Sympathy for the devil


Satan has been much on my mind of late.  Given my hard-won and rock-solid atheism, that might surprise you. 

Well, what can I say?  Listening to heavy metal and watching horror movies will do that to a guy.  Even THIS guy.

I’m on the home stretch of a book called “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground,” and it’s been a fascinating read.  Generally the subject is the goings-on in the Norwegian black metal scene circa the early 90s – I refer here to church burnings, heathenism, racialism, Satanism, and most especially the murder of Euronymous (né Øystein Aarseth) by Count Grishnakh (né Kristian Vikernes, but more commonly known as Varg), in which the former was stabbed repeatedly by the latter, including once, and with great finality, right through the forehead.  With crazy antics and bizarre pseudonyms like that, how could this subject NOT be interesting?

The thing that has been dawning on me through the late pages of this book is that we’ve lost him.  The devil, that is.  The darkest and most dangerous thing imaginable in a Christian society has been swept under a rug and replaced by boring, real world shit: terrorism, sexual predators, teen pregnancy, Republicans.  O how dull and lifeless.  I practically flat-line just thinking about it.  Wherefore art thou, our love and loathing of the occult?

The devil in music

First there were those bluesmen and their legendary relationship with the horned one.  Robert Johnson is the most notorious example – the man who sold his soul at the fabled crossroads so he could play guitar like nobody’s business.  Interestingly, the devil also gave Johnson the ability to write sinister lyrics like these:

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
I got a girl, say she long and tall
She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall


Next up was rock ‘n roll – blues-inspired, and true music of evil.  The Stones and Led Zeppelin dabbled in occult rituals, flirted with the actual Church of Satan (more on which momentarily), and wrote paeans to all sorts of subterranean shenanigans.  Zep was lyrically subtle when it came to Satanism – which is to say, they threw a few Satanic ingredients into their incomprehensible stew of Tolkien, blues-derivative sexual innuendos, and drugged hippie babble – but they liked to drop a lot of hints, including the seeming fallen angel of their famous logo and the Zoso sign on their fourth album cover.  (Zoso, if you’re not in the know, is supposed to be a stylized rendering of 666, or at least some kind of crazy occult/demon-raising thingymabob.  For a tiny smidge of extra info and a lot of belly laughs, visit this hilarious site.)  The Stones were, um, not as subtle.  They wrote “Sympathy for the Devil.”  They titled one of their albums “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” and another “Goats Head Soup.”  Hell yeah, boys – now that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.  By about 1970 that red guy was front and center in the public consciousness – especially here in America, where we fear the lord in one way and fear everything else in quite another.  The stage was set.

Fallen angel, zoso

Fallen angel, zoso

The devil in film

And on to that stage paraded a bunch of moralistic, uptight movie directors (with one exception, soon to be mentioned).  These guys nevertheless managed to crank out some Satanic classics.  William Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” in 1973, and even though the moral was pretty much “be on guard, that nasty devil is everywhere!” a lot of people were very taken aback by all the crucifix masturbation and pea soup vomiting.  “The Omen” followed suit in 1976, presenting an extremely Christian vision of the son of Satan coming to Earth to try to engineer the end of days.  The storyline and lesson that followed in the trilogy was ham-fisted and conservative, but hey: it was at least pretty great when Damien’s nanny flung herself off the roof.  Even the great Hammer Studios rode the demonic winds with a pair of Dennis Wheatley adaptations: “The Devil Rides Out” in 1968, and “To The Devil A Daughter” in 1976. 

The best and most subversive of all of them was probably the earliest – Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” which offers no clear lesson, allows evil to triumph in the end, and even presents that evil as a rather banal, urban lifestyle choice.  Out of any of these pictures, “Rosemary’s Baby” was the closest to wandering the left hand path.  (This point would be underscored many years later when Polanski made “The Ninth Gate,” which went even further in allowing the forces of darkness to prevail and offering no judgement upon their actions; unfortunately, the movie was a little too weird and erratic for its own good.)

