Satanic Panic at Sleepaway Camp: Freeform's Dead of Summer

Curator's Note

The resurgence of the Satanic Panic in media objects in 2016, whether in novels like Girls on Fire and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, or the topic under discussion here Dead of Summer, a 10 episode series on the recently renamed and rebranded Freeform, traded heavily on nostalgia, popular culture, and a heady mix of belief and non-belief. The series encourages an official Spotify playlist to accompany each episode and creates playlists for each of the characters, crafting a discourse that the music gives insight into authentic characterization. The viewer is offered a way into the story through popular recognition of music that once may have been considered the devil’s music. Indeed, the series, with its flashback structure and wide-ranging timeline, builds its references to various eras in terms of the pop music soundtrack that, for example, reimagines the Satanic Panic of the late 80s as extending beyond a goth/burnout/skater subset of teens to a larger and mainstream threat as evidenced through pop, alternative, and hip hop soundtracks. The stakes of music fully become clear in episode 1.10 “She Talks to Angels” (yes, every episode is named after a song) when a main clue from the past—a popular hymn recorded by the Tall Man, an African American ghost misapprehended as the demon for much of the series—successfully attacks and destroys a large number of possessed corpses. This hymn is played live in flashback and recorded on a phonograph to preserve the memory of how to kill demons, the playing of which is recorded on a camcorder and transmitted over walkie talkie. Technology, it would seem, enables the power of popular culture in general and music in particular to emerge as an alternate form of power and knowledge with which to fight the occult in an age of disbelief. Yet, the technology of the show itself ends up revealing itself to be aligned to the demonic dissembling through “lying flashbacks” and weekly Behind the Scenes featurettes. The move to imagining that the occult can be monitored, revealed, and defeated through technology parallels the same impulse in films such as Paranormal Activity. Likewise, technology gives only temporary reprieve and instead becomes evidence that knowledge does not equate to power, especially as the occult too works as popular knowledge and memory.


I'm really interested in the technological approach to the occult. It reminds me of the accidental summoning of demonic presences in The Evil Dead through a tape recording of The Book of the Dead. There seems to be little difference between mediation and the original. The tradition of spirits in technology appears long ago throughout the early 20th century: séance photographs purported images of ghosts and ectoplasm that turned out to be hoaxes. Apparently, there's a fascination with recording and documenting what is absent, trace made present. What are your thoughts on these recording technologies and recreating/summoning, both as an occult practice and a method of narrative? Do you see a link between the playlists generated for the characters outside of the show and the use of phonograph/walkie talkie in the narrative itself, for example?

I think that films that feature technology and the occult have a vested interest in purporting that there is no difference between mediation and the original. The mythology of this collapse works in terms of the industry itself as endless reproduction of image to camera to negative to reel to vhs to dvd to file. Its aura must stay in place even when a copy of a copy of a copy. The live performance to phonograph cartridge to camcorder to walkie talkie comforts us that technology is good for preserving that which can pass, and that the reproduction while different in form is the same in affect and function. While I don't know that the show is actually smart enough to connect the reproduction technologies in the show to the spotify playlists (if anything, this show ends up more interested in money and transmedia fandom), the connections that we make speak to a sense of a core authenticity and power of recognition that goes beyond the rational (something here re affect and memory and summoning memory). All of the texts that I mention in the note have a strong sense of nostalgia and appeal initially through musical memory, with even the novels having spotify playlists and suggestions of what music to listen to while reading a particular chapter. The music (easily accessible through modern streaming services) serve to summon our memory, nostalgia, and knowledge as more of a bodily experience than a mental thing...

Dana, this is something my dissertation is working on as well. The collapse of the mediated experience into the experience itself is prominent in occult belief systems re: technology. In the ghost hunting shows I'm writing about, a very large portion of the discourse surrounding the collection of evidence is its alignment with personal experience, and often times texts will disregard the fact they've captured very little to no "evidence" because they had certain experiences or feelings during their investigation. It's all part of the matrixing phenomenon in the brain, and that includes (I think) the use of music as you've described it. It's about recall and confirmation.

