This has been a particularly hellish year in television and film. From A24’s Hereditary to Hulu’s Castlerock , the devil has lurked behind dozens of 2018’s most talked about plot twists, appearing time and again to rain chaos on the mortals who challenge him.
But with Beelzebub on such a roll, modern-day Satanists are once again pushing back on Hollywood’s decades-old practice of fictionalizing their very real belief system.
The Church of Satan has publicly criticized the misrepresentation of their organization in FX’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse, responding to a comment made by star Kathy Bates on Twitter in the process.
Similarly, another group, The Satanic Temple, has leveled a $50 million copyright lawsuit against Netflix and Warner Bros., contending that one of their iconic religious statues was ripped-off for use in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
At the core of these developments is a simple complaint: when it comes to Satanism, Hollywood just doesn’t get it.
So, who are the real believers supposedly “inspiring” these horrific narratives? And what can be done when it comes to accurately representing them on screen?
The historic “Satanic Panic”
The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary’s Baby
(1968) are two legendary examples of the film industry’s enduring fascination with Satan. Notably, their releases also coincided with—and may have played some part in—what many have come to know as the “Satanic Panic” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Church of Satan, founded by late High Priest Anton LaVey, began recruiting members to their non-theistic religious organization in 1966. Distribution of The Satanic Bible and later its companion volume The Satanic Rituals presented a
reimagined version of existing nihilist philosophy to newcomers—highlighting Satan not as a supernatural being, but instead as a “symbol of pride , liberty, and individualism.”
Simply put, LaVey’s Satanists were (and are) atheists. But their non-threatening stance on what some have called “self-worship” quickly became entrenched in more sinister news items of the time.
During the summer of 1969, the notorious
Manson family murders took center stage as one of the nation’s most sensationalized current events —rivaling both Woodstock and yes, the moon landing. The ritualistic slaughter of numerous victims understandably raised the national profile on Satanic ritual abuse and was made even more disturbingly dramatic by its connection to Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski.
In the years that followed, numerous serial and spree killers, including Ted Bundy and the infamous Son of Sam, as well as the Jonestown massacre gained international attention. Although not all of these high-profile crimes were directly related to occult practices, they enflamed a very specific fear of devil-worship in the United States, which was then fed by popular culture.
This “moral panic” continued well into the 1980s and an article from Vox makes a compelling argument that its effects were felt as late as 2016.
And now, the fall 2018 TV season is adding powerful new fuel to that narrative, extending the mythical terror to present day.
The Church of Satan’s Anton LaVey in American Horror Story
Cue American Horror Story: Apocalypse, which recently featured Anton LaVey—or, at least, a parodied version of him—throughout its ten episode season.
Appearing most prominently in Episode 6 “Return to Murder House,” the fictionalized LaVey introduces himself and his two followers to Michael Langdon, AHS’s Antichrist, as members of The Church of Satan. The trio vows to assist Michael in his takeover of Earth and subsequently performs a ritual human sacrifice of a young woman abducted from a bus stop.
A cursory glance at The Church of Satan’s
website will quickly inform you that this portrayal is far from factual. Among a number of inaccuracies, real Satanists absolutely do not believe in a supernatural god and they certainly don’t sacrifice living beings to it. (Moreover, Anton LaVey’s death in 1997 was not staged as AHS contends.)
Church officials have responded to the AHS depiction in multiple formats, including a post specifically directed at American Horror Story, a statement on 2018 Satanic media representation at large, and a number of comments on Twitter. As is the case with much of their literature, their responses have been nuanced, lengthy, and a bit dense.
The Church of Satan has assured its congregants that officials will be “monitoring such developments as this trend plays out.”
Broadly speaking, The Church of Satan is neither pleased with the portrayal nor outraged by it. Current High Priest Peter H. Gilmore regards the representation of LaVey as “both a disservice and an insult to the memory of a true iconoclast,” but concedes that the farcical portrayal may be “the price [Satanists] pay for being prominent in contemporary media.”
