Described as “counterbalance against dominant religious privilege,” modern Satanism in America is the subject of Penny Lane’s new documentary feature “Hail Satan?,” which doubles as an enticing recruitment campaign making progressive thinkers consider the notion that we may all be Satanists at heart.
A filmmaker with a taste for the bizarre — and the ability to find the humor it it — Lane delves into the emergence of the Satanic Temple, a global Satanist organization headquartered in Salem, Mass., with the irreverence required to provide a highly entertaining and incisive portrait of a maligned group.
To the dismay of many, their ideology adores a malevolent failed angel while opposing the exalting of Christianity as the default religion in the United States and the world, thus challenging the influence of all religion in what’s supposedly a secular government. Beyond their political stance on religious pluralism, Satanists represent a community for many whose identities are not accepted by the status quo.
Satanic Temple co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves (not his real name but definitely a fitting one for his appearance and role) is the narrative shepherd that guides us through the key media stunts, structural decisions, and the philosophical intricacies of their faction. A childish grin takes over his face each time his eloquent and law-abiding statements force conservative bigots to take a step back and reassess their flawed arguments.
Through conversations with him and other diligent members (including Jex Blackmore, a Detroit woman with more extreme views), Satanists come across as dissidents manipulating the allure of the eternal adversary and repurposing its image not for evil but as a force of much needed change. Carrying out such perverse acts as collecting socks for the homeless and menstrual products for local shelters, or signing up to clean beaches, these demons without horns preach the seven tenets they abide by, which argue for scientific facts, reason, justice, compassion, and freedom. It’s all part of their most urgent mission: stopping regressive minds from imposing their hypocritical morality on the population at large.
In the wake of a victory against a Ten Commandments monument placed on government grounds in Oklahoma, Lucien and his team turn their aim to Arkansas, where republican senator Jason Rapert has plans for an identical project. More populist preacher than politician, Rapert regurgitates the tired tropes of the evangelical right about America being a Christian nation: a line in the Pledge of Allegiance and a legend on currency. Devilishly loyal to their persona, the Satanic Temple responds with their own project to install their statue of Baphomet, a symbolic anthropomorphic goat, beside it. This becomes the central plot of the film.
Lane briefly touches on the history of the evangelical lobby in the mid-20th century: how it pushed its Christian agenda into the American consciousness by ideologically infiltrating the federal government, and how the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s destroyed the lives of many unfoundedly accused of depraved acts under the banner of Satanism.
Interspersing these vital bits of information –essential for understanding where these biases and prejudices come from, even if the film is unable to go deep into each subject for concision’s sake — the director effectively captures a powerful snapshot of American society today from the point of view of men and women who’ve aligned with the ultimate misfit. They don’t worship Satan as a dark lord or evil deity, but as a rebel against tyranny. In that sense, Satanists do identify with a literal Satan, as the figure who refused to accept oppressive normalcy in exchange for servitude.
Although fascinatingly hilarious, “Hail Satan?” is a conventional non-fiction effort on the technical front, but Lane does spike her frames with an offbeat score by Brian McOmber (“Little Woods”) that reaffirms the quirky tone of the piece with circus-like melodies. Without being facetious, the music here provides an unspoken way to say, “It’s not that serious.” After all, if Satanists were as uptight as their opponents, what would be the fun in being one?
Ultimately, to secure the longevity of their movement, the Satanic Temple can’t exist entirely on the fringes of society. To an extent, it must function as an institution with a code of conduct and strict parameters in order to avoid diluting its cause, even if its most radical members perceive this as a contradiction. Even the devil needs to have standards to operate.
The doc concludes without a clear victory or an internal rupture, which could read as anticlimactic for those whose enjoyment is contingent with a rapturous finale. But in reality, it’s an ending in line with a congregation whose history is still writing itself with every demonstration, judicial fight, and membership expansion. Even if it doesn’t end with an explicit call to action, like most faith-based movies do, “Hail Satan?” may well bring some new followers into the fold.