This witty, illuminating documentary explores the activist side of The Satanic Temple.
July 11, 2019
Between Australia's last election, the ongoing mess over Brexit and the trashfire that is the American political landscape, conflict thrives in today's society. Perhaps satanism is the answer? Such a solution is guaranteed to polarise, especially at a time when right-wing Aussie factions are trying to excuse homophobia as an expression of religious beliefs, and when conservative US groups are using their faith as a reason to eradicate women's reproductive rights. But, as the thoroughly engaging and informative documentary Hail Satan? explains, challenging and tearing down outdated attitudes like these is The Satanic Temple's main aim.
Partial to a title with punctuation, as her 2016 doco Nuts! demonstrated, filmmaker Penny Lane astutely places a question mark at the end of Hail Satan?. By the conclusion of her latest seemingly gimmick-driven movie, you can be forgiven for wondering if you actually agree with the two-word phrase — or, at least, with the people seen uttering it. Lane takes her attention-grabbing subject, sheds the demonic stereotypes and cartoonish uproar, and examines the reality of worshipping at The Satanic Temple's altar. Founded in 2013 as a headline-seeking means of calling out the legislated introduction of Christian prayer in Florida schools, the Salem-headquartered organisation agitates for true religious freedom, and takes its social activism seriously. Sure, members sometimes wear goat horns and don fetish outfits, and plenty call themselves heavy metal fans, however it's the quest to keep all churches away from matters of state that really lights their fires.
Lane is never seen on-screen, but her jauntily spliced-together film shares the wry smile that must've been plastered across her face as she was making it — the grin of someone aware that she's not only unpacking a fantastic, thought-provoking area, but a topical and provocative one that makes a meaty statement about the modern world. Seen in talking-head interviews and on-the-ground footage, The Satanic Temple's co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves sports the same look and certainty about his cause, with an extra glint of mischief. Given his organisation's many stunts, his expression is understandable. "Performing a "pink mass" designed to turn the dead mother of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps into a lesbian — a response to the hate-mongering church's plans to picket the funerals of Boston marathon bombing victims — is just one of the Temple's high-profile exploits. The After School Satan project, an alternative to Christian-based class activities, is another. And then there's the passionate fight to counter statues of the Ten Commandments placed outside of government buildings by applying to erect satanic monuments next to them.
While there's no doubting where Hail Satan?'s sympathies reside (even with its purposeful question mark), the film builds its case in a clever and witty manner. Simply showing what The Satanic Temple stands for, and insightfully exploring how it uses Satan as a subversive symbol against government-mandated theology, conveys much of the documentary's point. It doesn't escape attention that the group's outreach and protest actions, and crusade against religious doctrine triumphing over justice and intelligence would receive emphatic support if they were performed by a less divisive body. Or, that they'd likely be championed for their pursuit of equality and freedom on all grounds, too. Of course, that's one of the movie's incisive messages. If the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, these occultists heartily embrace both parts of that phrase.
Life battling injustice with brimstone isn't all a bed of roses, which Hail Satan? doesn't overlook. As The Satanic Temple has expanded, reaching 50,000 members worldwide in its first three years, controversy and squabbles have followed. Displaying the playful tone that makes the film such an enjoyable watch, the doco doesn't avoid its counterpart's own internal turmoil either — rightfully contending that the Catholic Church's continuing and widespread sexual abuse scandal eclipses any troubles linked with contemporary satanism. That's the type of faith-based corruption and hypocrisy this anti-Christ outfit is attempting to combat. If you like that satanist brand of activism, rebellion, openness and inclusion, then Hail Satan? will sweep you over with the right kind of satanic panic.