The church additionally takes no issue with fellow Satanists who continue to enjoy American Horror Story, noting: “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!”
However, this live and let live philosophy does not entirely supersede the genuine concerns some Satanists have over these caricature-like images. Gilmore has said he wouldn’t be surprised to see “less sophisticated viewers” take hostile actions toward his faith’s followers.
As a result, The Church of Satan has assured its congregants that officials will be “monitoring such developments as this trend plays out.”
The complicated case of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
On the more litigious end of the spectrum, you have The Satanic Temple’s pending lawsuit against Warner Bros. and Netflix, a copyright claim the plaintiff is
valuing at $50 million. The suit itself is straightforward, but the politics surrounding it muddle the discussion.
The Satanic Temple contends that Warner Bros. and Netflix are profiting from its well-established statue, “Baphomet With Children.” This image of an ancient deity (often attributed to occult practices) was commissioned by The Satanic Temple as part of a controversial protest regarding the separation of church and state.
In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a strikingly similar statue appears at
Sabrina’s “Academy of Unseen Arts.” The Satanic Temple is accusing the show’s creators of unlawfully cashing-in on their original work.
Both Warner Bros. and Netflix declined to comment on the accusation.
Copyright claims aside, ownership of this particular image doesn’t speak to the factual or responsible portrayal of Satanists on screen. But the clash between The Satanic Temple and the aforementioned Church of Satan does. These are entirely separate groups and the looming Sabrina lawsuit is highlighting a long-standing rift between them.
This unexpected laundry list of accusations only scrapes the surface on a long-standing, nuanced rift between The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple.
In a statement made on behalf of The Church of Satan, Reverend Joel Ethan first clarifies the distinction between his organization and The Satanic Temple. He then presents an evidentiary argument that picks apart The Satanic Temple’s copyright claim bit-by-bit, ending with a particularly out-of-left-field kicker.
“While TST is known for childish PR stunts such as fake political rallies, mailing ‘cum rags’ to congress and rubbing genitals on grave stones to turn people gay after their deaths, these actions are not in anyway representative of the apolitical, individualistic and atheistic religion of Satanism. Please do not attribute their actions to us.”
This unexpected laundry list of accusations only scrapes the surface of the interfaith disagreement between The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple.
Case in point: responding to Mashable’s request for comment, The Satanic Temple similarly provided a lengthy account of discontent.
Here is an excerpt.
In regards to your request for reaction to The Church of Satan’s recent statement regarding the lawsuit, the most anyone can say at this point about the Church of Satan’s constant need to make uninformed statements about The Satanic Temple’s affairs is: it’s not our concern and should be of no concern to anyone else. Their stances are purely based on needing to be against us, not based on any legitimate counter-arguments or knowledge of the activities at hand, and merely provides them the opportunity to continually and falsely claim sole ownership of Satanism. The advantage of being a do-nothing group is that, by virtue of merely stating disapproval of our actions, anyone also taking issue can rally behind them in applause for a stance that requires nothing more than 10 minutes of writing incoherent ramblings laced with hypocrisy and irony.
Summarized plainly, neither group thinks the other qualifies as correctly Satanist. And, perhaps more importantly, they simply don’t want to be confused with one another any longer.
That makes accurately representing their philosophy and practices on screen that much more complicated.
Can Hollywood represent Satanists accurately?
When asked how The Church of Satan would ideally be depicted, Reverend Joel Ethan told Mashable, “I think like anyone we simply want to be portrayed accurately. Especially in the case like AHS where we are mentioned by name, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Most reasonable consumers of media can agree that fictitious imaginings of real religions should reside within factual framing. Unfortunately, in the case of Satanism, that is far easier said than done.
History suggests Satanists will need to present a united philosophy for beginners to latch onto.
For practicing Satanists to effectively fight back against decades of cinema-fueled Satanic panic and find realistic portrayals of their faith on screen, history suggests they will need to present a consistent, united philosophy for beginners to latch onto.
Or, at the very least, find a way to stay in the same room long enough to agree on the rules they expect Hollywood to follow.