Sunday, August 12, 2012

Satanic Panic: Did SUSPIRIA Shape The 80s?

Today marks thirty-five years since Dario Argento's Suspiria was released in the United States. It remains his most internationally lucrative and critically acclaimed film, despite or because of being a thematic and stylistic departure from the 'giallo' films that have made Dario Argento a filmmaking legend. I have written before about the role that Suspiria played in my life at the end of high school. This piece marks the last time that I wrote about it in college.

This was originally my final assignment for a class at Emerson College that explored portrayals of the occult throughout cinematic history. The class was taught by Peg Aloi, the writer and film critic and my favorite professor. It was the summer of 2005, and I was working on an occult horror screenplay. In the midst of doing lots of research for my own project, I took the class to expand knowledge for my work and to introduce what I was finding to Professor Aloi and my fellow students. Dario Argento’s Suspiria, one of my favorite movies of all time, was part of the curriculum. But one particularly fascinating piece of television history that I uncovered that summer was a 1989 broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show that the class watched on the last day. It was about a horrific tragedy: the brutal murder of Mark Kilroy, a young man on spring break in Mexico. The coverage in 1989, however, suggested his death was the work of a global network of devil worshippers. In 2005, and particularly to a room full of Emerson College students, the tone of the broadcast took on an amusing quality despite the humorless subject matter. The part that seemed amusing was the “Satanic Panic” that swept the nation in the 80s, and how dated it was two decades later. But I remember when those fears were too embedded in mainstream society to evoke laughs. Childhood memories of that disturbing cultural phenomenon were at the root of both my screenplay and this essay.

Robert E. Jeffrey
MA405: Final Paper

                                    Suspiria: Paving the Way for Hysteria

When Suspiria was unleashed upon American audiences by 20th Century Fox in 1977, few could have predicted the success enjoyed by its distributors or by famed Italian horror director Dario Argento. At this point in time, Argento’s American success was distinctly limited: he had had two U.S. successes in his 1970 debut thriller The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and 1975’s Profondo Rosso, released in the U.S. as The Deep Red Hatchet Murders. Both films were blockbusters in his native Italy. Additionally he had two other hit European thrillers and a successful Italian anthology show, all of which contributed to his budding European reputation as “the Italian Hitchcock”. The release of 1977’s Suspiria marked a major turning point in Argento’s career, and the change in direction proved enormously profitable. Suspiria was a massive success in Europe, and became the first of a string of big hits for Dario Argento in Japan—preceding a 1978 re-release of his Profondo Rosso under the title Suspiria 2! (Jones, "An Eye For Horror")
Following the huge success of Twentieth Century Fox's The Omen in 1976, the internationally lucrative Suspiria must have seemed like a sure bet for a the studio to continue capitalizing on American moviegoers’ fear of a Satanic influence over our everyday lives. Indeed, Suspiria would go on to become Dario Argento’s most widely released, heavily publicized, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful film in the United States. The first film in a planned trilogy, Fox was so pleased with Suspiria’s grosses that they co-financed the lavish sequel. Filmed in 1979 and released in a few international territories in 1980, Dario Argento’s Inferno would be put on the backburner at Fox amidst a change of studio heads in 1980, making a limited theatrical appearance in the mid-1980s before quietly sliding onto video shelves under Fox’s “Key Video” label. (Jones)

