren’t any pieces missing from the puzzle. Which brings us back to your point about the quality, Tony. To me, it doesn’t feel like mistakes were made in terms of representation in The Thing, specifically because everyone fulfills a role in the story that makes a lot of sense. Most movies that are predominantly men or predominantly white or whatever, I look at that and go, “Wow, this is a miss from a diversity perspective,” whether I like the movie or not. But not in this case.
G.B.: The all-male cast actually works to the film’s favor. This is a movie about a slimy, tentacled creature sticking itself into people’s orifices. If there had been women in this movie, considering the time in which it was made… There were other movies from that same period, like Galaxy of Terror from 1982 and Humanoids From the Deep from 1981, that have women being raped by monsters on camera.
Patrick: That is such an awful trope.
G.B.: Yeah, and if there had been any women cast in the film, I feel like at that time, there would have been way too much pressure to make a sexual trope out of it. This movie is already disturbing enough as it is, we don’t need that shit! In fact, The Thing deserves recognition for being one of the only horror movies of the entire 1980s with no sexual exploitation in it whatsoever!
Tony: That’s where I wanna step in with that. I’m glad you brought those two movies up, because those two movies are very interlinked as far as characters go. There is also no sexuality whatsoever in either of them, and you can literally switch the actors in both movies and both would still work. Sigourney Weaver would have played a hell of an R.J. MacReady [Kurt Russell’s character in The Thing], and Kurt Russell would have been an awesome Ripley. The point Dan O’Bannon was trying to make when he wrote the script for Alien was to not have sexuality, so the women and the men can be interchangeable.
Tony: Plus, Alien is basically “Space Rape: The Movie,” where it’s a man getting raped in the beginning. He’s violated and impregnated, and he has to go through what women have to go through from it. If you could boil the whole movie down to one sentence, it would have to deal with the fact that nobody’s listening to this woman [Ripley] who really knows better about these things than any of the men. “Hey, you know the quarantine rules, you can’t let these people in,” she says. But the men say, “What do you know? You’re a woman, I’m gonna let this thing in and we’ll just take care of it, ’cause we’re men and we know how to control this!” But you can’t control it, it’s nature, and the Alien’s only purpose is to penetrate, impregnate, reproduce, and repeat. That’s the whole point of its species. We know from the deleted scenes, as well as from the 1986 sequel (Aliens), that Ripley has a child, which was removed from the first movie to further desexualize everything. There was even a scene where Dallas [Tom Skerritt’s character in Alien] and Ripley have a relationship, but they cut that out too. I don’t know if it was actually filmed or if it was just in the script, but they cut that part out. I’m glad they separated from that, because otherwise we might have walked into Galaxy of Terror territory.
Patrick: Part of why Alien is my favorite film is that horror and science fiction are my two favorite genres, and Alien is both of those things simultaneously. Sexual violence, of any kind, is my least favorite trope in storytelling, period. I think there are stories that definitely manage their implementation of that kind of device to tell a larger story; but Alien does it in such a way that is (to your point, Tony) not so focused on sex, and that is something that so much media fails to deliver.
G.B.: Though I think the argument can be made that Alien is also very sexual, given that it’s essentially about rape.
Tony: I mean look at the [Engineer] ship. I know you compared it to a cathedral earlier, but it also looks like one big, giant vagina.
Patrick: Oh, absolutely.
Tony: There’s all these orifices, and of course we’re getting into H.R. Giger Land, which is Penis City.
Patrick: And The Thing where is very much a film about masculinity and the ways men interact with each other in the world, which makes it feminist-adjacent in a way that many people don’t think about. Frankly it was ahead of its time, because intersectional feminism is definitely a more recent development; obviously there were people laying the groundwork for that in the 1970s and 1980s, and even before that. But intersectional feminism is not just about empowering women, though that is a key part of the feminist conversation. There are also many other pieces to that puzzle, including things like eliminating toxic masculinity, the ways that men are bad to each other, in addition to the ways that men are harmful to women. I think The Thing is very specifically going for that idea, and that is another reason both of those movies have always been connected in my mind, thematically.
G.B.: You’re really right, actually; now that I think about it, a lot of the men in The Thing, their relationships with each other are really quite toxic.
Patrick: Absolutely, yeah. It manages to touch on that toxic masculinity, and even on racism, though with a very light hand, not by beating you over the head with things. It’s such an interesting microcosm of different people and systems interacting with each other, and it’s always made me want someone to make a video game. Not like the one where you’re flamethrowing Thing monsters, but one where you’re managing all of the personalities at play around that crisis, from sort of a pullback perspective. I think the gross creature feature stuff is amazing in that movie, but what really makes it powerful and meaningful is the way in which all of these personalities interact as everything goes to shit.
Tony: I’ve always seen the main issue or the main subject that they’re trying to explain in The Thing as paranoia. Everybody in that movie is hyper-paranoid because you don’t know, “Am I me? Or is me going to be not me? Is my body going to betray me?” and it turns out I was never me this whole time. This to me is a reflection of identity crises in modern society. “Why, I’m supposed to be a ‘man.'” “No, no, no, no, you’re not supposed to be a man.” “Well who am I, then? What am I? Am I not me?” And when you become paranoid like that, some people try to strive for answers, like MacReady, who says, “We’re gonna fix this.” And then there are the people who freak out and pull out their guns to start shooting, because they don’t wanna know, they don’t wanna question what they think they know, because they live in a world of absolutes. “Men are men, and women are women, and I’m not going to break away from this.” But here is this creature that actually is breaking you away from it, because you don’t even know who are what you are when you become super paranoid. And what’s the one thing you wanna do? You wanna find some sort of sanity, you wanna find something that makes you less insane, going back to nostalgia, grabbing on to things from the past that make things seem “real” again. People want some semblance of sanity, but everybody is questioning everything because things are changing, so everybody’s ultra paranoid. And when everybody’s ultra paranoid… What do we gotta do? Oh, we gotta “Make America Great Again.” Okay; so when was it great? 40 years ago? Sure.
Tony: As for the sequel to The Thing – or excuse me, the prequel (2011). Instead of playing up the paranoia, they went with Alien‘s story model instead, with all these men saying, “Don’t listen to the woman, even though she clearly knows what she’s doing.” Still a great movie, but not as impactful as the first one, which is thanks to that theme of paranoia.
G.B.: I think Patrick mentioned earlier – or maybe it was both of you – how the Alien is really just following its natural life cycle, right? Its biological imperative is to rape and reproduce and do the whole thing all over again. The Thing, on the other hand, is clearly an intelligent, sentient being that is capable of building spacecraft superior to our own (and from pieces of trash that it finds around the camp). It’s presumably swallowed countless civilizations. One thing I’ve heard from some other reviewers is how the human characters are hostile to the Thing from the very start, meaning is actions in the story are purely defensive. Well, maybe it was the Thing that came into the story hostile from the beginning, because it certainly doesn’t seem friendly by nature, and even when it’s imitating a human American scientist, it can speak English perfectly, indicating that it understands what is said to it. Yet it never makes any attempt at communicating with the men at Outpost 31 at any point. So for me, whereas the Alien is just an animal, the Thing is actually evil, purely and simply evil.
Tony: Well, it’s basically
Apep. Like, “I have one purpose and one purpose only: to destroy. That is my nature.” Do you remember the celestial creature from The Fifth Element where it says, “I eat on purpose, I’m going to destroy…” Well that thing is essentially Apep too, just as The Thing is Apep. It just consumes, it doesn’t do anything else. It’s the “Space Terminator,” it can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, we can’t do anything against it, it just destroys, that’s all that it does.
Patrick: Another thing that’s interesting about Alien and The Thing. When you look at Alien, I think it is clearly the product of atheistic thinking. There are parallels with the
Apophis beast and probably with other spiritual evils as well. But Ridley Scott makes it very clear at the beginning that the monster is a purely biological, scientific force that was either made or captured by something. It is not a supernatural force that sprang into existence, with the purpose to destroy on its own. And now of course, with the prequels, we know Scott’s ultimate vision for the origin of the Alien species: that it is a product of experimentation and genetic engineering. I think it’s interesting that Scott, who is himself an atheist, would create a story with a beast like that at the center. Whereas the Thing feels more comparable to a supernatural force, with its more mysterious origins. Again, we know a UFO crashed obviously; but there is no reason to assume the craft is actually from the Thing’s home world. We don’t know where it came from, whether it was created in a lab somewhere, or if it is perhaps a literal manifestation of Apep, this beast that’s been riding through space and has just now found its way to Earth. Not to suggest that John Carpenter was trying to make an explicitly spiritual or religious message here at all, of course.
Tony: Continuing down the road of linking spirituality and paranoia with The Thing, and comparing it to what’s going on in the world. Especially here in this time right now, it seems like to me that everybody is paranoid about one side of humanity trying to wipe out the other. For example, we have conservatives scrambling to keep in power, to stomp out whatever progressive or liberal policies they can, to eradicate all of that. And we have the other side, these people who understand the need to grow and change and stuff. Considering this, I’m surprised that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) isn’t something that people aren’t talking about right now. I’m talking about the 1978 movie; I’ve never actually seen the 1956 original. But the 1970s version is a really good movie to watch right now, given the polarizing times in which we’re living, how it’s “You’re either with us or against us.” It is fucking scary to think, “What if I wake up and I’m one of them?” And it’s the same message with The Thing. What if you wake up and you’re one of THEM? All three of us see ourselves as very tolerant people, but what if we wake up one day and WE’VE become the aliens, the invaders, the monsters? That is some super scary shit.
Patrick: Such a good movie. At the same time, I’m hesitant to watch it, because November 3 is coming around. Having re-watched The Thing many times, my opinion is that MacReady is not the Thing, and was never assimilated at any point. I think he’s human even at the end, and I think they kind of explicitly point to Childs [Keith David’s character] as being infected, though that is a debate that will rage for the ages. But when you compare it to political beliefs and a change in one’s interaction with sociopolitical issues over time, one of the reasons why I feel so confident in MacReady not being the Thing is that he always has an analytical view of the situation, and he is very smart in how he interacts with the potential for infection and the potential for getting turned into the Thing. I see MacReady as a model for staying true to your innermost convictions; he remains himself no matter what, just like I am very confident I will never become politically conservative.
Tony: That’s a great point. But let’s look at what happens with Blair [Wilford Brimley’s character in The Thing]. Okay, so we don’t know when Blair was eaten by the Thing, exactly, but look what happened when he discovered the truth of how long it would take for the Thing to infect the entire world. He just goes berserk. It depends on how you react with it, but some people just can’t handle that kind of information, they literally go crazy. If we sat down and were shown a model telling us the human race will go extinct in 22 years, how would we react to that? If you’re like MacReady, you take an analytical route and go, “Alright, well I’m just gonna do the best I can do, and keep learning and keep going.” But if you’re like Blair, you just flip the fuck out and start diving into paranoia, like those people in the QAnon movement, and you start scrambling and going crazy.
Patrick: Yeah. I certainly don’t have the answers when it comes to helping the Blairs of the world…
G.B.: There have been several times this past year when I felt like I was almost turning into Blair!
