“The Witch,” the new horror film about a Puritan family brought to the breaking point by supernatural forces, unfolds against a backdrop of religious persecution and intolerance.
Its depiction of New England, in the days before the Salem Witch Trials sent the region into mass hysteria, resonated with the Satanic Temple. The religious organization took the unusual step of endorsing the picture before its release this weekend and worked with distributor A24 to organize a series of screenings in the lead-up to its premiere.
“The themes in the film mirrored the things we talk about in our work,” said Jex Blackmore, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple and the head of its Detroit chapter. “It’s a criticism of a theocratic patriarchal society and a fair representation of the stresses that puts on a community.”
“The Witch” follows a family that is cast out of its village over a theological disagreement and must make a new life for itself on the edge of the wilderness. Things do not go well, particularly with their farm animals.
Blackmore was made aware of the film last December when A24, an indie label behind such films as “Ex Machina” and “Room,” sent her a screener along with a note that said the company thought she would enjoy the picture. After getting permission to share the screener with other members of the Satanic Temple, Blackmore reached out to the studio with the idea of setting up a series of screenings in major cities that would be paired with a series of interactive performances.
A24 shouldered the cost of the screenings, while Blackmore’s team created the demonstrations, pegging them to “the Sabbat Cycle,” which mirrors the stages of the road to Satanism.
There are different forms of Satanism, but the Satanic Temple’s members do not worship Satan. Blackmore explained that the group is a non-theistic religious organization that is trying reclaim the term “satanist” as a way to promote individual liberty.
“We consider ourselves a religion with a shared history and aesthetic rituals minus the God element,” she said. “Our hope is to give a greater understanding of what it means to be a Satanist. Free thinking individuals, out spoken women, nontraditional sexuality are all things that have been deemed ‘satanic’ by members of our legislatures and communities. What we are trying to do is to prevent the term from being a pejorative.”
Blackmore said that the screenings that the group hosted this month in Los Angeles and New York were near capacity, and the one that it held in Austin, Texas, was full.
To drive awareness to the low-budget horror film, A24 did a lot of outreach via social media to groups it thought would be interested in “The Witch” rather than rely on more expensive television advertising. A24 distribution chief Heath Shapiro was pleased with the Satanic Temple’s endorsement, telling Variety it was “a successful partnership.”
At one point, A24, which picked up the film out of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, had planned to release “The Witch” in a handful of theaters, before launching it quickly across on-demand platforms. Because of a strong response from test audiences, it rethought its strategy, opting to debut the film on 2,046 theaters.
The unorthodox marketing appeared to have paid off. “The Witch” opened to a solid $8.7 million while scoring strong reviews from major critics at outlets such as Variety, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It even got the thumbs up from horror writer Stephen King, who tweeted that it “scared the hell out of me.”
“It’s being branded as a new horror classic,” said Shapiro, adding that it “exceeded our expectations.”