In the penultimate episode of the third season of Forbidden History, host Jamie Theakston went in search of Satan, in an episode that never quite rises to the level of the infamous Ancient Aliens episode that asked viewers to worship Lucifer as the embodiment of cosmic good. “Inside the Cult of Satan” (S03E05) instead is overly concerned with whether people enjoy sex too much, and if this might threaten Christian morality. To make that case, it tells us that there are more than 100,000 Satanists in the world, a number that is growing according to ghost hunter Richard Felix because of a rejection of puritanical Christianity in search of hedonism. “Hallelujah! Praise the new Lord,” Felix proclaims sarcastically. Heather Osborn, a fringe radio host, engages in moral panic by proclaiming that “dark” television programs are leading teenagers to embrace Satan, with the implication that this is why they are sexually active.
Granted, 100,000 Satanists would be roughly double the reported number of Scientologists, but it’s fewer than just the number of American Quakers, which stands at more than 350,000. And nobody talks about panic over global Quaker takeovers. Felix, though, alleges that thanks to the Church of Satan, Satanism is huge in America because Americans love “cults.” Only in an offhand way does the show concede that the Church of Satan isn’t actually a Satan-worshiping cult but more of an anti-Christian protest movement.
Theakston, though, will have none of it and instead alleges that the worship of Satan is “as old as our civilization” but kept “underground” due to Christian oppression. This is undoubtedly untrue since Satan as a figure only develops around the time of Christ, and didn’t really take off until Christianity was established. Similarly, the eighteenth century “Hellfire Club” Theakston next explores isn’t a Satanic cult but rather the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, a hedonistic club where, along with others that imitated it, rich people would gather to have orgies and make fun of religion. Even Felix manages to correctly identify that this club had nothing to do with Satan, but Heretic Magazine’s resident imbecile Andrew Gough lustfully declares the club “the real Fifty Shades of Grey,” apparently without recognizing that Satanism and BDSM are not synonymous or interchangeable. The show gives an enormous amount of time to a libertine club that wasn’t really Satanist, but the youthful guide to the club’s underground meetinghouse suggests that the club “indoctrinated” lords and ladies into pagan rites, which again are not the same as Satanic rites. “It was more of a pagan sex club than it was anything else,” Gough concedes, and the producers of the show seem unable to distinguish between paganism and Satanism. This is hardly different from the Romantic spirit that animated Gothic fiction, which drew on the same mix of the occult and the medieval in search of an antidote to Enlightenment.
Just before the halfway point, we finally change topic and move on to exorcism, and the show films a “recreation of a typical exorcism” conducted by an exorcist, Chris Thompson, who says that business is booming. This is nothing new; 15 years ago Michael W. Cuneo documented the rise in exorcisms and attributed them to a number of causes: first to the movie The Exorcist in the 1970s, and later, in the 1990s, to the explosion in biblical fundamentalism as an extremist counterpoint to perceived secular materialism. The decline in mainstream religion, therefore, Cuneo said, led to more extreme religious belief among a smaller number of people and demonic possession became a sort of proof of faith. Thompson doesn’t know if demons are real, but he exorcizes them anyway.
Gough believes that exorcisms are simply a show in which the exorcist and the possessed participate in a theatrical folie à deux, or even a fraud, and here he is supported by Cuneo’s research. Stopped clocks are right twice a day! Felix alleges that demonic possession is Christian in origin, though this is also untrue. I have a book on my shelf called Possession: Demoniacal and Other by T. K. Oestererreich that, for all its faults, documents that what we call demonic possession—and therefore exorcism—is found everywhere on earth and all times, not just among Christians. The show’s producers are either intentionally catering to Christian chauvinism or are genuinely ignorant of the world beyond the Bible.
Next Theakston discusses the life and times of Aleister Crowley, whom Felix takes pains to tell us “was not a Satanist” but rather a sex-obsessed occultist. The show keeps emphasizing Crowley’s sex life and his cult’s Sicilian orgies, and there’s more than a hint of puritanical titillation behind the producers’ choices. Gough agrees that Crowley was an occultist and a practitioner of ritual magic, which again forces us to ask whether a show ostensibly about Satan has any actual Satanism in it. Crowley, Felix says, was probably “a dirty old perv,” though no one, he says, knows for sure whether he was really in contact with spirts or aliens. Again, though, despite the gleeful descriptions of bisexual orgies and Gough’s speculation that Crowley engaged in human sacrifice, there’s not a hint of Satan.
However, the program then discusses the Order of the Nine Angles, a 1980s Satanic group that combined ritual magic, Aryan supremacy, and space colonization, though with no further discussion. One talking head, Aron Paramor—identified as an “occult historian” but better known as an actor (he has never published any occult history so far as I can find)—describes the various types of Satanism, including the Temple of Set and the Order of the Trapezoid, which he says has “an H. P. Lovecraftian feeling.” Here we’re getting into Lovecraftian ceremonial magic, with its intentional claim that Lovecraft had a real connection to the Old Ones, who are not Satanic. This type of Satanism, as the show notes, is Satanism in name only rather than a genuine veneration of Lucifer.
Next up we discuss the Black Mass, the ritual inversion of the Catholic mass, though even Heather Osborn, no deep thinker, doubts the polemical descriptions of the Black Mass. Paramor thinks that our society is becoming more Satanic, and Gough believes that Satanism is a better fit for our times because, again, of Fifty Shades of Grey, which he feels symbolizes the libertinism that opposes traditional morality. Theakston concludes that Satanism is a “protest vote against the Church,” which is weird on two counts, first because in England (especially compared to America) religious belief is markedly low, and second because the 100,000 alleged Satanists identified at the start of the hour represent a vanishingly small percentage of the world’s 7.1 billion people. The show and its talking heads didn’t actually go in search of the cult of Satan; instead, they delivered an hour-long polemic in favor of Victorian social mores by doing what the Church once did: declaring the enjoyment of sex to be representative of communion with demons.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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