the war for satan
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Urban Legends

Will the Real Satanists Please Stand Up?

Welcome to Urban Legends, a monthlong collection of articles dissecting persistent myths, unexplained phenomena, shared nightmares, and tales so bizarre they can't possibly be true... or can they?

Two years ago, the LA-based comedian Andrew Bowser spliced himself into news footage of the unveiling of a massive Baphomet statue in Detroit. "I'm just excited to see my lord and savior Baphomet represented in such glorious Italian stone," he said in the clip, speaking so rapidly that he appeared to be either a crazed zealot, or at the very least, incredibly socially awkward. "I do hope his eyes gaze upon me and that my allegiance is recognized."

The production and editing of the doctored clip was so seamless that most viewers not only assumed Bowser had been filmed at the event, but that his fictional character, Onyx, better known today simply as "weird Satanist guy," was a real Satanist. The clip, which has since been viewed more than 5 million times on two different YouTube accounts, quickly went viral, thanks in part to the bizarre, in-character interview Bowser staged.

Bowser is not the only one who's gotten attention for posing as a Satanist, but he is one of the few outsiders who has been embraced by members of the Satanic Temple, an international nontheistic religious organization founded in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2012. "I think they see [Onyx] as a character," he says. "I'm not actually lampooning their beliefs; it's about his own eccentricities."

"Of course we have to be able to acknowledge that the Satanic Temple has a huge diverse crowd of supporters, and that's worth making fun of, I guess," says Jex Blackmore, a Detroit-based spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, or TST, who saw Bowser's parody as funny and harmless. "I think that's healthy and good... I don't see it as criticism." Others falsely claiming to be members of the Satanic Temple, however, have not been so well received.

Over the last several years, as the Satanic Temple has gained a sizable following and garnered significant media attention for its legal and political actions, it has attracted not just pranksters like Bowser, but also a gaggle of impersonators, hoaxers, and fraudsters. The actions of some individuals and groups have made it even tougher for the Satanic Temple to get its message across -- and for the public to decipher members of the Temple from other Satanists and from those seeking attention from its name and image.

To further complicate things, there's already a fair amount of confusion about what it means to be a Satanist in 2017, a year in which members of the Satanic Temple waged aggressive campaigns for reproductive freedom, civil rights, and LGBT protections. Though it doesn't claim to be an activist organization, the group tends to champion progressive causes that stand largely in opposition to the current administration. With chapters all over the globe, the Satanic Temple doesn't keep official numbers, but estimates hover in the thousands based on the numbers in its private Facebook groups.

"When we started, people maybe weren't sure what we represented, what we were about," says Blackmore. "Our organization grew exponentially over just a year or two when we first started, so we went through a process of figuring out how to vet campaigns or projects, how to vet formation of new chapters, and that was certainly a learning experience for us, and that was one reason why we formed an executive council for new ideas to make sure they're in line with our mission and our tenets."

Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan
Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan | Bettman/Getty Images

Adding to the confusion, the Church of Satan is an entirely different group, with a longer history and a mission that values "individual development and satisfaction," according to spokesperson Joel Ethan, who adamantly denies that the Satanic Temple is a legitimate religious group. "In 2017, to claim to be Satanists with no shared lineage to what has been clearly defined as Satanism for decades is not a different kind of Satanism or a different sect, it's an intentionally misleading and baseless position," he wrote via email, after this article was first published. "The incorporation of visuals, imagery and language embraced by [founder Anton] LaVey and The Church of Satan, that prior to 1966 had no connection to Satanism, further makes clear that confusion is part of [TST's] goal."

