The Journal
of Religion and Film

The Devil We Already Know:
Medieval Representations
of a Powerless Satan in Modern American Cinema

by Kelly J. Wyman
University of Missouri – Kansas City

Vol. 8, No.2, October 2004

The Devil We Already Know: MedievalRepresentations of a Powerless Satan in Modern American Cinema

by Kelly J. Wyman
University of Missouri - Kansas City


[1] The character of Satan has been explored repeatedly in American films, although neither film nor religion scholars have extensively investigated the topic. This article examines the medieval Christian roots of Satan as seen in American cinema and proposes that the most identifiable difference between the medieval Devil and the Satan shown in American films is his level of power over humanity. Hollywood's Satans echo medieval depictions of Satan in form, appearance, and ways of interacting with humans. Although less frightening, pop culture's view of Satan - even when he is treated humorously - is thus linked through movies to medieval religious beliefs.


[2] From George Méliès' 1896 film La Manoir Du Diable (The Devil's Manor), to more recent productions such as Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Ninth Gate (1999), diabolism has been a significant foundation for films which explore religious subject matter. Within religious films, Satan, or the personification of evil, is often a prominent character. Because of his deep and established history in Western religion, namely Christianity, Satan is the ultimate antagonist. The debate over his role within Christianity is in constant flux, and film serves as a medium in which to explore the character of the Devil. Ultimately, western culture's view of the Devil is remarkably unchanged since pre-Reformation European Christianity. In American films, as in medieval Catholicism, Satan has been represented as human, as the creator of the Antichrist, as a beast, as a spirit or abstract figure, and also as a comedic hero. At the movies at least, when we confront the Devil, it is the Devil we already know.[3] To date, there has been little scholarly investigation into the subject of Satan in film. Since there are few published studies on the topic, a review of literature is nearly impossible. For example, no articles available through The Journal of Religion and Film focus on portrayals of Satan in film. Bryan Stone briefly discusses Satan in horror movies, but devotes only three paragraphs to the idea of the diabolical.1 Two books that investigate Satan in film contain useful general information, but neither delves deeply into the subject. Schreck's The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to the Devil in Cinema2 serves as a directory of films with diabolical themes. The author lists nearly every movie made between 1896 and 2000 which includes references to Satan. Schreck also gives background information and synopses of most of the films he lists, but does not attempt to make any connections between the films, nor does he discuss the philosophical or religious nature of the representations of Satan. Mitchell's The Devil on Screen: Feature Films Worldwide, 1913 Through 20003 is more focused than Schreck's book. However, while Mitchell lays out defined terms for his investigation, he still does not provide any scholarly insight, except in the introduction.[4] By contrast, a vast number of articles and books explore the role of religion in society and the representations of God in cinema. The Journal of Religion and Film includes many articles that discuss the theme of God in film including Mahan's Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Moves, Kozlovic's Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah, and Mercadante's The God Behind the Screen: Plesantville & The Truman Show.4 Several books on the subject also exist, including God in the Movies: A Sociological Investigation; Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema; Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture; Savior on the Silver Screen; Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film; and Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years.5 This wealth of materials makes the absence of comparable studies on diabolism even more apparent. [5] The imagery of the Devil in American films has created representations of Satan which closely resemble those presented in the medieval6 development of Christianity.7 Russell writes that there are no artistic representations of Satan before the sixth century.8 A possible reason can be found in Finley's Demons: The Devil, Possession, and Exorcism.9 He writes that "belief in Satan was made official by the Council of Constantinople in AD 547. He was declared eternal...From now on it was heresy not to believe in him."10 Finley simplifies the point, but if the Devil's existence was not official before the sixth century, the Church would have had little reason to commission artistic representations of him before then. [6] In The Devil: The Archfiend in Art From the Sixth to the Sixteenth Century,11 Luther Link traces the development of the representations of Satan. Concluding that depictions of Satan and Jesus Christ were modified throughout the medieval period, he writes that "the changes in Jesus can be plotted; those of the Devil are more difficult, because the iconography of Jesus was defined whereas that of the Devil was not."12 Illustrations of the Devil are difficult to place because he is seen as a "vicious demon in various guises at any time."13 There were no established portrayals Satan. Consequently, images of the Devil are often wide-ranging. Link points out that the "lack of a pictorial tradition combined with literary sources that confused the Devil, Satan, Lucifer and demons are important reasons for the lack of a unified image of the Devil and for the erratic iconography."14 For some people, Satan can be an ambiguous character, and the images of the Devil seen today are just as varied as they were in the early Church; they range from human to beast to non-human.[7] The differing definitions of Satan in movies, literature, academe, and religion contribute to a widespread ignorance about the Devil, who he is, what he stands for, and what he looks like. The overall debate about Satan and popular ignorance of him allows filmmakers the opportunity to illustrate varying interpretations. Films become a way to investigate the Devil's character. Popular cinema has the ability to fill the void of knowledge about the Devil. These inconsistent portrayals also have the ability to infuse a lack of meaning into the Devil by representing him in so many ways that one becomes confused about his place in Christianity. In the Bible, Satan plays a minor role, and his personality is not discussed in its text. The Devil's character is not well-developed in the Bible. He plagues humankind with temptations and hardships, and he tests basic belief in God, but not much more is known about his person. [8] In his series of books, J.B. Russell traces the history of the Devil from antiquity to present day. In Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, Russell writes that "the best system of defining and explaining such human constructs as the Constitution or the Devil is the history of concepts."15 This "history of concepts" should include an analysis of the portrayals of the Devil in film because they can be traced as cinematic artifacts. For some people, films can create and/or reinforce beliefs and perceptions. Therefore, movies and filmmakers become the creators of images and beliefs people adopt about Satan. Cinema not only reinforces values and conceptions, it also creates standards. Since what people watch and experience works to define their perceptions, the power of film and its representations of Satan should be an important consideration in the study of religion and film.

Satan as Human

[9] When he originally appeared in early medieval art, the Devil was pictured as human or humanoid.16 In many films such as Oh, God! You Devil, The Witches of Eastwick, Angel Heart, Devil's Advocate, End of Days, and Bedazzled,17 Satan takes the form of a human, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically. Russell states that this type of image "dominated the period from the ninth through the eleventh"18 centuries. The Devil could appear as a regular person such "as an old man or woman, an attractive youth or girl, a servant, pauper, fisherman, merchant, student, shoemaker, or peasant."19 Further, some of the characteristics of the humanoid Devil "were glowing eyes, spewing mouths, spindly arms and legs, bloated torsos, and long, hooked noses."20 These images are still present in American popular culture and can be seen in movies such as the ones mentioned above. [10] In American films, the humanoid Devil is usually portrayed as male. The representation of Satan during the Middle Ages was always male "because the popular imagination made the Devil, like God, masculine."21 Except in obvious cases like Bedazzled where the Devil is clearly a woman, female demons are usually identified with succubi. This identification of Satan as male is so strong that the female figures are rarely recognized by modern viewers as the Devil. In The Ninth Gate, Satan is portrayed as female; however, most reviewers confused her with a succubus.

Creating the Antichrist

[11] Similarly, by suggesting that in order to create the antichrist the Devil must have sex with a woman, the male Satan is often represented in American cinema as a type of incubus. Russell contends that the idea of demons or the Devil having sex with women was accepted by the Church because "they could draw upon the old tradition of the fallen angels lusting after the daughters of men."22 It was also thought throughout the medieval period that witches engaged in ceremonial sex with demons and even Satan himself.23 [12] Naturally, sex with humans can result in offspring. Written during the medieval period, the Old English poem Christ and Satan mentions the theme of Satan and his son reigning over humanity.24 In Lucifer, Russell writes that "among the other lies of the Devil, the demons [in the poem] complain, is that his own son would become the ruler of mankind."25 Clubb writes that "the conception of Antichrist as Satan's son was [also].provided by passages in Wulfstan."26 Russell explains that throughout the Middle Ages, the antichrist was thought capable of taking several forms including "an incarnation of Satan himself, or Satan's son, or the chief of Satan's armies."27 The idea of the antichrist being half human is explored in films such as Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and Devil's Advocate.28 These films are also based on the idea that Satan needs an heir in order to continue his assumed reign - a legacy motif.

Satan as Beast

[13] When many people think of the Devil, they picture a satyr-style figure with horns and a tail, usually colored red and carrying a pitchfork. The best example would be of Tim Curry's character in the 1985 film Legend29 In later medieval art, around the turn of the eleventh century, Russell points out that Satan became a monster and was symbolized by the color red.30 The most common animalistic characteristics assigned to the Devil were horns, a tail, and wings,31 and the most recurrent creature forms were "serpent (dragon), goat, and dog."32 Russell further explains,[14] Animal and monstrous demons tended to follow the forms suggested by Scripture, theology, and folklore, such as snakes, dragons, lions, goats, and bats. Often, however, artists seemed to select forms according to their fancy: demons with human feet and hands, wild hair, and animal faces and ears; demons with monstrous, hideous bodies, lizard skin, apelike heads, and paws. The symbolism was intended to show the Devil as deprived of beauty, harmony, reality, and structure, shifting his shapes chaotically, and as a twisted, ugly distortion of what angelic or even human nature ought to be. The didactic purpose was to frighten sinners with threats of torment and hell.33 [15] The color red was used to indicate both the fires of hell and the blood of humanity. The Devil's skin was sometimes red, or he was dressed in red, or his hair was flaming like fire.34 The films Legend and Little Nicky35 are examples of the Devil in this beastlike form. In both of these films, Satan has horns and is satyr-like. The beastlike Satan can also been seen in End of Days when Satan takes his "true" form at the end of the film.[16] Another use of the beast signifying evil is seen in the films The Exorcist and The Omen. In these movies, dogs (the beasts) represent servants of evil. The Exorcist uses dogs at the beginning of the film when Father Merrin is in the Iraqi desert. The dog fight symbolizes impending doom, and Father Merrin recognizes this as a signifier of the Devil, a portent of evil. In The Omen, Damien is protected by an evil Rottweiler. The dog not only symbolizes evil, but also serves as a protector for Damien. Little Nicky contains a diabolical dog as well. Mr. Beefy (the dog) serves as Nicky's guide on Earth.

