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666: The Theme That Shall Not Be Named

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

There's this prayer hotline that a group called The Satanic Missionary Society of Olympia, Washington started. It's like a regular prayer hotline except, of course, instead of praying to God, you leave a voicemail message, and then they'll pray to Satan for you. If you want, they'll post your message to the internet so others will also pray to Satan for you.

And with almost no publicity, like from the very start, people called. Like this was serving a need that was just waiting for some forward-thinking, devilish entrepreneur. People definitely had stuff that they wanted that you can't turn to God for.

Man 1

Hey, how's it going? Basically, a couple-- about a month or two ago, my apartment got robbed. I still haven't figured anything out, or where any of my stuff is at.

Basically, I just want the people who stole my shit to suffer for it. Fair enough, I think. Thanks. Hail Satan.

Man 2

Hello, Satanists everywhere. I'm calling to put a hex on the 1230 Club in Olympia, Washington, because they're just assholes. Because they start blasting the music really early every night.

New Year's Eve tonight, and they're already, like, starting at 6:00 in the evening. Please make the 1230 Club go out of business, but make sure everybody that works there goes deaf, like, from playing their music so loud first. Hail Satan.

Man 3

Hello. I would like all of my enemies to suffer. Thank you.

Ira Glass

Really does not get more concise than that last one. There are people who call as a joke. One guy called to ask for one more Shrek sequel. There's an occasional drunk dial to Satan.

Drunk Man

Have a very Satanic day.

Ira Glass

And there are people who don't seem to understand the difference between the stuff you should be asking Satan for, and the stuff you ask God for.

Teenage Boy

Hello. Hail Satan. I'm calling for you to help me. I have an interview tomorrow. I'm trying to get my first job ever. I'm 16. So please pray to our Dark Lord, and hopefully, I might get this job.

Ira Glass

Did you get that? Pray to our Dark Lord, and hopefully, I might get this job.

Man 4

Thank you. Hail Satan.

Ira Glass

There's a teenager who calls to ask for a hex on a tattletale named Matt. The phone message ends with the most cheerful "hail Satan" I have ever heard.

Teenage Girl 1

Thank you! Hail Satan.

Ira Glass

I think one of my favorite things about these calls is to hear people just toss that off, so casually. Like, that's a thing we say.

Woman 1

Thank you and hail Satan. Have a great day.

Man 5

OK, we love you. Hail Satan. Goodnight.

Ira Glass

But in the end, the meat and potatoes of this public service phone line is vengeance and relief. Or, at least, the level of vengeance that you can get with a phone call, the kind of relief you get by wishing for something.

Woman 2

Hail Satan. This is [BLEEP]. And I would like to put a hex on [BLEEP], because he's a really big asshole, and all my friends hate him.

And he told me that he was going to kill me, my daughter, and my cat. And he poured piss all over my car and my front porch, and he's just a piece of shit. Please put a hex on him. Hail Satan.

Teenage Girl 2

Hi, guys. I'm a teenager, and I am really in a sticky situation. I need you guys to pray that-- well, I think I'm pregnant.

And I need you guys to pray against the pregnancy. And if there is a baby inside of me, for Satan to kill it. Because I can't have a baby right now. So I'm turning to Satan, and he is the only answer I have right now. So I'm just overwhelmed. So call me when you get the chance. So thank you so much. Hail Satan, right? OK, thank you. Goodbye.

Ira Glass

We heard about the Satanic prayer line on KCRW's podcast Here Be Monsters, and thanks to them for that. I reached out to the guy who started the prayer line on the phone at 8:00 at night, after his kids were in bed. He's the primary caretaker. One's four, one's 17 months.

His name is Chris Allert, and he says the prayer line really started as a lark after he got annoyed with a local Christian group in Olympia, where he lives, that he says wouldn't let up with their proselytizing. He doesn't believe in God or in Satan. He started this out of curiosity, to see who would call. And then when the voicemails started rolling in, he saw, oh, people are taking this really seriously. And really, it wasn't so clear what to do with that.

Chris Allert

Yeah, they were really touching, some of them. There's that one about that girl that called that said she didn't want to have a baby and was like-- like, I didn't know. But she asked us to post it, and it was so-- yeah, it was just like wow, she's really-- And I don't know, I've never-- she hasn't called again, or I don't know what happened to her or anything.

Ira Glass

Yeah. When you heard that, did you feel like, oh, maybe I went too far?

Chris Allert

Yeah. I still think about that. And she's a teenager or something, too--

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chris Allert

--or she was. And yeah, I just remember almost not posting it. But then it's like, she asked me to. But then I would've felt guilty about not posting it, because she really wanted-- I don't know. When people put their faith in something, you don't want to let them down. But then you don't actually have any way to help them.

That might be part of the reason I haven't really kept up with the calls. I mean, I still listen to the people. I still get, like, 20 calls a day. I'm not saying-- I listen to them as much as I can. I haven't had time to really keep the website up-to-date.

Ira Glass

In fact, it's been years-- since his first daughter was born-- that he's posted any calls to the website. People call in, hoping somebody's going to pray to Satan for them. He never, ever delivers that. Nobody does.

Chris Allert

I feel like I'm people down. I actually do feel really guilty about not keeping it up.

Ira Glass

I think usually the problem, when you start talking about the devil, is that for some people, Satan is real. It's no joke. He is out there. Nothing could be more serious. And for non-believers, nothing could be sillier-- this cartoon-ish imp with horns.

And even bringing the subject up divides people, sends us into sparring camps. Which, can I say, is exactly what the devil wants. Or doesn't, if he doesn't exist. And Chris is one of the few people I've ever heard of who's in the middle. Even though he doesn't believe in Satan, he can't bring himself to shut down the prayer line. He feels like he's seen that people need it-- they need a place to call. And it doesn't feel right to take Satan from them.

Chris Allert

Yeah, the whole-- why don't I quit doing it? And it's like, I don't know. But I think if I understood it-- when I understand it better, I'll be able to just let it go. I think I just don't understand it myself.

Ira Glass

And the thing you don't understand is just-- you're not totally understanding why this has a hold over people and why it has a hold over you.