Patrick: I have zero tolerance for things like QAnon; but at the same time, I don’t have the answers for someone who is scared. And you’re right, Tony; whether Blair’s reaction to the Thing is a “reasonable” response or not, it is still a real response, a valid experience that can occur when we see things that horrify us. My partner and I talk frequently about how much easier it would be to just not know anything and not care about anything outside of our media bubbles. So I am hesitant to ascribe a reaction like Blair’s to any kind of moral or ethical weakness.
Tony: Some people like to take that and make that their shiny new shield on their chest. “Well, look at me, I’m more put together than you!” And that just feeds off the negativity. As weird and as cheesy as it sounds, many of those people just need a fucking hug, man. OK, you’re scared! I get it. But there’s no need to act like a buffoon!
If you enjoyed this discussion, stay tuned for Part 2 in the next episode of In the Desert of Set!
Why the 2018 “requel,” featuring the return of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, is the best direct sequel to the original 1978 classic.
In the 2010s, David Gordon Green came along and pitched an idea to John Carpenter. Green proposed making a new film for the Halloween series that would establish a brand new timeline, but with an extra twist. This new film would be a direct sequel to just the 1978 original, ignoring all the other entries in the series (as well as the remakes). Green further proposed eliminating the “siblings” subplot that Carpenter first introduced in Halloween II (1981), re-establishing that Michael Myers and Laurie Strode are totally unrelated strangers. Jamie Lee Curtis would also become “the New Loomis” and take Donald Pleasence’s place as Haddonfield’s resident Boogeyman-hunter. Many people would balk at this suggestion, for the idea that Michael and Laurie are siblings has been considered “canon” for decades now. But John Carpenter, having always felt a little embarrassed over Halloween II, absolutely loved Green’s idea and signed on to be an executive producer, creative consultant, and composer for the film (his first involvement with the franchise since Halloween 4 was still in pre-production in 1988). It was almost too good to be true!
I can’t remember who it was, but when David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) was first released, some dingbat film critic trashed the notion that “Directors can apparently change canon at the drop of a hat now.” Whoever made that statement must not be a very good film historian, otherwise they’d know these movies have already been changing their own “canon” for decades (see 1998’s Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later as a good example). Halloween isn’t the first franchise to do this, either. Just look at Hammer Films and Toho Studios, which created alternate timelines for both Count Dracula and Godzilla in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. The so-called “requel” is nothing new, and bringing the Shape back for a new spin on what happened after “The Night He Came Home” is really no different from letting Christopher Nolan take a crack at Batman. The Halloween flicks aren’t for everybody, but neither is this foolish idea that every film in a series must necessarily take place in the same cinematic universe.
That being said, the 2018 Halloween begins with two podcast reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees ) who are visiting Smith’s Grove Sanitarium in Illinois to see Dr. Ranbir Sartain (played by Haluk Bilginer) and his patient, Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney). We learn that shortly after the events of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Dr. Loomis tracked Myers through the neighborhood and was about to nail the fucker with another six slugs to the chest when the local PD showed up and “de-escalated” the situation. Myers was brought into custody and returned to the sanitarium, and Loomis was revoked of his license to practice medicine, which is how Sartain took over. Now it’s 40 years later, Loomis is deceased, and Myers is about to be transferred to a maximum security prison, where he is expected to rot. The reporters try to stoke a reaction from Michael by pulling out that odd, white, faceless mask he wore while stalking his victims in 1978. Myers gives them nothing, but every other patient in the sanitarium suddenly goes rabid, and that tells us right there that these idiot reporters just made a really bad mistake.
Next, the reporters go to Haddonfield to visit Laurie Strode, the only teenager among Michael’s victims to survive—the one who fought back and lived. We learn that over the past 40 years, Laurie had a daughter named Karen (played in adult form by Judy Greer); but Laurie continues to exhibit terrible PTSD, and she’s also become a survivalist gun-nut. Her day-to-day behavior is so alarming, in fact, that the state eventually took Karen away from her custody. Mother and daughter have been estranged ever since, and Laurie now lives in a lonely old house in the woods, with an armory fit for Armageddon. She has always known deep in her heart that Michael Myers will escape again one day, and that the mysterious Shape will stalk the streets of Haddonfield once more. And when that happens, Laurie aims to finish what the local police prevented Dr. Loomis from doing all those years ago, once and for all.
The reporters don’t get much farther with Laurie than they did with Michael; they’re disrespectful to her, suggesting she’s just a hysterical old woman and no one should believe or listen to her. But instead of being silenced, Laurie kicks them the fuck out and goes right back to preparing for the Big Blow-Up. Then she goes to visit her granddaughter, Alyson (Karen’s daughter, played by Andi Matichak), who is experiencing her own share of maternal estrangement. It seems the adult Karen Strode still carries all her childhood demons from growing up under Laurie; for while she is much more stable and capable of raising a family than the elder Strode, she has nevertheless succeeded in alienating her daughter as well. She has restricted Alyson’s access to her grandmother so much that the two of them must meet in secret if they are to interact with each other at all. And while Karen thinks Laurie is just an attention-seeking prophet of doom, Alyson knows her grandmother’s trauma and grief are completely authentic.
It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Laurie’s prophecies about Michael Myers all turn out to be 100% true. The patient somehow manages to escape from a prison bus while he is being transferred to the maximum security facility on Halloween Eve. Then he tracks down the two podcast reporters at a local gas station to retrieve his mask from their belongings. I have to admit, this is the most thrilling sequence I’ve witnessed in any Halloween movie since the late 1980s. Michael Myers is somehow even more intimidating when he’s out of costume, walking around in broad daylight, with everyone around him none the wiser. This part of the film also made me realize just how much Myers resembles a Batman villain like the Scarecrow—complete with escaping from a psychiatric prison and dressing in a costume that seems to enhance (rather than conceal) his true personality. For when Michael finally retrieves his mask and wears it once again, he reverts to his true identity as “the Shape.”
(Beware of spoilers!)
So the Shape returns to Haddonfield and invites itself into random people’s homes, carving the residents up like jack-o’lanterns. It then crosses paths with Alyson while she’s walking home from a school dance, but she manages to elude it and find Officer Hawkins (Will Patton), who’s out patrolling the neighborhood with Dr. Sartain. Hawkins, Sartain, and Alyson then encounter the Shape again, and when Hawkins prepares to kill it, Dr. Sartain goes apeshit and kills the cop. Then he throws an unconscious Shape in the backseat of Hawkins’ police car (along with Alyson) and drives off toward Laurie Strode’s house. He explains that he’s obsessed with learning the secrets of Michael’s true motives, and that he believes he can uncover those secrets by forcing a showdown between Laurie and the Shape. But once they’ve almost reached the Strode house, the Shape re-awakens and tears the police car to shit with its bare hands. Alyson manages to escape by the very skin of her teeth, but things don’t go so well for Dr. Sartain, whom the Shape soon dispenses with. Then the Shape sees Laurie’s house down the road, and the Big Blow-Up between Strode and Myers begins.
Some people complain profusely about this plot twist with Dr. Sartain, claiming that it totally “came out of left field” or “served no purpose” for the story; but I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and for several reasons. First off, it’s clear that while Laurie and Sartain both believe the Shape wants to get her, the Shape itself has very different ideas. While Laurie has never stopped dwelling on that fateful Halloween night in 1978, the Shape doesn’t appear to even remember who she is. Imagine that someone attacked you and traumatized you several years ago, to the point where everything you do in your life is now shaped and dictated by that awful experience. Now imagine that you will finally have a chance to confront your tormentor several years down the road, only to learn that he doesn’t even remember you or the things he did to you! Not because he’s been “rehabilitated” or because he honestly forgot, but simply because you are insignificant to him in every possible way. While Laurie has focused all her energy on destroying the Shape for the past 40 years, the Shape hasn’t thought about her even once since 1978, and that is some awful dark shit right there.
If it seems strange that a Halloween movie would feature another villain apart from the Shape, we need only remember Halloween 6. I believe the Sartain character is actually an homage to Dr. Terence Wynn, the “Man in Black.” According to Halloween 6, there are other people in Haddonfield who know what the Shape really is aside from Dr. Loomis, but who want to “control” or “understand” it rather than destroy it. Dr. Wynn and his “Thorn Cult” learned the hard way that this impossible, and Dr. Sartain learns the exact same lesson here. There are quite a few homages to earlier films in this movie, so I’m pretty certain this resemblance between Wynn and Sartain is intentional. I think the idea of the Shape having “fans” or “helpers” is not only interesting from a narrative perspective, but also quite scary and realistic. Just look at how people idolize monsters like Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy in real life.
There are also numerous clues in the first half of the film that the Sartain plot twist is coming. Dr. Sartain is the one who deliberately allows the podcast reporters to taunt Michael with his mask at the start of the film. (What the hell kind of doctor lets the press fuck with his patient like that? Dr. Loomis would not have approved!) He also insists on accompanying Myers on the prison bus, and he is the only survivor we see on the bus after Michael’s escape. (Did Michael really kill all those guards—or did Sartain do it?) The doctor also says a lot of asinine things about empathizing with Michael, as if he doesn’t give a shit about any of the victims. Finally, when Laurie Strode and Dr. Sartain meet for the first and only time in the film, Laurie refers to him as “the New Loomis,” given his inherited role as Michael Myers’ psychiatrist. This line is absolutely loaded with irony considering that Sartain later turns out to be in cahoots with the Shape, and that Laurie herself turns out to be a much better Loomis than Sartain could ever be!
I also enjoy the Sartain plot twist because I honestly didn’t see it coming; despite all the clues, David Gordon Green does a masterful job of hiding the surprise, and it truly caught me off guard when I first watched the film. I can’t tell you how many times I will sit down and watch a new horror movie I’ve never seen before, only to correctly guess everything that’s going to happen throughout the film. I have even lower expectations when it comes to slasher movie sequels, which tend to follow a very rigid formula. So the fact that this sequence surprised me as much as it did is nothing short of amazing. And considering how important Sartain actually is to the story (mind you, he is the only reason Michael and Laurie ever cross paths), he has now become one of my favorite characters in the franchise. (Too bad he won’t be showing up in any more sequels, unless it’s in a flashback!)
Each of the male characters in this film is either helpless (like Officer Hawkins), untrustworthy (like Alyson’s boyfriend Cameron), or downright evil (like Myers and Sartain). There is a recurring theme about women not being heard and not being believed (not only by men, but by other women as well). After Michael was apprehended in 1978, no one aside from Laurie and Dr. Loomis seems to have considered him responsible for his own actions. The State of Illinois simply locked him away again, and everyone moved on. When the podcast reporters question Laurie about this, they seem to take Michael’s side for some reason, excusing him for his actions in 1978 because “He’s crazy” and “It happened so long ago.” So Laurie isn’t just fighting the Shape here; she’s fighting the entire patriarchy, which cares more about her tormentor’s side of the story than her own. In this way, David Gordon Green’s Halloween is really the only sequel in the entire franchise that taps into one of the original 1978 film’s most important themes: how society protects and even aids monsters like Michael Myers by gaslighting their victims. When the Strode women finally band together at the end to tackle the Shape, they aren’t just taking down a man in a mask; they are taking down the entire toxic narrative their patriarchal society has used to keep them disempowered for so long.
