Why TV Shows About Satan Are So Popular Right Now
Satan has had a hell of a year. After lingering on the edges of summer horror hits Hereditary and The Nun, he took center stage this fall, tormenting teen witch Sabrina Spellman on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and bringing on the end times in American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Even on Riverdale — a show that's far more interested in criminal conspiracies and KJ Apa's abs than religion — he looms in the background as the gang tracks possibly-demonic villain the "Gargoyle King."
And there's still more to come: Shay Mitchell's exorcism-gone-wrong horror film, The Possession of Hannah Grace, hits theaters on November 30. In the new year, we'll get a fourth season of Satanic-buddy cop drama Lucifer, and Stranger Things' David Harbour dons the horns for a new Hellboy film.
Satan becoming the season's hottest breakout star would seem like yet another "only in 2018!" phenomenon, except that this has happened before — most recently, in the late '60s and early '70s, when movies like Rosemary's Baby (1968) The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Amityville Horror (1979) ruled cinemas. Back then, Satan's trendiness was viewed as a response to the era's social change — and, at times, a refutation of the changes created by second-wave feminism. So why is Satan having such a comeback right now? What can it tell us about this moment in American history? In short: what the hell is going on here?
"I think when cultural and political times are particularly chaotic and frightening, there's something appealing in thinking about elemental evil, whether that's Satan, the apocalypse, or a zombie outbreak," Kate Hagen tells Bustle. Hagen, director of community for screenwriting website The Black List, also created the site's "31 Days of Feminist Horror" series, where she analyzes horror films past and present. "There's a sort of comfort I think that many of us take in imagining those supernatural, elemental evils," says Hagen, "instead of thinking of you know, the every day horrors we're all being asked to process on a consistent basis."
Our culture and politics today are definitely chaotic — as they were the last time Satan was a major leading man. The devil rode a huge wave of popularity in the turbulent '60s and '70s, inspiring not only the aforementioned horror classics but a boatload of lesser-known titles as well, like The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Satan's School for Girls (1973), and Satan's Cheerleaders (1977).
Movies about the devil — like John Carpenter's campy 1987 Satan-meets-science flick Prince of Darkness — remained in-demand through the '80s, but they had a new, alarming real-life counterpart: people who had become genuinely convinced that Satanic cults secretly controlled American life, performing human sacrifices and corrupting children. The so-called "Satanic panic" lasted through the early '90s, at which point horror trends largely moved on — American culture had shifted, and Satan was no longer a resonant metaphor.
In 2018, Satan isn’t horrifying because he’s encouraging you to have threesomes and listen to heavy metal. He’s horrifying because he’s one selfish male figure hoarding all the power.
But while Satan is trending today like he did in the past, the reasons we're seeking out these shows and movies — and the things we're getting out of them — are quite different from the reasons our parents lined up to see The Omen II.
In '70s films, Satan was depicted all-powerful, brutal, and corrupting, able to transform a sweet tween into a violent ghoul (The Exorcist), take over the world's governments (The Omen), or force you to carry a demonic unwanted pregnancy (Rosemary's Baby). His torments also often highlighted the changing nature of the American family — like in The Exorcist, where middle school girl Regan is left vulnerable to Satanic possession because her mom...has a job and is divorced.
But today, Satan is less an unspeakable evil than a whiny man-baby (AHS: Apocalypse), or a patriarchal bully who is into trickery rather than brute power (Sabrina). On occasion, he's even a little sympathetic (historian and author Arkady Martine notes that many recent Satans are "ruthless, creative, [and] dangerous," in the mold of the devil depicted in John Milton's Paradise Lost). On Lucifer, Satan's a good guy who helps the police, for god's sake!
According to Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive author Kristen Sollee, this is because our ideas about Satan reflect whatever scares us as a society in the moment. "These new visions of Satan reflect our current political moment, in the sense that it’s the status quo and corrupt systems of power we should fear, not the outsiders or the Other," Sollee tells Bustle. "In 2018, Satan isn’t horrifying because he’s encouraging you to have threesomes and listen to heavy metal. He’s horrifying because he’s one selfish male figure hoarding all the power. And we already know how well that’s going to end for us."
(Not to put too fine a point on Sollee's statement, but it's impossible to miss that when this wave started, with shorter-lived shows like Damien and The Exorcist and indie movies like The Witch, it was 2016 — just months before the election that would make Donald Trump president).
If the world is ruled by magic and evil, then our every day goals and mundane lives really are absolutely meaningless and futile.
But shows about Satan offer us more than just a fantasy of triumph over evil or a way to analyze social change; they also give us a space to work through our hopes — and fears — about that change. Heidi Honeycutt, film writer and co-founder of women's genre film festival Etheria Film Night, tells Bustle that Satanic '70s films sometimes reflected worries that progress was just an illusion: "These cults and witches and satanists represent a throwback to superstition and religion of the dark ages and before; our safe, modern world is a joke when we find out that it is actually ruled by supernatural forces."
Which might be why there can be a certain degree of nihilism in these shows (see: the season finales of AHS: Apocalypse and Sabrina). "If the world is ruled by magic and evil, then our every day goals and mundane lives really are absolutely meaningless and futile," says Honeycutt.
