Directed by Chelsea Stardust (All That We Destroy), the upcoming horror comedy Satanic Panic plays fast and loose with demonic forces. It changes the standard virgin sacrifice into a quarterly earnings celebration and Tupperware pep talk, but does it with midnight movie mythology. Hayley Griffith (The Loudest Voice) plays the virgin, Sam, a little low on gas but high in spirit. The high priestess of the satanic cabal is Danica Ross played by Rebecca Romijn. Her followers pledge themselves to Baphomet, and incur the playful wrath of a lesser demon because they didn’t read the fine print.
The devil is always in the details, and novelist Grady Hendrix, who wrote the screenplay from a story he wrote with Ted Geoghegan (Mohawk, We Are Still Here), can find them with the Dewey Decimal System. Hendrix, who wrote My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016) among other funny fright films, is a former librarian at the American Society for Psychical Research. He also broke down the corporate structure of Hell in his 2018 book We Sold Our Souls, and parsed the macabre history of post-1960s fright novels in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction.
Den of Geek spoke with Hendrix about the devils of Satanic Panic, and where they fit in the unholy hierarchy.
DEN OF GEEK: Satanic Panic was fun but tell me, is it only fun until someone loses their third eye?
GRADY HENDRIX: Exactly. Until you drive a blessed nail into that third eye, that’s when things get serious.
You worked at the American Society for Psychical Research. So, tell me, where did you get your incantations?
The ASPR was really a lot more about spiritualism and mediumship and all those movements to study it. It was fascinating to work there and spend time in the library and archives. But I really have to drop all that out of my head when I’m writing horror because “real” hauntings and “real” ghosts are so different from fictional ones that they really just get in each other’s way. Fictional ones are a lot more interesting to be honest.
So you never actually worry that you might say the right thing and actually conjure something?
No. I wish, I mean, God, if I could conjure up a demon from hell, that would just settle so many existential debates, and theological debates, it’d be fascinating. I would love to. But, I don’t think there’s any worry of that happening.
Have you ever attended any rituals?
Well, I mean, define ritual. I mean, do I sit there with their grimoire, or some Temple of the Golden Dawn working to try to do that? Not really, but there’s tons of rituals you have when you write stuff, or at least I do. Basically my whole job is to make things up. So anything that keeps that easier or keeps it working or keeps it flowing or make it more interesting, I’m all for it. So, yeah, sure. I’ve sat in plenty of dark rooms with candles going and all kinds of stuff. That’s my job.
Does it ever become automatic writing?
Well, yes and no. In the sense that there’s stuff I will look back and read that I’m like, where did that come from? Automatic writing in the sense of a limited trance is being dictated by something else. No, not really. But, when you get into the flow and you’re really banging out the words, you’re kind of, the goal is to sort of get past, or at least for the first draft, all your internal governors and tap into something real.
So, definitely there’s stuff that like comes up or pops up that you’re like “where did that come from?” I was just reading a first draft for something I’m revising right now, and I had forgotten this character who pops up in there was even in it. I didn’t even know who, I’m like, I wrote this? This is weird. I’m cutting them, but it was interesting to see things that pop in and you don’t even remember it.
In the book Paperbacks from Hell, you wrote about everything from Rosemary’s Baby through The Other. I want to know a little bit about some of your favorite satanic horror movies and books.
Well, for books, I mean, Brian McNaughton did a great series for Star, which was a porn publisher in the seventies. Satan’s Love Child, Satan’s Mistress, Satan’s Daughter, I think was the other one, Satan’s Bride. They are fantastic. The first one really feels like a straightforward, decent kind of satanic cult novel. Then the second one really, really gets good and sort of you realize, oh, the first one is sort of a story that happened in the past and the characters and the second one references it. By the third one, characters are traveling through time back to events in the second one. It just becomes this really claustrophobic time loop of a book. What you want from cult horror is a feeling of despair and that the whole world is caught in an iron grip of horror and it really conjures it up in those books.
For movies, the Peter Fonda/Warren Oates film Race with the Devil, and Brotherhood of Satan both had a big impact on Satanic Panic. I still would love to see someone do a remake of Falling Angel, which is the book that became Angel Heart, which is horrible, with Mickey Rourke with Robert De Niro playing the devil. I’m drawing a blank on the director’s name.
I love that movie, Alan Parker. I liked the book better because it’s all set in New York.
The book, yeah, I’d love to see someone do one set in New York. A more literal adaptation, but that’s another satanic cult book, or a Satan book.
What do you think about Dennis Wheatley from back the early 20th century?
I like Dennis Wheatley’s stuff because it’s got a very sort of like must-be-kind-of-proper feel to it. Like very jolly hockey sticks kind of B movie, which I’m a big fan of. But Dennis Wheatley was so deeply conservative, personally, that I find he could never let his freak flag fly enough to really get where we want my authors to get with their horror. Like his Satanists are always repulsive and horrible, and so I love Devil Rides Out and The Haunting of Toby Jugg. I like all those, but he’s not a personal favorite. Like him, don’t love him. We’ll hold hands. We won’t kiss.
Were you ever afraid of hell?
No. I mean the idea of hell, like certainly Dante’s hell, is really appalling. I mean, just the idea of physical poor man forever is just so gruesome and sadistic. It, even as a kid though, it seemed deeply unrealistic to me. So I was never personally afraid of hell, but it definitely, when you start to literalize it, it’s just a gross idea.
How was Chelsea Stardust to work with, and what kind of collaborations go back and forth with her?