Another thing I love about this movie is the fact that the “babysitters-in-jeopardy” element of the story is limited to just the second act. We’ve already seen Michael Myers stalk babysitters for 90 minutes at a time (several times, in fact); there is so much more he can do as a character. David Gordon Green proves this by using the first and final acts to elaborate on things we’ve never seen in any Halloween movie before. The first act does a fantastic job of putting us in Laurie’s head, exploring her complexity as she alternates between her doomsday prepping and her struggles with PTSD. And the final act is a real powerhouse, escalating the conclusion of the 1978 original to full-blown action movie proportions. Now that Green is currently filming not one but two more Halloween films (to be released in October 2021 and 2022, respectively), I’m very excited to see what other new situations he might throw these characters into next. (I’ve always wanted to see the Shape square off against an entire SWAT Team, myself!)
Without a doubt, David Gordon Green’s Halloween wins my vote for “Absolute Best Direct Sequel to the 1978 Original” (a title previously held by Halloween 4). This isn’t just some run-of-the-mill slasher movie; this is an example of how one night of terrible violence can still affect people several decades afterwards (even if they weren’t even born yet at the time!). And while the Halloween series has always featured strong female protagonists, the 2018 requel deserves special recognition for bringing this theme to a whole new level. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, especially for viewers who enjoy seeing powerful women beat the stuffing out of evil men (like I do!).
How a simple “slasher movie” deplores the patriarchy and evokes Celtic folklore.
Merry Samhain! Happy Hallowtide! To mark this blessed holiday occasion, the next several episodes of this series will feature my analyses of the Halloween horror film franchise, with a particular focus on my five favorite installments thereof.
If I had to rank my top 5 Halloween movies as things currently stand here in 2020, the countdown (from fifth to first favorite) would run as follows:
- Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (a.k.a. “Halloween 6,” 1995)
- Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
- David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018)
- Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
- John Carpenter’s Halloween (the original, 1978)
I find it difficult to discuss these films in a countdown, and would prefer to discuss them chronologically instead. But unlike most other popular movie franchises, the Halloween series does not follow a single coherent timeline. It instead includes several alternate continuities, and even a completely different cinematic universe in the case of Halloween III (which diverges thematically from all the other films). That being said, I think it would make the most sense if I discussed my favorite entries from the “A-plot” storyline of the series (the Michael Myers saga) first, then concluded with an analysis of the “B-plot” story. So the first four episodes in this little mini-series will feature my four favorite Myers films in their chronological order of release; then I will end by discussing Halloween III.
It’s Halloween night, 1963, in the sleepy little town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Dressed as a clown, a six-year old boy named Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister, Judith, to death—and for no apparent reason at all. He neither moves nor speaks afterwards, and he is admitted to a state mental hospital, where he is treated by Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). After a while, Loomis claims Myers is the single most dangerous patient he has ever observed, and he does everything he can to have the boy transferred to a maximum security prison—despite the fact that Michael just sits there motionless, never reacting to any external stimuli. The doctor’s colleagues think Loomis has gone crackers, but he seems to understand something about Michael that modern psychiatry just isn’t equipped to explain. Much to everyone’s horror, Loomis is proven 100% correct about his patient 15 years later, when a full-grown Myers gets a hair up his ass and makes a jailbreak on Halloween Eve. The authorities continue to gaslight Dr. Loomis and ignore what’s happening, thinking they will probably find Michael just sitting in a park somewhere in his hospital clothes. But Loomis knows his patient is really up to something terrible, so he follows his only lead: the possibility that Myers might return to the scene of his childhood crime, the old Myers House back in Haddonfield.
Here is where we meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a meek and lonely teenager who happens to live in Haddonfield. She’s good-natured and smart as a whip; but her closest “friends,” Annie and Lynda (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles), constantly treat her like shit, making fun of her good grades and her shyness around dudes. Yet Laurie does, in fact, attract a “man” when she passes by the Myers House on her way to school that Halloween morning in 1978. For a mysterious Shape inside the abandoned property notices her and fixates on her, following her wherever she goes from that point on. Laurie keeps catching glimpses of the Shape as she sits in class, walks home from school, and goes to babysit her pre-adolescent friend Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) for the evening. But the Shape keeps appearing and vanishing like a phantom, and Laurie doesn’t really believe what she sees as first, thinking it’s probably just some holiday prankster, or perhaps her eyes playing tricks. Tommy refers to the Shape as “the Boogeyman” whenever he sees it lurking outside the windows, and Dr. Loomis insists this thing is really the devil himself. By the time Laurie is forced to defend herself and Loomis arrives to shoot the Shape six times in the chest at close range, the viewer is unable to dispute with Tommy or Loomis on either of these theories. There really is no “Michael Myers” at all, or at least not in any human sense; there is only the deathless Shape, which has now dropped all pretense at being a mortal man.
This story might not seem to have anything to do with magic or the occult, but there is a curious parallel to Celtic mythology and folklore that is seldom noticed. Celtic lore tells of changelings, or faery children who are swapped for human babies (without the human parents’ knowledge or consent). A changeling will look and behave just like a human baby at first, but eventually it starts exhibiting weird superhuman powers, and misfortune follows it wherever it goes. It seems to me that Michael Myers fits this motif perfectly; his parents appear to have had no idea of what they were really raising, and much like the evil spirits in Celtic folk religion, he only roams free during the festival of Samhain. Additionally, the apotropaic Halloween traditions that once kept us safe from entities like the Shape—wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, trick-or-treating, etc.—have been completely secularized, rendering them powerless. The evil can stalk and slash as much as it wants to now, since the people of Haddonfield aren’t even willing to acknowledge its existence in the first place.
The fact that Myers wears a pale white mask and stalks defenseless young women is also significant. Myers is the ultimate Angry White Male, and he is just as difficult to kill as the horrific patriarchy in which we all live. The authorities’ insistence on minimizing his evil is paralleled by how our society continues to trivialize issues like systemic misogyny and toxic masculinity today. I think most people would agree with me that even when these evils are exposed in broad daylight for all to see, the common reaction is to ignore the problem and pretend nothing bad is really happening. Here in 2020, the entire United States is still responding to evil men the same way Haddonfield responded to the Shape in 1978: by ignoring them and letting them do whatever the fuck they want.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is amazing and beautiful on many different levels. It is, in fact, my all-time favorite film. It might be a “slasher” film (and the template for many slashers to come, at that), but it feels much more like an old-fashioned ghost story to me. The point is not to build a body count or gross out the audience with gore, but to build relentless suspense, to make us yell at the characters in the movie, and to leave us all wondering, “What happens next?” when the credits roll. The fact that this film was made on a nonexistent budget by mostly unknown talent (many of whom worked multiple jobs on set for free, including Curtis) only enhances the impression it leaves on the viewer. The most expensive part of the entire production was probably just hiring Donald Pleasence to play Dr. Loomis for a few key scenes, and even he (being the fantastic professional that he was) admired all the heart that was put into the project. This was also Jamie Lee Curtis’ first big break, and she truly shines as Laurie Strode, the timid girl who never goes looking for trouble, but who turns out to be much tougher and cooler than she or her peers think she is. And lest I forget, the eerie electronic music by director John Carpenter is truly a work of art unto itself. The soundtrack is my #1 favorite album to listen to, which I suppose is probably obvious to anyone who’s heard my music.
The sister and ex-wife of Set is a renowned healer of wounded hearts and minds.
Even more than Ishtar or Taweret, Nephthys is the goddess who is most often linked with Set. In fact, some people might be wondering why it’s taken me 40 whole episodes before I got around to discussing Her. Truth is, I wanted to highlight the aforementioned goddesses first because Their interactions with Set are far less known. I also think Set and Nephthys share a much more complex relationship than what is typically imagined about god and goddess couples, for reasons I shall explain.
The name of this goddess, which comes from the Egyptian Nebet-Het, means “Lady of the House.” It refers to a temple enclosure, rather than a domestic residence. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Nephthys is one of the fourth generation of Netjeru (the others being Osiris, Isis, Set, and even Horus in some accounts). As such, She is one of the divinities who facilitate life here on earth, and who contributes to the arts of human civilization.
The fourth generation of gods was somewhat disruptive to the natural order of things at first. There is even a story about Ra, the first Netjer, prohibiting their granddaughter, the sky goddess Nut, from giving birth to these young’uns (despite already being pregnant). Thankfully, the wise god Thoth finds a technicality that allows Nut to have her children while still technically obeying Ra’s decree. So first it was just Ra, and all things were united in them. Then Ra begat Shu and Tefnut, the breath and the waters of life, who are the first male and female. After that, Shu and Tefnut begat another male and female, Nut and Geb, the deities of heaven and earth. While Ra themself is hermaphroditic, the second and third theological generations are dichotomous, falling into a strict gender binary that is strongly tied to the reproductive cycle.
Reproduction becomes a major theme for the fourth generation of Netjeru as well, but in a radically different way. For one thing, there are not just two deities in this generation, but at least four (if not five, depending on whether you choose to include Horus—but more on that in a moment). Only two of these figures—Isis and Osiris—are a fertile heteronormative couple, and they become the darlings of the pantheon for this reason. Set and Nephthys are sterile and barren, incapable of producing any offspring. Set is also attracted to gods of the same sex, and there is reason to think the same might be true of Nephthys. While Isis and Osiris are like celebrities, receiving all the glory and the privilege from their elders, everybody tries to forget about Set and Nephthys in the beginning, pairing Them together and leaving Them to fend for Themselves.
The way I see it, this is what sets the entire Osirian drama into motion. More than anything, Nephthys—sometimes described as “an imitation woman with no vagina”—wants to have a child; She wants to experience all the same parts of womanhood that Isis enjoys. So She disguises Herself as Isis and sleeps with Osiris, who is so miraculously fertile, he could even impregnate a corpse. Nephthys then gives birth to Anubis, the jackal god, and tries to hide Him so Set won’t find out what happened. But Set learns the truth and loses His temper big time. Instead of trying to harm Nephthys or Anubis, however, He squashes Osiris instead (twice, in fact). Then Isis goes on her journey to raise Osiris from the dead. She succeeds, sleeps with her brother-husband one last time before he goes to Duat, and becomes pregnant with Horus. (This is where the question of when Horus is born comes up again. I prefer to place it here at this point in the narrative, as it makes the most thematic sense to me personally; but there are other versions of the same narrative that cite Nut as the mother of Horus. Just one more example of how the ancient Egyptians were way ahead of quantum physicists or science fiction writers when it comes to the idea of alternate universes.) Nephthys dutifully accompanies Isis through all of this insanity, helping Her sister every step of the way.
This is especially the case when it comes to the funeral of Osiris; and here is where Nephthys’ innermost drive becomes most evident. She and Her son Anubis help Isis reconstruct the body of Osiris and restore him to life. Through much of this process, Nephthys weeps and wails and whimpers with Isis, empathizing with the widowed goddess and sharing in her profound sorrow. The Egyptians prayed to Nephthys as a kind of “dark midwife” you might say, a divine grief counselor who assists those in terrible emotional anguish, helping them heal and feel better over time. This fits together with the role of Anubis, who invents the funerary arts and becomes the first mortician. Nobody enjoys experiencing death or loss, but they are facts of life, and those of us who survive must find a way to live again. To think that Nephthys and Anubis have always been there to nurture things that help us cope with such experiences (such as counseling or mortuary science) makes my heart glow like a jack-o’lantern.
