The tone for Penny Lane’s latest documentary Hail Satan? is set almost immediately. Lane asks one of the men, hidden in shadows, what led to them naming their organization The Satanic Temple: “The name wasn’t taken.”
Anyone who knows anything about satanism most likely knows by and large it is more akin to Larping for trolls than any actual worship of the fallen angel. But Lane shows us a deadly serious side to these group of tongue-in-cheek agnostics. But, yes, part of why they are Satanists are for the lols.
However, Lane discovers a deeper, more motivating factor. One of the members of the Satanic Temple mentions that as an atheist there is no group, no code of ethics, and no iconography in which to live or embrace. In the end, it turns out, Satanists, like any other religion, just wants somewhere to belong.
Led by Lucien Greaves, the Satanic Temple is a place for outsiders longing for the community. The temple also serves as grassroots activism. Unlike internet trolls, the Temple is out to prove a point: America is becoming a Christian Theocracy.
Lane interviews several members of the Temple, a few have their faces hidden, most do not. Some have dyed hair, are covered in tattoos, and seem to have every conceivable part of their body pierced. Still, others look as if they could be seen walking to church on a bright Sunday morning with their page boy haircuts, cream-colored suits, and bow ties.
Some of you may even be familiar with the Temple via the brilliant Vice headline Mississippi Police Want to Arrest the Satanists Who Turn Dead People Gay. The headline is followed by, impossible though it may be, an even better subheading. Just over a week ago the Satanic Temple, unwavering disciples of the Prince of Darkness and aspiring adopt-a-highway participants, performed a Pink Mass over the grave of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Jr.’s mom.
“Once you realize how the media is structured it becomes easy to manipulate.” The Satanists were doing two things. One was to comment on the ludicrousness of a Mormon practice in which they go around converting dead Jewish people to Christianity. A practice that is inherently offensive to any thinking person.
The other reason was to piss off Fred Phelps Jr. If you know anything about the Westboro Baptist Church then you know the words inherently offensive don’t even begin to describe the vulgarity of that organization. So the Satanic Temple asked themselves, “How do you fuck with Fred Phelps?” The answer, “Fuck with Mom.”
Of course, you can’t convert the sexuality of the dead. Even if you could it would have to involve more than having same sex kisses over a grave. Though Greaves plopping his testicles on the gravestone was a nice touch. It’s so patently ridiculous that only a ridiculous person could be offended.
Which is the point. Satanism is a “declaration against superstition.” But what Lane shows is that for many, the declaration is only part of it. It’s coming together with like minded people, discussing the issues of the day, and communing with chosen symbols with specific meanings and purpose. In other words, along the way, Satanism became a religion, albeit a non-theistic one.
But it is still not what most people think it is. Or rather what the Evangelical alt right believe it is. The Satanic Temple, like all organizations, has a set of codified beliefs: The Seven Tenets.
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable and subject to one’s will alone.
- 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 your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it any harm that may have been caused.
- 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.
Watching Hail Satan? I couldn’t help but think to myself how white the membership was. But then as Lane talked to more and more people I began to notice a true diversity. Heck, even the president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the Satanic Temple is a trans woman. The membership was a pantheon of every type of person under the sun. Most dressed black and looked more like a stereotype. Still, others did not.
The black clothes, the piercings, and the tattoos are a uniform of sorts. But it is not a required uniform. The outfits show a uniformity as well as acting as a middle finger to societal expectations of how we “should” dress.
The Satanic Temple is a far reaching global organization. So much so that Lucien began to realize a truly ironic idea. While Satanism was always meant to be a decentralized religion, the global reach and massive membership meant a propensity for bad actors to do something violent or malicious and claim affiliation. Lucien found himself the head of an organization with a centralized power structure.
Lane lets all of this play out organically. Hail Satan? never feels as if Lane has a narrative she’s trying to impose. Instead, the documentary has a sort of freewheeling aspect to it. The one common thread is the Satanic Temple’s battle against a monument of the Ten Commandments being displayed in front of an Oklahoma capitol building.
America is a pluralistic society. Of all the founding tenets it seems pluralism is the one we as a people struggle with the most. So the Satanic Temple petitioned to erect a statue of Baphomet, a winged goat god with two children looking up at him adoringly. It is in fact only fair.
The outrage is predictable. “Evil doesn’t have rights” an Evangelical protester sign reads. What goes unsaid and what the Temple is trying to illustrate is if you put up the ten commandments then Hindus, Islamists, and Jewish organizations should get to have a statue there as well. The Satanists are merely arguing a government doesn’t get to favor one religion over the other.
One could argue that Satanists find the Separation of Church and State more holy than the modern Christian. For them, this is a deeply patriotic and important cause. Part of being an American is getting to believe whatever or however many Gods you want and the Government doesn’t get to utter a peep about it.
One of the members tells of a time the Temple attempted to perform Black Mass in the Harvard Common area. Mass protests erupted and the media ate it up. A priest told a reporter, “I would hope that if I announced we were putting on a minstrel show, or a rally for the KKK, people would be outraged.”
One of the founders who spoke in anonymity confesses a moment of doubt. Maybe they had gone too far. But then he remembered the Catholic Church had for decades not only sheltered pedophile priests but protected them and moved them around. “F*** them!” A sentiment I agree with. As to what the priest said about the patently offensive demonstrations he hoped would be upset—I’m not so sure anymore.
“Lawsuits drag on forever,” Lucien confesses to the camera. As the temple funnels more and more money into the case Lucien is faced with a fracture within the church. The Satanic Temple is committed to progressive change within the system. Challenging laws in the court themselves.
Jex Blackmore, head of the Detroit chapter, has a different idea. She doesn’t believe you can battle a corrupt system fairly. Her protests are more agitated and in your face. Yes even more so than a Pink Mass. At planned parenthood, she and her member dress up like giant toddlers with whips and chains with massive fake baby heads, as they march around the Pro-Life protesters.
“It’s performance art,” she declares happily to the camera. Like all performance art, it requires an explanation as to what they are saying. The pro-lifers have fetishized and idolized the fetus to the point of absurdity.
Blackmore isn’t content with petitions, lawsuits, and after-school programs. For her activism is as big a part as to why she joined the Satanic Temple as is the community. But when during a service she cries out that they will take to the streets, “kidnap CEOs” and “kill the president” Greaves is left with a heartbreaking choice.
While Jex is sort of proud to be deemed too extreme for the Satanic Temple, Greaves seems a little heartbroken. Satanists are a staunchly non-violent organization. They may agitate, anger, and sometimes even offend. But they never threaten violence and Jex’s betrayal of the tenet is heartbreaking for Lucien.
Lane doesn’t dawdle much on the split, which for me was deeply fascinating. In essence, the Satanic Temple is pitching itself as an organization and as a movement. A wailing cry of non-conformity against conformity. But Lane seems more interested in following the flailing Oklahoma Ten Commandments case.
She does dive briefly into the “Satanic Panic” of the seventies and eighties. But she never goes in depth enough to justify the diversion. Lucien talks about the lives that were destroyed due to the false panic and compares it to the witch trials of Salem. But Lane never scratches the surface and explain whose lives were destroyed and how.
It’s possible Lane realized going too deep into the “Satanic Panic” would derail the documentary entirely. If so, she made the right call. Still, I can’t deny I found myself curious about the moment in time. It seems a documentary all it’s own could be made about it.
“Radical Satanism has its claws in people’s heart all across America.” Words which are spoken by a Satanist with a happy heart and hopeful laugh. To some, the words might strike terror into their hearts.
During a Skype conference, one of the board members of the Satanic Temple has to pause and laugh. “I can’t believe I just used a corporate buzzword.” Moments like these are what make Hail Satan? fun and interesting. The 9 to 5 trivialities of everyday life as a Satanist. In the end, much like anyone of any other religion, they are just trying to beat rush hour traffic.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures