Grady Hendrix on ‘Satanic Panic’ and Why Cults Make for Great Horror Movies

     September 6, 2019

Grady Hendrix is keeping busy in genre writing, but you might find him a little hard to pin down. After getting his start in film journalism, Hendrix has kept busy with books like ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ and ‘Horrorstör’, his horror publishing history ‘Paperbacks from Hell’, and screenwriting gigs on Mohawk and now, RLJE Film’s Fangoria co-production, Satanic Panic.

With Chelsea Stardust (All That We Destroy) in the director’s chair, Satanic Panic stars Hayley Griffith as a pizza girl desperate for a big payday, who takes a delivery to a far-off wealthy neighborhood in the hopes of a big tip and winds up wandering right into a Satanic ritual. A Satanic ritual led by Rebecca Romijn, no less, with Ruby ModineJerry O’Connell, and Jordan Ladd rounding out the cast.

With Satanic Panic in theaters, On Demand and Digital on September 6th, I had the chance to hop on the phone for a chat with Hendrix about his career, writing the film, and the allure of satanist cult cinema. He discussed how he built a writing career across industries, if he immediately knows whether a story should be a book or a screenplay, what inspired him to return to Satanists for another story after ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’, why cults and rituals make for such good cinema, and the TV shows and movies that have managed to sneak through his busy schedule.


Image via Albert Mitchell

You have a distinct, cool career. You embrace being a writer in such a comprehensive way that I respect, which is that you write many things in many mediums. I’m just curious about your path to getting to this point.

HENDRIX: Well, it’s nice that it looks like it’s a plan. I’m really lucky to have this job, and so I just want to do as much as I can and try at many different things. I don’t know. I don’t see the point in complaining about it. It’s a blast. Really, I never went to writing school or anything. I was a journalist for a really long time. After university, my wife and I lived in Hong Kong for a year and change just for fun. One of the things that happened when we came back is we were both really into the movies. I realized that I had a chance to use that knowledge because Hong Kong movies, people are starting to get curious about them. They’re playing here. I was able to parley that to some extent into a career writing about movies.

I did a lot of fan writing, a lot of message boards and things. I slowly… because I was a film journalist. Then around 2008, you just couldn’t make your living doing that anymore. I liked writing, and I’ve been trying to movies, and books, and all kinds of stuff. I went to an aquarium writer’s workshop which was about six weeks in San Diego. It was really intensive, and really forced me to take it seriously because I’m surrounded by people who were writing and had sacrificed a lot to get there. You either take it seriously or you’re an asshole. It was what I needed to start really focusing on fiction. I had a really good friend from high school who I co-wrote. She had a book contract to write some YA books. I co-wrote those with her because she was really up against a deadline.

I just learned by doing. I wrote a lot of books. The only way to learn how to write books is to write books. I wrote a couple of books that never got published. Then a friend of mine was interviewing for a job at Quirk, my publisher, and I said, “Oh, what writers do you like, who you would want to bring here?” They said me. I had a novel sitting around. The editor got in touch. I took him the novel. My friend didn’t get the job. Jason Rucolick, who is my editor now, he really didn’t want the novel, but he liked my writing style. We were kicking around ideas and Horrorstör came up about the haunted IKEA, and from there it was like, “Okay. Here is my chance. I can either screw this up or double down and try to make it work.” Yeah. That’s the rough, circuitous, poorly planned out, meandering way I wound up entering through the side door.


Image via RLJE Films

No. I think it’s awesome. The willingness to write whatever is your opportunity is, is such a strong trait to have.

HENDRIX: Well, thanks. One of the things being a journalist really taught me is if you’re going to be a writer you have to write a lot. You have to be willing to write stuff that you may not get a check for. You have to just put in that stuff because until it’s on paper, it doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many screenplays I’ve written that will never get made, how many books that will never get published. It’s a lot.

How do you decide what medium best fits the idea? Do you immediately know if something’s a screenplay or a novel or a short story?

