Big Sandy Confronts the Devil

The Devil is a mythic and often-mentioned character in the heavily Christian culture of the South. However, because this figure appears in so many forms and in so many ways, it can be hard to discern what some people mean by it.  This essay comments on the Devil’s constant presence in Southern life, including aspects of the narrative that can be confusing and contradictory. 

Big Sandy Confronts the Devil:
Remembering the Mount Zion Cemetery Craze of 1980
by Kevin T. Brewer

When I was a kid, growing up in rural West Tennessee in the ’60s and ’70s, the Devil was everywhere. I first met him as a toddler, when I ran across him in my mother’s pantry. There he was, not one image of him, but several: a tiny, red, horned stick-figure of the Devil. He had a sinister, pointy tail and held an even more sinister-looking pitchfork, as he danced on a snow-white piece of paper wrapped around a can of Underwood Deviled Ham.

I cried.

My patient mother, who believed in the Devil but did not think the Underwood people in league with him (I wasn’t so sure; even absent the supernatural connection, I heaved every time someone opened a can of the stuff), assured me that this was not the real Devil. The real Devil was very bad (though she had heard somewhere that he looked beautiful), but he did not live in middle-class cabinetry – not in America, anyway – and didn’t have much to do with the food we purchased at Graham’s in Big Sandy. Regardless, there was a plan in place to protect little kids like me from the Devil and his schemes, so I did not have to worry yet. There was something more about this pantry Devil being used to sell more canned ham, but by this time I had lost interest and wandered away to pursue other activities, content that, thus far, she had not tried to make me eat the stuff.

As I grew, I had several other encounters with devils who looked suspiciously like the one I remembered from the ham spread. Sitting at my grandmother’s, thumbing through the Big Sandy School yearbooks of the ’50s and early ’60s, I found the Devil celebrated throughout. It seemed a particularly terrifying version attended basketball games at the school in those long-ago days. This worried me, as my brother Tim would be going there soon – an idea I was already on record against – and my parents had even suggested that someday I would go. Hoping to get in front of this ill-conceived scheme, I approached Memaw with my concerns. She told me that the image in the yearbook was just a costume, that she didn’t think the school used it anymore, and to stop prowling through her back bedroom.

By the time I was reading, the Devil had shed his trickster veneer and had become serious business. He was real, and he had it in for me and most other people. Once, in a restaurant in Big Sandy, I saw a flyer for a terrifying presentation a church planned to share with the local youth. There, in blood-red rotogravure, was a drawing of the Devil, looking much as he did in the yearbooks, only meaner. “Ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit and not a drop of water!” shrieked the caption. Intrigued, I wondered what Fahrenheit was; how they knew the temperature in hell; and why adults told me that the Devil was beautiful, but used this ghastly, horned image to scare me to death, even as they celebrated him at sporting events.

Surely, the church (my own, not those other churches; I had already learned the mutual exclusivity of such things) had the answers. Each week at church, people assured me that the Devil was around every corner. If I thought bad thoughts about my parents, it was the Devil making me do it. I learned that the Devil wanted my dad to occasionally drink beer (based on the smell alone, I believed he must have been involved), that the Devil wanted me to smoke cigarettes (which was probably why he tricked otherwise pious deacons into doing so on the church steps after Sunday school), and that the Devil wanted me to “cuss” (on the playground at school, at least, the Devil had won that round). Finally, though no one had ever discussed it with me, I intuitively suspected that the Devil was somehow behind the electric, hopeless, butterfly feeling I had when I looked at the “Breck Girl” on the back of my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazines.

Big Sandy kids grew up with the Devil and with a variety of devils. By the time I was fifteen, in 1980, I had mostly come to terms with the former, and, loved and well cared for, had little reason to fear the latter. That the world was full of evil, though, I had few doubts. My Grandfather Brewer died of cancer that March after much suffering. Before summer vacation was over, a classmate would die in a boating accident. A divisive presidential election loomed, and warnings of nuclear annihilation were in the air. Still, obsessed as I was with Big Sandy Red Devils basketball, the horned, grimacing, long-tailed Devil of medieval lore, which had so terrified me when I was a child, no longer had any power over my imagination. That image had gone mainstream at the pep rallies. Whatever real Devil I believed in now, it was not that one.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a horned, bearded, grinning Devil – the very image of the legend – appeared on a granite stone in a local cemetery.

