Trolling Hell: Is the Satanic Temple a Prank, the Start of a New Religious Movement -- or Both?

Categories: Longform

The Satanic Temple came crashing into the public view on a brilliantly sunny Florida day in January 2013, when a crowd of Satanists showed up at the state Capitol dressed in black capes and ready to celebrate Gov. Rick Scott. Specifically, they wanted to broadcast their approval last year of a bill he'd signed, Senate Bill 98, which allowed student-led prayer at school assemblies. As the Satanists pointed out, those prayers could just as easily hail Satan as Jesus.

"I think he's a great American," the group's leader told a news camera, referring to the governor. The leader was brown-haired and balding. He wore a set of spiraling black horns protruding from his forehead, attached to a leather headband. "A politician who's willing to step out on a limb, in a possibly politically uncomfortable position, and have the faith in young people to speak their mind, I think it's a very healthy message."

"You don't really believe that," the cameraman pressed.

"I do!" the horned fellow replied. They looked at each other stonily.

The camerman's skepticism was well founded: The man with the horns wasn't a Satanist. He was an actor from New York, hired by a film crew making a mockumentary about "the nicest Satanic cult in the world." The film was to be called The Satanic Temple.

The Miami Herald was first to reveal the movie's motive. Dubious that a group of Satanists would celebrate a politician known for his Christianity-in-government advocacy and insistence on drug-testing welfare recipients, reporter Michael Van Sickler found a casting call for non-union actors to play "minions" and Satanic extras.

"We are seeking people from all walks of life, goths, grandparents, soccer moms, etc., to be the followers of a charismatic yet down-to-earth Satanic cult leader," read the ad, posted online at Actors Access. "The shoot will be on January 25th in downtown Tallahassee. Actors will be required to wear tasteful Satanic garb." The job was unpaid.

The Satanists for Scott story went viral, but the Temple leadership realized that it wouldn't do to have an actor play the group's leader. Doug Mesner, one of the group's founders, replaced him.

Though they indicate to news outlets that they're based in New York, the Temple brain trust is from the Boston area: Mesner, — a.k.a. "Lucien Greaves," the pale blond who visited Baphomet in Brooklyn; "Malcolm Jarry," the group's similarly pseudonymous co-founder; and, ostensibly, a third person, who has never been publicly identified and doesn't talk to the press. 

Mesner says he's not fond of the spotlight, a statement borne out over the course of several interviews, which he approaches like a trip to the dentist: He's unfailingly polite and visibly miserable from start to finish. He says he stepped into the role of Greaves only reluctantly.

"I had to become Lucien," he explains. "It just became obvious that you're not going to be able to coach somebody on what we think and feel. We couldn't constantly have a feed going into his ear."

Despite the film's premise, Mesner insists the Satanic Temple has never been a hoax or a prank. In an interview for Vice, he said he and his co-founders envisioned the Temple as "the poison pill in the church-state debate." But that's not quite right, either, he says now. "It's evolved into much more. We're putting forward the notion of our right not to be marginalized and, literally, a demonized group."

Over time, Mesner has grown increasingly leery about responding to personal questions. In 2012 he was willing to tell an ABC reporter he was 30 years old. Two years later, he doesn't want to reveal even that much. He has written previously that he attended Harvard University, but no one by that name is listed as either a current or former student. His last name may not be Mesner but Misicko, according to one lawsuit filed against him. (That name doesn't show up on Harvard's rolls, either.) He'll concede that he lives in Cambridge.

And that's about it.

"I'm trying to keep the story off of me personally and not put too fine a location on me," he says apologetically. "I'm just getting a flutter of angry, threatening mail and that kind of thing."

For a few months following the Rick Scott rally, the Satanic Temple stayed out of the headlines. In June of last year, the group tried unsuccessfully to raise money to adopt a New York state highway, writing on fundraising site Indiegogo, "This campaign will do more than keep the highways clean. It will help to send a clear message to the world, reaffirming American religious plurality."

Adopting highways is a hard cause to rally the demonic troops around. The effort raised only $2,200 of its $15,000 goal and was quietly scrapped. The following month, however, the Temple roared back to the front pages when it issued a press release announcing a Pink Mass, "a formal ceremony celebrating same-sex unions," to be held in a graveyard in Meridian, Mississippi. The precise location was on top of the grave of Catherine Johnson, the mother of Fred Phelps, founder of the famously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. The ceremony consisted of same-sex couples making out with their elbows propped atop Johnson's headstone.