On its website, the church bills itself as "the only valid organization whose goal is the dissemination of the philosophy of Anton Szandor LaVey," the late occultist who founded it as an anti-theistic organization in San Francisco in 1966, later penning (and plagiarizing) the group's key text, The Satanic Bible, in 1969. Today, the Church's headquarters are quietly located in Poughkeepsie, New York. "Since Satanism was created in 1966, there have constantly been people pretending to be Satanists," Ethan wrote via email. "Most often these are individuals or small groups that come and go when they don't get the recognition they are after. A good deal of them become 'born again' and tell vivid tales of their time as a Satanist to sucker-filled audiences who eat up the stories without checking if any of them actually happened." What exactly does it take to identify as a "real" Satanist? According to Ethan, there's no initiation or conversion ritual; it's as easy as picking up a copy of The Satanic Bible and living according to its principles.

Unlike the Satanic Temple, the Church of Satan employs a hierarchical leadership system of priests and priestesses who advocate for Satan as a symbol of "pride, liberty, and individualism," according to its website. As a matter of policy established by LaVey that was intended to keep the group relatively amorphous to outsiders, it does not disclose membership numbers. Neither the Satanic Temple nor the Church of Satan have physical places of worship, despite what their names might suggest.

Because they're both organized around Satanism, it's not uncommon for one group to get mistaken for another. "It happened a couple times in the beginning where people were like, 'Of course there's high priests or priestesses,' and we were like, 'No, this isn't a role-paying game. This is an academic, historically safe form of Satanic practice. Therefore, those portrayals are absurd and unnecessary,'" says Blackmore, the Satanic Temple spokeperson.

Tensions between old-school Satanist ideologies and those espoused by the Satanic Temple publicly surfaced in December 2014, when Satanist Brian Werner posted a video to YouTube announcing his resignation from the Satanic Temple. "We're already too small as it is -- it sucks to be divided," the Florida-based metal vocalist said in the video, which has been viewed nearly 150,000 times. In it, he accused the Satanic Temple of being too "empathetic" and "benevolent," and in so doing, straying too far from what he described as the dog-eat-dog world of every-man-for-himself Satanism.

"These are tenets that we all hold dear that we can all agree on, and I feel the current teachings of the Satanic Temple don't properly represent any of these traits," he said in the video. "It's become a very liberal compassionate borderline hippy-like outlook on politics and societal issues, again being indoctrinated by a single person through a hypocritical soap box of non-hierarchal organization." (Werner did not respond to Thrillist's requests for an interview.)

But both groups have found themselves battling long-held stereotypes about Satanists, particularly from conservative politicians and commentators who have historically used the label as a blanket insult toward their liberal-leaning opponents. Hillary Clinton's detractors accused her of belonging to a Satanic cult back in the 1990s, during the height of the "Satanic Panic" (no, the Church was not actually involved in Satanic ritual abuse). Right-wing conspiracy theorists have even linked John Podesta, the former chairman of Clinton's presidential campaign, to Satanism, the rationale inspired by a WikiLeaks email.

"Conspiracists label everything they are amorphously against as 'Satanic' and Satanists of many stripes and ability levels respond by identifying themselves in relation to their own agenda and otherness," Ash Astaroth, an assistant chapter head for the Satanic Temple and the headquarters director of the New York City chapter, wrote in an email.

Lucien Greaves, Satanic Temple co-founder
Lucien Greaves, Satanic Temple co-founder | The Washington Post/Getty Images

While some rumors about Satanists are so outrageous that they're clearly false, others are so damning that they demand a response from an official representative. Over the summer, Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves made strides to set the record straight and publicly distance himself and other Satanists from Evangelist Franklin Graham's claims that "Satan" was behind the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. "To many casual observers, there seems to be a tendency to view condemnations of white supremacy as Satanism as a triumph of progressive thought among prominent U.S. Christians," Greaves wrote in an August op-ed for The Washington Post. "But such language is not harmless. It lets mainstream religions off the hook for some of the darker periods of American history."

