This week’s question comes from A.V. Club news editor Katie Rife:
“What fictional secret society scares you the most?”
Look, I’m going to go with the obvious pick here: It’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is in part because we never fully understand the secret society at hand. We know it’s rich, vaguely evil, and involves a lot of fuckin’, but mostly it’s the shadowy way information about it creeps down to Tom Cruise’s character, in off-handed asides and dire warnings about the power of the people involved. This lends it all a certain credibility that other fictional secret societies, with their specific agendas and codes of conduct, can’t quite replicate. And perhaps it’s just my conspiracy theory-loving brain, but I feel like once you start gazing down the Room 237-style hole, you find a long obsession with these apocalyptic power structures in Kubrick’s movies. This isn’t to say he’s a tinfoil-hatted true believer, but there’s an urgency to the movie that almost feels like a warning.
This might be stretching the definition a little, but I can’t think of a real, genuine secret society that’s scarier than J.K Rowling’s wizarding world. Even when there’s not a blood-supremacist Dark Lord making the rounds, riling up anti-muggle sentiment, the life of a no-maj in Rowling’s Harry Potter books is borderline abysmal. For one thing, unless you’re the prime minister, you’ll never even know there are wizards everywhere, living in your midst—not because they’re especially sneaky, mind you, but because the Ministry Of Magic and its U.S. equivalent apparently have very few qualms about ripping memories out of people’s brains to protect their secrets. Rowling doesn’t spend much time on it, but the idea of superhuman, ancient beings living among us—and who have, by all accounts, very little respect for non-magic users as beings more sentient than the average pet—is absolutely terrifying, no matter how many cutesy names they dress it up with.
I recently rewatched Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and it really is the weakest of the original three. (I’ll leave it up to each individual reader if and where they want to slot Crystal Skull into this discussion.) The characters of Short Round and Willie Scott both make sense as a concept lifted from old adventure serials, but that doesn’t make them any more bearable in execution. The snake/bug/eyeball/monkey brain dinner scene is wildly culturally tone-deaf just for the sake of a questionable gross-out sequence, and having the day saved by a bunch of British colonialist soldiers doesn’t do the movie any favors either. But the film’s attempt to find sufficiently menacing non-Nazi villains succeeds admirably with the Thuggees—a Kali-worshipping cult that practices kidnapping, child-slavery, severed finger-based craft jewelry, and the magical removal of a person’s heart before burning them in lava. They scared the hell out of me as a kid and were no less menacing to watch as an adult. This is bolstered by an impressive performance by Harrison Ford, who instills Indy with an uncharacteristic sense of fear and uncertainty in the face of the cult’s evil. Also, oh man, that final bridge climax scene is awesome.
I’m the kind of person who’d run off and join all sorts of occult groups if the robes were cool enough (hello, The Devil’s Rain), but there’s one secret society that I would never mess with: the title organization in Sion Sono’s infamous J-horror movie Suicide Club (2001). The image that opens the film—54 teenage girls in matching school uniforms all throwing themselves in front of an approaching train—is disturbing enough, but the closer you get to the mysterious cult that’s compelling all these kids to kill themselves, the more inexplicable and terrifying things get. Bowling bags stuffed with putrid rolls of skin taken from new recruits? No thanks! A spokesman who sounds like an 8-year-old boy with a pack-a-day habit? I’ll pass! In the end, though, the creepiest thing about this death cult is that it’s everywhere. Its message spreads through the internet and in coded messages from a chirpy teen pop group (variously spelled Desert, Dessert, and Dessret), compelling small children to look straight into adults’ eyes and ask them questions so personal and penetrating that they commit suicide on the spot. I’d take a cabal of devil worshippers any day over a 6-year-old staring through my soul.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to have to go with the cult of Satanists from Rosemary’s Baby. The reason this one is so unsettling to me is that it fulfills the primary task of any secret society that wants to be truly creepy: It’s made up of your friends and neighbors without your knowledge. At the end of the film, when Mia Farrow’s Rosemary learns the residents of her building—and even the good doctor Sapirstein, not to mention her own husband—are all in on the conspiracy, it’s the kind of “your whole world is a lie” reveal that really sells the menace and mystery of the group. Sure, they may not have the all-reaching power of a rich and distant Eyes Wide Shut-style secret society of elites, but that’s because these people don’t need to. They’ve got something much scarier; they control the kindly retirees knocking on your door to borrow a cup of sugar.
Here’s a serious answer: The Neighborhood Watch Alliance in Hot Fuzz is scary. There’s a strong satirical streak running through the meta-action film, and the Neighborhood Watch Alliance is both a sendup of the trope of secretive groups pulling the strings and a veiled examination of real groups that justify atrocities for the sake of the “greater good.” You know the type: They believe they know what’s best for everyone and have enough power to put their agenda into action. Worse, they tout their self-serving motives as being for the benefit of society. In Hot Fuzz’s Sandford, the Neighborhood Watch Alliance is actually a murderous group intent on winning the “village of the year” competition through any means necessary. That same mindset can be found among those working to restrict abortion, decide who gets to marry, who gets to be a citizen, etc. The village of Sandford puts an idyllic facade over rotting classism, and it’s not that far off from the real world.