BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts, famed for its Puritans, witch trials and scarlet letters, braced for the world’s largest-ever gathering of Satanists this weekend, but the feared pagan hordes turned out to be campy misfits seeking fun and community — far more “Rocky Horror” than “The Exorcist.”
Sponsored by the Satanic Temple, which boasts that it’s the only satanic organization officially recognized by the IRS, SatanCon drew some 800 practitioners to beat the turnout at last year's inaugural meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Outside the convocation at Boston’s downtown Marriott hotel, several Protestant organizations organized more than 100 protesters, and the Boston archdiocese encouraged Catholics to attend special anti-Satan prayer services as far away as Gloucester, an hour to the north.
The conclave proved less a licentious coven than a traditional business convention, however, with name tags, PowerPoint, panel discussions and an exhibit hall with dozens of vendors hawking merchandise.
The Temple was founded 10 years ago by two friends from Harvard and doesn’t believe in a literal Satan, instead seeing him as a literary figure representing rebellion and nonconformity. In practice, most of the attendees resembled 1990s goth teenagers who grew into middle age without changing their clothing or hairstyles. The clear majority belonged to the LGBTQ community. “You occasionally meet a completely straight Satanist, but they’re pretty exotic,” said Dex Desjardins, the Temple’s media director.
Many told stories of being ostracized in their youth for being different and said Satanism allowed them to feel accepted. “It’s a coming-home religion,” Desjardins said. “Many people tell us the only reason they didn’t kill themselves is that they found our group.”
A small conference room at the Marriott was set up as a “black chapel” where rituals were performed including “unbaptisms” (where members renounce vows made before they could consent) and adoptions of new satanic names, or “satanyms.”
Satanyms are a form of empowerment, but using the alternative names also protects members from retaliation by the larger community, explained a trans woman who calls herself Legz Fi Daisy.
Penemue, whose satanym evokes a fallen angel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, is the Temple’s director of ministry. He said the organization has ordained about 250 ministers and performed several hundred weddings.
The Temple views its rituals as “an artistic act” and encourages ministers to be creative and improvise, he noted, which sometimes causes problems. “We occasionally get calls from funeral directors asking for instructions for conducting a Satanist funeral, and it’s hard to know what to tell them.”
The meeting’s opening malediction was given by minister Karl Kasarda who held up a keyboard and smashed it with a hammer to represent a rejection of social media websites, which often block and de-platform Satanists and “value conflict over community.”
Despite cursing them, the Temple regularly uses sites such as Facebook to connect its membership, which can be far-flung. “I’m the only Satanist on Martha’s Vineyard,” said Echo Young Buck, whose real name is Betsy. Even her husband refuses to join; he accompanied her to the Marriott but remained in their hotel room.
Young Buck finds a sense of community by meeting other Satanists online. “I also go to the local Unitarian church,” she added. “They’re OK with it.”
Having retired as a veterinarian allows her to be more open about her beliefs, she said. Before, “a lot of people probably wouldn’t have brought their animals to me.”
Temple members are supposed to follow Seven Tenets emphasizing compassion, justice, bodily autonomy, respect for science and owning one’s mistakes. A woman who goes by Aubergine (“I’ve always loved eggplant,” she explained) said her friends urged her to pierce her daughter’s ears when she was a baby to make it easier for her later in life, but she rejected this as a violation of bodily autonomy.
Ash Schade, a gay trans man with bright red hair, gave a talk called “Hellbillies” in which he described living in West Virginia — where, at least in parts of the state, “I’d get shot, period” for having a Satanist bumper sticker. To survive, he said, “you’ve got to be a stubborn jackass” with an attitude of “this is my trailer and I ain’t leaving.”
But in keeping with the Tenets, Schade urged the heavily left-wing audience to have compassion for the MAGA contingent. “We’re both stigmatized,” he said. “We should be mindful not to punch down at people who are having a hard time and may not have a lot of opportunities.”
