How To Win Friends and Sacrifice People, Part 3 of 3
By special guest contributor Gavin Baddeley
Lucifer Over London
‘I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but evidence for the prosecution and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English.’
In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II attended a Royal Command Film Performance at the Empire Theatre in London. The production shown was the war film The Battle of the River Plate. After the screening, representatives of the film industry were officially presented to the Queen, who stopped, shook hands, and spoke to each of them briefly in turn. When she reached the Hollywood actor Dana Andrews, the Queen asked him if he was in Britain on business or pleasure. The broad-shouldered American responded that he was working on a film. What was it about, she enquired. “Well, it’s about witchcraft in England”, he replied. ‘The Queen looked at me in a funny way and wrinkled her nose’, Andrews later recalled, adding that she concluded “Good heavens! Don’t bring that back again!” Did the film Dana Andrews was working on bring witchcraft back to Britain? Or, indeed, in the wake of the movie (which we shall examine presently) did an ancient British evil taint celluloid thereafter?..
Cause and effect in the relationship between cinema and reality is frequently a bewildering business, one often made even murkier by its representation in the media. Film is frequently blamed for inspiring imitation, a routine justification for censorship. For example, as we saw in the first essay in this trilogy, the 1922 movie Häxan was banned in many countries for decades for fear of the impact it might have on ‘the young men and women who have ventured into the magic world of the movie theatre’. Contrariwise, filmmakers have been combing the headlines in search of inspiration since the medium’s early days. As we saw in the second of my essays on Satanic cinema, the plot of The Black Cat was not, as stated in the 1934 film’s publicity, drawn from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, but inspired by sensationalist news reports about the scandalous antics of the English occultist Aleister Crowley, by then a familiar figure in the tabloid press under his devilish moniker, the Great Beast.
In fact, the beastly stories of unholy excess that inspired The Black Cat were actually already old news in 1934. Most of the events described had occurred in Sicily over a decade before, but while they attracted some press attention in the spring of 1923 – principally from the right-wing British periodical John Bull – it wasn’t until eleven years later that the international media really went to town on the Beast’s lurid Italian escapades. The reason for this renewed interest was Crowley himself. In 1932, a former friend, the bisexual Welsh artist and author Nina Hamnett – known to the press as the Queen of Bohemia – had published a volume of memoirs. Entitled The Laughing Torso, the book proved popular, though not with Crowley, who took great exception to Hamnett’s description of his beliefs as ‘black magic’. In truth, particularly compared to the opprobrium of the original press coverage of the events she alludes to, Hamnett’s descriptions of her encounters with the Beast are pretty innocuous, even somewhat affectionate. The modern consensus is that Crowley’s chief concern was not hurt feelings, but an empty bank balance, which he hoped to remedy by suing the Welsh writer. He had, apparently, considered suing the press back in 1923, when the Beast might have stood a sporting chance – it was John Bull that coined such immortal descriptions of Crowley as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ and ‘A Man We’d Like to Hang’ – but by the time he actually got around to it in 1934, it was an act of pure folly.
Proceedings in court swiftly shifted from scrutinising the content of Nina Hamnett’s book to a hostile autopsy of the life and crimes of the middle-aged magician, defiant in the dock in an anachronistic top hat. Did the Great Beast have a good name to defame? The judge clearly thought not, delivering a summation well worth repeating as a toothsome example of late Victorian morality in full flow. “I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another”, began Mr Justice Swift. “I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man who describes himself to you as ‘the greatest living poet’.”
Crowley instinctively understood the value of notoriety. It had assured his own sinful teen idols – the decadent 19th century poets Baudelaire and Swinburne – critical acclaim and artistic immortality. Yet the Beast lived in different times. As much as his day in court raised the Beast’s profile, it only unearthed past villainies and emphasised how the magician now lacked the resources of his glory days. To give Crowley credit – a Victorian relic himself in many respects – he appears to have been little dismayed as his last ditch attempt to revive his fortunes collapsed into a pious character assassination. However, many now cite his humiliation in court as heralding the final chapter in his career, signaling the magician’s last moments of international infamy before his slow decline into obscurity and retirement on England’s sleepy south coast, subsisting on a diet of infernally hot curries and potent shots of heroin. But the Beast was nothing if not resilient and, even if the attention of the world media was wandering elsewhere, the gods were not finished with Aleister Crowley.
As he strode away from court, resplendent in his top hat, a nineteen-year-old girl stopped Crowley in the street. She said she thought the court’s verdict was the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Christ and suggested, by way of compensation, that she bear his child. Being the Beast, he naturally accepted, and a son was indeed born some time later, christened (if that is the correct terminology) Aleister Ataturk Crowley. His last, fierce gasp of media notoriety also attracted less unorthodox proposals, most notably a lunch invitation from an author named Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley had taken to writing after the Great Depression sank the family wine business, and enjoyed immediate success with his début novel – an adventure story entitled The Forbidden Territory – published in January of 1933. By the time he met Crowley at the swish Hungaria restaurant in May of 1934, Wheatley had two more successful thrillers under his belt, with another book due for publication in August, and was looking for inspiration for his next project.
