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.
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.
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.
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.
Explaining the LV-426 belief that monster movies are more sacred and profound than any Kirk Cameron flick.
I enjoy interpreting films, TV shows, and popular music from a Setian perspective. This isn’t just a “hobby”; it’s an essential part of my spirituality. I believe Set and other Pagan gods like to reveal themselves through popular cultural media, and in ways that are more often subliminal than not. It’s easy to recognize the goddess Isis in that old 1970s TV show, The Secrets of Isis, where she’s an actual character who fights crime. But have you ever noticed how similar James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) is to the myth of Isis fleeing from Set to ensure the safe birth of Horus? Just imagine that Sarah Connor is Isis, Kyle Reese is Osiris, the Terminator is Set, and John Connor is Horus; see what I mean?
I’m not suggesting that James Cameron actually did this on purpose. I just think one or more of the gods probably reached into his brain back in 1984 and shuffled some stuff around in there while he was writing the script. I think this happens all the time, not just with James Cameron, but with potentially any filmmaker. I know it sounds silly or perhaps even “crazy,” but the idea that the gods would leave “secret messages” for us to find in movies, TV shows, or even Saturday morning cartoons is no different from divining omens in tea leaves or the Zodiac. Just because these media are human inventions doesn’t mean the gods can’t use them for their own purposes. If they can reveal themselves through clouds and trees and dreams, they can just as easily do the same thing through anything created by human hands.
“But G.B.,” I hear some of you asking, “What about things that are purposely inspired by Egypt? Things like Stargate SG-1?” Well my answer to that question is so complex, I had to write a whole other sermon about it to do the subject any justice. But with very few exceptions, I am almost never impressed with anything that’s intentionally inspired by Egyptian mythology.
I find that such works tend to fall into one of three clichéd categories:
- The “killer mummy” movies, in which the mummy is always some ancient evildoer who seeks to claim the modern reincarnation of his long-lost love. (This includes pretty much any film called The Mummy or that has the word “Mummy” somewhere in the title, like 1964’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb.)
- The “ancient astronaut” movies, in which the Egyptian gods turn out be gooey aliens that fly around in spaceships. (This would be where Stargate fits in.)
- The “biblical epic” movies, which all treat the book of Exodus like it’s a goddamn court transcript. (This includes such esteemed classics as The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.)
You’d expect there to be more of Set in something like Gods of Egypt (in which He’s an actual character) than there is in a movie like the original Godzilla from 1954 (which has nothing to do with Egypt on the surface); but I find the opposite is more often true. Whenever Egyptian mythology is intentionally adapted into fiction, the result is often far less interesting than the original source material. Cinematic portrayals of Set in particular have absolutely nothing to do with how anyone has ever worshiped Him in real life. (The next time you watch the original Conan the Barbarian from 1982, bear in mind that feeding naked women to giant snakes has never been a standard feature of Setian religious practice.) Yet there are other creative works that don’t intentionally invoke Set in any way, but which do so serendipitously, and which are more consistent with actual Setian ideas and values. This to me is a sign that these films have been “touched” by Set, especially if the people who created them have never heard of Him before.
In my opinion at least, the films that seem to resonate with Set the most are monster movies—sci-fi, horror, and fantasy romps that feature aliens, giant animals, mutants, supernatural beasties, or even cryptids like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. No matter what creatures they might feature, all monster films are about chaos intruding upon the world of order. Sometimes this chaos is caused by forces external to humanity (as with alien invaders), and sometimes it’s caused by human monsters (as with serial killers). Sometimes the chaos is visited upon the innocent (making the story a tragedy, or an example of when bad things happen to good people), and sometimes it falls upon the wicked (making it a morality tale, or an example of when bad people get their comeuppance). Either way, it all boils down to the eternal struggle between order and chaos, light and darkness, creation and annihilation.
You’re probably wondering why a minister would take such a serious interest in this kind of subject matter. (After all, aren’t religious people supposed to think that monster movies are “sick” at best or “satanic” at worst?) The truth is, I think monster tales are the oldest kind of story known to humankind. Sure, epic adventures and steamy romances have been with us a long time too, but the one emotion our earliest ancestors were probably most familiar with was fear.
Consider what John Goodman says in Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993):
A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great [. . .] So he goes home, back to the cave, the first thing he does, [. . .] he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, “People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean.” Boom! The first monster movie.
When you think about it, fear has motivated people to do many things. It motivated our ancient ancestors to band together, hunt for food, develop agriculture, and establish laws to prevent themselves from killing each other. It also motivated them to tell stories, to put their faith in higher powers, to repel misfortune with charms and magic, and to hope for a better life in the great hereafter. In short, fear is just about the mother of everything that’s included in human civilization, including religion.
There’s even an element of the monstrous in religion itself. The theme of chaos intruding upon order appears in every religious mythology. Every pantheon of gods must contend with at least one horrific monstrosity that wants to destroy us all:
- In the Coffin Texts (dating to circa the 20th century BCE), Set is and will always be defeating the monster
- In the Babylonian Enuma Elish (dating to the 7th century BCE), the god Marduk slays the dragon Tiamat and creates the cosmos from her corpse.
- In Hesiod’s Theogony (dating to the 7th century BCE), the Olympian gods defeat the gigantic Titans and bury them within the earth.
- In Psalm 74 (dating to 586 BCE), Yahweh slays Leviathan and feeds it to his saints at the end of time.
- In Revelation 20 (dating to 81–96 CE), Christ defeats Satan and Antichrist, casting them both into a lake of fire.
- In the Bundahishn (dating to the 9th century CE), Ahura Mazda destroys the monster Ahriman and rehabilitates the damned.
- In the Poetic Edda (dating to the 13th century CE), the Aesir and Vanir will kill and be killed by the frost giants of old.
Every monster film echoes one or more of these combat myths on some basic level. Even in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the character of Jame Gumb or “Buffalo Bill” is really just another Tiamat or Ahriman, and Clarice Starling is the stand-in for Marduk or Ahura Mazda. The characters and circumstances are quite different, but the story is essentially the same, and it’s the oldest story in the world.
Many faiths also have some horrific notion of what might happen if people just stopped practicing religion altogether. The gods might abandon us; the dead might rise up to torment the living; the whole world might fall apart; and so on. Films like The Birds (1963) and The Mist (2007) may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface, but each depicts some stern, cosmic judgment against humanity for its collective sins. And the number of films that depict vengeance upon the living by the restless dead—such as Poltergeist (1982) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—is in the thousands. For these reasons, I think monster films are the finest medium for religious expression and interpretation, superior even to most overtly religious films. There is far more divinity and truth to be found in something like It Came from Outer Space (1953) than there is in, say, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014).
Now praise Set, and pass the remote!