Our New Satanic Moment
A seemingly paradoxical trend of "enlightenment" and brutality
These once United States have had Satanic moments before. Considering only the last half century, in 1966, Anton Szandor LaVey, a.k.a. Howard (‘Howie’?) Stanton Levey, founded the Church of Satan, borrowing ideas from Aleister Crowley’s Thelema “Do what thou wilt” religion and, judging by its effects, from comic books.
The book and movie Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 showed us that even the Antichrist needs a mother’s love. The film was directed by Roman Polanski, who drugged and rape-raped a thirteen-year-old child (the phrase “rape-rape” is courtesy Whoopi Goldberg).
One of the killers, Susan Atkins, had danced as a topless vampire in a LaVey show called the Witches’ Sabbath before joining the Manson family.
Another of the victims of that bloody night was celebrity hairdresser, Jay Sebring, who had attended LaVey’s church around the same time as Davis. The sad aftermath of the murders left the church looking pathetic rather than dangerous. While LaVey continued his work and publicity efforts, expansion slowed, and the free-wheeling Sixties attitudes that had tolerated and even welcomed satanism seemed to vanish.
Howie died in 1997 and his bleak house was torn down in 2001.
The next Satanic moment was a reversal of the Sixties’ libertinism. In 1973, The Exorcist terrified the nation, the very effect hoped for by the book’s faithful Catholic author William Peter Blatty. In the movie, certain dialog from a demon was spoken backwards, a haunting effect revealed when a recording of the speech was played in reverse.
That, and the use of intentional backward masking (or backmasking) by a well-known British Invasion musical group (reminder: invasions are meant to be resisted, not welcomed), led to the fear that Satanic messages were being routinely embedded in popular music. Some were convinced, for instance, that Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” played backwards revealed the message “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” Perhaps the song received extended play in Colorado.
So frightened did some become that in 1983 in California a bill was introduced, and another in Arkansas, to curtail the use of backmasking. The Arkansas law mandated albums with backmasked lyrics had to be sold with the sticker, “Warning: This record contains backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward.” Naturally, sales of such albums increased.
The next phase began in the 1980s and swelled to panic levels in the 1990s, when it was believed systematic, widespread abuse of children (and some women) was being carried out by Satanic cultists. The most gruesome fantastical crimes were reported, many plainly rumors but others conjured from “recovered memories” of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) “survivors.” Law enforcement, politicians, and religious leaders responded to the panic, but evidence for direct Satanic ties to crimes was lacking. Eventually, the work of such people as psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed how easy it was to “invent” false memories, especially in children, and the SRA moment faded. But not without consequence. There were false imprisonments, families torn apart, fear, much grief.
There has always been a “background level” of Satanism, taken more or less seriously, in popular culture. What’s notable is that in the 1960s, Satanism was hip and sexy, at least among trend setters, until it became serious. With backmasking Satanism became a joke, such that belief in Satan was seen as something only for hicks and zealots. Then with the Satanic Panic, belief in Satan was perceived as actively harmful.
Our new Satanic moment is Janus-faced. Facing right, we have the Satanic Temple, which is using freedom of religion legal arguments to insinuate itself into public life. They have been allowed to give convocations at City Council meetings in Pensacola, Phoenix, and several others. They had a “black mass” at a public venue in Oklahoma City. They have the After School Satan program to encourage kiddies in the way of Lucifer (which is advertised with a video with backward masking). And they are running Temple member Steve Hill for California State Senate.
Most Temple members affect spooky-sounding names (like Lucien Greaves) and look like they’ve spent too much time indoors playing video games. They claim their brand of Satanism is symbolic, insisting Satan is not a real person but an idea. They despise “superstition” and speak of “science” and “critical thinking”; they reject “all tyrannical impositions.”
Facing left is the eerie increase in foul “entertainment.” Movies like Walk Among Tombstones (focusing on “snuff films” and sadistic child murderers), The Witch (ask your Satanic goat if witchcraft is right for you); TV shows like True Detectives (revolving around Satanic ritual killing), Lucifer (the ultimate anti-hero); web content like “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” (mind control, gore, and worse). Some of these “products” are clear in their Satanic content (films Starry Eyes, Eyes Wide Shut) and some opaque (films American Ultra, Lucy). These examples can be multiplied with depressing ease.
In 2015, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was teased because he admitted believing in the Devil. Yet the same media outlet that teased him, praised in glowing terms Satanic Temple Jex Blackmore’s live blogging of killing her child (the child hadn’t yet escaped the womb, so this was legal), a process Blackmore called “unmothering.” Apt name, that.
What are we to make of this new Satanic moment? The previous moments have discouraged belief in a real Satan. The new moment wants us to share the skepticism that Satan is an evil personage. Instead, our new Satan is an enlightened humanist, a good guy, he’s there but not there, an entity more in line with a Masonic Lucifer, a symbolic bringer of light.
Simultaneously, grotesque imagery assures us that human life is cheap and subject to whim, so embrace pleasure when you can. We are told attractive powerful occult forces control (some) events, that if you go along you’ll probably be fine, that anyway you can’t do much about it. There is a distinct ‘them’ and ‘us’ feel in these cultural artifacts, a notion that dreadful changes are coming.
We’re at the nascent stage of this new moment. Will it amplify? Are people going to explore modern Satanism as an “alternative lifestyle”? Perhaps we’ll see a lighthearted, comic-relief Satanist character on TV sitcom showing how harmless, fun, and ultimately rewarding “real” Satanism can be, and how stultifying and hateful Christianity is.
What do you think?