Trolling Hell: Is the Satanic Temple a Prank, the Start of a New Religious Movement -- or Both?
The most controversial new work of art in the United States is a sculpture that resides in an undisclosed warehouse location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Hardly anyone knows where it is, and few have actually seen it. The people who commissioned the piece have warned the artist not to publicly identify himself.
They don't think they're being paranoid.
"We've gotten all kinds of hate mail," Lucien Greaves, one of the people who commissioned the work, says. Greaves has received a number of emailed death threats, which he occasionally posts verbatim to his Facebook page: "I hope, I pray you get a bullet. You are evil your a monster, an obamanation...the evil radiates off you. I hope you suffer." A guest on Don Imus's show on Fox News remarked jocularly that Greaves and his cohorts behind the sculpture should be lined up next to it and shot.
Greaves hadn't seen the artwork in person until recently. On a warm afternoon in early June, a friend drove him down to New York from his home near Boston so he could take a look. He arrived in Brooklyn just as the sun was setting and hurried into the space where the sculpture is kept, quickly shutting the warehouse door behind him. Someone had tweeted its rough location not long ago, and he was uneasy about prying eyes.
Greaves closed the blinds, then turned to face the sculpture. He inspected it for a moment or two with quiet satisfaction.
"I love it," he said without smiling.
Not yet completed, the work is a huge statue of Baphomet, a horned, winged, sexually ambiguous, goat-like deity. Baphomet is usually depicted with a goat's body and cloven hooves, a woman's breasts and enormous, flared wings. A flame protrudes from the top of his head, and from his lap a staff with two snakes wrapped around it: a caduceus. Greaves asked the sculptor — we'll call him "Jack" — to forgo the breasts. This Baphomet is smooth-chested and muscular, with thin, shapely lips and rectangular pupils. The sculptor based his physique on a blend of Michelangelo's David and Iggy Pop.
When the piece is completed, Baphomet will be seated on a throne underneath an inverted pentagram. On either side of him, two children — a boy and a girl — will gaze up adoringly. On this day the little girl was absent, visiting another artist for some finishing touches. The boy was in place, his lips parted, his unpainted, dimpled Afro reminiscent of a giant golf ball.
"The caduceus represents reconciliation and negotiation," Greaves explained, lightly touching the staff. "The whole thing has binary elements, to represent balance and reconciliation."
Baphomet has been around since at least the 1300s, when Spanish Inquisitors accused a Christian military order called the Knights Templar of worshipping the goat god. (Members were tortured for the offense, and burned at the stake every so often.) But the popular image of Baphomet comes from the mid-1800s, in the form of a drawing in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, a treatise written and illustrated by French occultist and magician Eliphas Levi. For Levi, Baphomet represented perfect harmony: male and female, darkness and light.
More recently, Baphomet has come to be associated with Satan and Satanism — and that's precisely Greaves's intent. He's the spokesman for the Satanic Temple, a group that intends to plant Baphomet on the lawn of the Oklahoma state Capitol, alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments. Oklahoma lawmakers decided it's fine to put up a religious statue if it's paid for with private funds, the Satanists point out. So why not their Baphomet, which was crowdsourced through online donations?
Bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, the statue looked beautiful, and a little eerie. As Greaves walked around the base, tracing the figure's outline with his fingers, Jack smiled. He'd quit his day job a few months earlier to work full-time on the piece. The Temple has poured $30,000 into it already, but this is only a model made of clay and steel. A mold is yet to be fabricated, then a bronze cast — a process that will cost at least another 30 grand. (The Temple won't be getting any tax breaks to help recoup expenses. It has chosen to become an LLC instead of registering as a religious nonprofit. Greaves says the move, much like the statue itself, is a form of protest against the way most organized religious groups do business.)
In the meantime, the piece has become world-famous. After Vice magazine published photos on its website on May 1, seemingly every major media outlet followed with coverage.
If the piece ever does make it to Oklahoma City, Greaves expects that someone will destroy or deface it. "Someone's certainly going to try," he says. He chuckles. "They better know what they're doing, or they'll hurt themselves."
Greaves says he's looking into having Baphomet insured. But, he adds, almost merrily, "If it does get destroyed or defaced, there's a salient message there."
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."
New York Knicks vs. Phoenix Suns
TicketsSat., Jan. 21, 7:30pm
New York Jets Travel Packages
TicketsSun., Jan. 22, 12:00am
Seton Hall Pirates Womens Basketball vs. Creighton Bluejays Womens Basketball
TicketsSun., Jan. 22, 11:00am
Seton Hall Pirates Men's Basketball vs. St. John's Red Storm Men's Basketball
TicketsSun., Jan. 22, 12:00pm
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."
