Illustration: Kate Hazell

Bring back Satan: what the devil tells us about the world we live in—and why we need him now

From Bedazzled to the Simpsons, the devil's role in popular culture is a reflection of who we are
May 6, 2020

We need to talk about Satan. The Devil. Beezlebub. Ole Goat Legs. It strikes me that, despite us supposedly living in “dark times,” the prince of darkness is nowhere to be seen. Pop culture, which was once rife with devil references, seems to have lost interest in him completely.

When I was young, in the 1990s and early noughties, you couldn’t move for the amount of Satan that was being thrown your way. Bedazzled, starring Liz Hurley as the devil, was a remake of a 1960s film about a man who sells his soul for seven wishes. Shortcut to Happiness played on a similar theme of “the devil is a hot woman” and had Alec Baldwin recreate the 1930s short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. Again, a man sells his soul to the devil, but this time he mounts a legal case to get it back. We had Keanu Reeves in Constantine; Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. The Simpsons was obsessed with the notion of selling your soul: first Homer sold his for a doughnut, and then Bart sold his to Milhouse.

The idea, of course, was not a new one: Faustian pacts had been around since the 1400s. But for some reason, the concept came back into fashion around the turn of the century. Not just the devil, but deals with him. Every story hit the same beats: you make a deal, you briefly enjoy the spoils of your wishes, you quickly realise you have made an enormous mistake, and then find yourself trapped within a system you cannot escape. You try to outrun the devil, but he runs everything, and he’s everywhere. Then, finally, you find a loophole. A gap in the contract you can slide out through, and the devil stamps his foot in your wake.

Like horror movies, the devil is popular because he’s a useful way for us to express our most deeply-held anxieties, a prism to shine our fear through. While I was a pre-teen, watching Homer Simpson sell his soul and Liz Hurley buy Brendan Fraser’s, a newly-mature Generation X were making it. The “MTV generation” had grown up to be the “Dilbert generation”: cynical about the corporate culture they had been swallowed into, and could see no way of escaping. Is it any surprise that their devil was obsessed with contracts, fine print, and the notion that a soul is a thing you can buy and sell?

This was how we talked about the devil at the end of the 20th century, but it wasn’t how we thought about him throughout it. In the 1920s and 30s, jazz became the devil’s music, but this time the focus was on temptation. The devil tempted Eve in Eden, and now jazz—with its raw sexuality, proximity to drink and drugs culture, and its links to black culture—was the new forbidden fruit.

“When my grandmother found out I was playing jazz music, she told me I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live in the house,” said composer Jelly Roll Morton. “She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall.” And jazz would ruin young white women, now living in cities, away from their family homes. Magazines commissioned articles by “ruined” young women who could pinpoint their life’s downturn by the moment they were exposed to jazz.

In 1956, America sought to distinguish itself from the state-run atheism of the Soviet Union by printing “In God We Trust” on all of their paper currency. It was the symbolic apex of a highly moralistic decade, where the idea of America as a fundamentally “Christian” country was formalised, tele-evangelism became widespread, and the freedoms granted to women during the war were hemmed in by a wholesome brand of consumerism.

This conservatism gave birth to Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan in the 1960s. This showman’s “religion” that was part spook-house, and part protest against the hypocritical Christian values that were being forced on Americans. People were beginning to reject an identity that preached scripture but also upheld segregation and allowed McCarthyism to flourish. So, their devil became about subversion. About questioning authority, about daring to have an alternative lifestyle.

So where’s the devil now? He tends to flourish in periods of hysteria, hypocrisy, and moralising—is he due a comeback?

I’m ready for Satan to start appearing in movies, in pop music, in sitcoms again. This figure that sits in the background of our consciousness, and has done for millennia, gets pulled out of the costume trunk every couple of decades for a rebrand, and the tone of that brand is set by us, what we’re feeling, and how we’re afraid to feel. Never mind the pitchforks and goat legs; the most interesting devil is the one we make for ourselves.