Dr. Nicholas Laudadio’s office at UNCW is strewn with all sorts of items one would never expect to see in the hands of a literature professor. An electric guitar is buried beneath a tangle of cords. Shelves meant for books are lined with CDs, and countless books are hidden under piles of DVDs on his desk.
“My students just read from this one, ‘America Bewitched,’” he exclaims, as he pushes aside a stack of horror films. “And this one, ‘The Witchcraft Sourcebook.’ This one’s nice because it’s the ‘greatest hits’ of source texts, so it’s got the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and all the other basic sources through which they decided to burn people.”
For the last two months, Laudadio has been teaching students at UNCW about witchery and demonology in his new class “The Devil Inside—Satan in Pop Culture.” He starts with pop culture, and subjects students to all sorts of depiction of evil, ranging from classic films like “Suspiria,” to the completely obscure, such as “The Litanies of Satan” by confrontational singer Diamanda Galas.
However, Laudadio is not content to keep his research sequestered in the classroom. He’s hoping to reach the community beyond UNCW through a series of free events at Gravity Records, which merge academic discourse with film. The first is a brief lecture about the history of devil-worship, followed by the silent film, “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages,” enhanced by a soundtrack performed on the spot by Laudadio with guitarist and fellow UNCW lecturer Dr. Carlos Kase. In addition to guitar and drums, they’ll play around with a handmade instrument called “The Anticipation Engine” and synapse-controlled synthesizers, all in an effort to mimic a necromantic conjuration through music.
encore talked with Laudadio about what folks can expect to hear.
encore (e): What led you to develop “The Devil Inside” for UNCW?
Nicholas Laudadio (NL): It began because we needed to teach larger classes. English classes are mostly writing, so we try to keep them under 30 people if we can, but the administration is, of course, always needing to increase student credit hours. So, a few of us have taken the bullet and decided to teach these really big lecture classes, which are fun but not really typical of our profession. As a result, we were trying to come up with topics that would get many people. I usually teach classes in science-fiction, horror, critical literary theory, and stuff that people who like that (or have to take it) will do, but it’s not necessarily the biggest sell. Being raised Catholic and going to a convent-run school for much of my childhood, Satan was an easy fit. It is my first semester teaching it, but I wanted to broaden the audience a little bit beyond the 75 kids in class. I talked to Matt Keen over at Gravity Records and we decided to put this together.
e: Do you talk about witchcraft and demonology from a theological perspective?
NL: No, I’m strictly not theological or philosophical in my training. I do what you would call “cultural history.” I’m interested in the historical devil and the story of the personification of radical evil. Whether or not people believe it exists is not really something I can prove or disprove, but what I can prove—and what I spend my time teaching—is the very clear narrative we have.
I begin with Genesis, and do the various narratives that go through the Old Testament, as well as Hebrew non-canonical texts—like the Book of the Watchers, the Book of the Jubilees, and stories of fallen angels. They’re the first landmark in Judeo-Christian demonology. I trace it from there to New Testament consolidation of the church, up to making sorcery heretical, and to the inquisition, which leads to witch trials and peaks with Salem. After that it’s mostly about pop culture.
e: From a historical perspective, what role has devil-worship played in society?
NL: It’s very clear the devil was long used as a way to deal with political opponents in the sense of protecting the sanctity of the Roman Church. By the time you get to the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther believes the whole earth is evil and the devil lives in the world. From that, it’s not hard to explain all the witch-dunkings happening up and down the Rhine River from the 13th century on.
Just think about how we use the term “witch-hunt,” even now, which we’ve heard quite a bit come out of Washington lately, in regards to all manners of things. It’s basically become a synonym for someone punishing people because they don’t like their beliefs—not because they’ve done anything wrong. In fact, they haven’t done anything wrong. By saying it’s a witch-hunt, what you’re accusing of someone is supernatural, and frankly in modern life the supernatural does not exist.
e: Do you think the accusation of witchcraft was a way of robbing women of their agency?
NL: Absolutely! I’m very much tuned into the conversation of feminism, queer theory, and a lot of the concerns surrounding identity politics, so I think witchcraft has long been one of the places misogynistic cultures sought very clearly—and very violently. They punished women who did not fit their particular mold. It’s very much about depriving women—very specific women—of their agency: women who are unmarried, who don’t go to church, and indigenous women. Most of the early American witchcraft accusations were like the Spanish Inquisition, only accusing Native Americans of witchcraft. They had an inquisition set up in 16th century Mexico.
e: At what point did Satan become an anti-hero figure in pop culture?
NL: Well, John Milton’s Satan from “Paradise Lost” gives us to a certain extent the Church of Satan. The Lucifer they talk about is a misunderstood-by-his-dad, super-smart, revolutionary, sexy devil that people like so much. Milton’s devil is the best devil, obviously. He’s kind of awesome—unlike Dante’s devil, who’s just a frozen monster chewing on people. By the time you get to the 19th century, you get all these stoner/druggy French poets, like Baudelaire and his friends, who were “diabolical” and “worshipped the devil.” It just meant they drank a lot and slept around. They lived a debauched life and Satan was a way to evoke that and shock people. In the same way, Mötley Crüe didn’t give a damn about the devil. They didn’t know anything about it; they just wanted to get laid. “Shout at the Devil” is such a silly song, but people were so bent out of shape about it. That whole story never really goes away.
e: How does “Haxan” fit into your historical narrative?
NL: “Haxan” is the gateway to the 20th century contradictions with regards to evil and witchcraft. On one hand, it tries to debunk the witch-scare as being a misunderstanding of psychiatric ailments, but at the same time, it puts so much effort into recreating it. The director himself plays the devil. He puts on a crazy devil suit, and you get this weird complicity critique thing that’s sort of tricky. So there’s “this stuff doesn’t exist, look at these silly people,” but later the director says the woman who played an accused witch recalled seeing Satan by her bed at night. I want to set it up where we don’t look back at all of this as us being ignorant, primitive and silly, but let’s look at it as a template for the conversations we’re having right now.