SATAN IN MEDIA: DO WE CARE IF THE DEVIL IS “GOOD?”
On a 2020 episode of Black Mass Appeal I professed not to be much of a fan of the Fox/Netflix series “Lucifer.” And yet, I have seen almost every episode.
Often, consuming media you don’t like is called “hate-watching,” which actor Allison Williams told Vox in 2014 is a way for viewers to exercise their cynicism when a show doesn’t appeal to it directly.
BBC writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong notes that hate-watching is functionally interchangeable with being a fan–just with different motivations.
There is some degree of this in my relationship with “Lucifer,” but I never hated the show exactly. I just don’t particularly like it.
But I kept watching, in part because continuing to watch was low-effort, and also because I was sincerely curious where a few things might go–despite being pretty sure I wouldn’t like finding out.
Now that the series is ending, my perverse familiarity with it does allow me to entertain a potentially interesting question: As Modern Satanists, do we care if the devil is depicted as “good?”
If you’re curious, I never really warmed up to “Lucifer” on account of I found the cop show format trite, and increasingly an albatross for the series.
Indeed, I don’t think ANYBODY continues to watch because they care about the weekly murder procedural. What would such a person be like? Does it hurt to be them? Will we ever know?
I also find Tom Ellis uneven and often silly; his devil seems strangely naive, and even childlike at times despite his professed world-weariness, and the lessons he extracts from his relationships often defy comprehension.
And yet, there are things to like about the show, including that, as YouTuber Skip Intro noted in an August video essay, the program has worked to maximize its appeal to women, especially after making the transition to Netflix.
It also presents a rare instance of media in which Satan (although that name is almost never invoked on the show) is depicted as not just sympathetic but, for lack of a better word, good.
He’s self-centered and short-sighted and in other ways flawed. But ultimately he’s loving, humane, honest, and even, as the series progresses, heroic. In short, he’s not that different from most TV protagonists–which in this case is remarkable.
There are other pieces of media that feature (again, for lack of a better term) morally “good” devils, even if they are only sometimes THE devil. Also streaming on Netflix is The Blacksmith & The Devil, a Basque-language fantasy film featuring Spanish pretty boy Eneko Sagardoy as a prickly but ultimately benign demon, for example.
Many popular comic books sport characters with demonic powers, like Hellboy or Ghost Rider–although note that these are usually depicted as heroic in spite of their diabolical natures, struggling to devote their supposedly “evil” powers toward good ends.
Sometimes a good devil is played for laughs, as in the 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (…20 goddamn years and I just now realized that’s a dick joke, fucking hell), with series co-creator/proto-Joe Rogan Trey Parker voicing Satan as a highly sensitive victim of domestic abuse.
Which was…funny, I guess? Just what was going on in the 90s, exactly?
And of course there are classic Satanist texts like 19th century French philosopher Edouard Schure’s Les Enfants de Lucifer, or socialist feminist Flora Tristan’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which depict the devil as a teacher and liberator.
So there is lots to choose from. But Lucifer is a standout example based on its wide audience, initial network TV perch, and un-presupposing approach to its devilish subject matter. The show never presents it as as ironic or even that surprising that Lucifer has mostly humanlike feelings and motivations; he’s deceptively normal.
And audiences do not seem to find this remarkable either. The Catholic League complained, but that just means their printer hasn’t run out of ink yet; for everyone else, it was just another show.
So that’s something. But the question remains: Does this matter?
In the past, I’ve noted that many of my favorite pieces of Satanist media portray Satan and Satanism as dangerous, violent, and frightening–and indeed, that’s the appeal.
Rosemary’s Baby features a conspiracy of Satanist witches plotting sexual assault through black magic; The Black Cat presents a hammy Satanic priest/Crowley-alike ritually sacrificing women to the devil; Haxan shows us devils butchering infants over a roaring fire (just like Mom used to make), etc.
But none of this bothers me. Indeed, few things would feel more silly than objecting: The Satanists we see in these films are about as alike real Satanists as the Three Little Pigs are alike real cops.
What I care about are these movies’ values: Rosemary’s Baby is about feminism, bodily autonomy, and the insidious compulsion to control people, themes that are intensely topical for Modern Satanists. The fact that the Satanist characters in the film are working against these values is not ideal–but neither is it ultimately that important.
Similarly, since Satan himself isn’t real, it doesn’t matter to me whether a story depicts him as “good” or “evil” (assuming those are even helpful terms); it’s not like he’s going to mind.
Rather, I care whether Satan is a character who is engaging, compelling, and humane, and who teaches us something about the world and ourselves–ends he can accomplish as hero or villain, savior or devil. At that point it’s mostly window-dressing.
All that said, I will repeat a prediction I’ve made in the past: I anticipate that as future Satanists come of age in media environments much more amenable to the reality of Modern Satanism (rather than the myth of Hollywood Satanism), they will begin to expect–even demand–that storytelling endeavors portray Satanists and even Satan himself in more well-rounded ways, perhaps ala “Lucifer.”
And I also imagine some of them may resent it when Satanists like me defend older media that’s full of what will seem to them like toxic and damaging stereotypes.
This is a culture clash that would barely be possible right now, but only a few years into the future may become de rigueur; the world, after all, hardly owes it to us to keep still.