Monday, October 26, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole

This week Baldblogger interviews Scott Poole, a history professor at the College of Charleston and author of the new book Satan in America: The Devil We Know, just out with Rowman & Littlefield. Today is the first post of three. So while this week is filled with trick-or-treating, ghosts and goblins of various kinds, fall festivals, and haunted houses, give Satan his due by reading Poole's great new book (or surprise those unsuspecting trick-or-treaters by passing out copies of Satan in America!)

Baldblogger (BB): Satan seems to be an ever present interest, preoccupation, even obsession in American history and culture. What inspired your interest in this subject? What were the origins of this fascinating project?

Scott Poole (SP): I have joked with my parents that I probably would never have needed to write a book about Satan if they had let me get ticket to that Ozzy concert in 1986 or not cut off access to Ghost Rider comics around the same time. I don’t know if I’m entirely kidding. I did grow up in the 80s when, as I describe in the book, a wave of irrational paranoia about the influence of the Devil in popular culture, a “satanic panic” swept the country. Evangelicalism’s rather gaudy and dark symbolic world that imagines Satan in the lyrics of heavy metal music and heading up a worldwide conspiracy that will lead to the emergence of the Antichrist held and still hold, enormous fascination for me.

I also think that scholars of American religion have avoided this topic for too long. It seems to me that beliefs about the Devil shaped American religious practice as much, and sometimes more, than beliefs about God. Some wonderful historians, including some that have been very influential on me like Christine Heyrman, have looked at this as part of their larger work.

Finally, I have to confess that I’m an inveterate consumer of low and high-grade pop culture, in massive, possibly unhealthy, quantities. It makes me happy to connect my scholarly life with this other pretty important part of my life.

BB: A central tenant of Satan in America is that Satan, the diabolical, and the Other/Evil flexes and changes over time, depending on the historical context as well as the cultural needs of the moment. In your estimation, what is the most striking of these moments in American religious history?

SP: I was astonished at what I learned about the 18th century. This is not a period where, as a historian, I spend a lot of time and so I quickly became fascinated with how much power was attributed to the Devil in this era, even over and above what even the Puritans had given him. The whole notion of “spiritual warfare” becomes a primary part of the evangelical narrative in the 1740s and this makes Satan a constant shadow across their path.

Its interesting to note that, for many Puritans, seeing the Devil or having an encounter with him was evidence that an individual had made a “satanic pact” and was active as a witch. For the first generation of American evangelicals (and later generations as well) an encounter with Satan meant that were on your way to becoming a spiritual hero, a spiritual warrior. I tapped into some unused primary sources that I think show what a powerful and ever present force the Devil became for many Americans.

By the way, it is ironic to me that most people who hear about this book assume that I focus primarily on the Salem Witch trials. I don’t, in part because I believe the understandable focus on that episode tends to blind us to the larger role that beliefs about the Devil play in the American narrative.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by the multiple manifestations of Satan as a male, as well as the Devil as a female. I wonder if you could discuss the gendered dimensions of Satan in American religious history?

SP: Well, of course, gendered representations of the Devil are part of a much longer history of misogyny in the western world. Throughout most of that history, Satan has been gendered as a male but his chief servants and avatars have been gendered female. I think that this is generally known but I think that it is less well known that these representations have remained incredibly powerful in American religion and popular culture. Most of your readers have likely heard of the story of the Jersey Devil who haunts the piney woods with its moans and shrieks. Few probably know that these stories originate in the 18th century with tales of a monstrous birth connected to a woman accused of both witchcraft and sexual misconduct. I explore this in the book as part of a larger story I tell about the relationship between diabolical beliefs and efforts to restrict womens’ political and social agency.

Another aspect of this same theme is the rather surprisingly numerous appearances of the Devil in the silent film era and how, almost always, these were connected with the screen vamp. Theda Bara and Adele Farrington consistently played women who either made a pact with Satan to deceive men or were themselves deceived by him, either because they were sexually voracious or materialistic or both. Clearly this gendered imagery pointed to cultural anxiety over “the new woman” although throughout the book, in every period, you’ll be struck by how often women are linked with demonic evil. I recently commented on this in a discussion of American misogyny and the recent film “Jennifer’s Body.”

BB: Unfortunately, there are no images of Satan—artistic depictions of the Devil—in the book. In your opinion, what are some of the more striking, or enduring images of Satan in American culture?

SP: I think that in one sense some images of the American Satan do appear in the book. A central theme in the book is that “Satan has always been someone” for Americans and so when Thomas Nast creates an image of feminist Victoria Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan” then we are getting a good glimpse of American demonology. The book also contains a harrowing image used in the rather trashy late nineteenth century rag “The National Police Gazette.” Entitled “The Female Abortionist” it shows a young, middle class woman whose vitals are being literally consumed by a demonic imp. The message there is clear.

A lot of the images I wanted to include (but couldn’t because of the sometimes extravagant price my press would have had to pay for permission) include a lot of contemporary pop culture images that illustrate both the continued power of older images of the Devil (such as Linda Blair from the Exorcist) and newer, alternative Devils that I discuss in the book who often subvert older, more conservative paradigms. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting example of the latter. I am really intrigued at how that show played with traditional concepts of misogyny and apocalyptic to deliver a very different message than these older narratives. I also look at Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” for similar reasons.

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