Earlier this week, we saw a screening of the new film The Witch alongside members of a satanic temple in Austin. Immediately after the credits rolled, we left the theater and were invited to sit in on one of their rituals.
Said gathering was about what you’d expect from a satanic ritual held in public. There was a guy who looked like a younger Glenn Danzig—a long-haired beefcake shirtless in a black leather jacket—on his knees, chains wrapped around his wrist, pounding his fists into the ground. On either side of him, there were figures in sheer red cloaks covering their entire bodies. The one on the left held a knife; the one on the right held a mirror. Behind those figures, a couple of young, attractive, naked people—a guy covered in tattoos and a woman with a short bob haircut—stood motionless. Behind all of them stood a figure in a black shroud covered from head to toe, in front of a black lectern. The entire area was adorned in black-and-white American flags, just like the ones that everybody in the room received as they entered. As all of this went down, a sermon played as a Christian minister described what Satan wanted from his followers—”Satan wants you to do what you want to do,” a point that apparently both sides of the Jesus/Satan divide can agree on—while a punishing ambient soundscape provided by British electronic music weirdos Consumer Electronics droned in the background.
After a few minutes of the Danzig look-alike beating his chained fists, he pulled the cloak off of the black-shrouded figure, and Satanic Temple spokeswoman Jex Blackmore emerged to deliver a sermon of her own. Blackmore’s sermon kept the ambient soundscape as she went into satanic priestess mode, asking the assembled moviegoers and/or Consumer Electronics fans, “Who taught you to be ashamed?” and declaring that “satanism is the rational assertion of aggressive individualism.” The naked people got hoods draped over their heads, then removed them to chug growlers full of wine. People in the crowd who wore the sort of accessories you might expect from those attracted to a satanic ritual—trilby hats and fedoras, upside-down cross earrings, Slayer T-shirts—rushed to the front of the crowd.
Blackmore then called the attendees out for “tweeting your indignation from the comfort of your own filthy nests” despite the shocking level of laws being proposed and passed that restricted people’s individual and sexual freedoms in the name of Christianity. When she tried to brighten things up by telling that the satanists and/or horror movie enthusiasts before her have “never had as much chance to dismantle the theocratic structures as we have now,” it started to sound for just a minute like she was going to endorse Bernie Sanders—but instead, she culminated the message by declaring, “We do not seek followers, we are seeking collaborators—individuals for a satanic alliance!” Then she instructed those collaborators to place their black-and-white flags outside of crisis pregnancy centers and the Texas governor’s mansion. She ended the sermon by shouting “Hail Satan!” and raising her fist into the Ronnie James Dio devil-horn sign, which the majority of the crowd of a hundred or so fired back, chanting “Hail Satan!” along with her over and over again, in a display that seemed at least half intended to send them back to their filthy nests to tweet about how cool it was to do that at a real, live satanic ritual.
It was, at the very least, an unusual way to end a studio-sponsored promotional tour for a major motion picture.
But that’s what distributor A24 signed on for when they partnered with the Satanic Temple and Blackmore for a four-city tour—Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York—in which screenings of The Witch, the distributor’s period horror “New England folktale,” were followed by a satanic ritual. A24 representatives declined to speak on the record about the partnership, but it’s certainly clear that the film—which was one of the hits of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, acquired immediately by A24 in a reported low seven-figure deal—presents certain marketing challenges. It’s a slow-burn horror film with nary a jump-scare to be found, created by a first-time writer/director. The closest it comes to a star is Game of Thrones‘ Kate Dickie, who plays that show’s eternally breastfeeding matriarch Lysa Arryn (and who has an equally fraught breastfeeding scene here). The costumes and dialogue are painstakingly authentic—the characters speak entirely in “thee” and “thou” and “thy,” just like a real family of exiled Puritans in 1600’s Massachusetts forced to live on a farm near a wooded area haunted by a witch might.
In other words, if you’re looking for ways to help a challenging film find its hungry—but narrow—audience, teaming up with media-savvy satanists might seem like the way to go. Blackmore certainly knows how to navigate media circles—most notably, her Satanic Temple made headlines after constructing a statue of Baphomet to place on the steps of any state capitol building that endorses religion by placing a monument of the Ten Commandments. And she certainly sees the value in lending her organization’s support to a film like The Witch.
“This is precisely the kind of conversation that we’re trying to have,” Blackmore told Co.Create after the screening and ritual. “It’s a very timely film in that we have a cultural dialogue going on regarding religious liberty. It’s about the foundation of America, and we have a lot of politicians who are making decisions for people like me, and are calling for a return to this kind of fetishized period of American history, which is actually quite destructive in many ways. So we thought that it would be a great catalyst for us to go around the country to mobilize people.”
Blackmore’s as much—if not more—of a political activist as she is a religious leader. The ritual spent more time talking about political action that the attendees should be taking than it did praising Lucifer, and there wasn’t so much as a lone shout-out to a single minor demon. Satan is cool, but it’s an allegory, not a “supernatural being of doom,” as she puts it. For her organization, Satan is mostly just a hook to talk about cultural issues—which is also how she seems to see The Witch. “When we saw the film, we had been wanting to do this kind of tour to reach out to other communities that we don’t normally get to. When it comes to horror films, those people might be interested in what we have to say, but we haven’t come in contact with them.”
Still, it’s unexpected to see a distributor like A24 sign on to send their film on the road with proud, politically active satanists. A24 is relatively new—the company was formed in 2012—but it has aggressively positioned itself with indie films and smaller prestige pictures. Three of its films, Room, Ex Machina, and Amy, are up for Oscars. Satanism, meanwhile, has never really been a brand with which companies looking to reach mainstream audiences have jumped to be associated. It’s thematically appropriate for The Witch, though, and it’s unlikely that many people want a supernatural period horror movie with feminist undertones but are turned off by the idea that the Satanic Temple has endorsed the film. And it’s certainly easy to understand what Blackmore and her organization see as to what they get out of the pact.
“People have a negative assumption about who we are as satanists,” she explained. “And we want to challenge where those concepts come from—and typically they come from pop culture, or from the pulpit. In that case, I don’t think that people should be making judgments about philosophies, or ideologies, or groups of other people based off of these absurd notions. The more that we can demystify these words, and then challenge people to confront their own insecurities and misconceptions, it’s important.”