The Devil Thumbs a Ride
Satan, Bigfoot, UFOs, and Calvary
By Theresa Starkey, Photos by Joe York
Reading time 16 Minutes
As a kid I was terrified of the devil
As a kid I was terrified of the devil. In my imagination he could appear as anyone and anywhere. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown he appears as a member of the Puritan community. He doesn’t look like the logo on Underwood’s Deviled Ham, which is a red fiend with a pitchfork and twitching tail, who looks like he is doing a jig. I dreaded passing by the stacked Underwood cans in the grocery store aisle and did my best to not look at them. To me it was like inviting evil into your kitchen cupboard. Young Goodman Brown met his devil in the woods and had his world turned upside down when he discovered that his fellow townsfolk were part of a coven. His community only pretended to be pious. Not even his apple-cheeked wife was who she appeared to be.
In Ted V. Mikels’s One Shocking Moment the devil’s name is Tanya. She dresses like Jackie O, drives a cool car, and is a club owner who carries a stylish overnight case. It is such an ordinary moment when she gets out of her car with it in front of a building. She looks like she is packed for a sleepover or is ready to sell Avon. Turns out that not all is as it appears with Tanya, either. She doesn’t have a nightgown or the latest shade of lipstick or blush in her case, but a leather whip. She is peddling punishment and has a customer inside the building ready to pay her for it. Like the devil, Tanya knows how to spot the hypocrite, too. For example, she knows that Mindy’s husband Cliff is a philanderer. When she finds him fooling around on a rug with one of her waitresses (and her girlfriend) she grinds Cliff’s hand into the ground with the heel of her shoe. She is no puss. After that, Cliff literally gets on the good foot and realizes he needs to walk the straight and narrow and appreciate Mindy.
For me One Shocking Moment is a cautionary tale. I was raised on those types of narratives and in the belief that the wondrous and sinister were with us in our everyday lives. You had to be watchful, repentant, and ready for the big question of my youth, which was “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” By the time I was eleven I had been saved at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, at a summertime revival, baptized at a church in Hickory Flat, and found Jesus again while living in Valdosta.
Mt. Carmel was my grandmother’s church. It was made of wood, painted white, and small like a shotgun shack. No plumbing, just like when it was first established in 1853.
It felt so disconnected from the rest of the world. The drive there was long. Gravel from the road constantly pinged the side of the car. Ruts made the ride bumpy. The morning sun seemed brighter. Unsettling. The brittle pine forest glared on either side of the road, which eventually gave way to a tiny clearing where the church sat like something from a Hawthorne tale.
The congregation was small. There were never more than twenty to twenty-five people in attendance when I went with my grandmother. When parishioners sang, their voices produced a dissonant sound, unpolished, and high-pitched. Hearing them made me feel a part of something. It felt like faith to me.
When I really began to listen, what I heard was fear. I heard it deep, so deep that it vibrated. The preacher talked about Satan, hell, our need to repent, God’s watchful eye. Sin. When he spoke he was enraptured. Sincere. His face flushed. The sweat on his forehead and spittle from his mouth were so physical.
I wanted the Lord to be with me, because I was afraid of what might happen if he wasn’t. That fear made me a runner. Whenever a sermon turned towards hell, the devil, and the shortness of this world I headed to the pulpit to be saved again. Body humming. Anxious and crying. Everything illuminated and askew. The sermons I heard were worked deep into my psyche.
My vulnerability was visceral
My vulnerability was visceral and reflected a universe that was in a spiritual, phantasmagoric flux. Made-for-TV movies like Duel (1971), Gargoyles(1972), Satan’s Triangle (1975) and The Bermuda Depths, the show In Search Of (1977-1982), and the 1979 radio hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band represent not only a cultural moment, but a snapshot of imagined scenarios that intersected with the tangible environment around me. It was the late 1970s, and an evangelical man of faith from my home state of Georgia was in the White House, and Billy Graham was on the radio and TV. The nation around me grappled with its own anxieties, roiled by inflation, high gas prices, and the hostage situation in Iran. Pollution and environmental concerns were broadcast in public service announcements. Shifts in traditional power structures were underway. The slow dismantling was accomplished by marginalized men and women, who had participated in the social movements of 1960s and 70s. The decade was marked by liberation – and by dread for those who found the insularity of static notions of race and gender comforting.
Film critic Robin Wood famously called the 1970s a “Golden Age of the American horror film.” It is an applicable description in terms of film history. Yet why limit its scope to just cinema? After all, what is horror, but the feeling of shock, disbelief, anxiety, dread, and sensations of the abject? The made-for-TV movies, songs and shows that I consumed as a young girl living in Georgia were marketed as entertainment, but there was no enjoyment there for me. I had ingested a narrative steeped in the horrors of this world, and the one to be reckoned with in the next, if you were not on the right side of God. I spent a lot of time saying “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Did other girls my age utter this declaration? I was advised to declare this whenever temptation or a dark thought struck. Turning on the TV or radio only reinforced my anxiety that permutations of the monstrous, strange, and biblical could be found in the night sky, the woods, and in mundane places like a Greyhound bus station, the backyard or local highway.