Chris Allert

Yeah, or over me, even. Yeah. It matters in some way that I just haven't figured out yet.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. And, OK, all this talk of Satan-- that is because today's show is a milestone for us. Not a milestone that we're necessarily proud of or anything-- just the odometer of our lives and of our weeks has ticked over and gotten us to the point where we did 100 episodes of our show, and then our 200th episode, and our 300th episode, week after week, show after show, past episode 600. And finally, here we are-- episode 666.

[HEAVY METAL MUSIC PLAYING]

And to commemorate our 666th episode-- wow, this music is loud-- (LOUDER) OK, to commemorate our 666th episode, we have stories about Satan in his many surprising forms here on Earth. I'm your host, Ira Glass. And to paraphrase Milton, I would rather host a show in hell than just be somebody who gets quoted for a minute or two in a show on Heaven. Stay with us.

Act One: Record Deal with the Devil

Ira Glass

Act One, Record Deal with the Devil. So let's begin today by returning to a recent moment in this country when lots of secular people suddenly got worried about the devil. This was back in the 1980s. There was a whole Satanic panic. TV specials with Geraldo, and Oprah, and Sally Jessy Raphael about Satanic murders, Satanic rituals, Satanic cults.

And the thing we want to talk about in today's story, Satanic music. This was a low point, I would say, of the "what are kids listening to today" freak-outs among adults. It got so heated, the Senate held hearings on this.

Senator Hawkins

Much has changed since Elvis, seemingly innocent times.

Ira Glass

This is Senator Paula Hawkins in 1985.

Senator Hawkins

Subtlety, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult.

Ira Glass

Hawkins was a witness along with members of the Parents Music Resource Council, the PMRC, testifying to the dangers of rock music. Remember Tipper Gore? Remember those days? They're the ones who eventually got parental advisory stickers put on tapes and CDs.

The hearing, of course, included the obligatory embarrassing-to-watch moments of serious-looking adults reading lyrics not written for sober people in suits and sensible dresses to enjoy. This next clip is a minister reading lyrics from a band called Piledriver. His performance is very different from the original recording of the song.

Council Member

The song is called "Lust." The lyrics say "Hell on fire, lust, desire. The devil wants to stick you. The devil wants to lick you.

He wants your body. He wants your spirit. Naked, twisting, bodies sweating. Prince of darkness, prince of evil. Spread your legs and scream. This is no dream.

Degradation, humiliation. Thrusting, shoving, animals humping. He's like a dog in heat. You're just another piece of meat. Craving--

Ira Glass

Some very obscure bands got great publicity from this hearing. The band that recorded that song, Piledriver, says the hearing gave them a bump in record sales-- maybe 10,000 albums, they told us, that they wouldn't have sold otherwise.

And it's right around this time that a religious crusader, one of the most vocal devil hunters in the country, dove deep into this controversy over rock lyrics. And this incredible thing happened where he went on tour. He went on tour with one of the thrash metal bands that sings about Satan to figure out just how evil and dangerous it was.

It was a sincere attempt to try to see what the other side was doing. A very unusual encounter between big names in the two opposing camps, the Christians and the rockers. And this was not a superficial drop in, drop out. The preacher spent a week with them, traveled on the bus with the band, got to know them.

All this happened in 1989. Not many people remember this weird momentary mash-up between the nonbelievers and the believers. Reporter Kelefa Sanneh takes us back to tell what happened.

Kelefa Sanneh

This warrior in the fight against Satanism-- his name was Bob Larson. He used to play in small-time rock bands. Then he switched sides and became a preacher with a taste for spiritual warfare. He started doing a nationally syndicated radio show called Talk Back in 1982.

Bob Larson

Good afternoon, America. Welcome to Talk Back with Bob Larson. I'll be here the next hour, talking about what's on my mind, and hearing from you about what's on your mind. In studio today--

Kelefa Sanneh

He warned about the spread of Satanism, told parents about the Satanic messages in the music their children were listening to. He had Satanists on the air to argue with him about Satanism, including two guys from a band called Acheron.

Band Member 1

Let him come and take me. Where is Jesus? I don't see him.

Bob Larson

If the devil could kill you right now, he would. You see, the devil's got you where he wants you. Your souls are damned and doomed right now.

Band Member 2

Rather be damned.

Bob Larson

It's Jesus Christ that's keeping you alive.

Band Member 3

Oh, is he?

Bob Larson

To me! To me. You gentlemen being here today is an incredible testimony to the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.

Band Member 1

Oh, really?

Kelefa Sanneh

Sometimes he would offer to perform an exorcism. He's really into exorcisms.

Bob Larson

And I did something that was pretty revolutionary at the time.

Kelefa Sanneh

This is Bob Larson today.

Bob Larson

I would play sound bites of songs. And sometimes I would start my show out with some really thrash music and let it play just long enough for some kid who was surfing across the dial to land on it before he realized what kind of a show he was actually listening to.

Kelefa Sanneh

Bait and switch.

Bob Larson

Yeah. Yeah, bait and switch. Well, it wasn't my intent, but in fact, it happened. So I would end up having some pretty profound spiritual discussions with kids who had no idea that they just happened onto a religious station.

Kelefa Sanneh

Even now, Bob Larson clearly loves talking about this music. He loves being fluent in the language of metal, even though he insists he's not a fan of it-- just a researcher with an unusually high tolerance for it.

Bob Larson

Everybody trying to outdo everybody else with outlandish antics of sorts, whether it was Alice Cooper on stage with a snake, or the death thrash metal bands trying to outdo themselves with Satanism motifs. Cannibal Corpse, Deicide-- I mean, that's right at the top of my list.

Kelefa Sanneh

That's late '80s, right?

Bob Larson

Yeah, Morbid Angel, groups like that.

Kelefa Sanneh

One guy who sometimes called into Bob Larson's show was Bob Guccione Jr.

Bob Guccione Jr.

And I was, just about at the time, the only person in the rock media, the music media, that wanted to debate these guys.

Kelefa Sanneh

He was the publisher of Spin magazine, and he's also the son of that other Bob Guccione, the one who founded Penthouse magazine.

Bob Guccione Jr.

