Gwen McCormick tiptoed up the white steps of a large Victorian-style house with cream panels and green shutters, then knocked lightly on the front door. A woman pulled back the lace curtain, opened the green door a crack, then poked her head out.
“We’re not ready yet,” she said, then shut the door.
McCormick had been waiting for about a decade to knock on that door, ever since she first discovered Satanism when she was 14. She knows that calling herself a Satanist sounds extreme. Even she was hesitant about the Satanic Temple when she first heard about it through a friend. But after reading about the group’s views, she found that she identified with many of their core beliefs, and she adopted the religion as her own.
McCormick’s journey with Satanism, though, has been largely solitary. She’s only met two other people who have identified as Satanists—the friend who introduced her in high school, and a man standing near her at a bus stop. She’s been waiting for a meeting place to get to know others who share her beliefs, and that meeting place just happened to take root in her hometown.
The first international headquarters of the Satanic Temple opened to the public Friday morning in Salem, Massachusetts. The space, housed within the Salem Art Gallery, will serve as both a gathering point and a place to help the general public learn about Satanist views. The house sits less than a mile from Gallows Hill—the spot where villagers executed about 20 people accused of witchcraft and being possessed by the devil back in the 1690s. Although the Satanic Temple says it has 40,000 members nationwide, McCormick was the only one waiting outside the headquarters Friday morning.
“I hope I don’t feel like an outsider,” she said, twisting her long black skirt and peering into the house. Just then, a man pulled back the white lace curtain, opened the door a crack, and stuck his hand out. One finger beckoned McCormick inside. She took a deep breath, and ran up the steps.
It was time.
Satanists aren’t people who sit in dark rooms around one small candle flame as they speak in tongues and worship an Antichrist. In fact, Satanists don’t worship the devil or any other being. Instead, they see him as a symbol representing an eternal struggle against authoritarianism.
Satanists don’t believe in the supernatural, but they do preach benevolence and empathy among all people. They’re a private group, but choose to participate in public affairs when they believe the issues might benefit from what they call “rational, Satanic insights.” They support women’s reproductive rights, local animal shelters, and adopt-a-highway campaigns. They’ve publicly opposed the Westboro Baptist Church, and, before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, they performed marriage ceremonies for gay couples, which is why the headquarters has a gay pride flag hanging from a second story window.
If it all sounds pretty progressive, that’s because it is. But what differentiates Satanists from other religions is their embrace of their “outsider status.” They also follow seven tenets, which range from striving to act with compassion to embracing the autonomy of one’s own body.
Members of the Satanic Temple also advocate for the separation of church and state. The temple made national headlines last year when it unveiled a behemoth seven-and-a-half-foot-tall, one-ton, goat-headed bronze statue called Baphomet in Detroit.
Baphomet’s origins can be traced back to the Inquisition and torture of the Knights of Templar in the 1100s, when the knights confessed to worshipping a heathen idol called “Baphometh.” The figure is a blend of male, female, and animal traits, and is significant to Satanists because it celebrates contrasts, from its body composition to its two-fingered salute, which means ”as above, so below."
The temple’s colossal Baphomet was originally planned for a spot next to a monument of the Ten Commandments at the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Soon after the temple announced that they planned to move Baphomet to the capitol, Oklahoma's Supreme Court banned all religious displays on state property, including the Ten Commandments statue. Before Baphomet was unveiled in Detroit, the members of the Satanic Temple received death threats because some religious groups were opposed to its presence.
The Satanists didn’t anticipate that type of response in Salem, a city which, despite its past, is now religiously tolerant, and home to witches, pagans, Christians, and more.
“The irony that a town which once executed people because of alleged ties to Satan will now be hosting the headquarters of the world’s largest satanic organization is not lost on us,” The Satanic Temple’s spokesman, Lucien Greaves, said in a statement released before the opening. “The fact that we have a home in Salem is a testament to the progressive mentality of the people there, and the local government’s support for plurality.”