At the start of Gargoyles the sketch of a hellish face fills the screen. A series of illustrations follow that depict good and evil in battle. Grainy photographs of gargoyle statues and drawings appear one after the other in a disquieting sequence. The documentary feel made me squirm in front of the TV at my grandmother’s house. An authoritative voiceover described Satan’s pride and fall from heaven. It was a familiar tale to me, but the rest of the yarn was new, and alarming. Who knew that there was a monster colony born every six hundred years that hatched from eggs? The green, muscular monsters with their devil horns and large bat-like wings were apocalyptic figures moving about their subterranean dwelling in slow motion. The film confirmed my suspicion that the devil was loose in America.
If the southwest desert was inhabited by gargoyles, then aberrations such as a mammoth sea turtle in the Bermuda Triangle and, in a separate narrative, the devil bobbing about in the same waters wearing a life vest were equally plausible. The legendary cataclysmic zone in the North Atlantic, a popular subject of tabloid speculation in the 1970s, was too much for my young Baptist mind to take in as I watched The Bermuda Depths and Satan’s Triangle.
The Bermuda Depthslinked young love to the monstrous. An egg hatches on a beach while two young children excitedly watch a baby turtle emerge. The boy writes their initials on its shell. The letters are enclosed in a heart. The girl eventually vanishes into the waves with the turtle and becomes a hazy memory. The boy turns into a man and she into a siren who swims with the turtle, which has turned gigantic and monstrous. No longer a symbol of innocence, the turtle destroys ships and seaside homes. It drags a man to his watery grave. He is forever attached to the creature like a made-for-TV Ahab. This patchwork of images stayed with me. They were tinged with my adolescent fear about young love, first kisses, and nature, human and otherwise, run amok.
My imagination was primed by the time I watched Satan’s Triangle
My imagination was primed by the time I watched Satan’s Triangle one Saturday afternoon. The establishing shot of the sun’s rays reflected on the gentle ocean waves turned ominous when a voiceover explained how “Over the past thirty years just off the east coast of the United States more than a thousand men, women and children have vanished off the face of the earth. No one knows how. Or why...” An intertitle reinforced his assertion. A shapeshifting devil who masquerades as a priest, a Coast Guard rescuer, a middle-aged woman, or whomever else he chooses as a lure turned out to be the “how” and “why” explanation provided by Danny Thomas Productions. Closeup shots of the actors’ faces wearing weird, sinister smiles, the use of lens flares as an aesthetic device, and the devil’s body-hopping abilities amplified my horror about what was happening in the Bermuda Triangle with all those good faith rescues gone awry.
The Pacific Northwest’s vast forests and mountain region became another point of fear for me. In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy made Bigfoot real – not just for me, but for my cousin, too. He and I sat on the shag carpet in front of the TV after Sunday dinner one evening and watched the episode on Sasquatch. Experts talked about the creature and we listened. We listened to eyewitnesses recount their sightings and took in all the information we could from the experts, who held up plaster casts of its footprint and potential jawbone. These elements reinforced the show’s realism for us, as did the use of the shaky handheld camera and grainy quality of all the footage. The photograph of Bigfoot staring at the camera in a long shot made the monster so tangible. The action shot of him in mid stride had such a kinetic energy to it. My cousin shared my dread of the creature and the unknown he represented. My cousin was, like me, a product of the Baptist faith. He went to Bible school, and for a brief period of time he and I attended the same Christian school together.
He had ambitions of being a preacher or a truck driver. I admired both of his vocations. Movies like Smokey and the Bandit and songs celebrating the CB radio craze, such as C. W. McCall’s “Convoy,” romanticized the trucking life, while Steven Spielberg’s movie Duel complicated things. Blue-collar psychos in rumpled, greasy clothes sat behind the wheels of big rigs ready to hit the accelerator and terrorize middle class men in four-door sedans.
I remember the evening my cousin ran into the kitchen panicked, pale, and frightened after taking out the trash. It was his night for doing the chore. He was in the backyard with Mr. Pibb, the family dog, when he looked up into the night sky and saw something cylinder-like hovering. When he ran with Mr. Pibb toward the back door, the object darted at lightning speed toward the horizon. His story became a family tale. The night he saw the UFO was dismissed by adults as pure imagination and source of laughter. For us, it wasn’t so strange. We were taught to believe in the wondrous, encouraged to take leaps of faith, to long for grace, and to fear for our souls, both by the church those same adults encouraged us to attend and by Leonard Nimoy, who had several episodes on UFOs. I believed and envied my cousin, but most of all I was just relieved that it was not me alone in the backyard with Mr. Pibb that night.
I feared for my soul whenever I heard “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” The chart-topping song was played on the radio, at the roller rink, and on TV. It filled my mind with so many questions. Where was he in Georgia? Was he headed toward Valdosta? If so, how was he traveling? What did it mean that I thought Johnny’s violin playing was poor compared to the devil’s? Was I a bad person for this? I was convinced that the devil traveled by Greyhound bus, and that he dressed like a salesman or office manager, and wore neatly creased slacks. The idea that he stepped off the bus like someone come to town to visit a relative or keep a business appointment were the perfect ruse of a master deceiver.
Far from contradicting one another, as they were often said to do, church and popular culture reinforced the same sense of dread. I used to joke that what I had experienced all those years ago during those many altar calls were not multiple moments of salvation, but a litany of panic attacks. Who’s to say that they weren’t both?
Theresa Starkey is the associate director for the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi where she also teaches. Her writing has appeared in The Oxford American, storySouth, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She is the coeditor of Detecting the South in Fiction, Film, and Television from LSU Press.
Special thanks to Joe York for allowing us to use photos from his book With Signs Following: Photographs from the Southern Religious Roadside (University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Find more about his work at www.joeyork.com.