You know, growing up in my household, with my father, who was constantly at war with the religious right-- he published Penthouse, they were assailing it-- I knew you had to debate these people, or else their opinion generally took. I argued the case against anyone who wanted to argue.

Kelefa Sanneh

Bob Guccione became a regular guest on Bob Larson's show. He became one of Larson's favorite antagonists.

Bob Guccione Jr.

I would be on his show in his studio in Colorado, and he would be assailing me. "You are the son of Satan. My readers, my listeners, I'm sitting with the son of Satan here." I was basically a devil incarnate.

And he begged me, begged me on air-- on air, he begged me to exorcise me. And I said, I don't need to be exorcised! He goes, you've got to be born again. I said, well, I was born once!

So anyway, he would assail me. And especially when his listeners would call in and say, he's got a point, he sounds like a good guy, he would assail me even further, cut me off. And in the commercial break, he'd say, where do you want to go for dinner?

Kelefa Sanneh

These two guys named Bob-- they were both performers. They both knew the value of a good spectacle. Maybe it wasn't pro wrestling exactly, but it was a show.

Behind the scenes, they became fairly close friends. For both of them, it was a transgressive friendship. And they liked that.

Kelefa Sanneh

And at some point, you get the idea to invite him into your secular rock magazine.

Bob Guccione Jr.

Yeah. Don't know what took me so long. [LAUGHING] I was having dinner with him once. And he's talking away, he's talking away, talking way about this, and the music you espouse. All the lives you're endangering, and the souls you're losing.

And I said, look, have you ever actually been to a concert, one of these heavy metal concerts? Have you ever seen these guys? Have you ever met these people?

And of course, I wouldn't go near that. That's all Satan stuff. I'm not going to go near that. And so I said, well, look, for your own edification-- and it would be great publicity for you-- why don't you go on a tour?

Kelefa Sanneh

Yeah, why don't you go on a tour with Slayer? Slayer, a thrash metal band from California that was basically designed to freak out people like Bob Larson. Reign in Blood, their 1986 masterpiece-- 29 minutes of sickness and brutality-- fast, and mean, and scary. One of the songs, "Altar of Sacrifice," is actually about Satanic human sacrifice.

Bob Larson agrees immediately. Slayer's manager says, OK, fine.

Bob Larson

And the next thing I know, I'm in a taxi and on my way to the concert.

Kelefa Sanneh

It turns out, Bob Larson makes a pretty good rock journalist. The article he wrote-- it actually appeared in Spin, the May 1989 issue. It was accompanied by a maniacal family portrait, Larson smiling in a suit and the four guys from Slayer howling behind him. The headline was, "Desperately Seeking Satan." And it's kind of great-- the diary of a man who had spent years demonizing this band, literally demonizing them, and then got a chance to see if they were as bad as he thought.

Before he went to meet Slayer, Larson told his listeners about the assignment. He says some of them wanted him to give Slayer the full treatment-- exorcise them, convert them, baptize them. But Larson told them no. This was a different kind of mission, a journalistic one.

Bob Larson

The mission was, is it an act of Satanism or something akin to that, or how much of it is a genuine expression of belief system from the members of the band? I wasn't out to save their souls. I was out there to observe. That was a little bit hard for some of my hardcore religious followers to accept, because they thought I should return triumphantly with confessions of spiritual faith from every one of them. But of those four guys, that was asking a lot.

Kelefa Sanneh

So Larson flies to Germany, shows up at the venue. It's a Slayer show, and it sounds like it was epic.

Slayer Member

Are you live undead?

Bob Larson

One of these big, flat floor, standing room only type things. Nobody was in a chair. It was your typical thrash audience. Everybody stands and does their whole thrash thing.

Kelefa Sanneh

Was it exciting?

Bob Larson

Well, of course, the environment was just very, very dramatic, because it's just intense. I mean, these guys-- they never saw a ballad that they didn't hate. There was no such thing.

They never slowed down. It was speed guitars constantly. It never let up.

Kelefa Sanneh

So Larson's there. He's not wearing a clerical collar. He's not even wearing a tie.

But still, he's this older, normal seeming guy, roaming around with a pad of paper, interrogating the metal heads.

Bob Larson

So I walk around. I start interviewing people and asking them-- now, I think the thing that was most interesting is that I did find hardcore Satanists there. At least, they said they were.

I would ask them, do you believe in what these guys are doing? Yes. You see that upside down cross behind them-- what does that mean to you? Worshipping Satan. Now, this is cool. That's great. We worship Satan.

Kelefa Sanneh

I mean, if you're at a metal show, and a guy who looks like a dentist comes up to you, asks you if you're a Satanist, you'd probably say hell, yeah. But Bob felt like these fans, at least some of them, were telling him the truth.

Bob Larson

They saw this as their demonic liturgy, their place of worship, and they took it very seriously. So my first conclusion was whatever these guys on stage believe or don't believe, this is what their audience-- at least a portion of their audience-- believes.

Kelefa Sanneh

I think what makes Slayer great isn't the Satanic stuff. In fact, the lyrics are kind of secondary. What makes Slayer Slayer is the atmosphere, the sense of mayhem. Those furious, galloping drums. The way Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, the two guitarists, lock into the same, churning riff, and then go hurtling off in different directions.

The music sounds wild and evil. And for the whole thing to work, the words need to be pretty sick, too. So of course these guys end up singing about the devil.

(SUBJET) SINGER: An unforeseen future nestled somewhere in time. Unsuspecting victims, no warnings, no signs. Judgement Day, the second coming--

If you're not into this sort of music, it's easy to miss the sheer physical joy of it. Slayer's a rock band playing an exceptionally visceral form of rock and roll. And when Larson went backstage, he found more or less what you'd expect-- a bunch of exhausted musicians, zero Satanic rituals.

Bob Larson

Well backstage, of course, is just a typical rock and roll show. And everybody's toweling down, and just having a couple of beers, and just trying to relax for a little bit. Trying to figure out if there were any nubile young ladies in the audience that would be of interest to them. But actually, these guys weren't too much into the girls. They were just more into the dope.

Kelefa Sanneh

Was that in the back of your mind? That maybe one of these people will be possessed, and I'm going to have to perform an exorcism right here backstage in Germany?

