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 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!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers who were wrongfully accused and imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly. Damien was even sentenced to death and sat on death row for almost two decades until he was released.
Devil’s Knot (2013) is the dramatic retelling of that case following Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys, and Ron Lax, an investigator assisting the defense team. The film is based on the book Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt which tells the most factual and accurate account of the case, in my opinion, making this film a very accurate portrayal. In fact, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly are both credited as executive producers though I will admit that does add some bias into the mix.
“Despite the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse had already been debunked by the 1990s, the prejudice against those who were different remained within the psyche of the people of West Memphis, Arkansas.”
The film opens with Pam Hobbs, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, picking up her son, Stevie Branch, from school. After giving him permission to go ride bikes with his friends, she goes to work. From there, the film moves quickly, going right into the search for the missing boys and doesn’t pull any punches once the boys are found. The full bodies of the dead boys are shown several times throughout the film to powerful effect. Just as the Paradise Lost documentaries opened with the finding of the dead bodies, Devil’s Knot (2013) is not afraid to show the horrific crime scene. These scenes in which the boys are found are particularly effective in that they illustrate the sheer terror and grief that strikes the entirety of West Memphis, Arkansas in response to these murders. These emotions then lead investigators to get desperate when they have no leads at the one month mark.
Devil’s Knot (2013) also does an amazing job of outlining all of the loose threads that were never investigated such as the bleeding man covered in mud at Bojangles (a chicken restaurant for those unfamiliar) or Chris Morgan’s confession, played by Dane DeHaan (A Cure For Wellness) in the film. Instead, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, Rex Linn, at the advice of probation officer and self proclaimed “occult expert” Jerry Driver, Elias Koteas, decided to question Damien Echols, James Hamrick, about his knowledge of satanic rituals. This is another great point in the film in which Damien simply recounts his knowledge of true crime and the occult (just as many of us would) to Gitchell only to have it used against him later despite clarifying that he was at one point Wiccan and never practiced satanic ritual.
What follows is a series of frustrating scenes that certainly exemplify the desperation, ignorance, and complete incompetence of the West Memphis legal system. Once the investigators set their sites on Echols and Baldwin, they start searching for evidence to support that theory which is if I might be so bold, a little backwards! Jessie Misskelly’s involvement comes after a local waitress Vicki Hutcheson, Mireille Enos, trades information from her son for reduced or dropped charges against her. Testimonies from children during the Satanic Panic were commonplace and would require its own article, but in any case, Vicki suggests to her arresting officer that she can “play detective” to try to catch Damien Echols and uses her relationship with Misskelly as an in, embroiling the boy in a case that would cost him two decades of his life.
From here on out, the investigation loses any sense of the word as Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly are all arrested and charged in the murders based on nothing more than the fact that they wear black, love horror movies and the occult, and listen to heavy metal music. There was no “evidence” that came from the investigation. Only several false confessions and accounts that all contradict each other. The investigators wanted someone to blame and they chose the ones who were most outside their definition of “normal” to pin it on.
The rest of Devil’s Knot (2013) deals with the trial which I won’t go into in great detail. It is arduous and difficult to watch as the prosecution presents their case of “didn’t you once write Aleister Crowley’s name on a paper?” And “why do you wear black?” While the defense is shut down at every turn by the most bored judge in the history of law and order. The film paints a disturbing and effective portrait of every misstep in the case of the West Memphis Three and does so through the lens of Ron Lax played by Colin Firth.
As an investigator, he donated his services to the defense team and through him, we see exactly every piece of true evidence that the prosecution either misses or flat out ignores in service of their obsession with Echols and Baldwin. Ultimately, though, just as the true case, several questions are left unanswered. All three boys are sentenced to over 40 years in prison with Echols receiving the death penalty. It is only through decades-long campaigns that the boys were eventually released, though not exonerated. The trade-off for their release was their signing of an Alford Plea. Essentially, this means that the defendant is pleading guilty but still asserting their innocence (you have enough evidence to find me guilty but I still claim I’m not). While this does lead to the release of the three men after losing decades of their lives, it also ensures the true murdered will never be found as the guilty plea closed the case assigning the blame to three men who assert their innocence.
Though the film and the actual case took place in the early 90s well after the hysteria surrounding Satanic Ritual Abuse had been debunked by the FBI, the sentiments towards the occult still lingered in the minds of the citizens of West Memphis, Arkansas. One could argue that lack of quality education and a society in which religion is inextricably intertwined with daily life is what lead to this modern day witch hunt. But I don’t think that’s the case. Despite the incredible mishandling of the case by the system in West Memphis, the persecution of the three teenagers was not religiously motivated.
Damien Echols’ aforementioned foray into Wicca was not used against him any more than was his love for horror movies. Instead, what truly fueled the obsession with the boys was their status as outsiders. They were considered weirdos and freaks, and yes, they were accused of being satanists, but all of those labels were interchangeable to the public of West Memphis. The fact that Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were different from the “normal” is truly what put such a target on their backs. It is the institutional idea that the “other” is to be feared. That anyone outside normal social conventions is an enemy. It was not the Satanic Panic that fueled the persecution of these boys, it was the desperation to pin the crime on someone. And who better to pin it on than those freaks?
Unfortunately, this idea is still being perpetuated albeit unintentionally in most cases. The recent surge of satanic-based horror films are one example with films such as Satanic Panic (2019) or Extra Ordinary (2020) both featuring satanic antagonists. Yes, these films are goofy and meant to be a subversion of the satanic trope, but the fact that they are comedic allows the audience to forget that the true Satanic Panic had lasting and irreversible effects on people’s lives.
But not all of these films are the same. Mass Hysteria (2020) is actually a great example of how the underlying narrative can add to the discourse by denouncing the hysteria and mob mentality that seems to be ever increasing in recent times. We Summon the Darkness (2020) also provides a great subversion of the Satanic fears that pervaded society in the 80s and gives a look at how fact and truth can be twisted to fit a different agenda. Fellow NOFS contributor Chris Aitkens said it perfectly in his review of We Summon the Darkness, and I urge you to check out the whole review as the entire article is masterful. “Heavy metal and the occult,” he explains, “-were merely a distraction from the true evil of human nature. We don’t need to summon the darkness. The darkness is already here.”
“it’s important to remember the impact that sensationalism had on the country and how that sensationalism led to the destruction of three innocent horror-loving kids who wore black – just like many of us.”
Despite the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse had already been debunked by the 1990s, the prejudice against those who were different remained in within the psyche of the people of West Memphis, Arkansas. With the recent surge of Satanic films and the state of the world in regards to objective truth, it’s important to remember the impact that sensationalism had on the country and how that sensationalism led to the destruction of three innocent horror-loving kids who wore black – just like many of us.
Let me know your thoughts on this case. Do you have a theory about who actually killed the kids? Or maybe you just want to chat about Colin Firth’s southern accent. Reach out on Twitter, Reddit, or the Nightmare on Film Street Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!