The New England town has come to nurture a culture that is far more inclusive and tolerant of fringe religions than its reputation might suggest.
The Baphomet monument at TST's HQ. All photos by the author
The Satanic Temple debuted its new international headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts, this week. The multi-use space—the group's first location available to the general public—will ultimately include the temple's offices, an art gallery, a lecture room, and a gift shop. It will also house the temple's controversial Baphomet monument, a one-and-a-half-ton, nine-foot bronze statue of the goat-headed satanic figure.
But when the new HQ opened for business Friday morning, it was a far cry from the reaction the group got when it unveiled the "most controversial and politically charged contemporary work of art in the world" in Detroit last year.
This time, there were no marching protesters, no death threats, no local reverends organizing mass prayers. Aside from some local media, there was just one fan waiting when the doors opened—a young woman named Gwen, a local who arrived early for a chance to take a photo with Baphomet. Other visitors trickled in throughout the afternoon.
"The Boston Globe reported that the mayor's office only received four concerned calls," Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner—a.k.a. Lucien Greaves—tells VICE. "It's a lot different." (The Temple HQ has a cork bulletin board hanging in its gift shop to collect hate mail, just in case. On opening day, there was just one typed letter posted.)
Mesner says the new headquarters, a former funeral home, was donated to the temple by a benefactor last year. The first floor serves as the Salem Art Gallery, which currently features work by the Baphomet sculpture artist Mark Porter, in addition to other satanic sculptures (like a more traditional—and graphic—hermaphroditic depiction of Baphomet by artist Chris P. Andres). That Baphomet monument is stored in an unassuming shed outside, available for viewing only via purchase of a ticket at the gift shop.
The interior is sparse, accented by blood-red curtains and other gothic touches. "A lot of this was already here," Mesner explains. "Above the windows, it has this sort of bat wing motif going on. It seems like something we must have requested. But it's actually not. It's funny. It must have been here since it was a funeral home. You'd think they'd go for something sunnier."
Mesner says the city is investigating the building's zoning, which is currently certified as a place of assembly with a capacity of 50 people. But the official limit doesn't really matter, as he hopes to reach a wider audience by airing lectures and other happenings held at the space. "This will be kind of a focus point where we're going to have livestreamed broadcasts, lectures, and events that people can also participate in online," he says.
Whatever restrictions the donated building might have, Mesner believes the pros outweigh the cons. "It wasn't so much chosen by a group acknowledgement—it came our way," he tells me. "That said, there are obvious benefits, I think, to being in Salem."
That's because the history of Satan is inextricably baked into the history of this city, thanks in no small part to the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. The Puritans may have come to Massachusetts in search of their own religious freedom, but that didn't stop them from executing about 20 people, including 14 women, accused of acting under satanic influence as part of a wave of mass hysteria in the 1690s.
But since that dark period, Salem has come to nurture a culture that is rather inclusive and tolerant of fringe religions. In fact, the city has become a tourist destination of sorts for fans of the occult. There is a significant population of witches, or Wiccans, living here, along with numerous shops offering potions, healing crystals, tarot cards, and psychic readings.
"The average person in Salem that isn't a witch at least understands what witchcraft is, as opposed to other places where people aren't exposed to it," explains Thomas Vallor, a Salem historian—and himself a witch. Vallor guides the Salem Witch Walk tour through Crow Haven Corner, Salem's oldest witch shop.
Vallor adds that Salem's modern-day status as a hub of the occult stems from a confluence of its dark pre-colonial history and the allure of 20th-century television: In the 1970s, the cast and crew of the TV series Bewitched came to town to shoot a story arc. Soon after it aired, tourists were flocking to Salem in search of real witches—only to find a sleepy New England town.
Around the same time, an enterprising woman named Laurie Cabot decided to open a witch shop. "She didn't realize how big it was going to be," Vallor says. "She became like rock star." Cabot went on become one of the world's most famous witches, and Salem rose to prominence as a sort of witch capital.
That's not to say the area's witches don't have haters. Vallor says that during the city's peak tourism season around Halloween, fundamental Christian protesters are known to bus in from out of town. "They're never from Salem," he insists. "They're people with signs saying, 'Catholics, fags, Jews, and witches are all going to hell.'" Vallor adds that the locals—witches or otherwise—are known to take the protests in stride. "A lot of tourists, just seeing that—that reminds them of the witch trials immediately."
Despite Salem's religious tolerance, Mesner has taken what he describes as a "fatalistic" approach to security for the Satanic Temple HQ, installing an alarm system, surveillance cameras, and bars on the windows. After all, the building will serve as a permanent resting place for the Baphomet monument—as long as it isn't needed elsewhere.
Although fundamentalist Christians might paint both groups with a broad brush, Satanists are distinguished from witches—the former tend to describe themselves as adhering to a non-theistic religion opposed to superstition, while the latter decidedly embraces it. However, both Mesner and Vallor believe the two groups have overlapping interests.
"I think more and more people are starting to realize that by fighting for our religious liberty—we're fighting for everybody's freedom of religious liberty as well," Mesner says of his fellow Satanists. He adds that the history of the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s—when sensational child-abuse allegations, many since debunked, rocked America—will also be featured in an exhibition at the headquarters, a reminder that moral panics are never too far in the rearview mirror.
Meanwhile, bolstering this most unholy alliance, Vallor points out that the figure of Baphomet is significant to witches, too—a fixture in tarot card decks and other artwork. "This is something that Satanists and witches almost agree on, that the devil can be a representation of the darker parts of you," he says. "But we don't look at the dark as evil, but rather more naturalistic or primal."
For more on the Satanic Temple, visit its website.
Follow Leyland DeVito on Twitter.