Bob Larson

Yes, I did think about that. I absolutely did. But I also knew from a practical standpoint that this was a show business environment.

And even backstage, they're still playing a role. They're still being the bad guy Satanists to their fawning fans. So they weren't going to get real with me. The only chance for that would be on the bus.

Kelefa Sanneh

Larson spent a lot of time on that tour bus. And in the article, the thing he notices most is how bored the guys were. There's a collage of little snippets of conversation.

"I thought I'd freeze my butt off before we went on stage." "My drum solo just didn't make it tonight. Something wasn't right." "Ice, where's the ice? You just can't get ice in Europe."

Larson says Kerry King, one of the guitarists, was literally counting down the days until he could go home. King told Larson about his Toyota 4x4 and his hobby breeding pythons. He said he didn't know much about Satanism.

He got most of his ideas from horror movies. There was a stack of them on the bus next to the VCR. The guys were really into Gremlins.

Bob Larson

I didn't like the bus. No, no. Well, it just wasn't my kind of place, because I didn't appreciate having to inhale hash fumes. Because that was the drug of choice, and that was not my thing.

But I was on a mission. I was on an assignment. I had to do my job, so I wanted to faithfully do that.

Kelefa Sanneh

Did you have any late night moments where those conversations became more like real conversations?

Bob Larson

Yes. Yes, I did. Particularly with Araya.

Kelefa Sanneh

That's Tom Araya, the bass player and lead vocalist.

Bob Larson

I mean, he's a very bright guy, very smart guy. If I may say so, a little bit more than the others. I don't mean to insult them, but he was kind of the intellectual of the group.

And he deeply thought about this. He came from South America. He was raised in a Catholic culture. So to him, it was serious business.

And we had some pretty serious philosophical discussions about God, about whether there is a hell and a heaven, and there is a devil. And is the devil real, and is singing about the devil such a good idea? Can you just dismiss it as show business?

Kelefa Sanneh

I reached out to Tom Araya and the band, but they declined to comment. Tom Araya seemed like the one guy in the band who took these ideas seriously-- good and evil, God and the devil. Larson doesn't think he actually believed in Satan, but Araya went onstage with an upside down cross anyway. And to Larson, that made him seem reckless, maybe even evil. Araya understood what he was doing, but he didn't really care.

Bob Larson

If there was one guy who really needed an exorcism, it was him. It's like he knew too much, and he, therefore, was accountable for much more. As I recall, he didn't totally dismiss the idea of personal evil. But the idea that he would be an agent of that evil? No.

Kelefa Sanneh

The idea that Slayer was just going through the motions, that this was all a scripted pantomime carefully calculated to separate German teenagers from their deutschmarks-- it offended Larson as a former rock and roller. His whole point is that rock and roll is dangerous because rock and roll is powerful. He's a romantic that way. He believes in rock and roll.

And it drove him nuts to see the guys from Slayer night after night playing the same solos, hitting the same marks, like actors at a Broadway show. Nothing was spontaneous, he wrote. It was a letdown.

He had flown to Germany prepared for battle, but now he was all alone on the battlefield. These guys weren't his worthy opponents. My favorite line in the magazine story is when he's sitting on that bare bones tour bus and he wonders, sort of wistfully, where were all the porn videos?

Kelefa Sanneh

I mean, it seems like here you are-- you're on tour with the most evil band on the planet. You're on the tour bus. And it's just a bunch of guys drinking beer. There's no Satan behind the curtain.

Bob Larson

Well, yes and no. Because there's more than one way for Satan to be orchestrating things from the wings, OK? And if they are speaking the words of Satan, doing the things the devil would have them to do, the potential disastrous end result is going to be the same, whether or not they as the active agents believe it or not. They're the conduit.

Kelefa Sanneh

Mission accomplished. He's Reverend Bob Larson. Of course he found Satan.

Bob Larson

Satan was there. Satan was there every night. Satan was on the bus. Satan was in the concerts. Yes, he was there in the form of what was being said.

That's like saying-- since I was in Germany-- was the devil there at the Gestapo rallies? I'm not comparing them to Nazis. I'm just saying that yes, of course, the devil was there in the same way the devil was here at these concerts.

Kelefa Sanneh

So that's it. Spin prints the story. Slayer gets even huger, keeps touring, keeps raising hell. And Larson keeps warning about Satanism long after most of the country has moved on.

They're both on the road right now. Slayer's in the middle of a two-year worldwide farewell tour. And Bob Larson is leading seminars and conducting exorcisms wherever he can. Larson's a performer. Just like the guys from Slayer, he understands the value of good schtick.

It's easy to think of this as a quaint story from another time, the golden age of Satanic panic. But imagine if an up-and-coming band today put out a song like Slayer's "Angel of Death." It's the first song on Reign in Blood, and it's about Nazis. More specifically, it's about Josef Mengele, the Nazi official and doctor who performed horrific operations on prisoners at Auschwitz.

Kelefa Sanneh

"Auschwitz, the meaning of pain. The way that I want you to die. Slow death, immense decay. Showers that cleanse you of your life." Slayer got asked about "Angel of Death" a lot. People wanted to know whether the band members were sympathetic to Nazis.

Slayer thought this was ridiculous. All the lyrics are about how evil Mengele was. "Sadistic surgeon of demise," they call him.

But Slayer is a band devoted to the proposition that evil is fascinating, that evil is kind of cool. You might even say that Slayer glorifies evil. Certainly, that's what Bob Larson would say.

And he'd say that's a terrible, irresponsible thing to do, even if you don't really mean it-- especially then. We live in a time when lots of audiences are saying something sort of like what Larson was saying, that entertainers of all sorts should be accountable for the messages they spread. That they have a duty not to promote evil, and to make it clear where they stand.

But with Slayer, it's not always so clear. "Angel of Death" is an unsettling song because it feels like you're not just listening to a song about evil, you're listening to a song that is itself evil. That's part of what makes the song good, I think. But I think lots of people today would be worried about that song being put out in the world. I think lots of people today might see things from Bob Larson's point of view.

