Thoughts on Nehebukau, the holy Snake God, and the concept of Snake People, with an analysis of their appropriation by modern pop culture and conspiracy theorists.
It’s important to understand that snakes are not a universal symbol of “evil” in Kemetic or ancient Egyptian lore. Actually they are more like angels, a special class of preternatural being. There are good snakes like Wadjet and Meretseger who serve Atum-Ra the Creator; and there are also bad snakes that serve
Apep and who seek to disintegrate all things. One story of Nehebukau is that He was originally one of the bad snakes; but this was only because of a pinched nerve in His spine that was hurting Him real bad, making Him terribly grouchy. Eventually, Ra healed Nehebukau by touching His back and fixing that nerve, and the latter has been a good and holy snake ever since, working Ma’at and assisting sentient beings through their various kheperu or transformations in life and the afterlife (what might be called a “shedding of skins”). In this way, Nehebukau fits right in with some of the other gods I hold most dear. Like Set and Taweret, He’s kind of like a monster that learned to be better, and who is in a very unique position to empathize with humans in our struggles against isfet.
To be clear: when I refer to “the Snake God,” I am referring to Nehebukau, and not to the monster
Apep. When I refer to “the Chaos Serpent,” the situation is reversed. The distinction here is that Nehebukau is a proper god or Netjer, while Apep is more like an “ungod.” If it confuses anyone that I would use “snake” and “serpent” in different ways like this, just remember the comparison to angels above. Nehebukau is no mere angel (and neither is Apep for that matter), but one might say Nehebukau is a Snake God in the same way that Gabriel is a “holy angel,” while Apep is a Chaos Serpent in the same way that Satan is a “fallen angel.” There are additional good male snake gods among the Netjeru as well (e.g., Geb, Mehen, etc.); but as I have not personally interacted with any of them myself, Nehebukau is the particular Netjer I mean to invoke when I write “Snake God” in capital letters.
Prior to collaborating with Setken on Hymn To The Soul Serpent (Hymn To Nehebukau), I don’t recall actually being that cognizant of Nehebukau before. I recall seeing Him in Egyptian art in His winged, double-headed serpent form from time to time; but it wasn’t until my exposure to Setken’s artistry that I remember seeing the Snake God depicted in a humanoid form (as exemplified in Setken’s Study For The Netjeru!: Nehebukau). Apart from just being really fucking beautiful, Setken’s paintings spoke to something buried deep within the furthest regions of my memory. It was not until we were almost ready to release Hymn to the Soul Serpent that I suddenly realized just what these sacred icons were actually reminding me of.
(When Setken first proposed the Hymn to the Soul Serpent project to me, I mistook him for saying “Nekhebet,” and I immediately started studying footage of vultures for inspiration. When I realized my mistake, I apologized to to Nehebukau profusely, even though I am reasonably certain He wasn’t actually offended. But perhaps some kind of project for Nekhebet might be on the horizon!)
This is probably going to get me into trouble (more on this later), but I’ve had a fascination with the idea of reptile people for as long as I can remember. I think my first exposure to this was from watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I also collected the dolls (or “action figures,” if it really bothers other men so much), and my absolute favorites were the Snake Men. King Hiss looked like a normal dude, but his entire torso came apart to reveal his true form as a writhing mass of vipers. Tung Lashor had a super-long poison tongue that came rocketing out of his mouth when you operated the button on his back. And Rattlor’s neck could extend with quite some force, rendering him somewhat hazardous around children’s eyeballs. These characters were not featured in the He-Man cartoons, but the dolls came with miniature comic books that explained their background stories and such.
According to the comic that came with King Hiss, the Snake Men are native to He-Man’s homeworld, Eternia, and they controlled a powerful empire long before the reign of King Randor. They were banished to some alternate dimension, but the evil wizard Skeletor found a way to bring them back. Thanks to He-Man, Skeletor only succeeded in facilitating the return of three Snake Men: King Hiss, Tung Lashor, and Rattlor. The Snake Men then launched a campaign to return the rest of their kind to Eternia, so they could invade and enslave humanity once more.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar to you yet? In Episode #10 of this series, I discuss one of my least favorite anti-Setian tropes in popular culture: the theme of an “evil snake god” called “Set” who was banished to an alternate dimension, who has legions of “Serpent Men” under his command, and who seeks to return and invade the world of human beings. This theme originates from the short fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian and Kull the Conqueror), and it gained even more traction when Marvel Comics was licensed to adapt Howard’s fiction into its own fictional universe in the 1970s. Since then, the “Set and His evil Serpent Men” trope has emerged in countless cartoons, movies, role-playing games, and science fiction TV shows. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, with its Snake Men and their tyrannical King Hiss, just happens to be the most obvious example of this trend.
One thing I disliked about He-Man was the fact that these Snake Men were bad guys. I have always loved snakes, especially the non-lethal ones like garter snakes, and I always thought it would be neat if these characters could have been heroes instead. I remember imagining my own Saturday morning cartoon shows where the heroes were all benevolent Snake People (with badass edgy names like Queen Hissteria and Big Bad Mamba), and the bad guys were just normal-looking humans. Curiously, the animated He-Man series does feature another race of snake people, the Reptons, who are peaceful and kind. (One of them, Kobra Khan, is one of Skeletor’s goons; but the show makes it clear that Khan is just a bad egg, and the rest of the Reptons are cool.) But when it comes to stories that add a little more dimension to this concept than what I usually expect, my life changed forever when I saw Doctor Who.
No, I’m not talking about the newer Who series that’s been in production since 2005. I speak to you of those lost long days when the only way you could catch Doctor Who here in the States was by watching PBS and sitting through all those passive aggressive pledge drives they used to do, where they’d threaten us with no Doctor Who ever again if we didn’t call in to buy that nifty coffee mug with the disappearing TARDIS. During the Jon Pertwee years, there were two serials that dealt with the theme of reptile people specifically: The Silurians and The Sea Devils, written by Malcolm Hulke. In the first of these adventures, the Doctor (who is currently stuck on earth with an inoperative TARDIS) learns there was another intelligent species that ruled this planet long before humans evolved from apes. These reptile people are not aliens, but native to earth. They went into hibernation deep underground when their advanced astronomy detected the incoming comet that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs. Their machines were supposed to awaken them shortly after the disaster, but a malfunction caused them to remain in suspended animation until they were accidentally revived by human nuclear testing during the 1970s.
Having resurfaced, the reptile people are understandably distressed to find their planet invaded by ultraviolent hairless apes. Some of them are willing to try and co-exist with us peacefully, and the Doctor tries his best to facilitate an arrangement to this effect. But racists on both the human and reptilian sides of this dispute eventually stifle this hope, with the reptiles unleashing their biological warfare upon us, and the humans bombing all the rest of their hibernation chambers. In the second of these serials, the Doctor encounters another tribe of reptile people who belong to an aquatic subspecies, and the whole thing starts all over again. (Things are made even worse this time by the Master, played by Roger Delgado, who actively seeks to escalate the conflict between humans and reptilians.) Doctor Who lore is curiously divided as to how the reptilian characters in these stories are to be identified, but when I was a kid at least, I always went by the Malcolm Hulke novelizations, which refer to the land-dwelling reptilians as Silurians and their oceanic cousins as Sea Devils.
I remember CRYING a lot whenever I watched these episodes of Doctor Who, to the point that my parents were concerned I was actually scared and would have nightmares. But while I did find this stuff disturbing, it wasn’t because it was scary; it was because it was sad. I thought the Silurians and the Sea Devils were cool, and I wanted things to work out so that everybody can share this planet together and get along. I will admit that I was very young at the time, and I didn’t yet grasp that this was all just make-believe. But I also remember that when I got a little older and I first learned about some of the colonialist atrocities that have been (and still are) perpetuated against Native Americans, my initial reaction was to reflect back on Malcolm Hulke’s stories and the profound emotional reactions they invoked in me. The difference, though, is that THIS WAS FUCKING REAL, it ACTUALLY HAPPENED, it is most certainly NOT make-believe. And learning THAT horrible truth (in addition to others) has kept me awake at night far more than any scary TV show ever could. (Somehow, I sense that if I could ask Malcolm Hulke about this today, he would tell me this was exactly his point in writing these awesome stories.)
Incidentally, the Silurians and Sea Devils return in a few later Doctor Who adventures, but Malcolm Hulke had nothing to do with these serials, and I am not really a fan. In the 1983 episode Warriors of the Deep, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) ends up wiping out two combined tribes of terrestrial and aquatic reptilians all at once. Sure, Davison makes a fantastic Doctor, and he clearly doesn’t WANT to commit genocide against the reptilians; but he does it anyway, and it’s gross, and there is no text or subtext about colonialism anywhere to be seen. It’s just “We gotta kill the people with animal heads so the humans can live.” This leaves the whole story feeling way too hollow and mean-spirited for my tastes.
Decades later, the new Doctor Who series re-introduced the Silurians during the Matt Smith era. These episodes deal with Malcolm Hulke’s creations much more respectfully, and I really enjoy the idea of a badass lady Silurian living in Victorian England and kicking hiney to help the Doctor save the world and stuff. I believe they even wrote it that at some point in Earth’s future history, humans and reptilians really do learn to co-exist. This is definitely a major victory as far as my inner child is concerned; but I just can’t stand the new makeup design for the Silurians. Old Silurians (and Sea Devils) actually look like people with reptile heads, much like the Serpent Men from Conan and the Snake Men from Masters of the Universe. The new versions are really just people with reptile skin, and they don’t resemble the beloved creatures from my childhood enough to resonate. Still, I do enjoy the fact that Doctor Who‘s reptile people have at least been vindicated in terms of their collective story arc after all these years.
Another show in which Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men resurface is Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. In the 1987 animated film adaptation of the popular cartoon series, it is revealed that the international terrorist organization Cobra is really just a front for an ancient civilization called Cobra-La, which of course was populated by Snake People. These reptilians naturally seek to reclaim what they perceive to be their stolen earth, and the entire history of Cobra as a human totalitarian human regime is really just one more phase in their long game.
I don’t remember owning any G.I. Joe dolls, but I remember really enjoying the cartoon and its huge ensemble of diverse and fairly well-developed characters (especially my first true love, the Baroness Anastasia Cisarovna). But imagine my surprise when I learned that Cobra wasn’t actually created by Hasbro, which launched the toyline. Rather, it was “invented” by Marvel Comics, which was commissioned to write a story for Hasbro when it re-launched its catalogue in the 1980s. The writers at Marvel pointed out that the heroes needed some villains to fight if there were going to be any story worth telling; and for lack of any better alternative, they more or less cloned the concept of Hydra—the terrorist organization battled by superhero teams like the Avengers—and re-named it “Cobra.”
Like Cobra, Hydra was originally founded by ancient reptilians, who later infiltrated human governments for their own purposes, including that of Nazi Germany. Then there’s the fact that many of Hydra’s most infamous members are named after snakes in one way or another, including Viper/Madame Hydra, Gorgon, Anaconda, etc. But there’s an extra layer here: the Serpent Men who founded Hydra turn out to be the very same Serpent Men who serve the “evil snake god” Set in Howard’s Kull and Conan tales. This bastardization of Set has even appeared throughout Marvel Comics as an actual character for superheroes like the Avengers to fight. This is ironic given that the real Egyptian god Set also makes a personal appearance in an episode of G.I. Joe; but as discussed in Episode #10, G.I. Joe was much much closer to the mark! Its version of Set doesn’t appear to be involved with the civilization of Cobra-La, either.
Now I must return to my earlier point about how writing about all of this will probably get me into some trouble with some people. (It’s okay, I don’t really care—this is all for Nehebukau, to whom I shall return in just a moment!) I am sure readers in the know are already chomping at the bit for me to touch on reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories and the bizarre subcultures they have bred in real life. I’m referring of course to the belief some people have that there are actual reptilians living among us here on earth. These people mostly take their cue from the exact same source: David Icke, a pseudoscientist and total huckster. Since the late 1990’s, Icke has popularized this belief that reptilians from a planet orbiting Alpha Draconis invaded our planet way back in ancient times. They were mistakenly worshiped as “gods” by “wayward” people like the ancient Egyptians, and they continue to infiltrate modern human governments (including the entire Bush family, no less). Furthermore, this ancient alien reptile conspiracy is supposed to kidnap little children and drain them of their spinal fluid so it can be fed to Hillary Clinton, who is herself alleged to be a reptilian warlord in disguise. (Icke even manages to tie his evil reptilians together with Nazi Germany somehow, which explains the trope of Adolf Hitler secretly floating around the Arctic in submarines with reptile people.)
There are so many things wrong with David Icke’s bullshit, it’s impossible for me to address each particular grievance in today’s sermon. But my most immediate critiques are that Icke’s take on ancient civilizations is hopelessly racist; his encouragement of secularized Satanic Panic nonsense is absolutely deporable; and worst of all, domestic terrorists have adopted his anti-reptilian routine, trying to assassinate politicians they believe are reptilians. Yet there is something else wrong with all of this that should hopefully be CRYSTAL fucking clear by this point, given everything I have already explained above:
It’s ALL fiction, and NONE of it is original.
Robert E. Howard made a lot of this crap up back in the 1920s. Then Marvel Comics came along and made up some more in the 1970s. Then a bunch of Saturday morning cartoons boosted the signal for it during the 1980s. And of course there have been countless other science fiction authors and media properties that have played around with the concept in one way or another. David Icke never wrote any of his conspiracy theory bullshit until the late 1990s, by which point the meme had already been well established in popular culture. So it’s pretty fucking clear that he plagiarized his entire routine from a bunch of cartoons and comic books. And the assholes who are willing to kill people over this shit are really doing it for nothing.
Here’s the thing: I do not actively believe there are any reptilian humanoids living on this earth, or at least not in the sense of “ancient aliens” (more on this below). I’m not saying it isn’t possible; I just haven’t found any evidence to substantiate such an idea. But even if I did, I would quicker assume such entities are just as native to this world as we are, and that they have just as much right to be here as we do. I don’t believe any of this nonsense about aliens controlling human governments; human beings are the single most dangerous creatures on this planet, we don’t need extraterrestrials to make us any better at wreaking havoc. If there ARE any Snake People around, they’re probably HIDING from us because they’re fucking SCARED TO DEATH of us!
And to assume that an entire sentient race would be inherently evil simply because it evolved from reptiles is, to call a spade a spade, racist. WE evolved from motherfucking APES, and apes do some pretty fucked-up shit you know. Maybe it’s just because I grew up learning important lessons about these things from Captain Jean-Luc Picard; but I see no reason to assume a civilized reptilian people would be any worse at respecting Ma’at or fighting isfet than civilized simian peoples apparently are. (I can already read the emails from Icke’s zombie followers, skewering me for being some dumb, deluded PR boy for the Visitors who want to eat me and my family!)
The thing is, there are other people who believe in real reptilians so to speak, and who hold more sensible views about them than anything offered by David Icke. The most prevalent example of this would be Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religious belief systems that acknowledge the Nagas. These semi-divine creatures can appear as snakes, people, or any variety of human/serpentine hybrid. They are believed to have pre-existed humans, and while they can be good or evil just like us, most of them appear to be dutiful servants of the Devas (the Hindu gods). They enjoy living in rivers, lakes, oceans and raindrops, and they guard all kinds of ancient knowledge and treasures. Though they are not necessarily gods, the Nagas are often venerated with offerings, which helps to attract good fortune. Much of this is echoed in Chinese folk beliefs about dragons, as well. Lóng or Chinese dragons are also shapeshifters who can appear human and who bring good luck to those who show them the proper gratitude and respect.
I first learned about the Nagas not from a textbook or a cartoon show, but from my best friend in second grade, a boy named Pawan. Pawan and his family were Indian American immigrants and deeply observant Hindus. I remember seeing various images of the Devas whenever I visited their apartment. I do not recall which sect or tradition Pawan and his family might have followed (and being only eight years old or so, I lacked the head space to even formulate such a question at the time). But I remember asking Pawan’s mother to tell me about the Nagas, and she seemed really happy to share some stories with me. It must have been crazy to have this weird little white boy from next door take such a genuine interest in her family’s culture and heritage!
But then I would go home and tell my parents about this stuff. For some reason, they were only okay with such beliefs as long as it was Pawan and his family practicing them. I received every indication that it is only acceptable for white people to be Christians and believe in one god, even though neither of my parents has ever been a committed religious believer of any kind. Much later I would meet some of David Icke’s followers (most of whom are white), who insisted to me that both Naga and Lóng veneration is really just another part of the evil reptilian plot to murder children and keep the world hypnotized. When these people claim that Asians are actually venerating evil demons or aliens—or if they suggest that such religious traditions are “beneath” white people for any reason—they are blatantly endorsing Christian white supremacism; full stop.
Furthermore, neither the Nagas nor the Lóng are space aliens that ride around in spaceships. There are no tales about them eating people or operating any nefarious shadow governments. They are nature spirits and religious figures, not science fiction monsters. The same is true of other Snake People who are acknowledged in other cultures too, including African Mami Wata spirits and Native American horned serpents. This begs the question: could the ancient Egyptians have believed in something similar? There doesn’t appear to be any specific term in Egyptian for “serpent man” or “snake person” (or at least not that I have found just yet); but perhaps this would have been redundant. The Egyptians appear to have regarded normal, everyday snakes as sentient creatures with magical powers. How else could serpents be held accountable to Ma’at, with the good snakes serving Ra and the evil snakes following
Apep? This distinction makes little sense, at least to me, unless we stop to consider that maybe snakes are actually people too!
Which helps me circle back to the Netjeru. It is curious that I never felt drawn to any particular Egyptian snake deities until Setken first proposed that we collaborate on his Hymn to the Soul Serpent project together. Only then did it occur to me that everything I ever needed to justify my enthusiasm for snakes (whether as animals, sentient beings, or magical anthropoids) is already included in the belief system I already follow. And when I laid eyes on Setken’s humanoid portrayals of Nehebukau, I was taken back to those far-off days when I would play with my Snake Men dolls; when I would weep over the Silurians and the Sea Devils; when I secretly rooted for Cobra or Hydra as reptilian freedom fighters; and when I listened to Pawan’s mother explain to me about the Nagas. Could it be that Nehebukau was looking in on me even back then, thinking, “This is the kid I want to co-write a song for Me someday”? Could it have been His double-headed wisdom that helped me see through all of David Icke’s bullshit when it was first presented to me? Hell; I reckon Set and Nehebukau probably both had all of this arranged somehow before I was even born!
Writing one song isn’t all I think I am meant to do, either. I think Nehebukau has probably put all of this stuff into my brain for some kind of purpose, and I mean to put it to use somehow. This very likely means another album will soon be in the works. I always wanted to make movies when I grew up; and failing that, I enjoy adapting some of my old story pitches from childhood into “soundtracks” for films that don’t exist (as with Summer’s End and His Nocturnal Majesty, with which I am very happy). I’ve successfully introduced the crimefighting mummy Het-Sem-Peckinpah to the world, as well as the mysterious Knights In Sutekh’s Service. Now that my Halloween and apocalypse “movies” have been taken care of, so to speak, perhaps it is time to revisit my old sword-and-sorcery “movie” pitch as well. It could be that Queen Hissteria, Big Bad Mamba, and other Saurian Warriors of Basilisk Basilica will soon be making an appearance…
How a really terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie influenced my spirituality and art.
Previously I discussed the television series Millennium, a brilliant show that made a huge impression on me as a Setian teenager back in the 1990s. There was another apocalyptic-themed horror romp from that era which made a huge impression on me too, but it was not nearly so remarkable. In fact, it’s really a terrible production most any way you look at it. But in those crazy days just before January 1, 2000, when lots of people were kinda worried the world might actually fall apart on New Year’s Eve, there was one theatrical film that dared to exploit all that juicy endtime paranoia. And shitty as it was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the influence it has had on me.
