Conjure an image of Victorian culture. What do you see? Mourning jewelry, long black gowns, and a dark flowering of occultism are often the first things that come to mind. By the late-nineteenth century, however, Victorians were also obsessed with the American West—or at least the mythical Wild West that unfolded in Romance novels. When Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West Show to Europe in the late 1880s, he did not dispel that myth. Rugged, manly, and slightly “uncivilized,” he was the quintessential frontiersman and the embodiment American masculinity. Bram Stoker was so taken with him that he wrote elements of his character into Quincey Morris, the gentrified cowboy in Dracula who ultimately fights evil in Transylvania on Europe’s eastern frontier (Warren).
The Wild West as Conservative Patriarchal Myth
The enduring myth of the Wild West as a reflection of American masculinity and individualism was reflected in twentieth-century Westerns. In films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Wayne preserved much of Buffalo Bill’s persona—the rough-and-tumble outsider who lived on his own terms and did what he believed to be right in defiance of corrupt systems. In Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood would espouse the same conservative values—including the importance of the individual over the collective, the old ways over the new.
Mid-century television Westerns such as Bonanza (1959-73) and Rawhide (1959-65) looked back to the bygone world of the frontier as a time of wholesomeness—a period when a man could thrust deep into the western wilds, stake claims on land, and defend his property. Included in this property were the good Christian wife and children that he ruled over as an absolute patriarch. The nuclear family, the idea of self-sufficiency, the self-righteousness, the guns—it was a conservative American man’s dream. Was there evil in the world? Sure. But a real man could just shoot and kill it.
But of course the Wild West never existed, at least not like that. And by the 1970s, even the myth of the frontier had begun to fade. A failing American economy and international terrorism brought American hegemony into question, while high divorce rates, latchkey kids, and rebellious youth suggested the destruction of the “traditional” American family. The rise of alternative family structures as well as the growing presence of queer culture, occultism, and feminism suggested that there were other ways to live beyond the patriarchy. To conservatives—in particular conservative Christians—it seemed like the work of the Devil.
The 70s Satanic Western
The Satanic cinema of the 1970s played on those very fears. From New York City (The Sentinel, 1977) and Georgetown (The Exorcist, 1973) to the California Suburbs (The Devil’s Daughter, 1973), Satan and his demons were raping, impregnating, and possessing females who lived beyond male guidance. From sea to shining sea, Satan was wreaking havoc in small towns and cities alike. And then it happened—Satan and his followers moved to the cinematic Wild West. And the Satanic Western was born.
Released in 1971, The Brotherhood of Satan tells the story of a small frontier town populated by weak men who fail to protect their families from a patriarchal Satanic coven. One man’s drunkenness leads to the abduction of his son. A devout Evangelical Christian man loses his family despite all attempts to keep them safe in his home. Other failed paternal authorities include the town’s cowboy sheriff, who is powerless to prevent the death and disappearance of his citizens, and the town priest, who is unable to stop the Satanists despite his specialized knowledge of the occult. In this town of impotent Christian frontiersmen, the Satanic coven, led by the town’s authoritative doctor, succeeds in abducting local children and using their bodies to gain “one more lifetime in the brotherhood of Satan.”
The destruction of the patriarchal American family is likewise at the heart of The Devil’s Rain (1975). In this film, a Christian frontier family is pitted against a Satanic coven that has relocated from Puritan New England to the Wild West—from one mythical American context to another. Despite his cowboy honesty and ingenuity, the Christian son loses in a Wild West showdown with the Satanic patriarch and forfeits his soul to the Devil’s Rain—a collection of suffering spirits trapped in a bottle for eternity.
The Satanic Western contested the mythical constructs of the Wild West and the patriarchal American family, highlighting the misogyny inherent in both. In The Brotherhood of Satan, women are subjugated and abused by male authority in both Christian and Satanic patriarchies—suggesting that are they equally insidious. The Satanic Western likewise dissolved the myth of the rugged and independent frontiersman who could stand his ground in the wilderness against the pressures of civilization. In these narratives, the mythical frontier is all but dead as individuals are subsumed into larger systems and all personal agency is lost like tumbleweeds drifting off frame.
A Truly Luciferian Wild West?
Here in 2017, conservatives still imagine the Wild West as a time when white Christian men forged the desert into towns and ruled their families as absolute patriarchs—a myth they hold dear. When we strip this foolishness away, what do we find, glittering in the sun?
We find indigenous people forced from western lands by a government eager for manifest destiny. Many frontiersmen were welcomed into these lands by the government—they did not fight indigenous people “valiantly” nor did they somehow “earn” the land. It was stolen by one group of white men and offered to another, all to the disadvantage of those who called the land home.
We find women—not the simpering housewives and helpless daughters from so many Westerns—but gun-wielding, cattle ranching, horse-riding bad-ass bitches. We find the prostitutes who found lucrative opportunities in mining camps, set up brothels, made large sums of money, and funded the growth of the first towns in many areas of the west. They were so powerful in Wyoming that they had the right to vote in 1869 and elected America’s first female governor in 1925.
We find queer culture—not all frontier folk were straight or gender normative, y’all! Just as Indigenous cultures accepted that some individuals were two-spirit (gender fluid) or open in sexual orientation, frontier folk were way more accepting than modern conservatives want to admit. The realities of life on the range invited all sorts of gender fluidity, and same-sex relationships—both male and female—were common. See this great article, “Homos on the Range!”
Under it all, we find an invitation to reconnect with the only thing worth keeping out of the whole damn mess—the Luciferian power of the rebellious individual. After stripping away the patriarchal, misogynist, hetero- and cis-normative layers of the mythical Wild West, we are ultimately left with our own autonomy to become the fullest most alive versions of ourselves. Here. Now. Not on the false frontier of the Wild Wild West—but on the ever-present frontier of our minds and hearts.
Yippee Ki-yay, Dirgelings!
Source not linked above:
Warren, Louis S. “Buffalo Bill Meets Dracula: William F. Cody, Bram Stoker, and the Frontiers of Racial Decay,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 4 (October 2002), pp. 1124-1157.