Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror film. This column aims to provide a non-sensational look at these influences by examining their history and the perspective of those involved in present day. 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!
This month’s theme is the 2015 film The Devil’s Candy. The film is writer and director Sean Byrne’s second film and followup to The Loved Ones (2009). The Devil’s Candy is the story of an artist, Jesse Hellman, played by Ethan Embry (Empire Records) and his wife and daughter who have moved into a new home unaware of its previous occupant. It also focuses on that previous occupant, a recently discharged mental patient named Ray Smilie played by Pruitt Taylor Vince (Constantine). Dark forces are seemingly at work on both Ray and Jesse, though to what end is up not immediately evident.
As the film progresses, it is revealed that Ray is a child murderer and has chosen Jesse’s daughter Zooey, played by Kiara Glasco (Maps to the Stars), as his next victim. The dark forces play on Jesse as visions of darkness and fire that will consume his daughter while for Ray we are only privy to an unintelligible voice that harasses him relentlessly.
The film opens on Ray being awoken by a low rumbling voice in an unidentified language, presumably the voice of Satan. Ray uses a Flying V and a Marshall amp to drown out the voice playing one note at an extreme volume repeatedly. When his mother comes to investigate, she mentions that Ray needs to go back to the institution. As his mother turns into the hallway, Ray, in an apparent fit of rage, strikes his mother with the Flying V causing her to fall down the stairs. It’s not clear, however, what caused the outrage. One interpretation would be that his mother’s interruption allowed the voice to fully engulf Ray and cause him to act out with violence. On the other hand, it could simply be Ray’s desperation at the thought of being returned to the institution that caused him to attack his mother.
Throughout the film, Ray attempts to evade the voice through the use of the guitar and the heavy note he plays on it. He appears to be in pain despite this, and it seems as though the world around him is making it increasingly difficult for him to resist the voice. It is not until he meets Zooey, that Ray succumbs to the voice. Once again the cause of his surrender is unclear as his having met Zooey also prompts him to leave her his guitar and amp as a gift. With his only form of defense now gone, was he made more vulnerable to the temptations of the voice or was it simply that Ray now had a victim to pursue?
“The film opens on Ray being awoken by a low rumbling voice in an unidentified language, presumably the voice of Satan.”
In a long list of serial killers who have claimed to hear a satanic voice instructing them to commit murder, perhaps the first to come to mind is David Berkowitz aka Son of Sam. Berkowitz had originally stated that his crimes were a result of a voice from some “demonic entity” that was calling for human sacrifice. Although originally attributed having come from a neighbor’s dog, Berkowitz himself denied this theory years later, now claiming that the spirit was that of a demon by the name of Samhain. His claims were written off as paranoid schizophrenia at the time, but investigators denied this claim as he appeared entirely lucid and able to recollect exact details of his crimes and believed Berkowitz was simply making excuses.
Ray poses a similar problem prevalent in many supernatural horror films grounded in some sort of reality. Without the factors plaguing the Jesse, the viewer would have a difficult time discerning a satanic influence from mental health issues, or even Ray’s own subconscious instructing him to murder children. The fact that he was institutionalized previously raises further questions over the legitimacy of his “possession.”
Lastly, the single murder of Ray’s that we are witness to surprisingly lacks any satanic voice. In the moment, no voice is instructing Ray and he is committing these acts of his own accord. It could be argued that Ray’s surrender to the voice’s instructions has appeased it for the time. It is around the time that the voice disappears that Ray begins to watch a late-night televangelist and his sermons on Satan. It can be said that this is what pushes Ray to accept his role as “Satan’s proxy” and perform his duties thereof, but the broadcast itself is chock full of rhetoric that is ripe for examination.
The Televangelist and Heavy Metal
The televangelist broadcast that Ray watches in his motel room provides a very Judeo-Christian view of Satan in that he is a force that cannot act on his own and must do so by proxies. This view is also held by Satanists to an extent. In LaVeyan Satanism, members are in effect their own “gods” but allow the force of Satan to guide their actions while adhering to the Satanic rules. However, the warning of the televangelist priest purports that Satan’s goal is violence and evil.
This is not in keeping with Nine Satanic Statements which advocate for responsibility and kindness where it is deserved. Further, Ray’s murder of children directly opposes one of the Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth which states explicitly, “Do not harm little children“. Interesting also is Byrne’s exploration of the subversion of the televangelist’s claim that Satan is no longer taken seriously.
“It can certainly be said that Satan is prevalent in both a positive and negative light in Heavy Metal Music and Byrne’s subversion of its influence in particular is superb.”
It can certainly be said that Satan is prevalent in both a positive and negative light in Heavy Metal Music and Byrne’s subversion of its influence in particular is superb. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, sensationalism had elevated mass hysteria to the point that listening to heavy metal was enough to accuse and convict innocent people of murder. In The Devil’s Candy, however, Jesse and his family are healthy, happy, with the added twist of edge and heavy metal. Jesse and Zooey bond over their love of the genre and use it to develop a beautiful sort of shorthand exemplified by Jesse throwing Zooey the horns on her first day of school.
For Ray, the music serves to keep the invasive thoughts at bay albeit temporarily. Heavy metal’s role as a neutral if not good force in this film allows for a reinterpretation of the genre as simply music. Byrne’s subverts the “heavy metal is evil” trope while adding the reminder that sensationalist propaganda still exists as an interesting commentary nested within the larger themes of the film.
