Tucked away on the official Church of Satan website is a list of recommended films, offered up without much context or explanation. Naturally, we had to find out more, so we reached out to Magus Peter H. Gilmore, the Church of Satan's High Priest. He gave us an amazing lesson on what Satanists look for in movies.
Gilmore turned to be a scholarly film buff who was more than happy to reply via e-mail to all our devilish questions.
io9: Who composed the original list, and when? In what form did it originally appear? Has it ever been updated (or will it be)?
Peter H. Gilmore: Our founder, Anton Szandor LaVey, compiled the list for the book titled The Church of Satan, written by his partner Blanche Barton, which my wife and I published in 1990. It also included a relevant reading list. As posted on our web site, we've kept it to his personal selections, but since Magistra Barton is revising and expanding the book, there will be additional films included when it is released.
Can you briefly explain what the philosophy of Satanism is, for people who may have only a sensationalized idea of what church members believe?
Satanism is an atheist philosophy using Satan as a symbol of pride, liberty, and individualism, as did many before us who would not accept the status quo such as Milton, Byron, Twain, and Carducci. Since the universe is indifferent to us, we Satanists choose to establish our own subjective hierarchy of values with ourselves as highest among them. Thus atheism moves to what I call Itheism, where we are each our own "gods." We accept the full range of human emotions as healthy, from love to hate, noting both of those are uncommon extremes.
Satanists employ ritual not as worship, but as a form of self-psychotherapy to rid ourselves of any emotions hindering our intelligently moderated pursuit of pleasures. This makes for an epicurean lifestyle — indulgence, not compulsion, being a prime dictate. Satanists view man as just another animal, and so we are concerned about the Earth and its ecosystem. We support all forms of human sexuality between consenting adults and believe that society should be run via a secular social contract, with rational laws to regulate behavior so that a maximum of freedom might be attained. We value justice and the idea that the punishment should fit in kind and degree the crime when working to maintain an equitable society.
Some of the choices on the film list seem pretty obvious (Rosemary's Baby, Bedazzled, cult classic Evilspeak). But, I'd like to throw out some more unexpected titles and get your feedback on why they made the cut, and how they relate to Satanism: Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Citizen Kane, Death Wish, Key Largo, Pennies from Heaven, Soylent Green, Strangers on a Train, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Pennies From Heaven juxtaposes fantasy with reality, portraying the burning desire to improve one's lot through surreal song and dance scenes. LaVey prized Tin Pan Alley tunes as superb unions of music and lyrics that teach us much about human nature. Christopher Walken's devilishly seductive tap dance scene in a "den of iniquity" exemplifies much that we Satanists cherish, and the overall grim mood punctuated by visualizing what we call an "Is To Be" (desired change in reality) in the musical sequences deftly captures much bittersweet truth about humanity as seen from a Satanic perspective.
LaVey advocated the idea of creating "artificial human companions" as surrogates to be used for sexual and emotional gratification so that actual humans might be spared the consequences of their own or others' darkest desires. Blade Runner explores what might be in our future should such man made beings reach self-consciousness and in some ways, superiority. I submit that the more recent Spielberg film A.I., which poignantly deals with similar themes, likewise exposes what is often an innate cruelty and xenophobia in our species, with Jude Law embodying precisely what LaVey envisioned as Gigolo Joe.
Justice figures as the Satanic quality in this varied group. Death Wish demonstrates how justice can become a personal pursuit when law enforcement fails its mission. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory shows us a scenario where everyone gets just desserts served up by Gene Wilder as a most engaging devil. Strangers on a Train examines justice gone awry wherein a fantasy of eliminating someone who has wronged you quickly becomes a nightmare when a sociopath enters into the equation — a warning to not pursue punishment beyond what suits the crime.
The Treasure of Sierra Madre is rather complex in realistically outlining human types, and ultimately, though the sought-after gold — a pipe dream Satanism would caution against — is lost, the characters receive ends befitting their deeds. Soylent Green offers a likely dystopia wherein our species' rampant overpopulation and lack of care for the globe leads to cannibalism as the pragmatic solution to survival. The scene of a peaceful, humane means for willingly ending a life exhibits a compassion for pain and freedom of choice not usually offered up by most religions, but an alternative that Satanism condones should life become utterly unbearable. Edward G. Robinson's last performance is again strong from an actor whose portrayal of Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf embodied LaVey's concept of an archetypal Satanic self-determined man.
Satanism considers the study of the human animal to be a worthy pursuit and you'll find incisive films that examine aspects of desire, power, lust, and greed in Key Largo, Citizen Kane, and Blue Velvet. Film noir was for LaVey an accurate stylization of contemporary human society, wherein each player may only be significant to him or herself. In a cold, concrete environment, one's desires might be the only flame warming hearts seeking satisfaction. Such sparks are often snuffed out in its pursuit due to ill circumstances, poor decisions, misguided intentions or lack of understanding. Realism, even in a stylized form, can make films Satanic for us since they offer lessons about living via our most powerful contemporary art form.
Are there any specific films that the Church of Satan does not recommend, based on their incorrect or disrespectful depictions of Satanism?
