Years before it was a hotbed of technological innovation and unaffordable housing, the San Francisco Bay Area was the “headquarters of occult and metaphysical activity in the United States.” This was a startling history lesson to me, but just one of many assertions by the creators of the 1972 religious short film, THE OCCULT: AN ECHO FROM DARKNESS. If you like your anonymous talking head documentaries with ominous music and a hearty side of hard-line Satanic panic propaganda, this is the film of your factually dubious dreams.
The film wants to keep things simple by throwing every tenuous flavor of “the occult” into one big bucket, from tarot card readings, Satanism, and ceremonial magic, to neopaganism and astrology (conspicuous by its absence is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, which was only excluded because it hadn’t been published yet). The interview subjects come from all corners of Western esotericism and cover a lot of ground. A long-haired intellectual, whom I later learned was American Druid, Isaac Bonewits, describes the sorts of money-hungry and drug-fueled types one may encounter in occultist social circles. A short-haired woman is insistent that viewers not conflate her “magic” with the fact that she’s also psychic. A grandfatherly man in glasses — a “grandmaster warlock,” as the narrator claims — discusses his experience performing rituals in the nude. The result is an unfocused, if strangely entertaining, mess of topics.
Along with this cast of characters are some incredible (and completely bat-shit) proclamations. An interview subject claims the ability of astral projection — a self-induced out-of-body experience in which the soul can “travel” throughout the universe. A former member of a Satanic cult, anonymized in low-light and shadows, claims to have lived under a “demon of destruction” that required the human sacrifice of a small child. How could the cult have possibly known this? Welp, a Satanic talking goat told them. Now a Christian, she recalled, “I was so into it, I really loved Satan,” with the same tinge of embarrassment that people display when renouncing their old fandom of stamp collecting or 1990s boy bands.
While Martin Brooks provides the narration detailing much of the historical and religious context for the film’s assertions, the real face of the film is Hal Lindsey, an American evangelist and scholar of biblical prophecy. Lindsey has parlayed his religious convictions into a few best-selling books — this film is based on the book he wrote the same year, SATAN IS ALIVE AND WELL ON PLANET EARTH — and even a biblical prophecy consultant” credit for the 1999 action-fantasy film THE OMEGA CODE, starring Casper Van Dien (STARSHIP TROOPERS) and Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN). Throughout this film, he paces around various locations while discussing the follies of humankind in its search for enlightenment; he describes the dangers of the occult from the shadows of an ancient temple, and admonishes Stonehenge as “an example of the power of evil applied to the weakness of men” …. while visiting Stonehenge! (Not pictured in this scene: the tour guide angrily gesturing for Lindsey and his camera operator to get back on the tour bus).
Unlike other short documentaries that might assemble a cohesive argument to serve a specific persuasive purpose, the film fumbles when trying to juggle its historical focus on religious concepts of evil, two separate lines of “voice-of-god” narration (no pun intended), and a bevy of anonymous occultists. The result is religious propaganda undermined by a disjointed presentation that feels both wacky and cheesy, making it perfect viewing for the spooky season.
– This content was originally published on The Archival Eye