He's dressed in an olive, freshly pressed button-down shirt and subtly patterned tie, and his light brown hair is conservatively shorn: the picture-perfect subdued-yet-friendly all-American salesman.
On the Formica table, next to the Original Recipe crumbs, sits a small black book. The cover is illustrated with an inverted pentagram; its author is Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan.
Few would guess this average-looking man, with his boyish face and fondness of bad jokes, is a satanic religious leader.
His real surname is, ironically, Grace, but as founder of the Reformed Church of Satan, he's better known by his peers as High Magus Noxaura (Latin for "night breeze"). His church, which he says has nearly 200 members, is dedicated to finding the positive aspects of Satanism Grace even founded the Web site positivesatanism.org, which is dedicated to bettering your life ... through Satanism.
Grace is a devoted family man, supporting his wife and four children, and utters phrases like "pardon my French" and "ya big silly goose." He's well aware that his clean-cut appearance and lifestyle don't mesh with the public's perception of a typical Satanist and there are plenty more out there just like him.
After all, the "S word" is no longer the great red panic button it was in the '80s, when a backwards playing metal album was thought to turn an entire generation of impressionable youth into blood-guzzling baby-killers. Just this summer, the date of 6/6/06 turned into a bonafide marketing frenzy, and it was practically a family holiday in Hell (Michigan). The Finnish shock rock group Lordi recently released the single "The Devil is a Loser (And He's My Bitch)." Satan even has his own MySpace page several of them.
Has the Dark Lord gone mainstream? Could it be the devil has lost his special, evil touch?
Or has he simply sold his soul to, say, Ann Coulter?
Satan: the beginning
The devil, Lucifer, Shaitan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles; the personification of an evil entity has been represented in most of the major religions yet the practice of modern-day Satanism is just 40 years old.
The Church of Satan was formed in 1966, by former carnie, organ player and psychic investigator Anton Szandor LaVey (born Howard Stanton Lavey). In 1969, he penned The Satanic Bible, which drew in part from the works of Aleister Crowley, Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. He quickly gained notoriety, conducting theatrical rituals Satanic weddings, baptisms and funerals appeared on talk shows and in news magazines, released his own musical recordings, and had such celebrity members as Sammy Davis Jr. and Jayne Mansfield. With his gleaming bald head, pale skin and angular black goatee, the flamboyant, controversial LaVey quickly became a larger-than-life personality. (The media dubbed him "The Black Pope.") He also had a black sense of humor and embraced camp and indulgence. His most notorious stunt: LaVey, dressed in a hokey devil costume, performed a satanic baptism on his 3-year-old daughter Zeena, who was posed next to a naked woman (called "the altar of flesh").
Though LaVey died in 1997, the church lives on, mostly propelled these days by its Web site, churchofsatan.com (the church says it receives a million hits a day). The site features a wealth of writings from LaVey, as well as information on membership (send $200 in to the Church of Satan and you'll receive your official laminated red membership card in a few weeks).
Perhaps the most common misconception about the Church of Satan is this: Its practitioners do not worship or even believe in that crimson fellow with the forked tail as imagined by Christian ideology. LaVey dismissed any belief in any theology, which he viewed as a sign of intellectual weakness. LaVey's fundamental principle? You are your own god.
The Church of Satan draws on the Hebrew word "satan" which has been translated to mean accuser, adversary or opposite; Satan is not a person, but a concept, a principle representing questioning, pride and hedonism. (See sidebar on the eleven satanic rules.)
Though the Church of Satan does not recognize any other sects, there are dozens of offshoots of the religion: The First Church of Satan, The First Satanic Church and the Temple of Set (the latter is the largest and most organized, formed in 1975 when the founding members officially split from the Church of Satan). One satanic practitioner interviewed estimates there are upward of 30 different kinds of Satanism practiced but many are small in number and die off after several years.
While LaVey and his theatrics achieved a certain amount of notoriety in the '70s, everything went to hell in the '80s with the start of what is now referred to as the great "Satanic Panic."
Several high-profile court cases charged teachers and parents with satanic ritual abuse, which allegedly involved everything from torture and sexual assault to sacrifice of small animals. Evidence was based on the testimonies of young children, or "recovered memories," using techniques that have long since been discredited by psychologists and authorities. In 1987, daytime talk show host Geraldo Rivera began a series on satanic ritual abuse, claiming the practice originated with a highly organized secret network of Satanists. Then there was the now infamous urban legend that playing heavy metal songs backward revealed satanic invocations (which actually boosted record sales for Judas Priest).
But by the '90s, Satan was no longer such a scare, replaced by the more tangible threat of the Gulf War. Even when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris mowed down their Columbine High peers with automatic weapons, much of the blame was cast on goth culture, violent video games and Marilyn Manson (who is a Satanist). When Dubya first spoke of the Axis of Evil, it had nothing to do with cloven hooves and pitchforks. And earlier this year, when the Vatican's chief exorcist claimed J.K. Rowling's books could lead young children on a pathway to Satanism and the devil, the general public didn't panic and call for Harry Potter pyres they doubled over with laughter. Other than the extremely religious faction, few people take charges of Satan's evil bidding seriously.
What happened? Where did Satan go wrong or right?
By the grace of...Satan?
Mike Grace has the kind of unflappably perky and optimistic demeanor one expects of a cheerleader, motivational speaker or salesperson. He founded the Reformed Church of Satan (which has no physical location yet) in August 2003, with members living as far away as Japan. He says the church is currently working on drafting a constitution; some of its primary goals are encouraging members to be "happier, healthier and more financially stable." Grace runs the church's Web site (members.tripod.com/rcos_org) as well as positivesatanism.org, but he made the conscious decision to limit the online activities, encouraging potential members to attend regular gatherings and connect face-to-face.
At 37, he's been married 12 years and has four children, age 6 through 12. Grace says more Satanists need a sense of humor he's quite fond of bad jokes, and he launches into them frequently (he mentions that members of his church are often late for their weekly gatherings, as they're operating on SST Standard Satan Time).
"We bring a book, talk about what's going on in the world, people bring their problems or ideas," Grace says of the church's weekly gatherings. "We also offer counseling and support."
Grace was raised Baptist but began exploring alternative religions in high school and quickly learned of the consequences.
In 1993, at the age of 20, he says three young men from a local Baptist church (the one Grace once attended) decided to convert him with a baseball bat. Grace was hospitalized for several days with a fractured sternum, cracked jaw, a few broken ribs and irreparable damage to his teeth (almost all of his top teeth have since fallen out); he says his attackers got some prison time for attempted manslaughter. Grace thinks that incident planted the first seeds for his theory on positivism.
"They tried to show me Jesus, the hard way," he says with a wry smile, revealing pink fleshy gums where teeth should be. "In a sense, that [incident] is where the first cornerstone was put into place."
Why positive Satanism? Grace admits the eyebrow-raising name is intended, in part, to attract attention.
"When they see the positive Satanism site, they say, 'What the hell is this?' [Satan] is a big red button, yes. It grabs people's attention. That's why LaVey didn't call it secular humanism."
Grace says he's enjoys LaVey's readings but decided to start his own Church because he disagreed with some LaVeyan theories. Where LaVey shunned any form of organized religion, Grace says his church will not discriminate against any religions or beliefs. He dislikes the self-indulgent approach that many apply to Satanism, and he advocates doing well by your fellow man.
"It's self-responsibility, not just hedonism. You should enjoy yourself but never at the expense of others."
Listening to Grace, one can't help thinking of Mayberry's Opie, had the kid grown into a Satanist: "I don't care how much fun killing people is," he quips, "that sort of thing is just not acceptable."
Grace is not secretive about his Satanism; he says some of his co-workers have already seen him reading LaVey and asked him about it, and he's worn his Baphomet pendant (the Satanic symbol, a goat head in an inverted pentagram) to previous jobs and received little remark. Yet he acknowledges that most Satanists don't advertise their religion. He's fond of saying, "There's no need to wear a 'Kick Me' sign."
"Few people want [Satanism] to be visible," he says. "You don't have to run down Woodward screaming, 'I'm a Satanist!' or change your name to Gorgor Damian III. I look like a mortgage broker because I am one."
Or was one.
A few weeks after speaking with Metro Times, Grace phoned to say he'd been terminated from his job without explanation, and suspected it was because he's a Satanist (he says several of his co-workers knew about his religion and that he was speaking with Metro Times about it). A representative from Shore Mortgage told Metro Times' that "we don't discriminate," but wouldn't say why Grace was dismissed. Grace says he's contacted several attorneys and the ACLU.
Though he's the sole breadwinner for his family, he's remaining positive.
"You cannot be a religious leader without your faith being tested," he says.
Ultimately, Grace would like to acquire a small church for the Reformed Church of Satan for regular meetings and services. He's even eyeing a church for sale in Westland, but has no concrete plans just yet.
But what about anonymity? Wouldn't a satanic church attract the ire of the community?
"We're not talking about a big red brothel with neon lights and naked statues and a sign that says 'Come Fuck For Satan' just a little white church," he says.
Highway to hell
Perhaps one expects the current High Priest of the Church of Satan to speak with the gravelly, booming timbre of a decadent soul who's been up all night gargling bourbon and brimstone. Instead, Peter H. Gilmore sounds a bit like Ned Flanders. Affable and soft-spoken, he apologizes for the din coming from his black chou chou ("We call her 'Hellhound,'" he says cheerily) as he speaks via phone from his New York City apartment located in of course Hell's Kitchen.
Gilmore became High Priest in 2001, appointed by Blanche Barton, LaVey's longtime partner, who assumed power of the Church after his death. Where LaVey reveled in his controversial iconic status, the soft-spoken Gilmore is more like the intellectual's Satanist: "I have a master's degree in composition from NYU and I write symphonies," he says. "Heavy metal is not something I enjoy."
Gilmore says the most common misconception about Satanists is that they are devil-worshippers.
"We believe that evil is utterly subjective," Gilmore says. "For Satanists, evil is that which harms us. We think most religions will try to say something good or bad based on scriptures. We don't believe that there are gods or angels or heavens or demons. We don't believe there is anything spiritual. Satan isn't a person in the Old Testament; it's an office that one held, to question things. We Satanists feel that's the role we play in society. We're always questioning things."
True Satanists, Gilmore says, are upstanding folks who abide by the law, seek order in society and would never harm animals or children. In fact, the High Priest suggests that the Columbine massacre could have been avoided had its perpetrators actually been practicing Satanists. Gilmore stressed that while the Church of Satan advocates seeking revenge against those who wrong you, it must be done through legal means. "We Satanists are law-and-order folks," he says.
And some other organizations have accused the church of being elitist; it staunchly disavows any other Satanic organization like Mike Grace's. Gilmore refuses to consider other Satanic groups and churches as serious pursuits, instead characterizing them as trifles.
"Lots of people put up Web sites," Gilmore says. "Usually they're teenagers with black fingernails and five friends. It's absolutely irrelevant there aren't any that have any kind of legitimacy as an organization."
The Church of Satan never releases membership numbers. Gilmore says LaVey instated this policy because "if the numbers looked too big, people would think we're threatening, and if our numbers were too small then people can just dismiss us and not take our ideas seriously." But he will say there are "thousands" of members around the globe. "We have members in every nation, even in places where it's very dangerous to be a Satanist, like Muslim countries.
"There are as many kinds of Satanists as there are people."
However, James R. Lewis of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin had some more specific findings.
In 2001, Lewis released a study entitled "Who Serves Satan? A Demographic and Ideological Profile." Lewis used an online questionnaire to gather information about Satanists. Of his 140 respondents, he concluded the following:
"The statistically-average Satanist is an unmarried, white male in his mid-20s with a few years of college. He became involved in Satanism through something he read in high school, and has been a self-identified Satanist for more than seven years. Raised Christian, he explored one non-Satanist religious group beyond the one in which he was raised before settling into Satanism. Far from being confined to adolescent rebels, many Satanists are reflective individuals who despite the fact that youthful rebellion was usually a factor in the beginning have come to appropriate Satanism as a mature religious option."
Most of the Satanists Metro Times interviewed (See sidebar: Meet your friendly neighborhood Satanists) were close to Lewis' findings.
Peter, 33, lives in a Lansing suburb and works for one of the larger universities. A card-carrying member of the Church of Satan, he's a volunteer EMT and firefighter. He requested that his last name not be used because he lives in a conservative community and is currently coping with the serious illness of his only child.
Peter first delved into the religion out of curiosity, when he learned an acquaintance was a Satanist. He says when he started reading The Satanic Bible, "everything fell into place at that point. The book itself was like the answer I had been looking for, it was exactly how I felt. I was amazed there was someone else out there that had same thoughts and feelings as I did. It was literally a revelation. I had been familiar with other belief systems but nothing ever resonated with me."
He says Satanism has helped him cope with his child's illness. "It has allowed me to become very focused instead of sitting back and hoping and praying and other nonsense. He says he performs a very basic ritual so "I can get rid of the panicky thoughts that parents get, so when I leave for the hospital I'm clearheaded and can think in my child's best interest."
Peter has only been a Satanist for two years, but his Baphomet isn't exactly fodder for cocktail parties.
"My close friends know what I am, but I don't advertise it all. It's a way of living my life, a way of keeping in mind that life is precious. Satanists celebrate life."
Hatin' on Satan
In January of 2005, 20-year-old Satanist Daniel Romano was attacked in Queens by two men wielding a metal pipe. Prosecuting attorneys claimed the attack constituted a hate crime (his attackers yelled, "Yo, Satan!" before charging). The defendants' attorney, Sean McNicholas, was unconvinced. "This is an abuse of the hate crime law," he told the New York Daily News. "What's next the nerds, the preppies ...? Where are you going to draw the line?"
While Grace and Gilmore paint Satanists as thoughtful, law-abiding members of society, there have been documented cases of people who kill and maim in the name of Satan (and Allah, and the Lord Jesus Christ and so forth).
Journalist Debbie Nathan is the co-author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.
"Satanism has this aura of evil, so it will always attract a certain percentage of unbalanced people who will commit crimes in the name of Satan," Nathan says. "There's been more abuse committed in the name of Jesus than in the name of Satan."
Bruce Robinson is founder of the Web site religioustolerance.org, a Canadian Web site that was started back in 1995. From the beginning, the site was aimed at dispelling myths about misunderstood faiths. "We gave a high priority to explaining minority religions about which a great deal of misinformation was being spread. One of the earliest we dealt with was Satanism."
Robinson says the Satanists he spoke with were "surprisingly gentle and ethical people. With all the reputation they have as being so evil, in actual reality they were quite different."
Robinson says there are two kinds of Satanists; those who seriously consider it a religion, and dabblers the latter being predominantly rebellious teenagers and goth-punk hipsters. Robinson estimates that 10 years ago, there were about 20,000 real, practicing Satanists in North America. His current estimate, per his Web site: ten thousand adult members of religious satanic churches, temples and grottos; 10,000 adult solitary practitioners; and more than 100,000 transitory teenage dabblers.
Yet Robinson thinks Satanism will still be around for some time to come.
"Someone once said Satanism has a great future because it's the working religion of the corporate boardroom," Robinson says. "It's definitely a 'me first' religion."
David Frankfurter, a history and religious studies professor at the University of New Hampshire, just released a new book: Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History. Among his many topics, Frankfurter discusses terrorism as a personification of evil.
"Satanism is no longer relevant but it's much more tangible," Frankfurter says. "Terror is frustrating because people know they have to respect someone from the Middle East, but someone walking around saying he's a Satanist is fairly easy to hate. It's much more recognizable."
Frankfurter adds that "the Satan stuff was more potent back in the '70s and '80s now we look back at people like Ozzy Osbourne and see them as kind of quaint in some ways."
A lesser evil
According to the New Testament's Book of Revelation, 666 is "the mark of the beast." And on June 6 of this year, a veritable marketing frenzy was unleashed. On this date (6/6/06), a remake of The Omen was released; the metal band Slayer kicked off a tour (called the Unholy Alliance Tour Preaching to the Perverted); David Lee Roth released a new record, Strumming With the Devil; Gilmore conducted a public ritual for the Church of Satan, which was photographed by Reuters and sent out to hundreds of markets; even Ann Coulter got in on the action, opting to embrace some of the less-than-flattering descriptions that are tossed her way, and released her new book Godless: The Church of Liberalism on the date in question.
And in Michigan, thousands of people flocked to the sleepy hamlet of Hell, Mich. to party. Kids were eating ice cream in Hell; people lined up to buy their limited edition T-shirt, or to buy a small piece of land in Hell for $6.66, or pose for photos next to the city's welcome sign.
Hell had become a veritable Chuck E. Cheese for the day, with a children's play area set up, a costume contest and pizza from the Hell Country Store.
Had the devil sold his soul to corporate America? This shameless marketing bonanza prompted even MSNBC to run the headline "As of 6/6/06, Satan loses his indie cred."
Clearly, the devil ain't what he used to be.
"I think overall public fear has lessened since the Satanic Panic," Gilmore says. "You don't have the media supporting the idea that there's a conspiracy of devil worshippers out to kill people."
And while many Satanists are thankful that their blackened reputation has lightened slightly, some are less than pleased.
Tom Raspotnik is highly cynical about the current state of Satanism. He prefers to be known as Grand Magister Blackwood. The 42-year-old former used car salesman from rural Michigan now works in sales in Chicago, and is currently writing a book on Satanism that he claims will revolutionize the religion. He ran the now defunct realsatanism.com, and has proclaimed himself "the New Black Pope of Satanism" (his online detractors have referred to him as "the Black Poop"). He says was a practicing Satanist in San Francisco at age 20, actually met Anton LaVey and said enough bad things about him to warrant getting kicked out of the church (satanically excommunicated, if you will).
Raspotnik says even back in the days of LaVey, he was put off by "people who wanted to buy bumper stickers and shirts and walk around saying, 'I like Satan.' They just wanted the notoriety, to be cool, to be a part of something. The same thing happens today.
"There are so many people who are into Satanism for one thing to get laid," he continues. "Or to party with people who think they're vampires, or to live like a gothic person.
"Satanism is not ready to unveil itself again yet. It's been diluted as a religion to the point where it's 98 percent wannabes and 2 percent who actually participate."
Raspotnik knows Mike Grace (he sold him a car) and considers him a friend but he balks at the idea of positive Satanism.
"That's like trying to put a fluffy bunny outfit on the devil."
On an unusually warm and sunny October Sunday, the Grace family is milling around Café Luwak in Ypsilanti, the location of the Reformed Church of Satan's weekly gathering. Dad and Son are on the outdoor patio chatting, while Mom and Grandma are inside with the two youngest of the clan, surrounded by crayons, coloring books and peanut butter bagels. While Mom and Dad are practicing Satanists, Granny leans more toward Wicca, and 12-year-old son Alexander, the oldest child, says he worships the pagan god Pan.
Alex, hyper-intelligent and well-spoken, is eager to show off his creation, the Body Board a cardboard-and-crayons representation of the tarot cards, descending in the order of the human body and its various chakra points.
"I came up with the Body Board when I was 5," he says. "It's supposed to help tarot cards be more precise." In a recent money-making enterprise, Alex started up his own neighborhood tarot reading stand.
All of the Grace children are currently home-schooled, which suits the family just fine. The kids had been attending public school in Ypsilanti, when Mike and his wife made the decision based on several factors they were worried about the quality of education and a lack of religious tolerance. Alex had already stirred the waters several times, particularly after he wrote a paper called "Hail the horned Lord."
"You can't expel me for expressing my religion," the 12-year-old says, fidgeting in his chair, "that's why we have the Constitution, freedom of the press ..."
Grandma, who preferred not to be identified, is nervous about her family being interviewed and displayed publicly, for fear of repercussions. She was raised in a strict Christian family, and recalls buying her first book on Wicca with babysitting money, hiding it in her underwear drawer.
"I think we represent something you're seeing a lot more of," she says, "which is multigenerational families."
In raising their children, Mike says he's tried to expose his children to many different religions.
"We tried to show them a wide range so when they're old enough to decide what path to take, they know what's out there."
Mike is thankful that Satanism is less shocking these days.
"A lot of us can come out of the closet; we're not psychotic baby-killers, we're just people with differing opinions on deities. Not to mention, in the '80s, social services would have been at my door."
As Mike and Alex move in to pose for a photo, Dad wraps his arm around his son and looks down at him with a genuine, warm smile, speaking quietly.
"I'm so proud of the work you're doing," he says. "You've got so much potential just remember to always be yourself."
Alex doesn't squirm or blush, instead nodding affirmatively. "And to not let anyone else take you down," he adds with enthusiasm.
Mike Grace breaks into a fleshy, gummy grin, his remaining teeth gleaming, as he looks down at his son with beaming, fatherly pride.
"You're darn right," he says.
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