Hail Satan?

The tentative title of HAIL SATAN?, with that doubtful question mark, doesn’t correspond with the provocative, in-your-face nature of the Satanic Temple itself.

“Hail Satan!”, this nontheistic religion’s practitioners proudly declare, with no shadow of a doubt or shame. In this documentary film by Penny Lane (also the director of 2013’s OUR NIXON), we follow the Satanic Temple from its origins in 2013. Since its humble beginnings it has grown and expanded across the world, with tens of thousands of members today. Lane has gotten up close and personal with Satanists big and small, young and old. The result is an intimate insight into a bizarre movement that is capturing the hearts and minds of Americans and non-Americans alike.

The Satanic Temple sounds like the font of all evil, but in fact it preaches kindness and benevolence for all. Their driving cause is maintaining the separation of church and state. They are not anti-Christian, one of its members claim, but rather post-Christian. To simply be an atheist, another practicing Satanist claims, would be boring. But these Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan: instead, they see Satan as a symbol of the ultimate rebel; the Devil, in other words, is their countercultural role model.

In this well-edited and entertaining documentary, Penny Lane lifts the lid on what is perhaps the strangest religion of all. Much of HAIL SATAN? centres around ‘Lucien Greaves’ (not his real name), the de facto leader of the Satanic Temple, but the film features interviews with numerous members of the cult, as well as experts on the topic. Brian McOmber provides an enjoyable score, jumping around from cheery music to heavy metal. It’s a contrast which fits neatly with the juxtaposition between the Satanic Temple’s gothic aesthetic and inclusive, peaceful ethos.

Extensive use is made of archival footage to explore past Satanic movements, such as the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey, which is unconnected to Greaves’ Satanic Temple. The Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 90s is compared and contrasted with contemporary outrage surrounding Satanism and its activities.

In truth, some of those activities are rather dubious, such as desecrating the grave of a founding member of the Westboro Baptist Church. But other initiatives are positively benign: litter picking along beaches, for instance, with the aid of miniature pitchforks. Much of HAIL SATAN? revolves around the court cases brought by the Satanic Temple against conservative politicians who seek to erode the distinction between church and state. The USA is not a Christian nation, the Satanists argue, but rather a secular, pluralistic society.

They make some good arguments, pointing out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church claiming the moral high ground after the wave of sexual abuse cases within its ranks. Yet, even so, most viewers of HAIL SATAN? will still be left scratching their heads when it comes to the central question of why Satanists feel the need to express their dissent in this particular way. The documentary, for all that it is enjoyable and eye-opening, fails to really explain the driving force for these members’ decisions to become Satanists, although many theories are put forward, including simply the need for a community and a sense of belonging.

HAIL SATAN? is highly favourable in its depiction of the Satanic Temple and its acolytes, even coming across as a bit propagandistic. It also narrowly focuses on just the American branches of the church (and one British), when it could have been insightful to see how it functions in non-Western nations. What’s certain is that HAIL SATAN? is only the beginning, not the end, of this devilish tale.

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