Imagine a sunlit afternoon in a cream-coloured suburban kitchen. A middle-aged mother and her teenage son settle at the table for lunch. The son, a sullen boy mopishly brooding behind whisps of long hair, pairs his nutritious meal with a wholesome glass of milk. Just as he is about to dig in, his mother reprimands him. “Are you forgetting something?” she asks. Chastened, the boy lowers his head and begins to say grace: “Bless us Dark Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy infernal bounty, through the power of Lucifer Eternal. Nema”. This scene, which playfully inverts that most middle-American of practices – saying grace before meals – appears in the eighth season of the long-running anthology series American Horror Story during an episode that aired in October 2018. In the same year – indeed, in the very same month – Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina presented viewers with a group of teenage girls dutifully reciting their bedtime prayers. Kneeling by their beds, heads bowed, hands carefully steepled, they appear the very picture of piety. That is until we hear the prayer they are muttering: “O Mighty Dark Lord by whom all things are set afire. Thy power be the path, thy will be my desire. In hell, as it is on earth. Praise Satan. Amen.”
Both scenes derive much of their effect, their shock value, through the juxtaposition of mundane, even saccharine, scenes of all-American family prayer against language emblematic of Satanism, wickedness and depravity. It’s a simple aesthetic inversion that moves the diabolical from the esoteric fringes to the heart of the domestic sphere and reconfigures the middle-class, suburban family as possessed of an unexpected darkness. Despite their dubious position in the canon of contemporary horror, not to mention their inconsistent quality, American Horror Story (2011-present) and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020) are interesting cultural artefacts because they capture a moment in history when debates about the role of religion in society could be articulated through the language and iconography of Satanism. The ability of these shows to play with Satanism in this manner, to use it for humour and subversion, speaks to a post-Satanic Panic culture in which, for most of the population, the fears of satanic ritual abuse and teenage devil-worshippers that abounded in the 1980s and early 1990s have faded to dim memories. Likewise, the interweaving of the diabolic and the sentimental that characterises both shows’ approach to Satanism clearly recalls the activism of the Satanic Temple, an atheistic group that agitates for reproductive rights and the separation of Church and State. The organisation, which was founded in 2013 by the pseudonymous Malcolm Jarry and Lucien Greaves, garnered worldwide media attention in 2014 when they demanded the right to install a statue of the caprine deity Baphomet outside the Oklahoma State Capitol, where a monument to the Ten Commandments had been recently erected. The stunt, which aimed to call attention to the encroachment of religion onto state bodies, captured the public imagination and the Temple’s image of Baphomet, surrounded by adoring children, quickly became a contemporary icon. It was directly incorporated into Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, leading to a lawsuit from the Satanic Temple, but its incongruous mix of wholesome Americana (happy, smiling children) and the diabolism (the winged-goat Baphomet) seems to have set the tone for 2010s pop culture more broadly.
The propensity of characters in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to utter bizarre prayers and exclamations like, “Praise Satan”, “Unholy Shit” or “What the Heaven!” has led to the dispersal of these phrases across memes, decontextualised gifs and a range of mugs, t-shirts and tote bags. However, despite the enthusiasm with which contemporary audiences have embraced such amalgamations of the prosaic and the demonic, the tendency to unite the ordinary American family with satanic ideals is in fact much older. Indeed, this phenomenon, which I am calling domestic Satanism, stretches back to at least the post-World War II period when prayer, church attendance and explicitly Judaeo-Christian religiosity assumed a new centrality in American life. At the same time, the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War ensured that the family, as a stable patriarchal entity, was reimagined as the bedrock of a stronger, revitalised America. Satanic versions, or inversions, of the family at this time critiqued normative notions of family and satirised the sentimentalism of contemporary representations of domesticity.
Domestic Satanism was certainly not a pervasive phenomenon. Indeed, most horror films produced between the end of the Second World War and the high point of public interest in the occult during the 1970s imagined Satanism as destructive of family bonds. In The Seventh Victim (1943), produced during the war, a satanic coven robs teenager Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) of her sister and only living family member, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). Later, in the occult-themed nudie cutie The Satanist (1968), an encounter with a seductive young witch (Pat Barrington) threatens the stability of a middle-class couple’s marriage. Similarly, in 1971’s Brotherhood of Satan, the children of a small New Mexico town are corrupted and possessed by the spirits of elderly Satanists. That being said, we can find an explicit instance of domestic Satanism in the most iconic occult film produced during this period, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Although often remembered for its feminist themes and the generational conflict between geriatric Satanists and an ambitious, modern young couple, many of the film’s most iconic moments invert banal family dynamics and domestic scenarios. The film’s Satanists appear as a slightly distorted, but nevertheless accurate, reflection of a mundane middle American family. Like the satanic families who appear on contemporary television, these Satanists inhabit ordinary homes, shop from the Sears catalogue and engage in occult rites that invert, rather than reject, mid-century Christian values.
