Whether it’s Rosemary’s Baby, The House of the Devil or The Seventh Victim, Hollywood has had an obsession with Satanism for the best part of a century. Subsequently, when you think of Satanists, it’s hard not to conjure up images of cloaked figures speaking in tongues as they perform strange human sacrifices.
Formed in San Francisco in April 1966 by eccentric occultist Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan remains the only serious global Satanic religious movement, with thousands of members among its ranks. Many of these are women, who claim Satanism has allowed them to become complete individuals. And they say Hollywood’s portrayal of demonic babies and upside-down crosses couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We are an atheist organisation. We don’t believe in God, we don’t believe in the devil, we don’t believe in angels or demons. All we believe in is the here and now,” says Ruth Waytz, a 57-year-old Californian, who was friends with LaVey and has the high-ranking role of ‘magistra’ within the Church.
Not all members of the church are ready to shout from the rooftops about their affiliation for fear of reaction, whether that’s from an employer or neighbour. However, Waytz believes the average person would find a lot of common ground with the Church if they were to do their research and look beyond the sensationalism. “One of the interesting things about the Church is it’s never been unaccepting of women, gay people or any alternative lifestyle. It’s about a family of people of similar thinking; what gender or race you belong to is irrelevant,” she insists.
Among the Church’s younger female members is 30-year-old Canadian Misty Tyers. She was drawn to the church after reading LaVey’s The Satanic Witch – a book that teaches women mental techniques to enchant and manipulate men. Some have called the book deeply misogynist and anti-feminist, but Tyers says it "spoke to my soul".
She grew up in the 1980s, a time when the ‘Satanic Panic’ created widespread hysteria across the United States. Largely driven by the book Michelle Remembers, which saw a hypnotised psychiatry patient recite graphic tales of Satanic ritualistic abuse, there were dozens of suspect tabloid reports of Satanists preying on women, animals and even children for sacrificial rituals. In short: If someone went missing in America in the '80s, it was probably blamed on the devil.
“All these stories about babies being bred for sacrifice is a load of mumbo jumbo, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have not seen a religion or philosophy that holds women or children in higher regard,” says Tyers. “The philosophy we follow is about living in the moment and empowering people to be the best person they can possibly be.”
She says female members of the Church are drawn to the ‘fictional’ character of Satan because he embodies the role of the underdog: “I love the fact the devil is this outcast, who has this fire and lust for knowledge and life. He’s a powerful adversary that’s all about embracing the carnality of things. As a woman, in a society that’s still very sexist, these are very freeing concepts.”
While you have to pay a one-off fee to become a member of the Church (with members then receiving a red membership card), there’s no obligation to attend rituals or meetings, with the religion actively avoiding the “indoctrination techniques” and the weekly services at which attendance is required in more mainstream religions, according to Waytz. However, there are still occasional group rituals, many of which involve nude altars, where women are laid out naked as a cloaked male priest recites blasphemous poetry. But is this really ‘freeing’ for women?
"Heather Height, 48, is married to a Satanist. She joined the Church after researching Satanism on the internet after her son asked what it was. A part-time fetish model (her stage name is Heidee Nytes) and full-time Satanist, Height has been a participant in naked altars, and this is something she calls an "honour".
“A nude female altar is the symbol of the Earth Mother – the embodiment of creation,” she explains. “It's only 'seedy' to those that are repressed enough to find the female body 'seedy'. Satanism is a carnal religion; a veritable celebration of what prudes and oppressed people consider 'seedy'. To be the physical representation of the human race's lustful desires in that moment is a powerful feeling.”
“The experience afforded me the opportunity to explore some doubts and insecurities about myself and my body that I might otherwise have never addressed, subsequently releasing them. That is the very definition of liberation.”
Tyers, meanwhile, believes these rituals should be considered “pure theatre. They are a mental and emotional decompression chamber.”
But if members of the Church don’t actually believe in the supernatural, why call themselves Satanists in the first place? Surely dropping the word would lessen some of the negative headlines in the media and allow members – many of whom I sense are forced to keep their affiliation private for fear of retaliation – to live more open lives?
“Without the links to Satan, you’d strip away all of the fun – I guess you could call me a secular humanist but that would be far too boring!” answers Cimminnee Holt, a 40-year-old practising Satanist, who is researching the Church as part of her PhD. “Women’s sexuality has always been associated with the devil – whether it’s the seductress or the temptress, there’s always that Satanic connotation. However, the Church of Satan subverts all that."
Church of Satan veteran Waytz takes it one step further: “Don’t get it twisted, I’m not normal! If you want to believe there’s a seedy side to the Church then that’s fine with me. I am not normal and I do not hang out with normal people. And yes, I am interested in the dark arts!”
Ultimately, at a time of 'pussy-grabbing' President Trump, Hollywood predators such as Harvey Weinstein and a corporate world that still gives men an unfair advantage, is the idea of women feeling safer within the Church of Satan really that farfetched? Tyers dismissively concludes: “It isn’t in our interest to crusade for improved public opinion, we don’t care what you think. As a woman and as a Satanist, I’m just here to do my thing.”