The good book says that he who seeks good shall find good, but evil comes to he who searches for it. It is a drizzly November evening in lower Manhattan and tonight I am finding evil everywhere I look. As the R train lurches through the darkness, the woman across from me holds a black bag on her lap with a pink devil face printed on it. Across the aisle a bearded hipster with a skull tattoo taps out a rhythm on his thigh.
I am on my way up to 23rd Street to a place called the Manhattan Diner. Tonight is the monthly meeting of New York City Satanists, a gathering of kindred spirits who follow the “left-handed path.” On the verge of meeting my first real live Satanists, I feel a form of self-consciousness I thought I left behind in high school. I worry that the Satanists are going to peg me as a meek little lamb, fit only for slaughter. Five minutes from the restaurant, I suddenly worry that I will be despised as sickeningly willing to please. No stranger to self-consciousness, this represents an entirely novel basis of self-doubt: am I evil enough?
I arrive promptly at 7:30pm. Even my punctuality feels woefully bereft of evil. The hostess, a squat woman of Asian descent, greets me. I tell her I am meeting a group of friends. She wrinkles her nose, “Oh, you mean with the … people?”
I wince in affirmation and make my way to the back. The lighting seems all wrong for devil worship—or at least what I know from the movies. The joint is almost blindingly well lit and the walls are lined with mirrors, making the place as bright as an operating room. A few limo drivers in blue suits and matching suspenders sit at the counter eating pastrami sandwiches and drinking mugs of coffee, their caps resting in the chairs beside them. I find a small group huddled around two small tables near the back wall. A man with a shaved head and a Mephistophelean goatee smiles. He wears a black jacket over a black shirt and a pentagram pendant dangles on his chest. He looks almost cinematically demonic which, for some reason, surprises me. He reaches to shake my hand.
“Hi, my name is Aiden. Are you here for the meeting? ”
His voice is friendly, almost soothing. I introduce myself and nervously take a seat. Seated beside Aiden is a middle-aged woman wearing a black sweatshirt and a pentagram necklace. Her face seems frozen into a grin, reminding me of an acid casualty in an educational film from the ’70s. She introduces herself as Susan and explains that she is the founder of the Theurgist Azazel Church in New York City, a “theistic Satanic church that incorporates some pagan traditions.” Her gray hair is stringy and her teeth are crooked and yellow. She abruptly falls into silence, staring at a spot a foot or two above my head.
Next to Susan is Jaydan, a portly kid of maybe 19 from Long Island. His hair is gelled into twisting Medusa-like fingers and when he speaks he presses down on his knees with both hands as if his legs might run off without him. To my left is Mel, a stout warlock of a man whose defining feature is a colossal white beard. Mel wears a devil-imprinted T-shirt that reads: “If God won’t answer your prayers, try me.” Seated across from me is Erica, a young woman who wears black plastic glasses that pinch down upon a relentlessly morose expression. She sits with her body curled like a wary animal against the back of her seat, alternating between doodling on placemats and staring at the plastic counter top.
The conversation quickly falls into a lull. Aiden eyes me suspiciously. I wonder if there is some sort of agenda. And if there were an agenda what could possibly be on it? I figure that even Satanists need a sense of administrative order. Having worked in a variety of soul-sucking offices, I long ago learned the power of a written agenda. It is perhaps one more sign of how little evil is left in me that my first thought after meeting a group of Satanists is that I’d like to see their bylaws.
I find the silence overbearing and search for some way to break the ice. But what do Satanists talk about? Do Satanists watch Breaking Bad? Do they like football? I feel like I did many years ago at the cafeteria table in seventh grade when I’d rather say nothing than possibly say something stupid. A quick flash of a thousand school lunches, head bowed as if in silent contemplation of pizza and tater tots. I can’t even pretend to study the menu because our waiter seems to be avoiding our table. I naturally assume he despises us. Do these Satanists even know each other? I can’t tell. I found this group online by typing my zip code and the word “Satanist” on a website for people with common interests. The whole process took three minutes. It’s possible we are seven people who have never met before, drawn by malevolent forces to this den of wickedness and rubbery Spanish omelets. But I am ready for the evil to truly begin.