Jesse’s Art, Leonard, and Belial
One aspect of this film that gives it a surreal and Lynchian quality is Jesse’s possession and his dealing with a prospective art dealer Leonard who owns a gallery called Belial. In the past, Jesse had attempted to solicit Leonard’s representation but was presumably turned away. When the film begins, Jesse is painting a commission for a bank comprised of butterflies. Byrne has mentioned that is a direct parallel to his own frustrations with writing and trying to get projects off the ground. The idea of selling one’s soul usually applies to performing some sort of work without passion and solely for the monetary or professional value. Ironically, Leonard, is seemingly offering Jesse a similar bargain which would allow him to escape his artistic prison of painting commissions.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and it is comparatively not a large part of the film. In fact an argument could be made that, were these scenes cut out, the film would be largely unchanged save for the event that makes Jesse late to pick up Zooey. However, the scenes involving the gallery, the dealer, and Jesse’s art are important for establishing the tone and stakes. As for the art itself, it will suffice to say that I am not an art expert and will be focusing on the art’s relation to the plot and tone.
“The visions and trances that consume Jesse are warnings of what is yet to come. Below the surface, however, is the theme of sacrifice and the choice with which Jesse is faced.”
What begins as a painting of butterflies in some sort of field of grain becomes a nightmarish portrait of a three-eyed creature emanating shadow and fire that consumes the children engulfed in its tendrils. Among the children is Jesse’s own daughter. As becomes clear throughout the film, this represents Ray’s previous victims and his current obsession. The visions and trances that consume Jesse are warnings of what is yet to come. Below the surface, however, is the theme of sacrifice and the choice with which Jesse is faced. His daughter’s presence in the painting is not only an indicator of her danger at the hands of Ray, but also the danger of Jesse’s losing her to his own ambition. Enter: Leonard and Belial.
Despite having rejected him in the past, Leonard reconsiders Jesse after he is presented with the painting of the children. This piques Leonard’s interest and he requests a meeting with Jesse at the three o’clock, the significance of which I’ll assume is pure coincidence but also could be seen as a representation of the final station of the cross and Leonard’s choosing of this time as a mockery of that event. In any case, this is also the time at which Jesse is to pick Zooey up from school, forcing him to choose between his career and his daughter. Leonard’s assistant agrees to move the meeting from three to two but Leonard arrives late forcing Jesse to wait. At this point, Jesse has been faced with this choice twice and has both times elected to compromise and risk his relationships for the opportunity of greatness. It’s important to note that Jesse does not appear to be ego-driven and it could be argued that his interest in Belial’s representation would translate to a better life for his daughter, but we’ll stay away from that topic today as those themes are dense and could spawn its own discussion.
“The Book of Belial in LaVey’s Satanic Bible […] focuses on personal accomplishment and self-improvement although it also advocates for individuality and non-subservience.”
Finally comes the third time Jesse is presented with the choice. Leonard’s choice of words is interesting as he mentions “sacrifice” in response to Jesse’s concern over his daughter. The metaphorical sacrifice of Jesse’s own daughter as a means to achieve the success in his career that he has sought after is clear. Despite the allowances Jesse made earlier, this time he chooses his daughter and the next scene sees him rushing to reach the school in time. Jesse does not make it to the school on time after his car blows a tire and stalls out by the side of the road. One could assume that Leonard, as a satanic agent, was displeased and now Satan is employing his dark forces to conspire against Jesse, manifesting in the blowout.
The choice of naming the gallery Belial was clearly intentional, but interestingly the character of Leonard and his propositioning of Jesse align surprisingly well with the ideals presented in The Book of Belial in LaVey’s Satanic Bible. The book focuses on personal accomplishment and self-improvement although it also advocates for individuality and non-subservience. Leonard and Belial make for interesting symbology that pushes this film beyond the common supernatural genre into something more surreal and self-reflecting. How much is Jesse willing to sacrifice in this particularly vulnerable time in his life?
On a whole, Byrne’s representation of Satan and themes related are fair in that they do not overtly sensationalize or vilify the satanic by leaving a lot of room for interpretation when the question of satanic influence is raised. That being said, the ending of the film is less open for interpretation and in fact serves to solidify the message of the film.
After the final confrontation between Jesse and Ray, Jesse receives a final and intense vision that leads him into the field near the house. Here he digs in the ground and uncovers the remains of Ray’s previous victims. It is at this point that the sky clears and golden light engulfs Jesse as he spreads his arms wide and looks up in reverence. The imagery is pretty on the nose and confirms that the visions that Jesse has been receiving are not from the same source as Ray’s but in fact from a “higher” power. This is the only scene with which I take issue as it throws out any ambiguity earlier established, however, it unintentionally makes Jesse the most satanic character in the film.
“[…] humans are both divine and earthly. They are base but also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity. To deny oneself of either extreme is to deny one’s own humanity and is the ultimate hypocrisy in the view of Satanism.”
Satanism, and Laveyan Satanism in particular, places emphasis in duality. This is one of the reasons for which Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with one arm up and one down, is often used as a symbol of satanism. The idea is that humans are both divine and earthly. They are base but also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity. To deny oneself of either extreme is to deny one’s own humanity and is the ultimate hypocrisy in the view of Satanism. Jesse is an almost perfect symbol of duality. His painting, although apparently a sign from the divine, is dark and depicts death and fearsome creatures. He makes mistakes such as forgetting his daughter but is also redeemable as he apologizes and makes clear his love for her. This also makes it difficult to reconcile the ending as Jesse’s actions, and in particular his art, do not align with the divine entity that apparently commands him.
Despite the inaccuracies or contradictions, the film is fair and open enough to be a beautifully poetic, heavy metal ode to family and duality. What is your interpretation of the film? What were your favorite scenes? Is there something that I missed in my analysis? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!