It’s the fall of 1978, I’m a junior in high school in the middle of nowhere. I grew up there and know the landscape well.
My hometown had a shade under 6,000 people, and is surrounded by corn fields for several miles. It was small town life, like Norman Rockwell.
Or if you prefer, Cornwall Coome.
You can be forgiven for never having heard of the place. It was the fictional setting of Thomas Tyron’s book, Harvest Home. And you’re forgiven for not having heard of that either.
But if you were around in 1978, there’s a good chance you saw the mini series on tv.
In short, a couple from New York City moves to a small village in New England with their young daughter – Cornwall Coome, which is lost in time. They work their fields together and celebrate according to the cycles of the earth. And the highest celebration of all is Harvest Home. Of course, the locals are locked in time too, complete with ancient blood-letting rituals, and a truly chilling ending.
For two nights we sat transfixed to the screen. Following the last episode, I accompanied a friend of mine to put up his horses for the night, a few miles out in the country. It was dark and we were scared shitless.
In a small community, it’s possible to believe in secret societies, dark secrets which stretch back generations. And those two words that used to cover the whole genre, devil worshippers.
Little boys of my generation, and most generations probably, loved horror. Ghost stories, monster movies and of course, one of the most popular threads through horror was the devil worshipper. Or a coven of witches. As I said, living where I did, it was very easy to believe that groups like this could be living right beneath your nose.
To a 12 year old in 1973, Satan’s School for Girls, another tv movie, was scary as hell.
I got to thinking about that this week, first because I’ve been living back here for over a month now. And second, because I got an interesting email from a reader this week. It was from a woman who was wondering how to get rid of Satanists who seem to be following her, placing curses on her and doing all kinds of mischief.
My own belief about Satanists, is that if they are the official brand of Satanist, unless you’ve done something to them, they won’t mess with you. Satanism is to a large degree, about doing want you want, and sensory pleasures. Going to the trouble of pestering strangers can’t compete with orgies. Beyond those, you have people who have seen too many devil worshipping films and sides with the wrong side. I think one reason people form covens, cults, and others believe in them, is because they want to believe in them. And if you’re being harassed by your garden variety devil worshipper, it pays to remember that there are precious few incidents of black magic working, or even appearing to work.
Crowley gave a couple of demonstrations as I recall, though the one I read about was surprisingly low key. And then there’s the curse on Jayne Mansfield supposedly placed by the Church of Satan. But that could have just been bad driving or an unfortunate coincidence.
Or it could have been she believed she was cursed. The one certain way I believe that a curse will work on you, is if you believe in the curse. By the same token, if you’re looking for devil worshippers, or witches, you’re likely to see evidence everywhere. The best example of course, is Salem Village in 1692.
So it’s 1978, and in a small town like this, there’s little else to do but drive around the country at night. We were still in that strange age between childhood and adulthood. Still young enough to believe in Satanic cults, to want to believe in witches, and for many, the first time out on our own in real country darkness.
It also helped that quite often we were stoned.
Old houses, old barns, old bridges still lay scattered across the landscape. You would still see abandoned, Victorian era houses that you couldn’t help but think haunted.
And there was the music of the time. Guys gravitated to heavy metal. Black Sabbath was still big. Alice Cooper had a bit left in him. Blue Oyster Cult had been all over the radio with Don’t Fear the Reaper. Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio before he was just Dio, was introducing a new generation to heavy metal mysticism.
While on the endless cruise one evening, some kids from our school said they were accosted by devil worshippers. They had driven by a house earlier, and the yard was decorated with bizarre artwork, with a a large painting of Satan in a tree. When they drove back later, a well-known person in our hometown jumped out of the bushes in front of their car, in a black cape and top hat and tried to make them stop. They didn’t.
The second night a few of us drove by the house ourselves. The paintings were gone, but the house was old, dilapitated, and the mood tense. After driving by three or four times, a car whipped out of the driveway and chased us down. They trapped us in a cul-de-sac, but the driver of our car cut through the yard and to safety.
Well we were convinced. For a few days the talk of the town was of the devil worshippers. Over the weekend I talked about it with a fellow I worked for, who made a good point. “If there’s a god, there’s a devil, and people who worship him are something to be afraid of.”
And so we were. But then the next week at school, the sister of the accused devil worshipper started talking. I happened to share a class with her, and she said that they weren’t devil worshippers, and told me who else was hanging out in the house. And among those were some people I was familiar with, including my former art teacher and drum teacher. And suddenly I knew the truth. They weren’t devil worshippers. They were dadaists. Artists who create bizarre and sometimes jarring artwork, particularly if you don’t get the meaning, or lack a sense of humor.
Eventually the police shut down the circus by arresting the accused devil worshipper for possession of marijuana, and the house was abandoned. And sure, they were trying to keep people off that road. Particularly when they were getting thirty or forty people driving by each night.
And the magic was sucked out of the situation by the truth. Just like a curse is lifted when you stop believing in it.
But all these years later, I still want to believe. I still want to see witches in the fields under the full moon. I still want to believe there’s a secret pagan sect in the corn fields surrounding the town. I want to believe that someplace there’s still an isolated little town, where the people still believe in the old ways. And I want to be the outsider that moves in.
Till then I’m driving around the country, trying to get the feeling back. The years pile up behind you and your forget how to believe. Even if the houses are gone, the barns have fallen in, the country is still there. And the darkness.
Gothic Travel Guide: City dwellers are out of luck with this one. To do it right you need real country dark, where the glow of lights from town doesn’t obscure the stars. Corn standing in the fields help, as does a full moon. You need a deserted area, with little to no traffic. You’ll know it when you find it. And if you know of a deserted country graveyard, so much the better.