           If the more densely scripted Inferno had been given a proper U.S. theatrical release by Fox in 1980, it could very well have echoed the success of Suspiria, in addition to enlightening viewers to the actual meaning of the themes and content of Suspiria. Inferno reveals that the mythology of its predecessor actually had little to do with Christianity's image of 'the Devil'. But the misconceptions inevitably taken from Suspiria’s limited narrative have come to define how most viewers will interpret it: as an artfully crafted horror movie about “witchcraft-as-Satanism”.  Part of the success of Suspiria was in hinting at the existence of Satanic cults embedded in the least conspicuous pockets of society, a fear that had heightened considerably since the release of Roman Polanski's Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. In the that followed Suspiria, that fear would heighten in the United States, manifesting itself in a new yet frighteningly familiar way in the American cultural landscape. 
In the ten years following the release of Suspiria, America’s interest in the occult in the 1970s turned into a fear of the occult in the 1980s. There could have been any number of reasons for this rapid turnaround. Many would credit the two-term run of conservative President Ronald Reagan and the emergence of “the religious Right”. Once could cite a collective parental/generational response, triggered by the bloodshed dominating movie theaters packed with teenagers or the popularity of heavy metal music, condemned by parents’ groups for its supposed references to blood, murder, and the Devil himself. I would argue that these factors merely strengthened the pull on the collective American psyche of fears already planted by paranoiac films of the 1970s--most especially Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Despite being a success, Dario Argento’s Suspiria was  never as widely viewed in America as the aforementioned three films. Nonetheless, I would argue that Suspiria, more than any other 70s occult horror film, set the standard of primal terror that would fuel what historians generally refer to as the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.

Although the roots of the 'Satanic Panic' began with the dozens of reports of ritualized child molestations going on at daycare centers across the country, the origin of the brand of “panic” that I associate with Dario Argento’s vision was galvanized, if not born, in the small town of Northport, Long Island. There, in the summer of 1984, seventeen year old Ricky Kasso and his friend Jimmy Troiano were arrested for the horrific stabbing death of their classmate, Gary Lauwers. Although the crime was primarily related to use of the hard drug PCP, Ricky Kasso’s interest in the Devil, as manifested in “black metal” music, became a paramount issue in the case. Says then-and-current Newport police chief Bob Howard, “The press release alluded to the "Satanic cult”. A Satanic cult never existed. There was some misinformation that went out. But you can't stop the press. The press release that went out caused a frenzy which I've never seen or have seen since” (“Satan in the Suburbs”).

Perhaps the most horrific and defining cult murder of the Satanic Panic scare was the murder of Texas college student Mark Kilroy, and the discovery of his and twelve other dismembered corpses in a mass grave in Matamoros, Mexico. Kilroy was kidnapped on spring break in 1989 and brutally tortured and murdered by a drug lord cum "black magic" practitioner Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo and his followers/crime partners, all as a means of magically attaining protection and immunity from police and fellow drug traffickers. Although Constanzo's practice came from a family tradition of an extreme interpretation of the Palo Mayombe "voodoo" tradition, early reports, naturally, claimed Satanism (Newton).

    One of the most defining time capsules of this era was a historically relevant broadcast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on May 1, 1989, in which Winfrey interviews one guest in particular would become infamous among critics of the controversial "Satanic Ritual Abuse" syndrome. That “anti-Satanist” would be Patricia Pulling, best known as the founder of B.A.D.D., “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons”, which she formed in response to the tragic suicide of her son, an event she blamed on the deadly occult influence of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. (Stackpole)
            On the broadcast, Pulling offered a list of “warning signs” for parents of children susceptible to becoming involved in Satanic acts.

In teenagers you look for obsessive behavior in some heavy metal music, not all. Obsessive behavior of kids that like gory slasher films: Poltergeist type films, Friday the 13th. If they have an obsession with this, an obsession with evil, if you start to see the signs and symbols of things that you don't recognize..... if the child actually hates God....drawing pictures of death, dying, dismemberment mutilation....this is sick, and they need help. A lot of professionals are passing this off as a fad they will pass through. and many of them are not passing through. Many are dying, and killing other people. (“Oprah”)

            In a scathing attack on Pulling’s years as an “anti-Devil crusader”, Michael A. Stackpole thoroughly discredits Pulling’s ability to offer such advice.

[Patricia Pulling] has, willfully or negligently, manufactured reports concerning suicides and murders related to games and Satanism. She has promoted individuals who are, at the very least, in need of serious psychiatric help to deal with their emotional and psychological problems. She has repeatedly represented herself as an “expert witness” concerning games of which she knows little or nothing. Pat Pulling and her allies regularly conduct “cult crime seminars” at locations across the country. They are offered for police and teachers at between $100 and $300 a head, [and] the anti-Satanists profit greatly from giving the seminars. These are the seminars in which Pat Pulling distributes a questionnaire that, if used in accordance with the instructions, will prove virtually anyone to be a Satanist. These are the seminars at which “occult symbol” hand-outs are distributed, including things like “the Star of David” and at which any non-Christian religion is branded “Satanism.”

Many supposed victims of Satanic ritual abuse are widely believed to be likely candidates for childhood sexual abuse, occurring at a time when the human imagination is running so rampant that the abuse may have stored itself in the victims’ subconscious under the guise of being a Satanic rite (Holmes 3). This theory is prefaced in Suspiria by the character of Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier) when he addresses the disappearance of Sara (Stefania Cassini) and her hysterical beliefs in a witch cult hunting her down. 

“She had a nervous breakdown after her mother's death and she came to me for treatment. After she got better again, we remained friends. But lately she was upset about some notions put into her head by a friend of hers. They were kind of wild ideas. She had discovered that the Tanz Akademie was founded in 1895 by a certain Helena Markos, a Greek immigrant, and that the local people believed her to be a witch. That really got Sarah's imagination going. Madame Markos died in a fire. That's all there is as far as witchcraft is concerned. The school was taken over by her favorite pupil, the study of the occult was abandoned, and soon the place became the famous dance academy....As a believer in the material world and a psychologist to boot, I'm convinced that the current spread of belief in magic and the occult is part of mental illness. Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”

            Although “mental illness” might be an overstated response to the cultural interest in the occult during the 1970s, Dr. Mandel hits on a very potent point about the time period: people were looking for something to scapegoat. Associating ill fate with the Devil was recognized as “medieval thinking” throughout the progressively modernized 20th century, but in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby and, even more so, The Exorcist, belief in the existence of Satan and, more tellingly, his role on Earth,  was becoming increasingly popular in the mainstream American culture. This was particularly evident throughout the 1980s as evidenced by books and TV specials on the subject and a revolving cast of authors and frequent TV/radio guests making frequent media appearances during the so-called Satanic Panic.  The common fear of witchcraft in the 1980s was prophetically illustrated in Suspiria by the character of Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler) when he describes to the protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), what he learned from writing his defining book, Paranoia and Magic.

[Witches]   are malefic. Negative and destructive. Their knowledge of the art of the occult brings them tremendous powers. They can change the course of events, and people's lives. But only to do harm. Their goal is to accumulate great personal wealth, but that can only be achieved by injury to others. They can cause suffering, sickness, and even the death of those that, for whatever reason, have offended them. A woman becomes queen of her coven if her magic is 100 times more powerful than the rest of the coven, which is like a serpent. Its strength rests with its leader, which is likes it head. A coven deprived of its leader is like a headless cobra: harmless. Skepticism is the natural reaction of people today, but magic is ever present. Magic is everywhere, and all over the world, it's a recognized fact, always.

Patricia Pulling could not have said it any better herself. Indeed, this defining exchange is the most blatant misrepresentation of witchcraft-as-Satanism in the entire film. But a more careful deconstruction of this classic scene—specifically, with the aid of Argento’s view of the Suzy character—offers a very different interpretation. “[Suzy] does not know she is a white witch, but she has a great strength that drives back everything. Indeed, when she meets the professor it is the moment in which she begins to realize. She can fight because of her strength” (Locane, “Dark Dreams”). Of course, it would be virtually impossible to decipher this from what seems a straightforward condemnation of witchcraft in any form. 