Ira Glass

Kelefa Sanneh is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Coming up, people ask where hell is-- hell as in hello. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Details of the Devil

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. It is our 666th show, episode number 666. And we're devoting it to Satan in his various forms.

And the truth is, people believe a lot of contradictory things about Satan. For instance, one of our producers, Ben Calhoun, was talking to the people who head one of the two big Satanist organizations here in the United States. This is the Church of Satan based in Poughkeepsie, New York. It's run by Peter Gilmore and Peggy Nadramia. And when they describe what Satanism is, I've got to say, it actually sounds a little bit like the Preamble to the Constitution.

Peter Gilmore

Satanism is a philosophical position that promotes individuality, liberty, joy, and self-expression.

Ira Glass

See what I mean? They go on.

Peter Gilmore

We believe that you should seek to be the best you you can be, whatever that might be. It's good to challenge yourself when you can, to do the best you can. But if you reach a comfortable level, enjoy the comfort. That you select pleasures to indulge in, but rationally-- not to overdo anything to bring harm to yourself or anybody else around you.

Peggy Nadramia

We tell people to be the best person they can be. They don't have to reach for some perfection that they can never achieve. They're sometimes perfectly fine just the way they are.

Peter Gilmore

That's pretty much it.

Ben Calhoun

It's amazing. I feel like without the Satanism in there, what you just said wouldn't be out of place on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

[LAUGHING]

Peter Gilmore

That's true. That is true. Satanism is a humanism of sorts.

Ira Glass

What they're saying might make more sense once you know this important fact about this church and the other big Satanist organization in our country, the Temple of Satan in Salem, Massachusetts-- they are both run by atheists who don't believe in the devil or in God. The groups are kind of a poke in the eye of organized religion.

But so much of what we think about Satan is a kind of random mishmash of information and ideas that have sprung up over the last few thousand years, like even the idea that the number 666 stands for the devil. It says that in the Bible, right?

Elaine Pagels

Well, that's the way it's read later.

Ira Glass

Elaine Pagels is an expert on these books in the Bible and the people who wrote them and their beliefs. She's a professor of the history of religion at Princeton. And she says 666 was not supposed to mean Satan in the Bible in the Book of Revelation, which is the book where it appears, back when it was written.

She says to understand what 666 was supposed to mean, you have to understand the context in which that part of the Bible was written. It's the first century. Rome sent 60,000 troops into Jerusalem to put down a Jewish uprising. They are brutal, destroy the Jewish temple. So the Jewish prophet John, who wrote the Book of Revelation--

Elaine Pagels

This man is probably a refugee from the Jewish war. He knew the horror of the Roman destruction of Israel. And it would probably have been dangerous for a Jewish prophet who hated Rome as much as this one did to speak about the emperor and the empire as the epitome of evil.

Ira Glass

And so he spoke in code. In the Book of Revelation, instead of saying Rome, he says "the whore that sits on seven hills."

Elaine Pagels

But what he means is that's Rome, of course. You know this because you have coins in which you see the goddess Roma sitting on seven hills. So everybody would get it, but he's not doing it openly. He's doing it through the disguised language of prophetic metaphor that any literate Jew would get and Romans would not.

Ira Glass

He describes a seven-headed beast that Pagels says might be a reference to the first seven Roman emperors. And another beast that he refers to with the number 666-- that is actually where 666 shows up in the Book of Revelation. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet corresponds to a number, and depending on how you do the numbering, it can spell different words. So a 666--

Elaine Pagels

It says whoever has wisdom will understand what the number means. So the second beast who has a human number, as the author says-- it's probably a hidden version of the name of the head of the Roman Empire. It's usually thought by historians to be a version of the imperial name of Nero, who even Romans thought was the epitome of the worst you could get.

It's like talking about Hitler. You're talking about the worst of the worst in Roman emperors. Or it could be the name of the Emperor Domitian, the emperor at the time John was writing the Book of Revelation.

Ira Glass

I reached out to Professor Pagels actually not to talk about 666, but to talk about the devil. The thing I wanted to know was, what does the Bible actually say about him? Where do we start to see the figure that we talk about today? This demon who's out to capture people's souls and rule over them in hell. Professor Pagels is a churchgoing person, but she says that even she was taken aback when she was researching her book, The Origin of Satan, about the subject.

Elaine Pagels

What surprised me is that that figure almost does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. I mean, Christians have always read Satan into the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but that's not what any rabbi would say. It's not what the rabbis saw there. They saw a cunning animal.

Ira Glass

Now, the scholar told us Satan's actually a minor figure in the Bible. Only appears 40 or 50 times. And one of the few times the word Satan actually shows up in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible--

Elaine Pagels

He appears in the Book of Job, as you know. But in the Book of Job, he's never a rival or an opponent of God.

Ira Glass

Right, and in the book of Job, he's not committing any evil acts. All he's doing is basically having an argument with God over whether Job really is faithful and really believes in God, and what does his faith consist of.

Elaine Pagels

Yes, that's right. He's an angel whose role it is to see whether Job is really loyal to God or not. He's saying, well, you think he's a perfect servant of yours, but I can show you that he really would turn against you if he weren't getting all these benefits. And he's called the Satan, which means "The Opposer." It's not a name.

Ira Glass

Wait, it's not a name. It's just saying he's the guy who questions.

Elaine Pagels

Yeah. In the Book of Job, if you look at English translations, it'll say "Satan stood up." Well, in Hebrew, it's "Ha satan."

It's "The Opposer." "The Accuser," you could say, because it's from a verb, "satan," which means to oppose. But he doesn't defy God. He's his servant.

Ira Glass

This all changes, she says, after the Old Testament is finished, as we head into the period when the New Testament is going to be written, about 2,000 years ago.

Elaine Pagels

Certain groups of Jews began to talk about Israel isn't just ruled by the Lord, who is, of course, the Lord of Israel. But there's an oppositional someone out there. There's part of a supernatural army of the Lord that has gone AWOL, that has turned against the commander-in-chief. That has gone to the dark side.

Ira Glass

One of the groups that's saying this is called the Essenes. They fled to live in the desert to avoid the Romans, who are occupying their country, who the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are cooperating with at that point. We know what the Essenes believed, because they left documents that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What they believed was that the Jewish leadership, who were cooperating with the Romans, were basically doing it because Satan and his forces had gotten to them.

