Satanism probably conjures up images of virgin sacrifices, drinking goat blood and other fiendish demonic behaviours. Some of us remember the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80s and 90s (more of which later), which bled into popular culture through films such as The ‘Burbs and Dragnet in the 80s and Eyes Wide Shut and The Devil’s Advocate in the 90s. However, the Masonic secretive cult impression of Satanism is far from the modern day Satanic Temple depicted in this new documentary from director Penny Lane.
The Satanic Temple was founded by Lucien Greaves (the main ‘star’ of the documentary) and Malcolm Jarry (who does not show his face on camera), as an updated version of The Church of Satan. They are really an anarchic and rebellious protest group, more than actual Satan worshippers and come across as more warm and cuddly than pure evil. Their main agenda is to ensure that the US remains a pluralistic secular nation which has religious freedom and liberty, rather than becoming a Christian theocracy. They appear to be a bunch of friendly emos and goths, with a high percentage of LGBTQ members and there is no wonder they have become so popular, with chapters in thirteen states and around 50,000 members.
The group admit to being trolls – but they are not trolling the downtrodden or society’s outliers. Instead, they are trolling the establishment (particularly in its current incarnation) and the mainstream media, especially Fox News. They are dissenters, attempting to challenge hypocrisy and are determined to protest infractions of the separation of Church and State. They see themselves as defenders of the constitution.
The documentary is filled with wry humour, but is not poking fun at anyone. Many of the ‘talking heads’ have cloaks and devil horns, even if their faces are not shown. Greaves is constantly portrayed as matter-of-fact and stoic in the face of sometimes rabid opposition. They really are just calmly pointing out that if a City Council can have prayers said before meetings, they should be able to have a Satanic invocation also. And if an elementary school can have an after-school Bible class, it can also have an after-school Satanic class. Their form of protest is kind of genius because it is specifically designed to wind up the most zealous of evangelical Christians.
The main focus of the documentary is a dispute over having a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments at the State House in Oklahoma (with many other proposed sites). The Satanic Temple commissions an enormous Baphomet sculpture, with two children looking up at him adoringly to counter-act the Ten Commandments’ presence on state property. This conflict reaches a slightly anti-climatic conclusion during Hail Satan? but this only serves to highlight the ridiculous nature of the entire enterprise, on both sides.
Lane’s documentary briefly touches on the Satanic Panic of the 80s, a fascinating subject which hasn’t been fully wrestled or reckoned with by our society. Many teenagers in the 80s were demonised if they belonged to counter-cultures including playing Dungeons & Dragons and certain video games or being ‘punk’ or ‘goth.’ The most famous trial was of the West Memphis Three – three teenage boys accused of abuse and murder (believed to be motivated by Satanic ritual), which was explored in the HBO documentary Paradise Lost. As pointed out in Hail Satan? the ones doing the accusing eg. the Catholic Church, have since been found to have widespread child abuse within their institution and it was a case of projecting and distracting away from their own crimes.
Like any organisation, there are some internal conflicts and one of the principal original members and central ‘characters’ of the documentary – Jex Blackmore causes controversy by condoning violence against powerful figures. This highlights the ‘peaceful protest’ nature of The Satanic Temple and that they are very much the antithesis of their evil reputation. The question mark in the title of the documentary is fitting, as it is querying whether anyone in the group is actually worshipping Satan at all. Perhaps Satan is more of a mascot than a belief for many within this ‘religion’?
Hail Satan? is a well-made, entertaining documentary, which is frequently funny and frequently anger-inducing. It is very much capturing a snapshot of contemporary America and is highlighting one form of resistance that has arisen in recent years (especially since the 2016 election). It is also demonstrating the importance of people who live outside of mainstream culture finding one another and having a sense of community and belonging. It will be no surprise if membership of The Satanic Temple sky-rockets after more people see this film.