Summer 2023 / Portrait

A Devilish Pursuit

by Rachel Wisniewski

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Photo Essay

The serpent’s movements were slick as it glided over and around the thick arm of Jon Scarafile. Cradling the head of the snake in his palm, the bearded, broad-shouldered man broke into a soft smile as he angled himself toward the children who had gathered before him.

Bella, a confident 8-year-old wearing a black choker necklace and white headband, let out a squeal with equal measures terror and glee. Her eyes, already slightly magnified behind clear-framed glasses, widened as they took in the black and yellow stripes of the snake now coiling around Scarafile’s left wrist.

By her side, her stepsister, Yardley, let out a breathy “Oooh.” Their father, Steve Geesey, placed a hand of encouragement on Bella’s back.

Confronted with the unfamiliar, Bella and her family faced two options: to accept or condemn, to approach with curiosity or withdraw in fear. Time and again, communities find themselves at a similar crossroads. 

A young girl in a white headband and glasses smiles at a snake being held in the foreground.

Eight-year-old Bella gives side-eye to a striped snake coiled around the wrist of its keeper, Jon Scarafile. The encounter exemplified the sort of science-focused programming intended for a contentious new after-school club. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

~~

The air was salty as it blew in from the nearby cove, the cool breeze a welcome relief on this particularly heated spring afternoon in northeastern Massachusetts. Horses, tied to posts outside the Essex County courtroom, would have whinnied and attempted to flick flies from their backs.

Susannah Martin, wearing an apron over her floor-length dress, surely cast a nervous look at the judge: an imposing presence behind his wooden bench. As Martin took the stand, the tension in the courtroom was palpable. Abigail Williams, one of four girls from Salem who accused many of witchcraft, stood before her. Williams wasted no time getting to the point.

Martin, she claimed, “hurt me often.” Her friend, Mercy Lewes, corroborated the assertion, pointing at the accused. “This woman … hurt me a great many times,” she cried out, as she fell upon the floor in a fit.

Those gathered in the courtroom, likely dressed in their best bonnets and black-brimmed hats, must have let out audible gasps as they watched the girls’ sudden, and seemingly possessed, convulsions.

Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs. — Tenet V

Susannah Martin could hardly believe the absurdity of the accusations against her, nor that the scene before her was being taken so seriously.

Her voice defiant, she insisted, “I have no hand in witchcraft!”

But first she let out a laugh, as if she couldn’t contain herself. Her reaction didn’t exactly assuage her accusers.

In the face of persecution, though, sometimes irreverence can feel like the only fair response.

~~

Her red hair flowing down her back, a bright contrast to the purple T-shirt she wore, Susannah Plumb could hardly believe the scene before her.

To her left, a blond woman in a black hoodie was among the first to speak. In an impassioned speech, she implored, “I continue to pray for you guys that you make the decision that God would have you make.” In the audience behind her, several community members stood up in support.

It was April 2022, and nine public school board members sat at folding tables on the stage of a school auditorium. Outside the doors of this campus in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania (population 2,635), acres of farmland and public parks rippled out in an agrarian tableau. Four churches anchored the modest town center.

While the agenda was full for the school board’s monthly meeting, one item in particular had drawn the large crowd into the wood-paneled theater: the opportunity to give public commentary on a contentious proposal for a new after-school club in the Northern York County School District.

Plumb, a mother of three children in the school district, had proposed the club, which promised to explore topics of science and creativity, critical thinking, and “good works for the community.” But it was the club’s name, and the group behind it, that had brought out parents in droves this evening.

A woman in a black shirt that reads

Susannah Plumb walks the halls of Northern High School in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, in September 2022. Plumb is a pseudonym — a response to online threats to her personal safety. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

Sitting at the front of the room, Plumb was clearly outnumbered. Although a dozen supporters clustered around her, nearly 200 community members with angry expressions on their faces dominated the room.

The next person to speak into the microphone was also a local mother. Dressed in a pink long-sleeved shirt, her blond-highlighted hair pulled into a bun, she begged, “We have to protect our children! They’re vulnerable elementary school kids … I know there’s legal issues and they talk about a violation of rights, but what about the violation of our children?”