Nephthys sides with the Osirian Trinity during the Contendings of Horus and Set, and She sticks with them for the most part after the Great Reconciliation. She continues associating with Big Red when it comes to fighting the Chaos Serpent, and She appears to have been revered as a powerful fire-breathing warrior in this regard. But the one member of the Divine Family Nephthys truly seems to have fallen in love with is Isis. To make things even more interesting, other cosmogonies have cited Set as being Anubis’ father; the two are often linked (or even outright confused with each other) even today.
None of what I say next should be treated as any kind of official religious dogma. This is just what I personally take from these wonderful stories, and you can either take it or leave it. But I think Nephthys is a lesbian goddess. I think She and Set still love each other; They have just always loved each other as brother and sister for the most part. They are divorced, but for good reason; They were never very attracted to each other in the first place. Isis and Osiris are married because they love each other; Set and Nephthys were paired together as an afterthought to make the rest of the pantheon happy. This refusal to properly integrate the forms of life and being that Set and Nephthys represent is what almost caused the downfall of Creation, and the apocalypse was only averted when the Netjeru got wise as a society and changed their ways. Now these two outcasts are truly accepted by Their family as equals, and Set has even grown to love Anubis and become His stepdad.
This trinity of Set, Nephthys, and Anubis is truly remarkable for many reasons. A divorced pansexual genderbending dad, a barren lesbian spinster mom, and a so-called “illegitimate” stepchild born of “adultery”? What isn’t there to love about this, or the fact that these figures were considered acceptable and divine in ancient Egyptian culture? The Western patriarchal concept of “the nuclear family”—which insists that all families must consist of two heteronormative cisgender adults with 2.3 biological offspring born in wedlock—is not only a more recent invention in the grand scheme of things, but a blatant work of isfet (poisonous falsehood and injustice) that contradicts Ma’at (everlasting goodness and truth). There is a place for EVERY sentient being in this world, AND for the sentient beings they love too. It simply DOES NOT MATTER whether we are male or female, gay or straight, trans or cisgender, married or unmarried, monogamous or non-monogamous, biologically related or adopted—and it NEVER has. Other religions need to hurry the fuck up and get wise to this, already. Set, Nephthys, and Anubis were already on top of this well ahead of Yahweh and Jesus, and things still don’t look so good for those two on this score today.
(Plus, Set, Nephthys, and Anubis are all goth as hell, like They’re the original Addams Family—and that is just cool.)
If there is any one divinity I associate with Hallowtide in particular (which is no easy task, given the sheer quantity of gods who align with the occasion perfectly), Nephthys is the one. My wife and I enjoy visiting cemeteries all around our state in October and November, and to me, this is a way of honoring Nephthys throughout the holiday season. Just to walk among the graves and admire the craftsmanship of the headstones and tombs; to see all the ancient iconography that still shows up, even among the newer statuary; to soak in the names of the ancestors who rest there, and the times in which they lived; to be alone in the eerie silence. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there is just something about visiting such places for a couple of hours that has an effect on you. Most people seem to find the idea spooky, but I find it very peaceful and meditative, helping me achieve a level of mindfulness I usually can’t reach otherwise. To me, this kind of mindfulnessness is a huge part of what Lady Nephthys is all about.
Lest She be accused of never being colorful, Nephthys is also the guardian of the Bennu. This avian divinity was associated with heron birds and the solar cycle in Heliopolis. The Greek writer Herodotus described it as the phoenix (a possible Greek derivative of Bennu), which later developed into the archetypal “bird of fire” that ritually burns and rises from its own ashes. These more modern associations are fascinating when put together with Nephthys’ reputation as a healer of wounded minds and hearts, as well as Her role as a fiery monster-slayer. Though it is really about Russian folklore, I enjoy listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird each year at Hallowtide because I find the titular creature analogous to that of the Bennu, and phoenix symbolism is very evocative of Nephthys to me personally.
Gorgo (1961) is a British kaiju (giant monster) movie with several interesting subtexts, all of which seem relevant to the goddess Taweret.
In Gorgo (1961), two guys named Sam and Joe are traveling the British seas, looking for gold and other precious junk on the ocean floor. Their ship gets damaged during a weird volcanic eruption that happens in the middle of the sea for no apparent reason, and they end up having to stay on an island off the coast of Ireland for a few days. While repairing their ship, Sam and Joe notice that the people of this island seem to be hiding something. Well, that something turns out to be a giant bipedal lizard with big floppy fins for ears. Sam and Joe decide to capture the creature, and when they do, the Irish government implores them to give the beast to the University of Dublin for scientific research. Unfortunately, our protagonists decide to bring the reptile to Dorkin’s Circus in London instead, where they make a shit-ton of money off the poor creature. The joke’s on them, though, because they soon learn that “Gorgo” (the name Dorkin gives to the creature, which is taken from the three Gorgons in Greek mythology) is not the only one of its breed. It’s really just a baby, in fact, and its mother—who is significantly larger and meaner—is now on her way to file one hell of a grievance against the entire city of London.
That’s pretty much the entire plot to the film right there, and considering its year of release, we’re dealing with some pretty predictable stuff. For the most part, Gorgo is largely a remake of King Kong (1933), save that its giant monster is of the saurian persuasion. Yet there are several things that distinguish this kaiju film from all of its contemporaries. At the most obvious level, it’s not Japanese but British, and it provides some interesting insight into the United Kingdom’s sociopolitical situation at the time. When Sam and Joe arrive at the island with their crew, they seek help from the Irish locals. But the locals will only respond to them in Gaelic, even though they clearly understand English. Sam and Joe also learn the harbormaster has been salvaging archaeological finds from the ocean, and they bully the dude into giving them all of his loot as “payment” for capturing Gorgo. Later on, when they decide to sell Gorgo to the London circus, they are effectively giving the Irish government the middle finger. That’s not once, but twice in the same film where Ireland gets screwed over by Anglo-Saxons, who rob the Gaels not only of their history (in the form of their archaeological treasures), but of their very own real-life dragon as well.
I first saw Gorgo when I was five or six years old. I had already seen a lot of giant monster flicks by that point, and in most of them, the “ethnic” people are usually people of color (or white and/or Japanese people in blackface or brownface). This goes all the way back to King Kong (1933), which unfortunately depicts black people as savages whom the white characters could easily exploit. But Gorgo was the first of these movies I ever saw where it’s white people treating other white people this way. Seeing Englishmen mistreat Irish people and animals in Gorgo was my introduction to subjects like Hibernophobia and the Troubles of Northern Ireland. I also love the film for being my first exposure to Gaelic language and culture.
But there’s another subtext in this film. So there’s this Irish kid named Sean, and he’s the only character who sympathizes with the monsters at first. He even stows away on Sam and Joe’s ship, hoping to free Baby Gorgo out at sea. The kid gets caught, but what do you think happens after that? Sam and Joe decide to let Sean live with them, that’s what. And yes, I said “with them.” With only a few brief exceptions, these two men spend the entire movie together; and the body language they use around each other at home is most interesting. There’s one scene where Sam and Joe are comfort little Sean while he tries to go to sleep, and Joe stands at the head of the bed in a typical fatherly pose, while Sam sits beside Sean on the mattress in a more gentle and nurturing pose. Then there’s another scene where Sam and Joe squabble over a carnival worker who has been killed by Baby Gorgo. Sam is worried about the guy’s wife and kids, and Joe, not wanting Sam to worry, promises he will send the family some money. There’s even a scene where the two of them are introduced as “Joe Ryan and his partner, Sam Slade”—and while that kind of terminology didn’t have the same connotation in 1961 that it has today, it’s hard not to imbue it with contemporary significance. It’s also interesting that there isn’t a single girl or woman in the entire cast, and that when one of the adult characters finally starts to side with Sean about setting Baby Gorgo free, it’s Sam (the “motherly” father). In other words, it’s totally believable to me that Sam and Joe are a couple, that they’ve adopted Sean, and that the three of them have become a family.
Sam (William Sylvester), Joe (Bill Travers), and Sean (Vincent Winter)—a 1960s same-sex family?
I say Gorgo has no women in it (aside from a few here or there among the extras during the final act), but there is at least one female in the film (if not two), and that’s Mama Gorgo. It’s never specifically confirmed at any point that she’s got a XX pair of sex chromosomes, but I think we can safely assume that this is true. How else can we explain Baby Gorgo? If you’re wondering where the father might be, there are such things as the New Mexico whiptail, a lizard species that is entirely female and that reproduces through parthenogenesis. It seems likely to me that Baby Gorgo is female as well, given that Dorkins names her after the Gorgons of Greek mythology (all of whom are ladies). Gorgo was also the name of a famous Queen of Sparta who lived and ruled during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. So any way you slice it, it would seem that the giant lizards in Gorgo are the only female characters in this entire movie. This would make sense in light of certain combat myths like the Enuma Elish, for just as Marduk used his masculine strength to slay his saurian mother Tiamat and create the universe from Her corpse, so too do Sam and Joe try to create a multimillion dollar empire with the female Irish sea dragon they’ve captured. But things don’t go quite so well for them as they did for ol’ Marduk, which brings us to why I think Gorgo is something more than just a King Kong cash-in.
I’ve always found the original 1933 King Kong too horrific to watch, because it’s about people committing acts of animal cruelty and not having to pay any real consequences for doing so. While many viewers sympathize with the titular giant ape, there is no indication in the film itself that we’re supposed to; Kong is presented as being just a big dumb animal who has to die so the damsel in distress can live to marry the dashing male hero. None of the characters mourn for Kong, and no one acknowledges that removing him from his natural environment and exploiting him was wrong (or at least, not until the remakes came along). Such was the general attitude audiences had toward giant monsters until 1954, when Ishiro Honda gave us the originalGodzilla. The monster in that film also had to die, but its death is treated more like a funeral; the audience is actively encouraged to sympathize with it and to consider the aftermath of all the violence that happens in the film. Gorgo, in contrast, is the first kaiju film in which the monsters are not only sympathetic, but victorious. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing Mama and Baby Gorgo swimming back home to Ireland at the end of the film, and it wasn’t long after their victory that Mothra, Godzilla, King Kong, and the giant turtle Gamera were each re-imagined as kid-friendly superheroes.
No phallic symbolism is safe from Mama Gorgo!
So the conflict in this film would seem to exist between two different same-sex families: (1) a single mother and her little girl (the Gorgos), and (2) two men and their son (Sam, Joe, and Sean). Neither of these two families is “normal” according to “traditional” patriarchal standards; and yet the film never tries to “punish” either of them for this. As mentioned earlier, the Gorgos are reunited and get to go home, alive and happy; but even the human family turns out okay in the end. They also share a collective character arc; at first it’s just Sam and Joe, and all they care about is fame and money. Then they adopt Sean, and Sam starts sympathizing with the Gorgos like Sean does. Joe—the “fatherly” dad—remains an asshole for most of the story, but then redeems himself during Mama Gorgo’s attack on London. He protects Sean amidst all the destruction, and they are both safely re-united with Sam at the end. Based on how Joe behaves earlier in the film, you would expect this character to try and save his own skin while leaving the kid alone to die (and then be promptly eaten by the monster for being a dick). Not so with Joe; he sees the light, chooses his kid over his own self-preservation, and actually works hard to be a good dad. You almost never see this kind of character transition in giant monster movies, especially in the 1960s, and to think Joe is a gay man just makes it cooler.