And then there are the activists who borrow the visage of Satanism to draw publicity to their causes, but aren't really Satanists at all. The Florida-based atheist activist Chaz Stevens garnered national media attention in October 2015 for threatening to host a Satanic incantation at city council meetings as a protest against the insertion of religious language in politics. The project, dubbed "Satan or Silence," came in response to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that allowed for legislative sessions to invoke prayers, so long as they didn't discriminate against any one religion. "Satanism is the boogeyman for Christianity, so it's about performance art," Stevens said in an interview with local news at the time, explaining his reasoning behind the campaign. "It's the thing that was going to get the most attention, and I like the attention. The attention draws eyes to the [atheist] cause."

A stunt that Stevens pulled three months later, in January 2016, further confirmed he was more interested in garnering attention than actually practicing Satanism: The upside-down cross he erected in front of a local government office next to a manger and a menorah was a symbol for "Satanology," he told reporters. "Mr. Stevens certainly is not acting on our behalf, but if he identifies as a Satanist or wants religious minorities to be included in invocations, I say more power to him," Sebastian Simpson, the chapter head of the Satanic Temple West Florida, wrote to me via email. "That said, I do not think it does Satanists or Satanism any favors when non-Satanists go around claiming to be Satanists simply to create a commotion. For us in TST, Satanism is a sincere religious movement; we are not merely activist trolls."

However, last month there was a range of headlines that proclaimed the Satanic Temple as masterfully "trolling" anti-LGBT bakeries. The media attention followed the temple's call for its followers to order Satanic-themed cakes from the same businesses that refused to design them for same-sex weddings. But the effort appeared to be a sincere attempt at identifying and challenging the protections afforded by law to religious groups in America. "Did you know: bakers can't refuse service to The Satanic Temple because religion is a 'protected class'?" Greaves tweeted as a call to action last month, along with the hashtag #SatanCakes.

"Satanism is a sincere religious movement; we are not merely activist trolls."

The campaign yielded an onslaught of mainstream press, which Astaroth says typically coincides with a rise in public fascination with Satanic topics, and likewise, Satanic posers that come out of the woodwork to capitalize on it. That outsiders might seek to profit off a headline-grabbing group isn't a phenomenon unique to the Satanic Temple. "I think that that idea of the fraudster or people who want to be part of something that's incredibly powerful and sensational and having to rectify that with their philosophy and mission is something that's really unique to radical groups," says Blackmore. "It happens, I think, in political activist groups or feminist groups or the Black Lives Matter movement -- everyone comes around a cause or an idea and as you grow you have to phrase out your mission, and that's really interesting to me personally is just how groups find that and cope with that, and how that affects their management of the organization as a whole."

In the five years since its founding, the Satanic Temple has carefully worked to distance itself from imposters and pranksters waging high-profile campaigns in its name. "There are definitely people on the fringes who see the Satanic Temple as an opportunity to belong to a group of people [and it turns out to be] at odds with their vision of what a Satanist looks like," says Blackmore. "People as a result, I think, feel threatened and lash out in different ways."

For better or worse, the person that may have influenced public perception of Satanism the most in recent years is Bowser, whose viral impersonation is hard to forget. Ironically, the comedian says, creating the "weird Satan guy" video piqued his own interest in Satanism and propelled him to research it further, even going so far as to interview and consult with Satanists like Blackmore for his future projects for the podcast site and YouTube channel Nerdist, where he works.

"It was definitely the 'weird Satanist' video that made me take this stuff more seriously and honestly now I just have an affinity for it," he says. "There's a Baphomet statue on my desk now and people send me sculptures with skulls and carvings on it."

Today, Bowser says he still gets recognized on the street and is frequently mistaken for an actual Satanist. At Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights a couple of weeks ago, he dressed in costume as Onyx and was mobbed by groups of excited horror fans. "One of the guys said, 'Dude I love the video, can I get a picture with you?'" Bowser recalls. "And then he leaned in and said, 'I'm a Satanist as well.'" Bowser stayed quiet. He didn't have the heart to tell him he was just a comedian.

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Jennifer Swann is a writer and reporter in Los Angeles. Follower her on Twitter at @jenn_swann.