Registered Member: Church of Satan
a digital essay by Sean Madigan Hoen
I’ve given my money to the devil and strangeness abounds. The morning after I mailed the requisite $200 membership fee to the Church of Satan’s administrative office in Hell’s Kitchen, NY, I received a startling message from a friend who’d expressed concern about my latest theological investigation.
“Thought you might like to know,” he wrote.
I’d just settled down to the monitor, in my underwear, for morning coffee and a pellet of nicotine gum—consolation for a smoking habit I’d kicked three months prior. Through my apartment’s single window I could see the sun rising over Brooklyn. Beneath my friend’s message there was a link. Breaking news in the Midwest:
MUNCIE, Ind.— A self-proclaimed Satan worshipper accused of biting a 9-year-old boy accepted a deal with prosecutors under which he pleaded guilty to battery resulting in bodily injury. Dmitriy Sklyarov, 20, of rural Muncie also was fined $100 fine under the deal. Prosecutors dismissed a charge of neglect of a dependent. Investigators said Sklyarov bit the boy at least 13 times on the arms and legs last Oct. 8. Delaware Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cannon Jr. accepted the terms of the plea agreement during a hearing last week. Sklyarov was scheduled to go on trial tomorrow. He’s currently serving a 90-day jail sentence for contempt of court after cursing a judge during a previous hearing. Public defender Steven Bruce says his client was engaged in horseplay with the child when the boy bit him, so Sklyarov bit him back.
A whole lot weirdness to endure before breakfast.
I actually wondered if I should interpret the news brief as a premonitory warning, as through my two-hundred dollar transaction with Satan’s Church I was opening myself to a unseen network of heinous energies. “Be careful what you let into your life,” my mother, an altruistic, good-natured Catholic used to say. Had she known her only living child were soon to be a registered Satanist, she might resume her practice of tucking prayer cards beneath the pillows in my—long ago vacated—bedroom. However, considering the “self-proclaimed Satan Worshipper” described in the news brief, I recalled that the Church of Satan homepage draws clear distinction between a Satan Worshipper—as well as Devil Worshippers, Witches, Wiccans, and Druids—and a true Satanist:
Satanism begins with atheism. We begin with the universe and say, ‘It’s indifferent. There’s no God, there’s no Devil. No one cares!’ We are not theists.
The Indiana child-biter, therefore, was most likely what the CoS refers to as a “bogus diabolist.” Nevertheless, I intended to proceed with caution, and something—a philosophical conundrum or the sweet dose of Nicorette—had given me the spins. I deleted the email, spitting the gnawed yellow pellet into an ashtray. I was a year sober and searching for safer dangers, dark thrills. Maybe I was revisiting an old curiosity, one having to do with the ostentatiously sinister masks of evil that had entranced me as a young, Catholic-raised boy first peeking over onto what I believed was the dark side.
In an American age where overt atheism and irony at Christ’s expense have become as common—even fashionable—as celebrity potshots and laptop political dissent, it can be easy to forget the not so distant past when occult iconography was grounds for social exile, when major television networks boosted ratings by airing hour-long specials on what present day Satanists refer to as the “Satanic Panic.” They’re talking about the 1980’s, specifically, when a Boomer-programmed media fueled a small scale, yet enduring social pandemonium bolstered by footage of church groups burning devil-themed rock albums and interviews with sallow, black-clad fringe folk who’d started up local covens and cults with a penchant for dark magic—or “magik,” if you prefer.
By the mid ‘80s, a blitz of trashy, B-grade horror flicks and heavy metal acts thriving on devilish shock value provided a colorful backdrop for mainstream America’s fear of the unholy one. The Great Deceiver. Lucifer… Samhain… Mephstopheles… Satan got primetime coverage, and made Reagan’s arms dealings with Iran look humanitarian in comparison. There were, actually, a spike of reportedly occult-driven murders and violent crimes between 1983 and 1987. In ’85 the Los Angeles thrash metal band Slayer released their first album, Show No Mercy, its cover adorned with a goat-headed man-beast clutching a blood-soaked sword while lurching beside an enormous, inverted pentagram—also known as a pentalpha or pentangle, representing in Christian theology the five wounds of Christ. “Evil, has no control/Evil will take your soul,” sings Show No Mercy’s opening track. Track two was titled “The Antichrist.” By the time of Slayer’s fourth album, South of Heaven, record stores devoted entire sections to categorizing the devil’s music.