Gorgo does have its flaws, but most of them are the kind I tend to overlook. The writing isn’t as sharp as it could have been; most of the character development is restricted to the first two acts (which tends to bore the hell out of most viewers), while most of the action occurs during the final act (at which point, the film forgets its human characters almost entirely). These things don’t really bother me; the only serious criticism I have about Gorgo is the fact that during its final 18 minutes, it suddenly introduces a news reporter character who narrates every single detail about Mama Gorgo’s parade through London. This segment is so glaringly unnecessary, it’s virtually impossible to ignore it. The first 60 minutes of the story are easy enough to follow, so why the hell did anyone think the last 18 needed a narrator?
Another thing I love about Gorgo is the fact that it makes me think about Taweret, the hippo fertility goddess. Taweret is like a benign chaos monster; instead of being killed to save (or create) the world, She kills other monsters that threaten the future of the world. Mama Gorgo is a perfect cinematic avatar for Taweret, and watching this film is like watching the Great Female crush the white racist capitalist patriarchy beneath Her cute, stubby toes. Seeing this movie as a kid probably helped put me on Taweret’s wavelength, even back then. If you’re Pagan and you love animals (especially gigantic reptilian beasties with wiggly ears), I bet dollars to donuts you will enjoy Gorgo. If you’ve never seen it and you’d like an additional bonus to go with it, this movie is featured in Episode 9 from Season 9 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
A discussion of the Egyptian hippo goddess Taweret, Her connections with Set, and the reasons I love Her so much.
Taweret is the Egyptian hippo goddess of childbirth. Her name means “Great Female,” and She is otherwise known as Taurt, Reret, Apet, or Thoueris. According to some accounts, She was originally the female counterpart of
Apep, the Chaos Serpent; but She became a goddess and a defender of Ma’at. Now—along with Her trusty sidekick, the benevolent daemon Bes—Taweret protects the frightened and the vulnerable. As frightening as all the qliphoth of the Void might be, they are frightened of Taweret, and for good reason. Her sacred animal is one of the deadliest creatures on earth, and She is the only other Netjer or Egyptian divinity who is powerful enough to wield Khepesh, the celestial Iron of Set!
Hippos are Typhonian animals, which means there’s a very strong connection between Taweret and Set. While male hippos were feared, females were celebrated for their ferocity in protecting their young. The Egyptians channeled this ferocity by invoking Taweret for protection, especially when it came to mothers and little children. Midwives commonly used hippo statuettes to instill Taweret’s strength in women who were giving birth. People kept Her image around their homes because it made them feel SAFE in a world of terror and chaos, with no hospitals or public health system as we understand such things today. People generally don’t behave that way toward influences they think are “ugly” or “disturbing,” so clearly the sight of Taweret inspired confidence. Despite Her so-called “demonic” appearance, the Great Female is there to defend the defenseless.
Taweret never had any temples or priesthoods of Her own (that we presently know of, at least); Hers was a purely folk tradition, kept alive by Egyptian peasants in their own homes. This is ironic, given that Taweret is also linked with one of the largest and most important constellations in the northern sky. The Egyptians viewed Draco not as a dragon, but as a great big hippo with a crocodile on Her back. In funerary art, this hippo was shown with sagging breasts that are heavy with milk. She holds a chain by which the Big Dipper is tethered to Polaris, the North Star. Taweret is said to keep the Dipper restrained to prevent Set from completely destroying the universe whenever He becomes too angry. She is helped in this regard by the Four Sons of Horus: Duamutef, Hapi, Imsety and Qebshenuf.
The Great Female was eventually recast as an alternate form of Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris; but I disagree with this conflation myself. Isis is linked to Sirius and the Sothic cycle, not to Draco or the circumpolar stars, and the Isian religion is known for having absorbed virtually every other goddess religion it encountered in Late Antiquity (including the cults of Aphrodite, Demeter, and Diana). But most importantly to me, Taweret is a “monstrous” divinity who was born of chaos and who exhibits chaotic traits, yet who uses Her chaotic powers to defend the cosmic order (not to un-create it, as
Apep seeks to do). She trades in an altogether different, more primeval kind of fertility than Isis does. The Egyptian gods are kind of like Voltron or the Megazord; they can converge in various formations and become composite deities, and this includes Taweret and Isis as much as the rest. But this is not the same thing as saying Taweret is simply a “different version of Isis.”
Many goddesses are portrayed as beautiful, slender-bodied women, but Taweret has always been depicted as rotund, with a gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth. She certainly isn’t the sort of “glamour girl” one normally finds in pinup magazines, and I absolutely love Her for this. (Not that I have anything against the more glamorous goddesses; remember, I revere Ishtar too.) Our patriarchal society pretends to love women, but continues to shame them for not keeping fit, wearing makeup, shaving their armpits, or bearing children. There is nothing wrong with doing either of these things so long as it is your choice, just like there is nothing wrong with wearing a skirt or a hijab so long as it is your choice. But the expectation that every woman must fit some kind of “mold” is not only misogynist; it goes against nature, as holy figures like Taweret are here to remind us.
By the time the Greek writer Plutarch came along (circa 46–120 C.E.) to offer his version of events, Taweret’s story had been changed so that She was a concubine of Set who abandoned Him after the killing of Osiris. This change was probably the result of Set’s demonization in Late Antiquity, when He was conflated with the Chaos Serpent and blamed for Egypt’s fall to foreign rule. I think Taweret is still one of Set’s many romantic partners, but She also acts as a kind of “buffer” between Him and the other Netjeru, restraining Set when He loses His self-restraint. (A Lady who’s not afraid to smack Big Red around with His own iron genitals whenever She thinks He’s being an asshole? How can such a Female be regarded with anything but boundless AWE?)
Taweret also resembles Big Red in that She seems to have identified more with the “little people” who didn’t benefit as much from Pharaonic privilege. The peasants knew She would always listen to them, even if the “more important” gods of the Pharaohs and the priesthoods didn’t. In Typhonian Thelemic lore, it is said that Set is the male offspring or avatar of Typhon, whom Kenneth Grant depicts as a saurian mother goddess associated with Draco. Grant further claimed that “Typhon’s” worship was suppressed by later patriarchal religions. As far as I can tell, there is no historical evidence to support either of these claims, which Grant appears to have drawn from the poet Gerald Massey (who was not an Egyptologist). But I do agree with Massey and Grant that Set’s worship is linked to that of a “monstrous” female divinity who resonates with Draco, and who was ignored by the Pharaohs for some reason. I just think the entity they were describing is actually Taweret.
I think of Draco and the Big Dipper as being at the “center” of heaven. Being circumpolar, they never descend beneath the horizon, which is why the ancient Egyptians called them “the Imperishable Ones.” Unlike the planets and the constellations of the Zodiac, the circumpolar stars can be seen on any night at any time of year (in the northern hemisphere, at least, and weather permitting). Since Draco and the Dipper are above the Zodiac, I think of Taweret and Set as being “older” and “darker” than any of the various planetary divinities (e.g., Marduk and Zeus for Jupiter, Ishtar and Aphrodite for Venus, etc.), as well as divinities associated with Sirius and Orion (e.g., Isis and Osiris, respectively), which are beneath the Zodiac. Mind you, I am not asserting any of this to be a dogmatic “fact”; it’s just the way I prefer to think about the gods based on Their related stars. I also incorporated this theoretical cosmogony into A Would-Be Ombite Creation Myth, with Set and Taweret cast as the first Netjeru to be born from Nut or Mother Sky.
How The Final Conflict (a.k.a. Omen III: The Final Conflict) can be read as an allegory for the goddess Ishtar and Her rivalry with Therion, the spirit of human tyranny.
The Final Conflict (1981)—which was re-christened Omen III: The Final Conflict for its DVD release in the early 2000s—is the second sequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 masterpiece, The Omen. I enjoy the original Omen trilogy in its entirety, but The Final Conflict is the one installment thereof that’s made the largest impression on me. This film also makes me think about the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who is one of Set’s many romantic partners and the second-most important deity to me personally.
In case you’ve never seen The Omen or its initial sequel, Damien: Omen II (1978), here is a brief recap of their events. The 1976 original is about a U.S. politician named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) who learns his child has died while his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) was giving birth. A Catholic priest convinces Thorn to adopt an orphan who was born at the same time at the same hospital. Robert agrees, and the Thorns leave with their newborn baby boy (and with Katherine none the wiser to his true parentage). But as the child, Damien, grows older, weird shit starts to happen. One of his nannies hangs herself in front of his entire birthday party. A new, creepy nanny shows up to take the old one’s place. A crazy priest stalks and harasses Robert. A big black dog starts hanging around the Thorn household. A photographer (David Warner) captures prophetic photos of people’s deaths. And poor Katherine becomes terrified of the child who is supposed to be her offspring. All of which leads Robert to visit Rome, a monastery in Subiaco, and an archaeological dig in the valley of Megiddo, where he learns that Damien is really the son of Satan and can only be killed with these mystical artifacts called the Seven Daggers of Meggido.
What follows is the most disturbingly sympathetic depiction of attempted infanticide that has ever been filmed. Unfortunately, Robert only succeeds in getting himself killed when he tries to prevent the apocalypse (spoilers!), and Damien is then adopted by his uncle Richard (William Holden) in Damien: Omen II. Now an adolescent, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) remembers nothing of what happened to him or his parents in the first film. He’s also best friends with his cousin Mark, who’s more like a brother to him. Damien and Mark both attend military school, where their drill sergeant (Lance Henriksen) teaches Damien about his true identity. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter tries to convince Uncle Richard of the truth, and this leads to a bunch of increasingly over-the-top deaths. (My favorite is the guy who gets sawed in half by an elevator cable. Truly classic.) Eventually, Damien grows into his predestined role and wipes out all that remains of his family tree so he can be the sole inheritor of the Thorn family fortune.
The Omen is a perfect horror show from start to finish, and it’s every bit as scary as people say it is. The script wastes no time getting down to business, and each of the actors’ performances is Oscar-worthy. But it’s also my least favorite film in the trilogy, for Damien is only a peripheral character in the story. Granted, this is exactly what makes the film so scary; Damien remains completely alien to both his parents and the audience right to the very end, and it’s always easier to be frightened of something when it’s part of the unknown. But I find Damien: Omen II much more interesting, because it’s the first film ever made that actually puts us inside the Antichrist’s head. When Damien learns he is the Great Beast, he’s just as horrified as everyone else is; but the most powerful moment is when his cousin Mark gets wise and confronts Damien about his true identity. Mark threatens to tell everyone, and Damien reluctantly uses his powers to give Mark a brain aneurysm. When Mark drops dead, Damien screams the most convincing scream of despair I’ve ever heard from any character in any movie ever. That scene always makes me weep a little whenever I see it, because Jonathan Scott-Taylor really sells it. Damien: Omen II is quite derivative of the first movie, but it deserves credit for one thing at least: the character of Damien is perfectly written.
A lobby card for the film.