Possession and Satan as Abstract

[17] Although human and beastlike representations were the most common in the Middle Ages, many religionists believed that the Devil was a spirit who could possess humans. Pagels writes that "thousands of years of tradition have characterized a spirit."36 Graves explains that at one time, "the Devil, it was thought, could not influence the actions of men unless bodily present within them."37 The Catholic Church, as Corte describes, believes most cases of possession are inflicted on the victims by their own doing, either by worshipping Satan or practicing sinful lifestyles. The Church does admit, however, that there have been many documented cases of possession where there has been no fault or blame placed on the afflicted individual.38 [18] As illustrated in The Exorcist and End of Days, American films often show the Devil possessing a human. In End of Days, the Devil starts out as an abstract entity, but quickly takes over the body of Gabriel Byrne's character. At the end of the film, Satan becomes beastlike. The Devil's reason for choosing to inhabit Byrne's body is never explained in the film. However, in The Exorcist, it is suggested that Regan contributed to her own possession by playing with a Ouija board.[19] Possession and exorcism themes are certainly prevalent in American movies. Cueno argues that "the biggest promoter of Catholic exorcism remains the popular entertainment industry."39 A thirteenth-century Armenian painting depicts God performing an exorcism. One can infer that this shows that anyone who has the power to exorcize demons may be God-like. A Catholic priest (as seen in The Exorcist and The Omen) who has the knowledge of and power to perform an exorcism is somewhat Christ-like. Russell writes that "Christ's powers of exorcism were a sign of his power to replace the Kingdom of this World, which is the Kingdom of Satan, with the Kingdom of the Lord."40 [20] Satan as abstract is a theme which is derived from the Middle Ages. Some theologians in the Catholic Church believed that the Devil is not tangible, and is therefore illustrated as a spirit or angel. According to Russell, between 1140 and 1230, Satan was often thought of as a spirit. He explains, "the eternal Principal of Evil walked in solid, if invisible, substance at one's side and crouched when one was quiet in the dark recesses of room and mind."41 Russell also notes that in Dante's Divine Comedy Satan was "specifically be empty, foolish, and contemptible, a futile contrast to God's Energy," and that "Satan's true being is his lack of being, his futility and nothingness."42 In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "the Devil seldom plays an important role other than as metaphor."43 Link suggests that the Devil cannot have a true physical form. He deduces that "since the Devil could be a microbe as well as a fallen angel, how could the Devil have a face? He could not because he was not a character, only an abstraction."44 Hell could also not have a true physical form, but one depiction Link offers is "the Leviathan Hell Mouth of the Last Judgment."45 This is a close parallel to the Leviathan in Hellbound: Hellraiser II.46 Link states, "Hell Mouth is a powerful, primitive force, a denizen of the deep who receives what Satan casts in."47 The Leviathan in Hellbound is also a hell where souls are thrown and collected.

Satan in Comedy

[21] Another representation of Satan which is seen in both the Middle Ages and American cinema is that of the Devil as comedic hero. In Lucifer, Russell writes that the "popular opinion" of Satan during the time of the Middle Ages "oscillated between seeing him as a terrible lord and seeing him as a fool."48 In The Witches of Eastwick, Daryl Van Horne is shown as both. In Bedazzled, most of Satan's actions are performed for comedic relief. Russell continues, "the Devil could be a silly prankster, playing marbles in church or moving the pews about."49 He also notes that throughout the medieval period "the Devil.became more ridiculous and comic in sermons, art, exempla, and popular literature from the end of the thirteenth century, perhaps a logical result of reducing his theological significance while increasing the sense of his immediacy."50 Comedic Satans can also be seen in films such as Little Nicky, and Oh, God! You Devil.