In 2013, this all seems rote, even cartoonish to the average consumer; to anyone, probably, but the most fervent missionary handing out save-your-soul tracts outside of your local arena concerts. In the mid-‘80s, though, lawsuits were filed and trials ensued, phonographs were actually carried into courthouses so that records could be spun backwards in order to analyze what plaintiffs charged as secret messages in the music; both Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest stood trial in relation to teen suicides believed to be driven by commands issued by heavy metal. A forgettable horror flick, The Gate, in which a teen open the gates of hell by way of backwards heavy metal, was promptly produced. Geraldo Rivera hosted an hour-long episode special “Exposing Satan’s Underground,” introducing the episode by saying “Satanism is more than a hodgepodge of mysticism and fantasy…. it’s a violent impulse that preys on the emotionally vulnerable.”
This was the psychic and social landscape when I, age twelve, arrived via BMK bicycle at the media section of a public library in Dearborn, Michigan, where I happened upon an album with black-on-black pentagram cover art and the title Shout at the Devil. Opening the gatefold sleeve, I saw a mascara-tinged group of teenage drug addicts called Motely Crue and lyrics to a tune called “God Bless the Children of the Beast.” Clutching the album, I looked in every direction to make sure no one was observing my transgression—just holding the thing made my limbs feel as though the were being gored by locusts; drips of cold saliva tickled the back of my throat. It was a high, a heightened experience, loaded with all the guilty pleasure of sneaking a first time glance at a Playboy someone snuck onto the school bus, sans any sexual impulse. The allure was something else, a mystery I couldn’t explain. I walked straight to the checkout station and stared at the carpet as a white-haired librarian took my library card, gazing at me with sad, worried eyes as she finally handed the back to me—due back in fourteen days.
A week later I returned to the library to rip several illustrated drawings of a black mass out of a book called Satan and Wants You. At home, I tucked the torn pages into my Bible, one place my parents would never think to look. I took them out and stared at them when listening to Shout at the Devil.
Nearly three decades on, when my red Church of Satan membership card finally arrives by mail, I can admit to longing for a feeling so mythically powerful—a mysterious fear, irresistible and shameful; enlivening, even. As a grown man possessed with relative sanity and a sober, objective mind, the face of true evil, I believe, is rarely so easy to identify. We’re not on the lookout for people in black cloaks. Which makes it scary in an unromantic and truly unsettling way. My quest in joining the modern day Church of Satan has nothing to do with locating the world’s true dark lords—if it were, I’d be on a mission to infiltrate some high-security cross section of Wall Street and government, maybe an unnamed board of Federal Reserve directors. Far less daunting is the investigation of today’s Satanic hold-outs. And my questions are simple: What became of the believers of yore, and who, in the year 2013, exemplifies the profile of the modern Satanist? Whoever they are, I’m hoping my red plastic Church of Satan ID will great me access to their ceremony. I’m hoping to feel their fire.
Using my newfound CoS membership as clout, I connected with via telephone with a man named Stephen Kasner, a renowned artist and San Francisco-based spokesperson for the Church of Satan. I’d met him online and, after dropping the names of a few metal bands, I persuaded Kasner to initiate me into the fold. I told him I was unconvinced that present-day Satanism was anything but a dramatized game of dress-up played by antisocial romantics who relished checking out from reality. I asked him to describe his initial experience with the Satanic Bible, in hopes it might illuminate Satanism’s transformative possibilities. Stephen talked dude-speak, and spoke of his first Satanic epiphany with the self-possession of someone recounting their first coital experience for the millionth time:
“Somebody in my high school found a copy of the Satanic Bible and they were utterly terrified, they felt like they were a walking curse to have the thing. There was this superstitious vibe going around and nobody wanted to touch it. The guy desperately wanted the book to change hands and I told the guy’s girlfriend that I wanted it. She got a hold of it and gave it to me, and I immediately read the first couple pages and felt it was part of me, had always been a part of me. It was a collision of realizations. I was just bonding with this book.”
Kasner described himself as one of the only “abnormal” kids in his suburban Cleveland public high school. He felt lost and aimless at the time.
