Old Occult documentaries are a curious genre. Rarely made by Occult practitioners themselves, they not only serve to document what famous Witches, Satanists, Occultists, and Magicians believed and practiced, they also work as a lense to what the larger, non-Occult population thought of these people, and of alternative spirituality in general.
Attitudes towards the Occult shifted in big ways from the 1960s up through the 1990s, and we here at Dirge want to bring you through those cultural shifts. This will be the first in a series examining various documentaries on the Occult, and putting them into context for Witch and muggle alike. More than just being a document of changing attitudes, these documentaries are also vital links and tools of learning for those who do practice magic.
In this first set, we’ll be looking at three docs made from the late 1960s through 1970. This is a time after Gerald Gardner had created Wicca, but before the Satanic Panic had everyone thinking Satanists were going to sacrifice their children. It’s also just before mass-murdering cults like Jonestown, The Manson Family, or Aum Shinrikyo had people afraid of nearly every spirituality that wasn’t absolutely white bread and mainstream. As such, the Occult is largely treated as an extension of the counter culture, and a novelty, albeit a spooky one.
So grab the popcorn and the sacrificial goats blood, we’re going to the movies!
(Content Warning: The second and third documentary on this list contain nudity and discussions of sex, and the third contains live animal sacrifices. Safe to say these are NSFW, unless your boss is the absolute chillest.)
Anton LaVey is famous for being the founder of The Church of Satan, and as such is the father of modern Satanism in many ways.
This is one of Lavey’s first TV appearances, and it remains probably the goofiest of them all. In it, he wears a red and black cape, sports a “magic ring,” and makes jokes about how he’ll never die because he’s “made arrangements.” He’s a showman, someone who is playing the part of a Satanist as much as he’s just being one. This was the first time most Americans would have seen someone who actively identified as a Satanist, and instead of trying to fight stereotypes of what that might mean for people, LaVey leans into it. In fact his outfit is almost the exact same one that Satan wears in the 1967 movie Bedazzled.
The whole interview is almost painfully tongue-in-cheek, with Pyne constantly jabbing at LaVey, and keeping the whole thing light. He never actually lets LaVey get into much substance about what Satanism is, or what he hoped it would become. It’s evident from this, that Satanism, and the Occult in general, wasn’t being taken seriously by many Americans at the time. It’s a novelty, an extension of the 60s counter-culture taking place, and probably not much worse than whatever those hippie-types are doing, or so it seems.
When examining documentaries of any kind, it’s important to think about what that doc is trying to “do.” Obviously, education is the purpose of most documentaries, but education about what, and why? With this documentary, that’s not an easily answered question.
Satanis doesn’t seem too concerned with putting Satanism in a historical or cultural context. There are no “experts” that are interviewed, and no real outside or “objective” voices are heard. People interviewed aren’t even given names. It seems like it simply seeks to look at the reception of the Church of Satan within San Francisco, and contrast that with interviews with Satanists themselves.
It borders on voyeurism at times, with long montages of sexy Satanic rituals, and interviews with naked women, and there are some lapses in journalistic integrity when people are recorded even when they are told it’s “off the record.” However, the footage is valuable in the history of modern Occultism. It’s some of the only footage we have of Anton LaVey, and certainly contains rare footage of him actually conducting a ritual.
There is an innocence to this documentary that is almost charming. The two church boys that are interviewed seem almost comically “All-American” while the neighbors who don’t take kindly to LaVey or The Church of Satan almost all fit neatly into the “grouchy old neighbor” caricature.
This is surprising, since this documentary would have come out not long after the Manson Family committed the Tate and LaBianca murders in the summer 1969. Media outlets at the time tied the murders to the Hippie and Free Love movements on the West Coast at the time, and authors like Vincent Bugliosi tried to link Manson to The Process Church of The Final Judgement, a sort of proto-Satanist cult. It’s surprising and refreshing that this documentary doesn’t make that leap.
This Italian documentary, narrated in english, is all kinds of weird fun, even if the narrator sometimes seems pretty sure that Witchcraft is all evil, and parts of the piece ring with a condescending, if incredibly amusing, conservative tone. It follows magical practitioners all over the world in an attempt to catalogue the entire world of the Occult at the time, from the Witches of Scandinavia, to Quimbanda in Brazil, to a particularly strange weed cult in California. This doc really has it all!
All this material makes it an invaluable historical record for those who study magic in both a practical, and historical context. The documentarians capture footage of initiation rites, ESP phenomenon, and even the marriage of the famous witches, and founders of Alexandrian Wicca, Maxine and Alex Sanders. Strange and over-the-top as it sometimes is, The Occult Experience provides a snapshot of the magical world in 1970 that is hard to find elsewhere.
The music is spooky, silly fun, but the tone here has shifted ever so slightly from the harmless, goofy getups of Anton LaVey, and the wary but ultimately harmless citizens of San Francisco. The makers of this doc do not always see the Occult as harmless fun, or as a curious cultural phenomenon. While it’s by no means a “Satanic Panic” documentary, you can catch a whiff of that on the breeze.