The last weekend of movie-going I’ve experienced has been one of running against archetype. First I saw The Intruder, and later I saw another film where the lead is well against the characters they normally play. I’ll review that one in a couple of weeks, as I saw an advance screening and am bound by NDA not to discuss it until it’s officially released.
In between those two was the latest documentary from Penny Lane (real name), Hail Satan?, which does the seemingly blasphemous in painting a Satanic sect, The Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan), as a positive influence on our national religious identity and discourse. Of course, the fun of the film is in that word, “seemingly,” because even the most cursory bit of research into Satanism reveals that the practitioners do not openly embrace Satan as a deity, nor do they participate in acts of wrongdoing or evil. They are simply a dissenting voice, and Lane’s film does a fantastic job of showing the origins and current activism of a group of fairly normal people who by their affiliation many would dismiss as wicked.
The best documentaries are the ones that can give you an alternate perspective on the overall subject matter, so that you the viewer can challenge your preconceived notions. That is what Hail Satan? is at its very core. The title itself even includes the question mark as a means to make that challenge. In Satanic religions, they do not actually worship Satan as the demon described in Abrahamic religions, nor do they worship him or any deity at all. They invoke the name of Satan in its most basic form, as derived from the Hebrew word for “adversary.” He is a symbol of resistance, of authoritarian challenge, nothing more. Even the phrase, “Hail Satan” is more of a catchy slogan, more akin to “Keep on truckin'” than “The Lord’s Prayer” as far as any ritual meaning is concerned.
So right from the off, Lane succeeds in that constructive goal, using footage of a PR stunt pulled by the nascent Temple when then-Governor Rick Scott of Florida (he’s now a U.S. Senator) signed a bill into law allowing for student-led prayer in public schools in 2013. A few followers demonstrated on the steps of the State Capitol, satirically praising Scott for opening the doors to allow Satanic prayer in schools, which they would fully endorse.
Co-Founder Lucien Greaves, along with other founding members, fully admit that The Satanic Temple was originally founded basically as a way to troll the religious right in America. Because no matter how many times you confront people with facts about how the USA was NOT founded as a Christian nation, and that our Constitution strictly forbids the government endorsing religion, there are still thousands of people who attain public office with the support of millions of Americans based on the belief that not only is it okay to endorse religion, but that religious freedom only applies to Christians (and white, protestant ones at that, depending on how deep down the rabbit hole you wish to go). So initially, TST only existed as a cheeky way to point out the hypocrisy of privilege for the Christian right in this country, and their seemingly monopolistic claims to morality and righteousness.
But from that small stunt and others like it (including a screamingly funny parody of retroactive baptism against the Westboro Baptist Church), TST began to form a following, to the point that various Satanic sects claim membership numbers on par with Scientology and other vocal minority faiths. As the film demonstrates, there is strength in numbers, as the growing membership of TST (which has only been around for a little more than five years) has not only required a more structured central leadership (going from Greaves and a few like-minded enthusiasts scattered across the nation to dozens of chapters domestic and abroad), but allowed for more aggressive activism and community engagement.
The chief protest demonstrated in the film is the creation of a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed deity that was used to demonize dissident sects of Christianity going as far back as the Knights Templar. In response to the state of Oklahoma erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments on public land, the Temple petitioned to have their statue positioned right next to it, because again, no government in this country is allowed to endorse one religion over another. Rather than agree, Oklahoma chose to remove the Commandments. The fight then moved to Arkansas, where a state senator successfully put them up and got the state legislature to deny TST’s request. TST sued, and the case is still pending, though it should be noted that only two weeks ago, TST was granted standing in the case, which allows it to proceed. Also, thanks to broader definitions of “religious liberty” made by the Trump Administration (in an effort to redirect tax money to Christian groups), TST is now recognized as a religion by the IRS and has tax-exempt status, which undermines Arkansas’ assertion that TST isn’t a “real religion” (oxymoron), but rather just a satire group.
It’s that last bit of irony that is the most delicious, because what I’ve just written in the previous paragraph is an update outside of the film. However, the film itself relies heavily on hypocrisy and somewhat ironic bits of karmic justice when it comes to the Christian right (mostly evangelicals, though there’s also a scene where Boston Catholics quickly mobilize to silence a speech the Temple was scheduled to give on the Harvard campus). In trying to use the government to promote their agenda through legal means, they also opened the door to TST using those very same avenues to continue fighting them. Had the government left well enough alone, Arkansas could use this very film as evidence that TST is more satire than religion. Now that argument is basically out the window.