Prior to 1977, serious Satanic horror in America was generally packaged for TV (Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, The Devil's Daughter), EuroHorror imports (The Antichrist, The Devil's Nightmare, To the Devil....a Daughter), hardcore porn (The Devil in Miss Jones, Through the Looking Glass), and, most commonly, prime drive-in meat (Race the Devil, The Brotherhood of Satan). Satanic horror films that came in the wake of Rosemary's Baby typically aimed to be frightening in a campy, cathartic, "fun time at the movies" manner, employing tried-and-true horror techniques. Dario Argento's Suspiria demonstrates a more diverse array of genre influences: the warped world of German Expressionism, the gothic chills of silent American horror, and the subtly insidious anti-witch scares of Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (“Suspiria 25”, Jones 83).  Ultimately, I would argue that the very effectiveness of Suspiria is why it serves as an inevitable precursor to the Satanic Panic. The film exists on a primal level, affects on a primal level, and stays with the viewer on a primal level. When looking back on Suspiria, one consciously remembers the striking barrage of jarring sound and vivid color even more than the prevalent element of witchcraft. As such, one could be frightened by ideas presented in the film years later, with no specific recollection as to where such fears originate from. 

Michael Brandon, star of Argento’s 1973 thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet, shared with UK viewers of the Channel 4 documentary Dario Argento: An Eye For Horror a very specific insight into Argento’s creative process as a screenwriter. “Dario told me he has dreams, or nightmares, and that's how the story comes into being. He would write down the nightmare. And it would become the script.” (“Eye for Horror”) In Suspiria, the nightmare world explored by Suzy Banyon may very well have echoed Argento’s own investigations into the world of magic in preparation for Suspiria. During this time, he and wife/co-writer Daria Nicolodi traveled throughout the “Magic Triangle”, a (supposedly) supernaturally active point where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet (“Suspiria: 25th Anniversary”), and met with many Pagans as well as alleged worshippers of the Devil (Jones 72). Says the couple’s daughter, international star Asia Argento, “he needs somebody, a feminine character, to represent his curiosity--of life, and danger, and all those things”. ("Eye For Horror")

           Dario Argento grew up and achieved success in the most Catholicized nation in the world. Could he have been, perhaps subconsciously, combatting his own innermost fears about the world of witchcraft, a world that at once utterly fascinated and completely terrified him? Pop-rock extraordinaire Keith Emerson, who composed the score to Inferno, has offered that “Dario was probably more scared of the films that he made than his audience was. I've seen the guy just shaking watching his own film” (“Eye for Horror”). American horror legend John Carpenter, a friend and colleague of Dario’s, points out “the story he tells over and over again” as the foundation of Argento’s fear of the unknown. “There was a hallway at the back of his house, and when he had to go to sleep at night, for whatever reason, when he would walk there, he would imagine these things behind the doorways in this hallway. By the time he got to his room he was in complete terror” (“Eye for Horror”). Another genre titan, George A. Romero, puts in his own take on how these fears are passed on to audiences around the globe, infecting the world with manifested realities of Argento's private nightmares. “I think when Dario gets an idea he is basically trying to communicate either a kind of horror or an allegory about certain human behavior. He's  like Van Gogh, someone who says this is the way I want it to be, and this is the world. Take from it what you will” (“Eye for Horror”). As the Satanic Panic stormed through the American 80s, it was clear that the country had taken Argento’s view of the world very literally indeed.


Holmes, Dr. Leonard. “What the Hell is Satanic Ritual Abuse”.
Acc. 6/26/05

Jones, Alan. Profondo Argento.
FabPress, London. 2004

Locane, Francesco. “Dario Talks to Dark Dreams”.
Acc. 6/29/05

Newton, Michael. “Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo”.
Acc. 6/23/05

Stackpole, Michael A.  “The Pulling Report”.
Acc. 6/23/05.

DVD Sources

Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror. Dir: Leon Ferguson, 2000.
Image Entertainment DVD, USA. 2001

Inferno. Dir: Dario Argento, 1980.
Anchor Bay Entertainment DVDUSA. 2000

Satan in the Suburbs. Dir: Scott Hillier, 2000.
WMI Media DVD, USA. 2004

Suspiria. Dir: Dario Argento, 1977.
Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, USA. 2001

Suspiria: 25th Anniversary. Dir: Gary Hertz, 2001.
Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, USA. 2001

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