That’s right, I’m talking about the one and only End of Days (1999), that magnificent shit show in which Arnold Schwarzenegger squares off against Satan himself, who’s prowling the streets of New York City in Gabriel Byrne’s body. Oh gods, where do I even START with this fucker?
Okay, so the story begins with a bunch of clergymen at the Vatican freaking out about a comet and some prophecy about a “satanic” child being born somewhere. Then, in New York City, Udo Kier kills a snake and baptizes a newborn baby girl with its blood. The girl just happens to be born with a birthmark that resembles some kind of glyph. Then, confusingly, we fast forward to December 1999, when a semi-invisible creature rises up from the sewers of NYC to possess some random business dude (Gabriel Byrne) so it can grab some poor lady by her bosom, then blow up a restaurant. Then we meet Jericho (Arnold Schwarzenegger), some kind of private security guy whose family was murdered and who is just one stone’s throw away from killing himself. Jericho is hired to protect the dude who’s possessed by Satan, which comes in handy when a crazy Catholic priest with no tongue tries to assassinate the guy.
Jericho does his job, but he doesn’t like the way things add up. So he decides to investigate the priest, which somehow leads him to track down Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman who was born and baptized at the beginning of the movie by Satanists. This is convenient too, because it turns out Satan is searching for her. Apparently, Christine was bred to be his bride at the End of Days. If the devil succeeds in raping Christine at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will somehow allow him to take over the world and burn the whole thing down to a crisp. This is all explained to us by another Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger) who leads an underground movement to find Christine and keep her safe. But at the same time, a rival sect within the Church has sent an army of assassins to kill Christine before Satan can get to her. Any way you slice it, Arnold—er, I mean Jericho—feels compelled to get Christine the hell away from everyone. The whole thing leads to a midnight black mass in the sewers, a subway chase scene, and then a final confrontation in some random church. Satan possesses Jericho at the last minute before midnight, and all seems lost; but Jericho resists the devil’s will to rape Christine and commits suicide instead, thereby saving the poor lady and canceling the apocalypse.
(Are you keeping up with all of this? Fascinating how much plot they managed to cram into this movie, especially considering how shallow and empty the film actually is!)
End of Days clearly wasn’t made by dogmatic Christians; otherwise the writers would have adapted the book of Revelation much more faithfully (pun intended). It is the pinnacle of absurdity when Rod Steiger rants about how Jericho should “read the Bible” to understand what’s going on, given the absence of any real biblical content in this story. The fact that Steiger comes across as angry and scolding while he does this is definitely a turn-off, too. The film presents itself as trying to “scare audiences back into church,” but it doesn’t care enough to get any of its own bullshit right! Instead of actually adapting the book of Revelation or anything like that, this is basically just a Terminator movie that swaps the supernatural for science fiction.
Consider this film’s version of the devil, for instance. Other cinematic adversaries of the time were quite a bit more interesting, such as Al Pacino’s take on Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Denzel Washington’s face-off against Azazel in Fallen (1998). Gabriel Byrne’s devil, however, is little more than a two-dimensional slasher movie villain who stalks and slashes people. This is quite a shame too, because Byrne is a magnificent actor and could have really owned this role if he had been allowed to do so. As it is, he just stands there, says a few cliches, and gets shot at. I suspect the director, Peter Hyams, is the real reason why Byrne’s performance in End of Days seems so forgettable. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Setian and I actually know the complex history of where “the devil” came from; but I personally prefer my satanic horror movies to be a little more innovative, thought-provoking, and weird. (Just wait for my NEXT sermon, in which I will give a most excellent example of what I mean!)
I also have two very serious objections to the plot. First, I don’t appreciate the fact that this entire story hinges on the threat of Christine being raped. And yes, I’m aware that she says, “I’m scared I might WANT to sleep with him” at some point; but I don’t care. Being hypnotized into having sex with someone STILL COUNTS AS RAPE. (In fact, there are other lady characters in the film who are raped in this manner.) And since there is no mention of the devil actually raping anybody in the book of Revelation, a decision was clearly made to capitalize on Satanic Panic hysteria here. I not only find this distasteful; I find it disgusting. They could have just as easily written it so that Satan has to eat a ham sandwich on New Year’s Eve to start the apocalypse (which would have been much more entertaining, actually!)
My second objection relates to the main character, Jericho. Let’s be honest here: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly the greatest actor who ever lived. But his acting ability isn’t a problem for me; I enjoy him in many of his films just for his charisma. No, the problem here is that Jericho is written as a suicidal person who eventually HAS to take his own life (and at the Christian god’s behest, in fact). He has no character arc to speak of; he never grows or learns anything, he just stays exactly the same all the way through. So when Jericho has to kill himself at the end, it’s not like he says, “But wait, I’m not suicidal anymore!” or anything like that. No, far be it from End of Days to offer us any sort of character development. It’s more like Jericho has been waiting to kill himself this whole time, and now he can finally get it over with. The message I take from this is incredibly ugly, toxic, and mean-spirited. It feels like End of Days is saying, “Suicidal feelings are GOOD because they make men MANLY, and they make us better suited to serve God’s will!” And that is not a message I can ever agree with.
By now, you must be wondering how on earth End of Days could have influenced my spirituality or my art so much, given that I am so hyper-critical of this film. Well, the answer lies partly in my criticisms, which I will explain further in just a moment; but it also partly lies in the soundtrack. And no, I am not referring to the compilation album with the Rob Zombie and Guns N’ Roses songs. I’m talking about the instrumental movie score by John Debney, which features a lovely fusion of choral, orchestral, and electronic music. As soon as I heard this stuff while watching the film at the theater, I knew I had to purchase it on CD. I fucking hated End of Days as a movie, but the Debney score continues to be one of my all-time favorite records, even today. I listened to it every day for a while in high school, and it inspired me to try and come up with my own crazy apocalypse movie. I tried writing this as a script or a novel for years, but I could never quite hammer out the details in a way that satisfied me. All I knew was that I wanted it to be a Setian take on Armageddon, rather than a Christian (or quasi-Christian) one. And now, twenty full years later, I have finally actualized this dark dream in a form that others can enjoy: the album, His Nocturnal Majesty (2020).
But while I despised End of Days upon my initial viewing, something about the movie kept making me want to re-watch it over the years. I still think it is an egregiously stupid movie, and I would never recommend it to anyone. But at least now I can appreciate the film for a few reasons. I do rather enjoy the action sequences; Byrne’s devil is boring, but it is fun to watch Schwarzenegger launch grenades at the bastard. (I really enjoy the subway sequence in particular, for some reason.) I also enjoy the fact that whenever I watch End of Days, it takes me back to December 1999. I remember being skeptical of the Y2K bug and all that stuff; but there was still a tiny little part of my brain that wondered, “What if the world really does end tonight?” on New Year’s Eve that year. End of Days is not really a “religious” movie at all, for it has nothing of any real spiritual value to offer. It is instead an A-list, big budget exploitation movie. The real point was to exploit all that apocalyptic fear everyone was feeling, and to show us as much gore and sleaze in the process as possible. While I would much prefer the story to have been written without any rape or romanticization of suicide, I do have to admire the filmmakers for being so damn eager to deconstruct Christian apocalypticism in this manner.
One thing I absolutely adore about End of Days, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attitude toward Satan throughout the entire movie. I mean, he actually tells the devil “YOU’RE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!” at one point. And cheesy as it might sound, I love it! I think it perfectly exemplifies what Set probably thinks and feels whenever He locks eyes with
The continuing discussion on horror movies and spirituality with two of my brethren in the LV-426 Tradition!
Today’s adventure is a continuation of my discussion with Tony and Patrick, two of my brethren in the LV-426 Tradition, about spirituality and horror movies. (For Part 1 of this discussion, check out Episode #52 of this series.)
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.
An episode of Patrick’s show, Easily Distracted, featuring me as a special guest!
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!
Tony: So, possession films. I just literally watched The Exorcist (1973) a couple days ago, along with Exorcist III: Legion (1990) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). All of that stuff is very black and white! “Somebody is controlling you. We’re going to have a strong monotheistic character take that away, and you’re gonna be okay.” I don’t know, but I’m wondering though; will there ever be a possession film that’s a little more “Pagan-friendly?”
G.B.: A large part of that boils down to how the concept of “possession” is portrayed in different religions. When you discuss possession in a Christian context (which most of these films do), it is always about casting spirits out from people’s bodies through the power of Christ. But what if you’re a practitioner of Vodun or Quimbanda? Adherents of those faiths experience things like being “ridden by the Lwa,” which means that “possession” is actually a fundamental part of religious worship in those traditions. So if you were to try and write a story like that from an actual Vodun perspective (as opposed to a Hollywood “Voodoo” perspective), the possession would need to be portrayed a good thing.
Tony: When Father Merrin [Max Von Sydow’s character in The Exorcist] comes in, that whole scene to me…It’s like a Schwarzenegger movie. Here’s the other priest who’s actually a psychologist and who says, “Well, here is the background” and all that stuff. But Father Merrin’s like, “Enough vagina talk, I’m the expert, I know what I’m doing!” And then, of course, he dies of a heart attack.
G.B.: Yeah, things don’t quite turn out so well for him in the end.
Tony: I’m glad they took that route though, because they could have easily just had the priest exorcise the demon, then say, “Okay, everybody should be a Catholic.” Which is still the main idea behind that movie: “Shame on you for not being a Catholic. You need to be Catholic.”
Patrick: It would be interesting to see a non-Christian possession film, but I think the only way that would work is if it were something produced by indigenous filmmakers who actually have a deep understanding of those traditions and ideas. We need to find some indigenous filmmakers to support and watch their movies, because that would go a huge way toward creating something like that.
Tony: Well I have a question for you, G.B.
G.B.: Okay, what’s that?
Tony: This is about the views we had when we were younger, versus the views we have now. I remember you used to tell me, back when you were living in Houston, you would go after school or after work, pick up a six-pack, sit down, and watch the Jason movies while drinking the six pack. Back then, you and I would just watch these movies for the lewd content and the violence. But now that we’re older, has your perspective changed at all toward some of these movies? Like the 1980s slashers, which seem to take a “moral high ground” against pre-marital sex, drug use, or alcohol. Do you still enjoy movies like that, or do you feel you can’t really enjoy that stuff now, because it’s too much like visiting some Christian “Hell House” for Halloween?
G.B.: That’s a very good question. Yes, slasher films are infamous for having this weird moral subtext that seems to condemn young people (especially women) for having sex, getting drunk, doing drugs, having fun, and being liberated, then getting killed in excessively gory, violent ways by these psychopaths. Especially with movies made in the 1980s, it is very easy to read that as a “judgment” against those kinds of behaviors (like, “No, you shouldn’t be doing this”). We have to keep in mind, these are exploitation movies, they were made for one purpose and one purpose only: to exploit the market (and to exploit the teenage moviegoer market, in particular). They’re targeting teenage boys of the 1980s in particular.
Patrick: Yes, on a surface level, these films seem to moralize about punishing teenagers for having sex and drinking and partying. This applies less to the Halloween films than it does to the Friday the 13th movies, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and all the cheap knock-offs that have been made of those movies. One thing I don’t appreciate about some of the latter films is how they try to make you like the killers in them. They make the killers into these charismatic characters, and we are supposed to like them more than their victims, which has always bothered me.
Tony: Many people like the bad guys, especially right now, because we’re in a culture that loves punishment and justice. We LOVE it! And the killers in these movies are the judges, the punishers, the executioners. People want that feeling of, “I’m justified in my belief that these people are doing things wrong, so Judge Jason, go out and kill them all. Now I feel good about myself!” So that’s why I think everybody loves the bad guy so much; the bad guy is the judge, the executioner, and a lot of people obsess over that. I know we’re talking about horror movies, but at the same time, you can’t not discuss what’s happening in the world. Especially where I live, everybody’s got the fucking Punisher logo are on their back windshield, and everybody has a black and white flag with a blue stripe in the middle. And I see these things, and I’m like, “Why is everybody is so obsessed with punishing people?” And that goes back to the horror movie fans who are like, “I love Freddy, ’cause he shows those rotten kids what’s what!” They may not come right out and say that, but it’s subconscious. That’s what they like, because Freddy Krueger is the judge, just like Jason is the judge.
Tony: What I want to know is, why can’t everyone be like me and just accept that Judge Dredd is the ultimate judge?
G.B.: [Imitating Sylvester Stallone.] “I AM THE LAW!”
G.B.: The inclusion of all the sex and the violence in these movies is really just to satisfy the desire of the target audience to see sex and violence. It’s not actually meant to communicate an anti-sex message; if it were, I’d expect to see church groups listed in the production credits. And trust me, some of the movies those church groups make might as well be slashers. [See Estus Pirkle’sIf Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? as a primary example.]
Tony: Well, I remember in high school I was invited and I didn’t go, but I was invited to a hell house, and I was like, “What the hell is a hell house?” And they were like, “Oh, it’s this thing where we show cautionary tales of this couple who go drinking and driving, then get decapitated.” And I remember they described to me what I think was actually a simulated decapitation, complete with fake blood and stuff like that. And I’m like, “I love how Christians condemn horror movies, yet they sure do like peddling it on the side.”
G.B.: And The Passion of the Christ. Just what the hell is that?
Patrick: It’s a snuff film.
G.B.: Exactly, it’s a glorified snuff film. But returning to how I feel about slasher movies now. I used to enjoy quite a few of them when I was a young Typhonian foal; but as I grew older, I came round to thinking some of these movies are really bad, and some are actually pretty sick.
Patrick: Thankfully, over the last few years, we’ve started to see a renaissance build. But for a while there, slasher movies were dove-tailing together with home invasion movies, and I explicitly hate home invasion movies. If they are just randomly picking a house on a street and invading it and then torturing the people who live in it, I am not interested. That’s not entertaining.
G.B.: I still enjoy the Halloween movies, and I still enjoy most of the Friday the 13th movies too. I really only enjoy the first two Freddy Krueger movies, I don’t care for the rest of the Nightmare series.
Patrick: I like Freddy Vs. Jason, ’cause it’s stupid and absurd. I don’t think it’s a good movie though; it’s fun, but apart from that…
G.B.: And maybe a few other exceptions, like The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), which is kind of a funnier take that was actually written and directed by women. But apart from exceptions like those, I’ve generally turned sour to the slasher genre. I’m really much more engaged with sci-fi and British folk horror, like Alien and The Wicker Man and the other films we’ve been discussing.
Tony: OK I have a question for you both. You guys are die-hard Halloween fans; hell, we all are. But how do you guys truly feel now that there’s been some time since the release of the Rob Zombie remake in 2007?
Patrick: I don’t think Rob Zombie has ever even made a passing film. Every one of his movies is absolute garbage. I think we’re all holding on to that time in college when we watched House of 1000 Corpses and were like, “Wow, this is rad.” Nope, that movie sucks too. I think Halloween [the 2007 version] is obviously one of his better films in terms of talent and production values; but it’s also one of his worst films from a writing perspective. What he does with that universe and that character is a complete disgrace. It shows he has no understanding of what makes the original movies so special. It falls into this whole genre from the 2000s where the point was just to show awful pain being inflicted on people, which is not really the point of horror or what makes it interesting. Rob Zombie’s Halloween represents this “crescendo” of just wanting to show people being tortured, and now we have this happier medium with films like Midsommar (2019), which are awful to watch and horrifying and disgusting and brutal, but also don’t have quite the same level of cruelty about them.
Tony: There’s also just too much nostalgia in Rob Zombie’s Halloween. The first movie, somebody gets stabbed and you’re done. The Zombie movie, somebody gets stabbed, and we’re gonna let the camera linger on that KISS lunchbox in the background, because don’t you remember KISS?
G.B.: I just reviewed what I count as being my “Top 5” Halloween movies for In the Desert of Set, and I purposely avoided discussing either of the Rob Zombie films. I prefer to try and only review things that I enjoy, because I don’t really wanna tear people apart on my website. In some cases I might tear a movie apart, but it’s because I actually enjoy the movie and I’m just saying, “Here’s this movie that’s really insanely goofy, and here’s why I love it.” (Like with Halloween 6.) But I really have nothing positive to say about the Rob Zombie movies at all.
G.B.: My biggest problem is that Zombie attempts to transform Michael Myers into a sympathetic protagonist, while Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode are both turned into really horrible, despicable characters who are just toxic and ugly and hateful. Zombie took this story that was originally about really good, noble-hearted people facing off against ultimate evil, and he turned it into a story about nasty, despicable people getting what they deserve from the killer they all helped to create. And that to me is a completely fucking different story from what John Carpenter’s Halloween is all about. Michael Myers should never be the protagonist, he should never be the character we’re supposed to feel sorry for, and he should never be humanized. If you make a Halloween movie with a human Michael Myers and a dehumanized Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode, you’re doing something wrong. All I have to say apart from that is, the new 2018 Halloween was exactly what I fucking wanted after all of that; a nice return to form. I know some people didn’t like it, but I think it is definitely one of the best Halloween movies to have ever been made, and I’m excited to see the next two films. I’m sure they’re won’t be quite as good, but I’m still excited to give them a shot.
Patrick: Yeah, I liked the 2018 Halloween lot. Over time, I do see some of its flaws more, like it doesn’t hit quite as much for me as the original three films. But that’s not a condemnation of it either, I think it’s a really good movie, and I think it’s an interesting branch to go on. I used to be very rigidly into thinking, “Well, this movie is the first movie in the canon, you can make a second movie, but you can’t make another one that invalidates the original second one, because you either need to reboot it or you need to make a sequel to the sequel.” But I’ve come around to thinking it’s awesome that there are two Halloween IIs, and it’s so cool to see the two different takes on it. The 2018 Halloween is one the best of these films, from a quality standpoint, since Halloween III (1982) at least.
Patrick: I almost wish they would make the future Halloween movies an anthology, maybe with stories that continue to feature Michael at the center of them, but which are different branches of that story. I know that’s probably a pipe dream, and they wanna just make a straight sequel to the 2018 one.
G.B.: You know what I think? I think if they need to bring back Silver Shamrock, that’s what. It’s time, motherfuckers! They could figure out a way to do it.
Patrick: I would love to see, with what I just said in mind, a really skilled director take on a Halloween III remake. Someone who has John Carpenter’s blessing, and who understands the source material on a deep level. That would be awesome!
Tony: Remakes are a wonderful thing, because they shed new light on the original material. Say there’s a movie that’s really hard to get; well when the remake comes out, boom! A special edition of the original will suddenly be released and easily accessible again. It’s not like Star Wars, where they’re literally trying to stomp out, eradicate, and erase the original version. If you wanna see the original version of Halloween, it’s always very easy to find. So you don’t even have to watch the remake versions, just throw those discs in the trash and watch the originals instead. And sometimes, of course, remakes can actually be good, like David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which people forget is a remake!
Tony: OK, another question. Has there ever been a film that literally went too far for you, which crossed a personal boundary, and which made you kind of step back from horror for a while? For me, my boundary was Cannibal Holocaust; as soon as I saw that movie, it killed the whole “Which movie is gorier?” thing for me. When you’re a kid or a young teenager or in your early twenties, you wanna go for the limit, you wanna go to the absolute boundary. Have either of you ever hit that kind of boundary too, where it’s like, “I can’t go any further?”
Patrick: To me, it’s always been about the storytelling, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be like a quality storytelling from a literary perspective. But a film has to have a world, characters, and a story. That’s how I initially pulled myself through something like Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2000). I was like, “Oh, there’s an interesting world here that Zombie is creating”; and then I realized how bad that film really is later on. But a good example of my boundary would be the Saw series. I genuinely love the first three films in that series; I think those are excellent movies, the first one in particular. But when I went to the theater to see the fourth movie, there was a noticeable difference in the quality, and it was really too gruesome, gory, violent, horrifying, and horrible. So I think for me, it comes down to this: are you creating this content simply to push up some kind of gore boundary, or are you doing this in service to a really good story? If it’s the latter, I can put up with the gore. But one thing that is definitely a limit for me is anything to do with sexual violence. That kind of content must be handled with a very careful hand if it’s going to land with me at all.