Sometime early that year, (it may have begun long before, but no one I knew had ever heard it) when I was a high school freshman, word circulated around the school that the Devil – the canned ham and high school basketball version – had appeared on a grave monument in Mount Zion Cemetery. It began as idle banter among some of the older “party” crowd, then spread among the general population. Within a few weeks, it was a low-level high school craze.

Mount Zion Cemetery sits at the end of Mount Zion Church Road, near Sulphur Creek, outside Big Sandy, Tennessee. The short road to the cemetery is curvy and steep, ending in a clearing at the crest of a high hill. In the clearing is the cemetery itself and an abandoned church building of relatively modern design, erected, perhaps, in the 1950s. In the early ’80s, there was a second, much older log church as well. Once, it had been abandoned in favor of the newer church, but both were now unused empty shells. For years, a sign erroneously identified the stately and remarkably well-preserved log church as having been built in 1812, though it could not possibly have existed in West Tennessee at such an early date (sadly, the log church burned years after the events of this story). Perched, as it is, at the top of a hill, and surrounded by forest, the cemetery has a notable stifling atmosphere. In every direction, one sees graves and woods. Even the single road out disappears downward and around a curve, completing the illusion of isolation. I had visited the cemetery a couple of times. My friend David Hollingsworth lived on a farm nearby. Before either of us had driver’s licenses, we would ride on his John Deere 4020 tractor on the back roads of the area, sometimes stopping to visit the cemetery at the top of the hill. I regarded the place with historical interest, but we both found it a little frightening.

When I first heard that the Devil’s face had appeared on a tombstone on that bleak hilltop, I laughed. I knew what the older kids, and even a few of my own worldlier peers, did on the weekends at places like Mount Zion Cemetery. I had seen the beer bottles, litter, and vandalism there and had heard the stories of their small-town, Bacchic diversions. The insularity of the place invited mischief of every kind. I concluded that the kids at school were lying, that they had seen some random image in the natural surface of the stone, or that they had been duped (perhaps willingly) by some drunken vandal. I didn’t know the term then, but it seemed Big Sandy was in the grip of a decidedly rural version of an “urban legend.”

As time went by, though, the stories of the image on the stone grew more specific, more consistent, and more disturbing. All small towns have their scary places, and Mount Zion had such a reputation. There was just something about the place: the dome of blue sky over the solid circle of woods, the quiet, the odd stillness. I could only imagine what it was like at night and concluded that it would be terrifying, even to an aspiring intellectual like me. I had read enough tabloid nonsense to be skeptical of apparitions on inanimate objects, but I acknowledged that if something weird or supernatural were going to occur in our area, Mount Zion would be as good a place as any.

I asked questions:

“You saw this?”

“Yes.”

“The Devil?”

“Yes.”

“It had a beard, horns, and a big, ugly grin?”

“Yes! And the Devil’s hand is on a man’s shoulder!”

“Oh, come on!”

“I saw it!”

Even rational people gave me mostly the same answers, though occasionally there would be something new. From several sources, I heard that the grass was dead in front of the stone, killed off by foot traffic—or something darker. Additionally, the Devil’s face was not on the surface of the stone, as I had assumed; it was in a photograph cemented to the stone. Somehow, this bit of information upped the creepiness factor considerably. The photograph, I was told, featured a happy family from about the early ’50s. There was a boy smiling and tilting his head in the picture, and in the background, the disembodied head of the Devil. Today, of course, there would be hundreds of cell phone images of this phenomenon, but at the time there were only stories, and the stories were all beginning to agree, more or less.

