The 13th Floor

Satan as a Feminist Instrument: Exploring THE LORDS OF SALEM

I don’t need to tell Blumhouse readers that Rob Zombie has had a textured and fascinating career.

Rob first rose to fame as frontman for well-regarded metal band White Zombie in the 1980s and ’90s, and began mixing techno with metal as part of a well-regarded solo career that spans nearly 20 years and six albums (1998’s HELLBILLY DELUXE is still one of the best-selling metal records of its decade), and he still aims to disturb and provoke with more recent fare like 2016’s THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER. His music is loud, violent, and flavored with horror movie and spookshow imagery, ripped directly from the macabre classics of the 1930s and the gory, sleazy exploitation flicks of the 1970s.

Also well-known is Zombie’s move to directing feature films, of which he has made six. His 2003 debut THE HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES — a riff on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the horror & exploitation movies of his youth — is well-regarded (if not entirely good), and his 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN is still an active part of the slasher conversation. The man banks in the disturbing, and his flavor of violence is dirty, grimy, and brutal. When someone is stabbed in a Rob Zombie film, it’s going to be repeatedly — and likely in a ditch, held down by a cackling, greasy clown.

With that said, it’s certainly striking that Rob Zombie should have made one of the most feminist horror films of the 2010s: THE LORDS OF SALEM.

In 2013, Zombie wrote and directed this thoughtful, low-budget film about witches, Satan, and the power of the occult as a tool of vengeance against the masculine forces that marginalized women throughout the centuries. Zombie may seem like an unlikely feminist icon, but THE LORDS OF SALEM certainly speaks out in favor of women, and aims to gain a type of cultural retribution. Zombie seems to be looking at the Salem Witch Trials as perhaps the nation’s most definitive institutionalized anti-woman phenomenon — and, perhaps in a fit of feminist outrage, seeks to settle the score.

LORDS follows a DJ nicknamed Heidi La Rock (played by Zombie’s real-life wife Sheri Moon Zombie, a regular in his films) as she recovers from drug addiction in the sleepy modern-day Salem, Massachusetts. The days are gray, her life is quiet, and her DJ friends (played by Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips) are close and warm. Zombie has had an often-undersung talent for depicting close friendships between adults through easy banter and incidental dialogue, and Heidi’s relationship with her co-workers is palpable and intimate. Heidi experiences no actual prejudice herself, and is not marginalized because of her sex. To a modern woman like Heidi, feminism has more or less worked.

Heidi receives a mysterious wooden box one day, containing a record by an unknown band calling themselves The Lords. She and Phillips’s character listen to this music — a simple orchestral rendition of three dissonant notes, repeated several times. Although the characters never comment on the nature of the music, the audience immediately recognizes it as reminiscent of the notes contained in the infamous “augmented fourth” that had been discouraged by many churches during the Renaissance. Rumors persist to this day that churches deemed this particular chord as being too lustful and inappropriate. Yes, there was a time when even a grouping of musical notes could be contested; the augmented fourth has been known as “The Devil’s Interval” or “The Devil’s Tritone.”

Listen to an extended mix of The Lords’ music below:

The Devil is now, through this simple creepy piece, hanging over the events of THE LORDS OF SALEM. Heidi, when listening to this music, has visions of women who are worshiping Satan, cavorting in the nude, and have the type of merry old time everyone always assumed 17th-century witches were having. The music infects her, and, over the course of the film, she begins having more and more intense hallucinations of Satan and other demonic images. The Devil himself in this film is represented by a grotesque diminutive creature, with gore for skin, lobster-like claws, and intestinal protrusions extending from its belly.

Also into Heidi’s life come a pair of spirited and hilarious women who share late-night bottles of wine with her landlady. This trio — played by Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace — laugh late into the night, gleefully living on the world. They are also, perhaps predictably, up to something supernatural and mysterious, telling Heidi that her feminine sexual desires are the only reason she exists. Heidi is not a particularly libidinous person, but her very sex is, she is told, foremost to the way she interacts with the world around her. Feminism is about equality; it is certainly not about erasing gender from the Earth. These women remind Heidi that her gender is spearheading her every interaction — which highlights them as semi-supernatural feminist figures.

Heidi experiences this most starkly in a vision she has in a church: She seeks spiritual guidance, but dreams that the priest inside the church only wants to sexually assault her. The guiding force of male-driven organized spirituality, according to Zombie, is an offensive form of anti-feminism. Women, to this day, are not allowed to be priests in the Catholic church, and women were infamously the ones most doggedly pursued by church and community leaders during the Salem Trials. The entire town of Salem is, even in 2013, living under a cloud of female persecution, and the descendants of the persecutors — the modern churches — are not safe places. The righteousness of the modern Catholic church is depicted as hypocritical, even if its modern iteration is calming, righteous, and positive.

What can be the only solution to all this anti-feminist sentiment that is hanging like an angry ghost over the town of Salem? The very thing women were accused of worshiping: Satan. The Adversary is eventually revealed to be lurking in the music of The Lords — and women all over Salem, when they hear the record played on the radio, fall into a trance, drawn to a Satanic mass in a local theater. The implication is that these women, as an echo of the persecution and injustice they previously experienced, will pool their rage and destroy the world.

In a very salient way, Satan in THE LORDS OF SALEM is a tool of righteous feminist indignation; Zombie’s film is a cultural revenge fantasy that aims to undo the injustices suffered by women at the hands of men. It’s fitting that the heroine of the film should be uninvolved in anything political or outwardly feminist, because even the most politically neutral women, the film seems to argue, are still being culturally victimized — or, at the very least, bear a mark of previous generations’ grief, which they must now repair.

LORDS is a slow-moving and loosely constructed film, and many audiences didn’t necessarily jibe with Zombie’s constant use of what can easily be described as music video imagery (there’s a shot of Moon Zombie gyrating on the back of a stuffed goat, undulating like a stripper). But the film’s looseness adds, I think, a tone of dread and ease that make its horror images all the more striking when they arrive.

It’s no cinema classic, and it’s not even Zombie’s best film (that honor still belongs to 2005’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), but THE LORDS OF SALEM is certainly the director’s most thoughtful, mature, and thematically rich film. This time, Zombie has something to say: Satan, he declares, came about as a reaction to injustice, and not merely as a force of evil. This is a theology not often explored in films — and something that is certainly worthy of discussion.