G.B.: In my entertainment media, I prefer likeable characters, characters I can root for, characters I can care about. I like to see these characters treated respectfully and given good story arcs. They don’t necessarily have to make it to the end of the damn movie; it is a horror movie, after all. I expect horrible things to happen in the story. But since the 2000s, there has been a tendency among these films (especially in the case of Rob Zombie) to practically punish the audience for watching them. This might not make total sense, but I really hate mean-spirited horror. Horror should not upset you to the point of making you feel like your life is meaningless, or that ethical behavior has no intrinsic value.
G.B.: Well guys, thank you both so much for coming on the show. It means a great deal to me to have you here; and now, people will know that you both actually exist! You’re not just fictional characters I made up for my website. Yay! And I just want to say Happy Halloween and Merry Samhain! May all the blessings of Sutekh and our Blessed Dead be upon you both!
Patrick: Yep, you too, buddy! Absolutely. Thanks for having me!
Tony: Pleasure to be here!
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!).
A preternatural Pied Piper turns people into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is my second-favorite movie of all time, right after the original Halloween from 1978. Though it is marketed as a “sequel” to the latter film, it is really something completely different. It has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis, or the town of Haddonfield, Illinois at all. By gods, it isn’t even a “slasher movie,” but something more like a British sci-fi/folk horror hybrid!
Season of the Witch is the story of Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), who decide to investigate a brutal murder their local police have chosen to ignore. In doing so, Dan and Ellie stumble upon a ghoulish plot masterminded by the one and only Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), founder and CEO of a major toy-manufacturing company called Silver Shamrock Novelties.
It turns out that Silver Shamrock, Inc. has stolen one of those monolithic rocks from Stonehenge and broken it down into countless microscopic pieces. They have inserted this debris into their world-famous Halloween masks, which children across the nation are buying in droves. They’ve also developed a TV commercial with a flashing “magic pumpkin” that activates the pieces of Stonehenge within the masks. This converts the masks into deadly cursed talismans, which transform their wearers into snakes and bugs (from the inside out!). Even crazier, most of Silver Shamrock’s employees appear to be killer androids with superhuman strength, and Cochran’s entire conspiracy is somehow tied to the fact that the planets of our solar system are currently in alignment.
You’re probably wondering why Halloween III has nothing to do with any of the other Halloween films. When John Carpenter and Debra Hill were approached for another sequel following the box office success of Halloween II (1981), they took the opportunity to conduct a most fascinating cinematic experiment. Starting with Halloween III, the series would now be an anthology like The Twilight Zone, featuring a different Samhain-themed story with each new installment. There are so many different things that we associate with October 31, including ghosts, witches, fairies, and druids; why then should a franchise called Halloween be limited to just an escaped mental patient?
Tom Atkins, who plays Dr. Challis, is what they call a “character actor.” This means he usually plays supportive roles and is more or less the exact same character in each one. To this day, Season of the Witch is still the only film in which he ever got to be the leading man.
We usually expect our male sci-fi/horror protagonists to be young, dashing, and athletic; but Dr. Challis is middle-aged, visibly tired, and very much out of shape. He apparently lives and sleeps at the hospital where he works, and he is a divorced alcoholic who can’t stand his ex-wife or his kids (and who seems to have a history of avoiding them whenever possible). Given a choice between (1) spending time with his estranged children or (2) investigating a murder mystery with some hot young lady he barely knows, he doesn’t even stop to think about it; he chooses the second option immediately. But despite all his faults, Challis is anything but reprehensible. Whatever else he might be, he is a doctor from first to last, and he takes this role very seriously. He is all about making people better, and when the chips are down, he does everything he can to save the world (including his family).
Tom Atkins might not be a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, but he really shines in this role. If you enjoy his performance here as much as I do, check out Night of the Creeps (1986). He plays Detective Cameron, an alcoholic cop whose girlfriend was butchered by a serial killer back in the 1950s. When Creeps begins, Cameron is on the verge of killing himself; but when he learns his town is being invaded by brain-eating slugs from outer space, he grabs a shotgun and starts blowing holes in everybody else instead!
Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin, seems to prefer older men; she takes a liking to Dr. Challis almost immediately, and as soon as they reach that motel in the mysterious little town of Santa Mira (where Silver Shamrock’s headquarters is located), she is all over him. Later, Ellie is kidnapped by Conal Cochran’s robot goons, and she is imprisoned somewhere in the Silver Shamrock factory. Challis busts in to rescue her, getting himself captured in the process. Then he learns the truth about Cochran’s dastardly scheme, escapes and finds Ellie, and torches the factory. Challis and Ellie drive off into the night, trying to plan how they can stop that crazy Silver Shamrock commercial from playing on TV and causing the apocalypse—
—and that’s when Ellie suddenly tries to kill Challis, revealing herself to be a goddamn robot!
Fans are divided as to whether Ellie is (1) human for most of the film (and replaced with a robot duplicate by Cochran during the final act), or (2) a robot the entire time. It makes no sense to me why Cochran would send a robot to seduce Challis into investigating his own damn conspiracy; but the idea of not knowing you’re sleeping with a killer robot is pretty disturbing. All I know for sure is, this sequence scared me really badly when I first saw it as a kid. To think you’ve just rescued someone you love, only to learn they’ve been replaced with a soulless imitation that wants to destroy you? That’s Grade-A nightmare fuel for me, right there!
Stacey Nelkin was also cast to play the sixth Nexus-6 replicant in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was released the same year. Her part was cut from that film during principal photography due to budget cuts. (Blade Runner fans will recall that in at least one version of the film, Captain Bryant recruits Deckard to track down six fugitive replicants; yet there are only five that are accounted for in the entire film, and this is why.) It’s eerie to think that Nelkin was cast to play two murderous androids in two different films during the same year, huh?
Conal Cochran, Halloween III‘s antagonist, is played by Dan O’Herlihy, an Irish actor of such stature that one wonders just how the hell anyone convinced him to do this movie. Unlike Tom Atkins, O’Herlihy was used to acting in things like Orson Welles’ version of Macbeth (1948), Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954), and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). He even went toe-to-toe against Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards once. (Brando won, but O’Herlihy gave him a run for his money!) Considering Halloween III’s budget, I highly doubt O’Herlihy was paid very much for his work. So what the hell was it about Season of the Witch that made this legendary thespian say, “All right, I’ll do it”?
Debra Hill once recounted that Dan O’Herlihy knew an awful lot about the true origins of Halloween . He told all kinds of folk stories about Samhain to the rest of the film’s cast and crew. These stories were apparently so enthralling that everyone took to calling O’Herlihy “Mister Halloween.” It’s unfortunate that Hill couldn’t recall any specifics from these conversations, but I can certainly imagine what they must have been like. After all, Halloween III is one of very few flicks ever made in which the word Samhain is pronounced correctly, and it is O’Herlihy himself who pronounces it in his native Gaelic tongue.
I have a hunch that Dan O’Herlihy was primarily interested in Halloween III for its references to Irish culture. Considering the long list of films in which he has appeared, it’s interesting to note that almost none of them have anything to do with Ireland (either culturally, historically, mythically, etc.). I sense this man was really proud of his heritage, and that when his agent handed him the script to Halloween III, he recognized the project as an opportunity to finally represent that heritage onscreen somehow.
The original screenplay for Halloween III was written by Nigel Kneale, creator of the British Quatermass films and TV serials. The first draft included a great deal more science fiction than the finished film does. Conal Cochran turns out to be some kind of daemon or alien; he simply impersonates a human being with his mask-manufacturing know-how. He also transports the monolith from Stonehenge to America by interdimensional means, and there is plenty more speculation as to what Stonehenge is actually made of (and why it becomes so volatile whenever the planets are aligned). More of Cochran’s genocidal plan is explained, as well. John Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace both felt that some of this material wouldn’t translate very well for American audiences, so they took turns re-writing the script to “Americanize” it a little. This led Nigel Kneale to demand that his name be removed from the credits; but it seems to me that his original ideas are still present (and mostly intact) in the film.
In 1979’s The Quatermass Conclusion, Stonehenge and other prehistoric places are revealed to be “landing sites” for a hostile alien force. It is difficult to be certain without reading Kneale’s original script, but it seems plausible to me that Season of the Witch and The Quatermass Conclusion were meant to be thematically linked in some way. The Quatermass serials also had a direct influence on Doctor Who, which explores many similar ideas and themes. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that Conal Cochran resembles a classic Doctor Who villain like Davros, the Master, or even the Black Guardian. I can totally see him as an evil renegade Time Lord, disguised as an Irishman.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the scene when Cochran explains his plot to Dr. Challis is a great example. “Advanced…” he says, pointing to a room full of computers, “…and ancient technology,” he finishes, pointing to the monolith he has stolen from Stonehenge. His machines are all arranged in a large circle formation that’s clearly modeled on Stonehenge; a visual hint that the original monument might be some kind of ancient “supercomputer” itself. The implications of this are staggering; who or what built this prehistoric machine, and for what purpose? Halloween III never answers these questions, but I suspect Cochran knows. And if just one piece of this “supercomputer” is sufficient to devastate the entire North American continent in one fell swoop, what the hell would happen if all of Stonehenge were suddenly “switched on?”
At the end of the film, Conal Cochran is zapped by a big blue laser that shoots out from the stolen (and newly re-activated) Stonehenge monolith. When this happens, Cochran’s features are momentarily distorted, as if his face were really just a mask. Then he vanishes into thin air, never to be seen again. Many viewers assume this to be Cochran’s “death scene,” but I beg to differ. The Halloween III novelization by Dennis Etchinson (writing as “Jack Martin”) makes it clear that this moment in the story is really just the beginning of Cochran’s evil. It also goes into detail on how Cochran isn’t just a crazy toymaker, but something that transcends time and space as we tend to understand such things.
Here’s a snippet from the novel, in which Dr. Challis considers Cochran’s true cosmic nature:
Cochran was nothing new, whatever his latest disguise. He and the dark forces he represented had been around in one form or another since the beginning of time; there was no good reason to believe something so ancient had really been destroyed in a blaze of fireworks in a small town on a cold autumn night. This year’s dark venture was like a rerun on the Late, Late, Very Late Show, an endless loop re-enacting the last reels of the same relentless stalking of the heart of the American dream. It had always been so…He would come to movie theaters and TV screens over and over in untiring replays for as long as people turned away and pretended he was not really there; for that very refusal gave him unopposed entrance to their innermost lives. Nothing ever stopped his coming and nothing ever would stop it, not for as long as people deferred the issue of his existence to the realm of fantasy fiction, that elaborate system of popular mythology which provided the essence of his access…For now, he was still advancing, merely shifting from one field of view to another, larger one, from a single television screen to the televised psyches of a nation. Challis shuddered.
Before he pulls his disappearing trick, Cochran says “we” a lot. This suggests that he actually has peers; yet no one who works for him at Silver Shamrock seems to really qualify as such (especially since most or all of his employees are robots, anyway). Cochran’s “we” must therefore be referring to some other group of peers whom we never get to see. He also mentions “those who came before” him, and he speaks of human beings as if he thinks we’re all insects. It seems clear to me, at any rate, that Conal Cochran is not a “human being” at all, but some preternatural creature that has been visiting our world since ancient times. This is sustained not only by the novelization, but by what is known about the Nigel Kneale script as well. In fact, I suspect Conal Cochran is actually what Celtic folklore calls a “Fae of the Unseelie Court.”
The popular image of fairies as “cute little Tinkerbells” is utter horseshit. The oldest stories depict these creatures as being much darker and more sinister than any Disney movie would have us believe. Celtic folklore is full of benign fae who are willing to live in balance with their human friends and neighbors; but it’s also full of malevolent fae (the “Unseelie Court”) who just want to commit horrific atrocities, like kidnapping babies or tricking people into cannibalizing each other. These entities can make themselves look like anything as well, including animals, trees, furniture…or even Dan O’Herlihy!
Wearing masks for Halloween started as an apotropaic ritual for keeping the unseelie fae away. But as Cochran notes in Season of the Witch, people today think “no further than the strange custom of having [our] children wear masks and go begging for candy.” He says “the last great” Samhain was over 2,000 years ago, “when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” This is curious, given that Irish people have been observing Samhain each year right into modern times. There is also a historical discrepancy in Cochran’s claim, since the first recorded literary references to Samhain date back to the 10th century CE (which was only 1,000 years ago). We know the Celts did not sacrifice children or animals like that, either; so what is Cochran really talking about here?
If you ask me, Conal Cochran was actually there in Ireland 2,000 years ago; he and his fellow unseelies roamed the land, murdering children; and he was probably what motivated the druids to develop their Samhain traditions in the first place. This would explain why there hasn’t been an October 31 to Cochran’s liking for 2,000 years; all that quality Halloween magic was just too strong for evil creatures like him to stomach. But now that it’s 1982 and Halloween has been completely trivialized, the magic is no longer effective. Now unseelie fae like Cochran can intrude upon the mortal realm as much as they please, and they can even weaponize the things that once kept us safe, as Cochran does with his deadly Silver Shamrock masks.
While John Carpenter neither wrote nor directed Halloween III himself, he did score the music. His partner in crime on this task was Alan Howarth, a Hollywood sound designer who co-wrote most of Carpenter’s 1980s film scores, including: Escape From New York (1981), Halloween II (1981), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1982), and the incidental music for The Thing (1982). Howarth also scored Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), and Halloween 6 (1995) by himself, weaving Carpenter’s familiar 5/4-time piano melody into some truly impressive soundscapes of his own.
Carpenter and Howarth were an excellent team; I enjoy listening to their music by itself as much I enjoy watching the films for which it was all composed, and Season of the Witch boasts some of their very best work together. Since the entire point was to break away from the first two movies, the aforementioned 5/4 piano theme is nowhere to be heard (except whenever Halloween III’s characters happen to catch a glimpse of the first Halloween on TV!). We are instead given a host of new original tunes, all performed on classic Moog synthesizers and sequencers. “Chariots of Pumpkins” might well be considered the main Halloween III theme, and it is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written.
So given its fascinating plot, terrific performances, and outstanding musical score, why on earth did Halloween III: Season of the Witch tank in theaters?
Well, it’s all about marketing. Though John Carpenter and Debra Hill tried to make their creative intentions very clear, this information was only relayed to the general public by publications like Fangoria magazine. Considering that Fangoria didn’t have half the fanbase in 1982 that it has today, this meant that Carpenter and Hill’s plan went completely unnoticed by most audiences. At the same time, Universal Pictures found the notion of a “Shape-less” Halloween unsettling, and their advertising department actually tried to hide the fact that Halloween III would be different. Nothing about the new artistic direction was mentioned in any trailers or TV commercials for the film. As a result, most audiences in October 1982 were basically walking into the movie blind.
In my experience at least, people who prefer slasher movies usually don’t “get” other kinds of horror, and viewers who prefer other subgenres tend to find slashers distasteful. So on the one hand, every slasher fan in the world went to see Halloween III and was greatly disappointed; on the other, fans of other subgenres avoided the film precisely because they thought it would be a slasher. An entire decade would pass before Season of the Witch finally started finding its audience on VHS and during late night monster movie marathons.
I first saw Season of the Witch in 1995. I understood it would not be a slasher film going in, but I think I was probably expecting something more like Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead (1988), with old crones conjuring medieval hellbeasts out in the woods. I sure as fuck wasn’t expecting to see some alien Pied Piper, turning children into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers. This was all WAY too much for my 13-year-old brain to process in just one viewing. The whole thing was somehow ludicrous and terrifying at the same time, and it kept me awake at night for weeks.
The scene where Conal Cochran mentions the Festival of Samhain was a complete mystery to me at first. It wasn’t until I re-watched the film with subtitles that I realized he is even talking about Samhain, because I didn’t yet know the correct pronunciation of this term. In reading up about Samhain in real life, I learned that people still celebrate it today, including many Pagans. It would be a couple more years before I learned about Setians, but Season of the Witch facilitated my awareness that there is even a Pagan community in general at all. And while I’ve never felt drawn to the Celtic pantheon in any religious capacity, Samhain or Hallowtide has always been a huge deal to me. So in a weird way, Halloween III didn’t just expand my mind on how people can tell stories; it expanded my mind on how people can believe and live their faith, as well.
I consider Halloween III: Season of the Witch to be the absolute best follow-up to the original Halloween (1978) that has ever been made, and it is unlikely to ever be superceded in this respect. None of the sequels or remakes with Michael Myers can hold a candle to it, because even the best of them are essentially just copies of the first movie, a story that was never meant to be continued in the first place. And while the Myers follow-ups have each been motivated primarily by box office avarice, Season of the Witch is a unique and original story that demanded to be told, much like its thematic predecessor from 1978. John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s pitch for an anthology is equally interesting, but I think it would have been neat to see Conal Cochran a few more times before Dan O’Herlihy passed away in 2005. One reason I love the Halloween movies as much as I do is because this series features not one, but two of the scariest horror movie supervillains I have ever seen. Only one of them visibly wears a mask and stalks people, stabbing them with kitchen utensils. The other one wears a much less obvious mask—a handsome human smile—and tricks people into purchasing their own deaths.
…THE END (OR IS IT?)
How one of the goofier Halloween movies taught me to think beyond Hollywood depictions of Paganism, with a brief tribute to Donald Pleasence.
While Halloween 4 succeeded in breathing fresh life into the Halloween franchise, the series was almost killed off again with Halloween 5 (1989), which was rushed into production as soon as Halloween 4 proved successful. The production didn’t even have a completed script when filming began, and boy does it show. Halloween 5 is a sordid mess, with characters behaving in contemptible ways that make absolutely no sense, and with several aimless plot threads that were clearly only included to build up hype for the next movie. The most obvious of these missteps is the Man in Black, a mysterious asshole who wears cowboy boots and who keeps walking in and out of the movie, showing up at the very end to bust the Shape out of jail and kidnap his niece, Jamie Lloyd. And though Halloween 5 implied that the next installment would be released ASAP, we were not given Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (otherwise known affectionately as Halloween 6) until about half a decade later.
When Halloween 6 opens, we learn the Man in Black leads a cult that appears to worship Michael Myers, and which has forced Jamie to bear a child (more on this in just a moment). One of the cultists seems to have a change of heart and helps Jamie escape with her newborn baby; but the Shape pursues them back to the town of Haddonfield, and yet another holiday murder spree begins.
There are actually two versions of Halloween 6—the 1995 Theatrical Cut, and the original Producer’s Cut (which wouldn’t see an official release until the 2010s). Both cuts are radically different from each other. The Producer’s Cut is what was originally put together before Donald Pleasence passed away shortly after filming wrapped in 1995. The director, Joe Chappelle, then re-filmed the entire ending and re-edited the rest of the movie for no apparent reason. We are thus left with two very unique films that tell completely asynchronous stories. Both versions are about Michael Myers stalking his niece, her baby, and a family that has moved into the Myers House (relatives of Laurie Strode, in fact). But the Producer’s Cut explains that Myers is merely a puppet for the Man in Black, who appears to be driven by (fanatical) Pagan beliefs. In the Theatrical Cut, the Man in Black’s motives are revealed to be more pseudoscientific than occult, and it turns out he does not actually have the Shape under his control at all.