Elaine Pagels

And all the influential Jews in Jerusalem are really on the dark side now. They're working for the enemy, the evil one. We'll call him Belier.

We'll call him Beelzebub, which means "Lord of the Flies." We'll call him a prince of darkness. We call him the Satan. So that's totally new in Israel.

Ira Glass

And so these are the people, and this is the period when the New Testament is being written down in the first century.

Elaine Pagels

When Jesus is alive, anyway. And I think that Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist have a view which is shared with the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it is at the same time. And I think they had a considerable influence on Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist.

Ira Glass

And their followers. In fact, Satan shows up when the very first Book of Gospels is written down, the Gospel of Mark. Right at the beginning, the very first chapter.

Elaine Pagels

It says that as soon as Jesus received the spirit of God, recognized that he was the Son of God, the Messiah-- which is what it meant, the King of Israel-- the spirit drove him into the wilderness to do combat with the Satan. It's like a supernatural battle's going on there. And here, the Satan appears like the threat, the forces of darkness, trying to stop Jesus from doing what the author here thinks is God's will.

Ira Glass

And then as the New Testament continues, do we learn more about the Satan, Satan?

Elaine Pagels

Yes, what's necessary about the Satan for the followers of Jesus is that they have to explain, well, if Jesus was God's Messiah, his chosen future ruler of the world, why did he fail? Why did his opponents arrest him, and torture him, and kill him?

I mean, if he were God's Messiah, that couldn't have happened, right? The defeat and destruction of Jesus is a massive problem for Jesus' followers. And the way they deal with it-- the followers of Jesus say, well, it could only happen because the evil power was embodied in the world in other people and captured him and killed him.

Ira Glass

Oh, in other words, there's this evil force out there with supernatural powers as well. And that's the reason why he gets turned over to the authorities and killed.

Elaine Pagels

Exactly. With supernatural powers, Ira, but at the same time, supernatural powers that work through human beings.

Ira Glass

Pagels says a lot of things that we associate with Satan-- the way he looks, with horns and a tail-- that is not in the Bible. That was added by medieval Christians and others. The idea that Satan presides over hell-- that is not in the Bible.

In the Book of Revelation, there are references to an abyss of fire where evil people go and are punished and burned forever. But in Revelation, that stuff is presided over by two other figures, not by Satan. But what is in the Bible is the central fact that so many Christians still believe today about Satan-- that he's out there, trying to tempt people into darkness and sin, into opposing God. The early Christians believed--

Elaine Pagels

That Satan is trying to trap God's people and all the people who disagree with us follow Satan. Satan's trying to take over this country. Look at what this person, and that person, and this person are doing and saying.

They know exactly who they mean. They could give you names and addresses. That's what struck me most forcibly, is the way that this image hasn't gone anywhere, the same is true today. People say, Satan's trying to take over this country. When you ask them, they know who they're talking about.

Ira Glass

Right.

Elaine Pagels

And the powerful effect of the figure of Satan, the way it's played out, means that you can't negotiate with people you disagree with. Because they're evil. You have to annihilate them if you can.

Ira Glass

Elaine Pagels. Her book about this and more is called The Origin of Satan.

Act Three: The Devil You Know

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Devil You Know. So Satan, we're told, does his work through human beings-- you, and me, and everybody else. Gets under our skins, makes us do things, often without us ever knowing that that's what's happening. Which brings us to this tiny news story that we noticed a few months back-- maybe describing the work of Satan, maybe just the flawed actions of human beings.

It happened in an Antarctica. A Russian scientist, Sergey Savitsky, and a colleague of his, a welder, Oleg Beloguzov, were part of a team that was stationed there for years, working together in a small, remote station with only two Russian TV channels and some sort of exercise room and a library. One of them, the scientist, really liked reading. And the two men got into an altercation over books that ended up in the news.

And it was all so unusual, this altercation, that we wondered what actually happened? How does something like this go down? And we were unable to find any interviews that they'd done, so we turned to a novelist, Gary Shteyngart-- he's Russian, by the way-- to imagine for us how this played out. Here's what he wrote.

Gary Shteyngart

Dear Diary, the boys from the hunt team have brought in a catch of a dozen emperor penguins, and tomorrow, I will make my famous penguin steak in horseradish reduction. Do you know how hard it is to reduce a horseradish, diary? It is very hard.

One of the boys said to me, Sergey, I live for your emperor penguin steak, and we drank 200 grams together to celebrate the successful hunt. Afterwards, I showed him my penguin knife. He said it will take months for the penguins to thaw. And then I will make my steak, and the boys from the hunt will love me.

Here at the Russian base, there is not much to do. Internet is very restricted. We have access to ILovePutin.com and ShirtlessManOnHorse.org.

Ahh, Putin. He fixed our economy, beat the Chechens, conquered Crimea, stood up to America, and he made Russian science great again, which is why I'm here in Antarctica. They are beautiful websites. But one can only stare at a shirtless man on a horse for so long, even when he has such muscular breasts.

Out here, our only salvation from boredom is the occasional sip of vodka and a small library of books. But all is not well in that realm. There is a man, a man who makes life difficult. A man named Oleg whose most frightening words are, "Hey, brother, what are you reading? Oh, the interesting thing about that book--"

He and I come from opposite ends of St. Petersburg. I am from [NON-ENGLISH], literally a pissed-upon courtyard entryway in the hard luck Kupchino district. Many of our country's leaders come from such courtyards and have had difficult childhoods.

Oleg, meanwhile, is from a bright and airy apartment on the Petrogradskaya side of the river, where some of the courtyards are clean and freshly painted. A real Petrogradskaya intellectual, as they say, always with a clean handkerchief and his long johns neatly tucked into his boots. Also, I believe his mother loved him.

My mother? Not so much. And yet, I got better grades than Oleg in university.

And now I am a research engineer. While he's only a welder. But still, he puts on airs. He likes to wear t-shirts with funny English sayings on them, like this one that has the drawing of a famous German philosopher and the line, "I just Kant."

