The Rise of “The Satanic Unease”
Devil worship has long been used by writers of fiction and makers of moving images as a choice from moldy rosters of “quick and easy villainy and excitement.” A silent 1928 porn short made in France titled Messe Noir depicts a female neophyte’s ritual initiation into a “Satanic Cult” with explicit scenes of ritual sex meant to stimulate viewers with something forbidden. That began the cavalcade of Devil cults appearing in films and TV shows, a phenomenon that seems to come in waves, often when there are societal tensions and widespread xenophobia. Pervasive fears regarding hidden but powerful groups in society that might be out to “get” the normal folks seem to open the door to Devil worshippers menacing protagonists in popular media. Believers in and devotees of the adversary to Christianity’s sky daddy are the boogey men and women that never seem to go completely out of fashion.
Once the Church of Satan was founded in 1966, the imagery employed by Anton LaVey, which had permeated global news, immediately influenced cinematic dark rituals. I cover that in this illustrated essay. With our current high profile in the media, once again our literature and imagery is fodder for the production designers and writers of the current crop of horror fiction, for we are in a time of great social tension and tribal partisanship bordering on hysteria.
On the big screen, recent films such as THE WITCH and HEREDITARY as well as the upcoming comedy SATANIC PANIC, all use demonolatry as a primary plot device. I had been informed about SATANIC PANIC a few months ago and noted how dopey is the premise—wealthy Devil worshippers looking to sacrifice someone would hardly need to nab a naif delivering pizza. And, unless it is some high-end artisanal pizza, I doubt high society folk would even have the need for such a delivery. It would be far funnier if some lower middle class Devil worshippers were the prime focus of this film. Maybe they’d go to Walmart to get their discount ritual gear because Target is too pricey, and when their “dim lord” seems to demand a sacrifice, it up-ends their pedestrian lives with wacky results. They’d then have to try and decide who to kidnap, and their own petty desires would lead to comic situations with silly pratfalls in failed attempts to capture a sacrificial victim. Of course, bumbling kidnappings have been done, but these days recycling dull tropes is the major pursuit of this emerging mode I’m calling The Satanic Unease now filling the media. While we aren’t experiencing credulous talk shows and law enforcement officials spreading the myth of a rampant conspiracy of killer Devil worshippers as had once happened during The Satanic Panic of the 80s-90s, we are seeing such psychotic criminals portrayed in contemporary films and series.
These pop-horror series now depicting Devil worship are erroneously calling their characters Satanists. A pity that none of these efforts have been creative enough to show Satanists as champions of justice, those seeking out facts and bringing miscreants to judgment, or as scientists, explorers or the creative and passionate individuals we know our kind to be. They just do the easy thing and fall back on being compulsively referential to earlier works. Considering THE BLACK CAT from 1934, Karloff’s Satanic High Priest (pictured above) is meant to be a brilliant Art Deco architect, but sadly he’s also a murderous Devil worshipper. We’ll just have to content ourselves with some of the more Satanic cinematic portrayals (such as Batman, Willy Wonka or Hugh Glass) until writers do something bold and iconoclastic with characters who are called Satanists and actually embody our meta-tribe of fierce individualists.
The latest AMERICAN HORROR STORY: APOCALYPSE episode seems to be an intentionally snarky parody of the Church of Satan, again with Devil worship and more human sacrifice. This time the victims are “the good guys,” a social worker and a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. Their Church does have a fine “Volunteer All-Sinners Choir” that smartly intones from Carmina Burana again. The leading preacher, played by Sandra Bernhard, has an outfit inspired by mine from our 6/6/06 Satanic High Mass, and she humorously berates her daffy congregants for not being evil enough. Their underground chapel in an old building looks in part inspired by a tacky South American Luciferian church, though it is aesthetically better because they have professional production designers and a budget. Their insipid reluctant Anti-Christ shows up, as does their take on LaVey in a vision that taps THE EXORCIST amongst other films. No Baphomets in sight this time, but plenty of upside down crosses and pentagrams. They even riff on artificial human companions, something proposed by Anton LaVey—robots intended as a means for people to find sexual satisfaction without importuning others.
Netflix’s CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA depicts a fictional Devil worship school which seems a darker spin on Harry Potter concepts, and witches who are not neo-pagans. Our members are watching these as many are horror fans and, as might be expected, some enjoy them and others find them not to their tastes—mileage varies amongst our folks who care enough to view it. We aren’t a collective, but a varied cabal of individuals, so to each his own!
Ultimately, it seems these current references, particularly in these Netflix and FX shows, are the price we pay for being prominent in contemporary media. The shows’ producers can easily claim these are parodies. Their dialogue establishes that none of this is meant to be taken seriously, that these are over-the-top exaggerations for what are meant to be entertaining programs. This is nothing new as there have been better parodies of Satanism and I’ve covered them in Laughing Best—Humorists Take On Satanism. However, these recent efforts fulfill the sort of Christian fantasies about Satanism that were rampant during The Satanic Panic. While the demographics suggest that the viewership of AHS and Sabrina likely won’t confuse these mockeries of Satanism with our legally recognized iconoclastic religion, I wouldn’t be surprised if less sophisticated viewers might take these as somehow being accurate and thereby feel they need to direct hostility towards actual Satanists who are “out” to society. Thus the current Satanic Unease could possibly escalate. We’ll be monitoring such developments as this trend plays out.
—Magus Peter H. Gilmore