Oh, she was great. We did a couple of different drafts of the script together where it was really just sort of tweaking it a little for her sensibilities, which wasn’t too much. Then it was really tweaking the script towards the practicalities of production. That’s where we really we both had our sleeves rolled up and we’re dealing with the minutia of who comes through a door first, things like that. I love doing that stuff. I mean that’s really where the rubber meets the road. And so I love the sort of getting down there and the engine and moving the parts around and tweaking them.
The script she shot, because I was there up until about a couple of days before they rolled cameras, working with the actors at the table reads and all that, was what we wrote, which is how it should be. Writing the script is the cheapest part of making a movie. So if you can get it tight, so all they have to do is write what’s there, shoot what’s written, that helps the production such a huge amount. So, it was really, really nice to be involved in that process together.
How do you feel about on-set improv?
Hey, I think if someone has a better idea, why not? But I wasn’t on set so I don’t know how much got improv. But most of what I saw was in the script, if I recall correctly. So, I always feel like the best ideas are the best ideas no matter where they come from or when. I am someone who will endlessly revise a book until the last minute, because if you’ve got an idea to make it better, it doesn’t matter if it’s inconvenient to the other people you’re working with, it needs to be in there.
Tell me a little bit about the casual sexual harassment that Sam encounters in both the work world and the satanic underground.
I feel like that’s sort of one of those things that it’s just kind of part and parcel of life to some extent. You know, if you’re in a workplace, people are going to give you a hard time. And if you’re a woman, that hard time is often going to be related to your genital and your gender. And I think you’d have to be blind sort of not to see it. And so, it was nice to get into the cult stuff too. There’s something so petty about it, you know? I mean when you get to Samuel who’s going to die that night and he’s still trying to figure out a way to score with the girl who’s bra he seen, there’s something so childish and immature about that. It’s really fun to write that character. I like writing people who are very immature, because I feel like at some level we all are. So, that kind of sexual immaturity that some dudes have, it’s horrible in real life, but it’s a lot of fun to write.
Speaking of that, to paraphrase George Costanza in Seinfeld: what are the odds of being locked up with a virgin on a day when they’re going to sacrifice her for being a virgin?
Exactly. You know, for him it looks like a win/win all of the sudden. He’s baffled that she doesn’t want to have sex with him.
You wrote the fantasy novel Satan Loves You. Is the devil in Satanic Panic in the same corporate structure as the one in this movie?
On the one hand no, clearly different corporate structures. The Satanic Panic hell is a much more traditional sort of Key of Solomon version of hell. It’s much more black magic in a cult. The hell of Satan Loves You is a bureaucratic hell. It’s designed to just process goals. So it’s much more of sort of a business model, whereas there is a much more hierarchical religious model in Satanic Panic. That said, the hell of something like “The Key of Solomon,” or parts of the Bible depending on which part you’re reading, or a medieval which hunting manuals and things like that, is a very, very corporate structure where the demons are hierarchical. Some are above others. They have very carefully delineated powers and areas of responsibility. It’s very, very nerdy and it’s really tedious. You feel like the demons have to spend a lot of time filling out paperwork and being careful not to violate rules or step on toes in other departments. So one’s an antecedent to the other, but the Satanic Panic hell is a much more religious hierarchical one, and the one in Satan Loves You is a much more corporate hierarchy.
You also wrote the Faustian heavy metal book, We Sold Our Souls. Does the small print ever work out for a for soul seller in a buyer’s market?
No, never, and it is always a buyers’ market really. I mean the price of souls is greatly devalued these days. So, yeah, the second you sell your soul, you’re screwed even if you think you’ve got a really good deal.
In films, why does the devil always have to lose?
The devil is the eternal underdog, and also the devil does win in Satanic Panic. I mean, he doesn’t get a virgin, but he gets a lot of chaos, pain and suffering. So, it works out for Samaziel, not so much for Baphomet. But in general, the devil always has to be the devil for the natural underdog, and I feel like the devil’s usually on the side of the people I’m more aligned with: the losers, the people who are beat down, the people who don’t get it, who don’t get the reward, who don’t get the win. I feel like there’s room for Satan to be sort of the great patron saint of the underdog, at least in my personal cosmology.
Not to get back to the corporate structure even though there was a lesser demon in the film, but who are some of your favorite demons and how many are really camera worthy?
Well, I don’t have a favorite demon just in the sense of they’re all kind of wacky. Look at someone like Paimon from Hereditary, that’s right out of “Key of Solomon.” He rides a donkey, all that stuff. It’s fabulous. So I feel like they’ve all got their tweaks and physical characteristics that would make them amazing on screen.
I think there needs to be more demons in movies, not less. And I feel like going back to some source material would really, really help filmmakers. Just the demons are bonkers, man. Azazel, from My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is an owl-headed naked woman with a sword riding a wolf. Geez, I want to see that airbrushed on the side of a van.
As a student of history, has passing the hat after delivery ever resulted in an actual tip?
No, never. You’re going to get the tip up front as goods exchange hand, or you don’t get the tip. Although I will say passing the hat after delivery is the total business model of the food service sector, where you’re supposed to leave a tip at the end of the meal that covers your server’s wages. So I guess it kind of works in general. But yeah, for delivery people, no. It blows. Money first.
You can watch the trailer for Satanic Panic here:
Produced by Fangoria and Aperture Entertainment, Satanic Panic also stars Ruby Modine (Happy Death Day) and Jerry O’Connell (Billions). It will be released in limited theaters and VOD platforms on September 6.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.