Today, I was lying on a pallet in the canteen, which also serves as our library, drinking 100 grams to myself and reading Anna Karenina when Oleg stopped by. Can I have a sip of that, he asked. Reluctantly, I passed him a shot glass.

He drank it down pretentiously. "Ah," he said, smacking his lips, "reading Tolstoy, I see. So how are you getting on with Anishka Karenina?"

"It's a masterpiece," I said. "Each page is a revelation. The metaphysical aspects alone--"

"Isn't Count Vronsky such a cad?" he interrupted. "Will he ever settle down? Interesting how that turns out."

"I'm sure it is," I said, "but, please, don't tell me anymore." "Of course," he said. "How can I deny you the pleasure of a first reading of Anna Karenina? I'll just make myself a little lunch.

He went over to the microwave and warmed himself a plate of kasha with whale sausage. Then he sat down to his smelly little feast. And then as I continued reading, he began softly humming to himself. "Chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a choo choo!" And then he laughed.

"What is the meaning of this," I asked. "Oh, nothing," he said. "Just, living in Antarctica-- do you know what I miss the most? Trains. In particular, a train station in Moscow.

Once, I was quite drunk after a literary soiree, and my ex-girlfriend almost slipped and fell onto the tracks. Strangely enough, her name was Anna also-- but not Anna Karenina, Anna Kashtanova. Sounds pretty close, though."

"Why are you telling me this?" I said.

"Oh, just babbling on," he said. "Well, never mind me. Off to do some science."

"You mean welding!" I shouted after him, but he had already waddled out of the library. I will make one unkind observation-- many intellectuals I have known walk like penguins. I don't know why that is so, but it is so.

The whole night, I tossed in my bunk. I kept hearing Oleg's voice in my head-- my girlfriend almost slipped and fell. Train station. Her name was Anna.

I got up and paced the corridors. They were devoid of life, devoid of hope. I stole into the canteen and had just one little sip, maybe 120 grams. Later that night, in my dreams, Putin asked me onto his horse.

Dear Diary, well, the penguins are still frozen. This morning, I tried them with my penguin knife, stabbing them over and over. Maybe tomorrow I can start making my steaks, and then all the boys in the hunt team will love me.

After a long, hard day of serious scientific research, I retired to the canteen, blissfully returning to my Anna Karenina, and, for good measure, tippling 200 grams. I was deep into the book when Oleg rattled in, carrying something heavy and metallic looking in his arms.

"Brother," he shouted, "look what I've welded for you." And he set down the object in his hands. It looked like the model of a 19th century train station.

He had built it down to the little vendors hawking [NON-ENGLISH]. And in the middle of it all stood a miniature doll he had made out to look like an American cheerleader. She had the letters "AK" written on her chest.

Oleg saying, "chug-a chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, choo, choo!" As he ran his miniature train out of the station and then the AK doll stepped off the platform and between the carriages. "Oi, oi, it hurts," Oleg shouted in a feminine voice. "I'm dying."

I put my book down. "Are you saying Anna Karenina commits suicide," I whispered. "Oh, no," he said. "It's Anna Kashtanova, my ex-girlfriend. I'm merely recreating her tragic end. You are so sensitive, Sergey. Well, I must be off now. Science can't wait."

"Welding," I muttered after him. I tried to return to the book, but my mind was raging with thought. I had to know if it was true.

Oh, Anna, beloved Anna. If you die in such a grisly manner, what hope is there for any of us? I drank another 250 grams just to make it an even 450. I sat there calmly, doing the breathing exercises that Westerners like to do after they visit India.

But then I couldn't help it. I logged on to one of our base's allowed web sites, VladimirPutinDiscussesFineLiterature.gov. An image of my sober, beautifully coiffed president sitting on a comfortable chair with a blanket over his legs appeared. Our president is, of course, as brilliant at literature as he is at economics and evading sanctions.

He lifted one finger, looked into the camera and said, hello, fellow reading enthusiast. Before we begin our discussion, let me issue one spoiler alert. Anna commits suicide by jumping under a train.

I took my penguin knife, and I stabbed at Oleg's train station model. I stabbed and stabbed at it, but it might as well have been made of iron. And then I stabbed at his Anna Karenina, or Anna Kashtanova doll. I stabbed at her while thick vodka tears ran down my cheeks.

Dear Diary, today I turn over a new leaf. Anna Karenina is finished for me, but I have found an old Soviet edition of an American novel, The Complaint of Tovarich Partnoy by the writer Philip Roth. And then Oleg walked in.

"Hey, brother," he said. "Could you spare 50 grams for my parched throat?" I merely grunted and pointed at the carafe of vodka. "Ah, I see you're a Philip Roth fan," he said, pouring himself a mug. "What a delightful look at the sexual mores of 1960s America."

I pretended not to hear him. "So many lively scenes," he continued. "But I will not spoil them for you." Again, I pretended not to hear him.

He drank another mug of vodka. Then he went over to the refrigerator and made a show of rummaging through its contents. "There's only one slice of deer liver left," he said. "Would you mind if I have it? I so love liver."

I shrugged my shoulders and buried myself deeper into the first pages of the book. "I must say, I love liver even more than Tovarich Portnoy loved liver." Again, I ignored him. "Liver," Oleg shouted. "It is so filled with sexy nutrients."

He hopped on the dining table, waving the red slice of deer liver at me. "Sergey," he said, "dance with me and this liver. Dance with me like a woman. Dance with me like my beloved former girlfriend, Anna Kashtanova, who died under a train in Moscow."

And he began to dance slowly and absurdly, thrusting his hips at the liver while singing a popular old song about riding a deer over a frigid landscape.

[SINGING]

Oleg just laughed and continued dancing while I sat there with my book, my hands shaking. But I held myself in check. I did not say a word. Finally he grew tired and hopped off the table. He gave me a wink and said, "So, now he may perhaps to begin, yes?"

As soon as he left, I ran to the computer and booted up VladimirPutinDiscussesFineLiterature.gov. Of course there was a segment on The Complaint of Tovarich Portnoy. Ours is a well-read president with beautiful blue eyes and the soft gaze of a benevolent father.

