Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not horror films. Horror and its creators have always been adept at synthesizing our most innate fears, writing them onto the supernatural and offering us momentary catharsis. Sometimes, however, the fears are more situational than they are innate. Sometimes horror serves as a reflection of a society’s fears and values. It is impossible to see the films being produced and disseminated from the late 1960s and into the 70s and not notice a trend. There is an emphasis on witchcraft, covens, satanic cults, the devil, vampires, astrology, and demons. It stretches across all media, from the high-budget and exalted to the low-budget and barely remembered. But it all feeds from and into a mutual obsession. When you think of the ongoing and often necessary upheaval that characterized the 60s and 70s-the exposure of Watergate and the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Vietnam War and the resulting protests, the feminist and civil rights movements- the films of this era make a bit more sense. They are all filled with a disquiet; a sense that the world is not what it was previously believed to be, that institutions can no longer be trusted, and that one’s place in society is not as secure as once thought. And that’s where horror comes in, because with massive upheaval comes deep and complicated anxiety that often can’t be fully articulated or understood, anxieties that then get digested into the culture and writ large in metaphor. In this case, the metaphor is covens and satanists, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.
It is not exactly a stretch to notice a parallel between the threat of the coven and the threat of feminism. These two groups rely on gatherings of women who challenge the status quo and find strength in the companionship of other women. It is a threat to power, to the established modes of power, and to those who hold the power, namely men. Beginning in the 1960s, as an outgrowth of the nascent feminist movement, women began seeking solace and an understanding of the mutual conditions of sexism in what were referred to as consciousness raising groups. These groups encouraged women to speak about their lives in order to cement the idea that women were not alone in their experiences of sexism. Through discussion, they sought to expose the structural realities of misogyny, showing attendees how their personal experiences related to a larger world. What the horror films of this era do is relocate the fear and the threat that was posed by groups such as these onto the supernatural. To do this is to render them evil and thus punishable. It is a way to regain control without ever having to admit that you were losing it.
Similar concerns arise when you look at the prevalence of the satanic cult in horror films of the 1970s. Films like Race With the Devil (1975) highlight the fear that there is someone out to get you and although there is no way to understand who or what your attacker is, they are nevertheless all around you, posing a threat to your way of life. This notion of the unknown but hostile and ever-present enemy is one that seems to have clear origins when we think of the chaos of the seventies. Hippies and other counter-cultural movements that were a challenge to the very fabric of American society and life were omnipresent. Additionally, it was not uncommon in this era for reckless and ill-conceived revolutionary groups to make bombs and distribute them at will. The resulting chaos, fear, and extreme violence of an unknown enemy could be seen as one of the origins of this trope. Similarly, in these films the violence of the satanic cult is always highlighted, for example the ritual killing of a woman through which the plot of Race With the Devil begins. For a society coming to terms with the irrefutable knowledge of violence on a scale not previously known or even imagined, but now impossible to ignore because of a televised war and the senseless and sensationalized murders at the hands of the Manson Family, it was necessary to transpose the threat, to create a dichotomy of good and evil that would explain ever so simplistically the complex world unfolding around them. These films gave the audience a definable evil outside of themselves so they didn’t have to think critically about corrupt systems or their complicity in them. It was a way to make sense of a traumatized and uncertain world, to regain composure after the initial shock of discovering a senselessly violent world. As these films asserted, the threat is everywhere but it is often indistinguishable from the mundane.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered in 1972 as a television movie that was later adapted into a series. It focused on a reporter who solved mysteries with an occult undertone. In this I see a desire to explain the incomprehensible. To me, Kolchak is a manifestation of the uncertainty of the times. The show starts with a murder or an unexplained event. Most people shrug it off and move on, but Kolchak investigates and finds an explanation for these things. Everyone ignores him, but he knows the truth. This desire to apply some kind of order in a completely chaotic world is emblematic of the fear and anxieties of the era. Here, as in other occult horror films, we see real fears being translated into something supernatural that can then be solved and the threat eliminated. In a time when everything felt newly horrifying; an endless war, people being shot and beaten by police and soldiers, and institutions and authority figures caught disseminating falsehoods, to say it was a moment of great upheaval could be seen as an understatement. But, in moments of great upheaval, we often create metaphors to deal with our panic. In this case, it was the occult.
Much like the era they were created in, these films are essentially pessimistic. Even when they end with evil vanquished, the victory feels hollow. It came at a great price and while the feeling of immediate threat is over, it has opened the possibility that all manner of unknown horror could spill into our lives at any time. The audience, now more uncertain than before, knows that there is no way to go back and pretend that they didn’t see the things that they have seen. These films offered explanations as a temporary balm for the unshakable realization that nothing is ever knowable and that we are hurtling through a life that has no predetermined order and over which we have no control.
Art is often a reflection of our greatest concerns. It is a way to process our fears, insecurities, ideals, and passions. From a distance, it can be a way to understand people, a place, or an era. Whether it is exalted portraiture or the films of a low-budget studio that is simply catering to thrills, it makes no difference. These things are artifacts of us and they will always show our imprint. This is particularly true of the surge in occult horror in the late 1960s and 70s. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Race With the Devil, Satan’s School for Girls (1973), The Sentinel (1977), Suspiria (1977) and television shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) show us the anxieties of an era and the desire to make sense of a world that has seemed to descend into absolute, utter, and irredeemable chaos.