Praise for The Witch, the new film from first-time director Robert Eggers is … pretty impressive.
It isn’t often that a first film attracts a cast like Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis), Ralph Ineson (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), and Julian Richings (Supernatural, Saw IV, Wrong Turn), and nets the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category, while getting premiere slots at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Or that gets the kind of reviews that The Witch, with praise coming from pretty much everyone who sees it. If there’s any complaint I’ve seen, it’s been more in the form of a warning that one should always temper one’s expectations when a film is praised as highly as this one is, because for all that it is said to be quite scary, it’s also a character piece and a look at the horrors that may lie within extreme versions of religious faith, while being a study of the fracturing of a family from within.
This could explain this somewhat curious press release that made its way out into the world earlier this month:
Satanic Temple to premiere anticipated horror film ‘The Witch’ in four city tour
NEW YORK, NY – February 1, 2016 – Beginning February 10 in New York City, The Satanic Temple (TST) will launch advance screenings of the highly-anticipated historical horror film, The Witch, amid interactive performances and ritualized pronouncements of a “new Satanic era.” The Witch, opening in theatres nationwide on Feb. 19 opposite faith-based biblical thriller Risen, has received the official sanction of TST, and has been described by Jex Blackmore (TST National Spokesperson) as a “transformative Satanic experience” unto itself.
While I can’t speak to the benefits on the publicity side of using the The Satanic Temple as a marketing tool … well, OK, I can. From a publicity angle, this could be pretty much genius, if a little misleading if one stares directly at who and what The Satanic Temple seems to be, and runs a risk of possibly backfiring.
A little history. For a significant chunk of the populace, the words Satanic and Temple will conjure up the image of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and the use of magic, black or otherwise. Leaving aside the rather messy history of LaVey and the Church, The Satanic Temple isn’t connected to that older organization, having been created in 2012, apparently in response to legislation promoted by Florida Governor Rick Scott, which allowed for prayer in public schools. Temple co-founder Doug Mesner — who goes by Lucien Greaves for Temple activities — has stated that the Satanic Temple doesn’t worship Satan the enemy of God, but uses the literary figure from Milton as a symbol of the “Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority”, and has been active in political and social ways, as opposed to a purely religious focus.
High profile clashes with the Westboro Baptist Church, Oklahoma State Representatives, and counter-protests in defense of Planned Parenthood have kept the Temple in the public eye, and the recent backlash against Muslim refugees prompted the Minneapolis branch of the Temple to offer to escort any Muslim who felt afraid to wherever they needed to go in safety. Mesner has more than once pointed out that they use the word “Satanic” because they can, and the point of the Temple is to “uphold the values that give us religious freedom.”
Of course, depending on one’s religious beliefs, such actions and words taken and given in the name of Satan may be less than welcome. Which brings me back to the marketing pros and cons of such a partnership between the TST and the studio behind The Witch.
Of course the argument goes that “no publicity is bad publicity”, and the horror audience — rather unfairly — isn’t widely regarded as overtly religious, so any negative response is likely to be from people who weren’t going to see The Witch in any case. The downside lies in the fact the the horror audience — like every other genre audience — isn’t some monolithic thing, but made up of individuals whose enjoyment of horror doesn’t mean they can’t be devout in their faith, and despite the stated stance and actions of TST, may find that faith butting up against the word “Satanic” and not seeing the film because of it. There is a strain of humor that runs through TST’s press releases and public comments that is easily missed by those who lock up at the “S” word, and one hopes that — through no desire of their own to do so — The Satanic Temple doesn’t cost a horror film that is receiving such critical acclaim some of the audience it apparently deserves.
The Witch opens nationwide on February 19. More information can be found on the official website.