The Lure of the Dark Side: A Review

The dark side is alive and well in popular culture and has been for millenia. Just as fascinating as the dark side itself is our fascination with it. In The Lure of the Dark Side: Satan & Western Demonology in Popular Culture, Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson collect a series of essays, many of which were originally presented at a conference in North Wales in 2006, that discuss both “dark” media and our “addiction” to them.Partridge and Christianson divide their book into three sections, music, film, and literature, and each contributor to those sections exemplifies the best of what this hybrid genre (religion and pop culture studies) has to offer. They begin with a brief history of demonology and a 1-2 sentence description of the essays that follow and the ways in which they draw from and contribute to that history. They write, “[…The] widespread fascination with the diabolical and the dark side continues in the West–encouraged, to a significant extent, by popular culture” (12). This pop culture demonology both fills in the spaces left by mainline churches and counters discussions taking place in many conservative congregations.

Contributors to the music section cover genres from blues to black metal and everything in between. The essays in this section are so effective that I was momentarily tempted to give black metal a try…it passed. In his article, “Satanism and Popular Music,” Asbjorn Dyrendal argues that, contrary to popular opinion, most black metal songs do not prove to be good examples of Satanism. Rather, if we want to look for a Satanism “hymn,” we should look no further than “My Way” (written by Paul Anka and popularized by Frank Sinatra), whose self-centered “narrative” features more tenents of Satanism than the head-banging, often unintelligible lyrics of its black metal counterparts.

Anthony B. Pinn looks at African American music from spirituals to blues to rap and considers the ways in which, throughout these genres’ histories, artists have imbued their lyrics with the recognition of evil or demonic forces at work in the African American experience. Of course, the most memorable incident here would be Robert Johnston’s Faustian experience…trading his soul to the Devil for musical talent. While rap music may not trade in the supernatural or spiritual in the ways in which its spirituals or blues predecessors do, many rap artists from Scarface to Snoop Dogg recognize that larger forces are at work against many African Americans and occasionally envision these in demonic or spiritual terms.

In the film section, essays cover the representation of the Devil in Jesus films, the changing nature of vampires and the role of religion in combating them, the “demonic” nature of Hannibal Lecter, the fascination with polytheism in science fiction and fantasy elements of pop culture and its implications on our monotheistic understanding of God and interreligious dialogue, and the role of the bible in (post)Apocalyptic films. Especially interesting is Titus Hjelm’s essay on vampires. In it, he argues that the nature of vampires has changed from the demonic or mythic to the scientific  or genetic. That is, vampirism is no longer a curse but a genetic defect. At the same time, religion is powerless to stop them, and so their opponents must turn to technology. Yet this does not drain vampire films of their ability to be locations of moral reflection or meaning making in contemporary popular culture. Hjelm writes, “The ‘scientization’ and ‘genetization’ of the celluloid vampire shows that science is not the antithesis of the fascination with the vampire. On the contrary, the contemporary film representations of the bloodsucker show a lingering fascination with questions of ultimate meaning–the answers are just found in science and technology, not in religion” (107). This essay has broader implications for the horror genre as a whole if we think about the immanentization of violence in torture porn films and the absence of any overt religious or spiritual under/overtones to them, for example. Theofantastique has a great interview with Hjelm on the shifting nature of the vampire.

Another important essay in this section is George Aichele’s article, “Demons of the New Polytheism,” which reveals that even the most seemingly mundane or familiar elements of pop culture can lend themselves to deep theological or religious reflection. Aichele notes the taken-for-granted presence of multiple deities (or none at all) present in much of science fiction, fairy tale, or fantasy narratives. Given our attraction to those narratives and their lingering success and presence in contemporary popular culture, Aichele argues that they are having or will likely have a drastic impact on our monotheistic understandings of God and the ways in which we engage people of other faiths and undertake interreligious dialogue. He writes, “The new polytheism requires new understandings of the various religions. They can no longer be views (as in modernist liberalism) as many paths to the same goal, nor (as in modernist fundamentalism) as only one true path in the midst of many false paths. Instead, the religions offer various paths to various different goals, and in some cases, they may be so different that the ‘path/goal’ metaphor does not work at all” (148-149).

The brief concluding section on literature includes two essays. The first, by Crawford Gribbenb examines the demonology of Scottish literature as influenced by James Hogg and its dependence on a strict Scottish Calvinism. The book concludes with Colin Duriez’s essay on the nature(s) of good and evil in the Harry Potter series. Duriez argues that Rowling’s portrayal of evil as perversion, privation, or parasite, “rather than something that exists independently or has always and inevitably existed, and will exist forever” is a valuable lesson for a generation of children to learn (194).

The only drawback to The Lure of the Dark Side is its brevity. I found myself longing for more essays or more examples of the medium on which the respective authors focused. On the other hand, the essays are easily accessible, often humorous, and always insightful. Well worth the read!