Anything has to be better than this silence.
I stare at the reflection of the back of Aiden’s head in the mirror and am surprised to see my own reflection next to it. My face looks puffy and pale in the bright light. My right hand rests under my chin, a nervous habit of mine—a way of partially shielding myself when I feel I’m being too closely observed. Another school-age remnant. The reflection of my face looks passively back at me, the face of a lamb.
As if suddenly remembering that she left her car lights on, Susan suddenly startles to alertness. Out comes an unexpected torrent of words. Though she speaks in large looping circuits of logic that almost but never quite come full circle, Susan manages to make Satanism sound about as threatening as Episcopalianism. She talks about her church, which she says she founded after an epiphany. Satanism, she tells us—though her focus is to unsettlingly degree on me—is about rationality and honesty.
“If you’ve read Paradise Lost,” she says, “you know that Satan represents the ‘adversary’.”
I nod my head, pleased that she had mentioned one of the few stray facts I could recall from college. To worship Satan is to free yourself to test your ideas on your own. It is to accept no established hierarchy or tradition. Satanism is for freedom and against religious bigotry—it is, Susan says, fundamentally about testing things out for yourself rather than inheriting answers.
“We are against all forms of inherited thought,” she says.
“Or do we just replace those inherited systems with our own?”
Aiden’s eyes crinkle, the flesh beneath his goatee flexing into a broad, friendly smile. The adversary, indeed.
She hands me a stack of pamphlets about Satanism, including one titled “Myths About Satanism.” I skim the pamphlet and find it surprisingly cogent and well written. The pamphlet described Lucifer as the “light-bearer,” the giver of knowledge—and Satan as a challenger to power. Other pamphlets are screeds against “Illuminati”-type conspiracy thinking. There is no evidence, it says, that 9-11 was an inside job and the world is not controlled by a secret cabal of Jewish bankers. The pamphlets also warn against the threat of “Abrahamic theocracy.” If there’s anything that could unite the world’s great religions, I think, it would be its shared hatred of pentagram-donning devil-worshippers.
Aiden explains that everyone has their own different view of Satan. Aiden tells us he is a painter as well as an atheist. He doesn’t believe in a literal Satan.
“As an artist, Satanism gets me in touch with my dark side which is important to my music and paintings. My idea of Satan is closer to the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer who clears the way for new creation.”
Susan replies that she is a “theistic” Satanist, and that her pantheon includes five gods, including Satan, which she equates to Azazel. She explains that Azazel represents the God of “inner will and heresy.” The ancient Jews had performed a ritual involving Azazel, who was a sort of desert demon or djinn—but was more generally used as a symbol of impurity. During the rite, a high priest would be presented with two goats. The first goat would be let loose in the desert. This was an offering to Azazel, the sins of the people to be carried back with the goat to the source of evil. The second goat would be offered to God. This goat would be led to the top of a canyon and pushed over the edge, his legs crushed and his body battered as he bounces down the rock face. This is the genesis for the word “scapegoat,” the blood sacrifice which carries away the sins of the whole tribe.
At least from the point of view of the goat, I could certainly see the virtue of the dark side. Sent off to wander the desert, no doubt hungry and lost, the goat of evil is cast into the world to fend for himself. But the consecrated goat, the goat of righteousness? For all its sacredness, this goat winds up a heap of mangled flesh and bones. This as much as anything explains the central insight of the Satanists: that it’s better to be free and impure than holy and slaughtered. But this presupposes that you have a say in whether the spirits of light or dark take a hold of you—or whether the world cares what’s in your heart before it shoves you off the side of the cliff.
Throughout this discussion Jaydan continues to squirm in his chair.
“Why did you put so much attention on Azazel? Is it because of the Book of Enoch? I’m just wondering what the significance of Azazel is.”
The Book of Enoch? Has this budding young Satanist been surreptitiously reading his Bible? If he’s not careful, he might find himself a Lutheran.
Susan seems thrown off guard by the sharpeness in Jaydan’s voice. She unleashes a frantic lecture that mentions Leviticus and Enoch—books of the Bible that sounded mildly exotic to me when I was in Sunday school 30 years ago—and the numerous Talmudic traditions equating Azazel with Satan. It was clear that the last thing she wants to do is recreate her highly personalized five-god pantheistic spiritual system while trying to decide between onion rings and French fries.
Jaydan is not deterred.
“But why Azazel? Azazel is listed in one of my grimoires, but only as a minor demon.”
His fidgeting increases until I begin to feel jittery myself. A part of me wholly understands Jaydan. The poor kid just wants to cut through the esoteric mumbo-jumbo so he can get to the incantations and the goat’s blood and the orgies. It is indeed a heartless man who can’t remember what it was like to feel the sap flowing through his veins and to yearn for blood-soaked Satanic orgies? Besides, who ever heard of a metal band praising Azazel? Jaydan just wants to go straight into the heart of the matter, conjuring up the Prince of Darkness in all of his ecstatic grandeur. His Dionysian impulses seem perfectly rational to me.
But Susan clearly did not have Rock’n’roll in her blood tonight.
“Let’s talk about this later.” She seems frustrated at her inability to communicate. “This isn’t a subject I think interests anyone else.”
“No! I want to hear this.”
Erica, who had spent most of the evening doodling, was staring directly at Susan.
After a surprised lull, Susan repeats her spiel about Satan and Azazel and Leviticus and her five-god pantheon. In a roundabout way, she seems to be saying that devil-worshippers can do anything they want. There are no set practices, so there is no real heresy. Go and sin in peace, she is saying.
A little more light-heartedly, Erica says she thinks the real problem is that all the good Satanic church names have been taken.
“What about the Church of Later Day Satan?” I interject.
“Perfect!” she says. “I love it! I’m going to found this church—the LDS!”
Erica continues to curl in an uncomfortable slouch, but her smile lingers. It makes her look attractive and girlish. I am immensely pleased to be able to make a Satanist laugh. It’s feels like getting Darth Vader to chuckle after telling him the one about the rabbi and a priest in a bar.
More calmly, Jaydan says that what he really wants is to learn some ritual. Maybe we could find a nice quiet place in the park and perform some black magic. He suggests Central Park.
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to hold a Satanic service in Central Park?” laughs Aiden. “Gee, nothing could go wrong with that plan.”
Perhaps the waiter began to fear our Satanic powers because after nearly an hour of waiting a stack of laminated menus are suddenly dropped in front of us. I quickly decide on the gyro. Jaydan explains that he became interested in black magic through a friend. But shortly after he began learning about Satanism his friend told him he needed to slow down. A few years before, he had been interested in Taoism but ended up “having problems” after becoming overly absorbed in it.
“What do you mean by having problems?” I ask.
“Just that I got too deep into it,” he smiles nervously. “I just had … problems. Sometimes I have a tendency to go overboard with things.”
“Don’t you worry that you might have some problems with this, too?” asked Aiden.
Erica nods her head.
“I have always had this darkness inside me and Satanism is the only religion that recognizes that part of me.”
Erica continued nodding.
Instead of lamb wrapped in a pita, my gyro came as a kind of salad—three slices of lamb over a bed of lettuce with some tzatziki sauce on the side. I am grateful that my gyro is not wrapped up because I am genuinely worried about the waiter spitting in my food. I watch Mel cut at a slab of beef roast with a knife. The sauce is a reddish brown and the meat is still on the bone. I cut into my gyro salad and shovel it into my face. I have waited a long time to eat and I’m starving.
Erica’s face has turned sour again. She orders coffee and chicken soup and doodles little goat-heated Satan figures on the back of napkin. She explains that she is drawing Baphomet—also known as the Sabbatic Goat—a figure long since associated with devil worship.
Mel lifts his eyes from his roast and says that when his wife is angry she turns into something that like that.
“You must really enjoy her oversized cock then.”
Erica points to the gigantic penis that rises up towards Baphomet’s goat head.