Even so, the Satanists took extra precautions for the opening of their headquarters. They put bars over the first-floor windows, and installed a surveillance system and security cameras. They felt the extra precautions were necessary because the headquarters is now home to Baphomet, who resides inside a shed on the property. They decided not to hold a grand opening ceremony so they wouldn’t draw extra attention to themselves. Instead, the doors were quietly unlocked at 11 a.m. so guests could come inside.
It was the first time they were inviting the public to visit them in their first-ever public space. They weren’t sure what—or who—to expect.
McCormick introduced herself to other Satanists, and made her way through the unadorned rooms in the house. Only the first floor of the two-story residence was open to the public, and visitors entered through a back-door gift shop, where mini Baphomet statues and sweatshirts emblazoned with “666” were sold. The gift shop also sells $12 entrance tickets, which allow visitors to view both the galleries and the Baphomet monument in the back.
Inside, it was as if the temple members had swept in overnight to hang the exhibition works on the stark, white walls and frame the windows with blood-red curtains. The hardwood floors creaked, and, above the windows, there was a bat-winged motif, which, though fitting, was left over from when the house was a funeral home, only contributing to the eerie vibe inside.
Just minutes after the doors opened, a dozen or so staff members paced around the first floor with their hands behind their backs. They wore all black, many with chains hanging from their pants or skirts, with piercings dotting their faces. The Satanists smiled often, but kept drawing back to the windows as though they felt that, at any moment, a loud protest might break out in the parking lot.
The property was donated to the Satanic Temple by a benefactor last year, but the Temple will now pay for upkeep. Although the members hope to eventually host weddings, film screenings, lectures and, perhaps, pet funerals, their main focus is currently on the art gallery.
“I hope if people are coming in here for the first time, they’re coming in here with an eye toward the art exhibition,” Greaves said as he looked to the works hanging on the walls. “Since the religious construct of Satanism doesn’t believe in the supernatural, we turn to literature and art as icons for deeply held beliefs. And not all exhibits will be dedicated to things that are overtly Satanic.”
But the opening exhibits were clearly devilish. Greaves says they chose to feature works by Mark Porter, the Baphomet monument sculptor, and Chris P. Andres, a Mexican-American artist who drove all the way from New Mexico for the opening.
“It’s daunting to have this responsibility within a philosophy,” Andres said of his works being showcased in the gallery’s first exhibit. “But your art doesn’t mean anything unless it’s experienced by people, and I want to be able to create experience for people.”
Many of Andres’ paintings and sculptures feature Baphomet, but in addition to showcasing Satanic art, Andres also made political statements through his works. He framed one of his pieces with two flags—one whitewashed American flag that he says reflects America’s history, and one all-black Confederate flag to reflect the struggle of black Americans.
“America is black and America is brown and America is Pagan and America is Jewish and America is Christian and Satanic,” he says. “But it’s all of those things. People who say they’re Satanists are not trying to say they’re not human. It’s always about people. It’s about being seen.”
And that—being seen for the first time in a public space devoted to their beliefs—is what seemed to both thrill and scare many of the Satanists in attendance. After the opening, a few dozen visitors, including Satanists and curious community members alike, walked inside. Rather than greet their guests, the Satanists waited for visitors to approach them. But once guests made a move, whether to ask about a painting or how the day was going, the staff smiled and were eager to talk about Satanism, how they found the religion, and their views of the artwork on display.
For McCormick, the headquarters is everything she dreamed of. She’s spent most of her life reading the Satanic bible on her own, and watching the members’ public movements from afar. She arrived early specifically to take a photo with the Baphomet statue, and once her photo was complete, she contemplated coming back to the gallery that evening to take it all in again.
“It’s kind of like when I was younger and going to church,” she says. “It’s a place where you can spend time with people who share your beliefs, but, in this case, the beliefs are ones that are true to me.”
She, like many Satanists, has been misunderstood. But in the gallery, McCormick was not afraid to be seen. She belongs.
Allison Pohle is a journalist based in Boston. She also tweets, and types with only two fingers because she never learned how to use the home keys.