WHAT MAKES ART SATANIC–AND WHO GETS TO DECIDE?
On our latest episode of Black Mass Appeal we once again talk about Satanism in the movies. Or do we?
While planning for that episode, Tabitha posed a question: Is a Satanic movie a movie about Satan? Or a movie that promotes Satanic ideals and values? The Hollywood version of Satanism doesn’t leave a lot of overlap between these two.
Sometimes this is a matter of interpretation. In 2019, the YouTube channel “In Praise of Shadows” criticized the Robert Eggers movie The Witch for reinforcing sexist ideas about women as corrupt and susceptible to Satan’s influences.
Whereas every Satanist I know interprets The Witch as a story of a woman’s liberation from brutal patriarchal standards.
In most cases though, the Hollywood standard of Satan as a fount of supernatural evil and the real practice of Satanism as basically anything but that are two streams that never cross.
So how do we decide when a piece of art or media is “Satanic” or not? And how do we even decide what that word means to each of us–and to the rest of the world?
Religious studies professor Joe Laycock’s new book Speak of the Devil–which gave me more ideas for blogs than my feeble meat brain can bear–says that in practice the answers to these questions tend to be “ad hoc,” “subjective,” and “unstated.” Which were all adjectives that also appeared in my last performance review with my editor.
For example, Peter Gilmore, the Church of Satan chief who looks like three-quarters of George RR Martin, deems Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory a Satanic film because he likes the parts where they hurt children.
“Everyone gets just desserts, served up by Gene Wilder as a most engaging devil,” Gil man told i09 in 2014, once again appearing to mix up Satan and–who is that again? Oh right–god.
But again, this just illustrates how elusive a universal devil standard remains. Gilmore perceives Satan as an authoritarian figure punishing people for perceived moral failings. As a guy who once advocated for “an American Schutzstaffel,” he could hardly think anything else.
Our forthcoming Satanic Bay Area movie list will include obvious picks, like the aforementioned The Witch or the Satanic Panic true crime documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.
But it also cites potentially surprising selections like Pan’s Labyrinth–a testimony to the inherent heroism of disobedience–Akira–a story about how inadequate ego can destroy you and others–and The Rocky Horror Picture Show–the most powerful modern example of atheistic ritualizing outside the confines of Modern Satanism itself.
Presumably nobody who made those movies thought of them as Satanic. To be honest, even now I’m less interested in whether they are than I am in what standard a viewer would use to decide that.
Often we think of Satanism in terms of an aesthetic, associated with styles like Gothicism or heavy metal fashion. But this is not always the case–conspiracy assholes call artist Marina Abramovic a Satanist because they’re mostly yokels who are easily provoked by blood and skulls. But Abramovic calls her work “far away from Satanism.”
Other times, Satan is a theme. Artist Kate “Artetak” Logan’s “soft Satanism” style looks nothing like our usual concepts of Satanic art, but undeniably she’s making art about Satanism. You could even argue that by subverting our expectations, she embodies the conceit better than anybody.
As Laycock also notes in his book, sometimes people try to just sweep these questions away by declaring, “I am a Satanist, therefore what I like is Satanic.” Well, it’s hard not to like the zero fucks approach, but this still feels like a cop-out.
These arguments are not just semantic. Sometimes, they expose the very foundations of some Satanists’ outlooks–and conflicts. Among other things, Speak of the Devil cites some loud ex-Satanic Temple members criticizing the Temple for being “insufficiently sinister.”
Whereas Ash Astaroth–another Temple apostate, who now bills himself a “cyborg prophet transagnostic”–writes those critiques off, saying “nobody interesting thinks Satanism is scary anymore” and characterizing spookiness as merely pedestrian.
Sometimes these questions bedevil us too. Last weekend we tuned into Satanic doo-wop band Twin Temple’s “Unholy Communion” streaming ritual on Easter Sunday. Like almost everything Twin Temple do, I thought it was entirely refreshing and charming, and as far as I know so did nearly everyone else.
One of our Facebook commenters, however, seemed to find the proceedings silly. And she has a right to that opinion–despite the fact that it’s wrong.
At our own Satanic rituals (including our upcoming Virtual Black Mass on Beltane), I often aspire to create an atmosphere of solemnity and gravity. But invariably we always digress at some point to humor or nonchalance.
That’s not a bad thing, in my opinion. But it does represent a tradeoff–you can do one or you can do the other. You can even do both–but you can’t do them to equal degrees. You have to choose.
We may all have potentially diverse ideas about what Satanism can be. But in the end, we must actively decide what kind of Satanists we are.
One of the films I almost talked about on that Black Mass Appeal episode referenced up top is 2016’s Hostage To the Devil, a documentary about rogue priest and fake exorcist Malachi Martin. In this context, that title seems to take on a new significance.
I don’t know precisely where the line between Satan and Not Satan lies in all things. And I usually don’t feel like I need to know.
But just as I won’t allow the expectations of fundy phonies and conspiracy alarmists to hold me hostage with their notion of the devil, I also decline to feel compelled by the expectations of any Satanists who feel there’s only one way to do it.
Indeed, few things make me more suspicious than insistence on homogeneity. Whatever else Satan does or doesn’t stand for, I’m positive it isn’t orthodoxy.