As I look from my study window to the street below, the lines painted on the road marking the scene of the crime, that so unexpectedly occurred here, have all but faded. The disturbing epidemic of youth violence that I can’t help but feel indirectly responsible for began as I prepared for a short break during the May Day bank holiday of 2005.
For some years I had been an aficionado of British horror films and my passion for the subject had become almost obsessional. Indeed, earlier that year, I had even joined an Internet forum, which discussed the minutiae of the film genre. Within the forum, a clique of buffs had formed who were especially interested in tracking down the locations used in classic horror films, particularly those of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A zealous, pedantic and somewhat cantankerous cabal, I felt drawn to this near Masonic order of the online community. Wishing to gain acceptance within the group, I decided to track down the locations used in an obscure cult film from 1969, called "Blood On Satan's Claw". What better way of flexing my mono-maniacal musculature to the fraternity than visiting the desolate Berkshire vale of Assendon, in which key scenes from the film were shot. More symbolically and yet with a degree of pragmatism, I decided I would use the May Day Bank Holiday weekend to carry out my research. I would present my findings to my peers as a video collage, using a combination of footage and sound from the film, spliced together with my own audio visual field recordings.
And so it was, on the Friday night before May eve, that the first ripple in the wave of uncanny and ultimately horrific crimes took place. Engrossed, in capturing sound bites and stills from the film, I was oblivious to a fracas unfurling in the road outside, until my wife rushed into our attic study.
"Have you seen what's happening, darling? There's police everywhere!"
Stirred from my solipsistic endeavour, I joined my wife at the window. In the road below, a chase had come to a climax, with the collision of a four wheel drive jeep and a police pursuit car. Two youths were being hauled violently from their stolen vehicle by a scrum of heavy handed members of the local constabulary. Close behind the collision a White Mariah of police reinforcements completed the somewhat melodramatic cordon to what was obviously merely an incident of joy riding. Dog handlers and their growling German Shepherds poured from the caged van. At this point, I feel it is necessary to note that this incident took place not in the nihilistic abyss of the modern city, but in a quiet rural town, and moreover not even within a more disadvantaged locale. Indeed my wife and I shared amusement at the fact it appeared that the entire town's law enforcement resources had been called to this pursuit. As one of the young ne'er do wells was tussled to the ground and hand cuffed, my wife yelped excitedly.
"My God, that's Neal Collins, I taught him!"
A teacher of some years, at a comprehensive school in one of the less desirable catchments, my wife had encountered and nurtured many of the town's future petty criminals. Recognising the hapless arm-locked youth as a former pupil we watched as he was escorted painfully toward one of the squadron of back up vehicles the police had deployed to the scene. As with the careers of most of our spouses, names of colleagues and acquaintances often pass by in a blur of half-listened-to diatribes. However, the Collins family were above the mundane radar of thievery having achieved more than local notoriety a few years previously, when the older brother in the clan had been convicted of the brutal murder of a local man on waste land near the town centre. Pursued from a drinking establishment this unassuming student had been bludgeoned with a chair leg in an homophobic attack by an anomic gang of sociopaths led by Neal Collins' sibling.
Now it is probably worth mentioning the rough outline of the plot of the film, I had been so assiduously deconstructing before this nocturnal interruption. A low budget cult film released in 1969, Blood On Satan’s Claw told the story of murderous rural coven of teenagers led by an alluring yet manipulative vixen named Angel Blake. Set in the C17th, the director, Piers Haggard used the then contemporary case of Mary Bell as inspiration for the character of Angel Blake. In addition, the freshly spilled blood of Manson’s Spahn Ranch cult, some commentators feel, was not far from Haggard’s consciousness, as he sought to weave the horrific denouement on the 1960s into the age of maleficium.
As I drove down to Berkshire the following day, I couldn't help but fantasise, somewhat pompously, that my splicing of the soundtrack to the film, may have acted as an accidental trigger to the incident of youth offending in the street. Having studied experimental occultism, on a somewhat superficial level, it must be confessed, I was aware of certain theories of so called “Chaos Magicians”, who purported that it was possible to affect mundane reality through "cut up" experimentation with tape recordings. Of course, this theory developed originally in literary circles with the methodology espoused by Beatnik authors such as William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Indeed it was Burroughs’ aphorism "When you cut word lines the future leaks out" that nagged away at me like an over familiar refrain as I journey toward Assendon.
The main focus of my day's activities centred around woodland bordering a nature reserve and the ruins of a Norman Church. Both locations nestled in the valley of Assendon at the achingly timeless hamlet of Bix Bottom and featured prominently in what most would agree is the most unsettling scene of the film. The scene concerned the abduction and ritual murder, by the coven, of a teenage girl. Lured from a meadow by members of the cult, she is crowned in the woodland with a laurel of blossom: the film's most chilling moment arguably being the emergence of the coven from behind birch trees as she is led to the group's leader, Angel Blake. The maiden is forced to consummate a mock marriage, with a black breeched youth - her dead elder brother, earlier sacrificed by the cult. The climax of the scene sees the abductee stabbed to the death by Angel Blake as she is raped by the ghost of her sibling in the nave of a ruined church.