Magus Peter H. Gilmore, leader of the Church of Satan.
Photo Credit: Church of Satan Archives
While the Satanic Temple makes headlines, the leader of the nation's oldest Satanic institution seethes. And he is not doing so quietly.
"When a fellow in horns — with an adopted moniker fit for a 1970s hairdresser — tea-bags a tombstone while some 'goth' rejects swap spit on the grave, it seems to us to be a parody of Satanism rather than a representation of some actual philosophical or religious organization."
Those lines were written by Magus Peter H. Gilmore, leader of the Church of Satan, on the Church's official blog. It's one of several denunciations Gilmore has issued against the Satanic Temple in the past year.
The Church of Satan was founded 48 years ago by the father of modern Satanism himself, Anton LaVey, one of the more entertaining spiritual leaders in recent memory. Born Howard Stanton Levey in 1930, he moved with his parents from Chicago to California as a child. He dropped out of school at age 16 to travel with the circus, playing the organ, working on an act with the big cats and behind the scenes at the "spook shows." In the off-seasons he played the organ at burlesque houses on Saturday nights and at tent revivals on Sunday mornings. He saw many of the same customers haunting both spots, feeding his cynicism about the endless Christian cycle: sin, be forgiven, sin some more.
After his carny youth, LaVey claimed to have worked as a crime-scene photographer for the San Francisco Police Department (which SFPD later denied) and as a freelance investigator of psychic phenomena. He was fascinated by the history of the occult — mysticism, rituals, and what he came to call "lesser magic": the practice of influencing and manipulating others. LaVey began giving weekly lectures on the occult. Before long he'd developed the full-fledged belief system that would become Satanism, which he officially founded on April 30, 1968.
Dr. LaVey, as Satanists refer to him, didn't believe in the existence of a literal devil, and most Satanists don't actually worship Satan. As LaVey put it in The Satanic Bible (the new religion's cornerstone text, published in 1969), the figure of Lucifer represents "a force of nature," an "untapped reservoir that few can make use of," a symbol of a human being's highest potential.
At its heart, Satanism is about exultant self-centeredness: indulgence in earthly pleasures, kindness only to people who deserve it, vengeance against those who have wronged the Satanist, and the use of lesser magic — wiles, manipulation, a soupçon of deceit — to influence others and advance in the world.
"We are no longer supplicating weaklings trembling before an unmerciful 'God,' who cares not whether we live or die," LaVey writes in The Satanic Bible. "We are self-respecting, prideful people — we are Satanists!"
LaVey, his children, and other church members were especially active through the 1980s and '90s, appearing on talk shows to promote the Satanic point of view. It was a particularly dangerous time to be a public Satanist: beginning in the late '80s, in what came to be called "the Satanic panic," hundreds of children alleged that they had been subjected to sexual abuse by Satanist parents or babysitters as part of dark, sadistic secret rituals.
LaVey died two days before Halloween 1997. Blanche Barton, his longtime partner, took over leadership of the church until 2001, when she passed the torch to Gilmore. He and his wife, Peggy Nadramia (the church's high priestess), live in the Hudson Valley, in a Victorian-style Black House.
Gilmore argues that the Satanic Temple amounts to no more than a bunch of trolls giving Satanism a bad name in a bald quest for attention. True Satanists, Gilmore asserts, don't act out their beliefs in public. The Church's members, he tells the Voice, "don't alert the media while going about their business. They have no interest in having the world gawk at them and treat them like freaks."
Gilmore is so incensed by the Satanic Temple that he's talking about them publicly. That's unusual: For years, with rare exceptions, the Church of Satan has observed a fairly strict policy of not acknowledging the existence of other Satanic groups, maintaining that it is the only one with a direct line to LaVey.
"Since the 'Satanic Temple' claims to be New York-based, many people confused them with the Church of Satan, which has been officially headquartered in New York since I became High Priest in 2001," he writes in an email. (The church's official address is PO Box 666 at a Poughkeepsie post office.) "Some journalists did not do proper research, and in several cases simply reported that this statue stunt was perpetrated by the Church of Satan."
Gilmore is particularly incensed by the Baphomet monument, calling it "ugly" and noting in a blog post that it "seems pedophiliac, since the caduceus between the goat's legs is a phallic symbol." (Mesner angrily denies that last bit: "That kind of statement is well beneath the dignity of any of us.")
Gilmore is also concerned that the actions of the Satanic Temple will lead the larger world to think Satanists are proselytizing. And that would make Satanism just like the dull herd of faiths Satanists strive to rise above. The prospect horrifies him.
