HAIL SATAN? – Review
“We’re not what you think we are,” says a spokesman for the Satanic Temple near the start of the documentary HAIL SATAN? That question mark in the title is important, as neither director Penny Lane (NUTS!, OUR NIXON), nor we, are never quite sure how sincere the members of the Satanic Temple are about being a church. What we are sure of is their sincerity about championing the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.
The question mark in the documentary’s title HAIL SATAN? is director Penny Lane’s, not the members of the Satanic Temple, who loudly and proudly use the phrase in their events. But they do not actually worship Satan, as spokesman/co-founder Lucien Greaves quickly makes clear. Rather, they call themselves a “non-theist” religion, and consider Satan to be a term that religions have applied to outsiders the scorn, to the “other,” Members are a mixed of heavy-metal music fans, goths, performance artists, Dungeons and Dragons players, along with lawyers, accountants and others with an independent streak who want to stand up for freedom and diversity.
There is a lot of weirdness and uncomfortable symbolism but also a bit of the old Merry Pranksters, the 1960s group who orchestrated clever pranks with a political message, about the Satanic Temple. A major activity of the group is to organize actions to support separation of church and state, opposing the placement of religious symbols, like the Ten Commandments monuments, on government property. They demand equal representation for their religious symbols, hold rallies with a statue of the satanic god Baphomet, and bring lawsuits to place their monument next to the Christian one. Their argument is that if Christian symbols can be there, so can theirs.
Not many Bible-belt states are thrilled to have a Satanic statue on state government grounds. HAIL SATAN? starts out amusingly entertaining, as we watch the members of the Satanic Temple confront members of the Christian Right at rallies, or go on local news programs, where reporters approach them with a mix of fascination and fear. Spokesman Lucien Greaves notes with bemusement that some people even bring holy water with them. Particularly amusing are appearances on Fox News with Megyn Kelly, who appears nearly dumbfounded by them. In an early scene in the documentary, the group is announcing their intention to petition for the placement of a Satanic monument next to the Ten Commandants monument just erected on state property when someone in the crowd shouts that the speaker is “going to hell.” “Looking forward to it,” the speaker replies. Clearly not the response the heckler was looking for.
That kind of glib humor, quick wit and deadpan delivery is typical, as the group presents their case. The members of the Satanic Temple are perfectly aware they are being provocative and, in fact, that is part of the point. It doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about being a religion.
Director Penny Lane follows the group as they set up a headquarters church in – where else? – Salem, Massachusetts, establish branch temples in several cities, and engage in actions. Several are challenges to the placement of Ten Commandment monuments on government grounds in various states. At a rally on the Florida capital steps, the media-savvy Satanists, decked out in black robes and horns, chant “Hail Rick Scott! Hail Satan!” in support of Governor Rick Scott’s decision to allow school prayer, and then apply to have one of their prayers included.
Not content to just entertain us with the group’s antics, director Lane dives deeper. The documentary gives the background on the founding of the Satanic Temple, its roots in the ’90s parental hysteria over Satanic cults in schools, precursors like the Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, and this group’s surprisingly kindly and distinctly un-satanic basic principles of conduct. There is even a bit on Adam and Eve, told hilariously through clips from old animated films. Among the fascinating tidbits Lane uncovers is the 1950s origin of the Ten Commandments monument so many conservative Christian groups use, which began as a give-away stunt to promote the movie “The Ten Commandments,” as well as the Cold War origins of the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation.
Although Satanic Temple members insist they are quite sincere about being a religion, we are not sure how seriously to take that, which is one of the things that makes this documentary so interesting. Despite their unconventional nature, the Satanic Temple has many of the characteristics of any church – a surprisingly un-satanic and kind creed they follow, a sense of unity and fellowship, ceremonies they conduct, a community place from which they operate. We follow the Satanists as they organize blood drives, pick up trash along the highway (with pitchforks), and organize an afterschool club, like any religion.
It all adds up to an entertaining and intriguing documentary look an uncoventional group of people who embody some basic American ideas, like freedom and individualism, to a surprising degree. HAIL SATAN? opens Friday, May 17, at the Tivoli Theater.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars