The newly released Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is primarily about a half-mortal, half-witch named Sabrina trying to balance her responsibilities to both worlds. More interesting than the death and sex, however, is the explicit presence of Satan himself — the literal Biblical devil — as part of the undead choir urging Sabrina to accept her destiny as a witch and a servant of the Church of Night.
The devil comes off more like a vehicle for patriarchy than a demonic force urging murder and hellfire upon the earth, but it doesn’t matter — not that many people have complained about the in-depth portrayals of Satanic ritual, save for an aghast Catholic priest on Twitter and the Satanic Temple’s alleged legal action over its copyrighted monument being appropriated for the show. (The spokesperson for the Temple called Sabrina “asinine Satanic Panic fiction.”) The Devil, it seems, has been shafted out of his fearsome dominion over our cultural consciousness, and instead has been relegated to minor character status.
What gives? Sixty-one percent of the American population, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, still believe in the existence of some personification of evil itself, and 64 percent believe in Hell, which is traditionally where he resides. But according to Elaine Pagels, a religious historian at Princeton University and author of The Origin of Satan, personal belief in the Devil’s existence (or lack thereof) doesn’t mean that the archetypal struggle between two intelligible forces, one good and one damned, has been lost. “The Devil is just a way of characterizing evil on a visceral, gut level,” she told The Outline. “The story of Satan articulates how we deal with conflict — it teaches on some subliminal level that conflict is non-negotiable.”
Kimberly Eberhardt Casteline, who works at the intersection of media and religion at Fordham University, argues that instead of working out our cultural anxieties through the concrete figure of the Devil, artists are looking at the implications of the secularization of culture, and how millennials and Gen Z are being pulled away from institutional religion. “You can see this in the resurgence of intentionally secular shows about the afterlife, like Forever and The Good Place,” she said. “As an example: The Good Place shows that we already live in this melting pot, post-racial, post-feminist world, and the afterlife is a reflection of that. And yet [spoiler alert] the characters turn out to be living in Hell after all. Our post-racial nirvana does not yet exist, and we’re still struggling. We have anxieties about the very things that are supposed to help us.”
The Devil in 2010s liberal pop culture is always somewhere else — not entirely present in our struggles with injustice, but not completely forsaken either. The specter of that old story, the triumph of absolute good over vice and abjection remains; the desire for meaning and order in an otherwise chaotic universe persists. Our questions about the nature of human existence and the nature of good and evil are no longer displaced upon Satan as the ultimate choreographer of all human depravity, but onto those who make manifest his program.
Pagels is careful to note that this rhetorical displacement has always happened, from the gospels associating the Devil with Jews, to later historical justifications for blood libel and pogroms, to associating brown and black people and immigrants with heathens and Satan-followers in our current political moment. She pointed to “the caravan of immigrants,” the way these asylum seekers are figured as “hordes” in conservative rhetoric, and President Trump’s deployment of up to 15,000 troops at the border to ward off this “invasion” of the United States as yet another iteration of the “battle between good versus evil” trope. The Devil may not be consciously invoked, but he most certainly is in the details. Said Castelline: “We’re always going to ask bigger questions about the nature of good and evil until the robots take over.”
How the Devil has surfaced and disappeared in popular culture isn’t just about a red-faced man with horns and a devilish smile — it’s a great index of the fears and social anxieties that have embroiled America. Here’s a timeline of his greatest hits.
FDA approves the Pill. Universal acclaim for Rosemary’s Baby, a pretty great parable about women’s lack of autonomy under patriarchy, ensures that Roman Polanski will never face consequences for child sexual abuse. Anton LaVey founds the Church of Satan and publishes the wildly-popular The Satanic Bible in favor of humanism. Hippie days come and go, and so does the sexual revolution.
Judy Blume publishes Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Black Sabbath debuts to trans-Atlantic commercial success. A man named Gerald Mayo attempts to sue the Dark Lord and his subordinates himself in Pennsylvania, which fails because the Court has no jurisdiction over someone who allegedly lives in New Hampshire. Roe v. Wade passes. The Exorcist is released in 1973 and becomes one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Roger Ebert asks in his review of The Exorcist, “Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”
Hard rock becomes the music of teenage rebellion — think Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, Kiss, Motörhead, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin. “Stairway to Heaven” becomes the most requested song on FM classic rock radio. Dungeons and Dragons is released. Journalist Debbie Nelson writes in her book, Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, that half of the American population at this time believes in Satan/the Devil/Lucifer as an actual entity. McDonald’s and Proctor & Gamble find themselves at the center of conspiracy theories linking their commercial success to Satanic worship. Stephen King breaks through as a commercial author, publishing books like Carrie and Salem’s Lot to great success. Gregory Peck fails to save America from the Antichrist in The Omen. Fun times.