“I worked as a janitor in this department store—sweeping floors cleaning bathrooms—and brought the book to work with me after school. This was 1985 or something. There was a janitor’s closet and I was so compelled to read the book I went into the closet, turned the light on, turned a bucket upside down and sat on it, and read and read and read. I could not put it down. This book was fusing with me; there was no way I could concentrate on work. I’d disappeared for two hours, and when I was through a third of the book the door to the janitor’s closet opens and my boss was standing there—she was a real bitch to begin with, prided herself on it—and she looked down at me sitting on a bucket reading The Satanic Bible and said, ‘Stephen, you’re fired.’ And I stood up, put the book under my arm and said, ‘No way, you’re not firing me because I quit.”
Kasner paused before saying, “Like something out of a movie.”
Then he laughed, the was dudes do when recalling a wild, drunken night.
“I walked out of there and never worked a straight job again in my life. I focused on my art and dedicated my life to what I wanted to do. It could not have transpired in a more magical way. I was cleaning toilets, the bottom of the barrel, and walked away from any life of that kind. And it all happened instantaneously, within a matter of hours.”
“Wow,” I said.
Less than a decade later Kasner was invited to dinner by Dr. LaVey himself. “When I told Anton LaVey that story, he got a great kick out of it. He said it was one of the best stories he’s ever heard of the effects of the book.”
The Church of Satan begins here, with LaVey; either a money grubbing quack or a philosophical and spiritual visionary, depending on who you speak to. I hadn’t bargained on getting first-hand testimonials about the Church’s founder so early in my pilgrimage. LaVey’s unforgettable mug flashed before me, his sallow forehead meeting with two arched, black eyebrows. The vision enlarged, including his famously bald conehead above and his ever-present black cloak beneath, a medallion of some unholy make strung around his neck. A snake slithered its way into his hands; he was often pictured with his pet boa.
Kanser had been put in touch with LaVey after the young artist curated an art exhibit of serial killer art in 1993. “I’ve always been open to the darker side of nature, the psychology of murders, cannibals, you name it,” Kasner said. “The mysteries of life, and death.” He’d become “friends” with convicted murders like John Wayne Gacey, Richard Ramirez (“The Night Stalker”), and Elmer Wayne Henley, collecting paintings the death row convicts had composed behind bars. Kasner exhibited them in a Cleveland warehouse. “No gallery would touch it, so I put up an exhibition of over one hundred paintings by America’s most notorious serial killers on my own,” he said. “In some blown-out warehouse.”
The exhibit was called “Human” and also featured the twenty-three-year-old Kasner’s work alongside the convicts’ art. “BBC, NBC, The Washington Post showed up,” he said. “It changed my life.”
A contact Kasner met as result of the “Human” exhibit sent LaVey photographs of the young artist’s paintings: beatific renderings of the macabre and unholy—“deeply influenced” by correspondence with his murderous penpals. In a matter of weeks Kasner was invited to the infamous Black House, LaVey’s San Francisco residence which was, at the time, the Church of Satan’s headquarters.
“I was in a cab with a small painting I intended to give to Anton. We turn onto California St., where the Black House is, and the cabby is driving slower and slower looking for the numbers. And I see the Black House on the left, and my heart is pounding. And the cabby starts passing it, so I tell him, ‘That’s the place, right there.’ It’s nine p.m. It’s dark, it’s eerie, there’s fog in San Francisco… couldn’t be better. The driver turns around, looks at me, shakes his head and says, ‘No, you don’t want to go there.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do, that’s where I’m going. How much do I owe you?’ And he pulled over and said, ‘You don’t owe me anything, get out of my cab.’”
Blanche Barton, LaVey’s life partner and secretary, welcomed Kasner into the small, two-story lair and after heading to a nearby diner (“The restaurant was packed. It was like a scene from some ‘50s movie, the place went silent and all the heads turned simultaneously when that guy walked in. LaVey looked at me and smirked.”) they returned to the Black House. The evening wore on as LaVey told tales of the Satanic trade. Then LaVey performed a forty-five minute organ solo in the kitchen (“High volume. The place was vibrating.”) to commemorate Kasner—who was, embarrassingly, not yet a CoS card carrier—instantaneous and honorary induction as an Active CoS member. LaVey later made him a spokesperson, or Agent; a position Kasner holds to this day.