Both versions of Halloween 6 feature a cult of so-called “druids” who worship a theoretical demon called “Thorn.” Both versions also posit that Michael Myers is possessed by this demon, thereby explaining his immortality and his drive to kill. The symbol for Thorn is actually the Norse rune Thurisaz (the third letter of the Elder Futhark), and it has nothing to do with the druids or with Celtic polytheism. It represents Mjollnir, the hammer of the thunder god Thor, and it is used to magically harness destructive and chaotic energies for protective ends. It is similar in principle to Khepesh, the starry Iron of Set, and and to the use of gargoyles in Christian church decor; it’s not about glorifying evil, but repelling it. So when certain characters claim that “Thorn” demands one family in Haddonfield be ritually murdered every now and again—and that Michael is simply the current bearer of this curse—I can confirm this is complete bullshit. This stuff is not based on any authentic Paganism; the writer, Daniel Farrands, simply pulled it out of his butt to fill all the gaping plot holes left over from Halloween 5.
While the Producer’s Cut still follows the tried and true slasher formula (“spooky killer stalks protagonists one-by-one”), it also follows the Satanic Panic formula (“community is besieged by murderous, rapey witches”). Here is where we return to the subject of Jamie Lloyd’s baby, who is eventually named Stephen. The parentage of this child is extremely controversial. In the original script, Stephen is the result of Jamie’s rape by the Man in Black, who impregnates her so that yet another member of the Myers family can be offered to Thorn. While the film was being shot, the script was rewritten on an almost daily basis, and for some unholy reason, someone thought it was a good idea to have Stephen be Michael’s kid instead. There is actually a flashback which implies the Thorn Cult tied Jamie to an altar and forced the Shape to rape her. There are so many things wrong with this idea, I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, the Halloween movies generally aren’t known for using rape as a convenient plot device. The Shape is a brutal killing machine, and murder has always been its sole biological imperative; it’s never shown any kind of sexual interest in its victims whatsoever. And the idea that anyone could “force” the Shape to rape someone—given that this motherfucker can rip people’s skulls apart with its bare hands—is just ridiculous.
Those of us who grew up watching her in Halloween 4 and 5 really look up to Jamie Lloyd’s character; so when Halloween 6 was still in the works, we were all anxious to see how this mighty young warrior would outwit the Shape once again. And we were all promptly heartbroken. It’s bad enough that they didn’t want to pay Danielle Harris the salary she deserved and cast an older woman (J.C. Brandy) in the role instead. (Jamie should have been about 15 or so in 1995; but J.C. Brandy was clearly in her late twenties or early thirties when Halloween 6 was made.) It’s even worse, however, that they decided to write Jamie out of any future sequels by having her be raped and killed. Yes, these are horror movies, it’s understood that upsetting things are going to happen. But this was an awful, thoughtless, and totally mean-spirited thing to do to a beloved, cherished character. The truth is, I’m glad Danielle Harris wasn’t in this one, because I wouldn’t be able to sit through it at all if I had to watch the real Jamie Lloyd suffer such a cruel fate.
In the Theatrical Cut, baby Stephen is strongly hinted to be a product of artificial insemination. Both versions end at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, which is the Thorn Cult’s base of operations; and both versions reveal the Man in Black to be Dr. Terence Wynn (played by Mitch Ryan, otherwise known as Will Riker’s dad), who is the head of the hospital. But here is where the similarities end. The Producer’s Cut concludes with Dr. Loomis and company disrupting a sacrificial ceremony and binding the Shape with “the power of the runes.” The Theatrical Cut climaxes with our heroes learning that the Thorn Cult is not really a cult at all, but a bunch of mad scientists conducting some ghoulish lab experiment. The sanitarium is filled with human fetuses in test tubes, and Dr. Wynn mentions something about Stephen being “a very special baby” who represents “the dawn of a new age.” We also learn the Shape has been murdering pregnant women in the hospital who seem to be related to the test tube babies somehow. The Thorn scientists don’t seem to be aware of Michael’s activities at present, perhaps thinking they have safely locked him away. That’s when the Shape busts in on their operation and butchers every scientist in sight. It then comes down to Paul Rudd bludgeoning Myers with a big lead pipe in a room full of fetuses (and trust me, it’s every bit as spectacular as it sounds!).
None of these events are ever explained in any coherent way, and one fan’s interpretation of events is as good as another’s. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think the Halloween 6 Theatrical Cut is trying to say with all this craziness. Dr. Wynn and his cronies never believed in Thorn at all; they simply pretended to worship the force possessing Michael so he would allow them to get close to him. They don’t really believe in the Boogeyman, but they do acknowledge Michael’s superhuman strength. Their true goal is to clone the Shape’s DNA; perhaps they work for the military, or maybe they just want an army of Shapes they can control. They artificially inseminated all of their female “patients,” including Jamie, with little Myers clones, and Stephen has proven to be some kind of breakthrough. More than anything, they want Stephen back so they can continue their experiments on him; so they release Michael to track him down, with plans to recapture the Shape before it can actually murder its prey. After succeeding at this, Dr. Wynn dispenses with all pretense at being a “druid,” thinking he has fooled the Shape. But Michael Myers has actually been in control of the entire situation all along, keeping the “Thorn Cult” close to himself for his own purposes. And that’s when these other villains who think they’re oh so bad find out the Boogeyman is VERY fucking real, indeed!
Given this interpretation of events, I much prefer the Halloween 6 Theatrical Cut to the Producer’s Cut. The former is essentially an X-Files episode that just happens to feature Michael Myers, with tons of bizarre shit happening and none of it being explained (saving material for future installments). While it is still a ridiculous film with many flaws, this leaves a much better taste in my mouth than the alternative. The Producer’s Cut is more like a gothic Hammer film, which I would normally find appealing, save for this: it reduces the Shape to being little more than Kharis the Mummy, with Dr. Wynn as his Mehemet Bey. I also really resent the addition of all that Satanic Panic baloney, which is just unnecessary. The idea of people being raped for witchcraft might be essential to a story like Rosemary’s Baby, but it has never been a part of John Carpenter’s Halloween. With all due respect to Ira Levin, I just do not want to see any of that shit when I put on a Halloween movie. The idea of genetically engineering a race of Michael Myers clones is equally crazy when you compare it to the original 1978 film; but at least it’s my kind of crazy, dammit!
There are certain things about the Producer’s Cut that I happen to prefer, however. For one thing, there’s a whole lot more Donald Pleasence in that version, which is always a good thing (especially since this was his final appearance before he died). For whatever blasphemous reason, most of his scenes are either heavily trimmed or completely removed from the Theatrical Cut, and that’s just insulting. My number one reason for seeing Halloween 6 in the first place was to see how Dr. Loomis is doing, and to see what he does to stop the Shape this time. Removing most of his presence from the film leaves it feeling very hollow, like part of the movie’s soul has been lost. It helps that Dr. Loomis passes the torch to Tommy Doyle (played by Paul Rudd), who witnessed Michael’s first killing spree as one of the child characters in 1978. But the very last scene with Donald Pleasence in the Theatrical Cut (“I have a little business to attend to here…”) never fails to make me tear up a little.
Halloween 6 might be goofier than shit (no matter which of the two versions you prefer to watch), but seeing it was a major step in my coming to Paganism as a teenager. Donald Pleasence is also my all-time favorite actor, and it was very sad for me when his passing was first announced back in February 1995. I have always thought the Thurisaz rune would be much better suited to representing Dr. Loomis as a protector against the Shape, rather than the Shape itself; so I decided to include a song on my new 2020 album, Summer’s End, that honors the concept of Thurisaz, and which is also dedicated to the memory of Donald Pleasence. I pray you will enjoy this offering, good sir!
Why Halloween 4 (1988) is one of my favorite flicks to watch for the Samhain season.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) made a shit-ton more money than anyone was betting it would, and that ending just screamed for a follow-up. Carpenter never intended to make any sequels, but was legally forced into making one for contractual reasons. The mixed result was Halloween II (1981), which takes place on the same night as the original. The Shape is still on the loose in Haddonfield in 1978, with Dr. Loomis and the fuzz in hot pursuit. Laurie Strode is taken to the local hospital for her injuries, and the Shape follows her there, stalking and slashing through the entire graveyard shift. Meanwhile, Loomis comes to suspect that Michael Myers is driven to kill by some kind of “druidic curse.” The final act begins when it’s revealed that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister, whom he apparently meant to kill in 1963 along with his elder sibling Judith. All hell breaks loose when Dr. Loomis shows up at the hospital to save Laurie and blow himself and the Shape to smithereens.
Halloween II broke some big box office records of its own, so it was only a matter of time before another sequel would be greenlit. Carpenter insisted on taking the series in a new direction, turning it into an anthology like The Twilight Zone. Hence why Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) has nothing at all to do with the Michael Myers storyline. I will save my analysis of Halloween III for later, but suffice it to say for now that the film was not very well received by audiences at the time, making the Shape’s resurrection inevitable.
Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were making big bank in the mid- to late 1980s, and executive producer Moustapha Akkad was determined that Michael Myers should do the same. He approached John Carpenter for his input on a potential Halloween 4, but the two of them just couldn’t see eye to eye. Carpenter pitched a really weird script by horror novelist Dennis Etchinson that has the Shape returning from the dead as some kind of reality-bending ghost. It’s actually pretty neat, but Akkad just wanted to “go back to the basics” (or “Xerox the original” according to Carpenter), and Carpenter sold his interest in the franchise. Akkad then assembled his own creative team, headed by director Dwight H. Little, and produced Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in 1988. The end product is not quite as interesting as what Dennis Etchinson cooked up for us, but it still turned out pretty awesome in my book.
Halloween 4 ignores its immediate predecessor and picks up 10 years after the events of the first two movies, which technically makes it Michael Myers’ second killing spree. It also rewrites the ending of Halloween II so the Shape and Dr. Loomis weren’t immolated in that hospital explosion after all; they were burned and disfigured, but survived. Myers has been in a coma at a maximum security prison ever since, and Dr. Loomis has never left his side. Presumably the prison staff are tired of Loomis always demanding they take his patient off life support, for they arrange to have Myers transferred to some other facility across the state without the doctor’s knowledge. This might not have turned out so bad, except they decide to do this on the night of October 30. To make shit worse, the paramedics transporting the prisoner stupidly discuss the fact that Laurie Strode, while now deceased from a car accident, had a daughter named Jamie Lloyd (nice touch), who is currently living with a foster family back in Haddonfield. That’s when the “comatose” Michael Myers snaps into action and butchers every motherfucker in the ambulance; then he returns to Haddonfield and relentlessly stalks his niece the following Halloween night.
While it is extremely derivative of the 1978 original, Halloween 4 is actually a pretty fantastic movie, and there are two primary reasons for this. First, Donald Pleasence really shines as Dr. Loomis in this one. In fact, he is practically an action movie hero here, doing all kinds of crazy stunts (the exploding gas station sequence being one of my favorite scenes in the entire franchise). This shit could not have been easy for a 69-year-old WWII veteran to do, but Donald Pleasence did it anyway, and I love him for it. I can’t stress enough how his character is really what kept me coming back for more of these movies when I was a young’un. Seeing Dr. Loomis stick it to the authorities and risk his life and reputation to rescue a scared and defenseless 9-year-old girl always makes my heart glow! Plus, virtually everything he says throughout Halloween 4 is a classic one-liner. I think of Dr. Loomis as being an avatar of Set in these movies: the grim, doomy outcast who hunts down the evil regardless of whether he is ever thanked or recognized for doing so, and who is every bit as relentless in this pursuit as Michael Myers is in stalking his niece.
Which brings us to the second reason why Halloween 4 is so awesome: Danielle Harris, the talented young lady who plays Jamie Lloyd. There was simply no better child actor in the 1980s than Harris. If I didn’t know any better (and I do), I’d think the filmmakers were actually trying to kill her. This was definitely not the case, as every effort was made to make Harris feel totally comfortable with George P. Wilbur, the stuntman who plays the Shape. She also got to hang out with Donald Pleasence between shoots, and he would tell her all kinds of crazy stories (which must have been fuckin’ awesome). But when Harris screams or runs away from the Shape on film, she really SELLS it, making me want to leap through my TV screen and save her myself!
There is something to be said for the fact that Myers stalks a child for this venture. Other popular horror sequels at the time were becoming self-parodies, with slashers like Jason and Freddy getting up to all kinds of goofy hijinks (like going to Manhattan, or appearing in music videos by the hair metal band, Dokken). Having the Shape target a little girl really heightens the stakes in comparison, especially when we remember that Laurie Strode was a teenager in 1978 and could actually fight back against Michael. But Jamie depends on the adults around her to do all the fighting for her, and when most of those adults AREN’T Dr. Loomis, the situation is made even more suspenseful.
Halloween 4 is superior to Halloween II for several important reasons. While certain aspects of the latter film are classic and iconic in their own right (such as the hospital setting and the idea of having it take place on the same night as the first movie), the film is dreadfully paced (that entire second act is a total snoozefest), there is too much absurdist gore, and the bits about Celtic religion are especially distracting (given they are pure gibberish). The “family vendetta” premise nullifies the idea from the first movie that Myers is completely arbitrary in his actions (which is a much scarier idea to me personally). And while his newfound motive would seem to give Laurie a role of central importance, Halloween II puts her character to little use, rendering her drugged, silent, and powerless until the conclusion. But here in Halloween 4, the pacing is just right, the amount of gore is significantly reduced, and we don’t have to sit through any of that anti-druidic bullshit. Also, Danielle Harris’ performance as Jamie is so fucking intense, it makes me forget how stupid the “family vendetta” storyline from Halloween II really is.
Halloween 4 takes a big risk by not only presumably killing Michael Myers once and for all, but by passing his curse on to Jamie, driving her to re-enact her uncle’s original murder in 1963 by stabbing her foster-mother to death. The film ends with Dr. Loomis discovering what Jamie has done and screaming hysterically, understanding immediately that the Shape has now taken a new incarnation. Given this set-up, Halloween 5 seemed ready to begin in 2003 (15 years later), with a full-grown female Shape terrorizing everybody on Halloween that year. Something like that might have been pretty damn cool; but we ended up with a lot of bullshit instead.
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.
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.
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.
Here I geek out for a bit about my vote for “the scariest monster movie ever made,” and I draw some parallels between the themes of this film and my beliefs as a Setian.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) wins my vote for “the most frightening monster film ever made.” Its unique history begins with a science fiction author named John W. Campbell, Jr., who wrote a short story in the 1930s called “Who Goes There?” It features a team of scientists who discover a spaceship buried beneath the ice in Antarctica. They dig out the ship’s pilot and bring it back to their base, thinking it’s just a frozen fossil. But once the creature thaws out, it springs into action and starts terrorizing everybody. Then it’s discovered that the Thing (as this hostile invader comes to be called) not only digests its prey, but can manipulate the cells of its body to shapeshift into whatever it has eaten at will. The men at the research facility soon learn this applies to human beings as well as to animals, and they descend into violence and paranoia as they accuse each other of being the monster. That’s when a guy named R.J. MacReady takes charge of the situation and figures out a way to determine who’s who.
In 1951, the great Howard Hawks decided to make a film adaptation of “Who Goes There?” that was renamed The Thing From Another World. This was the first of what would later be called the “atomic horror” films, in which humanity is threatened by giant radioactive animals, mad science experiments, or Commies from outer space. For whatever reason, the setting of Campbell’s story was switched from Antarctica to the North Pole, and the shapeshifting alien was re-conceptualized as a blood-drinking humanoid made entirely of vegetable matter. (One character actually refers to it as a “super-carrot.”) Despite these drastic changes, The Thing From Another World is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made. It has lovable and humorous characters, some intense machine gun-paced dialogue, and several suspenseful scenes that still hold up today. The film influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, including John Carpenter, who loved it so much that he has his characters watching it on TV in Halloween (1978).
When Ridley Scott’s Alien came out in 1979, it made a shit-ton of money. Suddenly, big-budget creature features were in vogue. That’s when Universal Pictures acquired the rights to produce a remake of The Thing From Another World. I believe monster movie remakes are generally a horrible idea, and that they should be avoided as much as possible. But in The Thing’s case, this rule does not apply. Part of what makes the Carpenter film work is that the original 1951 version deviated from its source material so much. While it’s still about an alien terrorizing people in the snow, Hawks’ monster and human protagonists are totally different. (There isn’t even a “MacReady” in Hawks’ film.) So John Carpenter and his team decided to make this new film a more faithful adaptation of the original Campbell story, which had never been properly adapted for the screen before. For this reason, the 1982 Thing is radically different from its 1951 predecessor, which caught many audiences off guard at the time. Most viewers in 1982 were expecting to see something fairly light-hearted and optimistic, much like the 1951 original. They weren’t expecting to see anything quite so bleak, depressing, or nightmarish as what they were given.
The Thing boasts some of the most convincing makeup and creature effects you will ever see; in fact, the effects are perhaps a little too convincing. It’s hard to believe the monster is really just a bunch of puppets, but creature effects wizard Rob Bottin put so much of his heart and soul into them that they still look superior to most CGI effects that are used in films today. Unfortunately, audiences in 1982 just weren’t ready for what they saw. The most well-known sequences of the film are those in which the monster devours, digests, and transforms into its helpless prey. Globs of slime, blood, and stinking pus are splattered all over the walls while men are physically disfigured into shapes that defy all rational categorization. These scenes are grisly, revolting, and very hard to sit through, but the amount of imagination put into them is absolutely staggering—even by 2019 standards. The effects are so realistic and excessive, however, that people just went apeshit. Film critics rabidly accused John Carpenter of being “a pornographer of violence,” and he was practically blacklisted by Universal. Indeed, audience reactions to The Thing during its original theatrical run almost ended Carpenter’s career entirely. How ironic, then, that the film would be re-evaluated by fans and critics over the following decade, to the point of being accepted today as Carpenter’s very best work. And the sheer number of other media properties it has influenced (e.g., Dead Space, The Mist, Resident Evil, Slither, Stranger Things, The X-Files, and practically everything on Guillermo del Toro’s resume) demonstrates that The Thing has had a major impact on popular culture.
I love it that this film features an ensemble cast, which means there are multiple principal actors who are given roughly equal amounts of screen time. The great thing about ensembles is that the actors will rehearse together and develop a chemistry you just can’t get anywhere else. The players in this film are all well-seasoned stage actors, to boot. While the script is rather skimpy on character development, the actors make up for this with all the neat visual cues they worked out together. We can tell that Clark (played by Richard Masur) is much more comfortable with the dogs at Outpost 31 than he is with the other men. When he learns that one of the other men has died, he shows little emotion apart from fear; but when he learns that one of his dogs have been killed, he becomes upset and mournful. We can also tell that Garry (played by Donald Moffat) resents being the leader of the group, because he always has a reluctant look on his face whenever he has to take charge. It’s obvious from their expressions that none of the other men take his authority very seriously, and Garry is also much quicker to relinquish his authority to MacReady (played by Kurt Russell) than most leaders would be. Despite having lived and worked together for some time, the men at Outpost 31 seem to know practically nothing about each other. They’re alienated from the rest of the world by living in Antarctica, but they’re also alienated from each other by their own apathy and disinterest. Since the Thing can imitate any life form perfectly, neither the characters nor the audience can ever tell who is who. This is made even more horrific by the notion that these people never really knew or cared about each other that much in the first place. The Thing doesn’t have to work very hard to push them into a panic, for they are already in a position to fear and loathe each other when the film begins. If their humanity is all that really separates these men from the Thing, that wall of separation must be frightfully thin.