Faustian Themes

[22] The Faust legend also has its roots in the Middle Ages. At some point, there is a Faustian aspect to most diabolical films in America. Russell writes that "the idea of a formal pact [with the Devil] goes back to a story about Saint Basil circulated by Saint Jerome in the fifth century and an even more influential story of Theophilus of Cilicia dating from the sixth."51 Diecknamm points out that the Faust story has been told and retold under different names dating from antiquity, but was especially prevalent during the medieval period.52 Oh, God! You Devil, Devil's Advocate, and Bedazzled have clear Faustian themes. According to Russell, William Langland's Piers Plowman explores the idea of "salvation.through love more than intellect."53 At the end of Devil's Advocate, Kevin Lomax is ultimately saved by love, as his wits are of no use against the Devil. Russell continues, "influenced by the nominalism and voluntarism common in late fourteenth-century theology, Langland asserted the freedom of the human will."54 In Devil's Advocate, Kevin's free-will decision at the end of the film restores order.


[23] As the medieval church changed, the conceptions of Satan changed with it. The Devil moved from being presented as a naked man surrounded by darkness, to a beast with animalistic properties or a brightly colored creature that carries a pitchfork, to an abstract entity with no physical form. Of these representations of Satan, Link writes that "no other creature in the arts with such a long history is so empty of intrinsic meaning. No other sign or supposed symbol is so flat."55 For many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, the Devil is certainly not meaningless. However, the variety of images and conceptions of him does make the character of Satan rather vacant. Link says of early Christian art and its illustrations of the Devil, "[it] was the medium and message for the illiterate masses."56 Americans are generally literate, but the accessibility of movies makes them one of the mediums most available to the masses. Many Americans watch television and go to the movies more than they read or view art, so what they see on screen has the possibility of becoming the only visual representation they have of Satan.  [24] A commonly held view by religious scholars in the late 1960's was that America was rapidly becoming secularized. As an overall view of religion, this belief has been reexamined in recent scholarship, but the principle can still be applied to the representations of Satan in American film. Peter L. Berger states, "the religious legitimations of the world have lost their plausibility not only for a few intellectuals and other marginal individuals but for broad masses of entire societies."57 Berger was speaking in terms of the presence of religion as a whole in society, and he has since recanted this notion.58 However, the Devil's incorporation into American popular culture has worked to lessen his status as the ultimate source of evil because when Satan is represented on screen, one can dismiss the portrayal as a fabrication. Satan will never become secularized because his existence is based in religion, but the possibility still exists that his incorporation into American popular culture has weakened the Devil's terrifying qualities as assigned to him by the early Church. Regardless of the representation offered, films about Satan usually go unnoticed by the public, theologians, and, as mentioned before, most academics. [25] The Devil and what he signifies can become meaningless to people because of the varying interpretations of him in cinema. In the majority of Satan films, the Devil is not offered as a particularly frightening force in American culture. The most fear-provoking representation of Satan is when he is portrayed as an abstract entity. The idea of Satan entering a human body or being a presence unseen is intrinsically more scary that a Devil who is personified, but in most of the films where the Devil has no physical form, he is still shown as easily downcast because he possesses humans. After all, a Devil who manifests himself in human form, or even as a beastlike figure, can be killed and disposed of, and the comedic Devil is never frightening. In addition, when one sees something over and over again, it becomes mundane and arguably holds less significance for him or her. The same argument has been made concerning violence, sex, and profanity in the movies.59 If people repeatedly see representations of Satan in films, he too, may become less important or less powerful in the eyes of the public.

[26] Ariès writes that there is a "complete disappearance of hell. Even those who believe in the devil limit his power to this world and do not believe in eternal damnation."60 Finlay argues that "the Devil of today has lost his terrifying aspect, being mostly a disembodied evil spirit."61 The representations of Satan in American cinema have certainly worked to help develop and enforce the Devil's loss of power. Satan rarely wins, and he is shown as relatively easy to battle. The portrayal of the Devil in this fashion diminishes his power within the framework of religion. Many Christians would probably disagree with representations that illustrate the Devil as a being who is easily downcast. In the end, they might agree that the Devil will not win the fight for humanity, but they would most likely say that he is not so effortlessly overpowered. If people believe in the representations of Satan that are so frequently presented in movies, he becomes a less frightening entity. There is then no need to be concerned because there will always be a Catholic priest to perform an exorcism, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger to save humanity from ultimate disaster. And if Satan has a sense of humor and looks like Elizabeth Hurly, or Gabriel Byrne for that matter, why not go to hell? Adam Sandler makes it look fun. Finley continues to write that the character of Satan is definitely intriguing.62 If he were not a compelling figure, there would not be as many films about the Devil as there are. This much is true.

Grouped Notes

Angel Heart Bedazzled Devil's Advocate
End of Days The Exorcist Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Le Manoir du diable (The Devil's Manor) Legend Little Nicky
The Ninth Gate Oh, God! You Devil The Omen
Rosemary's Baby   The Witches of Eastwick

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