How Satanism Works

Satanism in Pop Culture
Satan was a hot topic in movies in the 1960s and '70s. In the film "The Exorcist," Regan (seen here, played by actress Linda Blair) is demonically possessed. Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1973, "The Exorcist" was a massive box office success, only one of a wave of '60s and '70s Satan-themed movies that included "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen." "The Devil's Rain," a horror film released in 1975, credited Anton LaVey himself as a technical advisor. LaVey's claims to have served the same role on the set of "Rosemary's Baby" and to have portrayed Satan in a key scene are difficult to confirm and may have been the product of his talent for self-promotion. Yet he did have contact with several prominent actors, including Jayne Mansfield, and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. joined the Church of Satan in 1968. The Satanist movie trend never faded away completely, and today there are enough demonic possession and Satanic cult films to constitute their own horror subgenres.

Musicians, too, have long flirted with dark imagery. Bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden used occult or vaguely Satanic imagery to create a sense of mystery and dark allure. In the 1980s and '90s, death metal, black metal and other subgenres emerged, with bands using far more explicit and direct references to Satanic imagery. Deicide, Mayhem, Morbid Angel and countless other bands crafted their images around devotion to Satan and depicted brutal, grotesque horrors in their lyrics and album covers. Thomas Thorn, front man of the industrial metal band The Electric Hellfire Club, claims to be an ordained priest in the Church of Satan, and the lead singer of the heavy metal band Ghost performs in a skull mask and Satanic pope outfit.

The popularity of Satanism as a topic in music and movies along with the isolated but widely publicized Satanic murders combined in the 1980s and '90s to create an infamous era: the Satanic Panic. The belief that hundreds of Satanic cults were running rampant in the U.S. led to the condemnation of heavy metal music and the game Dungeons & Dragons. But it also resulted in many people — many of whom ran day cares in the U.S. and England — being convicted of crimes that they were innocent of.

The Satanic Panic grew partly out of certain Christian fundamentalist groups who fostered Satanist conspiracy theories. Children testified in court that the most outlandish, bizarre things had occurred: graveyard rituals, murders, a pool full of sharks eating babies, babies being dismembered, child sex rings, cannibalism and secret flights to other countries. The list of crimes purportedly perpetrated by Satanic cults grew, though much of it seemed impossible. How could dozens of babies go missing with no one noticing?

Ultimately, the Satanic Panic era faded. It became apparent that recovered memories were unreliable at best, and that suggestible children often had false memories implanted in their minds by the very therapists who were supposedly helping them. Widespread reviews of the ritual abuse cases turned up no evidence of organized Satanic cult activity (although there were a few cases of actual child abuse), and there is no evidence of widespread Satanic conspiracies infiltrating high levels of American government and law enforcement [source: Frankfurter].

Satanists are a diverse group. A few of them are so inspired by the concept of an all-consuming evil that they actually commit murder, but most are just adherents to a carnal moral philosophy, or followers of unconventional beliefs that earn them the label "adversary."

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