My brother Tim was a junior in high school that year and was on the basketball team. I was the equipment manager and helped the coach with practice. We were desperate to get to the bottom of this Deviltry, but Tim had not been driving to school that long, and we knew that our dad’s answer to any request that he had to think about for more than five seconds was “no.” Any errand that seemed out of the ordinary or required a complicated explanation was automatically suspect. If we were going to see the Devil, we were going to have to go covertly. Finally, one afternoon that spring, practice was cut short for some reason, and a plan came together. Tim, our cousin Lisa, our lifelong friend Kim, and I loaded up in our dad’s 1972 Pontiac Catalina and set out for Mount Zion Cemetery, only a few miles away.

From the time we arrived at the cemetery, I could feel the gloom of the place, just as I had on my earlier visits. We were looking for a stone marked “Belyew,” somewhere on the rear perimeter. We soon found it: a stark, simple upright granite slab. The first thing I noticed was that the stories about the grass were true, and I had a twinge of shame as I stood there contributing to the problem. My next realization was that the stone in question was not really a grave marker as such. It was more of a family plot marker, the surname etched deeply into it drawing attention to the several Belyew family graves that lay around. Below the name, the stone read, “THE CIRCLE IN HEAVEN UNBROKEN SHALL STAND.”

I knelt and examined the picture.

It was a black-and-white photograph under glass, permanently fixed to the surface of the stone. The setting was a snug, comfortable room in a typical rural home of the era. A middle-aged woman stood with two men, one older, the other perhaps 30, and in front of them all stood a boy of about nine or ten in a dark suit. All were smiling. The boy’s head was tilted a little to his right. A hand appeared on the left shoulder of the younger man and another on the right shoulder of the woman, obviously the loving hands not of the Devil, but of the pleasant-looking, middle-aged man standing between them. Without further information, one would immediately conclude that this was either a married couple with two sons or with a son and a grandson.

In the right rear of the photograph, situated behind the figures in the foreground and leering over the shoulder of the younger man, was the disembodied face of the Devil, seemingly hovering in midair by a mirror. He was in three-quarter profile, grinning wickedly, as though – I thought for a fleeting instant – in possession of some great secret, or in ridicule of the happy people standing in front of him. My next thought, one that I have never fully abandoned, was that this Devil looked exactly like the one I had seen in the old yearbooks long ago.

My brother, my friends, and I looked at the fearful image. We looked at each other. Then we all grinned.

“It’s a mask!” we all seemed to say in unison. “It’s a Halloween mask!”

And so it was.

The mirror was attached to a bureau. The supernatural face that had preoccupied my friends and me for weeks was a plastic or rubber “Devil” mask hanging, probably from a rubber band, over a bit of ornamentation. The hand on the younger man’s shoulder was placed in such a way that a young person who was determined enough (or drunk enough) might see in it the hand of the Devil, despite the apparent wristwatch that was just visible.

We left Mount Zion that day in amusement. We assumed that everyone who had seen the image, including, probably, the many people who had carried on so about the “Devil,” must have known immediately, as we had, that they were looking at a mask. I was barely fifteen, my companions around seventeen, and not one of us was worldly or particularly insightful. We were not special; if we could see it, why couldn’t others? We went back to school and announced our findings, proud to have made the pilgrimage that so many of our wilder, more independent peers had made before us. Our conclusion that the Devil image was a mask was met with, “Yeah.” The question, “If everyone knew it was a mask, why didn’t anyone talk about it?” elicited resigned shrugs. I was disappointed and a little annoyed. Within a few days, the Devil craze died away.

Or maybe it didn’t.

Summer came. In that age before cell phones and social media, rural kids’ worlds contracted in summer. Distracted, in the aftermath of my grandfather’s death, by a serious drought that cut into my lawn-mowing money and the Independence Day death of my classmate Chris Bollen, I gave little thought to the odd monument at the top of Mount Zion Hill. Then, one day in August, just as school began, I sat visiting with my newly widowed grandmother, reading the August 20, 1980 issue of the Camden Chronicle (“WORLD’S BIGGEST BOOSTER OF BENTON COUNTY AND ITS PEOPLE”). When I reached the first page of section two, I gasped. There, straddling the fold, was the satanic image from Mount Zion. The story we had all assumed was the exclusive province of our local youth culture had broken into the adult sphere, had caused real-world problems, and had come to the attention of the press.

