By Salem, Massachusetts standards, The Salem Art Gallery is a fairly unassuming building from the outside. Located in the northern part of “The Witch City,” the simple Victorian building doesn’t boast about the dark treasures within. Decorated with red curtains, and clean, white walls, the interior feels like you’ve walked onto the set of a 1960s Occult horror film, which is probably intentional, since The Gallery is the new official headquarters for The Satanic Temple.
“The building was donated to us,” Ash Astaroth of The Satanic Temple tells me. “It’s been a funeral home for most of its history.”
The Satanic Temple is an organized religion, dedicated to “spreading benevolence among all people,” in accordance with what it calls “Satanic Values” that include, “the struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions,” and, “beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world.”
So why start an art gallery as your headquarters if you are a religious organization? Ash says that while, for TST members, the “temple” is within them, outward temples throughout history have always been art galleries, or places where art is used to evoke higher emotions in people. He claims that in this way, as with many things, Satanists are just being “more honest” than others when they call their headquarters an art gallery. The Satanic Temple is an Atheistic religion, but one that recognizes and uses the psychological power of ritual, archetypes, and aesthetics.
The first sight that greets you as you walk into the Gallery is a painting by Christopher Andres of the famous slave and musician, Blind Tom. He is crucified and glowing like a deity, with his blind blue eyes staring out at you. Above, positioned almost like angel wings, is a blacked-out Confederate flag, and a whited-out American flag. “We are very aware of our country’s history,” Ash says. Before the painting sits an infant Satan, offering hope that America will overcome its dark past and enter a new Satanic Age.
The art that the Salem Art Gallery hosts is provocative, Satanic, and beautiful. It ranges from paintings, to sculptures, to multimedia art. Another particularly politically charged sculpture by Christopher Andres features Tituba, or Pecola Breedlove, walking a Klansman like a dog, with a noose as a leash.
At the time of this article’s publication, the gallery is currently hosting several paintings by artist Vincent Castiglia, who is famous for painting in his own blood, and while Castiglia doesn’t claim to be a Satanist himself, TST holds that his art does have a Satanic quality.
“We’re asking people to see beauty in the grotesque and thematically, painting in his own blood speaks to personal ritual, combined with art.” One painting in particular, entitled “The Great Whore” depicts the goddess Babalon, of both the Bible and Thelema, holding her chalice high while her rotting legs spread wide. “We’re always seeing the other side of the coin to every archetype, so while Christians might maybe demonize the whore of Babalon, we see her as an empowered woman.”
In another room, there is a full exhibit on The Process Church of The Final Judgement, and The Satanic Panic of the 1980s, featuring magazines, children’s books, and videos of pearl clutching reporters that span from Alex Jones to Oprah. The Satanic Panic grew out of the newly found power of the “Moral Majority” under Reagan, and revolved around hysteria over what was called “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” People at the time were paranoid Satanists were kidnapping children and minors in order to torture and sacrifice them.
Sound familiar? It’s no secret why The Satanic Temple chose Salem, site of the most famous and deadly witch hunt in American history as its new base of operation. TST thinks something like Salem could always happen again, and that we are already starting to see the start of what could become new panics online.
“You go onto some Christian conspiracy theory YouTube channels and it’s not just Illuminati, and Lizard People, and shadow governments, it’s also all Satanic too!” People online are quick to accuse TST of being a shadowy, secretive organization, which, as I stand in an art gallery run by The Satanic Temple, in broad daylight, with a clearly marked address and sign, seems a somewhat ridiculous accusation. Ash shakes his head. “People are really fascinated by witch hunts and are looking to have more witch hunts.”
Part of The Satanic Temple’s goal is not only to fight superstition and stereotypes, but also to fight pseudoscience. “What I can sympathise with as a Satanist, [are] people who just go to church because it’s cultural, or they enjoy it. I mean, I like Baphomet, I like black clothing, I like Occult symbolism, so I can sympathize with someone who goes to church because they like it, more than people who are trying to twist their own likes into facts. I think that’s when it becomes dangerous, when you take it out of context and try to make it true for everyone, not just yourself.”
The Salem Art Gallery makes an effort to include local artists, and hopes to add more as the Gallery grows. One local artist featured in the gallery, Nathan Lewis, blends witchcraft imagery, with sigil magic, and corporate logos and phrases to create chilling, amusing black and white photos.
The Salem Art gallery hopes to grow and expand in the future to be not only a gallery, but a lecture space and a museum on Satanism, featuring two permanent exhibits. One will be an overall look at the history of Satanism, and one will focus solely on just the history of The Satanic Temple. “Because we are very enthusiastic about our independence from the Church of Satan, or Anton LaVey.”
A notable difference between The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan is The Satanic Temple’s commitment to political action, and recognition of the power structures in place that prevent people from achieving Satanic equality, and exercising their full wills. “Specifically, we aren’t down with the ideas of Social Darwinism as being workable social theories. I think we would argue you can’t have a full meritocracy until everyone is on equal footing.”
The Satanic Temple says they’ve had a warm welcome in Salem, and that even the small amount of negative reception they’ve gotten is nothing compared to what they get in other towns in America. On my way out of The Gallery, I talked to Thomas Vallor who works in both The Gallery, and as a tour guide for the Salem Witch Walk tour. He’s a witch, but not a Satanist. Still, he says that he loves working for The Gallery, and loves living in a place like Salem that welcomes all types of people. “You have to stop and just take in how weird everything is sometimes, because you can get used to it if you live here, but you should never get used to it. There’s nowhere else in the world that’s like this, and you have to stop and remind yourself of that.”