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

Fortean Times - - UFO/Flying Sorcery -

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.


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.

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