The Exorcist

Famous promo image for "The Exorcist"

The devil in basically everything else

So with all that background, it should come as no surprise that Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the primordial soup in 1974, and created a huge superstitious and moralistic panic throughout the 80s.  If you had a 20 sided die and a bottle of Mountain Dew, you were probably secretly worshipping the devil through your Monster Manual (and particularly your Deities & Demigods book).  TV and radio simmered with panicked reports of D&D-inspired murder, infant sacrifice, and dark backwoods spell-casting.  Awesomely, during the exact same time frame (1983-1985), Dungeons & Dragons ran as a Saturday morning cartoon, warping my fragile little mind with images of beholders and Tiamat.  They were heady, dangerous, confusing-ass times.

If that was the extremity of fake and laughable Satanism, Anton LaVey’s infamous Church of Satan surely represented the other end of the spectrum.  Except that, y’know, LaVey didn’t believe in God OR Satan, really.  LaVey declared the founding of his church in 1966 on Walpurgisnacht, and it wasn’t long before he had some high-profile rock bands and seemingly half of Hollywood in his pocket.  The glory years of the Church were fleeting, but LaVey at least had the dictinction of introducing a Satanism that had little to do with an actual horned guy presiding over fiery pits and torture chambers.  LaVey took Aleister Crowley’s idea of the Left Hand Path and made it another thing altogether – a path away from theism, a path toward worship and satiation of the self.  LaVey’s Satanists were in fact atheists and hedonists, and little more; they just had a knack for terminology and imagery that really pissed off the Christian Right. 

So in that respect, at least, they were pretty great.

LaVey was only an intellectual threat (if that) to Christianity, although many were confused on this point because of his use of the name of the devil.  (Many Christians still today have no idea what the Church of Satan actually believes in, and probably assume it involves hair- and demon-raising rituals right out of the lamest Lovecraft stories.)  There was a lot of blabbity-blab in Christian churches about practitioners of magic and the popular Ouija board game/netherworld communication device – I distinctly remember a weird sermon one week that focused on people who can call forth ectoplasm, like “Ghostbusters” but not funny – but it was fearmongering based on almost no real events or persons.  Actual Satanists who actually worshipped the literal Satan of the Bible were hard to come by.  So…

The devil in music, for real this time

…naturally someone had to step into that void.  And who better than disenfranchised, cold, surly teenagers from Norway?  Throughout the 80s heavy metal, as pioneered and designed by Black Sabbath and others, had evolved into true extremity, and with that came the sneering face of Christian evil.  Sabbath toyed with Satanic images (in fact, the lyrics all tend to be reactionary and anti-Satanic when read closely… or at all); but it was up to the bands at the dawn of extreme metal to really ally themselves with darkness. 

Slayer put out their first album in 1983.  By 1985’s “Hell Awaits” the band was trading in full-on devil worship in musical/lyrical form.  The same year, Celtic Frost released “To Mega Therion” with a cover image of the devil using Jesus as a slingshot (no kidding), and Possessed put out their seminal “Seven Churches.”  The latter album was a classic, a twisted slab of electrifying guitar riffs and lyrics such as

Holy Hell, death to us
Satan’s fell, unholy lust
Devil’s water starts to flood
God is slaughtered, drink his blood

Alright, it ain’t exactly great poetry – in fact it barely hangs together as English – but it sounds pretty fucking good when Jeff Becerra howls it over Larry Lalonde (yes, the guy from Primus!)’s crazy guitar lines. 

A flood of Satanic albums (most of the faux- variety) followed in the wake of these influential examples.  Five years later, the Swedes in Entombed released their debut album under the name “Left Hand Path.”  The devil wasn’t just in the details – he was in everything.  No wonder my parents’ panties were all in a wad every time I brought home a Queensryche tape or a character sheet (my characters always had high Dexterity – you can’t fuck with Armor Class bonuses, yo).

Left Hand Path and Seven Churches

"Left Hand Path" and "Seven Churches"

So it was high time that the dark one achieved critical mass.  Which he did, when Burzum and Mayhem started releasing albums, burning down churches, and murdering each other.