Putin was sitting in an easy chair beside a fireplace with a Dachschund curled at his feet, holding a copy of the Philip Roth book. "Hello, fellow literary citizens," he said brightly. "Before we begin, spoiler alert."

Dear diary, I can't. I can't anymore. But I mustn't.

I mustn't do anything rash. I must hold it together. I try to hide under the palette, read my books without him noticing. But he hears my kasha belches, and then he pounces month after month after month.

One month, he walked in wearing the most unusual outfit. And as I focused my gaze, I realized he was dressed as a high society woman in post-World War I London. "Oh, hello. I'm Mrs. Dalloway. I really should have married that fascinating Peter Walsh instead of boring, predictable Mr. Dalloway. I wonder how my party will go tonight."

Or dressed in prison stripes as Raskolnikov, off to Siberia to find a spiritual redemption. Or creating computer generated imagery of the white whale thrashing Captain Ahab's boat to pieces. Where? Where does he find the time to do all of these things?

Every time he spoils an ending, it is an assault. An assault and a robbery. He has robbed me of the only pleasures this forsaken base can offer, the ability to leave my own consciousness and enter another's, the chance to fly away from this base, the snowbound version of hell, to London, to the great open sea, to the fabled town of Newark, New Jersey.

No, I mustn't do it. I will not do it. But every night, the same dream, the same knife, the same dead Oleg. I am not Raskolnikov. I will not go to Siberia. But even if I did do something, it would not be a crime. It would be the self-defense of my very sanity.

Dear Diary, I spent the morning in the loading bay slicing up my penguin steaks. Some of the boys from the hunt team came and cheered me on. We drank 500 grams each, and I wrestled with one of them beneath the endless sky.

It was a happy start to the day, but still I was not satisfied. I needed more literature. I finished my vodka and, covered in penguin entrails, stumbled toward the canteen. I chose another English language book in translation, one with a sprightly title-- Shopagolik Takes Manhattan, by the British author Sophie Kinsella.

The cover promised to tell the tale of the, quote, "irrepressible one-woman shopping phenomenon Becky Bloomwood." I opened the book, eyeing the doorway for any signs of Oleg. Shopagolik was a remarkable volume, so full of life and love and the deep, meaningful conflicts of upper middle-class men and women in the West. It was, in some ways, an instruction manual on how to live with the one you love.

He walked in after I was about 700 grams into my carafe. "You stink of penguin," he said. "But I still love you, brother." I picked up my knife and brandished it in the air. This was the equivalent of a warning shot.

But Oleg paid me no mind. "Ah," he said. "Shopagolik Takes Manhattan-- what a fine way to break up the interminable Antarctic day. He climbed on the table again. "Dance with me, Sergey," he said. "Dance like the Shopagolik danced in Manhattan. Now, I have always wondered about the denouement of that novel..."

But he never finished his sentence. I was on him. We were both off the table on the floor, reeking of cigarette butts and spilled vodka. The knife was quick and sure in my hands. And his chest soft and flabby, nothing like our president's, received my fevered blows. There was blood everywhere. "How's that for an ending," I shouted.

Josh Gad

Punta Arenas, Chile. Dear Diary, it has been a week since I've been airlifted here. My care is good, and the doctors and nurses are nice. One nurse, Fernanda, smiles at me in a special way as she brings me my lunch of chicken asada. I must learn Spanish.

I do not know why Sergey stabbed me. I thought he was my friend. I was certainly his only friend. He was a drunken lout-- lazy, constantly muttering about politics and some nonsense Putin literary site.

They found his diary after they arrested him. Vodka does not really have a smell, but every page reeked of it. Every page was a testament to his drunken haze. Talk about fiction.

Yes, maybe I told him of a few of the endings. But it is only because I wanted to talk to him about other things. Not just about novels, but about my ailing mother in a little village near Omsk, and the girl from the Regional Planning Bureau who once sort of smiled at me. And-- look, I spoiled the endings so that we could move on to affairs of the heart and the soul.

But I never dressed up like Mrs. Dalloway. How do you think I could afford a Mrs. Dalloway costume on a Russian welder's salary? It was merely my snow parka.

And a computer generated recreation of Moby Dick? And dancing with a deer liver? What the hell?

Fine, maybe I did build a recreation of a 19th-century Moscow railroad station. I mean, who wouldn't? I wanted to bring the story to life for him.

And I wanted him to be my friend. Because God knows, nobody else would. All the other men on the base hated the very drunken sight of him.

And there is no penguin hunt team. Hunting penguins is illegal. Sergey disappeared into books to avoid life, to avoid me, to make a religion out of his loneliness. He didn't want to know how it would all end.

But we all know how it ends, don't we? Ask Ahab. Ask Anna Karenina. Ask that fucking Shopagolik.

Down at the base, the dome of the endless sky is its own prison. To look up at it is to see just how far away from God one can be. It's not quite hell, a place in which God has a unique, almost competitive interest. It's just a place he would never think to look-- a place he ignores, a place where, left to our own devices, we become exactly who we are.

Ira Glass

That was Gary Shteyngart reading an original short story that he wrote for us. The other reader, the one at the end, was actor Josh Gad. Shteyngart is the author of a bunch of sad and funny novels. His latest is called Lake Success. And just so there's no confusion about what actually happened, yes, in real life, reportedly Sergey stabbed and nearly killed Oleg with a kitchen knife because Oleg was spoiling the endings to books that Sergey was reading.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun. The people who put our show together includes Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Stephanie Foo, Damien Gray, Chana Joffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Miki Meeks, Stone Nelson, Nadia Raymond, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney. Our managing editor is Susan Burton and David Kestenbaum.

Our production fellow, Anna Martin-- it is her last week here. She has been spectacular. We will miss her as she heads off to her new job at Slate.

Special thanks today to Gabriella Munoz, to the Reverend Dr. Joe McGarry, Margaret Mitchell, Clifton Black, David Frankfurter, Adam Davidson, Astrid Lange, Bobby Baird, Taylor Stewie, Tim Curtis, and Sally Gonzalez. Our website-- ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to our archive of 665 non-Satanic episodes and this one as well for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. You know when he's asking Satan for his favorite kind of weather, this is what Torey says.

Man

Hail Satan.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.