It seems almost certain that, like the Hollywood director Edgar Ulmer, Wheatley’s imagination had been fired by what Justice Swift had described as the “dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff” being attributed to Crowley in the press. His new novel was to be a contemporary thriller with an occult theme. One of the secrets of Wheatley’s success was extensive background research – he described his period adventure stories as providing readers ‘history without tears’ – so for his new project the author buried himself in the literature of the black arts. Furthermore, of course, Wheatley also made the acquaintance of the greatest living experts on the topic. In addition to the Great Beast, he also secured appointments with Reverend Montague Summers, Rollo Ahmed and Harry Price. Summers was a notably eccentric figure, a sinister Catholic clergyman and expert on Gothic literature, Ahmed a West Indian immigrant who claimed Egyptian origins and to have travelled the world in pursuit of occult knowledge, while Price was 20th century England’s most eminent ghost-hunter.
Summers first established himself as an authority on the occult with his 1926 book The History of Witchcraft and Satanism, a tome as scholarly and strange as its author, marked by the Reverend’s conviction that not only was the Devil real – and thus that the brutal excesses undertaken by the Inquisition to oppose him fully justified – but that his supernatural agents were still at large in the world today. Summers also believed that Satanism was the force behind the burgeoning Communist movement, a curious conviction Wheatley later endorsed. Ahmed established his reputation in the wake of the success of Wheatley’s debut occult novel. Wheatley’s publisher had asked him to write non-fiction work on sorcery and Satanism, but the novelist didn’t then feel he yet had sufficient expertise to do the subject justice, and passed the project on to his West Indian friend. The result was Rollo Ahmed’s The Black Art, first published in 1936, and regularly reprinted ever since. Wheatley enthusiastically endorsed the book, later observing, ‘whether Ahmed was a follower of the Left Hand Path or not, he was a jolly fellow and I got a lot of useful information from him.’
If The Black Art is anything to go by, this information included the idea that black magic was endemic among ‘barbarous’ people – i.e. foreigners – making Rollo something of an Uncle Tom occultist. Furthermore, the leading practitioners in ‘civilised’ cities like Paris and London were wealthy and highly educated, if addicted to sexual decadence and degradation. Wheatley duly wove these ‘factual’ details into his own fictional occult books, accepting Ahmed’s version as gospel, as it were. At the close of his chapter on ‘Modern Black Magic’, Ahmed suggests that many unsolved crimes may have Satanic connections, before concluding that it ‘is less easy to prove that there are societies devoted to the black art, although there are hundreds of people who can testify to the truth of their existence.’ So, the Satanic groups the West Indian spends several pages describing in lurid detail are less substantial than his idle speculation on unconnected, unsolved crimes? Surely the testimony of hundreds of people would qualify as pretty good evidence? Assuming, of course, that they exist. A cynic might, at this point, reflect on the fact that Ahmed was convicted and gaoled for fraud on more than one occasion…
It’s not completely clear how much information Wheatley gleaned from Aleister Crowley. Indeed he was initially disappointed by how innocuous the Beast appeared – ‘intellectually quite wonderful but couldn’t harm a rabbit’ – until a mutual friend reassured him that the sorcerer had performed perfectly unspeakable deeds in the past. It is generally agreed, however, that Wheatley used Crowley and a number of the occult orders he was associated with as loose models for the diabolists in his fiction. The first such case was Mocata, the villain in Wheatley’s debut occult novel, The Devil Rides Out, which debuted as a serial in British newspaper Daily Mail, starting in Halloween on 1934, before seeing publication as a book in December of that year. Of course, no significant cultural event occurs in a vacuum. Just as the rise of the Third Reich edged into the background of Edgar Ulmer’s film The Black Cat, the sub-plot of The Devil Rides Out involved Satanists endeavouring to use their occult powers to initiate a war between Germany and the British Empire. In the novel, a Second World War is averted by the actions of Wheatley’s heroes. In reality, of course, the world was not so fortunate…
While there was a building popular fascination with the occult and supernatural in the 1930s – both triggered and exploited by Wheatley – by the end of the decade it appeared to be waning. The obvious reason is that it was pushed out of the headlines by the imminence and then outbreak of war. The thrilling menace of Satanism lost its edge when compared with the more immediate, concrete visceral threats of the German Blitzkrieg through Europe in 1939 or the London Blitz in 1940. By the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, dubbing Crowley ‘the Wickedest Man in the World’ seemed queasily naïve in comparison to the likes of Hitler and Tojo, gossip of deviant sex rites and vague rumours of human sacrifice almost quaintly camp in light of the suffocating horrors of Belsen and Hiroshima. When the Beast died in 1947, it caused comparatively little media uproar. Time reported his demise under the headline ‘Rascal’s Regress’. ‘Edward Alexander (Aleister) Crowley was born 72 years ago into a conventional world’, reported the American periodical. ‘Being conventional, it pretended that it was easily shocked.’
Yet, however world-weary and urbane the post-War media might have presented itself, it still wasn’t quite ready for undiluted Satanism, particularly in Crowley’s British homeland. While the blanket ban on horror films was lifted, the BBFC still took a very dim view of explicit depictions of the demonic on the big screen. Despite its arcane, even medieval overtones Satanism retained a curious sort of moral radioactivity that film censors regarded as peculiarly dangerous, even in the enduring glow of the slowly building threat of nuclear warfare. Somehow, certain topics were still regarded as contagiously Evil, sufficiently virulent to be infectious when merely mentioned by fictitious characters on the screen. It was a rather different story on the printed page and, just as – back in 1934 – Dennis Wheatley had been able to publish The Devil Rides Out uncut, while Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat was shorn of references to diabolism by the BBFC, books about Satanism continued to appear, even if film references remained taboo.