“I’ve never risen in rank,” Kasner said. “I’ve talked about it with Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor) but I don’t think I’m Priest material. I’m fine retaining the Agent position that was given to me by Anton himself.”
Active Membership in the Church of Satan comes just a little harder for most. One becomes a Registered Member by simply mailing two hundred dollars to the Church’s administrative office. This, however, procures little more than receipt of payment and the red plastic CoS badge—mine arrived by mail, along with a Xeroxed newsletter. Applying for Active Member status demands a rigorous process: A personal statement; a written demonstration of the applicant’s understanding the Satanic Bible; and the completion of a 40-item questionnaire designed to test an applicant’s Satanic potential.
Riddled by insomnia on a Tuesday morning, I began filling out my CoS application by hand, intending to do so as honestly and earnestly as I could. Confounded by many of the prompts, I started with the easiest questions from the 40-item worksheet. The inquiries proved challenging—an hour later I’d chewed two Nicorette pellets and had answered only six questions:
Item 3. If you were granted three wishes, what would they be?
I don’t believe in wishing. Though as far as the “what person would you like to meet, living or dead” question, I would have to say I’d like to meet a hominid, one of the first men. They still count as people, no? I think I’d learn much from a hominid.
Item 8. How many years would you like to live?
It less a matter of years and more a matter of wellbeing and contentment, neither of which I have known in my adult life. I’d like a good stretch of feeling inspired, healthy, and without the pervading, crippling sense of existential dread that has been tormenting me as of late. Time, as it’s said, is relative.
Item 11. What are your food preferences?
I am a fussy eater. I don’t care for foods that are mucked together—stews, and casseroles, and goulash. I like to be able to clearly identify each constituent part of a meal. It’s been said this is an expression of a “trust issues,” but fact is I truly despise gelatinous foods.
Item 17. Describe your political philosophy.
Politicians are not your friend; they’re appointed public servants. A country should print its own money. It’s my sense that the intention of a corporate-run government is to get the people asking the wrong questions, in which case the answers don’t really matter.
Item 33. Are you a smoker? If so, to what extent?
At the moment I’m chewing Nicorette.
Item 36. Do you drink alcoholic beverages? If so, to what extent? State preferences.
No longer. I spent all my drink tickets.
I honestly couldn’t determine the degree to which the Satanist membership committee meant business. The questionnaire reminded me of applications I’d filled out at big box corporate stores, sitting at a computer terminal in Home Depot or Target and responding to questions about whether or not I’d rat out a fellow employee for pilfering insignificant portions of store merchandise. The exhaustiveness of the CoS questionnaire, however, impressed something upon me, as though they at least meant to portray an act of caurious screening. I imagined the lost soul whose job it might be to sit in a Hell’s Kitchen office space and read the applications of the satanically inspired. I wondered about the people who were turned away, or advised to study harder and try again.
A few of the questions rattled me, antagonizing my insomniac terror. Particularly item 35: Which parent do you admire most and why? As well as 26: What is your life’s goal, and what steps have you taken to attain it? And I’d rather not mention item number 5: Are you satisfied with your sex life? Describe your ideal of a physically attractive sex partner. While item 28—Describe a significant experience in your life bordering on what you would consider the paranormal or demonic, if any—was, quite simply, a mindfuck. Though as I lay in bed that night it was item 39, Define Satan, that seemed to chant me asleep, lulling me as though I were counting a procession of wolves leaping gracefully over a dreamlike fence where my childhood sheep counting had once taken place. Because I did want to define Satan. Or I wanted to define a type of person who not only believed in this particular personification of evil, but also wanted him on their side. Because for all the Church of Satan’s garbled rhetoric—“we aren’t theists”— I believed its attractiveness had everything to do with spiritual pursuit, of one kind of another. I won’t lie: that old tickle in the back of my throat—I felt it. I wanted to witness their rituals. I wanted to define Satan, and to attend a Black Mass.
Note to E.M.U. search committee: The un-excerpted version of this essay is around 9,000 words. I’m still developing the digital-flow (how to allow readers/viewers different temporal or thematic experienced depending how they interact), but, in case it interests you, I’ve inserted some additional digital content below.
Interview excerpt: Nuno Sanchez’s ritual chamber