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Why satanists have given new horror movie The Witch their endorsement

It says lots about modern movie marketing and the decline of the culture wars.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays a young woman suspected of being a witch in The Witch.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays a young woman suspected of being a witch in The Witch.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On February 3, the upcoming indie horror film The Witch benefited from the sort of publicity that its studio, A24, might have shied away from even 10 years ago: The movie was officially endorsed as "a Satanic experience" by the Satanic Temple.

In a statement, the temple said it believed The Witch "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." Indiewire has more on the initial announcement.

On one level, this is easily recognizable as marketing in the viral era.

A24 is happy to imply that if you see The Witch, you might have a satanic experience. It's the kind of big claim that grabs headlines. And for that reason, A24 first made The Witch available to the temple.

But on another level, this is an interesting look at how movie marketing is changing.

The history of horror marketing

The Witch might be an indie film, released by an indie studio, but it's opening in thousands of theaters instead of just a handful. The hope is to recreate the modest success of indie horror films like It Follows, but on a larger scale. And the typical approach for a movie trying to break out is to minimize controversy, in hopes of appealing to the widest possible audience.

But horror has always played by slightly different rules, since the genre is usually pitched to diehards. It has always carried the thrill of seeing something illicit, from the days when the reveal of the Phantom of the Opera's face caused viewers to shriek to when The Exorcist played up the fact that some theatergoers couldn't handle it as a way to almost dare people into going. (It worked; The Exorcist still one of the most successful horror films ever.)

However, studios releasing horror films have generally stood aside and let the thrill of the illicit build itself. (Or at least they've fanned the flames behind the scenes as quietly as possible.) Often they've accomplished this by releasing a film slowly, opening it in a handful of theaters one weekend, then more the next, and so on. Hopefully, those first few theaters will be so filled with petrified theatergoers that the word of mouth will spread. (See also: The Blair Witch Project.)

Horror has also frequently come into conflict with religious conservatives, particularly in the 1980s, when slasher movies became a frequent target of those who believed Hollywood had gone too far in terms of films that depicted violent, demonic activity. (These commentators often seemed to miss that such films usually had rigid, almost puritanical moral codes.)

In some ways, that attitude and threat of religiously driven boycotts (as met even some non-horror films, like 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ), haunts Hollywood, which too often waters down films to be as unobjectionable as possible. And yet here's The Witch, endorsed by the Satanic Temple.

Why Satanists are embracing The Witch

A24 could have just as easily courted the approval of, say, theologians who have a fondness for Calvinism. The Witch takes place in Colonial America, and it unfolds from the perspective of period Christians who genuinely believe the woods around their tiny farm contain some sort of evil, supernatural being — and are ultimately proved correct.

But, again, this is a horror film, and thus taking the side of satanic forces is probably a better promotional peg for fans of the genre. Also, it's intriguing to see how A24, which dangles the Satanic Temple endorsement as a promotional get, and the temple itself differ somewhat in their approach to the film.

A lot of that stems from the difference between public perceptions of satanism, which tend toward the dark, and what the temple says it believes, which is that theocratic patriarchy has created a society that's untenable to everybody who's not already in power.

Thus, taking on the mantle of Satan means attempting to destroy those structures as much as possible. In practice, this mostly amounts to legal challenges designed to decrease the number of laws that allow for Christian displays in public places while preventing similar displays from other religions, and various satirical stunts.

What does this have to do with The Witch? Well, when viewed through the lens of the Satanic Temple, spokesperson Jex Blackmore told me, it's a film about what happens when you realize the Christian patriarchy has some serious problems. (Without spoiling the plot, the movie is mostly told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose family slowly begins to suspect she might be a witch. Things go poorly.)

"The film itself shows the results of a patriarchal theocratic society in the microcosm of the family," Blackmore told me.

Blackmore especially appreciated the way the film plays up the inherent, feminist tension in the very idea of a witch. "There is an interest in controlling a female figure and in dictating to her what her role is in a society that benefits males," she told me. And a witch, even in Colonial folk tales that demonized such a figure, stands outside of that.

Why A24 sent the film to the Satanic Temple in the first place

The final piece of this puzzle is that A24 isn't shying away from the temple's endorsement.

Indeed, Blackmore told me, the studio actually approached the temple to say it believed the film would be of interest to members, though it didn't specifically ask for an endorsement.

In the past (and especially in the '80s), an endorsement of this sort probably would have led to the studio trying to distance itself from said endorsement or, at most, subtly encouraging it behind the scenes. Instead, A24 has let the temple host several screenings of the film, complete with rituals performed post-screening.

And, notably, there's been very little controversy at all — although it is likely that the temple's endorsement has been noticed mostly by film fans and hasn't, say, made the leap into the mainstream that might land it on the radar of the remaining Christian culture war leaders, like Pat Robertson of The 700 Club.

"I wonder how many people from the conservative Christian community are aware of this film, are aware of our endorsement of it," Blackmore told me. Since the primary audience for the film seems to be horror fans, Blackmore suggested that the temple's endorsement could be "advantageous" for A24's marketing. But she also hopes the film will spur conversations about the separation of church and state.

The marketing effort is also indicative of how Christian conservatives have largely given up on waging a wide-scale war against pop culture. Where they used to regularly call for boycotts of films they disagreed with or argue that Harry Potter promoted witchcraft, they now mostly attempt to warn their own followers against seeing those films. (Most recently, particular ire was reserved for Fifty Shades of Grey.)

The culture wars haven't ended entirely, but the days when reflexive protest against supposedly anti-Christian works could turn into massive news stories are mostly over. And in that world, it's a lot easier to openly and gladly promote The Witch (which, I should say, is a terrific little horror movie) as a "Satanic experience."