The Intertwined Web of Religious Cults and Satanic Panic in American Pop Culture

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As part of its Orbiter Year-Round Series, Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival is proud to present the US premiere of the Horror film THE HERETICS on Wednesday, October 18 (7:30pm) at Flix Brewhouse. Director Chad Archibald will be in attendance and will do a Q&A after the screening.

In the film, a notorious cult kidnaps a young girl, and sacrifice themselves by the light of the locust moon. The next morning the girl awakes, caked in dried blood and surrounded by corpses...but safe - or so she thinks. Years later, the locust moon is about to rise again and the girl is captured once more by a surviving member of the cult. She is taken to a remote cabin where she learns that a demon has been growing inside of her all these years, and before the dawn it will rise.

Find Out More About The Heretics

Get Tickets for the Screening Here

OWA team members have cults on the brain...here, OWA Programmer & Screenwriting Director Eric Harrelson interviews Joseph Laycock on the history of religious movements and the role of cults and the occult in horror stories over time. 


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Cults and the Occult have always been a fixture in horror stories.  Lovecraft, ROSEMARY’S BABY,  the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and on into today, these kinds of stories keep popping up, not only in our fiction, but they bleed into our real lives.  I’m fascinated by religion as a whole.  For nearly the entirety of human existence, there have been leaders that have the ability to cultivate the concept of faith and then use that to manipulate others.  Some people would argue that most religion is innocuous, and even positive, but there is no doubt that it has been the cause of incredible suffering.  There is also no denying that in our collective unconscious we have this fear of a clandestine group of people who worship things dark, ancient and evil.  That fear bleeds into our fiction, and sometimes feeds back into our reality.  I talked about this, hippies, Satanists, Dungeons and Dragons and many other things with my friend Joseph Laycock.  Joe is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas State, who specializes in new religious movements. He is also co-editor for Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 

I figured we’d just dive right into it, so I asked Joe about the roots of modern day fear cults in the U.S.  “The panic over cults in America started in the 1960’s.” he began.  In 1965, there was a new immigration act that took that replaced previous policy dating back to 1924, which provided for the exclusion of “undesirable immigrants,” which meant among others, most Asians were unable to immigrate to America.  After 1965, many Asians made there way to the US, and brought with them new religions.  “Suddenly we have people like the Hari Krishnas, Reverend Moon and Moonies.” Joe explained. “[Shortly thereafter] you get groups like the Children of God,which was this radical kind of hippy form of Christianity, which was involved prostitution and accusations of brainwashing.”  These new religious movements gave way to things like the Jim Jones and Jonestown, and later down the line to groups like The Branch Davidians here in Texas.  Americans have always been wary of new religions, ask the Mormons.  “There was a period in American history where the federal government was saying that they were a threat to America.” Joe told me “There were ongoing wars, called the Mormon Wars where the government was fighting with Mormon settlers, which is why they ended up in Utah.”  Some of these movements were harmless enough, but then again, some weren’t.  So what exactly is a cult? 

“”Cult’ derives from the latin ‘cultus deorum’.”  Joe told me.  It translates to cultivation of the gods.  “In a Pagan multitheistic setting, you would have a temple where you would cultivate your god the way that you would take care of plants.”  Sounds innocuous enough.  As typically happens with Christianity though,  Pagan practices and words end up being portrayed negatively.  “Gradually, a cult has come to mean something that is like a religion but for reasons we can’t quite articulate it’s bad. And so despite appearing like a religion, we want religion to be good, cult becomes this extra category in which we basically put any religion we don’t like.” Joe said. 

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Cult often gets confused with Occult, and although sometimes the two entwine around one another, they are not the same things.  “The word ‘occult’ means the hidden.  There are things about the way that our world works that are secret, that are only known to people who have a certain wisdom.  Like astrology,” he went on “there’s nothing sinister about astrology.”  But, we often think of that knowledge in darker terms, as something a sorcerer or witch would possess.  Knowledge of spells and charms.  

It’s no wonder cults figure into our fears and fiction, and the relationship between reality and fiction is often blurred, elements from each influencing the other.  To understand the modern fear of cults, we need to look to the fiction of the past as well, and in particular H.P. Lovecraft. 

“I actually think Lovecraft and the pulp writers of the 1920’s set the stage for what ultimately became the satanic panic of the 1980’s” Joe said.  In the late teens and early twenties, for the first time in American history there were more people living in cities than in the country, and this figures heavily into Lovecraft’s writing. “[He] is obsessed with this idea of a little town where they still practice the old ways.” The technology of the early 20th century continued to shrink the world at an alarming rate, but there were plenty of communities that were isolated from the larger population.   “Lovecraft put that idea out there that these evil ancient religions have survived among rural people.”  