Overall, I felt the day's researches were rather successful. I was particularly impressed by my detective work in unearthing the precise location of the coven's woodland procession. However, my attempts at filming in and around the church were, to begin with, obstructed by the rather anomalous intrusion by a family of picnickers. Seemingly suspicious of my interest of the church, the clan's elder even interrogated me on its history... though only after I had feigned an academic motive for visiting the place. The family, I found out from polite if somewhat diversionary conversation, came to the area regularly, finding it a peaceful haven from their urban habitat in the nearby town of Reading.
In a strange way, no doubt a little uneasy about my somewhat autistic voyage, I sensed this family were playing the role of perverse imps, unconscious sentinels of St James' Church. Or perhaps, more spectrally speaking, were they actually puckish remnants of the film set intent on preventing me from carrying out my researches? In fact, I temporarily abandoned my field recordings at the ruin to visit the woodland, only to return a couple of hours later when they had left. Even then, as evening drew in and I finally could carry out my research, another young family stopped briefly to look at the church. While studying the chancel, I was amused to eaves drop their conversation, as the mother informed her daughter that local witches would gather here at Midsummer. Clearly unaware of it being Beltane Eve, I wondered what tacky hybrid of rustic detective series and half remembered Hammer horror had conjured this urban myth. Perhaps the images of Blood on Satan's Claw had seeped from their celluloid reels into the fabric of local lore? However, my smug sense of superiority at her vague conjecture was tempered by a disturbing discovery when I downloaded photographs from the day onto my laptop, later that evening...
From Bix Bottom I drove the short distance to West Wycombe and booked into a modest bed and breakfast. I had decided to stay over here and take advantage of the long weekend to visit Medmenham abbey and the Hellfire Caves of Sir Francis Dashwood. Though unrelated to my film studies, I felt it would provide a good opportunity to dovetail the visit with other interests in occult history. Indeed my kudos within the online community of cinemaphiles could only be augmented by a casual addendum about Dashwood's decadent order. In fact I must have been in half a mind to cleverly link in the Hellfire Club with Blood On Satan's Claw, by an oblique reference to the film's cinematographer Dick Bush. Bush, I had noted, seemed to me to have a flair in framing particularly ornate scenes of a ceremonial nature. In his portfolio Bush could boast another truly memorable scene - another diabolic invocation - in the otherwise risible vampire film, Dracula AD 72. Concerning the exploits of an aristocratic Satanist, Johnny Alucard, Bush choreographed the film's one highlight: a classic calling down of count Dracula in the form of a nightmarish amalgam of Grimoirium Verum and drug culture happening - filmed in the ruins of St. Bartolph's church. Indeed I felt the character of Alucard was heavily modelled on one of Sir Francis Dashwood's debauched monks, namely one George Selwyn. Selwyn was a necrophile with a sanguine thirst, expelled from Oxford for drinking blood at a college soiree; he fornicated in graveyards, wrote pornography and watched public executions wearing women's clothing.
At the risk of diverting your attention from the main thrust of my adventure, I feel it necessary to give you an indication of my hyper-sensitized state of mind, when I made the unsettling photographic finding. Flicking through my digital archive of the day, tired from the long drive and rape-field pollen, I thought at first my eyes were deceiving me when I noticed, on a photograph of the chancel arch, clearly daubed in thick charcoal - that most taboo of symbols - a Swastika! Incredibly, on site, I had overlooked this most ominous motif. Indeed, ironically enough, whilst there I had been somewhat under whelmed by the ubiquitous graffiti that seems to spread like vulgar lichen over even the most remote of sites. But here in the quiet, musty and drab confines of my hotel room, the sabbatic yarn of the woman at the church came back to mock me. Perhaps she was correct: maybe the church was employed for sabbatic congress, and if so, what kind of perverse Wiccan splinter group would worship the fylfot, that most hideous sigil of C20th inhumanity?
A worrying theory boiled to the surface - I was vaguely cognisant of the work of one Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke a pre-eminent scholar who had done much to expose the occult roots of Nazism. In a recent study, he had followed the noxious branches of right wing mysticism to their disturbing modern day offshoots. Allied to the British National Front was an alarming magico-fascist group called The Order of the Nine Angles. I knew from Goodrick-Clarke's studies this bizarre fraternity employed Nazi paraphernalia within their ceremonies. Could it be that the church had been utilised within a ritual context for such a sinister faction as the ONA?