Hell on wheels
Ever since the ‘Hollister Riot’ of 1947, outlaw motorcycle clubs, with their deliberate cultivation of Satanic iconography, have been a terrifying bogeyman for mainstream society. STEVE TOASE explores how films and pulp fiction have exploited these links
There is a thread of superstition running through the biker subculture
The biker subculture has long been known for using occult imagery. From the earliest days, bike clubs used devices and designs intended to annoy the wider community. Some took names to wind up small town America – like the Boozefighters or the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington – others achieved the same aims by using symbols rich in darker meanings.
However, there have been times when the occult and supernatural elements within biker culture, and in representations of bikers in fiction and film, have been overt and intentional rather than just a by-product of collective identity or a desire to shock. In addition, because of its inherent dangers, there has always been a thick thread of folklore and superstition running through the biker subculture.
The origins of what we think of as biker culture can be found at the end of World War II. Young men came back from the conflict and, finding they couldn’t adjust to the boredom and conformity of civilian society, bought cheap motorbikes and started riding in clubs around the countryside. These early clubs were a particular phenomenon on the West Coast, and gained notoriety following events that took place in Hollister, California, in 1947.
Hollister was probably the key moment in the creation of the idea of the biker. On the 4th July weekend of 1947, the town played host to the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Gypsy Tour Motorcycle Rally. Many more motorcyclists arrived than expected, socialising and drinking, as well as racing. Although there were examples of what today would be called anti-social behaviour (drag racing down the street, pulling wheelies and an arrest for indecent exposure), accounts of events that painted a picture of a town under siege by motorcycling hoodlums were exaggerated and overblown. 1
Two things led to the notoriety of Hollister. Firstly, San Francisco Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson staged a notorious photo, sitting a drunk guy on a bike that wasn’t his and placing broken beer bottles around the wheels. Appearing in Life magazine, the photo shocked straight America and ramped up the moral outrage.
The second was the creation of the ‘One Percenter’. The received wisdom is that the AMA released a statement saying that 99 per cent of motorcyclists were law-abiding, with just one per cent causing trouble. The AMA has said that they can find no evidence of such a press release, and the ‘One Percenter’ idea might be based on comments in a letter sent to Life by Paul Brokaw, editor of The Motorcyclist. 2 Whatever the origin, the ‘One Percenter’ label became a badge of honour for outlaw bikers and is still worn proudly by backpatch clubs around the globe. After Hollister (whatever actually happened or didn’t happen), ‘outlaw’ motorcycle clubs not affiliated with the AMA – most famously, of course, the Hell’s Angels – spread and established chapters across the US and the modern biker was born.
REBELS AND RITUALS
The ‘Hollister Riot’ was fictionalised in the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One, which helped cement the emerging popcultural image of outlaw bikers terrorising respectable society.
By the 1960s, biker films became a whole subgenre of their own, largely down to Roger Corman and American International Pictures, who cornered the emerging market in this new type of exploitation movie and spawned legions of imitators. The results ranged from Dennis Hopper’s classic Easy Rider (1969) to the not-so-classic Miniskirt Mob (1968). At the schlockier (and weirder) end of the scale, Werewolves on Wheels (1971) does pretty much what it says on the tin. It starts like many other films of this type, with a backpatch bike club on a run. They are looking cool, and at least one of them is
wearing wacky sunglasses, as they ride down small-town American main streets; there’s a quick break by the side of the road to scare some cattle, a brief episode of stunt riding, and a fight with ignorant locals. So far, so standard.
After being mocked for taking life too seriously, Tarot, one of the club members, leads the bikers to an isolated adobe building. Drunk and undisciplined, they are watched from inside by a cloaked figure, whose Satanic brethren surround the bikers and offer them food and drink, which they accept. In the distance, a ritual starts.
While the main focus of the film is the hirsute transformation of the bikers, several folkloric motifs appear. The sharing of bread and wine not only mocks Holy Communion (in the style of Dennis Wheatley), but also taps into traditions of not accepting sustenance from the otherworld (see
FT332:42-47). 3 The chief Satanist also uses a single hair, with echoes of sympathetic magic. The ritual sequence lasts for a good 11 minutes, and while certainly overdramatic isn’t as trashy as similar scenes in contemporary B-movies.
A Satanic ritual also features in the classic Australian biker film Stone, directed by Sandy Harbutt and released in 1974. It’s of particular note to fans of the genre for starring Hugh Keays-Byrne – who went on to play axe-wielding motorcycle gang leader Toecutter in the original Mad Max (1979), and Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury
Road (2015) – Vincent Gill, who played the Nightrider in Mad Max, and a number of Japanese Kawasaki Z1 motorbikes, which also featured heavily in George Miller’s renowned series.
The story revolves around Toad (KeaysByrne) witnessing a political assassination, which leads to the members of the Gravediggers bike club being picked off one by one and the eponymous Sydney detective being sent to investigate.
Following the first killing, there is a funeral scene (director Sandy Harbutt recruited real local bike club members to swell the numbers for the shots of the funeral cortège). What’s interesting here, though, is the Satanic burial itself.
Informal and short, this couldn’t be more different from the extended ritual in
Werewolves on Wheels, yet in its way the brief invocation and appeal to Satan to look after one of his own feels more natural. While the Satanic element in Werewolves on Wheels is there to show the malevolent forces at play, in Stone the supposedly Satanic bikers are portrayed as anti-heroes we are supposed to side with rather than root against. Also of note is that the gang’s backpatch refers to the Diggers, Australian slang for soldiers, and seems to be referencing the biker subculture’s historical links with the military.
Moving closer to home, there is another occult biker film that has also achieved cult status. No, not I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990), though that has its own charms; I’m talking about the 1973 cult classic
Psychomania, directed by Don Sharp and released in the US as Death Wheelers.
BELOW: The POBOB was one of the first ‘One Percenter’ clubs.
LEFT: The Wild One helped cement the image of ‘outlaw’ bikers terrorising straight society.
A poster for the re-release of the 1974 Aussie biker pic Stone cheekily – and inaccurately – cashes in on the film’s links to the Mad Max series – which, in fact, arrived five years after Stone.
ABOVE RIGHT: The occult ritual in Werewolves on Wheels.
ABOVE LEFT: Satanic imagery was always part and parcel of biker exploitation films.