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Lovecraft helped embed in our fiction this idea of the rural cultist, worshipping the Eldritch horror, or the Voodoo priests and priestesses in the swamps, raising zombies to do their dark bidding.  (He was also a massive racist, but that’s a discussion for another time.)  If we look forward to the 1960’s, then, we see is this old idea of rural cults, and this influx of new and different religions.  Couple that with the rejection of established Christian ideals, and the subliminal belief that non-Abrahamic religions worship gods that are different and therefore evil, it creates this sort of defensive attitude bubbling under the surface.

Next comes Anton Lavey, Satanism, and of course, ROSEMARY’S BABY.  “A big ingredient that ROSEMARY’S BABY added was that the Satanists and the Witches looked just like us.  They look just like your neighbors.”  Joe said.  “Nice looking people in Lovecraft stories are never cultists. And that becomes important when you’re trying to cast this idea that Satanists are all among us, abducting babies and so on.”  Anton Lavey was consulted for the project, to assist with marketing and to lend it an air of legitimacy.  Shortly after, Charles Manson’s weird little family invades Roman Polanski’s home and murders everyone they find. (Polanski was in Europe at the time.)  This gruesome multiple murder congealed the public fear of the counterculture.  “People thought it proved these hippies really are out to get us,”  Joe said. 

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Religious leaders started to stoke that fear that Satanists were not only real, but they were coming for your children, and they could be anywhere and anyone. (But probably they were hippies.)  Into this atmosphere comes THE EXORCIST.  Now the threat wasn’t necessarily your child falling into the hands of a cult, but the demons could just reach right out and possess them in your own home!  “Demon possession was not a real issue in America until the film THE EXORCIST..” Joe explains.  Modern medicine had, for the most part, debunked the idea that demons were actually able to enter a person’s body cause them harm.  It was viewed as a medieval notion and wasn’t really something modern Americans thought about.  After THE EXORCIST, however, the demand for exorcism went through the roof.  Traditional Catholic exorcism has to be evaluated and approved by local bishop, so it’s rare. (Bishops are like a church mayor or something, I guess? I don’t really understand Catholicism, but evidently they don’t just do exorcism all willy-nilly) “This created a market demand for exorcism, and who filled that market wasevangelicals and pentecostals,” Joe told me.  This lead to a kind of weird Golden Age of modern amature demonology, best exemplified by Pigs In The Parlor, written by Frank and Ida Mae Hammond.  It put forth this idea that demons were everywhere.   “Anyone can be possessed,” Joe said, “you don’t have to be foaming at the mouth or levitating.”  And it turns out there was a demon for literally everything. “They created a map of all these different demons and, turns out, every non Christian religion was the result of different demons.  If you’re a Buddhist, you aren’t actually a Buddhist, you’re possessed by a Buddhist demon.  You can’t find a parking space?  You can look it up and yep, there’s a demon for that,” he said.

This leads to something called prayer mapping, which is, as Joe explains:

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“Churches will get a map of a city, and stick a pin where they think something demonic is occurring.  They’ll find New age book stores, or swingers clubs, or mormon temples, anything the find objectionable and then wage this campaign to try and exorcise the dot. It’s a way to organise the chaos of everyday life and categorize it into something they can fight with their prayers.”

And this continues in our fiction today.  Cults and possession films are still very much alive in our minds.  MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, STARRY EYES, THE SACRAMENT, I could go on and on.  Although the Satanic Panic reached its crescendo in the 1980’s it’s influence on our culture and fiction still remains, belief and fiction feeding into each other.  “There definitely is this feedback loop between religion and pop culture,”  Joe said. For example, THE CONJURING is based on the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, these amature demonologists who only had a career because of THE EXORCIST.  And, of course, THE EXORCIST is based on true story.  It creates the desire. Everyone wants to be the hero of the movie, and these people are no different.  “They take [all of this] as proof that they are the lone warriors fighting against evil.”  And of course, the entertainment bleeds into reality.  Joe told me he was on Geraldo once. “I had lunch with the producer who did that 1988 satanism special that convinced lots of Americans that everyone who works in a daycare center is a Satanist, and I just remember him saying ‘We got such good ratings’  He seemed totally unconcerned about whether or not this was really happening.”  

© 2014 OWA SciFi Film Fest, LLC