Similarly, while many considered the Great Beast old news, his influence endured in fictional form, not least in the work of the prolific Dennis Wheatley, whose action-packed occult thrillers continued to sell, pivotal in turning him from a popular British author into an international publishing phenomenon, the equivalent in his day to Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham rolled into one. Wheatley wasn’t the first author to take inspiration from the infamy of England’s Great Beast. That was most likely W. Somerset Maugham, who, after making Crowley’s acquaintance in Paris during the twilight of the decadent era, used the Beast as the model for Oliver Haddo, the sorcerous villain of his 1908 novel The Magician. A pompous Somerset Maugham would later disown the novel, while insisting that Haddo was a more impressive figure than Crowley. The novel was adapted for the big screen in 1926 by the maverick Irish director Rex Ingram (in many respects a far more interesting and talented figure than Somerset Maugham) with Paul Wegener as Haddo (a multi-talented German actor, writer and director, Wegener was perhaps the first true star of horror cinema).
Among the most intriguing works of literature, apparently inspired by Aleister Crowley, is all the more interesting because its inspiration is so contentious. M. R. James is best known as England’s uncontested master of the atmospheric ghost story. Yet his creepy tales often feature themes beyond the merely spectral, not least ancient curses and black magic, which lies at the foetid heart of a number of the author’s best stories. A case in point is ‘The Casting of the Runes’, which features as its villain Karswell, a black magician many believe was modelled on the Beast. Suggestively, James was a provost at Cambridge University – first telling many of his tales to friends while sat around the fire at King’s College over Christmas – at the same time Crowley was a student at the same institution. There’s no evidence that the two met, but there are some suggestive similarities between Karswell and Crowley.
‘There was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell’, wrote James. ‘Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no-one could tell what appalling rites; he was easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face; he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.’ The fiendishly clever, ‘stout, clean-shaven man’ the author was describing could easily have been Crowley. Crowley left Cambridge University to begin his career as an occult prophet in 1897, ‘The Casting of the Runes’ published fourteen years later. The Beast had first begun attracting the kind of lurid headlines that would assure his infamy the year before its publication. John Bull denounced his ‘Blasphemous and Prurient Propaganda’ in a headline from November 1910, condemning Crowley’s ‘Revolting New Religion’ that was being ‘Taken Up by English Swells in Search of a Fresh Sensation’ nine days later. It seems likely that, just as Dennis Wheatley had been inspired to pick up his pen by headlines about the Beast in 1934, M. R. James had found inspiration in newsprint denunciations of the Beast twenty-four years before.
Crowley showed a little interest in cinema – a curious oversight for a prophet who took such an interest in modern mythology – and so far as this author’s aware never saw Ingram’s The Magician or Ulmer’s The Black Cat. By way of contrast, Wheatley was an ardent film fan. He made Hollywood the subject of his second published novel, Such Power is Dangerous, and befriended the fledgling film director Alfred Hitchcock. Wheatley’s debut novel, Forbidden Territory, was filmed in 1934, followed by his book The Eunuch of Stamboul (as The Secret of Stamboul), two years later. The author had hoped his new friend Hitch might be in the director’s chair, but this wasn’t to be, and both films – political thrillers – largely disappeared without trace. Despite the success of his occult novels like The Devil Rides Out, there was little interest in bringing such subjects to the screen in the UK, where film censors took a distinctly dim view of any hint of the demonic. It would be decades before this puritanical intransigence was seriously challenged and the ancient English Gothic tradition reached the big screen…
There is no such thing as coincidence according to a number of occult doctrines, and there are certainly several examples of synchronicity in horror cinema that give weight to such a viewpoint. For example, the three titans of the golden age of horror cinema all practically share a birthday – Vincent Price (May 27th 1911), Peter Cushing (May 26th 1913), Christopher Lee (May 27th 1922) – giving a rare crumb of comfort to the astrologically inclined. The production that initially triggered the trio’s cinematic immortality was coming to fruition as Halloween approached in the autumn of 1956, at Bray Studios in Berkshire, England. Just down the road, at Elstree Studios, another film was being made, also in the horror genre. By some accounts, shooting started on both movies on the very same day. The former production was The Curse of Frankenstein, its success making stars of the actors Cushing and Lee, establishing the company responsible, Hammer Films, as an international byword for big screen Gothic horror. Meanwhile the latter production – Night of the Demon – did not enjoy the same impact.
It was kindly reviewed, but only a modest box-office success, soon relegated to playing second string to Revenge of Frankenstein – Hammer’s follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein – in horror double-bills of 1958. Even though in cinematic terms Night of the Demon wasn’t a horror milestone of the magnitude of Hammer’s first Gothic masterpiece, it would gradually accrue a cult status among horror fans to equal – even exceed – that of The Curse of Frankenstein. More importantly, for our purposes, it was inadvertently testing taboos that Hammer avoided for nearly a decade. It’s easy to forget, now most of Hammer’s horror classics seem so tame to modern eyes, that the studio achieved its dominance by pushing the envelope, making the sort of tentative forays into the forbidden that thrilled horror audiences and dismayed the examiners at the British Board of Film Certification. The Curse of Frankenstein is now rated as a ‘12’ (suitable for 12-year-olds and over) by the BBFC, but in 1955, reviewing the script in order to warn of any potential censorship issues one examiner branded the film as ‘In fact really evil.’
