Are Satanists using ‘The Witch’ to start a cinematic holy war?

Are Satanists using ‘The Witch’ to start a cinematic holy war? February 4, 2016
Courtesy of A24.
Courtesy of A24.

I haven’t seen “The Witch,”  Robert Eggers’ upcoming horror film. I heard all about it several years ago when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and impressed critics with its shocking visuals and eerie presence.

Now, it appears as if it’s also inspiring more than just reviewers. From a press release:

Beginning February 10 in New York City, The Satanic Temple (TST) will launch premiere screenings of the highly ­anticipated historical horror film, The Witch,​amid interactive performances and ritualized pronouncements of a “new Satanic era.” The Witch, o​pening in theatres nationwide on Feb. 19​ o​pposite faith­ based biblical thriller Risen,​h​as received the official sanction of TST, and has been described by Jex Blackmore (TST National Spokesperson) as a “transformative Satanic experience” unto itself.

Set in 17th century Puritan New England,​the film “departs from the victim narrative” of witchcraft and stands as a “declaration of feminine independence.” Blackmore explains, “W​e are empowered by the narrative of The Witch:​a story of pathological pride, old-­world religious paradigms, and an outsider who grabs persecution by the horns.”

It’s a theme that resonates with TST, best known for their activist efforts to ensure plurality in what they see as an increasingly theocratic America. In conjunction with the film premieres, and in the spirit of their religious activism, TST has launched the website satanic­, where newcomers can join and/or support their high-­profile campaigns, officially registering themselves into “The Book of Satan.”

Following the screening in New York will be a screening in Los Angeles, followed by a pointed trip into Texas, targeted for what Blackmore describes as its unique stature as “a stronghold of regressive theocratic, persecutory anti-­intellectualism.” This film, TST is confident, will signal the call­ to ­arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions, and will harken a new era of liberation and unfettered inquiry.

The four-­part tour of interactive performances, entitled ‘The Sabbat Cycle,’ mirror the phases of “becoming” in the personal road to Satanism. The cycle begins with the theme of ‘Awakening’ to the primal self, followed by the ‘Rebellion’ of oppressive traditions, a ‘Convocation’ of the Satanic coalition and, finally, an ‘Ascension.’ The tour will end in Detroit at the end of the month. Interested participants should visit satanic­ for details regarding access to these events, which are limited.

Of particular note is that “The Witch” opens on Feb. 19 opposite “Risen,” a biblical thriller in which a Roman guard (Joseph Fiennes) investigates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I haven’t seen “Risen,” but it’s highly anticipated by many throughout the evangelical community. In a year with many biblical epics and faith-based films on the horizon, “Risen” stands to make some money at the box office. So are satanists taking a stand and trying to block the success of a Christian movie? Is “The Witch” really the beginning of a satanic call to arms? Is the movie dangerous, and will it corrupt the minds of the nation?

I think, maybe, we should take a breath.

I have no doubt that TST is excited about the release of ‘The Witch.’ It’s a horror film that received great reviews and has a lot of buzz behind it. Contrary to a lot of people’s perceptions, TST is not a religious organization that sacrifices virgins or conducts curses. They’re a protest organization against organized religion whose stated mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people”. I was surprised to learn that its largest congregation is in Detroit. The satanism angle is kind of an attention-getting tactic for their protests. I’m not saying this to say that it’s an organization I endorse or that I think you should check it out. I’m saying it so that it’s clear that there’s not some giant demonic warfare brewing through a movie. Rather, they’re throwing their support behind a movie that uses supernatural ideas and imagery — the same ideas they use for shock — to tell a story about religious oppression, something they are against. By attaching their name to a high-profile movie and proclaiming it a “Satanic experience,” they’ve got your attention and now they can tell you more about their cause. 

For the movie, it’s a marketing hook. And let’s admit it: it’s a good one. A24, a company that releases quality movies more often than not, is a genius at marketing. How else to explain how Harmony Korine’s bizarre “Spring Breakers” became a surprise hit? With scary movies, the more extreme the notices, the better. Remember when “The Conjuring” received an R rating for being “too scary”? Or when William Friedkin — the director of “The Exorcist” — said “The Babadook” was the scariest film he’d ever seen? Listen, I love both “The Conjuring” and “The Babadook.” They both made my top 10 lists their respective years. But I know a marketing hook when I see one. And having The Satanic Temple describe your movie about witchcraft as “a satanic experience” is some of the best marketing you can get.

Just think — now you have thousands of teenagers’ interest piqued about a tiny indie film because it feels dangerous. I’m sure you’re going to have parent groups and religious organizations up in arms over it, which will only heighten the feeling of danger. My guess is it will also positively affect the box office of “Risen,” as church groups urge congregants to see it instead of letting ‘The Witch’ make money. People will yell, fight and scream and feel like they’re fighting the good fight, and all along Robert Eggers and the execs at A24 will be laughing because you’ve played right into their hands and made them a lot of money.

Of course, lost in the discussion is the movie itself. Is it well-made? Is it really scary? Is it any good? It kind of becomes a moot point when it’s about to be drowned out by controversy. But it doesn’t matter — A24 will make money and the Satanic Temple will get a lot of press. The movie is a means to an end in some ways and, unfortunately, I wonder if all the controversy is going to obscure a movie that might actually have insightful things to say about faith and belief. That’s what happens when controversy gets loud. I’d also note that Christians are guilty for piggybacking on art to endorse their beliefs — whether the movie’s good or not — and the studios love that just as much (possibly more, as Christians have a larger base than TST).

I’m not saying to go see “The Witch.” I don’t know if I’ll see it. It could be a movie worth staying away from, especially if you’re sensitive to supernatural issues in movies. But realize this for what it is — a marketing tactic, not a holy war. The movie’s not going to destroy souls and we’re not on the cusp of Armageddon. People are selling a movie by selling controversy. And we’re quick to buy that.

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