We banged on the door of St. Lawrence’s Church for over a minute, but the vicar never came. Given the status of England’s churches as largely historical curiosities, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. Ken, our guide for the day, had gotten our hopes up with descriptions of a dimly-lit cloister adorned with mysterious masonic symbols, and I had played out a whole adventure in my head wherein we would decipher the cryptic emblems and discover the location of a hidden treasure that would make Dan Brown shit his pants. It was not to be. The vicar was out to lunch.
We consoled ourselves by wandering the grounds. Ken and I smoked a cigarette in consternation. Katie wandered wistfully among the tombstones in her black dress and Hepburn sunglasses, her tragic demeanor offset only slightly by the Diet Coke clutched in her pale hand. We circled the mausoleum of Sir Francis Dashwood that you saw at the end of To the Devil… A Daughter. Kev fantasized about breaking in and taking some intensely gothic glamor shots. We stared out over the rolling Chiltern Hills as sunlight glinted off the golden dome of the church, reveling in a beautiful outing, certain that the best was yet to come. We did not come here to see the church, mysterious though it was reported to be. We did not come to see the place where Sir Francis Dashwood and Hammer Films were both laid to rest.
We came to see the Hellfire Caves, the satanic sanctuary three hundred feet below where we stood. Ken, Kev, Katie, and I wanted to walk the gloomy passages where the aristocracy of a bygone age had reveled in blasphemous orgies and infernal rites. It was time to descend into those mysterious depths. Just after we hit the gift shop.
The entrance to the caves was as impressive as one could hope. A teetering wall of pinnacled stone rose against the chalky cliff. A yawning tunnel cut straight into the cliff before being swallowed up suddenly by darkness. The eerie effect was nearly spoiled by the music that warped out over the courtyard – sinister as the plinkety tones of an ice cream truck. We stopped into the gift shop to pick up some last-minute souvenirs for the folks back home, and were appalled to see that they were selling “Hellfire Club Sandwiches”. I began to suspect that this site that was once witness to some truly epic flaunting of social and theological convention may have become a tad commercialized. Then again, when has that ever been a bad thing for the Dark Lord? Kev kindly payed our £5 admission (as our budget had been strained beyond all expectation) and, turnstile tokens in hand, we prepared to descend into the Underworld.
The tunnel suddenly narrowed around us, and the ceiling pressed in. The voice of the most recent Lord Dashwood piped out from a speaker on the wall to fill us in on some historical details. We breezed past, winding our way deeper into the cooling darkness. Every thirty feet or so there was a recessed light to keep us moving in the right general direction. My American sensibilities were momentarily stunned by the atmospherically appropriate lack of illumination. This place would never fly in the States with its lack of handrails, handicap ramps, and track lighting. The music followed us down the tunnel, bending and deforming around the flint and chalk walls in a spooky way. A tingle ran down my spine. I was pleased.
And then we came upon the first of them. Tucked within an arched recess sat a mannequin meant to represent one of the wealthy gentlemen who once descended into those depths, but whose general demeanor suggested nothing so much as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. Down to the skeleton popping out of a chest next to him. I cringed so hard I hurt my face. I made a decision right then and there that I would ignore any other mannequins that we might come across. This, unfortunately, would prove quite difficult.
Benjamin Franklin is a personal hero of mine, for many reasons, foremost among them being the fact that he was wry, diplomatic, hedonistic, irreverent, and intelligent. He stands out in history like a glaring hole in the argument that the United States was ever a Christian nation. I remember the strange feeling of vindication when I first learned that Poor Richard had attended the wild orgies of the Hellfire Club. As I walked those cramped hallways I could almost hear his deep laughter booming down the twisting cavern. And then there he was, manifest in mannequin form, standing with the plaster eidolon of Sir Francis Dashwood himself. My face twitched as a looping tape played a dramatized “conversation” between the two in which Franklin (the voice actor doing his best Howard De Silva) pronounced that the caves were a “passing strange undertaking!”
“Not at ALL, old chap!” replied the sniveling voice of Dashwood. The mystique was in serious danger of being permanently dispelled, so we fled deeper into the caves. We started to come across little faces carved into the damp walls. Once we saw the first one we started to see them everywhere. Little demons, imps, devils, skulls carved in the most crude of forms and worn eerily smooth by two hundred years of visitors started to repair the dark atmosphere. We emerged into the banquet hall. Kev gasped with wonder. Ken nodded appreciatively at the immense dome that vaulted above us. Katie snapped pictures of the statuary. Kev and I commiserated about the absolute necessity of throwing a Satanic bacchanal down there. Visions of his band playing in black robes and masks swam before his eyes and made his whiskers twitch with excitement. Next year, we told ourselves.
The River Styx was once much higher than it is today. In the heyday of the Hellfire Club it was an actual subterranean moat that had to be crossed in a tiny boat to reach the Inner Sanctum, where the dread and mysterious initiations were supposed to take place. Today it is little more than a bridged creek, but something liminal and evocative nevertheless remains. Any psychic sensitivity I might have was tingling. If any of the reports of ghostly activity in those caves were veridical, I would expect them to hover over those slow-flowing waters. Ahead of us was the final chamber, fabled to lie exactly three hundred feet below the altar of St. Lawrence’s Church. What mysteries awaited us within that shadowed gallery?
More fucking mannequins.
A momentary digression, if I may. Let me tell you about Rock City. Situated on Lookout Mountain in Northern Georgia, Rock City is a place of intense natural beauty that was systematically transformed into what may be the single greatest example of American kitsch in existence. Garden gnomes peer at you from within narrow rock corridors, bizarre dioramas of children’s fairytales line cave walls,black lights assailthe senses, and of course, all the grotesque architectures of miniature golf await the curious visitor. In all ways it is a work of outsider “art”, which is to say aesthetically offensive in extremis, yet by virtue of its childlike ingenuousness, it manages to express something deeply charming.
I did not expect the Hellfire Caves, of all places, to remind me so very much of Rock City. When I imagined walking in to that historic tunnel into the earth I expected to find a dark reflection of hallowed ground, a sinister shrine to the infernal. To some degree no amount of tacky decoration or cheezy voice over can rob those galleries of their strange atmosphere. But boy if they don’t try. I’m no ghosthunter, but I am relatively certain that the best way to banish a spirit is to put up a hokey diorama.
We stood there for a few minutes, trying to imagine the mannequins out of existence, breathing in whatever residual aura remained of the diabolical revelries of the Hellfire Club. Finally, we turned and retraced our steps, leaving the dank, slick walls of the cold cavern behind us.
Katie, Ken, and I lit cigarettes simultaneously as we emerged blinking into the sunlight. Kev chuckled about the rubbery bats and witch hats for sale in the giftshop. Ken devoured a jacket potato piled half-a-foot high with tuna and sweetcorn. Katie expressed equal parts confusion and disgust.