I love your conclusion that knowledge does not equate to power here--and that the occult works as a popular knowledge and memory. In my understanding, the occult has served as a category through which indigenous "counterculture" survived throughout the many conquests of many colonizing entities. Your conclusions about disbelief remind me of ones I made regarding a D.J. Spooky performance I saw once. Do you think perhaps the knowledge is not the power as much as the way we happen to leverage the technologies? Most documented Satanism or Luciferianism reveals itself, at the core of the ideologies at least, to be "anarchic" or at the very least, a vehicle through which a person can practice his or her own personal will. Blame it on Crowley's reading of Rabelais, I suppose, who was the first person to document the idea of "doing what one willed," in Western culture. He was a monk and envisioned it in the framework of a utopian sort of paradise. More traditional or "right-hand" paths, if that's what you call them--tend to be systems through which people submit to one another in some prescribed fashion to create systems of communal will--or at least service to one higher individual will for the sake of building or serving larger systems at great cost and expense to the builders/servers. That is if we're just looking at the function and form of the structure of the religious systems, of course, and not contextualizing them any specific social group or situation where the ideals can be variant. Technologies have definitely created situations in which more individuals can exercise their individual will and be more self-actualized, but still more communal in their organization and distribution. I think that this is the major key to understanding the ideology of the popular music from the 1960's that used post-Crowleyan/post-Zeppelin structures and ideals. It's fair to note that there were a lot of remnant structural oppressions from colonialism that needed work--and still need work. Obscure music, ideas, emotions and "mystic crystal revelations" were, and sometimes still are likely easier for some to deal in than the words "base" and "superstructure." This specific end of the tradition goes back at least as far as Annie Bessant and Madame Blavatsky. Whether it was calculated--or was rather some kind of human process related to what Schopenhauer might describe as "mind" or Jung might frame as "consciousness," maybe the Greeks might call it "Dionysus" is hard to say. But I do know this end of the tradition goes back as far as Huxley and T.S. Eliot completely disagreeing in how to navigate the stand-in construct for these some of these forces they called "Sosostris."

I know I just wrote a novella of a comment. It will someday be a larger essay, and if it needs to a book chapter. But I guess my question here is: What do you think that the alternate form of power that is the marriage of the "occult" (that which the material rites of Patriarchal Christian/Roman Colonization could not accept) and technology which essentially creates a new relationship TO materiality? Is it counterculture? Is it sub-culture? Is it creating a new form of human organization completely? I have theories. But they are not the kind I'd want to posit without countertheory/alternate definitions of theory--if you catch my drift. They're too important for one author to tackle.

I published a chapter last year that dug into the question that technology lets us see and be aware in found footage horror but that we are still powerless to dominate or use that knowledge effectively. This series picks up on elements of this trend with some significant shifts. For this show, the first switch up is that we think that the Tall Man is the demonic force, until midway through the season the show points out that our raced assumptions, in particular the white patriarchal point of view, has fooled us into seeing all events in the improper way. So, in the multiple reversal mode of the show, the popular African American knowledge, music and culture is the means to resist the white patriarchal occult of the demon (who manifests in a straight white woman). It fails in the end. But, the hope moving forward to resist is based in the counterculture and the Others (as a Freeform show, it has multiple queer/trans/racially marked/working class characters) and the occult (treated negatively) is revealed as establishment culture. A reversal, indeed..

I think the fascination with technology and the occult goes back to the first tech advances in the late 19th c; Stoker presented "modern tech," like the telegraph, the steam launch, etc. as ways the more advanced, Western men could defeat and/or control the undead - stuck in history, the past, exploiting pernicious capitalism to prey on England. Walter Benjamin's Arcades project gets into the idea of art in an age of mechanical reproduction - is it still art? does the photograph capture the essence of the building? For Benjamin, "capturing" things with new gadgets altered the fundamental structure and purpose. The late 19th c rage for seances, too, depended on understood and recognized forms of "acceptable" communication between worlds - this seems, like our search for life on other planets, enormously limited and askew. We don't think of possibilities outside of what we know.

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