Stirring in both senses, Penny Lane’s documentary is an authentic and witty call to arms against an increasingly corrupt and oppressive State.
The Salem-based Satanic Temple’s publicity stunts have the power to shock the Religious Right while leaving the rest of us giggling silently.
“How do you fuck with Fred Phelps”, asks co-founder Malcolm Jarry. You declare the Westboro Baptist Church leader’s mum a lesbian in the afterlife and host a Pink Mass at her grave, that’s how.
They start an after-school satanists’ club for kids in response to evangelical inroads into public schools, and when they do litter drives they pick up the rubbish with pitchforks.
As influencers of the news agenda and media manipulators, they excel. A small group, making headlines around the world, they’re helped by social media and the desperation for stories from rolling news stations. Co-founder Malcolm Jarry (seen with horns and in shadow, just to add to the gleeful utilising of existing name recognition and myth) says it’s easy to manipulate the media when you know how.
To believers, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people he doesn’t exist, in which case the members of The Satanic Temple, so sure of their ability to disrupt, have been massively played.
As despite the name, they don’t actually believe in Satan let alone follow him. Co-founder Lucien Greaves calls Satan “a symbolic embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny”. He’s also long been a symbol for dark side fun, what with him always having the best tunes.
If you don’t believe in God, you can hardly claim to believe in his antagonist. And it explains that question mark in the title, as despite their mantra of Hail Satan (or if they’re feeling posh, Ave Satanas) they aren’t hailing him at all.
Jarry calls Satanists trolls, which seems an accurate description – disruptors and dissenters. Though they’re also religious pluralists, liberals, and activists for justice, questioning every incursion of religion into the State by demanding they be given the same privileges.
The Religious Right responds as expected: stoking the fires of media outrage, giving the Satanists even more publicity, and showing their own foolishness. “The church in America has been silent for too long!” declares Jason Rapert, Arkansas senator and a dead ringer for The Office‘s David Brent, which brings to mind the saying that to the privileged, equality looks like oppression.
Rapert wants to install one of those hideous Ten Commandments statues, that pop up with alarming regularity in the film, in front of the Arkansas State Capitol; The Temple demands it be allowed to install its own giant statue of Baphomet, a giant goat-man deity on a throne, alongside.
The Satanists are atheists, though according to spokesperson Stu de Haan “Being an atheist is boring. There’s no community. There’s no iconography. There’s no history… it’s just defining what you’re not.” Satanism is defining what you are. I’m sure there’s also a wish to appear more interesting too. Many participants seem relieved at having found a (spiritual?) home, in a society that has continually pushed them to the margins. “I’m Jeremy. Skullcrusher if we’re using pseudonyms” says one cheery Temple member at a meeting in Arkansas.
America’s paradox is that it is very religious, while the separation of Church and State is written into the constitution. Yet it turns out American religiosity is a recent phenomenon.
A startling example of its fakery lies in the origins of those Ten Commandments statues outside public buildings. Astonishingly they originated as promotional items from 1956 film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston.
Hail Satan?‘s structural simplicity and crystal clear interviews make it both a hugely enjoyable watch and an easy one, as layers of expectation are peeled back to reveal, well, a nice bunch of outsiders who want to change the world for the better. Greaves, with his milky eye and all-black attire, is an excellent interviewee – thoughtful, a good communicator, aware of the pitfalls ahead of him.
It’s often jaw-droppingly funny, as opponents are hoist by their own petards. It’s hard not to root for the Satanists. The plinky plonk music adds to that feeling of watching a group of kids knock on the doors of the neighbourhood grump before running away then mooning from across the road.
(It’s not all fun and games. Occasionally we glimpse the sheer terror the group engenders in some religious people, particularly women, singing desperately while holding rosaries and bottles of holy water; a reminder of what Satan means to some. There’s also no input from other Satanic churches, long-established and presumably run by people who actually believe in Satan.)
The Satanists’ publicity stunts often take place on the steps of local public buildings. Initially no one has the requisite media skills and it shows. And some don’t quite come off (“the meaning is a little bit lost on us” says a bystander kindly, faced with an adult baby counter-protest outside an abortion clinic). But they’re small and nimble, and they know how the media world works.
Lane is only occasionally heard, when interviewing her talking heads (satanists, academics and authors) and I’m sure there’s more happening than she lets on. The Temple seems to have grown out of a satirical joke, and any fast-growing organisation that seems like the answer to people’s prayers, especially one that is essentially retro-fitting its belief system, risks collapsing into in-fighting when differing expectations aren’t met.
There are mini ructions. Jex Blackmore, founder of the Detroit chapter, seems the perfect public face of the organisation until she strays way off message. I’m sure there’ll be more Jexes as The Satanic Temple tries to stay true to its beliefs without becoming part of the machine.
Its seven tenets will probably come in for a bashing a some point; commitments to free speech often don’t include free speech on subjects with which an organisation does not agree. Maybe in a few years there’ll be a Satanic Life Of Brian with a “SPLITTERS!” scene, as the Satanic Front of Salem break away from the Salem Satanists’ Front, with the poor Popular Satanic Front left all alone with only his horned black robe as a reminder.
But currently, the tenets of the Satantic Temple read like they’d get a New Testament seal of approval from the Messiah himself. Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Note: As befits a documentary about religion, there’s a teeny afterlife in the form of a post-credits scene.
Hail Satan? opens in the UK on 23 August with nationwide previews on 20 August.
Watch the Hail Satan? trailer below: