a Rebecca Keel review
Rob Zombie has long demonstrated himself to be among the elite talent of contemporary writer-directors, and even with such a high bar to clear, he has succeeded in shocking and impressing me with his recent, wrenching film The Lords of Salem. Superficially, the work stands as a brilliantly innovative horror story about the legacy of colonial witchcraft in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, but with even a prick to the skin of the tale, the viewer is sucked into a powerful and disturbing allegory for the effect of mental illness on a person’s life. Poignantly precise and fearlessly thorough, The Lords of Salem captivates with its insight and its remorseless horror.
The story lays out the events of seven days in the life of Heidi Laroc (stunningly portrayed by Shari Moon Zombie), a radio DJ in Salem, after she receives a mysterious vinyl record from “The Lords of Salem”. The music on the record triggers visions of a coven of notorious witches from the colonial days of Salem. Unable to resist the fate she inherited from her ancestors, Heidi’s life begins to spiral into destruction.
A masterfully constructed allegory can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle with an image on both sides of the pieces. Constructing the puzzle facing one way yields a comprehensible design, while locking the pieces with their opposite sides up reveals another; yet the puzzle itself maintains the same shape, regardless of the image visible. Each piece has a role to play in the final design, and this role is the same, regardless of which image is constructed. Likewise, the allegory is made up of diverse pieces, each of which has a role. If you lift a single piece and turn it over, you can see its role in the image on the opposite side, even though it must lock into its neighboring pieces the same way, regardless of which meaning is viewed.
A quote from the character Francis Matthias, a local witchcraft historian, binds the surface tale of witchcraft to its deeper representation of the destruction of a life due to the inexorable force of mental illness. He states to Heidi, “Witchcraft is nothing but a psychotic belief brought on by a delusional state of mind.” This clear declaration identifies the primary allegorical device in the film: witchcraft is psychosis. From this melding of two ideas into a single metaphorical puzzle piece, the rest of the allegory can be teased from the dense imagery of the visually-stunning film.
It is beyond the scope of this short review to analyze the imagery, symbolism, and structure of The Lords of Salem. However, certain points bear mention, as they may affect the way the film is received by its audience.
The overt, perhaps even garish, Christian and occult images which permeate The Lords of Salem may distract some viewers from the underlying meaning of the film, or, perhaps, suggest a rebellious philosophical bent which is meaningless to the film’s interpretation. Christianity plays a twofold role in the allegory. As the epitome of mainstream normalcy, it provides a backdrop against which the perverse (on the one hand, worship of Satan, and on the other, debilitating mental instability) can be contrasted. Christianity further fills the role of the flamboyant, but useless, “solution” to the conflict at hand (witchcraft or mental illness). The latter role is also tied to the character of Francis Matthias, who bears the names of two important Catholic saints and whose efforts to rescue Heidi from her impending demise are fated to fail from the outset.
Sexual imagery, particularly in the context of the perversion of Christian symbolism, can also come across as heavy-handed, but it, too, plays a valuable role in the interpretation of the film. Explicitly sexual imagery rarely represents sex itself in a symbolic structure. Over the course of the film, the character of Heidi is conspicuously asexual, while the witches are overpoweringly sexual. This prepares the character of Heidi to be the virgin mother of “the devil’s child”, as foretold by the witch Margaret Morgan. Regardless of the character flaws borne by Heidi, she is, in fact, a blameless victim of exogenous—albeit internal to her genetic code and her mind—forces. This use of contrast between sexuality and asexuality is highly appropriate, given the wider cultural context of the society into which the film was released. Specifically, sexuality is frequently depicted as a negative trait in Western religious culture, and has long been associated with black magic and devil worship. This makes it an effective symbolic infrastructure for deflecting blame from the persecuted main character of The Lords of Salem.
The film presents a plot which relies on supernatural events, such as witchcraft and inescapable fate, and these elements may irk some fans of Rob Zombie’s horror films, which typically rely on the capacity for evil within human beings for their conflicts. However, all of the supernatural aspects present in The Lords of Salem are pieces of the allegorical puzzle meticulously constructed over the course of the film. When a viewer sees these elements as fantastic or unbelievable, they are granted a greater understanding of Heidi’s state of mind. She has inherited a curse from her forefathers which has doomed her to eventual destruction. In the literal story, the curse is the result of evil witchcraft; in the allegorical story, it is a predisposition to psychotic mental illness. Both engender a sense of helplessness and hopelessness; however, the use of a literal curse makes this emotional response more accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the experience of heritable mental illness.
I have little of which to complain about The Lords of Salem. The soundtrack did, at times, stray into the realm of clichéd horror tropes, such as a sudden, loud bass chord at the appearance of an unexpected apparition, and in these few instances, I found myself sighing deeply in resignation. Other aspects which might garner my criticism in other films, however, such as loose ends to supporting characters’ stories, busy imagery during the film’s climactic scene, and atypical pacing decisions for the plot, support the sense of bewilderment and confusion experienced by the character of Heidi, and add to, rather than detract from, the message and value of the film. I went into my first encounter with The Lords of Salem anticipating a dark and entertaining film. I was stunned to experience a deeply insightful, unflinching, and tragically personal depiction of a life shredded by mental illness. It isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s one which no one should overlook.