While many fans credit Hammer’s success to its unusually talented pool of actors, directors, set dressers and such, just as significant to the studio’s success in the horror genre were the skills of its executives and producers in negotiating with – even outwitting – the censors at the BBFC in order to get the strongest material possible passed. For example, one of the major innovations with The Curse of Frankenstein was shooting in Eastmancolor – making it arguably the first significant colour horror film – but they submitted a black-and-white print to the BBFC, aware that the examiners were more likely to object to crimson viscera than monochrome plasma. By the time the censors were aware of this, the release date was imminent, and they were reluctantly obliged to either ban the film entirely, or pass the film largely uncut. They reluctantly opted for the latter, much to the disgust of many ‘serious’ critics in the UK, and delight of fans worldwide, who quickly made The Curse of Frankenstein an international box office sensation. According to Jonathan Rigby in his acclaimed history of the British horror movie English Gothic, by comparison with Hammer’s hit movie, Night of the Demon “just didn’t look lurid enough.”
In 1955, when Hammer’s first tentative foray into horror – a creepy sci-fi flick entitled The Quatermass Experiment – received the new adult ‘X Certificate’, they celebrated by retitling it The Quatermass Xperiment. The producers behind Night of the Demon (then entitled The Haunted) however, initially hoped for an ‘A’ certification that would allow younger viewers to see the film. In addition to being shot in black-and-white and based upon a story by Edwardian England’s avuncular master of the ghost story M. R. James, there were other factors suggesting that Night of the Demon was backward-looking in contrast to the radical new Eastmancolor horrors being unleashed by Hammer. The James story was the Crowley-inspired chiller ‘The Casting of the Runes’, assigned to the French director Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur had made his name directing a trio of hit low-budget Hollywood horror films with the Russian-born producer in 1942-3, before the studio broke the duo up. Together, Lewton and Tourneur were fêted for their subtle, suggestive approach to the genre. Lewton made The Seventh Victim (examined in the second part of this essay) in a similar style directly after parting ways with the Frenchman.
It was over a decade, however, before Tourneur returned to the horror film with The Night of the Demon. The extent to which Tourneur stayed faithful to the understated, shadow-bound style he perfected with Lewton when directing The Night of the Demon has become the subject of some debate among critics as the film’s status has grown over the years. Was it a throwback to the 1940s heyday of Tourneur’s celebrated Lewton collaborations or something more progressive and interesting than that? Much discussion has focussed on the less-than-subtle fire demon, which early fans dismissed as a crude effect anathema to the film’s atmospheric approach, Tourneur later claiming that showing rather than suggesting the demon was imposed upon him by his superiors. The tide of opinion appears to be changing on this, with fans of the fire demon coming to the fore. It was also hardly the issue that most exercised people over the film during its production and release. Rather, it was the film’s bubbling Satanic subtexts that were a troubling innovation, even if one suspects that few of those involved with Night of the Demon understood the volatile forces they were meddling with.
As we have already seen, while diabolism had long been acceptable on the printed page as both fiction and purported fact, in the UK translating the topic onto the big screen was another matter. There is something mythic about cinema – something to do with the vast darkened chambers, the rituals of the filmgoing experience, the vast figures projected before us – which makes Hollywood closer to authentic modern paganism than most self-conscious contemporary pagan revivals. In this context, horror represents the underworld, the abyss of taboo and devilment. The devils cinema conjures forth – and those it is forbidden from invoking – tell us a lot about the era concerned. Most revealing here are the accounts of censorship. The process of navigating a British film from conception to the screen was a protracted one which involved the BBFC at almost every stage, a game of complex negotiation between the studio and censor. Because they wanted to cover themselves from a legal standpoint, copious records were kept. But because the censors – and frequently the filmmakers themselves – saw horror films as disposable trash, their notes are often strikingly candid, as few of those concerned imagined that the scholars of the future might take any interest in their meditations.
The BBFC notes on Night of the Demon are particularly revealing about attitudes to Satanism in 1950s Britain. ‘In fact I find the elaborately contrived, supposedly supernatural hokum, most repulsive,’ wrote one examiner upon reading the initial script in January of 1955. ‘In some way I cannot define, it savours to me of blasphemy that normal adults should go about in fear of their lives over “Runic” spells in this twentieth century.’ A revised script was submitted in March, which included a description of some scenery which upset the examiner: ‘Here we have a painting of a black mass: it is weird and credible impression of a black mass; hooded demons dressed in masks indulging in an orgy with “lissom unclothed young women whose lovely faces are infinitely evil”. This must not be included (it is not in the book).’ Quite how the examiner thought a black mass featuring actual hooded demons is curious (and their objection that the film departs from the M. R. James short story somewhat disarming).
By September of 1956, Night of the Demon’s producers had resigned themselves to an ‘X’ certificate, but the BBFC still had issues with the script. Particularly a scene where a repentant Satanist named Hobart makes reference to his former master, the Crowleyan villain Dr Julian Karswell: ‘Hobart’s words “Those of us who believe that the supreme one is the Lord of Hell. That evil is good, good evil…” and “To blaspheme and desecrate: to perform the unholy rites on the altars of worship. In the joy of carnal sin, will mankind that is lost find itself again – find power again. Praise Satan!” and subsequent references to Dr Julian, are clearly impossible. Apart from these remarks, I am not concerned about the black magic angle in this script, which seems to me on a par with turning people into werewolves, messing about with vampires, and all the other stock-in-trade of the horror-film specialist.’ In summary: ‘The whole statement of the nature of devil-worship must be omitted. There should be no description of the rites of devil-worship.’