The article, by RC Johnson, was entitled, “Simple Halloween Mask Is Mistaken for the Real Devil.” The paper reported that the monument I had visited just weeks before had been removed and “remade,” because of the uproar over the Devil. The boy in the picture was identified as “the deceased, James Willis Belyew.” The others in the picture were, indeed, his parents and his older brother. In a brief interview, the father Allie Belyew explained that, sometime in the late fifties, a family friend with a new camera had stopped by after church and had taken the photograph. “We stood in front of the mirror on which James had hung his Halloween mask,” he said. Mr. Belyew added that the recent uproar over the Devil had brought too many people to the cemetery and that they were trampling the grass and the graves. “It irritates me that people are ignorant enough to start such a line as is being repeated,” Mr. Belyew told the Chronicle reporter. “No Devil’s face is going to appear. People haven’t seen the Devil—couldn’t know what it looked like.”

Rattled, I sat and reflected that the boy in the photo, James Willis Belyew, must have died very young and that it was surprising, and somehow painful, to learn that his father still lived. I thought about my friends and me and the many others who had traipsed up to Mount Zion, not in reverence for this smiling boy’s young life or his early death, but to chase a phantom that was part rumor, part accident, and part joke. I spied a caption below the photograph in the paper: “And in those days it was said by some that others knew not the difference between the Devil and a Halloween mask, and when they did, it made no difference to a confused few.” Stung by the paper’s uncharacteristically graceful indictment, I once again felt ashamed of myself, despite having recognized right away that the image was a mask. A little out of sorts, with my grandmother’s permission I carefully cut the story from the paper and biked home.

A few years later, I returned to Mount Zion and the Belyew family marker. The grass was rich and green, and the hilltop seemed more pleasant somehow. There was the picture, in the same place as before, but the Devil mask was gone. The entire top right corner of the image had been scraped from the back of the glass and was left white. In an attempt at symmetry, the top left corner had been removed as well. How long would it be, I wondered, before no one knew why the picture looked as it did. Would future generations ponder what had once been in the corners? Maybe someday I would tell the story.

A quarter-century later, grown, and armed with a humanities education and a philosophical bent, I went back to Mount Zion yet again and reconsidered the events of 1980. It was not possible that the Belyew family, in selecting the photo, handling it, and having it attached to the monument, failed to notice the Devil mask in the background; anyone would have seen it. Why, then, did they use it as it was? Such a thing would be unthinkable today. I suspected the answer said much about family and time and about the meanings of static monuments in the midst of dynamic cultures. It also said much about grief: what had they to fear from the Devil now? What was a simple mask to people who had lost a child?

They would have preferred to leave the monument undisturbed forever, I mused; for years and years, they had. It was my generation, drunk on sensationalism and unmoored by shifting values, that had forced their hand. To them, this was a sweet family picture from a happier, simpler time, with a child’s plaything in the background. Nothing more. A changing society had reinterpreted – and exploited – their long-ago private and cheerful moment to suit its own distorted and insatiable appetites. When we stood on the hill in the sunlight that afternoon in 1980, it didn’t occur to us that we were hurting people who had already endured more than we could fathom. Now, as one who teaches and writes about history, and with nearly four decades of hindsight, I understand that my first visit to Mount Zion Cemetery, to gawk at young James Willis Belyew’s grave, was my first experience with one of the greatest challenges of history: understanding, and helping others understand, the reality, for those who endured it, of the suffering of the past.


Kevin T. Brewer was born in Paris, Tennessee and grew up in Big Sandy. A 1983 graduate of Big Sandy High School, he  attended the University of Tennessee at Martin, then the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, earning a BA degree in political science in 1988 and later an MS in education curriculum and instruction in 1991. In the 1990s, Brewer returned to Benton County, began teaching at his old high school, and has now been teaching there for twenty-five years. In 2003, he received a James Madison Memorial Foundation Fellowship. which allowed him to earn an MA in history, with a constitutional emphasis, at Murray State University in Kentucky. He was recently named Big Sandy’s Teacher of the Year for 2020 – 2021.

*This essay appeared first on Brewer’s blog, American Path[o]s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.