On the surface, everything about Misty Tyers’ life seems perfectly ordinary. She’s a barber who’s good at what she does – so good that her time gets booked out months in advance. She also loves music and, every year, goes on a week-long heavy metal cruise with 60 bands and 3,000 people. And when Misty’s not moshing or cutting hair, she’s lifting weights. Kettlebells, to be precise. She’s good at that, too, and hopes to make the world championships in Serbia this year.
But something in the 32-year-old’s bedroom hints at a life less ordinary. In between the weights and medals from her athletic endeavours, on top of a green and red chest of drawers, sits Misty’s Satanic altar.
“I credit [Satanism] for a lot of the successes in my life,” she explains over the phone from her apartment in Victoria, a city on the southern tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island. “It’s always encouraging you to push yourself. Some people take that into their career, some people take it intellectually, and some people take it physically – like with my weightlifting.”
Misty first heard of Satanism as a teenager, but didn’t officially join the Church of Satan until she turned 27, after discovering a book called The Satanic Witch by its founder, Anton Szandor LaVey.
“The way it talked about how you see yourself – it doesn’t matter if you’re, say, a slightly larger woman,” she says with a laugh. “It’s about using that to your advantage. It’s about figuring out how you can best present yourself, how you can feel more confident and work things in your favour.”
As far as religions go, Satanism isn’t exactly taken seriously by the wider public. No one would be blamed for imagining it as a refuge for devil-worshippers who run around in capes, drink blood, piss fire or even indulge in sacrificial slaughter. That’s because the overwhelming majority of these associations have been shaped by how Satanism has been depicted in pop culture, the media and, more significantly, other religions.
Back in the late 1980s, a wave of ‘Satanic Panic’ arose from allegations that the Church of Satan was abusing and kidnapping children in US daycare centres. It led to the longest and most expensive trial in American history, before resulting in all charges being dropped without any convictions. (There was no evidence against the Church and the original allegations turned out to be false.)
The thing is, the Church of Satan doesn’t believe in the devil. It doesn’t even recognise ‘Satan’ as a physical or spiritual being. As far as the Church is concerned, there is no such thing as heaven or hell. Satanists loyal to the Church of Satan are, in fact, atheists who accept all genders, sexualities, sexual preferences and races.
“The Satanic attitude is that people should be judged by their own merit,” LaVey wrote. That attitude might not seem worth noting in 2019, but it’s hardly common among other established religions.
As well as The Satanic Witch, Anton Szandor LaVey authored five books on the religion of Satanism as he saw it. The first and most important – the one that formed the guiding philosophy for the entire Church of Satan – was 1969’s The Satanic Bible. The book has since sold over a million copies, has never gone out of print and has been translated into multiple languages.
Drawing on the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand and Ragnar Redbeard, LaVey’s bible kicks off with ‘The Nine Satanic Statements’ which include: “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence!”, “Satan represents vital existence, instead of spiritual pipe dreams!” and “Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit!”
The overarching dogma is not about worshipping any external forces – real or spiritual – but instead worshipping oneself and doing everything in your power to achieve your potential. “If everyone had a particular time and place for the purpose of indulging in their personal desires, without fear of embarrassment or reproach, they would be sufficiently released to lead unfrustrated lives in the everyday world,” writes LaVey in The Satanic Bible.
“A Satanist doesn’t deny that those carnal instincts exist, burying them deep in our subconscious to the point that they well up and explode,” explains Joel Ethan, a Church of Satan spokesperson who lives in an undisclosed location on the US east coast. “Rather we embrace them as part of our DNA and make rational decisions about how best to act on them. Satanists are pragmatists: we see life as the great indulgence and want to enjoy it to its fullest for as long as we can.”
On paper, Joel Ethan resembles many 40-year-old men. He likes travelling and watching movies; loves spending time with his family. He works for a non-profit in the environmental sector, makes for a good conversationalist and generally feels content with life. He’s intelligent, polite and curious. It just happens that he’s also a Satanic Priest.
The Church of Satan piqued Joel’s interest in the 1990s, when he first borrowed a copy of The Satanic Bible from a classmate. Having found more questions than answers in the more traditional religious values his family subscribed to, something about the philosophy behind Satanism felt like a better fit.
But while Misty’s work as a barber allows her to be open with her beliefs – though she doesn’t “scream it from the rooftops” – Joel’s work and personal life make it tricky for him to identify as a Satanist publicly. The same is true for many others. In the US especially, being ‘outed’ as a Satanist could pose significant personal and professional risks.
It’s fair to say that old photographs of LaVey – depicted wearing devil horns, draped in snakes, dressed all in black and surrounded by naked women – hasn’t done much to help the Church’s public image. It probably also wasn’t ideal, from a PR point of view, that he lived in a massive, haunted-looking black house (named, somewhat unimaginatively, the ‘Black House’). But while occultist imagery, aesthetics and language are popular within the Church, none of it is taken literally.