I will leave you to look into just how far Night of the Demon bowed to BBFC dictates – watch it again and see – if you haven’t yet had the pleasure then you’re in for a treat. Suffice to say, the filmmakers do manage to keep enough of the ‘supposedly supernatural hokum’ that so upset the initial BBFC examiner in to make the film a Satanic classic. But just exactly what was troubling the BBFC about the film that seemed so much more disturbing than ‘turning people into werewolves, messing about with vampires’? Did they feel that even mentioning Satanism somehow might have an unhealthy impact on the nation’s moral welfare? Might Karswell’s credo prove so seductive to cinemagoers if spelt out that it would inspire a wave of demonic conversions across the land? I daresay the examiners themselves weren’t sure, but in the context of this piece we should take a look at Dr Julian’s cult and ponder whether we might be tempted to join…
The characterisation of Karswell by the actor Niall MacGinnis is masterful – a multi-faceted performance which is by turns charming, menacing, witty, even vulnerable – and the audience is ably invited to fill in the blanks of the background to this disarmingly charismatic cult leader. Karswell is clearly the avuncular yet sinister key to this diabolist cult, and he is quite explicit on its hold over him in a conversation with his mother. (In one of many devilish details in Night of the Demon, for all of his demonic powers Karswell is clearly a Satanist who loves his mother.) ‘You get nothing for nothing,’ he tells her. ‘This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It’s part of the price.’ Satanism in Night of the Demon is an almost feudal affair. Karswell’s forbidden knowledge bought him wealth and privilege, but at a fearful price. This is certainly a strand in Satanism – the idea that black magic represented the ‘hard stuff’ in comparison to the weak tea of conventional occultism – sorcery’s nuclear option if you will. It’s a peculiarly appropriate analogy for the period, when Cold War paranoia was just kicking into high gear.
Opposing Karswell is the arch-rationalist, Dr John Holden, played by the traditional two-fisted Hollywood leading man Dana Andrews. We met Dana at the start of this piece, being charged by Her Majesty the Queen not to bring witchcraft back to England. In Night of the Demon Dr Holden prevails, but only by abandoning his scientific beliefs and resorting to his opponents unholy methods. According to many accounts, in the real world Dana Andrews stood little more chance of holding back the occult tide. Significantly, Night of the Demon was promoted with a fake newspaper (the ‘Xpress News’ ‘Late Fright Final’ edition, ‘Printed by Satanic Press’) leading with the headlines such as ‘Does Witchcraft Exist Today?’ Robert Fabian, a retired Detective Superintendent of Scotland Yard, offered an answer in his 1954 memoir London After Dark, in which shed light on his colourful career as the capital’s highest profile copper, darling of the UK tabloid press. ‘There is more active Satan-worship today than ever since the Dark Ages,’ wrote the former detective. He even describes ‘a private Temple of Satanism’ in Lancaster Gate, London, in lurid terms which – a sceptic might suggest – sound suspiciously close to a scene from a Dennis Wheatley novel.
Fabian admits that Scotland Yard have never actually apprehended any Satanists, but points out that there ‘is a very real danger of police witnesses being hypnotized. Not even the London policeman or policewoman can guarantee to be immune, in an atmosphere thick with perfumed ether, throbbing with jungle drums and chants.’ The retired detective’s implied association between the ‘tribal’ beliefs of immigrant communities and diabolical rites – the idea that non-Christian creeds were implicitly unholy and hence somehow akin to Devil-worship – was nothing new. By this point Rollo Ahmed had been peddling a similar line for nearly twenty years, while the exoticism of fiendish foreigners had become a standard ingredient in Dennis Wheatley’s fictional devil’s brews. Ether had been among the intoxicants favoured by Aleister Crowley, though it has a powerful unpleasant odour, which is presumably obliged what devilish cultists to mask the stench by burning incense.
However, when the Reveille newspaper printed a story in 1956 under the headline ‘Underworld of Black Mass Maniacs’, repeating Fabian’s assertion that Satanists drugged visitors to their secret temples with ‘perfumed ether’, somebody unhelpfully observed that ether is highly flammable. Anyone burning incense in an atmosphere heavy with ether might avoid the notice of Scotland Yard, but was pretty much guaranteed to attract the attention of the London Fire Brigade. Our awkward commentator was one Gerald Gardner, who had his own reasons for attempting to discredit the stories of devil-worship beginning to proliferate in the British media of the 1950s. Gardener was an archetypal English eccentric with a lively interest in occultism Freemasonry and the like, which blossomed in 1954 with his publication of his book Witchcraft Today, which purported to reveal the existence of a secretive but benevolent witch religion, with roots stretching back millennia, still practised in modern Britain.
Dubbed ‘Wicca’, the author was at pains to separate his version of witchcraft from the tradition that had long associated witches with the Devil, insisting that the creed he described was a harmless, ancient faith dedicated to the reverence of nature. Wicca flourished, though few now give much credence to Gardner’s claims of its ancient lineage. It owed much to the discredited theories of the feminist scholar and wayward Egyptologist Margaret Murray, blended with a suspiciously generous dose of Gerald’s own peccadilloes, such as nudism and spanking. Presenting its adherents as the innocent victims of persecution was key to Wicca’s sales pitch, and Gardner and subsequent champions of his sect make a point of distinguishing themselves from Satanists and devil-worshippers. Which is true, as far as it goes, and they were successful in creating a distinction between witchcraft and Satanism, which is frequently repeated by many modern experts, even though it flies in the face of most authentic historical evidence on the matter.
Gardner says he was encouraged to ‘go public’ as a witch with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, which it is commonly assumed meant the British Government officially believed in witchcraft until that point. In fact, this act dated only to 1736, and replaced previous anti-witchcraft legislation which had in fact treated sorcery as a real offence. The act of 1736 rebranded witchcraft as a delusion and was designed to punish those who employed it as a ruse to try and swindle the gullible. Its repeal in 1951 did not represent a new tolerance towards witches, so much as a reluctance in Parliament to conceive that enough credulous people still believed in witchcraft in the 20th century for them to require protection in law from being duped or bilked. The act was duly replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which seemed more modern, but has proven devilishly difficult to impose. Meanwhile, Parliament’s assumption that witchcraft could be dismissed as a medieval relic proved premature. Starting in 1956, every few years a crusading MP would move to re-institute the ban, urging the Government to turn the clock back – not to 1736 – but further back still to less sceptical times, when witch-hunting was still a going concern.
It seems odd somehow to think of a Satanic revival in 1950s Britain, even if it was merely the product of overactive imaginations. It was a drab, conservative era in many respects as the nation clawed its way out of the austerity imposed by the Second World War. Rationing only finally stopped at the end of 1958, while the Cold War steadily escalated, the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging ever heavier in many minds. Yet there was also progress and optimism as the new Queen ascended to the throne in 1952, and the general standard of living slowly rose. The author and folklorist Eric Maple – one of the more informed occult experts who set out their stalls in the era – blamed both austerity and new opportunities for the rising incidents of devilment in his 1965 book The Domain of Devils. According to Maple, by the 50s occultism ‘had attained an almost permanent position on the front page of newspapers. There were now positive signs that old-time demonism was coming to life again, finding fruitful soil in the general disillusionment with science, and nurtured by a flood of sensational books on black magic.’
‘In the sad pre-war days of unemployment and apathy this trend would never have advanced beyond the literature stage, but alas, now that the population of the West had solved the problem of physical hunger, their minds turned, almost as a matter of course, to the darker rites of sex,’ he adds, sounding somewhat sensational himself. ‘The Satanic cults grew apace, achieving their greatest notoriety in the 1950s and ’60s.’ But just who was joining these sex-mad secret cults? ‘It was almost literally out of the ashes of war that the Black Mass made its latest debut upon the British social scene, and as in the past its principal appeal was to the submerged tenth among the aristocracy’ – whoever the ‘submerged tenth’ might be, Maple clearly concurred with the impression given in Dennis Wheatley’s novels, that Satanism was a pastime with a particular appeal to the upper crust. However, he also adds another category of cad to the type of cultist to be found in contemporary demonic sects: ‘There can be no doubt whatsoever that the rites of black magic are performed regularly in the capital cities of the world, and in particular London where the outer periphery of the international vice ring overlaps into the area of the supernatural and occult.’
Satanism was slowly taking over from ‘the white slave trade’ as a source of prurient fascination in the popular press, and occult experts like Eric were happy to speculate about an overlap, spreading salacious hearsay about pretty young things being whisked away by hooded figures to take part in unspeakable rites. While there was a conspicuous absence of actual evidence, a general consensus soon emerged as to how such Satanic sects operated. Some recruits were lured into apparently innocent spiritualist circles or astrological societies, which were actually fronts for more sinister occult activities. Others were enticed into wild parties which soon got out of hand, but once the fresh blood became aware of the sinister undertone to affairs, their unscrupulous hosts had obtained sufficient blackmail material to ensure compliance. ‘Likely members are wooed with promises of power and thrills: too late they find they have acquired a passport to debauchery,’ shuddered the Sunday Pictorial (forerunner to today’s weekly tabloid the Sunday Mirror) in 1955.
In was the Sunday Pictorial which led the press witch-hunt, beginning in 1951 with an expose of Satanism in the UK. ‘There are many men and women in Britain today who delight in wickedness and who, subscribing to the cult of Black Magic, take part in unbelievable debauchery,’ promised the paper. In case anyone should think the newspaper’s vague allusions to unholy deviance literally unbelievable, the Pictorial said it had in its possession ‘a dossier’ containing the research of a certain ‘Mr A.’, proving not only that ‘a revival of witchcraft was sweeping the country’, but that it involved the rich and famous of the nation. Such ‘dossiers’ soon became a familiar feature of exposes of Satanic cults and conspiracies, designed to silence the objections of sceptics. With deeply suspicious regularity, these important-sounding dossiers would be referred to by self-styled modern, witch-hunters, mythic documents akin to the dubious lists of Communist traitors notoriously waved around by Senator Joe McCarthy across the Atlantic in the early Fifties, ersatz evidence not worth the paper it’s written on.
Back in 1926, H. G. Wells had been inspired to write a response to The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, the pioneering text by Montague Summers that in many ways had had lit the blue touch-paper on 20th Century British occultism: ‘Mr Summers… hates witches as soundly and sincerely as the British county family hates the “Reds”… Perhaps mankind has a standing need for somebody to tar, feather, and burn. Perhaps if there was no devil, men would have to invent one. In a more perfect world we may have to draw lots to find out who shall be the witch or the “Red”, or the heretic or the nigger, in order that one man may suffer for the people.’ Returning to the 1950s, in the wake of their Satanic expose, the Sunday Pictorial had identified a new crusade. In 1952 the weekly tabloid ran a three-part expose on what they described as ‘Evil Men’: ‘Most people know there are such things – “pansies” – mincing, effeminate, young men who call themselves queers… but simple decent folk regard them as freaks and rarities.’ However, the Pictorial was determined to put a stop to this ‘spreading fungus’ which had already infected ‘generals, admirals, fighter pilots, engine drivers and boxers’.
The paper’s attentions soon shifted back from the friends of Dorothy to the disciples of Satan, with fresh revelations from ‘Mr A.’ in 1954. The Pictorial’s interest was doubtless picqued by Fabian of the Yard’s revelations and the emergence of Gerald Gardner. It soon became apparent that Mr A. was Dennis Wheatley’s dubious source, Rollo Ahmed, though by the following year the paper finally had an actual Satanist willing to spill the beans. Mrs Sarah Jackson, a Birmingham housewife, she made an improbable devotee of debauchery, but The Pictorial were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Mrs Jackson duly delivered with tales of being summoned to spectacular deviant, devilish ceremonies via a series of odd telephone calls. Frankly, it sounds more like schizophrenic episodes than Satanism, but it clearly sold papers, and Mr A. and Mrs Jackson enjoyed plentiful print exposure, as several other newspapers and magazines joined the fun, titillating their readers with stories of unholy orgies involving celebrities and aristocrats they never named, backed up by dossiers nobody ever actually examined.
In 1956, however, Illustrated magazine turned spoilsport when it ran an investigation into the elusive plague of devil-worship menacing the nation. ‘Is black magic widespread in Britain – or are a few people making a mountain out of mumbo-jumbo for the sake of the curious?’ Casting a good deal of cold (holy) water on the fervid matter, their reporter Norman Phillips remained distinctly unimpressed by the modern witch-hunters: ‘Despite the headlines, solid evidence that black magic is practised in Britain today is scanty indeed… there are not enough people in Britain who call themselves witches to form even one traditional coven of thirteen.’ Of course, not everyone had been taking the tabloids seriously anyhow. It is, for example, evident from her comments to Dana Andrews in 1956 that her Majesty the Queen didn’t think her realm currently had a witchcraft problem. Yet several papers continued to print the occasional black magic expose on the age-old principle that there’s no smoke without fire (and no fire from the witch pyres unless you have pretty low standards of proof).
Meanwhile, our old friend Gerald Gardner continued to fight what he saw as a media campaign of misinformation against witchcraft in his 1959 book The Meaning of Witchcraft. Gerald concedes that, though some kind of sleazy hi-jinks might be going on, it had nothing to do with his lot, observing that ‘of course, sensational newspaper descriptions of alleged black magic rites involving orgies of sex and blood will have been eagerly lapped up by neurotic degenerates, and given them fresh ideas to emulate; a development for which responsibility does not lie at the door of the witches. And every time the sensational Press have big blurbs of “BLACK MAGIC” and BLACK MASSES, there are always some “bright young things” who say, “Let’s have a go at this.” I can confidently say this. Any “Black Magic” ceremonies ever held are just the result of sensationalism in the papers. I am speaking of the last fifty years of course. Three hundred years ago it may have been different.’
Whatever you might feel about Gardner’s pomposity (loftily accusing others of neurotic degeneracy seems a little harsh from someone who’d created a cult dedicated to ritualised nudity, flagellation and al fresco sex) the oddball occultist does have a point. Even if there weren’t really any Satanic cults to speak of when the tabloids began reporting about them in the Fifties, by the following decade media-coverage had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Firm evidence began to emerge of devilish activity which, according to Eric Maple, reached a peak in 1962-3. This evidence did not consist of any innocents escaping the clutches of a black magic sect with proof to substantiate the numerous rumours of bloodthirsty orgies, or indeed any corroboration of the claims of rich and famous faces at black masses in the capital. Rather, it was the rather unspectacular evidence of vandalised churches and cemeteries, in some cases clearly attacked, not just because they were soft targets, but also because the perpetrators felt some grudge against religion.
‘Now the newspapers, by persistently featuring the activities of Satanists, and radio and television, by popularising the activities of modern witches, have succeeded in bringing to the surface many emotionally-charged concepts which have not troubled mankind for generations,’ observed Maple in 1965. ‘It is notable that the incidence of churchyard vandalism rises and falls with the publicity it receives.’ For those hooligans who derived special pleasure from the exposure their misdeeds enjoyed, the very fact that the media tended to highlight attacks on church property as the work of evil cults was probably sufficient to encourage such antisocial activity. Yet some of the graffiti and apparently ritualised overtones to some of the damage suggests that in a few cases, those concerned saw their vandalism as Satanic and symbolic. Such Satanists didn’t hark back to some ancient heresy, but foreshadowed the youthful rejection of authority and repression that would characterise the decade to come.
Jonathan Rigby suggests that the success of Hammer’s Gothic horror films hinged on burgeoning youth culture. That The Curse of Frankenstein (and indeed Night of the Demon) screened at just the right moment to capitalise on a new spirit emerging in Britain. ‘1957 was a year in which youthful iconoclasm of all kinds, in direct response to the Establishment fiasco of the previous year’s Suez Crisis, was fostered as never before’, he writes in English Gothic. ‘It was the year in which the Angry Young Men of British theatre and literature consolidated their success, and in which the craze for rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle reached its height, with sales of pop records reaching a high that wouldn’t be matched until 1963. And when not buying the latest waxings of Tommy Steele or Lonnie Donegan, teenagers were rapidly the crucial constituent of cinema audiences. Women’s hemlines went up noticeably, as did the crime rate and a growing public terror of the H-bomb.’