“Baphomet is a hermaphrodite,” she explains. “Has both male and female organs.”
Mel stares at her blankly.
As I eat my gyro, Aiden eyes me quizzically.
“So you say you have only a passing interest in Satanism. If that’s true, what possessed you to come out and meet all of us scary Satanists?”
I thought about how I’d answer this question before I arrived. I realized I’d have to finesse an answer that is neither dishonest nor insulting. I decided that, if I am asked this question, I would simply say that I am “interested in all kinds of experiences.” I told myself I’d deliver this line slowly and with a hint of darkness so that it could mean anything: exotic drugs, blood lust, Transylvanian vampire orgies. It would sound as hedonist and mysterious as this corn-fed child of stolid Midwestern parents could pull off.
It occurred to me that what connects these people is not dark, sinister power but a sense of vulnerability. Like most people, they had experienced hardships. In the face of these hardships they had constructed a religion not to glorify evil but simply to recognize its existence. What experiences have brought them to this diner? I could not imagine. Darkness certainly exists in the world, and not all spirits are as airy as the wings of angels.
All eyes were on me.
“What I find most fascinating is how everyone seems to want the same things out of life. People want to feel like they’re mostly good. People want to feel like they’re part of something larger. People want to create more than they destroy. The religion itself almost doesn’t matter. It just seems like you are trying to reach the same ends as everyone else though you take different roads.”
Aiden seemed to be listening intently, nodding his head slightly.
Susan said that, from her point of view, Satanism was not even incompatible with Christianity. It was all about having a balance between the light and the dark.
“No deity is either all good or all bad. Look at the God of the Old Testament, look at the prophets. By our standards, the Old Testament God did some pretty nasty things.”
Aiden said that what attracts him to Satanism is that the person is the symbol of his own will and agency. We act for our own reasons and not to please God.
“When I do something good, I want to think that I did it for me—and not because God scared me into doing it. For me, Satanism is a religion of responsibility. If I do something wrong, I make amends. If I do something good, I did it because I wanted to.”
Erica, who continued to draw Satanic symbols on her napkin, lifts her head. The look of pain on her face is unmistakable, as if it had become so habitual it became fixed into the lines of her face.
“I hate these religions that tell you everything will be OK if you just believe X and Y. Some people just have shitty lives. And some of us have experienced some really shitty things. I don’t want anyone telling me it will all be taken away in the hereafter. That’s bullshit and it’s a copout. I don’t want someone telling me that everything is fine when I know it isn’t.”
I want to ask her more about what she means—to find out more about her experiences—but I can think of no question that doesn’t seem like a violation. She quickly returns to doodling, her body once again coiling around the table.
The meeting begins to wind down. It is nearly 10:30. The conversation has become more personal. Erica tells me that she was a harpist who plays angry music. I try to imagine what angry harp music sounds like. Aiden hands me a CD of his artwork.
The waiter brings out separate checks. He seems surprised when I offer a thanks for his service. Susan begins talking about plans: maybe there could be a separate meeting for rituals, reminding us to come out to a meeting against anti-abortion protestors. There is a brief conversation about perhaps finding a more atmospheric meeting place, at which point Aiden laughs and suggests we find something near to the Dakota Building, where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed.
As I grab my coat and stand up, I look into a mirror and notice a face staring directly at us. It is the face of an old man, a limo driver in a blue shirt and suspenders. He is almost completely bald and his face twists into a hateful glare.
The others grab pocketbooks or try to calculate tips and only I am aware of his reflection. I am struck by a feeling of deep-seated affront. What right does he have to judge? I wish to shield these people from the evil thoughts of this citizen, just as I wish to fling away the evil he sees in us.
At length his expression returns to normal as he turns to face his bowl of chicken soup. Beneath the incandescent glare his face looks ashen and gouged with deep, dark lines. I fish out a few more dollars to tip the waiter. I am suddenly very tired, as if I am standing at the bottom of an invisible ocean. It’s getting late and I need to find my train out of the city. But it’s dark outside and I decide to linger in the light just a little bit longer.