In the wake of recent anti-abortion legislation passing in Alabama and moving along in other states, including the possibility of a similar bill planned for Florida, it might do us some good to listen to the sanity of The Satanic Temple. In her new documentary Hail Satan?, filmmaker Penny Lane examines the rise of Satanism in the U.S. under the leadership of Lucien Greaves, a man who co-founded the The Satanic Temple in 2013. Not to be confused with The Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s, TST is more of a social and civic activist group established to police the separation of church and state. It’s a bit of a spoiler to note this, as Lane works hard early on to milk that question mark in the documentary’s title, but 10 minutes in, sharp-minded observers will know what’s up.
When we meet the group, sly cutaways focus on Halloween costumes and an imperfect magic trick with a lighter to humanize these people while immediately implying questions of credibility. You wonder if these people behind the “religion” are serious or pranking the camera. As they seek recognition by the government as a religion, Greaves appears on TV with his right eye cloudy gray and (possibly) unseeing — you are never told if he’s wearing a contact for effect, but he does say he doesn’t use his real name. As he leads a media campaign to spread the word about TST, reporters and news anchors question his organization’s legitimacy and whether this is all an elaborate joke. However, as Greaves says, the media is easy to manipulate. It’s a devilish statement in his relaxed pronouncement.
This sort of bold tearing down of accepted social perception and “norms” that society takes for granted is really what these self-proclaimed devil worshipers aim for. The main battle Lane’s documentary focuses on is the organization’s fight with legislators in Oklahoma and Arkansas seeking to erect monuments of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of their respective Capitol buildings. Their secret weapon? A bronze statue of Baphomet, pictured at the top of this review. However, beyond decor, the broader issue is what lies beyond symbols like the Ten Commandments as religious beliefs are allowed to seep into legislation that impede on human rights. It’s a fight that can now have lives at stake as states strategize to have Roe vs. Wade reconsidered in The Supreme Court. In fact, TST’s Seven Fundamental Tenets lean more to human rights than religious freedom (read them here).
As presented in Hail Satan?, their organization began with a demonstration in our fair state of Florida. Behind a banner that read “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” where a spokesperson in a black cape and horns strapped to his head (actor Michael Wiener) “called out” the governor for pushing for prayer in school. Greaves stood stoic behind him. Their logic: if the government can sanction Christian prayer in public schools, it should also allow for the worship of the Antichrist in the same place, an argument based on the First Amendment. The law never passed, but more importantly, Greaves’ brilliant publicity stunt got this small group of “devil worshipers” national publicity. Greaves would go on to gather donations for the church to fight for keeping church and state separate, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution, a battle of great relevance many will notice today.
Lane doesn’t leave out the history of devil worship in the United States, from the Salem Witch Trials to the “Satanic Panic” of the ‘70s and ‘80s and how these moments undermined proper justice for individuals and by extension individualism. She also understands the people leading this charge may appear offbeat and oddball. Greaves sometimes comes across as rather humorous in his lack of excitement over victories. However, the occasional smile on his face says otherwise.
Lane doesn’t let extremism among these Satanists off the hook either. A big voice in the documentary is the feminist performance artist turned Detroit TST Chapter leader Jex Blackmore. Soon after the election of President Donald Trump, Blackmore holds a demonstration/black mass that includes the heads of pigs stuck unto spikes as she yells “execute the president!” Greaves calls her out for crossing a line that forces him to boot her from the organization. Most TST members dress in Goth, Emo or Metalhead attire, but then there’s Mason Hargett a proud, clean-cut member in a bow tie who turned his self-described Christian zealotry to Satanism when he found Atheism boring. Religion, it turns out, fuels these people for their cause just as it does certain Christians. That they turn that drive into something humanistic, even in the face of death threats, makes them more Christ-like than some Christians.
Hail Satan? runs 95 minutes and is not rated. It is currently playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other cities, visit the film’s official website. Magnolia Pictures provided an online screening link for the purpose of this review.