Is Satan alive and well and roaming the suburbs? If so, does he look like your neighbour? By Wendy Tuohy.
When John Safran slipped over the back wall at Disneyland during Race Around The World to show how to cheat the cultural overlord of a few dollars, we had a good laugh. It was cheeky when he raided Ray Martin's garbage; still, most of his audience sniggered along.
But the broadcaster-prankster was surprised by how unenthusiastic his supposedly progressive young listeners were about his latest caper. When he offered his audience the chance to place a satanic curse on the enemy of their choice on air on fringe station 3RRR two weeks ago, the phones went strangely quiet.
"We were even offering a record to the winner, which means they usually go off, but people got really freaked out and hardly anyone rang up," says Safran, a co-presenter of 3RRR's popular breakfast show.
Safran, though not a devil worshipper, recently read a satanic "bible" written by the San Francisco-based satanist Anton LaVey in the late 1960s. Inspired, he turned up at 3RRR with all the essentials for the diabolic curse: a black coat, sword, chalice, wine, black and white candles, a bell and LaVey's strange incantations.
"In the name of Satan, the ruler of the earth, the king of the world, I command the forces of darkness to bestow their infernal powers upon me, open wide the gates of hell and come forward from the abyss, to greet me as your brother and friend," he chanted over the airwaves. This despite the warning of his flatmate who, when she saw Safran with his bell, urged him: "John, don't do it, man. Don't let those forces out of the bottle."
A receptionist at the radio station, who must have seen some pretty odd fringe-dwellers come through the door, made the sign of the cross over herself when she heard Safran reading satanic statements in Latin.
Do we still believe in the devil? Despite having turned him into yet another commodity - Liz Hurley does Lucifer in Bedazzled - and the fact that fewer than ever of us are in church, apparently, yes. Are we scared of him? You bet your goatee we are.
Though we fancy ourselves as a worldly bunch, largely immune to superstition, it seems the fear of the devil is alive and well in Australia, which is the way many traditional church leaders like it. Satan worship is also out there.
Those who actually worship Satan, including the Melbourne Church of Satan member Drew Sinton, do not subscribe to the idea of the guy with hooves and horns. Satan for him personifies "the spirit of revolt, revolution and progress".
"A lot of satanists are divided among themselves, like Christians are (about what the devil may be). With a lot of modern satanists, to them satanism is social realism and the devil is humanity and some satanists I meet are militant atheists, raised in Christian environments, a bit like Marilyn Manson."
Manson has not said he is a satanist but his demonic marketing tools - his look, stage antics and lyrics - have been blamed by conservative Christians for boosting interest in the cult of the devil. His CD Antichrist Superstar prompted young members of the Festival Of Light Christian community to picket his Australian concerts.
Sinton says Church of Satan members do not fit the ideas society has of devil worshippers in that they are motivated by political ideas about survival of the fittest rather than the will to do evil.
Though, according to LaVey, satanism embraces "all the so-called sins because they all lead to physical mental or emotional gratification" Satanism also represents "vengeance instead of turning the other cheek", according to LaVey's Nine Statements of Satanism.
Drew Sinton points out that while criminals have identified their version of satanism as a driving force, Anton LaVey's "bible" outlaws hurting or killing animals in the name of satanic ritual or involving children.
Sinton says he has no time for satanic fashion victims, some of whom pick up on it through the imagery used by hard-core heavy metal rockers. If they come to his Haunted Bookshop in Melbourne trying to show off their home-brewed evil, he gives them short shrift.
"You get all these little gunslingers, kids who come in from various groups and try and impress me with what they've done ... They call me a pussy satanist, they say, 'I'm a real satanist, I trashed the ticket machine at Broadmeadows'.
"And I say, 'You're not a satanist mate, you're what we call in the trade a dickhead'."
Sinton will not say how many Australians identify themselves as Church of Satan members; "The grotto master's handbook says never reveal. If there's not enough, we're not taken seriously, if there's too many, the church is up in arms and suddenly it's Satan in the suburbs."
The scariest story I've ever heard was the one the well-meaning leaders of our Anglican Church youth group told to warn us early teens off tampering with the spirit world.
One guy related how he and some mates thought they'd have some fun on a camping weekend by having a seance with a ouija board. Then a malevolent spirit revealed a nasty piece of personal information about one of the participants. From memory, it was that the fellow had been adopted but never told. They all laughed at the suggestion, since they knew the guy's family; but then the glass on the ouija board, as if offended, started jerking around madly.
They asked the spirit on the other end to reveal its identity, at which point it spelled out "iamthedevil".
They all freaked and the one telling us the story said he went home to his mother, who blanched, and told him the message revealed by the "spirit" was actually true. Needless to say, I never went to a seance.
Twenty years later, Christian church leaders are divided on whether it is still relevant to include the dark power of the devil in teachings. Some, such as the controversial retired Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong, say there is simply no role for the supernatural in contemporary Christianity.
In his forthcoming book, The New Christianity for a New World a chapter called Original Sin is Out, the Reality of Evil Is In Spong argues blaming the devil for evil in the world is a cop-out.
"As a supernatural entity, I don't think (the devil) has any relevance ... I think there's evil within the whole human order. I don't think it's because we have a demon hidden away within us or there's some hidden evil," he says from Sydney, where he has been promoting his new book, an autobiography, Here I Stand.