The Satanists at the heart of the film, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), are distinguished by their ordinariness. During rituals, they snipe at each other like any old married couple, and their bathroom houses a copy of Jokes for the John, which hangs on a hook next to the toilet. Minnie is an invasive gossip who riffles through the neighbours’ post and tactlessly asks the price of furniture. The pair are also distinguished by their loudness and garish dress. In Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name, on which the film is based, Roman is described as “dazzling in an every-colour seersucker jacket, red slacks, a pink bow tie, and a grey fedora with a pink band”. Minnie wears the classic old lady accessory: “pink-rimmed glasses on a neck chain”. We’re also told that she speaks with a “loud Midwestern” accent. Their sidekick Laura Louise (played in the film by Patsy Kelly) is an equally tedious busy body whose dress seems more appropriate to a bingo hall than a satanic ritual. Even before we see the satanic pensioners, they are distinguished – aurally – by a combination of the diabolic and banal domesticity. In the film, when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) initially take up residence in their new apartment, they first hear Minnie through the walls offering her husband a beer. This placid domestic exchange is swiftly followed by strains of satanic ritual chanting. However, exchanges such as this are precisely why the film’s Satanists have remained so iconic. They combine the appearance of ordinary, middle-class American values and aesthetics with diabolic words and deeds. They are Devil-worshippers who might easily recall the viewer’s grandparents or their nosy spinster aunt.
At least part of the coven’s ordinariness can be accounted for by contemporary media interest in the Church of Satan. Founded in 1966 by nightclub musician and former carnie Anton Szandor LaVey, the Church gained notoriety as the first organisation to espouse a coherent satanic discourse in an overtly public manner. Based in a comparatively ordinary house (aside from its black paint job) on 6114 California St. in San Francisco, the organisation’s public profile combined with their tendency to antagonise neighbours with their outlandish behaviour helped to convince Americans that devil-worshippers could be living next door to them. At the same time, newspaper and television reports on the Church emphasised the strange domesticity of LaVey, his wife Diane and their children, all of whom lived in the eccentric Black House alongside a pet lion named Togare. Local news items featuring LaVey’s satanic baptism of his daughter Zeena, as well as the wedding he performed between the radical journalist John Raymond and the socialite Judith Case, frame these ceremonies as diabolic inversions of Christian rites. Pre-empting the linguistic reversals upon which later pop culture representations of satanic families depend, the journalist covering the Raymond and Case wedding in 1967 even refers to the ceremony as “unholy matrimony”. Although the Church was essentially an atheistic organisation dedicated to self-improvement and the empowerment of the individual, the powerful iconography of inverted Christian prayers and the image of LaVey’s satanic family endured in the popular imagination.
Ira Levin began writing the novel Rosemary’s Baby in late 1965 and it seems likely that he was still hard at work on the text in April 1966 when the Church of Satan was founded. The influence seems undeniable, especially with the Satanists echoing LaVey’s chanting of the words “Hail Satan!” during rituals. Later, LaVey would claim to have acted as a consultant for the film adaptation of Levin’s novel, though this has proved difficult to verify. In any case, much of the Church of Satan’s fascinating combination of mundanity and diabolism makes its way into that novel and its film adaptation. Echoing the Church of Satan, Minnie and Roman Castevet live in the heart of a major American metropolis (though, here, it is New York rather than San Francisco). The membership of their coven encompasses both the exotic (foreign millionaires) and the mundane (doctors, undistinguished senior citizens). Likewise, Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, Jesper Aa. Petersen note in their book The Invention of Satanism (2016) that Anton LaVey’s early acolytes included academics and aristocrats, as well as businessmen and police officers. Moreover, just as LaVey’s practices were intended to parody and pervert Christian ceremonies – he considered this a form of psychodrama that would free initiates from the psychological baggage of their religious backgrounds – so too do Roman and Minnie turn Christian values upside down, not least through their attempt to bring forth the Antichrist in twisted reflection of the story of Mary and Jesus.
Beyond the influence of the Church of Satan, the domestic Satanism displayed throughout Rosemary’s Baby also seems deeply indebted to the growing importance of prayer, religion and family in American life after the Second World War. In her book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, historian Elaine Tyler May explains that following the trauma and upheaval of World War II, family life was no longer understood in terms of mere kinship but assumed a new role as a comforting bedrock of stability. At the same time, as the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union raged on, the family became increasingly important as a political entity, a means of securing and disseminating normative, capitalistic American values. Around the same time, the American government began to promote Judaeo-Christian religiosity as a means of combatting the perceived atheistic threat posed by communist Russia. TJ Gunn terms this policy “governmental theism” and identifies examples of the practice in a range of actions taken by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. These included adding the words “one nation under God” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, adding the phrase “In God we trust” to paper money in 1955 and declaring the same phrase the American national motto in 1956. Concomitantly, a raft of stone monuments honouring the Ten Commandments began appearing across the US in 1955 and 1956. Thanks to this new wave of religiosity, by 1960 – the decade of the Church of Satan and Rosemary’s Baby – church attendance in the United States had reached an all-time high of 65%. The kind of domestic Satanism apparent in both the Church of Satan’s public rituals, not to mention the private life of its founder, and in Rosemary’s Baby appears to both satirise and undermine the contemporary belief that the united forces of the family and religion could preserve “traditional” American values against new, subversive threats. For Ira Levin and Anton LaVey, the Devil was less a tangible spiritual adversary and more a useful symbol of subversion. By bringing Satan into the heart of the American family, replacing traditional prayers with entreaties to the Devil, both men undermine contemporary social norms, opening them up to play and parody.