One criticism I sometimes hear about this film is that the actors are all male; there are literally no women to be seen anywhere. I can understand why this bothers some viewers, but I actually appreciate the all-male cast for a couple of reasons. First, there’s this unspoken rule in Hollywood that monster movies must always have some kind of heteronormative sex appeal; there must be gorgeous hot women removing their clothes for the male viewers, and there must be one dude and one dame who make it to the end so they can presumably fornicate once the credits roll. The Thing dispenses with this “wisdom” by not even allowing the subject of sex to be breached in the first place. This could have been accomplished by casting only female actors as well, but that would have been a terrible idea in 1982. This movie is about a slimy tentacled monster that likes to rip people’s clothes off and insert itself into their bodily orifices, which is already disturbing enough as it is. If there had been any women in the film, I guarantee they would have been sexualized. I know this because there were other films being produced during the same era that indulged in this exact form of sexual exploitation (including 1980’s Humanoids From The Deep and 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, which both feature monsters raping women on camera). At the time, casting all the characters as male was probably the best way to keep The Thing from going down that particular rabbit hole. Indeed, it is one of very few 1980s monster films that doesn’t feature any kind of sexual exploitation at all.
I think another reason audiences hated this film upon its original release is that it’s just so goddamn bleak. Even the goriest slasher movies of the 1980s usually had some kind of comic relief or silliness in them; but aside from some brief touches of humor here and there, The Thing offers no such relief. Nor does it offer any clarity with regards to its conclusion. Audiences prefer happy endings in their monster movies, but they can also handle bad or scary endings, as long as they’re clear-cut. The evil can either win or be defeated, but it must clearly be one or the other. The Thing throws this archaic rule right out the window, for its ending is completely ambiguous, leaving us uncertain as to how the story really ends. And that is something most people just can’t seem to handle in a movie. Mind you, I can understand why; it bothers me that we never find out exactly who won or who survived. But that’s what makes the ending work; it continues to bother you and haunt you long after the credits have rolled. (I still wake up in the middle of the night every so often, wondering: “Who’s really human at the end of The Thing?!”)
In my opinion, the titular beast is an even better representation of
Apep, the supreme enemy of all gods and creatures, than H.R. Giger’s Alien. The xenomorph can be pleasing to look at, with its shiny symmetrical body and its humanoid shape; but the Thing is absolutely horrible to observe in either of its myriad, spidery forms. And while the Alien is just an animal that seeks to eat and reproduce according to its primal dispositions, the Thing has assimilated countless worlds and species into itself. It is sentient, can build and operate spacecraft far superior to ours, and is totally capable of communicating with humans. (It speaks perfect English whenever it pretends to be an American scientist.) If such an ancient intelligence had any goodness in its heart, it would try to reach some kind of understanding with the men of Outpost 31 at least once. Yet the Thing never bothers to communicate with the men at all (apart from when it imitates them). This suggests that the creature is purely and simply evil. It deliberately terrifies, harms, and divides other sentient beings with a malevolent self-awareness, and it will settle for nothing less than the extinction of all life upon this earth. If that doesn’t sound like Apep, I don’t know what does.
But there is much of Set to be found in this film, as well. Most of Antarctica is actually a polar desert, since there is little to no precipitation or vegetation there. A “desert” is technically defined in terms of how dry a given location is (rather than how hot), and Antarctica is drier than a bone; very little rain or snowfall ever occurs across the entire continent. Given that The Thing’s premise is essentially a modernized combat myth (in which a heroic warrior fights a gruesome monster to save the world), it’s only fitting that this battle should unfold in an ecosystem that falls under Set’s jurisdiction. And in Egyptian mythology,
Apep has a paralyzing stare that freezes most of the gods with fear, rendering them motionless and inert. Set is the only god who is immune to this; hence why He was chosen to serve as Ra’s Champion against the beast. Perhaps it is no accident that when most of The Thing’s characters come face-to-face with their extraterrestrial assailant, they too become motionless and inert. MacReady is the only one who seems unfazed whenever he sees the monster; he even has the nerve to taunt it right to its ugly face. (His best line is when he tells the creature, “Yeah? Well fuck you too!”) Indeed, he exudes the time-honored Setian attitude of “I’m-just-saving-the-world-so-I-can-get-back-to-drinking” quite nicely.
As a Setian, I believe autonomy is divine—a gift not only from the gods in general, but also from Set in particular. He is the god of otherness, the principle that makes it possible for everyone to exist as individuals with distinct identities. The word “other” often bears a negative connotation in common discourse, as when we speak of societies “othering” minorities. But we are all others to each other, even in the cultures and cliques we call our own. Otherness is a good thing, something to be cherished and celebrated, because it enables each of us to determine ourselves as unique sentient beings. It is not otherness, but the fear of otherness which poses the ultimate threat to our existence. As frustrating and confusing as Set can be for the other gods, even they must accept Him as a necessary force in this world; for without Him, they would be frozen by the Serpent’s stare and absorbed into its vacuum. They would cease to have selves and be dissolved into the void forever. Otherness has been painted red and given devil horns for Set knows how long, but true evil is the desire to exterminate otherness, to eliminate whatever is different. And the Thing is a perfect representation of such erasure. Just like
Apep, it is homogeneity personified, hating whatever is not itself and robbing its victims of their innermost identities and souls.
Ennio Morricone (left) and John Carpenter (right), circa 1982.
John Carpenter is legendary for scoring most of his films himself; but for this venture, he recruited the Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who is most well-known for scoring 1967’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Morricone wrote about 50 minutes’ worth of orchestral music, approximately half of which would never be used in the final cut. Supposedly, Carpenter had difficulty deciding where to insert certain pieces of music into the film. So while The Thing was in post-production, Carpenter went to the recording studio and hammered out some incidental pieces to make up for the material he couldn’t use. As a result, about 90% of the music in The Thing is Morricone’s work, while the remaining 10% consists of Carpenter’s trademark electronic drones. The theme song (which is actually titled “Humanity Part II”) was originally written by Morricone, but was later re-arranged with electronic instrumentation to make it sound more “Carpenter-esque.” I happen to own a version of the soundtrack that includes both Morricone and Carpenter’s material, and it’s my all-time favorite album to play during worship.
I mention this because I find the Thing soundtrack useful for execrations (i.e., hexes or curses that target spiritual rather than human adversaries). In the procedure we’ve used in the LV-426 Tradition, we take some ceramic pots and draw or write things on them to represent our fears and our personal demons. Then we invoke the Serpent into these pots, and we invoke the Red Lord into ourselves. Once a spell against
Apep has been recited (with plenty of angry and forceful language), everyone smashes their “qliphothic pot” to bits and pieces, sending the Serpent back to whatever hell it comes from. This is more than just a therapeutic activity for stress relief; it’s a spiritual battle in which we actually smite the negativity in our lives with all of Set’s power and fury. It’s helpful to use music in this kind of worship service, and the Thing soundtrack has always given me the best results. It heightens the effect of the ritual, making me feel as if I’m actually in some desolate wasteland, getting ready to face off against an ancient evil. Even when I listen to the music outside of ritual, it always puts me in a meditative mood, steeling my nerves against whatever stressful crap I happen to be worrying about at the time.
I suppose I’ve rambled on about this movie long enough now. The point is, John Carpenter’s The Thing isn’t just a great sci-fi/horror movie; it’s also a great parable for Setian spirituality. It’s the ultimate cinematic combat myth for the contemporary age, and it is deeply inspirational to me in my own daily quest against the Serpent. It still gets under my skin, too, despite the fact that I’m an adult now and I’ve seen this movie over a thousand times. I still get spooked whenever the power goes out and I have to walk around my house in the middle of the night; I can’t help but imagine the Thing slithering around down there in the dark beneath my bed, waiting to assimilate me in my sleep. There is simply no other movie monster that continues to hold this kind of power over my imagination today, and there are few other films that inspire me as much as The Thing does. If you’re a Setian and you’ve never seen this movie, give it a try as soon as possible, and feel free to share your thoughts about it with me. I’d love to know what you think!
Martian grasshoppers. Genetically modified super-apes. Invisible forces only certain people can see. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) has it all.
I love those old Hammer horror films from the 1960s and 1970s: the ones with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, filmed in vivid Technicolor, with some of the most atmospheric set pieces you’ll ever see on screen. Hammer revamped all the traditional gothic horror film monsters, and they weren’t afraid to use gallons of blood in the process (which really pissed off the British censors at the time, even though the gore looks pretty fake by today’s standards). They turned Dr. Frankenstein (portrayed by Peter Cushing) into a psychopathic killer who prefers to get the parts for his monsters fresh (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). They turned Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) into a frothing-at-the-mouth sexual predator who can break mere men in half with his pinky finger. They also cast some of the most beautiful demigoddesses to have ever graced this earth. (Seriously, these ladies make their Victorian costumes look more provocative and exciting than even the skimpiest of modern beach attire.) Whether we are addressing The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), or even The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer films are fucking awesome and warrant multiple repeated viewings.
If I had to choose just one Hammer film as my personal favorite, it would not be easy; but surely Quatermass and the Pit (1967, also known as Five Million Years To Earth) would be counted among my Top Five. This is a sequel to an earlier 1955 film called The Quatermass Xperiment and its immediate 1957 successor, Quatermass II. All three movies are theatrical adaptations of TV serials that were originally broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s. These serials were written and created by Nigel Kneale, who is also known for writing The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), The Stone Tape (1972), and the original screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Kneale was a fantastic science fiction writer whose work fits rather nicely with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, and he has been a major inspiration to such horror maestros as John Carpenter and Stephen King, whose Prince of Darkness (1987) and The Tommyknockers (1987) are both directly inspired by Quatermass and the Pit.
The Quatermass films are named for their main character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, a British rocket scientist who contends with various alien forces that seek to wipe out the human race. (In many ways, the original serials also provided a great deal of inspiration for Doctor Who.) Of the trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit is easily the best; and despite being the third film in sequence, it is written in such a way that you don’t have to view either of its predecessors to understand the characters or plot. All you really need to know going in is that it’s about a small British town called Hobb’s End (which should sound familiar to anyone who enjoys John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness). Some subway workers uncover a bunch of weird fossils and an object that looks like an unexploded bomb from the German air raids during World War II. This was not an uncommon problem in England in the 1960s (hell, it’s still a problem today), so panic immediately ensues, and the military is called in to investigate. But it is soon determined that the excavated object is not a bomb after all, and that’s when Professor Quatermass is called in.
Quatermass discovers that the object is actually a spaceship, and that it contains a couple of ancient alien corpses. (The aliens look like man-sized grasshoppers.) The weird fossils that were discovered close to the ship appear to have been primates that the aliens were using as experimental test subjects. Quatermass also learns that Hobb’s End has been subject to all manner of paranormal disturbances since time immemorial; whenever someone disturbs the ground where the spaceship now rests, ghost and hauntings are soon reported throughout the surrounding area. And when a man accidentally scrapes the spaceship with a wrench, it causes all these weird telekinetic phenomena to start happening.
Quatermass figures the aliens are from Mars, and that they came to colonize the Earth before humans evolved. He thinks they planned to transfer their consciousness to the ancient primates they found, so that they could live more comfortably in our ecosystem. But something went wrong, and the aliens all died. Yet the super-apes they created survived, and some people today are actually descended from them. Such people tend to be born with weird psychic abilities, and Quatermass theorizes that this may be where all our legends of magic and witchcraft come from. The aliens even resemble Satan, with tiny horns poking out of their skulls. But there’s just one problem: even though the aliens and their super-apes are dead, the powers they evoked continue to exist in human beings today, and the alien spaceship is still functional. Quatermass fears that if anything is done to disturb the vessel, it could re-awaken the dormant Martian hive consciousness that resides within every person who is descended from the modified apes. And this is exactly what happens when the British government decides to hold a big press conference at the excavation site. Some knucklehead drops some live electrical wiring on the ship, and it wakes up.
The awakening of the Hobb’s End spaceship is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in any horror film. Approximately half the local population is suddenly possessed by the Martian hive mind, which then drives them to murder all their neighbors, co-workers, and families. These people even kill all the animals they encounter as well; there’s one ghoulish moment when we hear them slaughtering a bunch of cats and dogs outside, and it never fails to make my blood run cold. To think that someone can just flip a biological switch and make hundreds of people suddenly murder their own loved ones is scary enough; but the situation is made even scarier by the fact that this is all caused by an accident. The Hobb’s End Massacre is not caused by the aliens (who are all deceased), but by an act of human ignorance that totally could have been prevented (had anyone heeded Quatermass’ warnings).
The heroes end up using a big iron crane to discharge the Martian spaceship’s energy back into the Earth. As in a great deal of folklore, it is the apotropaic power of iron (a substance most sacred to Set) that dispels the forces of evil in the end. But unlike most other science-fiction/horror films from this period, Quatermass and the Pit does not conclude with the male and female survivors hugging and kissing each other like everything’s going to be all right. Here, Professor Quatermass and his friend Dr. Judd (played by Barbara Shelley, my favorite Hammer glamour girl) are left standing alone amidst a sea of urban ruin, not breathing a word to each other. They’re too frightened to even look at each other, much less touch. (Perhaps they fear that doing so might spark up the Martian hive mind again?) They just stare fearfully into the night, forever traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced. Roll credits!
One sure way to make me want to read a story or watch a film is by telling me, “It’s horror AND science fiction.” Some of my favorite films fall into this category, including Ridley Scott’sAlien (1979) and John Carpenter’sThe Thing (1982). But Nigel Kneale’s work is distinct because it combines science fiction with supernatural horror, using science to plausibly substantiate the paranormal (rather than dispelling it). The genealogical descent of all witches and wizards from Martian-engineered apes is just one example. Another would be the concept behind The Stone Tape, in which Kneale has scientists discovering that “ghosts” are actually residual “recordings” of past events that have been embedded into certain rocks. (This hypothesis is now called “the Stone Tape Theory,” which still carries considerable weight among paranormal researchers today.) And of course, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proposes that the mineral content of Stonehenge is catastrophically dangerous and can actually be weaponized by any corporation with the necessary know-how. As far as I’m concerned at least, Nigel Kneale belongs in the same company as such hard science fiction masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
In Quatermass and the Pit, the Christian concept of “the devil” is revealed to be nothing more than a genetic race memory of the Martian colonists who experimented on our primate ancestors. These aliens were not necessarily “evil,” either; they were simply doing what they could to survive. As a Setian, the idea that “Satan was originally something else, and it wasn’t evil” has been a very old recurring theme in my life. And the idea that a sufficiently advanced or “magical” technology can be misused to wreak unspeakable havoc is also familiar, given what I have seen when ill-prepared occultniks fuck around with things like qliphoth or the SimonNecronomicon. Finally, I can identify with the idea of there being a scientific basis for “superstitions” like the use of iron objects to execrate evil spiritual forces. Indeed, Quatermass and the Pit is not only scary, but incredibly thought-provoking for anyone who takes an interest in the esoteric side of life. For Pagans and witches, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
A Setian look at Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954) and how Big G parallels Set in Egyptian mythology.
Prior to the 1950s, creature features were dominated by gothic characters like vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster. This all changed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the height of the Cold War, Count Dracula and the Wolf Man just didn’t seem that frightening anymore. Now people were worried about the effects of atomic radiation. Would it cause terrible mutations to plague the earth (like in 1954’s Them)? Would it awaken prehistoric monsters and drive them to seek revenge (like in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms)? Would it attract the attention of aliens who could easily conquer or even destroy us (like in 1951’s The Thing From Another World)? This was the age of the “atomic horrors,” when people wrestled with the dark side of science. In many of these films, the horrific events result from unethical scientists who overstep the boundaries between mortals and the gods. By upsetting the cosmic balance in this way, these anti-heroes enable the Chaos Serpent to wreak havoc upon the earth in any number of forms. They are, in fact, the direct progeny of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who had a much easier time adapting to the atomic era than either of his more supernatural colleagues.
The tropes of the “mad science” subgenre came into much clearer focus during the aftermath of World War II. It was absolutely horrible that the United States dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan during the war. But lest we forget, the Japanese committed some truly ghoulish atrocities as well. Kamikaze suicide flights; the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong; the systematic extermination of 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Burmese; the Nanking, Manila, and Kalagong massacres of civilians; the use of chemical weapons, biological warfare, and human experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war; the list goes on and on. The atrocities of Imperial Japan rival those of Nazi Germany, and for better or worse, the A-Bomb was the only thing that stopped them. And though Japan and the United States have been peaceful allies ever since, Japan continues to be haunted by the experience of being bombed with nuclear weapons.
When the U.S. started testing hydrogen bombs on the Marshall Islands during the 1950s, a Japanese fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon 5 was accidentally exposed to fallout from one of the exploded bombs. The entire crew was contaminated and suffered nausea, headaches, and bleeding gums. The chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died in terrible agony and pain, praying that he would be the last victim of such terrible weaponry. Next thing anyone knew, the whole country of Japan was plunged into a panic, and that’s when the guys at Toho Studios decided to make a film about nuclear chaos as a living thing. Pulling together the creative team of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, it wasn’t long before Japanese movie screens were showcasing everyone’s favorite Iguanadon/Stegosaurus/Tyrannosaurus hybrid, the one and only Godzilla (or, as he is known in Japan, Gojira).
The original Godzilla, released in 1954, begins with a re-creation of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, wherein the crew of a Japanese fishing boat notice that the ocean is glowing around them. Something roars from beneath the surface of the water, and the boat burns and sinks. A few of the men survive, but by the time the Japanese coast guard rescues them, the survivors are all suffering from radiation sickness. Not long after that, a fishing village on Odo Island is destroyed during a storm. A scientist named Kyohei Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura) leads a detailed investigation of the island, only to learn that it’s experiencing nuclear fallout. All the wells are poisoned, and the place is riddled with giant radioactive footprints. Then Godzilla shows up, and everyone gets a real good look at him. Lucky for them, Big G is just going for a walk, not seeking to cause any trouble, and he soon returns to the sea. Dr. Yamane and his team then return to Japan and report what they’ve found to the government, which promptly divides itself between those who think the story should be kept under wraps (and who are mostly men) and those who think they should be warning everybody in the country about what’s really happening (and who are mostly women).
Now Dr. Yamane has a lovely daughter named Emiko (played by Momoko Kochi), and she is caught in a tragic love triangle. She’s engaged to marry a scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is a World War II veteran. He was injured in the war, now wears an eyepatch, and seems to be alienated from everyone else around him. Unfortunately for Dr. Serizawa, Emiko has fallen in love with another dude named Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain who’s involved in the investigation of Godzilla. But before Emiko can break off their engagement, Serizawa shows her why he’s become so alienated from everybody. He takes her to the basement of his house and shows her a new invention he’s been working on. We can’t really see what the device does just yet, but whatever it is, it makes Emiko scream and faint. And when she leaves Serizawa’s house, it’s like she’s been lobotomized.
Meanwhile, the government begs Dr. Yamane for a way to kill Godzilla; but as Yamane himself points out, the creature has absorbed all that fallout from those H-Bomb tests at the Marshall Islands. In other words, Godzilla literally eats, pisses, and shits pure atomic energy; so just how the fuck is anyone supposed to kill the big guy? Furthermore, Dr. Yamane does not want Godzilla to die, but thinks the creature should be contained and studied instead. He figures there are probably all kinds of things scientists can learn from an animal that’s strong enough to survive a atomic blast. But the government doesn’t listen; it just tries to neutralize Godzilla before he becomes too much of a nuisance. This only pisses the monster off, of course, and Big G eventually hits the city of Tokyo for a night on the town.
When Godzilla attacks Tokyo for the first time, there’s absolutely nothing humorous or “cheesy” about it. We see men being set on fire and screaming for the mercy of death. We see a mother holding her children and crying, “We’ll be with your Daddy in heaven very soon, now!” We see news anchors offering their lives to keep reporting on Godzilla for any listeners who are still trying to escape the city. We see hospital doctors waving Geiger counters over newly orphaned children (while the kids scream for their dead parents), and we see schoolchildren singing prayers for all the people who’ve died. These scenes are made even more disturbing by the fact that they weren’t just “dreamed up” by a storyboard artist. They’re based on real events Ishiro Hondo personally witnessed during the aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So in a way, the 1954 Godzilla isn’t just a science fiction/horror film; it’s practically a documentary.