Over more than two hours, a barrage of mostly negative comments continued, with many accusations directed at Plumb and her companions. At one especially divisive moment, an audience member yelled, “You want to separate us from our children!”

Plumb found it hard to hear that her fellow community members believed her proposed club would harm and endanger children. In fact, her express purpose was to protect students. “If I’m not gonna do it,” she explained later, “no one else is gonna do it.”

To Plumb, there was another reason besides the glares and insults — one with roots even deeper than those of the historic town itself — that made the persecution feel personal.

~~

The previous fall, Plumb had been outraged to find a flier for a Bible study in her youngest child’s backpack. An atheist, Plumb considered the fliers, which were given to students at Northern Elementary, a blatant violation of public-school policy.

“The school, acting as a government, is endorsing one religion over another,” Plumb recalled having felt. She contacted the school district about her concerns with the Bible study fliers. “They tried to tell me, ‘We’re not endorsing it, we’re just distributing materials,’” she said.

Around the same time, she also happened to watch the documentary Hail Satan? for the first time. The film, released by Magnolia Pictures in 2019, follows members of the Satanic Temple (TST) as they advocate for religious freedom and the separation of church and state — often by engaging in headline-grabbing public actions.

“I saw that [documentary],” Plumb remembers, “and was like, ‘I wonder if they could help me.’”

To test whether her children’s school district was, in fact, endorsing one religion over another, and to offer kids like hers a non-religious alternative, Plumb sought to start a chapter of the After School Satan Club (ASSC).

In 2001’s Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Supreme Court ruled to protect religious speech within a “limited public forum” that includes clubs hosted by religious groups on school premises.

Using that precedent — and to counter the evangelical Christian clubs already operating in public schools there — TST has established a handful of chapters of the After School Satan Club in California, Illinois, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. Photos from those clubs show school children learning about scientific subjects such as fossils, gemstones, DNA, and rockets.

Just as in Plumb’s Pennsylvania town, though, each ASSC chapter has stirred up its own backlash, with some parents’ outrage ranging from outspoken disgust to fears of “devil worshiping in school.”

~~

Back at the explosive Northern York County school board meeting, tensions only heightened as the evening wore on. Community members stood up throughout the room to protest the Satanic Temple congregation members in attendance. After each opposing speech, citizens yelled and applauded at deafening volumes.

When an audience member accused the group of wanting to separate children from their parents, a member of TST, who sat with Plumb toward the front of the auditorium, yelled out a correction: “Separation of church and state!”

A mother spoke directly to the small group supporting Plumb, saying repeatedly, “Y’all need to go elsewhere.”

The sentiment was echoed by a burly man with a blond crew cut who added, during his address, “These guys should be run out of town. You [TST members] shouldn’t be here. There’s no room for you here. So, let’s remember, guys [to the audience] — if this group does get voted in, let’s do something about it.”

~~

A portrait of a seated woman with short hair and glasses.

Saga Lucia sits for an autumnal portrait at a park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A member of the Satanic Temple’s Harrisburg chapter, Lucia uses a pseudonym to protect her job. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

A few months after the meeting, Plumb sat in a park just up the highway from Dillsburg, in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. Her hair had recently been dyed a deeper shade of red, and the ground was littered with leaves, which had just begun to fall from the trees. This rural borough, which borders the state capital, is 89% white and conservative.

Nearby, children laughed loudly as they ran around the playground. Plumb’s expression was neutral as she gazed across the wooden picnic table at her friend, Saga Lucia.

Lucia rattled off the names that Plumb was called by audience members at that April school-board meeting: “predator, groomer, pornographer, baby killer.”

Plumb couldn’t help but chuckle — a resigned response to the baseless accusations.

One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone. — Tenet III

Like many in their community, Plumb and Lucia both use pseudonyms in conjunction with their affiliation with the Satanic Temple. Plumb was quick and matter-of-fact in explaining why.

“Death threats,” she said. “They will come after you online.” 

Lucia added that the small group of Satanic Temple members who attended the school board meeting in support of Plumb had to be escorted to and from the meeting by local police.

Plumb was especially rattled when, after the school board meeting, one online commenter threatened to call Child Protective Services on her. Lucia chose her pseudonym to avoid losing her job.

For Plumb, her choice of the first name Susannah is loaded with context — it’s a tribute to her 17th-century ancestor, Susannah Martin, who stood trial for witchcraft in colonial Salem, Massachusetts.

~~

More than 300 years before, Martin was one of more than 200 people accused of practicing “the devil’s magic” during the Salem witch trials. Her trial in 1692 was the culmination of more than 30 years of harassment, over the course of which she was accused and acquitted twice. Although she was, by all accounts, a pious Christian woman, decades of gossip had left Martin isolated and ostracized from her community.

The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions. —Tenet II

“Aware that some considered her a witch,” historical documents note, “she may have played up the idea from time to time herself to scare people.”

Ultimately, the court found Martin guilty of witchcraft, and on July 19 of that year, at the age of 71, she was hanged on Proctor’s Ledge at Gallows Hill. Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wildes, and Rebecca Nurse — who had all been tried and found guilty in prior months — were executed by her side. As neighbors looked on, the five women hung from the same beam, their matching dresses fluttering in the wind.

By the end of the year, 19 men and women would be hanged in Salem for the alleged crime of witchcraft. Seven others died while in prison, and one man was pressed to death under stones.

Today, near the site of Martin’s long-ago house in Amesbury, 20 miles north of Salem, a memorial declares her a “martyr of superstition.” In a regal Victorian house that once held a funeral parlor, the Satanic Temple operates a headquarters for its 700,000-plus global members, just under two miles away from Gallows Hill.

People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused. — Tenet VI

~~

In one of their more notable demonstrations, the Satanic Temple unveiled an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Baphomet — a heathen, goat-headed idol with wings. Two cherubic children gaze up at the large pentagram nestled between the icon’s horns. TST’s proposal was to install the statue at the Oklahoma and Arkansas state capitols, alongside the Biblical Ten Commandments monuments already on those grounds.

A woman's hand holding a silver baphomet necklace.

Shae McGee shows off her necklace featuring the goat-headed Baphomet, a symbol dating back to the Crusades that has been embraced by the Satanic Temple. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

The group argues that public spaces should be free from all religious messaging or be opened up to representations of all faiths, including Satanism. Declaring Satanism its own religion allows the Satanic Temple to claim equal footing under the constitution’s promise of religious freedom.

This protection has inspired an array of inflammatory campaigns over the last decade — a swaddled Baphomet alongside a Nativity scene and menorah that made up a holiday display at the Illinois State Capitol, proposals for Satanic blessings before city council meetings in place of the usual prayer, and the opening of Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic in New Mexico. 

The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own. — Tenet IV

Founded in 2013, the Satanic Temple is the largest and most widely recognized Satanic organization in the world, not to be confused with its archrival, the Church of Satan. Contrary to popular belief and even the name itself, members of TST do not actually worship, nor do they believe in, the existence of Satan. Rather, the figure serves as a representation of rebellion against tyranny.

At its essence, the group is an assembly of atheists who created a tongue-in-cheek community to poke fun at organized religion — and, through their sometimes outlandish actions, to move the needle on what they deem to be First Amendment violations.

A hat with the words

An attendee at the Satanic Temple’s 2022 back-to-school fundraiser in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, flaunts a hat celebrating “freedom from religion.” Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

~~

At the close of that April 2022 meeting, the board members announced their decisions, one by one, into their respective microphones — eight no’s followed by one yes. Plumb’s expressions of shock and disappointment were inaudible over the majority of the audience’s thunderous applause.

Just two months later, though, the school board agreed to allow a Christian group to host a “Back to School Worship and Prayer Night” in August at Northern York High School. In response, the Satanic Temple of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania again tried to petition for their own event, which the district reluctantly agreed to in the form of a back-to-school fundraiser in late September.

The fundraiser stated a dual purpose: to raise money for students in need, and to show a sample of the programming that the After School Satan Club could offer.

~~

Pamphlets with a cartoon devil and the text

The Satanic Temple plays up its controversial image with a cartoonish devil on the informational pamphlets for its After School Satan Club. A handful of chapters have been established in schools across the U.S. — each time provoking public outcry. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

At the entrance to the fundraiser, a folding table decorated with balloons — black, white, and American flag themed — displayed a bottle of hand sanitizer beside wristbands and pamphlets.

At the top of the pamphlets, a cartoonish red devil smiled, sporting a tuxedo and a graduation cap. Text inside explained the club’s purpose: “We are not offering any materials or lectures to your child about Satanism. Instead, our focus will be on free inquiry and rationalism, bolstering scientific understandings of the natural world, and nurturing your child’s already awesome ability to be curious about the wonders around them.”

A detective in uniform admires a large snake on the shoulders of a man in the foreground.

Detective Daniel Signore (left), a police officer for Pennsylvania’s York County, admires the snake display at the Satanic Temple’s back-to-school event at Northern High School. TST asked local police to provide security for the event in case of protestors. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

Dozens of attendees ambled around the school cafeteria. Several kids clustered at the theremin, an instrument emitting eerie sounds as their hands moved closer and farther from its antenna. The high-pitched electronic noises evoked scenes of a vintage haunted house.

Bella and Yardley, whose faces had been transformed into a pumpkin and a ghoul, respectively, after visiting the face-painting station, had never before seen such an instrument. Bella eagerly tested the knobs on the machine to see what would happen, while the pair’s older sibling, Ewan, frantically gesticulated around the antenna.

A young woman applies face paint using her phone's camera as a mirror.

Aspen, a Pennsylvania high schooler, selects a dark shade of purple eyeshadow in the minutes before the fundraiser for a proposed chapter of the After School Satan Club. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

Across the room, local artist Ulver Solberg stood over a pile of bones and taxidermied animals. Dressed in all black, save for a red bowtie, Solberg proudly displayed a spread of fox pelts, deer antlers, long-horned cattle skulls, and abandoned beehives. His table allowed attendees to safely get a closer look at animals that would normally be dangerous to approach, such as coyotes, antelopes, and snakes.

Scarafile, the snake keeper, brought out a long, yellow Burmese python named Limelight. One young woman in attendance, Katrina Beisel, was giddy as she asked if she could hold the snake. A tattoo of a serpent spread along the back of her right arm, while intricately rendered spider webs adorned her fingernails. The pendant of her necklace, dangling from a thin silver chain, featured a crucifix with an illustration of Baphomet at its center.

By now, Bella had shaken off her initial fear. While she was at first afraid to touch the snake, she had mustered up the courage to give it a try and was delighted by the smooth feel of the scales. When she spotted the python, she didn’t hesitate to edge closer for a better look.

One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason. —Tenet I

Over at the face-painting station, Elizabeth Bradley paused for a moment. A sweatshirt with the decal “Hail Satan, est. 666” was draped over the back of her chair. At 19 years old, Bradley was a newer member of the Satanic Temple — per TST rules, members must be 18 to join.

“It’s camp,” she explained, before turning her attention back to her paints. Dipping her brush into a well of white, she painted the entirety of a child’s face. As she switched to a thinner paintbrush, drawing black circles around his eyes and vertical lines across his lips, it became obvious she was painting him as a skeleton. His painted black mouth now bore some resemblance to her own, which was coated in a silky black lipstick. “We’re always gonna be seen that way [differently],” she said with a smile, “so might as well play it up to the nines.”

A portrait of a laughing woman with curly orange hair and glasses.

Elizabeth Bradley recently joined the Satanic Temple of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania. Members must be at least 18 years old. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

~~

As the fundraiser wrapped up, around 8:30 p.m., Plumb grinned widely. She had been running around all night, lending a hand wherever it was needed, and she could finally take a breather.

Her enthusiasm for the Satanic Temple had only grown since the school board meeting. “They [congregation members] were so accepting; no one was judging me,” she said. “These people didn’t even know me, and they came from all over to help just support me — just be there while people yelled at me. I didn’t even have friends that live locally willing to do that.”

Two people serving themselves food on paper plates, and a woman with blue hair in the background.

Shae McGee (right) hosts a gathering for friends and family at her home in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. McGee is among those who have found a sense of community through her involvement with the Satanic Temple. “I’ve had a hard time fitting in,” admits McGee. “[But] I’ve never felt more at home with a group of people than I do with my congregation. Both of my children are gay; my one child is transgender… with the Satanic Temple, my kids are revered for who they are. They’re accepted, they’re loved, they are educated in a non-biased way. They are supported.” Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

On this evening, the fate of the club still hung in the balance — the Satanic Temple was in the process of suing Northern York County School District after its denial of the club request, and congregation members were anxiously awaiting the ruling. But, for the moment, everyone was in good spirits.

Outside the cafeteria, 20 attendees gathered for a group photo. Yardley gave a big smile as she was hugged from behind by her mother, Alexis Swope. Scarafile held his snake Limelight across his shoulders. Plumb knelt in the front row while Geesey, in the back, helped hold a banner proclaiming “pro-empathy, pro-justice, pro-rationalism.”

The scene conjured up one of the few sentiments of support expressed at the school board meeting. “I know what it’s like to be bullied; I know what it’s like to be different — to be judged because I act differently, because I speak or dress differently,” admitted a former Northern High School student. “There are some students who identify as Satanists within our schools — they don’t ask demeaning questions; I don’t have to explain myself to them. They just can sometimes be more understanding.”

As the camera clicked, the photographer replaced the stereotypical demand to “Say cheese” with a cheerful “Hail, Satan!”

~~

A man and women stand alongside their children and another woman above a display of bones and taxidermied animals.

Steve Geesey (center) and his wife, Alexis Swope, attend the Satanic Temple’s back-to-school event with their children Bella (left) and Yardley. Swope, a family lawyer and member of Satanic Harrisburg, says that she once felt like “a perpetual outsider,” but being part of TST has helped her overcome those feelings. “Satanism has given us the community to show our children what acceptance and understanding means,” she adds. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

Three weeks after the fundraiser, June Everett, an ordained minister of the Satanic Temple and the After School Satan Club’s national campaign director, reached out to the district to ask how they could go about donating the $500 raised to benefit students in need. In an email response, Steve Kirkpatrick, superintendent of Northern York County School District, wrote, “I respectfully decline your offer of a direct donation to the school district and suggest that you instead send your donation to New Hope Ministries.” New Hope Ministries is a local Christian social service agency affiliated with the back-to-school prayer night that had been approved by the school board. 

Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word. — Tenet VII, The Seven Fundamental Tenets of the Satanic Temple

Eight months after the fundraiser, on May 1, 2023, a federal district judge would rule in favor of the club in a neighboring school district in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Satanic Temple.

“Here, although the Satanic Temple, Inc.’s objectors may challenge the sanctity of this controversially named organization, the sanctity of the First Amendment’s protections must prevail,” wrote Judge John M. Gallagher, appointed by former President Donald Trump, in his ruling. “When confronted with a challenge to free speech, the government’s first instinct must be to forward expression rather than quash it.”

Gallagher elaborated further: “Particularly when the content is controversial or inconvenient. Nothing less is consistent with the expressed purpose of American government to secure the core, innate rights of its people.”

Just days later, on May 10, Pennsylvania’s first ASSC chapter would launch at a middle school in, appropriately enough, Hellertown. Alongside a handful of her new friends and fellow congregants, Plumb showed up in a black T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow-hued Baphomet across the front.

With a small but enthusiastic group of kids, ranging in age from kindergarten to sixth grade, they played Uno and created chain reactions out of LEGO blocks. They made colorful friendship bracelets and bookmarks. They joked around with the school custodian and shared a snack with him.

Guided by curiosity, they took a step toward building community.

A group photo of kids, adults, and a snake with a banner reading

At the end of the Satanic Temple’s back-to-school fundraiser, event volunteers gather for a convivial group photo. Photo: Rachel Wisniewski.

As of publication, the lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of the Satanist Temple against Saucon Valley School District is still pending.

 

Rachel Wisniewski

Rachel Wisniewski is an independent photojournalist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA.

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