There's another reason we might be drawn to stories about Satan right now: traditionally, stories about the devil are also stories about women. In the '70s, those stories often focused on women being overpowered by Satan. But today's Satanic horror plays with that history, to create heroines who have a much more complicated relationships with ancient evil.
Chelsea Stardust, director of upcoming horror-comedy film Satanic Panic, tells Bustle that she was drawn to the script for a number of reasons: she loved the writing and the way it dealt frankly with classism. But she was also struck by the primacy of female characters in the story. "I loved that the script was basically an all-female story that featured a Satanic cult completely run by women," says Stardust. "The men take the backseat in the story."
Men often take a backseat in Satanic horror stories. Historian W. Scott Poole, author of Satan in America: The Devil We Know, tells Bustle that the tradition of women bedeviled by Satan in horror movies is linked to a long (and harmful) lineage linking women to the dark side: "Traditional Christian teaching about women as 'the daughters of Eve' and the 'gate of sin' has a long and terrible history." Poole notes that "ideas about women as tempters, and sexuality as dangerous, appear in Christian thought from the New Testament through St. Augustine and beyond." And these ideas weren't just abstract thought experiments — they underlaid the witch trials that tore through Europe and the U.S. in the 16th through 18th centuries, and overwhelmingly targeted women.
But today's heroines fight back against the devil — and often win.
But like everything else in Satanic horror movies, the relationship between women and Satan is changing. Stardust tells Bustle that the emphasis on female characters in these films "used to be a commentary on society automatically placing women as being the 'weaker sex,' easier to influence than men, and any woman who dares to stand up for herself is branded 'evil.'" Even in Rosemary's Baby, a feminist-leaning film that equates Satan with the patriarchy, it's taken as a given that Rosemary doesn't stand a chance of triumphing.
But today's heroines fight back against the devil — and often win. Think of the AHS witches surviving the actual end of the world and working to save humanity, or Sabrina Spellman pushing back at the Church of Night and any witch or demon who thinks they know her better than she knows herself. Even in cases where women decide to throw their lot with the dark lord — like Aunt Zelda on Sabrina, or in films like Hereditary and The Witch — they're not passive vessels who have no choice in the matter. They've joined up with the devil because they like what he's selling. "Now women hold the power in the more recent tellings of these tales, and THEY decide if they want to be under Satan's influence, as opposed to it being taken from them without their consent," says Stardust. "We decide if we want to be a part of the cult, the ritual, etc. [and] how we want to use it to our advantage."
Honeycutt points out that tough heroines who take on the evil one have roots in the self-aware meta-horror trend that began in the '90s with Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "Since then, it just hasn't been interesting to see a helpless person in a horror film be defeated by omnipotent evil," says Honeycutt. "And what better way to subvert the standard horror story than to have the female protagonist have supernatural abilities herself?"
Having protagonists who are evenly matched with Satan makes for more interesting viewing; watching Sabrina decide what to do with her devil-given powers on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is way more interesting than just watching another show about a "weak" woman being attacked by a monster. "These are complex protagonists, and we enjoy them in the same way we enjoy our superheroes who must make choices about how to use their super powers," says Honeycutt.
There's one other factor that separates the Satanic films of the '70s with those of today: our culture has a very different relationship with Satan and the occult. On one hand, Gallup polls indicate that the number of Americans who believe the devil is real has been increasing over this century, and The Atlantic revealed that exorcisms are on the rise in the U.S. At the same time, witchcraft has gone mainstream, with estimates pegging the current number of American witches at around one million; countless others who don't formally practice witchcraft still take inspiration from its messages of empowerment and mindfulness.
Taken together, these trends create a very different atmosphere than the one that prevailed back when Rosemary's Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist were considered so dark and evil that they were protested by religious activists (and their casts and crews were popularly thought to be "cursed" due to their films' unholy subject matter).
Today, Sabrina has actual practicing pagans on staff who ensure that the show is respectful about occult beliefs. And even though some of the cast and crew on Satanic Panic were uneasy about working on a movie about Satan — "Some cast members had protective crystals hidden in their wardrobe," reports Stardust, and wanted to burn sage and palo santo on set — the director approached the filming with an attitude that would have been unimaginable on a '70s film set: "I had folks ask me if I was concerned about welcoming any unwanted energy and spirits into the set. I wasn't nervous about that myself, because I wanted to be as respectful as possible to the Satanic belief and that energy that surrounds it. We even had authentic Satanic items and ritual pieces on set. I thought they were actually protecting us, not harming us. I tried to keep a very open mind through the whole process."
There's no telling if the superstar Satan situation will burn itself out soon, or if we'll be living with it for a decade to come (it might hinge on the results of the 2020 election, frankly). But no matter how it ends this time around, stories about Satan — and especially stories about women and Satan — will always be a part of pop culture. And shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have a permanent impact on how we tell and view those stories. "Stories about [the devil] are going to be told in our culture and they will [have a political meaning] ," says Poole. "Many of them will continue be tired, guilt-inducing…possession/exorcism dramas that often center on young women. Or they can be liberating stories of the same young women breaking various taboos and, literally raising hell. I hope we keep telling the latter."