There are really no films dealing ostensibly with Satanism that get it right. They usually offer devil worship in the context of a horror film, and so we tend to judge them on their efficacy as fright films, rather than as exemplars of Satanism — which they are not. We're surprised when something congruent with Satanism shows up in a "devil" film. The most Satanic thing about Rosemary's Baby is that it shows the Satanists to be a wide range of human types, from a shipping magnate and a leading obstetrician to the kindly old couple next door. Our organization does encompass that range, from corporate heads to police officers, lawyers, musicians, chefs, and entrepreneurs, as well as store clerks, office workers, teachers, and so on.
The breeding of Satan's child to us is silly, since God and Satan are both myths.
As a fan of the film Evilspeak, I suspect you get that it is Satanic since a fellow who is treated unjustly gets revenge on his cruel tormentors. But of course there are some nifty jabs at Christian hypocrisy along the way as well as a spooky underground ritual chamber filled with hellish artifacts. Ultimately we encourage people to watch whatever they like and judge according to their personal standards.
How does the Church of Satan feel about the depiction of Satan in other media — I'm thinking specifically of certain types of music, from Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast" to more extreme heavy metal groups? The "music" tab on the website only lists music made within the church (including your works), so I was curious about that.
It seems that most metal musicians use Satan in a simplistic way, affirming the Christian mythology of there being a God vs. Satan dichotomy. At times they do celebrate Satan as a form of liberator from spiritual tyranny, but more frequently I've noted them championing what is defined by Christianity as "evil" — such knee-jerk contrarianism not being particularly Satanic. Personally I have little interest in that genre of music and prefer the manifestations of counter-Christian thought and feelings to be found in compositions by Liszt, Strauss, Shostakovich, and other classical composers, which I detail in my book The Satanic Scriptures.
You're currently writing a film book. Is it a guide or more of a film theory-meets-Satanism book? Which contemporary films do you discuss?
I'm writing about films to dispel the idea that is still rampant that a movie is Satanic if there's some reference to Satan, Lucifer, or other devils, demons or the supernatural involved. For Satanists, very few films with such trappings have anything to do with Satanism's philosophical perspective. Most reaffirm Christian ideas, even if the forces of darkness win now and again. We might appreciate that happening in the past when it was rare iconoclasm, but now having the villain victorious is just a cliché. I discuss films, like those on LaVey's list, that satisfy Satanists by employing our principles.
I will also discuss directors and actors whose careers often brought forth productions or performances that I deem diabolical. It will be a guidebook along with elements of film theory. I studied film at SVA before I decided to pursue music composition at NYU, where I attained B.S. and M.A. degrees.
Among the more recent films that I cover are WALL∙E (a promethean, cautionary tale), Maleficent (a Satanic reimagining which shows a proud being betrayed, overcoming rage to mete out justice and rebalance the world, favoring nature — shown as darkness), There Will Be Blood (a stark study of what conflict with a hypocritical believer can do to a nonbelieving man of action), Fight Club (dramatizing the dangers of repression and conformity), the Dark Knight trilogy (where a thirst for vengeance leads a vigilante to serve justice), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedically portraying a carnal man of manners struggling to maintain civilization in a decaying society).
Some of the directors I'll discuss include: Ken Russell, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, F. W. Murnau, Ishiro Honda, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, Mel Gibson, Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, William Castle, and the Coen brothers. Performers include Ida Lupino, Ernest Borgnine, Barbara Stanwyck, Rod Steiger, Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winters, Lauren Bacall, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Hedy Lamarr, and Vincent Price.
I must view The Lego Movie as I've heard it is a celebration of individuality against herd conformity, and nothing is more Satanic than that. My personal blog discusses film and music that has Satanic aspects.
What are your favorite films that embody aspects of Satanism?
Satanism is so broad a philosophy that there are many, however here are four that I never tire of viewing.
Ishiro Honda's Gojira. A dark parable warning against mankind's hubris in maltreating our environment through the abuse of nuclear energy. Our unique characteristic amongst our globe's species is that we can potentially decimate the planet. Gojira is a balance factor, embodying the forces of nature which we might oppose, but which usually overwhelm such efforts. As we tinker with the mechanisms that drive existence, we must remain cognizant of possible consequences, and that colossal radioactive reptile looms as a potent reminder of such.
Ken Russell's The Devils. A harrowing, graphic exposé of religious mania and hypocrisy, utterly damning of what horrors the Roman Catholic Church has unleashed against those who would oppose its dominion. Full of grotesquerie and terror, it is one of Russell's best works, capped with a truly magnificent performance by Oliver Reed.
Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family Values. No film shows a stylized version of genuinely Satanic people quite like this one does. The Addams family behave like and share the aesthetics of many of us. The film celebrates the outsiders who hold their ground against pressures to conform to normalcy — and it is full of exquisitely diabolical dialogue.
John Landis' Animal House. Apollonian rigidity vs. Dionysian catharsis is brilliantly etched in this classic infernal comedy. Carnality opposes pretense, and the haughty are brought low via mockery. The brilliant cast, screenplay, and score under Landis' adept guidance perfect the art of lampooning the deserving. As Donald Sutherland's Mr. Jennings states: "The most intriguing character, as we all know from our reading, was ... Satan. Now was Milton trying to tell us ... that being bad was more fun than being good?" He then bites the apple he's holding, taking the plunge into knowledge of good and evil ... and so much more.