Over in the exhibit hall, director Michelle Shortt described the roughly 40 vendors as “artists and misfits who are not into the corporate world.”
One of those was Schon Warner, an oil painter with hair well below his waist who started creating astrology-based ritual animal dolls during the pandemic. “I do a lot of these witch shows,” he related. “This month alone I’m in Boston, Brooklyn, Baltimore and Philly.”
Although the Temple is officially non-theistic, it appears to accept people who believe in a literal Lucifer. A woman called Rebecca said that demons are real and that they generally want to help human beings but are misunderstood. She said she communes with four demons through herbs, candles and gemstones and hopes to start her own sect.
There’s a lot of overlap between Satanists and the sci-fi and comic-book subcultures, Young Buck commented. “There’s a big queer element in the comic-book world, too,” she said, “although they haven’t always been as open about it.”
The Temple’s public activities include support for abortion rights and opposition to corporal punishment (both based on the principle of bodily autonomy) as well as filing a number of lawsuits, including one against the city of Boston for not allowing it to give an invocation at a city council meeting and one against Netflix for misusing one of its monuments in the teen-horror show “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
The group also offers after-school Satan clubs as an alternative to traditional religious clubs. A year ago, Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves told Tucker Carlson that, unlike traditional clubs, the Temple runs criminal background checks on its after-school instructors “because we want to be responsible about this.”
The conference at the Marriott required attendees to wear black KN95 masks and show proof of vaccination, and Desjardins acknowledged that “there’s a certain amount of tension” between those requirements and the principle of bodily autonomy. “On the other hand,” he said, the masks discourage right-wing protesters from trying to get into the meeting “because they hate wearing them.”
By midafternoon Friday, the throng gathered outside the Marriott had dwindled to a handful of people who were outnumbered by the police officers assigned to watch them. Two of the remaining protesters spoke into bullhorns and startled occasional pedestrians.
The Temple’s opposition comes not only from Christians but from the rival Church of Satan, which was founded in San Francisco in the 1960s. The Church of Satan derides the Temple as faux Satanists and a “satire/activist group that uses satanic-themed imagery and language to get media and public attention.” The Temple retorts by referencing a 1971 book in which the rival church’s founder, Anton LaVey, argued that it was possible to tell whether people were homosexual based on their choice of salad dressing. (Spoiler alert: Gay men like blue cheese; lesbians like Thousand Island.)
Jordan, a Temple Satanist from Wisconsin, said she likes the Temple’s political approach because it emphasizes personal freedom and autonomy without going to the extremes of libertarianism. “Libertarians have too few rules,” she complained.
Another Temple initiative combats psychologists who promote “recovered memories” of satanic ritual abuse. Speaker Zombie Tourmaline, who sported long blue hair, a skirt, high boots and a beard, described false abuse claims in Brazil.
The Temple also offers an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous that lacks the Christian orientation of many AA groups and emphasizes personal autonomy rather than accepting one’s powerlessness. The group has 5,000 Facebook members, hosts more than a dozen online meetings a week, and attracts a lot of queer, trans and neurodiverse people, according to Aubergine.
Many attendees said they like the Temple because of its political stances, especially on abortion. But when pressed — it’s a lot easier to join Planned Parenthood than to become a Satanist, after all — they often said that they felt alienated from traditional religions but still longed for spirituality and community.
Citlali Soona, an Indigenous woman from north Texas who chaired a panel discussion on Satanists of color, said the Temple’s membership is overwhelmingly white and the chief difficulty for minorities is that in communities of color religion is often deeply intertwined with family and other institutions, so differing on religion can cause deep schisms. Many minority Satanists don’t tell their family about their views because “they think we’re doing all this evil shit,” she noted.
The importance of community for people who feel like outcasts came up again and again. Enma Yama, an Asian woman who grew up in a white family, said she never felt comfortable in a peer group of color until she discovered Satanism. “For me,” she said, “it just feels like home.”
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