Mayhem’s first album title from 1994, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas,” roughly translates to “Lord Satan’s Secret Rites” (a full breakdown of what it really means can be found here).  Here in all their glory are the lyrics from the title track:

To the elder ruins again
The wind whispers beside the deep forest
Darkness will show us the way
Heic Noenum Pax, Here is no peace
The sky has darkened thirteen as
We are collected woeful around a book
Made of human flesh
De Grandae Vus Antiquus Mulum Tristis
Arcanas Mysteria Scriptum
The books blood written pages open
Invoco Crentus Domini De Daemonium
We follow with our white eyes
The ceremonial proceeding
Heic Noenum Pax, Bring us the goat
Rex Sacriticulus Mortifer
In the circle of stone coffins
We are standing with our black robes on
Holding the bowl with unholy water

Psychomantum Et Precr Exito Annos Major
Ferus Netandus Sacerdos Magus Mortem Animalium

I imagine I would have been locked in my room for a week and then shuttled off to a religious private school if I’d brought home anything with lyrics like those.  Notably, the CD came out shortly after Euronymous of Mayhem was murdered – with publicity like that, who needs an advertising budget?  Black metal took over the metal underground around this time, and Satan had finally reached the forefront of public consciousness as a threat to the souls of ourselves and our children.

Except this was 1994 – two years after Nirvana dropped “Nevermind,” a year or so after we stopped giving a shit about hair metal, and almost exactly the point that we collectively became 50% more ironic and 50% less interested in God.  You can see where things were heading.  We had simultaneously built things up as far as they could possibly go, and also started turning a corner into a much more enlightened age.

So naturally, when a few years and five thousand black metal bands came and went, we all kind of shrugged and said, “Hey, we’re over this.”


We don’t care about the devil any more.  A lot of Norwegian-style black metal bands still scream his unholy name on their highly limited albums and seven inch singles, but now that they’ve stopped killing people and whatnot, we don’t really pay attention.  Horror movies have gone through various phases – slasher movies, J-horror, torture porn, remake-o-rama – but the devil hasn’t made much of a re-appearance as of yet.  The closest we’ve come to it were remakes of “The Amityville Horror” and “The Omen,” and both of those whizzed through the public sphere like the translucent nothings they were.  “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity, I guess, but nothing like the furor and excitement generated by the original “Exorcist.”  We used to really fear the devil, and from that fear sprang true titillation; now we pleasantly and absent-mindedly engage with the devil, the same as we might enjoy a retro monster movie (e.g. “Cloverfield”) or western (e.g. “3:10 to Yuma”) on a sleepy summer afternoon.  In effect, Satan has been sucked into our post-modern, soulless entertainment machine, and delivered back to us as packaged pap.  Where’s the danger in that?  Where, even, is the FUN?

I’m thinking, Diane, that I miss the old guy a little bit, even though LaVey still seems too reactionary to me, and I’ve long since disposed of any belief or interest in the spirit world and the occult.  Perhaps this Halloween – or next Walpurgisnacht – we should gather ’round in our black cloaks, with knives and burning candles and a squalling infant, and do a little sacrificin’ to the evil one.  Frankly, I don’t know what else would inspire us all to care again.  But if that’s pushing things a little too far, might I suggest that we all watch “Rosemary’s Baby” and listen to “Seven Churches” and enjoy a little nostalgia for better, darker time-gone-by?

"To Mega Therion"


2 Responses to Sympathy for the devil

  1. Fittingly, I (accidentally) posted this on Sept 11. If anything would put a stake into the heart of an imaginary demon of the underworld, it’s a group of real, suicidal hijackers crashing planes into the Trade Center. Like I said, we left the devil behind for terrorists. It turns out neither of them are particularly threatening on a day-to-day basis in this country, but I miss the one that was entirely (rather than just partly) a figment of our imaginations.

  2. Ryan says:

    Don’t forget the non-happening that was the turn of the millennium.

    That’s a good choice of reading material, though. Be sure to up your Metalocalypse intake, too. That should supplement your blasphemous diet well.

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