This kind of satanic inversion was, of course, nothing new, even in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The witch trials of the early modern period (roughly, the 1400s to the 1700s) describe satanic meetings where the norms of Christianity were turned on their head: witches celebrated their sabbaths under cover of darkness rather than by the light of day, they paid homage to Satan by kissing his anus rather than his lips, they ate the flesh of infants rather than the body of Christ, and they desecrated instead of revering the eucharist. In a similar vein, Mikael Häll describes a series of folk traditions, prevalent in early modern Sweden, though potentially extant elsewhere, in which peasants might make deals with forest nymphs, water spirits and, significantly, the Devil himself to improve their luck in hunting and fishing. In these scenarios, Satan, although retaining his adversarial role, was also reimagined as a “master, helper, or familiar spirit”. Later, a range of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century radicals – including Romantic poets, anticlerical thinkers, feminists and esoteric practitioners – engaged with the Devil as a symbol of liberation and the bringer of knowledge. Nevertheless, the domestic Satanism that makes films like Rosemary’s Baby so delightful, is unique in its soldering of the demonic to the humdrum American family. Indeed, elements of Rosemary’s Baby appear almost kitsch in their incorporation of satanic iconography into ordinary domestic life. The film famously ends with Rosemary discovering her child lying in a crib surrounded by adoring acolytes. The crib resembles a traditional bassinet except that it is decorated with black crepe (instead of the traditional pink or blue) and the mobile hanging above it takes the form of an inverted crucifix. In response to Rosemary’s shock upon finding her baby alive, Minnie assumes the role of the doting grandma, offering the new mother a cup of tea and assuring her that “It’s plain ordinary Lipton tea. You drink it”. The image of a kindly old woman offering a young mother a warm cup of tea while a coven of devil-worshippers chant “Hail Satan!” is camp in its incongruity, but it also exemplifies the kind of iconic and linguistic juxtaposition at the heart of domestic Satanism. This kind of familial Satanism is defined by a bringing together of the demonic and the domestic in such a way as to parody the entrenchment of conservative religiosity and “traditional” family values during the Cold War period.
Although the ending of Rosemary’s Baby is highly ambiguous, the final sequences of both the novel and the film seem to suggest that Rosemary will accept both her son and her new role as the mother of the Antichrist (and some of this is played out in the controversial sequel Son of Rosemary, penned by Levin in 1997). If this is the case, the text closes with the suggestion of a radical new configuration of the family, one in which Satan instead of God is at the heart of the home and mealtime grace is directed to the Dark Lord instead of his more benevolent counterpart. Such a move would certainly constitute an inversion of mid-century American familial and religious norms, a playful upending of the period’s conservative values. It is this very inversion that carries through to the domestic Satanism of contemporary TV horror. However, where Rosemary’s Baby and the Church of Satan’s public performances, might have employed this incongruous combination of the mundane and the satanic to satirise Cold War America’s recourse to conservative notions of God and family, newer works such as American Horror Story and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reflect a political climate defined by the reactionary politics of Donald Trump and the increasingly right-wing Republican Party. These series take the religious right’s rhetoric of “family values”, God and prayer and turn them on their head. In doing so, they challenge the growing reactionism of an American right that seeks to suppress religious and cultural pluralism, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ identities. By bringing Satan into the family, they imagine alternative households and radical configurations of domesticity that explode the narrow definitions of “family” promoted by the resurgent right.
Dyrendal, Asbjørn, James R. Lewis, Jesper Aa. Petersen. The Invention of Satanism (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Gunn, TJ. Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Praeger, 2008).
Häll, Mikael. “‘It is Better to Believe in the Devil’: Conceptions of Satanists and Sympathies for the Devil in Early Modern Sweden” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism and Modernity, edited by Per Faxneld and Jesper Aa. Petersen (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Faxneld, Per. Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Oxford University Press, 2017)
God in America: “The Soul of a Nation”, Transcript, PBS, <https://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html>
Levin, Ira. Rosemary’s Baby (Simon & Schuster, 2014),
Levin, Ira. “‘Stuck with Satan’: Ira Levin on the Origins of Rosemary’s Baby, Criterion, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2541–stuck-with-satan-ira-levin-on-the-origins-of-rosemary-s-baby
Tyler May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1988).