Rather than change who you are to ‘become’ a Satanist, Satanism is more about recognising something that exists within yourself which happens to align with its principles. “It’s never encouraged to proselytise or anything like that,” says Misty. “It acknowledges you as an individual and not as just some faceless person in a congregation. [That’s why] I feel like the people who are really meant to find it will find it.”
Wyatt Fleming, a 26-year-old student and government employee working in Upstate New York, found it at the age of 18. He comes across as well-read, hard-working and the kind of person who prefers to keep to himself. And while he’s open about his involvement in Satanism with his parents, his brother and two close friends – all of whom are accepting of it – he chooses not to share his beliefs with anyone beyond that to avoid dealing with prejudice.
That said, Wyatt insists it’s played a pivotal role in his life. “It’s inspired me to visualise who I want to be,” he says. “I’ve upgraded my style, packed on muscle, written books, succeeded in military training and learned better how to network, make friends and meet new lovers.”
As young people attempt to find their way in increasingly uncertain times, Wyatt believes there’s much to be gained from individual exploration of the Satanic outlook. “Satanism doesn’t seek to convert anyone, but I think there are a lot of young adults who would be de facto Satanists yet just don’t know about it,” he says.
“They could do a lot of good for themselves to embrace a religion that’s about developing your abilities and self-awareness to live life on your own terms… and replacing traditional religion with something other than mass-market consumerism and shoddy, vague, spiritual beliefs.”
Far from relying on analogue scriptures to convey their outlook, the Church of Satan has kept up with the times. At the time of writing, the Church of Satan’s Twitter account has some 214k followers compared to the Church of England’s 87k, regularly firing off witty replies to anything Satan-related. (When one user tweeted, “Fuck Satanism,” for instance, the account simply replied, “Fucking is indeed Satanic.”)
Then there’s the magic. Despite clarifying that Satanists do not believe in the devil, drink blood and all the rest of it, they do practise two distinct types of magic. This, admits Misty, is where someone showing an initial interest in the religion might be thrown off. “But it’s not a Harry Potter thing, like you’re casting spells,” she says.
‘Lesser Magic’ is about the day-to-day things a Satanist can do to help them get what they want out of the world. It could be as simple as wearing your most confidence-inducing clothes to a job interview or taking your boss for lunch before asking for a pay rise.
“It’s all about charming people, or presenting yourself in such a way that you win people over,” says Misty. “You manipulate the world around you to get what you need. People often think of ‘manipulation’ negatively, but any time you handle something or do something to achieve something specific, that’s manipulation.”
‘Greater Magic’, meanwhile, is about allowing yourself a time and a place to process events, both physical and emotional, or to focus your energy for a specific purpose. This often takes the form of a ritual. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, images of LaVey surrounded by naked women during these rituals were common, as were nude altars.
Naturally, this led critics of the Church to claim that LaVey was little more than a power-hungry, sex-mad misogynist. But Misty doesn’t see it that way. “People look at nude altars and immediately think the woman is being objectified,” she explains. “But they fail to grasp that it’s all consensual. Men have done [nude altars] too. People of every stripe – male or female, all over the LGBT spectrum – have done it… You’re in the position of utmost power. Everybody focuses on you. It almost feels, in a sense, like being a rockstar on stage. It’s not a sexist issue in the slightest.”
Before LaVey came along, the concept of Satan existed only as an enemy of Christianity, evolving from the Roman Catholic Church’s distaste and distrust towards Pagans and similar ‘alternative’ religious offshoots in the Middle Ages. It was essentially an insult or, as Joel explains, “a label they slapped on someone to justify whatever horrible thing they wanted to do to those people, with no clear definition or basis in reality. LaVey was the first to clearly define the religion and self-apply the label ‘Satanism’.”
And by identifying in opposition to all else, effectively rejecting everything monotheistic in society at the time, that label took the most rebellious form available. But as a set of principles to live by today, it feels closer to liberalism than nihilism: adaptable, practical, self-aware and more aligned with Western culture than orthodox theology.
With Misty, for instance, Greater Magic is a form of “emotional decompression”. Last year, she lost her grandfather, whom she was extremely close to. Having spent a day with him in the care facility, playing him some of his favourite songs – like Johnny Cash’s rendition of ‘Hurt’ – she returned home to eat. As soon as she walked in the front door, her mother called with the news that he’d passed. “It must’ve happened the second I left the room,” says Misty. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
That night, Misty called upon some Greater Magic to help her process her grandfather’s passing. She went to the modest Satanic altar she has set up in her apartment – some candles, a cup to drink out of, a bell and a couple of Satanic symbols – before working through a personal ritual.
“Some people are really into big theatrics – drums, gongs, outfits, shouting out names, and things like that,” she says. “Some people are more into simplicity. It’s very individual.”
Whatever form it takes, the point is simply to face whatever you’re dealing with at that moment, to process them rather than ignore them. “You’re able to work things out in your mind,” says Misty. “You can pour all of your emotions out and leave them on the altar. That night, I just let it all out, and I feel I was able to heal and recover a lot faster… instead of moping around for weeks. It was probably better than any amount of therapy I could’ve paid for.”