Some have argued that Godzilla is a work of anti-American propaganda; surely, having the giant lizard puke radioactive shit all over Tokyo is really America’s fault, right? But it seems to me that Big G is actually a self-critical symbol of Japanese ultraviolence turned against itself. The way Ishiro Honda frames the narrative, it feels almost as if he thought Japan deserved to be wiped off the face of the planet by an atomic fire-breathing dinosaur. Godzilla is like a judgment from the gods, sent to humble Japan for every horrific war crime it ever committed as an Axis Power. And as the film eventually reveals, the only way to defeat the monster is by creating something even worse than what awakened him. That’s when Emiko finally reveals what Dr. Serizawa’s been hiding in his basement all this time.
Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa.
Serizawa fought on the wrong side of an immoral war. He has directly experienced true evil more than any other character in the entire film. Perhaps he has even committed a few wartime atrocities of his own. Horrified by what probably he saw (and did) during the war, he is now a devout pacifist; yet he has invented something called “the Oxygen Destroyer,” completely by accident. This device somehow removes all oxygen from the body, instantly skeletonizing its victims; and after witnessing the holocaust in Tokyo, Emiko and Ogata try to convince Serizawa to use this new weapon against the beast. But Serizawa refuses; he’s terrified that if his Oxygen Destroyer is ever discovered, corrupt political forces from around the world will conspire to use it as a new weapon of war. What if they somehow coerce or trick him into creating more of these hellish devices? And if nuclear weapons have given us Godzilla, what terrible thing will the Oxygen Destroyer bring in its wake? That’s when Ogata says the most chilling line in the entire movie. He admits that Serizawa’s fear might become a reality; then he points out that Godzilla is reality.
Serizawa agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, but he destroys all of his research first to prevent anyone from ever building another one. Then he is joined by Emiko, Ogata, Yamane, and the entire Japanese navy out at sea. They find where Godzilla is currently located, and Ogata and Serizawa descend together to the ocean floor. There they find Godzilla resting, at peace with himself and his surroundings. This is the most disturbing part of the film for me personally, because it reminds us that Godzilla is just an animal, another innocent victim of World War II. After Ogata returns to the surface, Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer; then he decides to stay with Godzilla. He gives his life to take the secret of his invention to his grave, and I sense he also thinks it would be unjust for Godzilla to die alone. When Godzilla and Serizawa are skeletonized together, it never fails to make me weep profusely. Godzilla is like Set in His role as the slayer of Osiris; he’s this frightening destructive force that’s been pushed too far, and which has finally gone berserk. But Serizawa is like Set as the Champion of Ra; he is capable of causing great destruction, yet he’s a good guy who wants to protect civilization from chaos. In dying together (during their first and only meeting), these two versions of Set come together as one. Normally in this kind of movie, it’s a “good” thing when someone figures out a way to defeat the monster; but here, the creature’s death is treated as a tragedy and a potential starting point for even more violence and horror to come.
“Awwww! Who’s a good little atomic dinosaur?”
Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla was so tremendously successful in Japan that an American film company called Jewell Enterprises bought the international rights for the movie in 1956. Then they adapted the film for an English-speaking audience, and this went far beyond just dubbing the film with American voice actors. Due to the sizable rift between the American and Japanese styles of storytelling, Jewell totally restructured Godzilla to make it more accessible to the average American moviegoer. They filmed entirely new scenes with Raymond Burr, who played a new character named Steve Martin (not to be confused with the comedian). This character was then edited into the film (along with some Japanese-American actor doubles), and he was made a news reporter so he would have an excellent excuse for asking so many questions of the Japanese characters. This would give American audiences a character with whom they could identify, and to whom important plot elements could be explained.
Truth be told, most Americans would never have seen Godzilla if Jewell Enterprises hadn’t re-tooled the film for its own purposes in this way. In 1956, World War II was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and Americans were still racist as fuck against Japanese people. While the original Toho film isn’t “anti-American” at all, the folks at Jewell worried that some viewers might interpret it that way. They wanted the audience to identify with the Japanese characters as much as possible, not react to them with hostility. Plus, adding Raymond Burr to the mix does absolutely nothing to brighten or cheapen the sequence in which Godzilla destroys Tokyo; the entire segment is still just as dark and depressing as it is in the Japanese cut. If it hadn’t been for Jewell’s re-packaging of the film, no one outside Japan would even know about Godzilla today. It’s definitely not above criticism, and it’s certainly inferior to the original Japanese cut; but Jewell’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the American title) still deserves some respect for what it’s given us. (Besides, you’re missing out on the full Godzilla experience if you only watch one version of the film or the other.)
At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Yamane predicts that if people don’t end the nuclear arms race, another Godzilla might eventually appear to punish the world again. He was proven correct less than a year later when the much less impressive Godzilla Raids Again was released in 1955. Since then, Godzilla has appeared in over 30 different films. One of my personal favorites is Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964), which is when Godzilla becomes a defender of the earth rather than its potential destroyer. A three-headed space dragon named King Ghidorah shows up and starts burning everything to the ground with his yellow lightning breath. Then Mothra, a giant caterpillar goddess, appears and tries to get Godzilla and Rodan (a giant pterosaur) to help her kick Ghidorah’s ass. This leads to one of the most endearing scenes in any Godzilla film ever, where the three beasties actually speak to each other (while being translated for the human audience by Mothra’s twin fairies). Godzilla and Rodan say they don’t give a shit what happens to humankind; they just want to be left alone. So Mothra goes to face Ghidorah herself, only to have her ass handed to her; and when Godzilla and Rodan see that, they get royally pissed and start beating Ghidorah like he owes them money. It’s one of the greatest monster throwdowns ever made!
This sequence is so damn important and inspirational to me, I’m going to throw up a video review someone else has made about it, just so you can see some clips.
Godzilla’s evolution from apocalyptic monster to child-friendly superhero is a fascinating discussion in and of itself. Recall that in the original 1954 film, Big G is a lot like Set as the slayer of Osiris. The story goes that once His rivalry with Osiris was resolved, Set was “reigned in” by the rest of the gods to save them from
Apep, the Chaos Serpent. In much the same way, Godzilla starts out in the first movie as an innocent freak of nature who goes apeshit and almost nukes the entire planet; then, in Ghidorah, the world realizes it needs Godzilla to defend us from even worse monsters that just want to eat our planet. Ghidorah is really just Apep with wings, feet, and two extra heads, so whenever I watch Godzilla put the smackdown on him, I always feel like I’m watching some kind of Setian “miracle play” (with Godzilla and Rodan as a combative Set and Horus, respectively, and with Mothra as Thoth the mediator).
Since Godzilla’s rise to fame, Hollywood has tried adapting him for American audiences a number of times. In 1998, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich produced that terrible remake starring Matthew Broderick. It’s odd that they even chose to name the film Godzilla, considering that it’s actually a remake (or perhaps a parody) of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Any hardboiled Godzilla fan will tell you the 1998 film stinks and should be ignored at all costs; but in 2014, director Gareth Edwards tried adapting Big G for the West once again. And while audience reactions have been very mixed, I was quite pleased with the result myself. It is surprisingly not a remake of the 1954 original, but more of an homage to all the sequels that make Godzilla the hero. Michael Dougherty’s 2019 follow-up, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (named after the Raymond Burr re-edit from 1956), was even better in my opinion, since it’s more or less a remake of Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (complete with Mothra and Rodan teaming up with Godzilla). There’s even a scene that pays homage to the Oxygen Destroyer sequence from 1954, and it makes me cry like a baby whenever I see it. These newer Godzilla flicks might not be to everyone’s liking, but I wholeheartedly approve, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a terrific allegory for the eternal conflict between Set and the Chaos Serpent. With instructions for a spell for protection during sleep.
In Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), some teenagers start having nightmares in which they’re menaced by this disfigured creep who has knives for fingers. Whenever this asshat kills someone in their dreams, they die in real life at the same time. One of the teenagers, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), discovers that when they were little children, their community was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on little kids. The man was arrested and put on trial, but he got off on a technicality and was released. Then, fearing for their children’s safety, the parents of the community took the law into their own hands and burned the killer alive. But this has only made things worse, for it is the killer’s ghost who now haunts the kids in their dreams, seeking revenge against the parents by finishing what he started. Now it’s up to Nancy to find a way of execrating this evil spirit.
On the one hand, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than its fair share of devoted fans; on the other, it receives far more derision from mainstream critics and the general public than it really deserves. I blame this on most of the sequels, which became increasingly goofy with each new installment. By the end of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger was practically a live action cartoon character, and this is the version of him that most people remember today. Sequels like The Dream Warriors (1987) and The Dream Child (1988) are more like self-parodies than straight horror films; they don’t even bother to take themselves that seriously. But if you watch the original Nightmare from 1984, I promise you: even if it doesn’t scare you, it will make you quite uncomfortable at the very least. There’s absolutely nothing “funny” about this film at all, and the Freddy Krueger character is really just the tip of the iceberg.
When the film begins, the daylight reality in which Nancy and her friends all live seems safe enough; but as Freddy Krueger becomes more prominent in their dreams, the ugly truth about their everyday world begins to unfold. These things are never stated to the audience outright, but viewers will notice that Nancy’s parents are divorced (and that the proceedings of this arrangement were anything but amicable). Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic, and her father—the town sheriff—only shows up whenever there’s a tragedy. At the same time, Tina’s mother also seems to be divorced and would much rather spend time with her boyfriend in Las Vegas than stay with her daughter (even when she knows the poor kid has been having terrible nightmares). Rod’s parents seem to be completely absent from his life, leading him to take on a life of petty crime. And then there’s Glenn (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), whose parents demonize Nancy for no good reason aside from the fact that two of her friends are dead.
It’s ironic that these parents once resorted to mob justice to protect their community, for they don’t seem to care very much about their community now. None of them are involved in their children’s lives anymore, and none of them seem to care that much when each other’s kids die. When Tina gets butchered, Rod is immediately accused of the crime, and none of the adults ever question this. We never see Tina’s mother afterwards, so we’re left to wonder if she even grieves for her daughter at all. When Rod gets strangled by Freddy in his jail cell, it’s clear to all the adults that it was suicide and no one shows any kind of sympathy for him. Clearly, Tina and Rod’s deaths mean nothing to Glenn’s parents, who seem to think they can avoid having anything like that happen to Glenn by keeping him away from Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy knows exactly what’s happening, but no one will believe or even listen to her, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. For Duat’s sake, she can’t even get any help from her father, the sheriff!
It is this complete absence of parental support that makes the film truly terrifying, in my opinion. Never mind the idea that Nancy and her friends are being targeted by a supernatural force; Freddy Krueger is simply the 1980s American version of an ancient Akkadian Alû demon (i.e., a spirit that terrifies people while they sleep), and the ancient Akkadians knew well enough how to deal with such things. If an Akkadian child reported having certain experiences while he or she was asleep, his or her parents didn’t take any chances; they simply execrated the Alû with their magic and the problem usually went away. So the idea of Freddy Krueger in and of himself is not that impressive; entities like him are just little things in this world, and it doesn’t take that much to get rid of them. It would help if the Elm Street families were willing to entertain the possibility of such events in the first place; but even more importantly, the fact that the children can neither trust nor depend on their parents is a serious problem. That is what enables demonic forces like Freddy to perpetuate themselves in the first place, and that is what disturbs me most in this film.
Mind you, I’m not claiming that every childhood boogeyman is actually real; nor do I contend that magical thinking is always the best answer to one’s problems. But if I had a kid and she told me that some freak was coming after her in her dreams, I wouldn’t laugh at her or treat her like she’s crazy. I’d say, “Well, it could be one of two things going on here, hon. It could be that there really is some freak coming after you in your dreams; or, it could be that it’s just a dream and nothing more. Either way…I say we whack the fucker, just in case.” And then I’d have her draw a picture of the creep that’s scaring her, and we’d hurl all kinds of abusive language at him in Set’s good name. We’d stick pins in his ass and chop him up into little pieces; then we’d throw him in the fireplace and watch the little bastard burn. Call me superstitious if you like, but like the Akkadians, I don’t believe in taking any chances with this kind of stuff. No kid should ever have to face a monster alone like Nancy does in Nightmare on Elm Street.
(If it seems crazy that I’m talking about the things that happen in Nightmare like they’re real, I’d like to point out that the film is partially inspired by true events. During the 1970s, director Wes Craven read an article in the L.A. Times about a group of Khmer refugees who were living in the United States, and whose children were having nightmares that disturbed them so badly, they refused to sleep. Some of them later died in their sleep, and it was as if they had known they would die if they didn’t stay awake. This story disturbed Craven to his core, and it later became his main inspiration for writing Nightmare. Craven has also said that he took inspiration for the film from certain Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and anyone who’s ever listened to the man talk will know that he actually believed in some kind of spirit world.)
The Nancy Thompson character is easily the best thing about this film; in fact, she’s the very best “Final Girl” since Laurie Strode in Halloween and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Unlike Laurie, she becomes aware of her nemesis early in the film and she actively hunts him down; and unlike Ripley, she has no weapons aside from her own determination and resourcefulness. Nancy eventually discovers that if she holds on to something in her dreams while she’s waking up, she can bring it over to the real world. She decides to conduct this extremely dangerous experiment with Krueger, and when it proves successful, the tables are immediately turned. Freddy finds himself at Nancy’s mercy, suffering every form of abuse the teenager can throw at him; he even becomes afraid of her at one point. And considering just how slimy a character Freddy really is, it feels really good to see him get his comeuppance this way.
This humiliation of the antagonist is a recurring theme in many of Wes Craven’s films (including 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, and 1996’s Scream). There’s almost always a transition point in these movies where the surviving victims gain some kind of advantage over the villains, and the villains become blubbering, pathetic fools. I believe Craven’s intention here was to demonstrate that while evil may often seem very powerful and formidable, it only has as much power as we allow it to have. When we take that power back, evil is revealed for the frail and empty little thing that it really is. And in the original script for Nightmare on Elm Street, that is exactly what happens; Nancy defeats Freddy Krueger by taking back all the energy she’s put into him with her fear, and his spirit is dissolved back into the Void forever.
My only criticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that its ending was sloppily changed at the last minute, and for purely commercial reasons. Nancy defeats Krueger, and all seems well; but then she realizes she’s actually having another nightmare, and the rotten bastard gets her after all. This ending always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. They go through the entire movie developing this really likable character who’s noble and strong and who succeeds in defeating (and even humiliating) the villain; then they pull the rug out from under her at the last minute just to give the audience one last jump scare. Granted, it scared the hell out of me when I first saw this film as a kid; but as an adult who’s digested the rest of Wes Craven’s work, I can see just how “un-Cravenian” that ending really is. As it turns out, Craven had a major dispute with Nightmare’s producer, Robert Shaye, who wanted a scary ending to set the stage for a sequel. Craven eventually gave in to Shaye’s demands just so they could finish making the film. I think this was an unfortunate choice on Craven’s part, as it prevents Nightmare from being a truly perfect film; but the rest of the film holds up remarkably well, even after 30 years, so at least there’s that.
When you stop to think about it, sleep really is kind of a scary thing. If we hold to the Cartesian definition of existence (i.e., “I think, therefore I am”), we technically cease to “exist” for a while when we aren’t awake. Sure, our bodies are still there and our brains continue to function; but we don’t really “think” in the normal sense of the term, since we aren’t conscious. So in a way, we all become like Schrödinger’s Cat when we’re asleep; we’re neither alive nor dead, and we only collapse back into a solid state of reality when we regain our capacity for conscious self-reflection. We’re extremely vulnerable while we’re in this state (both physically and otherwise), and this is partly what the Egyptians were getting at with their tales about Ra being menaced by
Apep in the Underworld each night. By attacking Ra, Apep isn’t just posing a cosmic threat against the Creator; it’s also posing a personal threat against all creatures that sleep and dream.
Nancy Thompson’s struggle with Freddy Krueger is a perfect representation of this principle, especially since it’s built upon fears that many cultures traditionally associate with sleep.
Apep and Krueger are both astral monsters that try to kill living things while they regenerate (whether this means a sleeping Creator or a sleeping human). Both attempt to kill the future (whether by preventing the dawn or by murdering kids). Both thrive when the good do nothing (whether this is due to a paralyzing gaze or a conspiracy of silence). And both are easily overpowered once you learn how to see through their tricks (whether this is achieved by a badass Thunder God or a plucky suburban teenager). In this way, I consider the character of Nancy Thompson to be a true daughter and warrior of Set.
Incidentally, here is a procedure you can use to help you feel a little more like Nancy Thompson when you need it most. If you ever get scared when you’re in bed at night, give this procedure a shot. No Freddy Kruegers can hold a candle to the awesome power of He Before Whom the Sky Shakes.
Get a blank sheet of paper and some red paint. (If you don’t have any red paint, you can use a pen with red ink.) Draw a donkey that’s facing left, and write the word “EOEOE” in the shape of triangle on its neck. Then write “LERTHEMINO” on its back, and write “SABAOTH” on its breast. Finally, write the name “ABRASAX” directly beneath the donkey’s hooves, so that it looks as if the donkey is “walking” on the word. You don’t have to be a great artist; even the simplest and most child-like scribbling will do. (In fact, the simpler and more child-like you can manage, the better.) Just make absolutely sure that you draw the donkey facing to the left and that you write the voces magicae (“words of power”) exactly as I’ve said. When you’re finished, your painting or drawing should look like this:
Next, place this painting or drawing in a folder or something else in which it can stay unfolded and flat. (Under no circumstances should you fold it or crumple it.) You must never let any sunlight touch this image you’ve created; it must always be kept in darkness. Once you’ve placed it inside a folder, place it under the mattress of your bed. Preferably, it should be sandwiched between your mattress and your springboard. If the negative energy in your home seems to be centered on someone else in the house (e.g., a child), place the folder under his or her mattress instead. You can make one of these donkey images for each person who lives and sleeps in your home, if you like. Just follow the exact same procedure for each one. Make sure you place the images in areas where they can’t be seen, where no sunlight can touch them, and where they’re close to you and your loved ones while you sleep. Keep them there for at least seven days and nights; you can feel free to remove them after that amount of time has passed.
Why I refer to evil spirits as qliphoth rather than “demons,” and why I don’t recommend messing with them.
The word qliphoth comes from the Hebrew kellipot (“shells”). In Kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), the kellipot aren’t necessarily “evil,” but can be good or bad depending on the context. But in Hermetic Qabalah (the European version of Kabbalah), they are considered to be the astral “shells” of beings that used to exist, but which have long since been destroyed. Soulless and bodiless, these vampiric entities do whatever they can to intrude upon our reality and feed on the psychological traumas of the living. Many of them are completely evil by any definition of the term, and should be avoided at all cost. The singular form of qliphoth is qlipha, and it is more or less equivalent to the term “demon” in our modern vernacular. In a Hermetic context at least, qliphoth are malevolent ghosts that are dangerous for the living to engage with, and which must be execrated whenever they are encountered.
I refer to evil spirits as qliphoth because I feel the word demon has become too culturally loaded. In the original Greek, a daimon is virtually any spirit that exists somewhere between gods and human beings. This is a very wide spectrum that includes everything from ghosts and angels to nymphs and satyrs. Therefore, daimon (or daemon, the Latin equivalent) is a morally neutral term that has nothing to do with whether a paranormal entity is “good” or “evil.” In fact, the Greeks distinguished between “good demons” (agathodaimones) and “bad demons” (kakodaimones) until Christians came along and appropriated the label for their own use. The only reason demon came to mean “evil spirit” is because Christians applied it to spirits that didn’t submit to Yahweh’s authority—including not only the fallen angels of Christian myth, but all “Gentile” (i.e., Pagan) divinities as well. Hence why so many medieval grimoires refer to such “demons” as Ammon (a corruption of the Egyptian god Amun), Astaroth (a corruption of the Akkadian Ishtar/Astarte), and Bael (a corruption of the Phoenician Ba’al Hadad).