"It is possible that people could be confused by actions that depict Satanism as being just like other obnoxious spiritual doctrines, which want to force themselves upon people," he tells the Voice. "We do not want intelligent people to see us as yet another religion trying to intrude on public spaces."
The Satanic Temple counters that Gilmore is just jealous. The Church of Satan has grown stagnant and smug, its members contend, and Gilmore fears he's about to be replaced.
"The number of negative dispatches we've put out about the Church of Satan is zero," Mesner says. "But since we started, [Gilmore] has done nothing but write disparaging remarks."
"The Church of Satan does nothing," Brian Werner, the Satanic Temple's first high priest, says. "Their complete inactivity has just caused such an overwhelming amount of complacent consent, not only in the masses but within our own freethinking subculture. The inactivity has led to the complete degradation of everything we built for 40 years under LaVey."
High priesting isn't a full-time gig — the 34-year-old Werner is also a vocalist for Vital Remains, a popular satanic metal band. They tour 200 days a year and are especially big in Latin America. ("The Satanic Hispanics — it's a very niche demographic," he says dryly.)
Werner has identified as a Satanist since his teenage years. He was never a Church of Satan member himself but says he understands other people's disaffection. He got involved with the Satanic Temple out of a desire to be a different, more proactive breed of Satanist.
Zach Black is a 38-year-old sushi chef in Northern California and a longtime Satanist. He started the Satanic International Network, the largest — though not the only — social media site for Satanists. He was a card-carrying member of the Church of Satan for nearly a decade, from 1994 to 2002. For the first few years after he joined, Anton LaVey was still alive. That made all the difference, Black says, and the church was much more "proactive."
Black is one of a group of disaffected ex-Church of Satan members who believe Gilmore was never supposed to become the church's next leader. LaVey wanted to pass the torch to a man named Boyd Rice, an artist and writer who was a close friend, Black says. "But he turned it down. He didn't want to do it. I'm not sure why."
LaVey's estate went to Blanche Barton after she produced a handwritten will, purportedly written by LaVey, bequeathing all his worldly possessions, including the Church of Satan, to her. LaVey's daughter Karla later sued Barton. She and the other LaVey children, Zeena and Satan, received the royalties from LaVey's publications, while Barton took control of the Church of Satan. And then came Gilmore.
"LaVey would roll over in his grave," Black says.
Rice, meanwhile, went in a different direction. For nearly two decades, he was part of Death in June, a British neo-folk band that anti-racist groups have accused of supporting white nationalism. Rice has repeatedly denied being a racist or a Nazi sympathizer, a claim that was not bolstered in 2008, when an old video surfaced of him on a public-access TV show, describing Death in June as a proud "racialist" band.
Similar charges have dogged Gilmore and the current Church of Satan leadership. In his 2007 book, The Satanic Scriptures, Gilmore denies that, writing that while there are "provable biological differences between the races and statistically demonstrable performance levels in various activities," the Church of Satan recognizes "individual merit, and ascribe no value to bloodlines."
Satanists, he adds, "treasure individualism, hardly something to be gained by goose-stepping en masse down the street."
Mesner says the Church of Satan has a distinctly right-wing, libertarian bent. That's not totally inaccurate: Gilmore thanks Ayn Rand in the introduction to The Satanic Scriptures and writes that LaVey founded his religion in direct defiance of a goopy, '60s culture of liberalism that celebrated everyone as equals.
Mesner considers the Satanic Temple a liberal alternative to the Church of Satan. The fact that its visible leadership skews younger would tend to support that view.
"I do believe the Satanic Temple is going to replace the Church of Satan, and that's why they're acting threatened," Zach Black says. "The church — they're just getting fat and old."
Retorts Gilmore: "The disgruntled people you mentioned in your questions to me have no idea about what is happening amongst our members, because the private affairs of our members are actually private. One earns friends and entrée into private events. That cannot be demanded."
He adds that the church has acted as a true spiritual refuge for members in times of both joy and grief. "I performed a memorable memorial service at a nondenominational funeral home in Greenwich Village in Manhattan that included bikers amongst the mourners, and the motorcycle belonging to the deceased was parked in front, black and gleaming, while his artwork was displayed in the chapel alongside his casket. His family and friends shared their grief, supporting his commitment to Satanism as his life philosophy."
They also do weddings. "Aside from one performed by Anton LaVey at the very beginning of the organization, none of these have been paraded before the media," Gilmore writes. "The happy couples celebrate their love, as you'll have noted from the wedding rite I crafted in my book. They share this with family and friends — not the press."
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."
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.