We all have a certain image of how a member of a satanic cult might look like, thanks to movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Hereditary. You might think they meet secretly in dark robes to sacrifice goats and drink the blood of infants. Well, you would be half-right. Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? exposes Satanists for what they really are: mild-mannered people who might have some weird interests, but are generally compassionate and non-violent. Lane specifically follows the activities of the Satanic Temple and its members throughout the USA.
The movement began with the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s. LaVeyan Satanism states that you are your own god, that you should act in the interest of yourself, and not what an institution or a deity dictates. Masturbation and revenge are strongly encouraged within Satanism. While the Church of Satan laid the groundwork for the philosophy, the Satanic Temple was established to be more politically involved. And they’ve been able to attract more members through their social media presence and their disruption of the system.
Satanists don’t actually believe in the existence of Satan, or any god. Satan is merely a symbol of rebellion against the obedience demanded by a Christian God. So why not just be atheists? Because “Atheism is boring,” as one Satanic Temple member puts it. Satanism has spooky iconography and gives a sense of community. Also, what other religion lets you burn things, destroy sacred objects and chug wine in the nude?
Hail Satan? opens with the planning of one of TST’s first public appearances in Florida. Media outlets are called, signs are painted and Halloween costumes are purchased in bulk. The event itself is poorly attended, with more reporters than actual members. The demonstration is a satirical show of support for then-governor Rick Scott and his plan to bring back prayer in schools. If God is allowed in the classroom, why not Satan? The mission is to challenge politicians who cater to the religious right. The Satanic Temple claim to be patriots and they feel it’s their duty to uphold the freedom of religion described in the Constitution.
The Temple founders don’t want their identities made public. In the film, they give interviews with their faces obscured in shadows. But they realize that they must have mouthpiece, so the appoint the perfect face for their cause: Lucien Greaves (obviously not his real name). He’s suave, smooth-talking, but still freaky-looking, due to his milky lazy eye. Greaves appears as a talking head on talk shows, smiling deviously as Fox News personalities lose their minds on the other half of the screen.
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From their humble beginnings, we see the Temple expand. Chapters are established across the country to counter evangelical groups in creative ways. The Westboro Baptist Church protests a gay soldier’s funeral? Greaves holds a pink mass over the grave of Fred Phelphs’ mother, declaring her gay in the afterlife. Pro-choice activists block the door of a Planned Parenthood? Members show up wearing baby masks and whip each other in a bizarre bondage performance. A town mayor proposes displaying the Ten Commandments on the front steps on the courthouse? Why not also erect an 8-foot goat-headed Baphomet statue? Victory comes in small forms as lawmakers reverse their decisions, preferring secularism over Satanism.
People of all walks of life flock to the Satanic Temple: Metalheads. Punk rockers. Internet edgelords. Horror movie fans. Dungeons & Dragons nerds. More importantly, it appeals to those that the traditional church has vilified, like queer and trans people, and women who want control over their own bodies. Many followers admit to having a Christian upbringing, but had such a bad experience that it pushed them over to the “dark side.”
But it’s not all about trolling Christians. Satanists adhere to seven tenets, the first stating that “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.” Members try their hand in charity: collecting socks for the homeless, organizing blood drives and picking up trash with pitchforks. It’s absurd to imagine Satan and charity in the same sentence, but the community embraces the aid, to an extent. Concerned parents draw the line with the introduction of the After School Satan Club. Blurry-faced antagonists spit and swear in front of the attending children, who are otherwise unbothered by the kid-friendly satanic coloring books.
The Temple struggles to fix their negative image, but can’t seem to shake off the stereotype coined from the Satanic Panic in the 80s and 90s, when gothy teens were wrongfully convicted after being accused of murdering children in a sacrificial sex ritual (the irony being that the Catholic Church is more responsible for abusing children). Even the idea of hearing out the Greaves seems ludicrous. Massive demonstrations of Bible-thumpers continuously block TST from entering the public sphere. There’s an honest attempt to sue the state of Missouri but donations can’t cover legal fees. Infighting leads to the dismissal of the Detroit chapter leader after she calls for the assassination of Donald Trump. Definitely not the image they want.
Still, I thought more warts-and-all could have been shown in Hail Satan?. For the most part, Lane is in agreement with the Satanists, and doesn’t actively seek out interviews with the opposition. After all, their narrative has dominated the media for decades, so it’s only a matter of stitching together clips from news reports, old cartoons and biblical film adaptations starring Charlton Heston. She remains a casual observer, sitting behind the camera at all times, only speaking up during “wait, what?” moments in the interviews.
I’ve had an interest in the Temple since I took a course on the History of Satan in university, and I closely followed the funding and building of the Baphomet statue through Vice News. I had a vague idea of where the film would go next as soon a new city was introduced, but I still managed to be surprised by what Lane had captured over the five years since the Temple’s inception. I would be interested in hearing what others think about this documentary, especially if they have no previous knowledge of Satanism or if they come from a religious background.
Hail Satan? could be viewed by some as a recruitment video for new members. Hell, even I thought about converting and starting my own chapter in my neck of the woods. If you look past its theatricality and mockery of American politics, it’s a belief system that’s much more modern than most religions. It champions science over all other convictions. It accepts everyone willing to open their mind. If you don’t believe in any divine authority, then you have nothing to fear. Why not? Hail Satan!
Hail Satan? is distributed through Magnolia Pictures and is now showing in select cinemas across the United Sates.