In The Final Conflict, Damien is now an adult in his thirties, and he’s played by Sam Neill. He has now become the owner of Thorn Industries, a multi-billion dollar company that has revolutionized the food industry, and which is working to solve the world hunger crisis forever. Damien is also the U.S. President’s first choice for Ambassador to Great Britain (after the current guy gets possessed by a black demon dog and blows his brains out). Damien is hot for Great Britain because he has this entirely fictitious apocryphal text called the “Book of Hebron,” which prophesies that Jesus will be reincarnated in Jolly Old England any day now. (Maybe they didn’t have the budget to do a proper Second Coming, with the J-Man flying down from the sky?) But after he sets up shop across the pond, Damien falls for a news reporter named Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow); then these Catholic monks at a monastery in Subiaco, Italy find the Seven Daggers of Meggido and try to assassinate him. This leads to a series of hilariously incompetent murder attempts that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Meanwhile, Jesus is born again somewhere (did you see what I just did there?), but nobody knows where. Lucky for him, Damien knows the birth coincided with a weird astronomical convergence that occurred a few nights ago, so he sends his worshipers out to murder every male baby in England who was born within that time frame. Then Kate Reynolds finds out what the rest of us already know about Damien, and the titular Final Conflict truly begins.
The number one attraction in this film, and the most important reason for anyone to see it, is Sam Neill; he’s literally the greatest Antichrist I’ve ever seen in any film ever. Forget about Michael York, Nick Mancuso, Gordon Currie, or anyone else who’s ever played the Beast in those movies they show on the Trinity Broadcast Network; Sam Neill’s performance here is the gold standard. Rather than playing Damien like some two-dimensional cartoon villain, he plays him like he’s the goddamn hero of the movie. He brings so much charisma and charm to the role that he succeeds in making Damien extremely likeable, even when he’s ordering hundreds of newborns to their deaths. Everyone I know who’s ever seen The Final Conflict ends up rooting for Damien somehow (even though they know they’re not supposed to), and they can’t help but feel disappointed with the ending. (More on that in a minute.) The only other performance that’s comparable to this is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). If there is an Antichrist and he ever tries to take over the world, we’d all better pray he isn’t just like Sam Neill in this movie—or else we might actually want him to take over.
The novelization of the 1981 film, The Final Conflict, by Gordon McGill.
In one scene, Damien and Kate walk through a park and see one of the monks, who’s standing on a soapbox, preaching. Damien notices the monk is staring right at him, and he instantly knows the guy is here to kill him. So he starts surveying the area like a hawk—without breathing a word of his concerns to Kate—and he actually looks worried. Is he concerned for himself, or is he concerned for Kate’s safety should there be an ambush? Then there’s another scene where Damien goes to work right after the Christ child has been born. He’s been up all night because he could sense the birth happening, and Kate catches him at the elevator, asking if it’s okay for her to try interviewing him again. (Her last attempt was foiled by another assassin.) Damien smiles and agrees, and she leaves; then he gets in the elevator, sighs, and slumps his shoulders. I’d like to remind you that this character is supposed to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch with a vast array of supernatural powers; and yet Neill sneaks in all of these brief human touches—a look of genuine concern, a tired sigh—and actually makes us care about this evil, rotten bastard…
I hate to blow the ending of this film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but trust me; you probably want to know about this going in. For some reason, I thought this movie was going to end with a big showdown between Damien and Jesus; surely, that would be the “Final Conflict” everyone was expecting, right? I knew things wouldn’t end well for the Beast, but I figured there would at least be some kind of special effects extravaganza. No such luck; the movie ends with Damien being led into a trap by Kate, and Kate stabs him in the back with one of those nifty Meggido daggers. Then Damien limps away, curses Jesus, and promptly dies. Cue music, roll credits. When I first saw this, I was royally pissed. The film had done an excellent job of keeping me at the edge of my seat for the first 90 minutes or so; but it starts running out of steam real fast during the final 20, and that ending just didn’t seem fair. They went through all that hard work of building up this magnificent character and this huge final battle he’s going to have, and what do they give us? Sam Neill getting stabbed in the back (literally) by the woman he loves. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? I wanted to see Damien and Jesus go “Hell in a Cell” on that shit!
An additional lobby card for the film, with Lisa Harrow as “Kate Reynolds” in the center.
But I’ve watched The Final Conflict countless times since that first viewing in 1999, and I think I’ve figured out what they were really going for here. Let’s consider that this film was not made by evangelical Christians with a religious axe to grind; if it had been, they would have kept things as close to their scriptures as possible. Let’s also consider the fact that none of the avowed Christian men in this movie can stop Damien; hell, not even Jesus himself can stop him! The only character who actually poses a real, substantial threat to the Antichrist is (1) a woman, (2) a skeptic, (3) a feminist, and (4) a single mother. In other words, she is precisely the sort of person whom conservative Christianity has always sought to disempower. The real “Final Conflict” here is not between Christ and Satan at all; it’s between male religious violence (perpetuated by Christians and Satanists) and a female secularist who just wants the violence to stop. Note that while Kate scoffs at Christianity at various points in the film, she nevertheless respects its right to exist; and while she eventually sends Damien back to hell, it’s clear she would much rather work things out and share a life with him somehow. Kate is also the only character who commits an act of violence for purely personal reasons. The monks want to kill Damien because he’s the Beast, and Damien wants to kill the Christ child because he’s Jesus; both sides are motivated by purely ideological concerns. But when Kate stabs Damien, it’s because he’s just murdered her son. (Peter is accidentally killed by one of the monks when Damien uses him as a human shield; the poor kid is literally caught between two religious fanatics.) With all this in mind, I now think the climax of this film is far more daring than I originally thought.
I used to think the conclusion to this film was just an example of lazy screenwriting, but I’ve noticed over the years that The Final Conflict gives us several hints about how it will end. In one scene, one of Damien’s “Disciples of the Watch” advises him to stay away from Kate. “I decide who’s dangerous and who isn’t!” Damien shouts angrily, betraying the fact that he feels insecure about Kate himself. Later, Kate falls into a river and almost drowns at Damien’s house. He hesitates before rescuing her (as if he senses that he shouldn’t), but his concern for her overpowers him. As Kate dries herself by the fire back in the house, she tells Damien she feels like a moth who’s flown too close to the flame; she knows he’s dangerous, but she can’t stay away. Damien’s response to her is perhaps the most beautifully-delivered line in the entire film: “Yes—but who is the moth, and who is the flame?” Finally, when Kate stabs Damien at the end with the Megiddo blade, he smiles to himself ever so subtly, as if he’s always known that she would be his undoing. Kate Reynolds was clearly meant to be the savior of humanity in this film from its very conception; and in casting her as such, The Final Conflict offers us a most unexpected soteriology.
“[Damien] is the human son of Satan, fully committed to his Father. But just as Mary Magdalene represented temptation to Jesus, so Kate represents temptation to Damien. She arouses human feelings within him that could so easily lead him astray from his insidious mission, his inglorious destiny.”
—Sam Neill in an 1981 interview upon the film’s release
The hero of this film is an independent, powerful, and successful woman. She isn’t owned or controlled by any man or male divinity. She comes awful close to losing herself in Damien, especially when she spends a dark night of the soul with him in bed. But she rises again from that proverbial pit, stronger than before, and equipped with the power to send her two-faced lover back to the Underworld. Is any of this starting to sound familiar yet? By gods, it should; for Kate’s arc is basically the Descent of Ishtar all over again. Damien is like a really nasty corruption of Tammuz, a version that’s turned completely rotten. All of his power and wealth are tied to the food industry, just as Tammuz is the god of food and vegetation. But while this “anti-Tammuz” and his enemies are gridlocked in their increasingly futile holy war, Ishtar sneaks in and chooses Her own “messiah” to save the day. The filmmakers try to give Jesus all the credit for this by slapping an obligatory Bible quote on the screen just before the end titles roll; but as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t the Lion of Judah who snuffs the Great Beast here. It’s the Lion of Babylon!
Ishtar be praised!
Contrary to popular wisdom, there is a distinction between “the Antichrist” and “the Great Beast 666” from Revelation 13. Early Christians used the word antichristos to describe anyone who (1) refused Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, (2) propagated a “heretical” version of Christianity, or (3) claimed to be Christian but didn’t behave like one. The first of these definitions is practically useless since it would seem to include all non-Christians. The second is equally problematic since it requires demonizing all Christian denominations apart from one’s own. The third, however, makes a great deal of sense, for what else can you call someone who claims to love Jesus but fails to treat people in a Christian manner? The real Antichrist has nothing to do with Satanism, but is actually the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself. Turn on your local televangelist TV network and you will find the true disciples of Antichrist at work, pushing their insane political agendas and extorting millions from their hapless followers in Jesus’ name.
The Great Beast (or Therion in Greek) is based on several ancient kings who persecuted monotheists. People like the Pharaoh in Exodus and the Roman Emperor Nero all had three things in common: (1) they ruled over polytheist nations, (2) they considered themselves to be divine, and (3) they considered the Hebrews and the early Christians to be a threat. After being fed to lions for so long, Christians became convinced that such rulers were actually possessed by Satan himself, and prophetic texts like the book of Revelation were built upon this core concept. While Antichrist represents the evil that lurks within Christianity, the Great Beast represents the archetypal “evil king”—a ruler who tyrannizes his people, and whose actions will bring about destruction and doom. Unlike Antichrist, the Beast doesn’t try to pervert Christianity from within; he seeks instead to destroy it from without. So if we want to get technical about it, Damien Thorn is not really the Antichrist per se, but the spirit of Therion in human form.
Mind you, monotheists have not exactly been “kind” to Pagans throughout history, either. It was especially bad for those civilizations that lived right next door to ancient Israel. The gods and goddesses of these cultures are specifically named as “demons” in the Old Testament (e.g., Ba’al, Asherah, etc.) and are commonly invoked as such in contemporary media. Lady Ishtar is just one of these divinities, and it’s sad to think that whenever She is discussed in today’s world, it is almost always in terms of biblical prophecy. She is even linked with Therion in the book of Revelation:
Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For [Yahweh] has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until [Yahweh]’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
As I’ve discussed before, the Whore of Babylon is clearly inspired by Ishtar, even if her symbolic purpose is different. But what I find especially interesting here is the contrast between a female entity who “rules over the kings of the earth” and an evil king who has turned against her. Ishtar presides over the concept of “sacred kingship,” which required a Babylonian king to “marry” the goddess and serve the people as Her priest. He had to ensure that his nation’s crops didn’t fail, that his borders remained protected from foreign invaders, and that his people were cared for in times of disaster. He also had to perform religious rituals all the time to ensure that his people’s gods were properly appeased. A lousy ruler who brought ruin to his people would have been considered “unfaithful” to Ishtar, and some kings were even sacrificed to atone for this sin. This only reinforces my opinion that by killing Damien in The Final Conflict, Kate Reynolds is actually sacrificing him to Ishtar as penance for his disastrous leadership. (It’s reassuring to think that with the Queen of Heaven, even monarchs can be held accountable and taken to task.)
Sam Neill and Lisa Harrow posing for a behind-the-scenes photo.
