If you head to a Halloween party tonight in a devil's mask and a flowing red cape, you'll embody an array of ideas that might seem mutually exclusive: the allure of a Devil's Food Cake and the fear of the demon within, the cosmic enemy in a Jack Chick comic and a camp figure on South Park. Over the last two millennia, Satan has worn many masks. In the pluralistic postmodern era, he wears them all.
The most thorough account of Lucifer's many guises may be A History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present (2000), a sweeping chronicle by the French writer Robert Muchembled. An historian at the University of Paris XIII, Muchembled is spending this semester as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan; his most recent tome, Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the 16th Century to the Present (2005), will make its American debut at the end of the year. If you think there might be some thematic overlap between the two books, you're correct. "I still had this question, after so much research: Why did you have people thinking some women had intercourse with the devil?" Muchembled says. "The problem of pleasure is also important here, because in the trials the judges were asking the witches, 'Did you get pleasure from the devil?' The answer would always be, 'No, not at all! It was very painful, it was ice cold.'"
By Muchembled's account, our shifting visions of Satan are closely linked to some of the central events and trends of the last millennium: the wars of religion, the rise of the modern state, the regulation of sexuality, the ever-present search for scapegoats. He draws on a rich variety of cultural artifacts to make his case, from medieval sculpture and painting to modern movies and comics, from the "devil books" of 16th century Germany to the canards of 17th century France.
The first major change in the European conception of the devil, he argues, took place at the end of the Middle Ages. Before then Satan was seen as a small-scale, almost comic figure, cursed with a shrewish wife and regularly outsmarted by ordinary peasants. Tales along those lines persisted in Western folklore for centuries afterwards, but as new forms of sovereignty emerged on Earth a similar process took hold in Hell. Lucifer grew larger, and so did the number of demons at his command. In the art of the 14th century and afterwards, Muchembled writes, "The signs of Lucifer's power are now heavily emphasized: he is bigger than the other demons, seated, and even, exceptionally, wears a crown." The threat of an afterlife in Hell, meanwhile, reenforced the power of the earthly authorities. If the rise of powerful monarchs allowed a new model of Satan to take hold, the new Satan in turn proved advantageous to the monarchies.
A similar coevolution was at work in the witch-hunting mania of the early modern era, which spread with the wars that pitted Protestants against Catholics. "Contemporaries," Muchembled reports, "were impatient for the return of social harmony, not through tolerance, which was hardly a functioning concept at the time, but under a firm hand that would ensure that every transgression was vigorously punished." It was a worldview in which both Satan and the state were, in effect, arms of God, punishing deviants both on Earth and in the underworld.
Meanwhile, the number of deviants deserving punishment was multiplying. In cultures that increasingly prized obediance and conformity, the authorites found fresh ways to ask their subjects to obey and conform. "The diabolic discourse," Muchembled notes, had already begun "to refer to the human body as it ought not to function," an association that over time would take in everything from legends of human-animal chimeras to new efforts to control sexuality. In 16th century France, it would mean a wave of moral prohibitions intended to strengthen the state by enforcing a particular family structure. Royal edicts buttressed the authority of men over women and of parents over children; there were crackdowns on sodomy and adultery, and an "increasingly close supervision imposed on women."
Muchembled draws the obvious connections between this repression and the misogyny of the witch hunts. But the cultural effects did not stop there. The era's intolerant attitudes applied to actual knowledge as well as carnal knowledge: It is in this period that we see the first legends of Faust, the scholar who traded his soul to Mephistopheles for a quarter century of power, pleasure, and enlightenment. In that day, Faust's ends as well as his means were considered suspect. "To know everything, to do everything and to taste everything"—Faust's dream—"was now seen as a rebellion against God," writes Muchembled.
With the end of the wars of religion and then the dawn of the Enlightenment, Hell's power waned. It became possible for young Romantics to openly identify themselves with the devil, taking an idea nascent in Paradise Lost and transforming it into a full-blown commitment to Satan as a rebel angel. Superficially, this may look like a growth in Lucifer's strength—actual Satanists, publicly parading their infidelity!—but in practical terms it meant he was being tamed. Baudelaire famously told us that the devil's greatest trick was to persuade us that he does not exist, but you could as easily argue that nothing deflates his power, on Earth if not afterward, like an encounter with his terrestrial representatives. Compare the Luciferian conspiracies of the witch-hunters' imagination to the pathetic reality of a suburban Satanic coven. We may have our periodic panics over heavy metal murders or ritual child abuse, but there's nothing like the loser who spent every math class carving the words "Iron Maiden" onto his desk to keep our worst fears in check. That's the Dark One's minions?
Today, advertisers have embraced a mild Satanism of their own, with candies pitched as "sinful" and demonic figures appearing on hot sauces and beers. In some ways we've come full circle. South Park, the most Rabelaisian entertainment on TV, offers a throwback to the devil of a thousand years ago: henpecked, fallible, easily outwitted, more an object of burlesque than a figure of fear.
Unfortunately, Muchembled's discussion of the modern era is the weakest part of his book. He offers insightful comments on texts ranging from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft to the films of Val Lewton, but he tries to force them into an oversimplified dichotomy between the cultures of Europe and the United States. This requires a less-than-nuanced view of both the contents of American pop culture and the ways different audiences receive it; there are no references here to Jack Chick parodies or to South Park, no hints that a Pentagram-sporting Middle American metalhead might bring some ironic distance to that occultic imagery. (Instead, we get the usual European disapproval of American firearms.) When I spoke with Muchembled, he granted that he had painted the U.S. with a broad brush, but he suggested that you could still divide modern attitudes toward the devil, both in America and elsewhere, into "two sides. One saying the devil exists. The other saying no."
Not that there's any shortage of secularized Satans for people who've given up on formal religion. The fear of the devil within us certainly persists, though Freud and others have given us a different vocabulary with which to discuss him. And external Satans? They're as close as the cocaine in your cousin's closet or the pedophile living under the bridge into town.
For Halloween tonight, revelers will dress as witches and ghosts, vampires and aliens, zombies and werewolves and Old Nick himself. It will be lighthearted fun, an evening of collective play-acting that nearly everyone involved will recognize as make-believe—a throwback of sorts to the old medieval carnivals.
At the same time, fearful families across America will be on the lookout for razors in their apples and poison in their candy, for serial killers and child molesters. The Texas blogger Scott Hanson has pointed out that there's only one known case of a trick-or-treating child being abducted by a stranger; it happened 35 years ago, and the criminal in question "had no prior record and wouldn't have been on any sex offender registry even if it had existed." This shouldn't be surprising, given that young trick-or-treaters generally go out with adult supervision. Nonetheless, state and local governments will put on their annual show of protecting children against everyone on the local registries, whether or not the offenders' crimes involved minors. In a move that seems excessive even in the current climate, New York has made it illegal for sex offenders to possess Halloween candy. And in Texas, the San Antonio Express-News reports, they're "required to turn off their porch lights and are prohibited from having any exterior decorations between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. on Halloween, with parole, probation and police officers checking to see if they comply."
Call it a protective ritual against an unseen enemy. In our terrors, like our joys, we might not be so different from our ancestors after all.
Jesse Walker is the managing editor of reason and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.