A group of naked people lounged on the altar of the church. They were surrounded by candles whose lights flickered through the artificial fog created by machines that chug-chug-chugged loudly along the back walls of the once holy space. Menacing organ music filled the remaining air. A ritual was about to begin.
The Satanic Temple had taken over a deconsecrated church in East Hollywood as part of their tour supporting The Witch, a film to which they had given their devilish seal of approval. It was part of the ‘Sabbat Cycle’ series of ceremonies, this one called ‘II: Rebel.’ I had happened in New York City a couple of nights earlier, and I had been told that event had gotten out of hand.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this event. I’ve long had a fascination with Satanism; when you’re raised and confirmed Roman Catholic the spectre of the devil is both constant and abstract. The Catholic Church has largely moved past medieval concepts of Satan, but all that magickal shit is right there under the surface, even as the Pope approves of evolution. Coming of age in the 80s also meant that I was living right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, hearing news stories about devil worshippers who were going on killing sprees or fucking babies in day care, all while listening to Shout At the Devil, which mainstreamed Satan worship (my mother, concerned for my eternal soul, tried to turn my attentions to The Clash. Sadly the album she bought me was Cut The Crap, which meant my punk awakening was still going to take a couple of years).
In high school I turned to casual magick (yes, with a k) and tried casting spells. My friends and I cleaned out the occult section of the local Barnes & Noble before hopping the E train to the Village and scouring the really weird stores for the really good shit. None of us knew what to believe - there was a sense that magick was just another way of interacting with the laws of nature, and that it was basically unknown science - but we had just enough Catholic school in us to be wary (and also enough Catholic school in us to find invocations of demons delightfully rebellious). We tried to summon an angel late one night in my apartment building stairwell; a thundering crash that echoed through the building startled me enough that I spent the rest of the sleepless night drawing up sigils of protection that I could hang on my bedroom door. They stayed there all through high school. Just in case.
Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan was interesting to me on a number of levels. I was a student of the 60s counterculture, and while the hippie dippie stuff appealed to me it didn’t feel like a natural fit. LaVey’s rebellion seemed cool (and Sammy Davis Jr agreed - he was a member of the Church of Satan). It also seemed sexy, and I mean that pretty literally; as a fat little nerd the sexual revolution looked to be alive and happening in the Church of Satan. I maintained many desperate plans for eventually getting laid, and ‘join the Church of Satan’ was quite high on the list.
As I grew older I recognized that the Church of Satan was really just Libertarianism For People Who Like To Imagine Themselves Taking Part In Orgies, and while much of that phrase described me I certainly was no Libertarian. I was cursed with too much empathy to truly vibe with LaVey’s ‘fuck you, I got mines’ philosophy. As I passed through my 20s many of my driving interests in the paranormal faded away and once you lose any hope that Satanism could actually involve Satan you see it as a very silly cosplay club. Cool robes, guys. This was the part of my life where I flirted with the Church of Subgenius, but it turns out I’m not quite that annoying and I just decided to become a boring old atheist. Not even the angry Richard Dawkins kind, just the kind who snickers at all religions and feels really annoyed that he has to defend Islam from racists and jerks.
LaVey died in 1997 and the Church of Satan fell into disarray; his daughter started a splinter group. Satanists stopped being much of a cultural force, especially as the internet allowed people to find orgies without having to go through the rigmarole of a complex and silly ritual. But in recent years, as religious conservatism has made a big return in national politics as the GOP has bent over backwards to court rednecks, racists and morons, Satanism has reared its goofy little head. The Temple of Satan was founded in 2013 and has already had a bunch of significant moments based on their excellent sense of showmanship. In 2013 they held a Pink Mass over the grave of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps’ mother, and they had two men kissing at her tombstone. In 2014 they crowdfunded a statue of Baphomet to place at the Oklahoma State Capitol to complement the Ten Commandments monument that was being erected there. Just a couple of weeks ago they won a big victory in Phoenix, Arizona, where they attempted to add a Satanic invocation at a city council meeting (in the name of religious freedom, of course). The council didn’t allow it, but that doesn’t mean the Temple lost - the council replaced their opening prayer with a moment of silence, a big victory for those trying to keep religion out of government (you know, like the Founding Fathers, many of whom were non-religious theists, wanted).
The Satanic Temple is not quite in line with LaVey’s Satanism, especially when it comes to the more Objectivist stuff. They have explicitly distanced themselves from LaVey’s social Darwinism, and their politics - and they are exceptionally political - are actually more in line with those hippie dippie counterculture types who I couldn’t quite jive with as a kid. They just dress this stuff up in controversial Satanic garb.
Which brings us back to that deconsecrated church in East Hollywood. After a screening of The Witch (attended largely by what seemed to be fashion and art world folks who seemed kind of perplexed by the thoughtful, atmospheric and smart movie Robert Eggers made) everyone jaunted down a few blocks to the ceremony/party. Rent-a-guards in suits stood outside the venue checking IDs; once you got inside a very stern trans woman wearing only pantyhose and high heels drew an X on your forehead with a blood-like substance (this being LA and the crowd likely full of vegans I’m sure the liquid was non-sanguinary in nature). “This indicates you have been marked,” she said gravely. Later in the evening I accidentally wiped the mark off my forehead (it was hot as hell in there and I was sweating!) so I went back out to get it reapplied. She was disapproving but gave me the mark again.