Don’t get me wrong; The Final Conflict is not a perfect film. There are times when it sabotages itself by trying to copy the original Omen too much. Why are we still wasting time with lone individuals getting slaughtered in isolated places? Why isn’t Damien the President already when this film begins, sending troops to invade the Middle East and start World War III? They missed an opportunity to enlarge the scale and the stakes of the story here; and by restricting all the action to Great Britain, they do a great injustice to the premise. The only exception to this is the baby-killing conspiracy sequence, which is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen. The murders themselves are never shown, but are only suggested through quick cuts, musical cues, and horrified reactions from the actors. This is a perfect example of how the power of suggestion can leave a much deeper impression on the mind than just painting the screen with gore. It also helps keep the violence as tasteful as possible (which is no small feat, considering the subject matter), while also making it more disturbing to sit through. If you think the jump scares in The Conjuring (2013) are scary, try watching the scene where one of Damien’s disciples—an Anglican priest—gives a newborn his own version of a “baptismal rite.” It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.
She rebelled to help humanity before Prometheus. She died and rose from the grave before Jesus. And She invented the “zombie apocalypse” before George Romero.
Almost every culture has viewed Venus—the “Lucifer” or Morningstar—as an aggressive, contrary force. This is because it is usually the first star seen at sunset, and the last star seen at dawn. Based on this phenomenon, people imagined that Venus is a “rebel” who defies the Sun, refusing to disappear as her superior rises, then rushing to ascend as the Sun sets. Even before medieval Christians incorporated Lucifer into their devil myth, most theological beings associated with Venus were perceived as unruly, cosmic shit-disturbers.
Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of Venus, is no exception. She stole the sacred mes, the powers of civilization, from Her uncle Ea and gave them to the people of Uruk. She insisted on visiting Her deadly sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and conquered death in the process (with some help from Ea). When She learned Her husband Tammuz had not grieved for Her at all while She was dead, She killed and kicked His ass straight down into hell. When the “hero” Gilgamesh refused to marry Her, She sent the apocalyptic Bull of Heaven after him. And when Her father Anu refused to give Her the Bull at first, She threatened to raise all the dead across the earth and send them to feast on the living. She is also said to have an insatiable sex drive, exhausting all of Her various lovers to death.
If you think that sounds bad, Gilgamesh was a king who tyrannized his people, breaking into their homes and raping all the women. He only stopped when the gods created Enkidu to challenge him, giving him something else to do with his time. Gilgamesh then became so obsessed with finding the secret to immortality that he abandoned his people and left them to fend for themselves. (What an asshole!) So it’s always seemed weird to me that he is portrayed as the “hero” in this story (despite being a tyrant and a rapist), while Ishtar is framed as the “villain” (even though She is divine and transcends all human understanding). The greatest threat Ishtar poses for this megalomaniac is not to his life, but to his ego.
(If Ishtar appeared and said She wanted to marry me, I’d say, “Okay.” Better to be mauled ecstatically by Ishtar’s lovely, blood-splattered mouth than to die by the hand of any mortal man!)
Ishtar appears in Babylonian art as a badass Amazon standing on a goddamn lion, getting ready to beat the shit out of some motherfuckers. Assyrian kings prayed for Her to join them on the battlefield like a Valkyrie and slaughter their foes like cattle. (And if their records are to be believed, She answered their prayers…brutally.) As a warrior goddess, Ishtar was very popular with the Hyksos, who called Her Astarte and paired Her with their chief deity, Ba’al Hadad. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, they brought Ishtar’s worship into the Land of the Pharaohs. And since Ba’al Hadad was identified with Set by the Egyptians, they came to view Ishtar/Astarte as one of Set’s romantic interests as well.
There is a fragmentary Egyptian text from Edfu in which
Yamm, a sea monster, demands the hand of Ishtar in marriage. For a moment, it seems the beast will claim its bride; but Set intercedes, and while the rest of the story is uncertain, there is a similar Ugaritic tale in which Ba’al Hadad rescues Astarte from Yamm. Since Hadad’s name is substituted for Set’s in the Edfu texts, the Egyptian version most likely ends with Set destroying Yamm and marrying Ishtar. Considering Their unruliness and Their shared frustrations with dying-and-rising fertility gods (like Osiris and Tammuz), don’t you think Set and Ishtar make a perfect couple?
Ishtar is often vilified for being so “promiscuous.” This is due to a complete misunderstanding of hierogamy or hieros gamos, the concept of “sacred marriage.” It is a religious rite in which people have sexual intercourse, with at least one of the participants being “possessed” by a deity. Such procedures served a twofold purpose in the ancient world. The practical purpose was to channel the fertility of a god and/or goddess into the crops, livestock, and people of a community. The spiritual purpose was to reach a higher level of consciousness. Under the right circumstances (all of which require CONSENT), a really good orgasm can totally “blow your mind” and make you feel like you’re in tune with the rest of the cosmos. It makes total sense why people would consider that ecstatic moment of self-surrender to be supremely magical. From this standpoint, sex can be much more than just some “dirty” animal act; it can be a divine religious experience that is both self-fulfilling and incredibly humbling.
The clergy in ancient religions that practiced hierogamy are often described as “cult prostitutes” by biblical scholars. This is especially true when it comes to the qadishtu or holy women of Ishtar. Sex did in fact play a part in the beliefs of the qadishtu, and they were ostensibly paid by the laity for their clerical services. But the way I see it, there probably wasn’t always a direct relation between these two things.
First of all, it is unclear whether Ishtar’s holy women actually engaged in hierogamy with everyone who entered their temples, or if just one priestess performed the rite with a king during the annual Akitu spring festival. To be honest, I have my doubts that even the latter case was always true. Many contemporary examples of hierogamy (such as the Great Rite in Wicca) are often performed symbolically (e.g., sticking an athame in a chalice, rather than actually copulating). It is entirely possible that hierogamy wasn’t always practiced quite so literally in pre-Christian times, either.
Secondly, it is wrong to assume that every service the qadishtu provided for their society was sexual in nature. In fact, it is very likely that most of what they did had nothing to do with sex at all. The available evidence would seem to suggest they were more like nuns than nymphs, caring for the sick and the orphaned, keeping chaste, and living their day-to-day lives in quiet, contemplative prayer. So the fact that Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs defined the qadishtu in terms of sex says infinitely more about them and their dirty little minds than it does about Ishtar’s holy women.
Yet another attack on Ishtar is the false claim that She is the alleged “Pagan origin” of Easter. This story goes back to Alexander Hislop, who published a pamphlet called The Two Babylons in 1853. Hislop claimed that Ishtar was originally a mortal Babylonian queen named Semiramis, who single-handedly invented all of polytheism. She then became worshiped as Ishtar—which many Christians claim is pronounced “Easter” for some reason—and created the holiday we now know by that name for herself.
Hislop was partially correct; Easter does in fact have polytheist origins. But its name is actually derived from Eostre, a Teutonic fertility goddess who bears no historical relation to Ishtar whatsoever. The imagery of rabbits and eggs is taken from a myth in which Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that could lay eggs (the Easter Bunny). These symbols do not appear anywhere in Ishtar’s iconography, which has plenty more to do with bulls, dragons, lions, and owls. Nevertheless, evangelicals continue to repeat Hislop’s bullshit at every turn, criticizing Easter as a so-called “satanic” rite to Ishtar.
The Burney Relief, depicting an unknown female figure who could be Ishtar or Ereshkigal (but who likely isn’t Lilith)
One thing that really sticks in my craw is when people confuse Ishtar with the succubus, Lilith. In the 1970s, many Pagan writers circulated a claim that Lilith originated not as the “first wife of Adam,” but as a “handmaiden” of Ishtar who served the goddess by bringing men to Her temple for worship. Another claim states that Lilith is really a goddess in her own right; she was later demonized, or so the story goes, when biblical patriarchy replaced the goddess religions of old. And some people seem to think Ishtar and Lilith are really just the same person at the end of the day.
There is no evidence to support any of these theories. Even in pre-biblical polytheist cultures, Lilith was a qliphothic entity that ate newborn children and sapped men of their seed at night. She was never worshiped, but was only warded off with apotropaic spells. This was as true when the Epic of Gilgamesh was being written as it was when the Old Testament was being written. I can accept the idea of people believing Lilith is a goddess today, if that is truly how they feel; but they should admit this is a new belief in the grand scheme of things, and not an ancient one. They should also avoid conflating Ishtar with Lilith, because the two are very different figures indeed. At the very least, the former is my Spirit Mama, and the latter is not.
I first met Ishtar in McClennan County, Texas, during the autumn of 1999. I was about to turn 17, and I had been walking with Set for just over two years. I can’t really explain what drew me to Ishtar so suddenly that cloudy afternoon; the best I can say is that Set “traded” me with Her, and I walked with Her for the following year. They traded me back after that, and I’ve been with Set ever since. I never quite understood why this happened until about a decade later, when I met the woman who became my wife. We met in a Pagan discussion forum, and the only reason we did is because I wanted to meet other people who knew about Set, and she wanted to meet other people who knew about Ishtar. Considering this, we’ve always felt that Set and Ishtar are personally responsible for micromanaging things just so the two of us would meet. And that hiatus I had with Ishtar was the goddess sizing me up as a potential match for one of Her contemporary qadishtu. (I sure am glad I passed the test!)
The 1980s Satanic Panic; the persecution of Pagans (in some cases BY Pagans) as “Satanists”; and Rosemary’s Baby as a statement against systemic misogyny. Listener discretion is strongly advised.
In 1973, a woman named Michelle Smith was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. Under hypnosis, Smith “remembered” being repeatedly abused by a “satanic cult” as a child. She was allegedly tortured, locked in a cage, and forced to mutilate several babies, all in the name of Satan. These stories were published in Pazder’s 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, which became an overnight sensation. Next thing anyone knew, other hypnotherapists started parading their patients around on TV, calling them “Satanic abuse survivors” and making a shit-ton of money off of them. Sensationalists like Geraldo Rivera popularized these stories, bullying their viewers into accepting these “survivors” and their stories at face value. People started believing there really was an international conspiracy of Satanists who were sexually abusing and cannibalizing little children. Even psychiatric and law enforcement professionals blindly accepted these stories as true. Just being a daycare worker and having someone accuse you of being a “Satanist” (perhaps because you enjoy heavy metal music, or because you play Dungeons & Dragons) was enough to get you prosecuted for alleged child abuse. As with any witch hunt in history, no evidence was required; countless people were thrown in prison and prohibited from seeing their children just on the basis of rumors and hearsay. This was the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
Things didn’t improve until the FBI launched an official investigation of the matter in the early 1990s and said, “Woops! There’s zero hard evidence to support prosecuting any of the people who’ve been put away for this shit! Plus, it turns out that when people are under hypnosis, they’ll remember random shit they saw on TV and think it actually happened!” The adult “Satanic abuse survivors” were actually remembering things they had all seen in popular horror films. Many of them had suffered real abuse in their lives, but were not receiving the kind of care they actually needed. Their therapists were making far too much money being interviewed on daytime talk shows and playing off of people’s fears. Worse yet, this prevented children who really were being abused during the 1980s from getting help as well. The police were too busy hunting imaginary “witches” to do anything about the real pedophiles who were all around them the whole time, preying on children from within their police cars, their clinical offices, or even their church pews. These realizations helped to debunk the entire urban legend of organized “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA), which has not been taken seriously by anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement ever since.