The goal was to transform Johnson into a posthumous lesbian: "The Satanic Temple now believes that Fred Phelps must believe that his mother is now gay, in the afterlife, due to our Pink Mass," Greaves (Mesner) declared in a follow-up press release. "And nobody can challenge our right to our beliefs."

"Malcolm Jarry," whose idea it was to hold the mass, writes via email that Westboro "feed[s] off anger. They love being hated. But no one can react to being mocked. If you're made fun of, there's no defense for that. No retort. Nothing you can say or do. You become a joke." He'd hoped Johnson's grave would become a gay make-out spot for years to come, he writes: "I had a vision of it being a perpetual place where people could do this."

Jarry and Mesner traveled to Meridian together, then used Craigslist to find some locals up for a make-out session: two women and two men. At the ceremony's end, Mesner unzipped his pants, bared his scrotum, and draped it atop Johnson's headstone.

There is a photo.

The event, and especially the scrotum, attracted a media tsunami. It also drew the ire of Meridian's sheriff, who told local news that a warrant had been issued for Mesner's arrest for "desecration of a grave." The group had already left town.

"I don't know if I have a warrant," Mesner says. "Supposedly. That's the impression the sheriff gave in the press. We didn't go back to fight it."

Though the Adopt A Highway effort sputtered, it and the cemetery stunt certainly helped the Satanists' fundraising efforts for Baphomet. Mesner says the volume of donations has surpassed his wildest expectations; the numbers really took off after the group unveiled drawings of the monument on Indiegogo. "We just keep underestimating the value of images, I guess," he says. "A lot of people want a piece of it."

Just as the media chaos began to die down, the Temple found yet another prime piece of headline bait: It announced this past spring that it would reenact a black mass on the Harvard campus, and that the event would be sponsored by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club.

Black masses have been described in religious and occult literature since the Middle Ages. They are, essentially, parodies of Roman Catholic masses, performed with real Communion wafers and a nude woman acting as the altar. (There's little evidence and no firsthand accounts indicating that they were ever actually performed in medieval times, but being accused of participating in a black mass was enough to get the alleged perpetrator executed during the Spanish Inquisition.)

University president Drew Faust called the planned reenactment "abhorrent," not to mention "flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory," writing in an open letter that it represented "a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging, and mutual respect that must define our community."

The Archdiocese of Boston announced it would protest the event by holding its own mass the same night, May 12. More than 2,000 people showed up, including Faust. The Satanic Temple reluctantly agreed to move its mass off-campus. A nightclub signed on to host the affair but later reneged. The mass eventually found a venue: a banquet hall in a Chinese restaurant called the Hong Kong Lounge.

"I did not expect that level of outrage," Mesner admits. He says the Temple was consistent in articulating the intent of the mass: that it was meant as a reenactment, and that they would never use an actual Communion wafer. But, he allows, "We thought there might be one or two conspiracist individuals who would think we would actually summon demons, or whatever."

Undeterred, Mesner and Jarry are also carrying on with the Temple's Protect Children Project, which they launched last year to advocate against corporal punishment and the use of "isolation rooms" in public schools. Parents register on the Temple's Protect Children website (protectchildrenproject.com) and provide contact information for their home school district, whereupon the group sends a letter to administrators informing them that the family's deeply held spiritual beliefs prohibit their children from being subjected to physical restraints, prolonged isolation, or corporal punishment.

"We wrote it into our tenets that the body is inviolable and subject only to one's own will," Mesner explains. "You can't beat the kid. You have to find a human, civilized way to deal with problems in the classroom. If they violate that, we will pursue them." He couldn't say exactly how many letters they've sent to date, explaining that the effort is "still getting off the ground."

He and Jarry hope to set up a similar mechanism on behalf of women who live in states that require a transvaginal ultrasound prior to having an abortion.

"That [legislation] was put forth by hard-core religious believers of one stripe," Mesner says. "We feel we can exempt people from that on religious-liberty grounds as well."

With the exception of Christian publications and Fox News, most of the press has played Satanic Temple stories for their entertainment value. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the group's Baphomet monument campaign, albeit politely. The ACLU is suing Oklahoma to remove the Ten Commandments monument, and they seem to feel the Satanists are muddying the waters a bit.

"Their basis for saying we have a right to have this on the Capitol lawn is inconsistent with our case," Brady Henderson, the ACLU's legal director, told Al Jazeera several months ago. "The state shouldn't have a religious monument at all." 

The way Mesner sees it, the Temple's efforts are bringing Satanism aboveground, where it belongs.

"The idea is the more we do these things, the more acceptable they are," he says. "That's the whole point. We take away this ignorant idea of this kind of subterranean Satanic conspiracy that's supposedly murdering babies and all that kind of thing."



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