A Tale of Two Satans, or the New Hollywood Theodicy

I’m beginning to think there may be something to the idea that Hollywood films contain satanic messages. But I’m not sure it’s a bad thing.

The thought first occurred to me after getting into a long discussion with a friend about the conflicting satanic subtexts of Angel Heart , a criminally underrated chiller, and a film that might be the first of what I’d call the neo-Satanist wave in Hollywood films. A wave that seems to be building, infiltrating some very mainstream Hollywood product. Showing up, for instance, in-of all things-last Christmas’ Arnold Schwarzenegger action blockbuster End of Days .

But before we get to Mr. Schwarzenegger, let’s talk a bit about Angel Heart . Do you know it? First of all, don’t be put off by the fact that it stars Mickey Rourke, you’ll only be hurting yourself, depriving yourself of the genuine pleasure and terror of this film. (It’s before Mr. Rourke’s Mannerist period with the jaw implants and all.) Seriously, it’s one of the most sinister and chilling movie experiences I’ve had. My friend was describing seeing it opening night-and afterward going to a party “where you could tell who had seen Angel Heart from the profoundly stricken looks on their faces.” You can’t say that about many movies (except maybe Patch Adams , but that’s for a different reason, a different kind of stricken).

If you were shaken by the ending of The Sixth Sense , the ending of Angel Heart blows it off the map. Credit must go to William Hjortsberg’s occult detective novel, Falling Angel -Raymond Chandler crossed with Edgar Allan Poe, with the tormented spirit of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus hovering over it.

But Alan Parker, who wrote and directed the 1987 renamed film version, did an amazing job of transforming it into a sensationally atmospheric visual experience, a haunting evocation of New York and New Orleans in the mid-50’s that is hypnotically compelling, endlessly rewatchable.

It’s hard to talk about it without giving away the ending, but I’ll speak instead of Angel Heart ‘s status as a kind of hybrid of the Satanist genre that combines traditional Luciferian themes with a breakthrough into a new conceptual realm in contemporary Satanism.

On the traditional front, you have a beautiful dark star-turn by Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre, the superbly dressed Lucifer with the exquisitely barbered goatee and satanic-looking widow’s peak who turns the elaborate ritual of cracking and eating a hard-boiled egg into one of the most memorably scary bits of business you’ve ever seen. “The Greeks say the egg is the symbol of the soul,” Mr. De Niro tells Mr. Rourke, almost unnecessarily by that time, as he chomps on the perfectly jelled white and yolk.

Again, without spoiling Angel Heart for those who have yet to run out and rent it, what you realize after a while is that Mr. De Niro represents what might be called the conservative strain of contemporary Satanism: Satan as the agent of a conservative moral order. Satan as the enforcer who punishes overreaching human transgression. A Satan who functions, consciously or not, as the teacher of little moral lessons in a way that validates the warnings of religion against questioning divine law.

You can see this as well in Al Pacino’s recent Luciferian lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate . Yes, he’s out to steal men’s souls for eternal torment and all that, but the real satisfaction he seems to take is in the beautiful way his seductions exemplify the jewel-like workings of the moral order to which he is little more than an obsequious servant or scenarist. Creating little fabliaux that reinforce the audience’s scared but sanctimonious response. He is God’s enforcer, little better than God’s repo man, repossessing souls who fail to make their payment of piety to the Big Guy.

On the surface, Angel Heart represents that same moral Satanist theme. At the end, the eternal punishment of burning in hell merges with the ultimate punishment of the criminal justice system, the electric chair: “You’ll burn for this.”

But on another level, the one that makes it a forerunner of the neo-Satanist genre, Angel Heart radically jolts one into questioning the traditional moral order, into questioning the nature of the human heart, locating hell not in some geographic underworld but there , inside us. To say this abstractly and obliquely (so as not to spoil it) doesn’t do justice to the deeply disturbing sense of dislocation Angel Heart leaves you with.

It shares that with a very few traditional Satanist films, most notably the incomparable Rosemary’s Baby , where the triumph of Satan, although achieved within the traditional hierarchy of good and evil, is felt as a sickening disruption if not refutation of the moral order.

But the recent wave of neo-Satanism represented by Mr. Schwarzenegger’s End of Days offers a far more radical challenge to that hierarchy, to the very categories of good and evil, God and the Devil, a challenge whose power Mr. Schwarzenegger may not be aware of (or, who knows, maybe he is , maybe he’s one of Satan’s secret minions).

Of course there were incoherent intimations of the new Satanism in The Usual Suspects ; it’s hard not to like Keyser Soze (and Kevin Spacey’s moniker “Verbal Kint”) or at least the idea of Keyser Soze, a nontraditional Satan. But for me, Suspects was too intent on being hip to be genuinely sinister, and beneath the suggestions of a more anarchic Lucifer I sense the same old neo-con Devil: a bad bad dude, but a bad dude implicitly affirming the moral order he negates.

Far more subversive is the Lucifer in the South Park movie. Okay, maybe it’s not that subversive, but what the hell, I have to mention it, I have to insist that you see it, because the obscene “romance” in hell between Satan and Saddam Hussein (which sees a love-struck Satan reading Saddam is From Mars, Satan is From Venus in order to understand Saddam’s unwillingness to really talk after sodomizing him) may be the funniest thing on film in the past 10 years.

But let’s get to the Arnold movie, End of Days . Okay, on the surface it’s overblown and even a bit silly: It’s set in the last few days before the millennium (remember that whole deal?) when everybody from secret Satanists to a secret Vatican death squad of anti-Satanists has got their knickers in a twist over a prophesy that Satan is coming to earth from hell to mate with one specially selected young woman in New York. And if he closes the deal and knocks boots (or hooves) with her in the hour before midnight on the eve of the millennium, all hell is going to break loose. Satan’s kingdom will come, God’s will be abolished: It will be “The End of Days.” It’s interesting, come to think of it, that both South Park and End of Days feature a Satan fixated on that Special Someone, a lovelorn Lucifer. I guess that’s part of the neo-Satanist plot; it humanizes the guy, makes his plight something we can all relate to, although jeez, if you can’t score hot chicks in hell, what good is it being Lord of the Dark Realm in the first place?

So anyway, after some complicated plot twists Arnold gets involved in trying to keep the Special Girl away from Satan at least for that final hour. His story is that he’s an ex-cop and professional bodyguard whose life was destroyed when some corrupt cops he testified against kidnapped and murdered his wife and child.

While there are a lot of stupid explosions, car and copter chases, the truly explosive confrontation comes later in the movie when Lucifer, played with great panache by Gabriel Byrne, tries to win Arnold over to his side (and get the girl) by using an extraordinarily subversive theological argument. See, Arnold lost his faith in God (he explained earlier in the movie) after he lost his family to the bad guys. He’s on the verge of questioning God: “We had a disagreement,” the big guy says laconically, a disagreement with God: “I wanted my wife and daughter to live.” Lucifer homes in on this: He shows Arnold a kind of 3-D lifelike home video of his wife and daughter in the moments before the bad guys break in. And then the moment when they seize and kill them. Heoffers Arnold a deal: Show Satan where his “end of days” date is hiding, and Arnold can have his wife and child back alive again. Arnold hesitates and Lucifer then makes the following demonically ingenious argument:

“He [God] could have stopped it, but He didn’t. He fucked you, then He made you feel guilty. I don’t do guilt. I didn’t do what happened here [the murder of Arnold’s family] . He did.” Then he goes on to make the larger case against God: “You’re on His side? He’s the one who took away your family. I didn’t. Let me tell you something about Him. He is the biggest underachiever of all time. He’s just got a good publicist. Something good happens, ‘It’s His will.’ Something bad happens, ‘He moves in mysterious ways.’ Take that overblown press kit they call the Bible. What do they say? ‘Shit happens,’ Please . He treated you like garbage, you walked away from the light just like I did. I’m not the bad guy.”

I have to give credit to whoever wrote Lucifer’s lines. They’re a brilliant vernacular distillation of the problem of theodicy that haunts not just Arnold and Lucifer but church theologians as well. Theodicy, you know, is the subdiscipline of theology that seeks to find a way to reconcile the frequent triumph of catastrophic evil in human history, the massacres of the innocent, the mass murders and the Holocaust, with the assertion that God is all-powerful and just.

The argument Mr. Byrne is making in a way echoes the distillation of the problem of theodicy as it was expressed to me by Yehuda Bauer, one of the foremost historians of the Holocaust and the founder of the discipline of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University. He said something to me in his Jerusalem office when I interviewed him (for my book, Explaining Hitler) , something that has haunted me forever after: “God cannot be all-powerful and just. If He is all powerful,” if for instance He permitted the Holocaust, the murder of a million children to happen, and He did nothing to stop it despite His power, despite the fact that He’s supposed to have intervened in history on countless lesser occasions, if in fact, the Holocaust was, as some ultra-orthodox sages argue, part of His plan , then, Mr. Bauer told me simply and grimly, “God is Satan.”

On the other hand, if God is just and loving enough to wish to stop the mass murder of the innocents and he failed because he lacked the power (as pop consolationists like Rabbi Kushner of When Bad Things Happen to Good People argue in effect) then “God is just a nebbish, I have no use for such a God,” Mr. Bauer said dismissively.

It’s an argument the philosopher J.L. Mackie first articulated in an influential 1955 article, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in the journal Mind . It’s an argument brilliant philosophical believers like Alvin Plantinga have labored intensively to refute ever since. And, as I said, it echoes what Mr. Byrne says to Arnold: If something good happens, it’s God’s will, if something terrible happens, “He moves in mysterious ways,” and we’re not supposed to question why.

Mr. Byrne doesn’t go as far as Mr. Bauer in saying God is the real Satan (if he’s all-powerful). But he implies it when he says, ” I’m not the bad guy here.” Guess who that leaves? In doing so he’s almost reasserting the Romantic-vitalist Satanic tradition exemplified by William Blake in his famous argument that Milton was really on the Devil’s side in Paradise Lost (Lucifer being tragically, poetically heroic, God a great big bore).

I want to make it clear that I’m not endorsing Satanism here, what I am saying is that it’s incredibly refreshing to see a film that questions the simple-minded, simpering piety that passes for theodicy in popular culture and popular films. The simple-minded theodicy that allows the parents of a kid who escaped being murdered at Columbine to give all the credit to God-it was His doing, He saved my child. Which leaves the parents of a kid who was murdered to choose between thinking God wanted their kid dead and mouthing pious blather about God moving “in mysterious ways.”

You see it over and over again, the sickening cruelty of the survivors of a natural tragedy, a tornado for instance, weepily telling the television cameras their survival was all God’s will, thus implicitly telling their neighbors who lost a mother or a child God must have wanted them dead. But it just ain’t as easy as that. This isn’t hard-won religious faith, this is cruel kindergarten-like cowering. Religious faith needs the challenge of the subversive theodicy in End of Days or it doesn’t mean anything. It’s sad that the only source of skeptical challenge to brain-dead pieties in Touched By An Angel –popular culture should come in a neo-Satanist Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but we should be grateful to My Dark Lord Arnold for having the muscle to bring it to us.

Did I say that, “My Dark Lord Arnold”?

I don’t know what came over me. I mean that fine actor Arnold, of course.

A Tale of Two Satans, or the New Hollywood Theodicy