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

Categories: Longform

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A few years ago Doug Mesner was a freelance journalist whose main stock-in-trade was debunking stories of evil Satanists.

"I don't see it as a contradiction at all," Mesner says of his career change. "It's completely consistent." The way he sees it, Satanic panic is still very much around. "I want to take that away, the idiotic mythology about a satanic cult that goes around murdering people and committing all these crimes." (He says it's the pervasiveness of anti-Satanist sentiment that convinced the Temple to use a pseudonym for its spokesman.)

Mesner wrote for his own site, Process.org, and for Examiner.com. For years he has been locked in an online battle with a man named Neil Brick, who claims he was subjected to ritual abuse and torture at the hands of MK-ULTRA, the infamous CIA "mind control" program. Brick runs an organization called S.M.A.R.T. for people who also believe they have been ritually abused. He also leads seminars on how to keep from being "mind-controlled."

Mesner takes great joy in deflating the claims of people like Brick. In 2009 he attended a conference on Satanic ritual abuse in Connecticut organized by S.M.A.R.T. He wrote a piece attacking the pseudoscience behind it (and the vendors in the lobby selling crystals and metal hats to deflect mind-control rays). Brick sued Mesner for defamation not long after that story came out. The case is ongoing.

Brick declined to comment about Mesner, saying his attorney has advised against it. He has written on his own blog that the Satanic Temple project is little more than an effort to get under his skin. He has a point: In the casting call for the Rick Scott stunt, the Temple's contact person was listed as "Neil Bricke." It's an alias that the New York actor who briefly played the Satanic Temple's leader trotted out in a number of interviews. (Mesner insists it wasn't his idea to use that name: "That was somebody else. I wouldn't bother antagonizing Neil Brick.")

Brick isn't the only person who's skeptical about the Temple's motives. Shane Bugbee is a writer and filmmaker who conducted one of the last interviews with Anton LaVey. These days he performs a big, yearly, traveling one-man show about Satanism called Let's Talk Satan, performed live in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. He says he met Mesner in 2001 and was involved with the Satanic Temple from the get-go.

Bugbee says the Temple project's mastermind, "Malcolm Jarry," is really Cevin Soling, a documentary filmmaker who runs a company called Spectacle Films. In 2009 Soling made a well-regarded documentary about the American school system, called The War on Kids. He's also president of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, the group that sponsored the infamous black mass.

"Doug was and is employed by Cevin," Bugbee maintains, adding that Soling had asked him to play the role of Lucien Greaves but that he declined. "They couldn't meet my contractual request of editorial approval of how my image would be used and my name exploited." 

At first, Bugbee says, he saw the Satanic Temple as a group of pranksters whose motives he could get behind. "I like a good joke," he explains. "And a joke on the public at large and, in general, the grossly inept media, was thrilling to participate in."

Bugbee says he helped to "lay the groundwork" for the Oklahoma monument. ("I would have never taken the tits off of the Baphomet," he notes. "I mean, really — what's a Baphomet without a bare breast?")

But not long after the Rick Scott rally, Bugbee says, the Temple's mission statement seemed to shift in a way that made him uneasy.

"The dissolving of the original idea of making a mockumentary and the rise of a want for a real religious sect seemed to happen very quick," he says. He worried that his friends were taking the idea of being spiritual leaders a bit too seriously. (He also hated a Baphomet logo "Jarry" commissioned for the Protect Children Project: "It looked like a fucking coloring book.")

Bugbee contends that the Satanic Temple's unnamed third co-founder is David Guinan, who owns a film production and advertising agency called Polemic Media. Guinan writes on LinkedIn that his company works on "innovative broadcast and interactive commercial campaigns, documentary and narrative films, as well as location-specific art pieces."

His Facebook profile picture features him standing next to the Baphomet statute.

According to IMDb.com, Guinan and Soling co-produced a documentary in 2010 called John Frum He Will Come. From the description on the database: "On the tiny island of Tanna in the South Pacific, a cult religion believes that an American deity named John Frum will one day bring them an abundance of gifts and lead them to salvation. This film chronicles one man's attempt to fulfill this strange prophecy."

Bugbee argues that Soling and Guinan have "no real relationship with Satanism. They have no ties to any Satanic organizations, and Cevin has absolutely no understanding of the Satanic culture," he says. 

"Malcolm Jarry" declined to discuss his true identity with the Voice, writing in an email, "I am happy to discuss the activities and future plans of the Temple with you, but cannot entertain speculation with regards to members who choose not to have certain things publicized. I hope you understand." Neither Soling nor Guinan responded to requests for comment for this story.

Several other people who appear to be involved with the Satanic Temple have backgrounds in film and media production. On May 5, one of them put out a call on Facebook seeking participants for the Harvard black mass, writing, "I'm still looking for a couple Acolytes for our ritual at Harvard."

Mesner responded to the posting in a way that made it sound as if he was not the organizer of the event. "How many you need?" he asked. "I have a few people here — or do they need to be in NY for preliminaries?"

When reached for comment, the Facebook user declined to elaborate on the nature of his relationship to the Temple. "I'm afraid I shouldn't talk about that kind of thing," he writes. "Obviously it is a delicate situation for those involved. I'm sure Lucien would be happy to field any follow-up questions you have about the Satanic community. I wish the circumstances were safer."

Mesner denies that the Satanic Temple is a hoax. He says Bugbee stopped working for the Temple over a petty financial dispute.

"He knows goddamn well this is a mission," he adds. "Especially for me."

Mesner won't discount the idea of making a movie, though. But he says he has turned down numerous requests (including one from Showtime) to make a quick-hit reality series. "It would have to be educational in nature," he says of a potential film tie-in. "It would have to be structured like a lecture. I think it'd be excellent if there were a 13-episode series, exploring the issues of the Satanic panic and modern Satanism and going to places like Africa, where there's a new Satanic panic in action. There's so much history and so many issues, so many things worth exploring well outside some idiotic vanity production." (Update, July 23: An independent producer who works with Showtime says that while she's been in contact with the Temple, they have never been offered a show on the network. She adds that Soling sent her a treatment for his own proposed series, which she turned down.)

Mesner says the Satanic Temple's upcoming agenda includes performing a same-sex marriage in Michigan, and, as he puts it, "rolling out a women's rights initiative that leverages the Hobby Lobby ruling." 

"I know we're going to keep on doing what we're doing," he says. "That'll shine through eventually. I don't mind people coming off and dismissing us as a prank. Not to get all George W. Bush with you — about, you know, 'The future will judge us' — but I think ultimately we're going to have a body of work that you can't ignore, and you can't cast off as the idiotic working of fools."

In the meantime, he adds wryly, "time to put my Kevlar on."

[amerlan@villagevoice.com]

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Soling/Guinan film "John Frum He Will Come" as a mockumentary. It is a documentary. The Voice regrets the error.


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