HENDRIX: It has more to do with the market than my desires. There are some ideas that really lend themselves to certain things. I did a cookbook with my wife. It was a graphic novel. The whole point of it was it was a graphic novel cookbook. There was no way for Horrorstör to be anything but a book that looked like an IKEA catalog first. A lot of it comes down to, what it is to me dictates what it’s going to be. There are some stories that I think are just too straightforward for a book because a book you get so much interior life with the characters. You can spend so much on a fact story. A story may be a little thin from that perspective, but if you can actually take it seriously and watch how it plays out, that would be a fascinating movie.

It’s really often the best source. The best movies come out of short stories or novellas rather than full novels. It really depends on what the market is as well. The book I just did right now is coming out in April called Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. No one would ever do that as a movie, ever, about a bunch of middle-aged women in the south at a book club who wind up killing Dracula …

I wish they would!

HENDRIX: I know, but as soon as you say middle-aged women in a book club, movie people just turn off. That has to be a book. A lot of times the market plays, the shape of the market dictates what the final form is.

With Satanic Panic, you came up with this story idea with Ted Geoghegan and went from there. Where did it come from for you guys? This is certainly not your first tangle with writing about Satanists.

HENDRIX: Yeah. I really wanted to do something about pizza delivery people. Just the idea of a pizza delivery person wandering into a cult ceremony was just too good. Something had to be done with them. Ted was looking for a project after he’d done We’re Still Here. I told him about this script. I was like, “Look, we could do genders with the main character. This is something like you’re talking about like you want to do.” He and I had worked on it together. Through the vapory of film financing, he would up doing Mohawk instead. We wrote that together. He shot that. He went off to do other stuff and had other opportunities.


Image via RLJE Films

Then the Fangoria guys got into Satanic Panic. Really, that original idea was there from the beginning. I think everyone who’s been involved, there’s Ted, me, Alice, Adam, the producers, Chelsie, the director, everyone’s really loved bringing back that swinging 70s satanism look. That’s just something people don’t do enough with these days.

What is the appeal of these cults and satanic ritual and that specific genre for you?

HENDRIX: There’s a couple of different things. One is I love the idea of Satan. It’s such a simplistic literalization of so many different things. There are bad things in the world. There must a guy doing it to everyone. It’s just the more you literalize it, any direction you take it in, it just gets so crazy so quickly because you can’t really literalize the concept, you can’t personify it without it being instantly bizarre, and ridiculous, and odd. The idea of a cult I love because I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories. This idea that we’re all dancing on the strings of these unseen puppet masters, it’s so ridiculous, but also so appealing. You can see why that seems like a good idea to people. Then, like I said, the iconography of 70s satanism. It’s just so swanky and sexy.

What are your go-to for either your favorite, or what do you think are the scariest satanist films out there?

HENDRIX: Well, there’s a lot to be said for all of them. The Sentinel, which isn’t a particularly great movie, Burgess Meredith is great. He has a birthday party for his cat. That ending with the damned souls coming out, it’s just fantastic. You look at something like, even if it’s not strictly satanism, Fulci’s City of the Living Dead with the dead coming back because the defrocked priest killed himself on holy ground. It opened a door to hell. It’s such grotty, grimy depiction of hell on earth. I think there’s a lot to be said for movies like Race With the Devil, the Peter Fonda film, that faceless cult. Werewolves on Wheels has a great cult in the center of it. It’s so good.

Then there’s the sci-fi cults. You look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Something like David Cronenberg’s Shivers where everyone is possessed by a parasite. This group of people are acting like this mindless entity. There’s something about large groups of people single-mindedly set on a single goal that’s just terrifying at root.

Being such a fan of this sub-genre, did you feel there were any major beats or moments that you just had to include?

HENDRIX: Well, the big one, you always have that. You’ve got to have a Black Mask. Those are just fun. You have to include it if you’ve got a satanism movie. Then the other one is the scene in the beginning where Sam gets grabbed by everyone when she’s unmasked, when she comes into the house. Something interrupts the pep talk about Satan. The idea of a crowd turning on you is just so right and needy. Crowds are scary whether they’re about to swarm the stage, the U2 concert, or they’re burning a witch, or they’re all belonging to a cult chasing you to an empty neighborhood. Crowds are terrifying.

