I'll Lay Your Soul To Waste: Satan In The Suburbs

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“That’s the house where my parents had their Satan parties,” Steve says as he thumbs through a pile of old photographs that he pulled out of a shoebox. The quaint two-story home in a bucolic Westchester County suburb looks like the kind of place John Cheever would have used as inspiration for one of his stories, or the house that sat next door to the Drapers’ on Mad Men before they decided it was time to go through with the divorce proceedings. “Normaltown, U.S.A.,” my host who doesn’t want his last name revealed, because “it might not be the best thing for a teacher to talk about his Satan worshipping parents. But then again,” he thinks for a moment, “they weren’t really worshipping the devil or sacrificing babies or anything like that,” he says, as he pulls a Polaroid of himself as an eight-year-old dressed up like Dracula for Halloween. The year 1973 is written on the bottom. “I think they were pretty normal by this point. It was really all just a fad.”

Satan has been scaring Americans for centuries; the ultimate evil who was apparently the boss of the women 17th century colonialists burned at the stake for supposedly practicing witchcraft, to the later part of the 20th century when bands from Led Zeppelin to the Eagles were accused of trying to poison young minds with their music through hidden Satanic imagery or subliminal messages. America hates Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, the old serpent, father of all lies, the Great Antichrist, the Devil, or whatever you want to call the most evil of all evil. So by that logic, Steve’s parents and their “Satan parties,” were celebrations of evil, right?

“I think that’s the mayor of our town,” Steven says as he points to a red-cheeked man in a yellow sport coat, standing with a drink in his hands as four hooded people stand around a crudely-made altar surrounded by midcentury modern furniture, a bar with bottles of booze and a crystal seltzer bottle, and several other adults getting a kick out of what looks to be a Satanic ritual of some sort. When I ask Steven what the red mass sitting on the sacrificial plate is, he tells me that it looks like a raw London broil. Upon closer inspection, I confirmed that they were, in fact, sacrificing a perfectly fine piece of meat.

The latter part of 1960s was a good decade for Satanism; probably the best decade it would ever have. America, crawling out of the more repressed McCarthy-era, slowly started moving towards racial equality, experimenting more and more with things like mind-altering drugs, free love, and all of the other phenomena you hear defined the hippie culture of the era. Taboos were meant to be broken. If you were like Steven’s parents, “goofed around with,” as he puts his parents’ flirtation with the evil one. “I think they got a copy of [Anton LaVey’s] Satanic Bible, and they thought it would be funny to have a party where they got sauced with the neighbors, and acted like they were devil worshippers,” Steven says with a laugh. “I bet there was even some wife swapping.” Steven’s parents, whom he described as “upper-middle class assimilated Jews” found the taboo breaking fun, and, from what I gather looking at the photos, their neighbors did as well. While the “Satan parties” in no way offer a larger glimpse into the way America viewed occult practice, it certainly showed that some people in the suburbs were starting to soften up on Satan, or at least learned to have a good time on the devil’s tab.

In conversation a few weeks ago, a friend asked me point blank what my favorite song by The Rolling Stones was. It took me less than a second to answer that it wasn’t anything the perfect Exile on Main St., the lovely “You Can’t Always get What You Want,” or the disco-affected “Miss You.” “Sympathy for the Devil,” I answered, going on to explain that the song, which Mick Jagger has said is based off reading Baudelaire and Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, has a hypnotic and suggestive groove that would make Bo Diddley blush, but is also the song that best personifies the band in all their sly and decadent glory. I’ve never thought for a second that Jagger cared much for the devil, much less worshipped him, but I’ve always thought he saw a hero in the one he portrayed in the song. Jagger humanized Lucifer, and just like the likeable narrator in “Sympathy for the Devil,” you can’t help but think a baby born of the lovely Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby could ever be that bad, even if it is the antichrist.

The Chicago psych band Coven attempted to push the envelope a little further with their 1969 debut Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, but to much different results. It was that album that ushered in a new era of things we take for granted today with modern rock and metal: upside down crosses, the phrase “Hail Satan,” and the first known appearance of the Sign of the Horns being flashed. It also featured the first Satanic mass ever put on a rock album, and opening up the LP unveiled a photo of the band’s lead singer, Jinx Dawson, totally naked, laying upon an altar with a sacrificial cup beneath her exposed breasts, and a skull resting on her crotch. Something about the nudity, songs like “Pact With Lucifer,” and the overall package didn’t sit too well with the public, and Mercury Records quickly yanked the album from its catalog. Where the Stones song made the devil an elegant trickster, and Polanski’s film was billed as a horror, that the devil’s spawn is a terrifying thing, Coven outright glorified Satanisim. Their problem was that you aren’t supposed to like the devil. You’re supposed to do everything you can to avoid the devil, to not sell your soul to the devil, to not burn for eternity in the devil’s hell; you weren’t supposed to find his mother attractive, or dance to a song that made you think that Satan is just a misunderstood guy. And you certainly aren’t supposed to invite your neighbors over to “Satan parties.” While there’s still a good chunk of the American population that would argue that you still shouldn’t do these things, what we perceive as the devil has become far more abstract. People will routinely say Hitler was the devil, Osama Bin Laden was the devil, and George Bush 2 was the devil (until his presidency was over – now we don’t really talk about him that much). Somebody being tagged as the devil is applied to just about anybody who we don’t like, and less this evil guy with horns and a pitchfork that is the source for all the world’s problems.

Yet while a recent study showed that Americans are less religious than ever, a lot of people — many with postgraduate degrees — still think the devil is real. Even Steve, who grew up with his parents hosting “Satan Parties” is frightened of there being some sort of “ultimate evil,” although he doesn’t exactly know what that is. He tells me that even though he hasn’t had any part in organized religion since his bar mitzvah, there’s something terrifying about spending the rest of eternity in a lake of fire. “I think about it sometimes. I’m not sure why,” he says. “There was nobody preaching to me when I was younger; no mention of hell or the devil. My parents are Jews who ate pork and bought us a Christmas tree.” He adds that, “I grew up in Westchester, it wasn’t exactly the heart of Pentecostalism.” I ask him if he was frightened of these things when he was younger, when his parents were dabbling, in their innocent suburban way, in Satanisim. He tells me no. “I think something just clicked as I got older, as I became more aware of things. No matter how much you’d like to attempt and argue, America is a Christian nation, and no matter who you are, that affects you. Some of the ideas seep into your mind, and suddenly you’re watching a rerun of The Exorcist, and you think to yourself that you’re far more terrified of the fate this fictional character’s soul than you are of Linda Blair in makeup vomiting pea soup.”

As he puts the lid on the Converse shoebox that contains the photos of his parents and friends at their Satan Party, I ask Steve if he ever thinks it was a bad idea for his parents (both deceased) to host parties that, however tongue-in- cheek, that dabbled in Satanism.

“Do you mean if I worry about my mom and dad’s souls?” He asked.

I tell him yes. He thinks for a second, and then smiles.

“Nah,” he answers. “I don’t really believe in any of that stuff.”