It’s a Saturday night, July 2015, and across Detroit the friends and followers of The Satanic Temple prepare themselves. They powder their faces and line their eyes, smack on black lipstick and slide into corsets, robes, three-piece suits. Later they convene in an empty warehouse. It’s lit red, adorned with pentacles and an inverted cross. On stage, a woman pours wine down the throats of three naked congregants. Sadist and Wolf Eyes whip the crowd into a moshing, death metal frenzy. At the night’s fever pitch, two shirtless men pull back a tarp, and present the night’s most revered guest in all its diabolical glory: a statue of Baphomet, nine feet tall and weighing nearly a ton. Ram’s horns arc from his head, a curling beard rests on a tough, sinewy torso. He has cloven hooves. Behind him, spread wings and a pentagram. “Hail Satan!” the crowd cries. If this sounds like a particularly Goth rave, well, in a way it is. It’s also the celebration of a lawsuit brought to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. A monument to the 10 Commandments has been declared unconstitutional, which means Baphomet no longer needs to jockey for space at the state capitol. (Today’s Satanists find there’s no better way to celebrate a legal victory than writhing in the lap of a pagan deity).
It didn’t always work this way. Satanism had its first postmodern heyday when Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966 (“Year One,” he called it, as would the elderly Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, two years later). Calling themselves ‘skeptical atheists’ who nonetheless believe in lesser and greater magics, the Church of Satan prized individual autonomy above all else (sometimes with shades of Nietzsche and Rand). LaVey’s church garnered a considerable following with celebrities like Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. and countercultural icons like Kenneth Anger during its first few decades. By the ‘70s however, schisms threatened to tear the organization apart, and soon LaVey shut down COS chapters across the US.
By the mid-80s the Satanic Panic was in full, delirious swing. Nightmares of cult devil worship and child abuse accusations took Satanism from edgy counterculture to national threat. Anton’s daughter Zeena LaVey, onetime High Priestess of COS and Taylor Swift doppelganger, made the talk show rounds trying to defend her faith. The abuse allegations were disproved, but Satanism — never an easy sell in the first place — took a serious hit. Seeing how the spotlight could burn, LaVeyan Satanists and many offshoots and competing sects practiced their religion quietly in the shadows.
But a few years ago, the Devil came back, and his new legion, The Satanic Temple, weren’t exactly shy. They first made headlines in January 2013, staging a rally in ‘support’ of Florida governor Rick Scott, who’d just advocated SB 98, a bill that would help reintroduce prayer in schools. Dressed in black, they gathered on the steps of the capitol building with a banner reading ‘Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!’ If the governor was open to prayer, then Satanists would ensure he was open to all prayers, including infernal ones. Incredulous, many news outlets called the gathering a hoax.
Six months later, America got another taste of TST’s unique form of religious expression when co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves travelled to Meridian, Mississippi and turned Fred Phelps Jr.’s dead mom gay. Wearing a horned headpiece, Greaves brought two same-sex couples to Magnolia Cemetery, whether the mother of the Westboro Baptist Church leader was buried. During the ‘Pink Mass,’ each couple kneeled over the burial plot and kissed, while Greaves burnt candles and read scripture. Afterwards, he unzipped his pants, pulled out his scrotum, and teabagged the tombstone.
In many ways, these stunts recalled contemporary instances of prankster activism— the ‘barbarian’ hordes seizing control of Michele Bachmann’s pray-the-gay-away clinic, the spate of glitter bombings that bedazzled everyone from Rick Santorum to Dan Savage — and they do share a common thread. But the Satanic Temple, which seemed at first a political diversion or fodder for a candid-camera big reveal, did something unexpected: it began taking itself seriously.