After ten nude men and two nude women descended the staircases at the Jane Hotel ballroom, Jex Blackmore, the national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, emerged behind them and began her speech. "Some of you came here looking for a spectacle tonight," she said. "I can assure you, if you are comfortable, you are already under attack." She waxed on about deprogramming and the awakening of our "socio-spiritual transgression." Her words reverberated off the walls and the taxidermied ram above the fireplace.
Cell phones were supposedly banned from the Satanic Temple's ritual endorsing of The Witch on Wednesday, February 10, but numerous screens flashed throughout the audience. The event was a genius act of marketing. Each guest who entered the space was greeted by a man and woman wearing only tights. "This is the sign of your awakening," one would say, drawing an "x" (or maybe an upside-down cross?) on each attendee's forehead. It just so happened to be Ash Wednesday.
The crowd was filled with gloomily dressed people; I noted a pashmina on the bathroom floor, presumably discarded after its owner deemed it too colorful. One man I spoke to was shirtless, save for a leather harness. He wore a necklace that may well have been a prehistoric bird's rib cage. But he wasn't a Satanist—he was a stripper who had heard about the ritual through a friend at work and thought it might be fun. "I was worried my outfit was too boring, but I was wrong," he said. "Typical New York. Everyone just wore black."
Most of the guests I spoke to said they didn't identify as Satanists. Outside of Blackmore and two of her performers, the only other Satanist I found was a thin twenty-something man with dark hair, heavy eyebrows, and a vape pen featuring a sticker of a pentagram. He told me he held weekly meetings with five fellow Satanists, because "there aren't a lot of us in the city."
"We only have a pseudo-chapter in New York" Blackmore later explained. "There may be more here than you realize." As we spoke, two shirtless men made out on a couch as a photographer snapped photos. She ignored the flash of the camera and ushered our conversation back to The Witch.
Blackmore sees the collaboration between the Satanic Temple and The Witch as a natural partnership. "I think the film shows a patriarchal, theocratic society in microcosm," she explained. "What you see is that when there's an outsider they start to kind of rebel under the pressure of the society, and ultimately have an act of defiance that's very declarative."
Blackmore's reading certainly tracks with the plot. The Witch takes on a 17th century family as it devolves into hysteria amid the belief their oldest daughter is a witch. What emerges is a nightmarish look at womanhood that predates the Salem witch trials and condemns the repression of female power and sexuality in all its forms.
Writer and director Robert Eggers agreed that the film explores the reality of systemic misogyny when we talked in distributor A24's midtown offices last week. "Obviously, feminism is just bursting out in every direction," he said. "It wasn't like there were people or churches who didn't believe in witches and wanted to repress them… This fear of female power was so extreme that they actually believed that these women were fairytale witches."
However, Eggers says he didn't intend the film to be a comment on contemporary patriarchy. "I didn't have any intention behind any themes or messages when I was making this film," he explained. "I was just trying to do my best interpretation of how a family in 17th century New England would have thought of a witch and tried to bring that archetype to life with respect and reverence to them."
The decision to team up with the Satanic Temple can be attributed to A24, an emerging company known for its ability to make low-budget films into cultural events. Blackmore said she decided to make a formal endorsement after they sent her a screener. The Temple was going to do a series of Sabbath-related rituals anyway, so it only made sense to "share momentum" with The Witch.
The Satanic Temple is known for raising and wielding media attention. Since the group's inception in 2013, some critics have accused them of being a mere publicity stunt or hoax—a criticism they address on the FAQ page of their website. "Some have conveniently concluded… that the media attention itself is the primary objective of TST's activities," the response reads. "While media outreach has helped to raise awareness of the campaigns we have initiated, these campaigns have ultimate goals related [to] issues that are important to us and our membership."
That said, "media outreach" is a fundamental aspect of TST's mission. They work to generate awareness for religious hypocrisy, fighting for the marginalized, often with the super objective of gaining autonomy of the body. Most recently, that's taken on the form of a legal battle for reproductive rights on the ground of religious exemptions, specifically against the 72-hour abortion waiting period in Missouri. Back in October, they opposed a proposed massive statue of the 10 Commandments on government ground by construction their own statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed demon, which they intended to place beside it.
Although it's easy for critics—especially critics of the outraged variety—to dismiss something like the erection of a massive Satanist sculpture as a stunt or a prank, the Satanic Temple sees itself as more than that. In an interview with VICE, when asked whether the group was truly Satanic or merely satirical, TST founder Lucien Greaves responded, "Why can't it be both?" According to him, "the world Satan has no inherent value… Our very presence as civic-minded socially responsible Satanists serves to satirize the ludicrous superstitious fears that the word Satan tends to evoke."
Blackmore gave a similar answer during our interview: The Satanic Temple is "non-theistic, based on the literary concept of Satan" rather than the worship of the actual Christian devil. They focus on Satan as a symbol, a source of enlightenment and empowerment for marginalized individuals dismissed as "other."
I later approached one of the Satanic Temple's two female performers, who talked me through this concept of gathering social capital in order to make a statement, along with several key points from Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone: the power of community, how it has disintegrated as a staple of American life, and the influence of social movements in bringing people together. "I've always been interested in protest groups," she told me, adding that she graduated from the political activist program at Wayne State College. "I was drawn to the Satanic Temple, when I realized it was another medium through which to make social change."
TST's modus operandi embraces that pariah status with a sense of self-awareness. They know their efforts are often perceived as controversial showboating. When I asked Blackmore how the group reconciles their subversive tradition with endorsing a feature film, she nodded knowingly. "There is a mutual benefit for sure, but we really want to be able to empower as many people as we possibly can," she said. "I think we're seeing this as an opportunity to extend outreach to our community and to promote a film that we feel strongly about. But we're not, like, getting paid."
As Blackmore noted, the symbol of the witch is a direct bucking of patriarchal and theocratic rule; the ritual launched those themes into a vessel for applying such rebellion to modern-day plights. There was a bit of dancing, all those naked people, and a beatific twink playing a theremin, but it was all, for the most part, an exciting, deliberately scandalous encasement for Blackmore's speech.
"These are not medieval designations," she said of The Witch's themes once she had the microphone. "In a year particularly entrenched in politics, the pathology of religious hysteria continues to influence political politics, elections and the cultural discourse. If you stand here free-thinking, self-governed and godless, you too are considered an enemy of God and a patron of Satan by many in your community and by those who represent you in your government."
Through this event the symbolic was translated into the practical—and there's nothing more Satanist than that. Still, it felt strange to see bodily liberation and the ideologically taboo crammed into the mechanics of publicity, as effective as such an approach may be.
The formula for the deliberately unorthodox event was cast in sharpest relief in the crowded hotel room upstairs where a dominatrix beat a slave. Her activity was broadcast on a TV throughout the night—a scintillating addition to the evening no more obviously related to Satanism than the fact that Tony Hawk was there, wearing his winter coat inside.
About an hour after the ritual ended, as the ballroom where the main event had taken place emptied out, a sampling of guests were invited to witness the dominatrix in the flesh and handed cards that read, "Room #304 (Please be discreet)." Upstairs in Room #304, it was clear that way too many people had been invited with discretion.
When I walked in, the dominatrix was wrapping a large, bruised subordinate in Saran Wrap. More voyeurs crammed into the room as a second slave, wearing an over-sized French maid's costume, was asked to sing "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star." Soon, the space was fire-hazard-level crammed. A hapless production assistant tried to usher people out, and found himself at a loss for words.
"If you're satisfied," he finally said. "Maybe you could let someone else be satisfied?"