Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in your favorite horror films. This column aims to provide a non-sensational look at these influences by examining their history through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of the satanic and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
Dagon (2001) is an adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth, ironically not his story Dagon. It follows Paul, a stock trader on a yachting trip off the coast of Spain with his girlfriend Barbara and their friends Vicki and Howard. After a freak storm disables the ship, Paul and Barbara must paddle out to a strange village on the coast where they find even stranger inhabitants. Paul quickly finds his companions all missing and as night falls, the villagers begin to hunt him. Throughout the film, Paul is plagued by nightmares of a mermaid and it is eventually revealed that Paul is originally from this village and the mermaid is his half-sister by way of Dagon as their shared father. In terms of plot, Dagon is almost a direct adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth with even the name of the Spanish village being Imboca (a Spanish translation of Innsmouth).
However, Dagon provides a deeper look at the church than the short story. The first thing Paul notices as he and Barbara approach this church is a sign on the front that states “Orden Esoterica de Dagon” or Esoteric Order of Dagon. Inside, they find strange symbols and decorations as well as a priest that does not seem quite right. Luckily, we get a full flashback sequence courtesy of town drunk Ezequiel which explains the history and downfall of Imboca.
“The real-life Dagon […] may not have had anything to do with fish or the ocean at all.”
Ezequiel explains that the fishing village was experiencing a decline in fish, threatening their way of life. The people of Imboca were catholic and they prayed to God for fish to no avail. One day, Captain Cambarro arrived after “sailing the Pacific Ocean” and introduced the town to Dagon. After performing a ritual, the town had more fish and gold than they knew what to do with! This was all the convincing the Imbocan’s needed to desecrate the church and murder the old priest putting Cambarro in place as a priest for Dagon instead.
Let’s stop here for a moment and go into Dagon, the deity. This film, along with the original short story, use Dagon as a mysterious oceanic deity capable of providing untold riches at the cost of the worshiper’s humanity. The real-life Dagon, however, may not have had anything to do with fish or the ocean at all. In fact, the ancient Ugaritic (an Amorite dialect) root for Dagon is “dgn” meaning grain. For ancient Mesopotamian civilizations surrounded by mountains and fields, does it make more sense for their god to be a god of the ocean or grain? The fish interpretation seems to come from a Hebrew word for fish pronounced “dag”. However, Dagon as a deity predates that translation.
Sometimes used interchangeably with Dagan, Dagon is a member of the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon (which is very complex as I have discovered!) and is at times described as the “Phoenician Cronus” as some stories list him as the father or stepfather of Hadad, another prominent Mesopotamian deity. While I am not entirely convinced Lovecraft put any amount of research into the origin of Dagon other than “hey this fish guy sounds spooky,” Dagon really is quite fitting as the originator of a line of deities. In Dagon, as part of the deal with the deity, the village must offer sacrifices. The female sacrifices are used for breeding, producing the strange half-fish offspring that now populate the village.
Despite the actual origin or purpose of Dagon, the use of a real deity adds a layer of realism. Just like The Blair Witch Project which we discussed a few months ago, adding ties to our own world serves to build a new mythology and in effect provides a hole in the veil through which the story can force itself into our “real life.”
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Esoteric Order of Dagon. By that, I mean the REAL real Esoteric Order of Dagon. Stylizing themselves after the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD) mentioned in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the Order maintains that Lovecraft’s writing contained real magick and clues to another world. Using the dreams and writings of one of Lovecraft’s fictional characters, Randolph Carter, the Order publishes their own writings and explore the spiritual and unknowable aspects of our world. The main philosophy of EOD is not dissimilar from that of Anton Szandor LaVey in that they do not actually need to believe in the Lovecraftian deities they worship. Instead, the Esoteric Order of Dagon uses these deities and rituals as a way to expand their own understanding of themselves and the world around them.
“Dagon has value as a hokey creature-feature with some amazing practical effects and not so great special effects. “
In fact, the EOD also references a character who inspired Szandor in his creation of the Church of Satan. EOD’S tagline is a quote from Aleister Crowley which he used in his Thelemic teachings, that being, “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Though the EOD follows this with the Call of Cthulhu quote, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” which translates to, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Their reference to Thelemic teachings as well as other obscure occult practices establishes this Order on the same level as say a Masonic Lodge or the Rosicrucian Order.
Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the Esoteric Order of Dagon considers Randolph Carter to be real. Citing the Tibetan idea of a Tulpa, the Order believes that Carter has been brought into reality through their will and our collective thought.
There are issues with this film. Deities impregnating human women and producing unnatural offspring is nothing new (see: Greek mythology), however, the way in which it is portrayed in this film echoes the subtext of Lovecraft’s original short story. There is no denying, ignoring, or sidestepping the fact that Lovecraft was a xenophobe. He vilified and was actually fearful of outsiders of any kind. The Shadow Over Innsmouth follows a man who, while researching his genealogy, discovers his bloodline is tainted by that of the foreign horrors in Innsmouth. Dagon repeats this theme in the sense that Ezequiel is the only “full-blood” human left in the village, and the horrific villagers are the result of Cambarro bringing in “outsiders” to mate with Dagon. Further, the use of Dagon in and of itself is appropriative and again vilifies a foreign deity and religion simply as a result of ignorance. These aspects are not excusable and they are inextricably linked to the plot of this story. The fact is, the story itself is inherently racist and xenophobic.
However, I do not believe this invalidates the film or the short story entirely, being that they are indeed horrifying. Beyond the racial and bloodline implications, simply arriving in a spooky village with strange villagers who suddenly decide to sacrifice you to their deity is horrifying (Wicker Man anyone?). The creatures themselves delve into our collective unconscious and dredge up images of tentacles, claws, and teeth rising from the inky black of the abyss to terrifying effect. Dagon has value as a hokey creature-feature with some amazing practical effects and not so great special effects. The Shadow Over Innsmouth has value as a literary study in suspense and prose.
“There are issues with Lovecraft and his philosophy [….but Dagon] is evidence that the horrors therein can transcend the original intention, or subtext…”
When I submitted my pitch for this month’s Devils in the Details article, I thought Dagon would be a perfect chance to branch out into other cultures and occult deities while fitting into our Enchantment Under the Sea theme. In the time since, we have entered a period of rightful civil unrest as a response to the systemic racism and oppression ingrained in our government. From this has come a conversation about acknowledgment. Before we can begin to fix anything, we must first acknowledge that the problem exists.
Dagon is a faithful adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth albeit with a lot more gore and camp. There are issues with Lovecraft and his philosophy, and some of that is reflected in the film. However, the fact that film can continue to influence the collective unconscious with thoughts of mysterious and unknowable undersea horrors is evidence that the horrors therein can transcend the original intention, or subtext, and force its way into the real world.
Thank you so much for reading! I’m sure you’ve got lots of thoughts. Please feel free to share them with us on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!