(This isn’t to say that no one has ever been abused by an actual, real life Satanist; it does occasionally happen. It just isn’t as widespread a problem as people think. Such acts are typically committed by lone individuals, not by organized groups, and the victims are usually children in the abusers’ families, not other people’s children. Those who continue to peddle organized SRA stories today are right-wing conspiracy nuts who insist that all the “evidence” for SRA is being “covered up” by nonexistent cults like the Illuminati. (And newer conspiracies like “Pizzagate” are simply a variation of the same theme.) Strange that these people think themselves to be such paragons of moral virtue, given how disappointed they seem to be that there isn’t an international Satanist conspiracy to abuse and murder scores of children!)
As a result of the Panic, the 1980s were a dangerous time to be participating in any new religious movements (NRMs). This was definitely the case for Pagans, many of whom also identify as witches. The word witch is of uncertain origin, but it generally refers to any woman who is wise in the ways of the spirit world. Its use as a slur is rooted in systemic misogyny toward empowered women, and it was reclaimed by Pagans during the 20th century (especially by Wiccans). But the stigma against witchcraft continues to thrive outside of Pagan culture; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about someone calling Child Protective Services on a parent simply because that parent identifies as a witch.
And while it’s understandable that Pagans would want to distance themselves from violent criminals, this was being done in some extremely deplorable ways. Some high profile leaders wrote scathing tirades against Satanism that were every bit as paranoid, deluded, and misinformed as Michelle Remembers. Some even argued that Pagans who follow gods like Loki and Set should be completely “shunned” from the Pagan community, regardless of anything we might say to explain ourselves. So while Christians were accusing Wiccans and Druids of “worshiping the devil,” Wiccans and Druids were throwing the exact same accusation at Lokeans and Setians. This strategy of deflecting hatred by redirecting it toward other religious minorities is the most disgusting and contemptible act of hypocrisy I have ever personally witnessed, and it continues to color my perspective on many “white light” Pagans to this very day.
Contrary to what most people assume, Satanism never really existed prior to the 20th century. It began as a purely imaginary religion that Christians accused Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and even other Christians of practicing. Apart from the decadent “hellfire clubs” of the Enlightenment period, Satanism wouldn’t become an actual movement until the 1960s. That’s when Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan and published The Satanic Bible, in which he defined Satanism as a non-theistic spirituality that emphasizes self-deification. Lucifer is viewed not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol for the base animal urges in all people. Satanist rituals are about fulfilling these urges in ways that don’t actually harm anyone, like venting your hatred for someone by destroying something you’ve created to represent them. (Whether this “spell” of sympathetic magic actually works on your intended “victim” is incidental; its true purpose is to work on you.) Many of the people who follow LaVey’s teachings are narcissists, eccentrics, or even Social Darwinists; but surprisingly, most of them aren’t serial killers or child molesters.
The theme of witches harming children goes back thousands of years to the earliest known cases of blood libel in Alexandrian Egypt; but if there is any contemporary influence that gave shape to the Satanic Panic in particular, it is most certainly Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which set the standard for all “devil cult” movies to follow. (In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “survivors” were specifically remembering things from this film while they were under hypnosis.) And due to its depiction of witches and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby can be a very difficult film for many Pagans to watch or even discuss.
Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes) move into a new apartment in Manhattan. Guy is a struggling actor looking for work, and Rosemary dreams of having a baby to care for at home. She appears to have mixed feelings toward her Roman Catholic upbringing; she blushes when other characters voice criticisms against the Pope, but she dreams of domineering nuns and of parties that are for “Catholics Only” while she’s asleep. The Woodhouses also have some peculiar new neighbors named Minnie and Roman Castavet. They’re an elderly couple who have a young hippie woman living with them, and they make lots of strange noises in their apartment at night. Their young lady friend soon turns up dead (after jumping out a window near the top of the apartment building), and then the Castavets suddenly become very interested in the Woodhouses. Rosemary notices Roman talking conspiratorially with Guy, who seems to have formed a close friendship with the old man, and Minnie keeps invading Rosemary’s space, showing up at the front door all the time and just inviting herself in.
Eventually the Woodhouses decide to try and have a baby, so they schedule a romantic evening at home. But Rosemary falls sick after dinner and collapses in their bed. She has a dream in which she is surrounded by the Castavets and many other elderly people (all of whom are nude). Then she is raped in the dream by a big hairy creature with snake-like eyes. Upon waking, she notices all these bruises and claw marks on her body. This is when we get our first clue that something is seriously wrong with her marriage, because Guy tries to comfort Rosemary by claiming that he had sex with her after she passed out (ostensibly because he was worried about missing her fertile window). Rosemary clearly isn’t comforted by this admission of marital rape, but she suppresses her anger and submits to her husband’s will. And when she discovers soon thereafter that she is actually pregnant, she seems to forget the whole thing for a while.
Rosemary is overjoyed with the prospect of motherhood, but her happiness wanes as she starts to feel a terrible pain in her stomach. The Castavets recommend that she see a doctor named Sapirstein, who prescribes a special vitamin drink for her and tells her she’ll be fine. But the pain only gets worse after that, and whenever Rosemary tries to tell Guy about it, he just becomes angry and belligerent. She begins to lose more and more control over her own body (even receiving criticism for a haircut she gets halfway through the film), and she starts to imagine that the Castavets are child-murdering witches. She comes to suspect Guy of having made a pact with them, a pact that somehow involves her unborn child. This is sustained by the fact that Guy visibly hated the Castavets when he and Rosemary first met them, but now he adores them for no apparent reason, listening to everything they suggest about Rosemary’s pregnancy. But are the neighbors really witches? Do they really want to hurt Rosemary’s baby? And is Guy really in on the plot? Or could it be that poor Rosemary has just gone crackers?
(If you wish to avoid reading any spoilers, stop reading this and go watch Rosemary’s Baby right now. If you’ve seen the movie already, or if you don’t care about spoilers, please proceed.)
It turns out the Castavets are indeed leading a coven of Satanist witches, but they’re not interested in harming Rosemary’s baby; since the father is actually Lucifer himself, they’re working to protect the little monster instead. And Guy is definitely in cahoots with them, having prostituted his wife to the devil in exchange for a solid movie career. But the real horror in Rosemary’s Baby is neither witchery nor diabolism; it’s the experience of being physically violated, of not being able to trust your spouse, and of being caught between two clashing ideologies that both regard your body as someone else’s property. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Castavets and their followers; for them, Rosemary is simply a vehicle for the delivery of their dark messiah, and she has no choice but to obey them at the end of the film. But do you know what else is good for oppressing women and legislating their uteruses? Roman Catholicism, that’s what. Were Rosemary to approach the Catholic Church for help, her situation would not be any different; she would still be expected to carry her pregnancy to term, and she would still be told what to do with her body by men who know nothing of what it’s like to be pregnant. (If the church thinks it’s a woman’s “duty” to give birth even when she’s been impregnated by a rapist, why should we expect anything different when that rapist turns out to be the devil?) In fact, Rosemary’s Christian upbringing actually helps the Castavets control her, because it has already conditioned her to go along with whatever is expected of her.
But this subtext goes even deeper, for Rosemary is the mother of the Antichrist, who is naturally the opposite of Jesus Christ. And what happens in the story of Jesus? Well, he’s born of a young woman who’s made pregnant by a supernatural being without her prior knowledge or consent, and—
The Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby are nothing like real life diabolists; they are instead a metaphor for the twisted chauvinist society in which we all live. Sure, they worship Lucifer instead of Yahweh, and they serve Antichrist rather than Jesus; but at the end of the day, they’re still an oppressive, abusive, and manipulative patriarchy. The men are in charge, the women are subservient, and one woman is raped so their male “savior” can walk the earth. How is the story of the Virgin Mary any different from that of Rosemary in principle? How is the Christian “pro-life” movement any better than what Guy and the Castavets do to keep Rosemary under their control? When I first saw this film, I couldn’t get past the fact that so many people think its depiction of witchcraft is 100% accurate. But as I re-watched it over the years, I began to understand its true purpose: to illustrate how horrible it is for women to be treated as “property” in the name of any male superbeing. Even Ira Levin, who wrote the novel on which Rosemary’s Baby is based, has expressed regret that it would later be used to reinforce the Satanic Panic so much. (Levin is Jewish, which means he doesn’t even believe in Satan and would have no reason to believe in organized SRA.)
Strangely, Anton LaVey was obsessed with this film, and it continues to enjoy a strong fan base among real life Satanists. The reasons for this are not immediately clear. LaVey appears to have thought the Satanist characters are revolutionary insofar as they resemble realistic, everyday people (as opposed to being a bunch of weirdos wearing black hooded robes). He also claimed to have served as an uncredited technical advisor for the film, providing some authenticity to the film’s ritual scenes. To the best of my knowledge, this claim has never been substantiated; LaVey simply spread the rumor around to cash in on the film and generate some free publicity for his church. Every now and then, I encounter a Satanist who thinks Rosemary’s Baby is “pro-Satan” somehow, and I can only shake my head at them. Considering how much fuel this movie gave to the Satanic Panic about 13 years after its original theatrical release, you’d think these people would find it just as troubling as most Wiccans or Druids do; but I digress.
Back in the 1990s, when I was still a young Setian novice, things were very different in the Pagan community than they are now. Nowadays, I can attend a Pagan meetup, mention I worship Set, and most people will probably be OK with having me around. But in the 1990s, it was a whole other deal. As soon as people saw my horned pentacle necklace or heard me praise the Son of Nut, they would tell me I wasn’t welcome, that I was being a “disruptive influence,” and that I should just leave. They automatically assumed I was some demented freak who just wanted to cause trouble. I’m pretty sure most Wiccans and Druids have no idea what it feels like to be excluded and alienated by other Pagans in this way. The thing that has always infuriated me the most about this treatment is that it was trickling down from the top. Big name Pagan leaders like Isaac Bonewits were actively encouraging their followers to treat Setians, Lokeans, and other Pagans they didn’t approve of like we’re all a bunch of extremist psychopaths. These “leaders” seemed to think the most appropriate way to deal with the Satanic Panic was by diverting society’s attention from themselves to people in Paganism they wanted to exclude. In doing this, they helped to promote a “legitimized” stereotype about Paganism that is not representative of the entire Pagan population.
To make things even more interesting, the #MeToo Movement has helped to reveal that some of these Pagan “leaders” are or might have been child abusers themselves. This brings new light to every nasty thing these people have ever said about people like us when the Satanic Panic was still fresh. Trying to save their reputations by targeting an entire sector of the Pagan population for exclusion is one thing; but to think that even the late great Isaac Bonewits was one of the people the police should have been investigating the whole time? I hope you can understand why I would be enraged by this.
The lessons to be taken from all of this are as follows. No one should ever be deprived of their bodily autonomy like Rosemary Woodhouse is by her husband Guy and the Castavets. While the Castavets don’t reflect actual Satanist practices or values, they do reflect the very real issue of human trafficking, which was not an issue most people were aware of during the 1960s. But if Rosemary’s Baby was meant to galvanize society into addressing this particular concern, perhaps it succeeded a little too well. It blurred the line between “new religious movements” and “human trafficking rings,” leading people to assume that all religious minorities are extremely dangerous. This distracted law enforcement from sufficiently investigating and prosecuting some of the real trafficking rings that were actually in operation at the time. It also led to several Pagan “leaders” throwing Pagans they didn’t like under the bus, even while some of them were allegedly abusing children behind locked doors. And if that doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, you must have a much weaker gag reflex than I do.