Hammer’s success swiftly encouraged imitation both in the UK and abroad, some of which sailed closer to the demonic themes that Hammer initially avoided. The studio’s chief rival in the US was the B-movie studio AIP, particularly the films directed for them by the legendary master of shoestring filmmaking Roger Corman. Starting in 1960 with House of Usher, Corman began a series of films inspired by the work of the America’s pre-eminent Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe. They typically starred the urbane character actor Vincent Price with scripts by the talented horror specialist Richard Matheson. In 1964, Corman opted to shoot his sixth Poe film (seventh if you include The Haunted Palace, actually adapted from a story by H. P. Lovecraft despite its Poe-inspired title) in the UK, this time with a script co-written with Charles Beaumont and Robert Wright Campbell. The result was a film that enjoyed both critical and commercial success, regarded by many as Corman’s finest work, even one of the best horror movies ever made. It’s also a film held in high regard by many Satanists.
The director was apparently caught somewhat by surprise at the resistance to his subject matter from the British censors. Corman later reflected that, in comparison to his other Poe pictures Masque of the Red Death ‘had probably less horror than any of the others and was censored to the greatest extent. The reason for that was not horror, as such, but the fact that we did have Satanism in the picture and John Trevelyan who is the British censor, stated that there was a problem in England today to do with Satanism.’ The Satanism isn’t in the Poe stories that inspired it, but was added by Wright to add extra interest to its plot of a cruel medieval prince named Prospero, who is sheltering in his castle from the plague ravaging the populace around him. ‘In fact, I don’t even think of Prospero solely as being evil,’ reflected Corman. It’s simply he chose evil as a course of action because of what he saw in the world around him.’ Inadvertently, in that sentiment, the director encapsulates an important thread of Satanic philosophy, of a cruel creed necessitated by a hostile cosmos.
Curiously enough, Anton LaVey – the 20th Century’s foremost Satanist – generally favoured film noir, and these rather than horror cinema, dominate his list of ‘Satanic films’ that best express the ‘Black Pope’s cynical worldview. Yet he made an exception for the work of the actor Vincent Price, not least his performance as the silkily sinister Satanist Prospero in Masque of the Red Death. ‘That’s an evocative film with some wonderfully Satanic dialogue that Vincent Price delivers as only he can,’ enthused LaVey. Apparently Price annotated his script unusually thoroughly, suggesting a particularly involved relationship with the character. Certainly, it’s difficult not to be seduced by his bleak but charismatic philosophy, particularly as expressed in debate with the simple pious peasant girl Francesca, played by Jane Asher. (Hazel Court as Juliana, Prospero’s devoted Satanic mistress, is also worthy of special mention.)
When Francesca suggests that Prospero asked that she remove her crucifix because it was offensive, the Prince corrects her. ‘It offended no one,’ he purrs. ‘My Master and his followers look about with open eyes. No, it simply appeared to me to be discourteous… to wear the symbol of a deity long dead.’ (Time magazine ran its famously controversial ‘God is Dead’ cover two years later.) The fullest explanation of Prospero’s beliefs, however, comes in the following exchange. ‘Somewhere in the human mind my dear Francesca’, he explains, ‘lies the key to our existence. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator.’ ‘But you need no doors to find God. If you believe…’ she objects. ‘Believe?’ sneers Prospero. ‘If you believe you are gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.’ ‘There is also love and life and hope,’ offers Francesca. ‘Very little hope I assure you,’ concludes Prospero. ‘No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.’
The film is set in Italy many hundreds of years ago, but much of what Prince Prospero said seemed eerily relevant. Particularly as the escalating brutality of the Vietnam War and the resultant building casualties were fuelling generational hostility, while rising temperatures in the Cold War threatened to engulf the planet in apocalyptic conflict. While Francesca’s attitude of simple Christian piety was still the orthodox position in the UK and US, somehow Prospero’s Satanic cynicism seems more plausible, more modern somehow. Whatever the BBFC might think, events were advancing to make their proscriptive attitude to Satanism on the screen seem outdated, or even counterproductive by lending diabolism the glamour of forbidden fruit. By the mid-Sixties, Hammer were finally preparing to unleash their own debut feature on the topic, the studio’s changing attitude to diabolical liberties offering a curious, if distorted, mirror on broader evolving cultural trends in Britain…
In true New Testament style, I’d like to end this mammoth essay with some Good News. As the monolithic length of this third essay suggests, I’ve actually found rather more to say on this topic than I first supposed. Film and popular culture in general have proven an unexpectedly useful lens through which to view Satanism, which in turn has cast an interesting light on broader issues. I hope you found the journey as diverting as I did. The Good News for those who have had quite enough now, thank you, is that with this third part, I have finally concluded my collaboration with the fine folk at Brutal as Hell. The Good News for those who could cope with a little more of the same, is that a publisher has taken an interest in seeing this expanded into a book. If all goes well, we might finally see a sister volume for my first book Lucifer Rising. As the saying goes, watch this space, or indeed my webpage for further developments…
Many thanks to Gavin Baddeley.