A Pompeian fresco from the Casa dei Vetti (“House of the Vetti”), featuring
an agathodaimon represented as a snake (circa 63–79 CE).
So when we discuss demonology, what are we actually discussing? Are we really talking about evil spirits, or are we just talking about someone else’s gods? There are still Hellenic Pagans who invoke and make offerings to certain daimones today, and there is also a religion called Demonolatry, in which people worship Pagan gods who were demonized in the Bible. The important thing to understand about both of these groups is that when they discuss “worshiping demons,” they are not claiming to revere evil spirits. They are simply using the word demon in a Pagan context, rather than a Christian one.
Even spirits that do hurt people aren’t necessarily “evil” through and through. Some are provoked into hurting people; consider Goetia, in which the magician evokes the spirits and binds them to his or her will. This involves hurling abusive insults at the spirits and bossing them around while standing within a protective circle. The idea is that the spirits might tear the magician apart if she is foolish enough to step outside the circle; but given how they are treated in such procedures, can anyone really blame them? It’s an entirely different matter when a spirit harms people simply because it can. We can debate all day as to why it does what it does, but for all practical intents and purposes, it’s just evil. The only appropriate way to interact with such an entity is to avoid and/or execrate it accordingly.
I reserve the term qliphoth for spirits that are specifically characterized as evil in their own lore, and that have always been considered evil for as long as we’ve known about them. For example, figures like Astaroth and Bael don’t count, for they are simply Pagan gods who’ve been demonized. But beings like Anzu, Lamia, and Zahhak were considered evil even by Pagans in pre-biblical times. This is an indicator that such entities are extremely dangerous and should never be invoked or worshiped by anyone.
Where do the qliphoth come from? You might recall that in Egyptian ontology, there is a difference between the ba or soul and the ka or spirit. Let’s say there’s this guy named Freddy who really enjoys hurting people as much as he can. Then Freddy dies, and Anubis comes and takes his soul to the Otherworld for the Weighing of the Heart, while Freddy’s spirit remains here on Earth as a ghost. Once in Duat, Freddy’s heart is weighed and is found completely unworthy of the afterlife; so Anubis feeds it to Ammut, the Devourer of Hearts, and Freddy ceases to exist. Yet his ghost is still lingering down here on Earth, and since no one likes him enough to remember him or visit his grave, the ghost is in danger of fading away forever. Perhaps it might learn to perpetuate itself by tormenting the living and feeding on the bioelectrical energy they release when they are terrified. Perhaps it will realize children are its most suitable victims, since they are more vulnerable to astral attack than most adults. If and when this happens, Freddy’s ghost becomes a qlipha and will continue tormenting the living until someone forces it to stop.
Screw you, Krueger!
Qliphoth don’t always understand what they are doing; as Stephen King once wrote in his 1996 novel, Desperation: “Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it’s poisoned.” Whether they are fully cognizant or not, all qliphoth serve the Serpent and do its bidding. The Serpent’s ultimate goal is to un-create everything the gods have made (including the gods themselves); but it will also settle for un-creating little things whenever it can, such as an individual soul. This is precisely what happens when a human being is reduced to an astral fragment of him or herself after death. The more people dehumanize each other, the more likely it is they will lose their souls; the more souls that are lost, the more likely it is that we will become qliphoth when we die; and the more qliphoth that come into existence, the more minions the Serpent has to help it ruin more souls (and create more qliphoth).
There are some traditions in which people “work with” the qliphoth, or even worship them outright. Kenneth Grant developed a system of ceremonial magic based on this premise, and the SimonNecronomicon is loaded with qliphothic “traps” that can backfire on unwary dabblers. (Check out David Harms’ and John Wisdom Gonce III’s The Necronomicon Files for some more background on this particular tangent.) Grant knew how dangerous his work with the qliphoth was, so he took steps to limit who could access it. (You’d have to be a goddamn Wall Street tycoon to even buy one of Grant’s books, which are all out of print and exceedingly overpriced.) The Necronomicon guys, on the other hand, made their material available to everyone, and for less than $10 to boot. Thanks to them, we now live in an age when any asscracker can go around opening qliphothic wormholes, letting Set knows what slither into our world. I’m not in the business of telling others what to do with their souls, but I would strongly recommend against playing around with this stuff (unless you actually want to drive yourself crazy and become possessed).1
The Simon Necronomicon (Avon Books, 1977).
One thing Kenneth Grant and “Simon” had in common was their shared belief that H.P. Lovecraft was actually a “sleeping prophet.” They thought the monsters in Lovecraft’s fiction are very real entities that exist in some other dimension, which Lovecraft supposedly visited through his dreams. I’m willing to concede that some Lovecraftian occultists, at least, are really contacting spiritual beings of some kind. I don’t believe for one second that fictional characters like Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep are real; but I do believe that if you invoke “Cthulhu” in a ritual, someone or something might choose to answer you by that name. If you’re lucky, it will be a god or a benevolent daemon of some sort; if you’re unlucky, it will be a qlipha that wants to skull-fuck you six ways from Sunday. We can be fairly confident that when you invoke a god like Set, whose name has been used for centuries, you will get the real Set and not an imposter. But a name like Cthulhu is still too new and fresh for it to consistently “belong” to any particular spiritual entity, so there’s just no telling what might answer you if you use it. You could be blessed by some Mesopotamian goddess, or you could end up tormented by an aqrabuamelu scorpion-man for the rest of your life.
This tendency to create religions around fictional characters is not always so disturbing. It might seem a little weird if someone chooses to worship Batman or Wonder Woman, but at least these are good role models for people to emulate, if that is what they wish to do. But I have never understood why anyone would want to worship something like Cthulhu or the Slender Man. These are monsters no one in their right mind would ever want to meet in real life, so honoring them just makes no sense. And as I explained above, invoking such figures can open your soul to forces you shouldn’t be trifling with. In the LV-426 Tradition, we refer to this phenomenon as “the Sutter Cane Effect” (in reference to the main antagonist in John Carpenter’s 1994 film, In the Mouth of Madness). Unlike the Buddhist concept of tulpas (in which people create paranormal beings with their own psychic energy), the Cane Effect is what happens when qliphoth impersonate fictional characters, making them seem to become “real.” I don’t think this is really an issue with characters like Batman or Wonder Woman, who are too strongly identified with things like justice and mercy to become qliphothic avatars. It seems to me that qliphoth more readily attach themselves to characters that reflect their true dispositions, like Yog-Sothoth or Hedorah the Smog Monster.
The “Tree of Death” in Hermetic Qabalah.
Some occultists believe it is necessary to work with the qliphoth in order to develop a full understanding of the spirit world; they argue that by avoiding these entities, one is “ignoring one side of a two-sided coin.” I applaud anyone who, like Kenneth Grant, can do this while keeping all that qliphothic energy they are drawing to themselves under control. But with all due respect to Grant, most people are incapable of doing this and would only succeed in getting themselves possessed or killed if they tried. There are other ways to liberate and enlighten your soul than by trying to corral a bunch of invisible, rabid-ass baboons. In LV-426, we reject this notion of engaging with any Lovecraftian monsters at all, unless it is to execrate them and send them screaming back to the void. We take Set’s role as the Champion of Ra very seriously, and we are each committed to resisting the Serpent and its agents in as many ways as we can.
A sketch H.P. Lovecraft drew of his monster, Cthulhu, in 1934.
1 The Simon Necronomicon instructs its readers to attempt astral travel without taking any of the normal precautions (e.g., banishings). It also requires you to invoke an entity called “the Watcher,” which is supposed to “protect” your body while you go off exploring other worlds in spirit form. This Watcher has a carnivorous appetite and will supposedly kill you if you don’t keep it well-fed with all the proper sacrifices. To make things even worse, the book also implores practitioners to recite Sumerian “incantations” that actually translate into execrations of the gods. So in effect, Necronomicon enthusiasts are putting themselves under the protection of evil spirits while also telling the good spirits to fuck off. This is rather like asking a serial killer to watch over you while you sleep, then smashing your phone so you can’t dial 911.
One Setian’s opinion on how certain media depictions of Set hold up against the real-life god.
Sometimes when people find out I believe in Set, they ask me how I can possibly believe in a “fictional character” from Doctor Who or Marvel Comics. Occasionally, I’m even asked if I think I’m some kind of vampire. This really gets on my nerves, but I suppose I can’t blame the people who ask such questions. Popular culture has appropriated and taken so much liberty with Set over the years that most people only know about Him from reading comic books or watching science fiction TV shows. Inevitably, Set is always cast as a villain in these and other popular media, and this compounds the problem by leading people to think I’m some kind of “devil worshipper.” (This isn’t helped by the fact that Set is so often appropriated in Satanist legitimation strategies, wherein Satanism is re-conceptualized as something “pre-Christian”—but we’ll address that particular can of worms another day.)
There are various forms of popular media that I consider to be very Setian indeed. However, the evocation of Set in these media is most often unintentional; He is to be divined in the subtext rather than the text. In most creative works that actually mention Set by name, there is little to nothing of His actual presence to be found. Allow me to show you just what I mean.
Set in Robert E. Howard’s Conan Cycle (1930s)
Set is most often conceptualized in pop culture as some kind of “evil snake god.” This is ironic given that He’s actually a mammalian god who’s primarily associated with herbivorous artiodactyla (i.e., cloven-hoofed animals). But it isn’t hard to see where the “snake god” idea came from. By the time the Greeks were in control of ancient Egypt, Set was completely demonized by the Egyptians. They blamed Him for the decline of their civilization, and they deliberately confused Him with His enemy, the monster
Apep. When the Greek writer Plutarch started writing his own account of Egyptian mythology, he identified this fusion of Set and Apep with Typhon, a monster from Greek mythology. Plutarch’s version of events was taken at face value by many of the early Egyptologists; it wasn’t until the publication of Herman te Velde’s Seth: God of Confusion in the 1970s that more accurate information about Set started becoming available. So when Robert E. Howard drew from pre-Christian mythology for his stories about Conan the Barbarian during the 1920s, the “evil snake god” idea was still in vogue.
Set is cast in Howard’s tales as a gigantic snake from outer space that was originally worshiped by a race of alien Serpent Men. He plots to cause the extinction of humanity so these Serpent Men can rule the Earth once more. I really enjoy Howard’s Conan stories, but I can’t help but laugh at this fictional version of Set. If you’re a Christian, imagine what it might be like if Jesus appeared in a story as a giant alien goat that just wants to eat everybody. That would be pretty silly, right? (I mean, Set could appear as a giant snake and eat everybody if He really wanted to; but…)
Robert E. Howard’s Set, as depicted in Marvel Comics
So is there anything of the real Set in Howard’s fiction? Actually, I would say yes…but not in the form of Set the Stygian snake god. I would contend that Set’s true nature is better revealed through the character of Conan himself, a nomadic anti-hero who rejects the authority of kings and priests. He’s primarily interested in his own gain, but he also rescues the innocent and defeats frightening monsters…just like Set. In one particular story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” Howard describes some of Conan’s feelings about the organized religions that are practiced in his world, and I believe his views on this subject are in keeping with Set’s:
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyard of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
I don’t think it’s “useless” to call on gods for help (and there are times in the stories when even Conan must do so), but I do agree that spirituality should be kept as simple and practical as it possibly can. The fact that Conan thinks this way makes sense, since he’s a nomad. He doesn’t have time to sit around and discuss theology; he only cares about what works at any given time. Who cares whether the gods are spirits, aliens, or Jungian archetypes so long as our prayers and rituals to them continue to work? And since Set’s most ancient worshipers were nomads who lived in the Sahara Desert, I believe they would have thought in much the same terms. I try to keep this attitude as well, eschewing theological arguments in favor of whatever works to get me through the struggles I must face. In this sense, I believe there really is quite a bit of Set in Robert E. Howard’s fiction; just not in the way you might expect.
Set in the Marvel Universe (1970s)
In the 1970s, the Marvel Comics Group was licensed to print its own stories based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan character, and it incorporated Conan’s world into its own unique universe. As a result, Howard’s version of Set was expanded upon and became an integral part of Marvel’s lore. According to this version of events, Set originated as one of the Elder Gods at the beginning of time, and He became evil by cannibalizing His own kind. Then, to escape from the vengeance of a younger god called Atum (who’s named after Atum-Ra), He slithered away into an alternate dimension. (Yes, this Set is still a giant snake.) Unfortunately for Set, He can’t escape this dimension by Himself, but must instead procure servants in this world to help facilitate His return. This role was originally filled by the Serpent Men of the Conan stories, but Set would also recruit followers in the twentieth century. This, in turn, would lead to several confrontations between the followers of Set and such well-known superhero teams as the Avengers.
Confusingly, Marvel Comics also created another fictional version of Set who is identified as being the actual Egyptian god (as opposed to the Stygian god). He’s a recurring villain in the Thor comic books, and most of His role in the Osirian myth cycle is kept intact. He actually tricks Osiris into a coffin, then drowns Him in the Nile and dismembers Him. Naturally, Marvel built upon this story in certain ways to integrate it with its universe (and they conveniently removed all the parts about Set defending Atum-Ra from
Apep). But the strangest twist is when Seth supposedly tricks mortals into worshiping Him by transforming Himself into a giant snake and pretending to be Set (i.e., the snake god of Howard’s Serpent Men). In other words, a demonized version of Set pretends to be another demonized version of Set to gain His followers.
Seth—as opposed to Set—in Marvel Comics.
If that doesn’t strike you as sounding completely nonsensical, let’s switch the names again. Not only is Jesus really a giant space-goat who wants to eat everybody; now there’s another, less-powerful Jesus who impersonates the space-goat Jesus so that people will worship him. (Huh?)
Set in Doctor Who (1975)
Big Red appears in the episode Pyramids of Mars as Sutekh, an alien tyrant from the planet Osiris. (Yeah.) He destroyed His own people and planet aeons ago, but then He was imprisoned by His brother Horus in a tomb on the planet Mars. When Pyramids of Mars begins, Sutekh uses His telekinetic powers to possess a guy here on Earth in the early 20th century. He then makes the guy build a bunch of robot mummies, as well as a rocket. The plan is for Sutekh’s hypnotized slave to fire that rocket straight into Sutekh’s prison on Mars. This will effectively release Sutekh from His prison, allowing Him to resume His dastardly plan of atomizing the entire universe (for no apparent reason). Thankfully, our favorite Gallifreyan Time Lord, the Doctor (played here by Tom Baker), is on the case. (And since this episode aired in 1975 and Doctor Who is still being produced four decades later, I’m sure you can guess how things turn out for this version of Big Red).
Though the writers of Pyramids of Mars clearly didn’t know (or care) that much about Set or Egyptian mythology, there are a couple of things going for this version of Sutekh as defined by the BBC. For one thing, at least they had the good sense to depict Him with the head of His sacred sha beast; I can appreciate this over depicting Him as a giant snake. For another, Sutekh is played by Gabriel Woolf, who has the coolest-sounding supervillain voice ever. (Woolf would later return to voice the character of “the Beast” in 2006’s The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.) If you’re going to make Set a villain, at least make Him impressive and charismatic like Doctor Who does. I for one think it would be pretty awesome if they revisited this character in a future episode.
Sutekh the Destroyer from the planet Osiris (without mask)
Set in Conan the Barbarian (1982)
In this magnificent film adaptation of Howard’s Conan stories, the villain is a wizard named Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones), who is actually two characters in one. Thulsa Doom was originally the name of a very different villain in Howard’s Kull stories, an undead necromancer with a skeletal face. (Actually, Skeletor from the 1980s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon is basically a child-friendly version of Thulsa Doom.) The Doom in this movie is actually Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer and priest of Set who was Conan’s arch-nemesis in the original stories. I have no bloody idea why the filmmakers decided to mix up the characters’ names like this, as it serves no rational purpose that I can see. But it doesn’t matter that much, because the movie is still awesome to behold (and Jones’ performance as “Doom” is simply amazing).
In this film, it remains unclear as to whether Howard’s Set (or any other god) actually exists or not. The film does hint that the Set cult has existed for much longer than Thulsa Doom has, but the cult doesn’t appear to have any substantial interest in facilitating Set’s return to their dimension. If anything, Doom seems to have appropriated the cult and turned it into a vehicle for his own personal gain; one might even say the cultists are far less interested in worshiping Set than they are in worshiping Doom himself. And as far as I can tell, they don’t do anything aside from practice cannibalism, throw wild sex orgies, and feed naked women to giant snakes. Honestly, this is more of a commentary on dangerous cult leaders like Jim Jones than a straight adaptation of Howard’s fiction. That being said, I actually like this version of Howard’s Set cult much better. It wasn’t necessarily evil from the beginning, nor does it necessarily follow an evil god; it’s just been twisted to fit an evil wizard’s agenda. (Though I will admit that it’s pretty damn cool to hear James Earl Jones preach about how “THE EYE OF SET IS UPON YOU!”)
I do believe there are messages from Set in this film; but as with the original Conan stories, they’re to be found in the character of Conan more than in Thulsa Doom. If anything, I think the story is telling us that Set doesn’t like it when power-hungry madmen like Doom appropriate His worship for such horrific ends, and that He actually favors people like Conan. In fact, it’s possible to interpret Conan as a warrior chosen by Set to cleanse His religion of Doom’s twisted fanaticism.
Set in Conan the Adventurer (Animated, 1993)
In the 1990s, there was an animated Conan series. In this adaptation, Set is clearly real and can actually act upon Conan’s world. (He’s even played by a voice actor!) Set appears as a gigantic talking cobra that comes from some alternate universe and that wants to take over the world. Long ago, He was banished to “the Abyss” by damn near every living wizard on Earth; but Set has His own wizard, Wrath-Amon, whose mission is to collect what he calls “Star Metal.” This is a magical glowing iron that comes from meteors and that can apparently open doorways to interdimensional worlds. This is a rather interesting idea, considering that iron (especially meteoric iron) is quite sacred to the real-life Set and is used in His worship to “open the mouths” of physical objects (which turns them into magical “interfaces” with the spirit world).
Enough of the “giant snake” thing, already!
Wrath-Amon is clearly based on Thoth-Amon from the original Robert E. Howard stories, but they decided to change his name and turn him into a Serpent Man (rather than let him be a regular human, like Thoth-Amon). This begs the question; just what the hell is so difficult about adapting the Conan stories into movies, cartoons, or even TV shows? Why is it that every cinematic adaptation has to mix characters up or reverse their names or give them names that are kind of the same, but slightly different? Is there a law somewhere that says they have to do this?
Set in G.I. Joe (Animated, 1985)
Believe it or not, Set—as well as Osiris, Horus, Thoth, Buto, Ammut, Ma’at, Amun-Ra, Sekhmet and Anubis—appears in a 1985 episode of G.I. Joe called “The Gods Below.” The plot of this episode concerns an Egyptologist who’s discovered “the Tomb of Osiris” and who is then kidnapped by the terrorist group, Cobra. Cobra Commander and the Baroness hope to plunder the treasures of this tomb to fund their next evil plan, and somehow the G.I. Joe team catches wind of this. Before you can say, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the Cobras and the Joes are running around inside Osiris’ tomb, firing bazookas at each other (and somehow not causing the entire structure to cave in on them). They do succeed in attracting the attention of the Netjeru, however, and the Joes are tested in the court of Osiris to determine their moral worthiness. Meanwhile, the Cobras encounter Set and try to trick Him into giving them the treasure they seek. They do this by pretending to worship Him, but Big Red sees right through their bullshit and stomps their asses with a powerful thunderstorm.