Ronald Reagan runs for Presidential office, aligning himself with evangelical Christians who parrot pro-life rhetoric and his position against public spending on welfare programs. He wins and begins the Christian fundamentalist consolidation of what we now call the conservative movement. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining makes people terrified of identical female twins. Motley Crue releases a very popular song appropriately entitled “God Bless the Children of the Beast.” Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder publish a since-debunked memoir about Smith’s growing up in the clutches of a Satanic cult, and subsequent embrace of her Christian faith. Pazder coins the term “ritual abuse,” and according to Debbie Nelson, sparks nationwide mass paranoia linking the dearth of child welfare policy to mass hysteria about Satanism.
Bakersfield, California sees wave after wave of child molestation allegations blaming the rise of Satanism; soon after, plenty of copy-cat cases follow. In one of the longest and most sordid criminal trials in American history, parents allege that the teachers at the Virginia McMartin Preschool molested and subjected their children to Satanic rites, including blood-drinking. Jack Chick publishes his tracts against rock music, children being recruited into Satanic cults, and Dungeons and Dragons. 20/20 airs a segment on the different types of “Devil Worshippers,” bringing in Pazder as an expert on Satanism, and playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards to show that Led Zeppelin actually beckons “sweet Satan” to unaware children. Mike Warnke, an allegedly reformed Satanic high priest, smiles at the camera and says, “If the Devil has PR, it’s cinema.”
The public starts to calm down a little after the Satanic Panics of the 1970s and '80s; the Department of Justice releases a monograph challenging the evidentiary record of alleged Satanic ritual abuse. Bart Simpson meets Satan briefly, who tells him, “Remember to lie, cheat, steal, and listen to heavy metal music!” (He also loses his soul temporarily after a prank that involves Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”) The real evil, it seems, is not in the supernatural, but with how terrible human beings are. On a related note, Marilyn Manson becomes popular.
People are terrified of the Y2K bug and technology writ large: a network scanner for security loopholes was abbreviated to SATAN in 1995. One Reverend Jim Peasboro takes it upon himself to research the widespread demonic possession of computers, duly noting that “only a PC built after 1985 has the storage capacity to house an evil spirit.”
Turns out a figure representing personified evil no longer helps '90s kids and tech-savvy PDA-havers explain the zeitgeist, but that doesn’t stop people from being afraid of the date 06/06/06. Buffy comes face to face with The First Evil many, many times over the course of the last season; the Tenth Doctor and his human companions encounter the Beast, who claims to be the basis for all versions of Satan across time and space. Witches are all over TV but no one’s that afraid of them; Supernatural’s Lucifer is depicted as someone relatively sympathetic, with major daddy issues.
Pedophile Jimmy Savile is accused of being a Satanist. Evangelicalists decry Harry Potter for being a vehicle for witchery, and a little-known website called The Onion satirizes this in an article called “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children,” which is then forwarded in many a Christian email chain. JK Rowling is turned down for a presidential medal of freedom on account of the witchcraft within her young adult series. Stephen King gets one because his books are devoid of references to the occult.
Pope Francis uses the figure of the Devil as a rhetorical strike against lapses in moral judgement, though plenty in the Catholic Church are happy that he is acknowledging Satan’s existence and his unholy influence upon the world. Texas Rep. Joe Barton of sexual impropriety fame changes a bill number from 666 to 702 for his piece of legislation removing the ban on crude oil imports, citing its “many different negative connotations.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has issued over 870 opinions regarding the rule of law, believes very strongly in the existence of the Devil, arguing that the overlord of Hell has gotten smart enough to refrain from obvious things like “demonic possession all over the place.”
Miley Cyrus debuts her new bad-girl image, and conservative commentators are convinced that she has made a pact with Satan himself. Ariana Grande has an encounter with a demon. Obama finishes his two terms, and Trump is put at the helm of the sinking ship known as America. Violence against immigrants and people of color grows, and so does the number of hate groups. New shows like The Good Place that grapple with human morality and mortality grow exponentially. Netflix also picks up Lucifer, Fox’s canceled show based on Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and its subsequent spin-off series, featuring a retired Devil who has fun complying with the Los Angeles legal system. Conspiracy theories about an evil overlord manipulating the world for his purposes abide on the right. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina posits the devil as a kind of rich uncle who wants to make sure you apply to Harvard, even if you’d rather party at Bard.