But again, this isn’t just about some expert trolling on the part of well-organized intellectuals with too much free time. This is very much a human story, and Lane is committed to showing the human element of these so-called devil worshipers. Most of them are just normal-looking people you’d meet on the streets. Some fit a mental description you might have (piercings, tattoos, wearing all black, dyed hair, etc.), while others are about as straight-laced as they come. One particular follower in Arkansas looks like he could be a stand-in for Jack McBrayer. The membership comes from all walks of life. Some were raised in the Christian faith, some weren’t. Basically all races and sexual orientations are represented. There are even extreme elements to the Temple, as we see one founding member be forced to resign their position because they advocated executing the President.
Not only does this prove that you can’t judge on appearances (sometimes you’ll be right, sometimes not), but it also stands as evidence of one of the film’s other major theses, that in being Satanists, TST also puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to their own morality. Throughout the 70s and 80s (and really still today), people hear the word, “Satanism” and think only of evil, in part because Christian groups led decades-long campaigns depicting Satanists as rapists and murderers, when in fact it was the Church committing those very crimes. Don’t believe me? Whenever your diocese gets a new priest, ask why they were reassigned. Meanwhile, at the first hint of inappropriate behavior, one of their founding members is kicked to the curb. The Satanists are willing to clean house. Why isn’t the Church?
Again, this all comes back to the human element, which is really what all religions are about, whether they admit it or not. Religion was created by people, is maintained by people, and in many cases (both extreme and mainstream) is forced on other people by people. And as the film demonstrates, that force can quickly come via highly-motivated and mobilized efforts to demonize and dehumanize TST members. One of the co-founders of the Temple has his face hidden in interviews and pixilated in archive footage because he fears societal retribution if his identity gets out. Greaves bravely goes on Fox News multiple times, where he is constantly dismissed as evil no matter what facts he submits to the contrary. Other commentators compare them to ISIS and mock Greaves for using a pseudonym (he giggles at the fact that the more “normal” name they use to lambaste him is a double-layered pseudonym, and that no one on that channel knows his real name), even though venerated religious leaders like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama do the same thing.
It reminded me of a recent interview that went viral when a Fox News host basically spent her entire interview with Reza Aslan, a religious history scholar who just happens to be Muslim, asking why he as a Muslim can write a book (the fantastic Zealot) about Jesus and Christianity. No matter what credentials he presented to answer that question, all she did was go back to the basic, nonsensical point of, “You’re Muslim, leave Jesus out of this,” ignoring of course that Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet, just not as the last one, or as the son of God. This very basic and frustrating form of obsequiousness is what TST is really fighting, not whatever version of God you might worship or not.
And really, TST engages in a lot of community activities that other church organizations do. They adopt highways, host after-school programs for kids, teach moral lessons, and offer aid and shelter to refugees. Do these sound like the actions of an evil group? That’s the challenge the film asserts, and it does so brilliantly and with good humor. In one particular scene, it is revealed that the Ten Commandment monuments themselves are based on promotional materials from the Charlton Heston movie of the same name, distributed by Cecil B. DeMille himself. I didn’t know that was the case, and clearly neither did Lane, as she can be heard incredulously laughing off camera when it’s revealed (and sure enough, if you Google it, it turns out to be true).
That’s where the film truly succeeds. A lot of what happens with religious intrusion into our politics and personal lives is dependent on the masses not giving things a second thought, simply reverting to the defaults that God is good, Satan is evil, and whoever acts on behalf of, or in the name of, either of those entities is exactly like that. But any free-thinking person knows it’s not that simple. Not only are there shades of grey everywhere, but this film shows that actions speak far louder than words, and that the actions of both sides give lie to the stereotype. That’s great documentary filmmaking no matter the message (as long as you use facts and not manufactured bullshit – looking at you, Dinesh D’Souza), but where this film rises to the 2019 pantheon is in the good-natured and at times almost silly way that Penny Lane just lays out reality as it is, letting that second thought seem just as obvious as the first, and allowing the audience, as well as The Satanic Temple, to just sit back and laugh at the absurdity of it all. That such horrible conflicts can arise out of something that would seem like common sense if there weren’t sacred (and sacrilegious) titles assigned to everything is so brilliantly simple that it almost makes you slap yourself on the forehead and wonder why you never thought to ask such easy questions.
So yeah, fuck it, hail Satan! And if that last sentence offends you, reread this review, see the damn movie, and reevaluate why you’re offended.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? If you’re religious, what makes you a believer? How many times do you think I misspelled “Satan” as “Stan,” implying I should hail the main character on American Dad! (hint: a lot)? Let me know!