Among those who would vigorously disagree with Bishop Spong and argue Satan exists and vigilance is vital is the Anglican teacher Reverend Dr Andrew Shead, of the Moore Theological College in Newtown, Sydney.
He says the devil is real: "The way I personally think about it (is) I do believe that there was such a being and therefore still must be."
"The Bible is quite clear about the existence of a personal being that it calls Satan or the accuser, and it's quite clear that the devil is opposed to God and his purposes. The title 'accuser' represents the activities that the Bible speaks of the devil doing, a courtroom image."
For Dr Shead, the devil continues to vie for the souls of sinners. "If you think of somebody as the witness for the prosecution standing before God and saying 'send that person down' (That is the devil.)"
The new Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart has taken a similar stance: "Satan is a spiritual being who is totally opposed to God and all those things he stands for."
Earlier this year the Archbishop of Genoa, a contender to succeed the current pope, went so far as to publish 10 rules on how to resist Satan's temptations. He dedicated his Lenten letter to combating the fascination of a devil who is charming, shrewd and - he claims - very real.
The rules include: "Do not forget that the devil exists", "Do not forget that the devil is a tempter" and, "Do not forget that the devil is very intelligent and astute."
Even more moderate church leaders, such as the Baptist Reverend Tim Costello still treat the subject with extreme gravity. While he says "it's a cartoon caricature for most people - the notion of Old Nick (Satan)", he warns that evil is real and can inhabit people.
"I think the biblical purpose is just as relevant today as it was, that evil is real, it can and does inhabit systems and sometimes people and it takes spiritual discernment, not just political and cultural discernment to recognise the people so we can combat it.
"I think that Hollywood titillation (using stories) of the devil does actually disguise the really important realities about evil. People from the late '30s in Germany talked about evil brooding in that place; in the southern states of America when Martin Luther King was practising he saw evil as a spiritual reality in racism that had to be spiritually addressed, as well as culturally and politically.
"It takes on a force that can't be rationally explained. There are spiritual forces that entrench evil in a culture and in people that must be discerned and engaged."
Hollywood's interest in the devil has paid off handsomely over the years and left us with the idea that if he is out there, Satan probably does a pretty good Jack Nicholson impersonation.
Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger took on Satan in End of Days Johnny Depp was recruited by a devil worshipper to find satanic texts and went to the gates of hell in The Ninth Gate and Exorcist fan Winona Ryder was an exorcist's assistant in Lost Souls (which has been held back from release for several years because of the glut of films released with satanic subject matter, including The Sixth Sense, Stigmata and Stir Of Echoes). There was a surge of interest in, and outrage about, all things satanic when the re-mastered version of The Exorcist - voted by many as the world's scariest film - was released recently.
The Victorian Government argued it was so offensive to Christians it would be banned on Good Friday night this year. It eventually gave in to the argument that many other potentially blasphemous entertainments were still permitted that night.
There is less fuss made here over such occultish TV programs as Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Charmed in which supernatural demons frequently rise from the underworld to terrorise the beautiful stars.
But Catherine Lumby, an associate professor of media studies at Sydney University who has studied teen girl culture, says supernatural films and TV shows are hauling in the young female audiences because they are "the only ones where the girls get to be the heroes and win out over evil". As a result, she sees a great deal of interest in the occult, if not Satan, among young women she talks to.
"Some of the Christian fundamentalists in the US have expressed great concerns about shows like Charmed and Buffy on the grounds they deal in supernaturalist powers," says Lumby.
"In good old-fashioned Christian terms, there is a moral panic about messing with supernatural powers, the sort of concerns raised when Exorcist was re-mastered. If we go back 20 or 30 years, it was quite common to have church leaders speak out against ouija boards.
"Looking at the Australian response to those shows suggests in mainstream church cultures, there is not the same focus on the devil as a real force in the world, there is less focus on it."
However, Moore College's Dr Shead does not believe such interest is harmless. "So much of it is just tremendously attractive to a teenager who wants to make a statement.
"I'm sure there is an element of many pop cultures, whether it's the darkness of the gothic movement or more explicitly occult-oriented pop cultures, there is an element of it that provides an outlet for people who are interested in what may or may not lie behind it.
"But if there is someone who is fundamentally opposed to God and good and consciously decides, 'I will align myself with this attitude to life,' they are putting themselves in a position in which they may have something to answer for.
"There's a lot of image and hype linked with the occult, nevertheless, I do think there's a significant and evil substance to the occult which, in some cases, is a way in which somebody can give themselves over to a dangerous life." His message to those who would dabble in the dark side: "The truth is not out there".
"I guess in whatever life situation somebody feels they need to look to the afterlife or the occult, they're looking in the wrong place."
For Hillary Carey, the NSW academic who wrote the religious history Believing In Australia most Australians do not believe in a single devil, but the potential for damage by experimenting with the dark side exists.
"I wouldn't be happy with my own children being involved in these movements," says Carey, currently a visiting fellow to the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.
"Though, theologically, the mainstream denominations have done a pretty good job in working out ways of dealing with people who have trouble with spirit forces."
Back in Fitzroy, John Safran appears unfazed by the prospect of roasting in hell, even if his loyal flatmate still harbours fears for his soul.
"She got really freaked out by it," he says of his demonic demonstration, which proved unexpectedly worrying to many lapsed Christian listeners out there in inner Melbourne.
"I came home yesterday with a bell and she was like, 'John, man, don't do it'. I was like, 'I'm doing it at work!', she was like, 'It will follow you home!'."