Set is of course described as “the god of Evil” by several characters throughout this episode, but He actually helps to stop Cobra in the end, and He does so without harming anyone. Even better, He’s depicted in His proper form as a big muscular dude with the head of His holy sha beast. He does take the form of a gigantic serpent at one point, but it’s clearly indicated that this isn’t His true form, and the context in which this occurs is quite remarkable. When the Cobras first encounter Him, Set asks if they are “worshipers of the Serpent.” They say yes, and He transforms Himself into a big snake and commands them all to kneel. They do so, and Set changes back to His sha form and gives them the treasure. Then the Cobras leave, and Set attacks them in the sky while they’re flying away. The way I read it, this whole exchange is a trick to see if the Cobras really know what it means to worship Set. By kneeling before Him while He’s in snake form, they prove that they know nothing about Him and that they see no difference between worshiping Him and worshiping His enemy,
Apep. This, in turn, incites Big Red to smite the rotten bastards just when they think they’ve won.
Big Red actually looks kind of cute here!
As a Setian, I think that’s pretty fucking awesome! I love G.I. Joe, and I really love this episode. Who would have thought that a simple-minded cartoon from the Reagan era would contain one of the very best representations I’ve ever seen of the Red Lord in Western pop culture?
Set in the Puppet Master movies (1989–Present)
So the Puppet Master franchise is a series of cheap direct-to-video horror films that are produced by Full Moon Entertainment, which was probably the King of direct-to-video schlock in the 1990s. Have you ever seen the Trancers, Dollman, Demonic Toys or Subspecies movies? They’re all Full Moon flicks, and Puppet Master, like the rest of them, barely qualifies as “horror.” These flicks are more like unfunny comedies that just happen to include healthy portions of gore and sleaze. It’s impossible to take them seriously; but as long as you don’t try, some of them can actually be pretty enjoyable. That being said, the Puppet Master movies concern the legacy of Andre Toulon, a French alchemist in World War II who discovers a magic elixir that can bring inanimate objects to life. When the Nazis kill his wife, Toulon gets revenge by bringing his puppets to life and sending them to bleed those fascist bastards dry. Then Toulon and his puppets relocate to America, where the puppets cause more trouble long after Toulon’s death.
It just so happens that one of the villains in this series is Set, who’s known here as Sutekh (as in Doctor Who). And to be honest, this has to be the most original design for Big Red that I’ve ever seen in any movie (though I don’t mean that as a compliment). Full Moon’s Sutekh resembles a pudgy BDSM Buddha with a face that looks like a skull carved out of a spoiled cabbage. He also has two glowing Florida oranges for eyes, and He even has nipples. (Nipples, I say!) Apparently, this version of Set is responsible for creating the magic elixir that gives Toulon’s puppets their life, and He wants it back so He can use it to unleash the apocalypse somehow (naturally). Of course, Sutekh is trapped in some kind of alternate dimension (I wonder where they got that idea), and He’s only powerful enough to send really tiny versions of Himself into our world. These miniature clones are called “Totems,” and they’re just about the same size as Andre Toulon’s puppets (which means we get to see lots of puppet vs. puppet action).
Where the hell did THAT come from?
I have to hand it to Full Moon Entertainment; at least they didn’t take the lazy way out and go with the “Set is a giant snake” idea. But this particular version of Big Red is so bizarre, I can’t even figure out where it came from. At least the Sutekh in Doctor Who actually looks like Set (complete with those cute rectangular ears of His). But how the hell did they come up with the idea for a bald, naked potato-man Sutekh with glowing googly eyes? (And one who can only get hokey-looking 3-inch dolls to do His bidding?)
Set in Vampire: The Masquerade (1991)
In the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade, there’s a clan of vampires known as the Setites or the Followers of Set. Unfortunately, Set is defined not as a god in Masquerade lore, but as an Antediluvian vampire (i.e., a vampire from before the biblical Flood) who has merely set Himself up to be worshiped as a god (and as an evil “snake god,” to boot). You see, Masquerade posits that all vampires are descended from Cain (i.e., the biblical son of Adam and Eve who slew his brother, Abel). According to this thesis, Set is just one of thirteen vampires that were later created by Cain’s immediate descendants, Enoch, Irad and Zillah. In other words, Masquerade is saying that an ancient Egyptian god was brought into being by a rejected biblical patriarch—and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I find this idea “offensive,” I do think it’s pretty ridiculous. (I don’t care if this isfiction; gods trump vampires, and Set trumps Cain.)
In the game, Setite vampires have special interests, abilities, and weaknesses that are not necessarily shared by other vampires, and this is due to their descent from Set. Their main interest is in spreading as much corruption in as many different areas of life as they can (e.g., promoting crooked politicians, funding terrorist organizations, supporting the snuff film market, selling hard drugs to little children, etc.). They also have a discipline called “Serpentis,” which is the ability to control or take on aspects of snakes. Their greatest weakness is that they are far more sensitive to light than almost any other kind of vampire; they can even be harmed by strobe lights. Apparently, their obsession with ruining the world is all part of their religious devotion to Set, whom they believe is still alive and sleeping somewhere deep in the Earth, waiting to return at some future time when He will destroy the Sun (thus liberating all Setites forever). As such, the Setites are something like the Islamic State of the Masquerade world; they’re just a bunch of dangerous religious fanatics whose ultraviolent activities don’t make any sense.
I’m guessing this is what Set “really” looks like in this game.
I know there are people out there who really enjoy Vampire: The Masquerade and who are especially interested in playing as Setite characters. That’s all well and good, I suppose, and I know Big Red doesn’t really care what some role-playing game has to say about Him. But while I can forgive someone saying He was created by a Bible character, I find all this stuff about “corruption” to be pretty damn offensive. Just in case there are any Masquerade players reading this, I’d like to you to know that the real Set has nothing to do with that stuff. He might have killed Osiris, but it was a necessary event in the Creation of the universe. (How else could Osiris rise from the dead if He didn’t die first?) Furthermore, gods killing gods is very different from mortals killing mortals; we all know that it isn’t a good idea to re-enact what professional wrestlers do in our own living rooms, and the same principle applies here. I might also mention that Set only killed Osiris once; as the Defender of Ra, He rescues us all
Apep every single night. So regardless of the value judgments that people might attach to Set’s role in killing Osiris, that role is secondary to His primary job as a Savior god.
Also, real-life Setites are not evil people who want to ruin the world and destroy the Sun. We’re just like everybody else; we have families, we work jobs, and we try to live as best we can. Many of us are environmentalists (especially those of us who identify as Pagans), and even those of us who walk the left-hand path are usually humanitarian to some degree at least. Do you know where this whole idea of wanting to ruin oneself and murder the world really comes from? It comes from
Apep, which is the arch-enemy of Set (and, indeed, of all gods and creatures). The things that Setites are supposed to do in Vampire: The Masquerade are not Setian at all, but are utterly qliphothic instead. Now I’m not trying to launch a personal crusade against White Wolf Entertainment or anything like that, but I do think that linking Set worshipers to things like terrorism and the snuff film industry is going a bit too far. And since I’ve never seen anyone else come out and criticize Vampire: The Masquerade for doing this, I decided to go ahead and scratch this off my bucket list.
(I might also mention that the word Setite is not the intellectual property of White Wolf Entertainment. To the best of my knowledge, it first appears in E. A. Wallis Budge’s From Fetish To god in Ancient Egypt, which was originally published in 1934. In that book, Budge uses the word in reference to people in ancient Egypt who worshiped Set. Now I’ve never met a real Set follower who actually wanted to call him or herself a Setite, and this is probably because we all know it would lead people to confuse us with the fictional vampire clan. But just in case anybody out there really likes that word, I just want everyone to know that it pre-exists Vampire: The Masquerade and that it was actually coined by a real life Egyptologist.)
Set in Stargate SG-1 (1997 – 2007)
Stargate SG-1 is based on the popular 1994 film Stargate, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Dean Devlin (i.e., the same team that brought us 1996’s Independence Day and the horrifically awful 1998 version of Godzilla). This is the one where Kurt Russell and James Spader walk through an ancient intergalactic wormhole machine that spits them out on another planet that looks like ancient Egypt, and which is ruled by hostile aliens that claim to be the Egyptian gods. In SG-1, Richard Dean Anderson plays the Russell role, Michael Shanks portrays the Spader character, and the evil Egyptoid aliens are given a backstory. Here the aliens are identified as the Goa’uld, a race of parasitic snakes from the planet P3X-888. They take possession of people’s bodies and then use their advanced technology to pose as gods, demanding worship.
It’s never made explicitly clear as to whether the Goa’uld are merely impersonating Egyptian deities, or if they’re actually supposed to be “the reality” behind the gods. Considering the amount of respect the show’s writers seem to have for ancient mythology (which is to say, none), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s the latter. Either way, there is a Goa’uld who’s “based” on Set in this show. Called Setesh, He appears to have hidden Himself away on Earth for thousands of years, convincing different groups of people to worship Him throughout history. The SG-1 team manages to track Him down and kill Him pretty easily (in just one episode, in fact!). Considering the way Set is normally treated in fiction, it’s surprising that He would only be a “Villain of the Week” here (rather than a recurring villain who’s integral to an entire story arc). I’m not quite sure if I should be thankful for this, or if I should feel insulted!
At least He’s handsome!
(I suppose SG-1 deserves credit for not going with the whole “Set is an evil snake god” idea—but wait! The Goa’uld are evil alien snakes! Dammit!)
When people find out that I worship an Egyptian god, they always ask me if I’m a fan of this show for some reason, or if I’m personally offended by it. No, I’m not a fan of Stargate, and I wouldn’t say that I’m “offended” by it either. I do find it a little annoying that Pagan deities are so often depicted in fiction as evil aliens. (Stargate SG-1 even has a Gao’uld character who’s based on a Hindu deity, which seems especially insensitive since the Devas are still worshiped by thousands of people today.) You almost never see this sort of thing done with Jesus; the only exception I can think of is in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), where the J-Man is revealed to have been an extraterrestrial. But aside from this bit of mild annoyance, I don’t think such ideas are really that harmful; I just don’t care for them that much.
Why I enjoy certain “killer mummy” movies, and why I usually roll my eyes at the rest of this subgenre.
If there’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing since birth, it’s watching monster movies. It all started with the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. When I was seven or eight years old, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast many of these flicks on weekend afternoons or late at night. This is how I remember seeing things like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by The Thing From Another World), but I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. And naturally, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) is the one selection from that particular canon that made the greatest impression on me.
An ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (played by Boris Karloff) has a forbidden crush on the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who is a virgin priestess of the goddess Isis. When Ankh-es-en-Amon dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. The Pharaoh’s guards apprehend him and rip out his tongue; then they bury him alive, all as punishment for his blasphemy. To add insult to injury, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells inside his coffin that are meant to procure a safe journey to the Otherworld for its occupant, thereby condemning his soul. Thousands of years later, some European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. One of them sees the old boy walking around, and the poor dumbass goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, snatching the Scroll on its way out.
Years later, Sir Joseph Whemple (the European who hasn’t gone crackers) returns to Egypt with his son Frank to launch a new expedition. That’s when a guy calling himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He also has an incredible knack for knowing exactly where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon—and that’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking Helen might be the reincarnation of his old lady (literally), Imhotep—er, I mean Ardath Bey—decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her, and resurrect her corpse.
Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of becoming a drooling, undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed sorcerer would do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic, and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen feels a sudden inspiration to pray to Isis, whose statue springs to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner reverts back to the walking, talking mummy he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (Actually, Helen simply exchanges one kind of “zombification” for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s keeping her safe from Imhotep, it seems like she’s doomed to become someone’s zombie trophy wife sooner or later.)
The Mummy was inspired by on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist, Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues bringing down a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” for committing this “sacrilege.” Everyone who had a hand in opening the tomb was supposed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse.) But it actually would have been rude of Tutankhamen to unleash such a curse, given that Carter’s the one who gave the poor kid his biggest break. Tutankhamen was hardly an afterthought in Egyptian history during his woefully short life; it wasn’t until Carter found him that he became the most famous Pharaoh of all. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and it’s all thanks to Carter. I’ve always figured Tutankhamen would be mighty grateful to Carter for this.
And did you know there was actually a real, historical Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character; he is actually the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also the master architect and engineer who designed the Pyramid of Djoser (otherwise known as “the Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for any blasphemy, Imhotep was something more like a saint who had achieved great enlightenment and holiness during his earthly life, and who could intercede as a spirit on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own religious following and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (the god of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary deity). My guess is, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical figure to whom it belongs.
The thing that really sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its titular monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters—vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters—are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols, or with purely practical weapons like fire. Imhotep is impervious to all of these things, and it is neither Jesus Christ nor Professor Van Helsing (nor even The Mummy‘s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a goddess who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. The Mummy is pro-Pagan in its insistence that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most people no longer believe in the Egyptian gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts by the end of the film.
There’s only one other character who understands these things from the start, and that’s Dr. Mueller (played by Edward Van Sloan). Mueller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an esotericist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should be wearing an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He also warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t be meddling around with the Scroll of Thoth, and that they should just torch it in a fireplace somewhere. Not only does he seem to know that using the Scroll is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” I’m sure the filmmakers never put this much thought into it, but I bet Mueller is a member of something like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis—some European occult initiatory order that claims to be older than it really is, and which is full of bored social elites who claim to know more about Egypt than they really do. Except in this case, Mueller happens to know just enough to help keep some of the other characters alive, which is curiously pro-Egyptian for a movie from this era.
Of course, the film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. This is definitely true; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Mueller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). But despite all of this, I feel The Mummy is superior to Dracula in almost every way. It has the benefit of being made after Hollywood had a chance to learn from making “talkies” for a while. Dracula has always seemed very stilted and boring to me, and I think it’s because they were only just starting to film with sound when it was being made. It’s also more faithful to Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play than it is the original Bram Stoker novel, which means it’s a fucking terrible adaptation. At least The Mummy doesn’t claim to be based on a book and then do a fantastically shitty job of adapting it.
The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940) that have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re also not nearly as intelligent and much more racist. They follow a mummy named Kharis, who’s less of a savvy sorcerer like Imhotep and more of a stumbling, demented death machine. He’s sent by the ancient priesthood of Karnak to kill some archaeologists for desecrating the tomb of a princess, and he’s controlled by the priests with (ahem) petrified tea leaves. While the 1932 original depicts Egyptian magic as a morally neutral power that can be used to help or hinder, the 1940s films treat it as a bizarre and degenerative cult that can only bring savage violence and death. (Most insultingly, the priests of Karnak always end up falling in lust with some white woman and trying to rape her, which always leads to the priest’s demise.)
Thankfully, the story of Kharis was revisited in more thought-provoking terms in the 1959 remake by Hammer Studios, called simply The Mummy and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Thanks partly to a great script by Jimmy Sangster and a terrific performance by George Pastell as Mehemet Bey (the priest of Karnak in this version), Hammer’s The Mummy casts its Egyptian characters in a somewhat more sympathetic light. It still views its own subject matter through a racist and colonialist lens, but at least Mehemet Bey is given a chance to articulate his position to the white protagonists, and Pastell really sells it. I can totally see how the systemic exploitation of his culture and religion would radicalize him to kill in the name of Karnak, regardless of the fact that Karnak is actually a city in Egypt and not a god. (I actually enjoy this flaw in the film, because it means none of the violence is being committed in the name of any deity that’s worshiped in any real life religion.) It’s also nice to see a version of the story that doesn’t have the priest of Karnak getting all rapey with the heroine and sabotaging himself in the end.
The Hammer Mummy is a close contender for “Greatest Movie Called The Mummy Ever Made” in my Setian scriptural canon, but the Universal original wins this category for the following reasons:
- The Universal original is pro-Egyptian and has the good guys getting their asses saved by an Egyptian goddess; the Hammer version, despite having a sympathetic villain, still has an uncomfortably xenophobic message of “Anything that isn’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is evil black magic and devil worship.”
- While Mehemet Bey keeps his cool right up until the end, the Hammer version still has someone getting rapey with the female lead and thereby foiling Mehemet’s plot; in this case, it’s his own damn mummy Kharis (played by Christopher Lee), who I guess just wants to prove you’re never too old to sow your oats.
There’s been a truckload of other “killer mummy” movies since the Hammer Mummy, but most of them just repeat the same old premise from the Karloff original: some dead guy from Egypt rises from the grave with the worst case of morning wood ever, and he stops at nothing to claim the current reincarnation of his ancient sweetheart. Considering the complexity of Egyptian mythology and its huge cast of characters, it’s never made sense to me why Hollywood keeps circling back to this particular trope. There are so many other ideas from Egypt that could be adapted into much more interesting stories, such as the belief in kas (invisible doppelgangers that are supposed to follow us around throughout our lives), or the story of the Destruction of Humankind (in which humans are almost completely wiped out by the lion goddess Sekhmet), or the idea that pictures and drawings are actually windows into alternate universes. There’s more than enough material in Egyptian literature to inform several long-lasting movie franchises, but audiences just want to see scantily-clad women being fondled by dudes wrapped in Charmin I guess.
Okay, so the 1999 version of The Mummy handles this trope a little differently. Yes, the evil mummy wants to bring back his dead lover; but at least here, the dead lover and the living heroine are two different characters. (The mummy still has to kill the heroine to bring back his ancient lover, though, so I guess it’s not that different after all. Also, the heroine turns out to be the reincarnation of another Egyptian princess in the 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of writing this crap?) But one thing that does work to the 1999 film’s favor is the fact that it frames itself not as a gothic horror movie, but as an epic adventure yarn. It bears much greater resemblance to the Indiana Jones movies than to either of its own titular predecessors. The performances from Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo are also quite enjoyable, and I like that the film has its heroes using Egyptian mysticism to defeat the villain. (Reading a spell from the Book of Amun-Ra is not quite as impressive as having a goddess show up to personally rescue you from the monster, but I digress.) If you can look past the horrible computer graphics that are in this movie (and mind you, this is a 1990s movie, so its digital effects are craptastic in that special way that only 1990s CG could give us), you could do a whole lot worse.
Which brings us to the latest Mummy reboot, the 2017 version starring Tom Cruise. Sweet Set O Mighty, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Okay, so we have an Egyptian sorceress who’s mummified alive for trying to take the Pharaoh’s throne. We have Tom Cruise digging up her coffin in contemporary Iraq (?) after an airstrike. We have Tom’s pal getting killed and showing up as a ghost that only Tom can see (probably because he got confused and thought they were making An American Werewolf in London). And we have Russel Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (yes, from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), who has somehow become the leader of a secret society that knows everything there is to know about the mummy. I appreciate that they made this mummy a chick (and I won’t lie, Sofia Boutella looks fucking hot wrapped in Charmin like that), and I’m especially grateful that the “ancient lovers” theme was completely removed. Yet the film makes other unforgivable mistakes, and its absolute worst offense is the sheer number of aimless plot points that are clearly meant to be resolved in future movies. It’s one thing to do this when you have a clear vision of how everything’s going to tie together in the end; but the 2017 Mummy is not a finished product that can stand or be judged on its own merits. It amounts to little more than a 110-minute long preview of coming attractions (which we will never get to see).
But that isn’t what upsets me most about the 2017 Mummy. I can forgive movies for all kinds of cinematic sins, but I find it difficult to watch anything in which Set is used as a stand-in for the Christian devil. The mummy Ahmanet has acquired her supernatural powers as a result of making a “pact” with Set, and pretty much everything she does in the film is to serve Him. Naturally, this means Set is “evil” and wants to destroy the world. Would it kill Hollywood filmmakers to make a movie for once where Set isn’t written like He’s some two-dimensional cartoon villain? Even better, the film ends with Tom Cruise killing the mummy, inheriting her powers from her pact with Set, and becoming a superhero. If you don’t understand why I would be bothered by this, imagine for a moment that someone has made a film in which Jesus comes back to start a global holocaust, only to be defeated by Val Kilmer, who then promptly uses his new Jesus powers to become “Captain Nazareth.” Sounds pretty stupid, right?