Yeah. Did you see Midsommar?


Image via RLJE Films

HENDRIX: No. I didn’t. I didn’t see it unfortunately. I’ve haven’t seen much this year. Just busy writing it. I’m woefully out of touch which I feel bad about.

I think you’ll enjoy it when you get around to it.

HENDRIX: Yeah. Folk Horror is a big favorite flavor of mine, so I’m dying to see it.

When you are so busy, what has broken through for you? What have you made time to see that really stood out to you from the last couple of years?

HENDRIX: Not a lot. That’s any wrath on what’s out there. It’s just I’ve got a limited amount of time, and so much of my work involves either research for books, for novels, or reading stuff for Paperbacks from Hell, or the Quirk line is reprinting a lot of them. I just had to make a choice. I am going to do, I have to save my spare time for reading. A lot of times when I wind up watching a movie, it’s like I’ve missed so many classics. I’m going back and watching The Apartment, or It Happened One Night. I just watched this great Barbara Stanwick movie from the 30s called Miracle Work Woman. I’m so out of touch it’s ridiculous.

I will say guilty pleasure wise there’s two things that really have worked for me. One is there’s a British show about how a guy who will be a good 70s, and he marries a woman he meets in his 70s. It’s about their families getting along. It’s called Last Tango in Halifax. Nothing happens. People have dinner. People have arguments. People go to a cocktail party. It is so soothing and so comforting I just love it ridiculously and in an unqualified way. The other thing is that I’ve really wound up loving is Mindhunter, the David Fincher series. There’s something so empty about it. It feels like nothing is ever happening. Then you try to relate what’s gone on to someone, and you realize how complicated it is. There’s something really weird about it. It feels like being in an empty room, like a living room with no furniture.

There’s something really satisfying about it, and I can’t put my finger on it. I’m compulsive about that and how understated it is. It really sucks me in. Old people falling in love in England, and people murdering children in Atlanta, my two flavors entertainment.

You mentioned how much time you have to spend on research, which I respect as a research junkie. I’m curious, was there ever a topic that you got into that you found genuinely frightening. Then also, what is one that you just completely lost yourself in digging deeper and deeper into it?

HENDRIX: Well everything. Getting myself lost in, I don’t think any amount of research is enough. I know there are writers who are like, “Oh, at a certain point you have to stop doing research.” Screw those quitters. I mean, there is no such thing as too much research. Actually, I really want to write, there’s an historical novel I really want to write. It’s horror, but it’s set in the late 19th century. The amount of research for it is overwhelming, and so I’m really, it’s going to be a while before I get to it just because I feel like you have to do the research until it becomes second nature. Late 19th-century life, especially in New York, is just fascinating to me. I mean, post-Civil War, there was this feeling of, “We got through the war. It’s all over. Let’s loot the country.”

I mean, it was unchecked capitalism at its worst. The things that were done. People would just print stock certificates on a printing press and sell them. They weren’t backed by anything. The Freed Man’s Bank, it was supposed to really work to bring African American freed slaves, give them a bank they could trust and really integrate them with the mainstream economy. It was just a piggy bank for the board members. Then Fredrick Douglass got stuck on the board as the figurehead and wound up holding the bag once everyone realized that the bulk of it completely plundered. The poor guy was just a patsy. It’s appalling. That, I could just go on and on researching that forever.

In terms of something scaring me, not really. The only thing that’s ever really stopped me cold is self-surgery. There’s a whole world of self-surgery out there whether it’s plastic surgery done in people’s dining rooms, and in garages for people who can’t afford it or want a discount, to people who get castrated for sexual purposes, or people who will have a limb amputated because they have some kind of body just walking where they see themselves as an amputee of some kind. Their body isn’t the shape they believe it should be. Right down to people who are doing trephination. They’re drilling holes in their skull. That stuff just freaks me out to no end. It’s too hard.

Yeah, I don’t blame you. Even the word trephination makes me want to walk away.

HENDRIX: I know. It’s so rough. Hey, it seems to make them happy so more power to them.

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