Through the thick smoke I could see that the altar was adorned with a half dozen naked bodies. They were all men, except for one woman placed carefully in the center. They just sort of sat there, hanging out, chatting. At one point someone came by and poured what seemed to be milk over them, but the whole thing was alarmingly non-erotic. I wasn’t sure if the naked people were actors or real Satanists; their body types certainly made me think ‘real Satanists.’ Some naked guys were walking through the crowd, dicks softly swinging as they handed out candles. “Thanks,” I said, taking a candle while trying very hard not to just stare at this guy’s dick (it’s so difficult. You don’t want to look, you shouldn’t look, but when you’re confronted with a cock right there in front of you there’s an almost innate need to look at it. The more you know you shouldn’t gaze upon the glans the more you need to do it). “No problem, man!,” the guy said, and I knew right away these were real Satanists because an actor would have definitely been in some kind of character (like the blood marker out front).
There was an open bar, and it was well stocked, so I hit it. My girlfriend and I kind of hung around; we didn’t know what exactly to do. This wasn’t our crowd - half the people looked like they were in cool bands I would hate and the other half looked like they only consumed fair trade cocaine - so we kind of stood around awkwardly. There was a girl who was Instagram famous who had come dressed up for the show in her best Stevie Nicks-meets-Elphaba outfit, including a big upside pentagram necklace she had almost certainly purchased at a Halloween store.
My girlfriend isn’t religious, but she was uncomfortable. She told me that this was the kind of thing her late grandmother wouldn’t have approved of, and she had just enough familial superstition handed down to her to make the entire concept of a Satanic ceremony off-putting. Jokingly I said, “It would be pretty cool if this was the set-up for a real Satanic ceremony and we were all the Hollywood pigs being brought to the slaughter” and she genuinely did not think that was funny.
I was impressed by all the naked Satanists. For one thing, it was so hot in that room that I envied their lack of clothing. But I also envied their body positivity; none of them were particularly extraordinary physical specimens - one dude looked exactly like the guy who comes, scowling, to fix your computer at the office - but they were letting it all hang out. The idea of exposing myself in that way - and being on display! - was uninmaginable. These people had balls (I could visually confirm this fact). I remembered being told that the New York ritual had gotten out of hand - had it been an orgy? Had everybody gotten naked and fallen into a writhing mass, shunting-style? - and my own source of uncomfortableness came from that. Or rather from wondering what my response to that would be - would I strip down and get involved? Or would I meekly make for the exit? I had a sense that my girlfriend was not DTO (down to orgy) so I also wondered how that exchange would play out.
Spoilers: there was no orgy. At a certain point the organ music cut off and a cellist began playing some really gothic droning music and the invocation began. By this point the naked guys had given everybody candles, and we all had lit them; now people began going to the altar and snuffing the candles, leaving them in boxes of sand before the sprawled naked people. Nobody announced this, so it was interesting seeing everyone in the crowd come to an understanding that this was what we were supposed to be doing.
A woman started speaking to us, and it took me forever to realize she was standing way up behind us in the choir section. She had this black outfit on with red tassles hanging down from the arms; it was Jex Blackmore, who leads the Detroit temple, which is the biggest in the nation. She started the invocation, and the naked people chanted back at her: “Non serviam!” She gave this whole big speech about the nature of Satanism and rebellion and human sexuality. An excerpt:
Resistance, a byproduct of injustice. The devil himself is the invention of god, the witch an invention of the church, the enemy, an invention of the state. But In truth, there is no good and evil. There is only what is human. The characterization of the outsider is a device of control. Yet, it is only a matter of time before the outsider becomes a weapon, a pervasive uprising of independence rather than a infectious disease.
I assure you, a silent revolt will never change our future. Satanism is a philosophy of ACTION. Just as Lucifer rebelled against the authority of God and the philosopher and scientist rebelled against church, and defiant women rebelled against the patriarch, and the radical against the theocracy, we too will rebel and call ourselves Satanists with Pride.
We will challenge those who slander the nature of man for there is no greater crime than to deny this world in favor of the next. To disobey is to be free
At some point in the speech Blackmore raised her arms high and a huge black and white American flag unfurled from the choir balcony. It looked exactly like something that might happen at a Marilyn Manson concert (Manson was a disciple of LaVey because of course he was), and then the DJ (DJ BL Zabub?) started playing goth dance music. I’m pretty sure I heard some Bauhaus, or maybe it all sounds like Bauhaus anyway.
I liked what Blackmore had to say - politically and socially I agreed fully with every single word of her speech. I like Lucifer as a character, much as they do, one who told God to go shove it. The symbol of ultimate rebellion is a great symbol (one who feels uniquely American, by the way), and I appreciate building your philosophy around him. But while I liked the philosophy at the center of Blackmore’s speech (we have built our own code of site conduct on the skeleton of LaVey's Satanic rules) I found everything else to be just too goofy. There was a theater kid vibe to the whole ceremony, a sense that dressing up (or down) and playing make believe was just as important to these people as their very sensible, admirable political and philosophical beliefs. The inviting of art and fashion people felt totally correct, as the whole ceremony was more of a scene than anything else.
We listened to the music for a little bit, and a couple of scenesters decided to start dancing. Was there more? A guy came out from behind the altar in a traditional priest outfit and began washing the feet of east side hipster girls. I liked the imagery of it, especially the inversion of Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet (I am not saying these women were prostitutes), but I felt bad about asking the dude to touch my gnarly toes.
It became apparent that the ceremony, such as it was, was over. The church had all but cleared out; a few girls did white people dances to Peter Murphy’s voice and the smoke was clearing. Naked guys walked through the diminishing crowd handing out black and white American flags (in plastic bags that warned of choking hazards). These flags were symbols of the New American Era, a label said, and they should be displayed anywhere that needs Satanic Inspiration. And/or at a party for Marilyn Manson. I am strongly considering hanging one in my office.