HAIL SATAN? (Directed by Penny Lane, 95 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Given the FUBAR state of our country, it’s no surprise that we are inundated with documentaries that try to soothe our troubled minds with Netflix-ian Schadenfreude. Whether it be true crime truth-squadding, pedophile gotchas or rich millennial douchebags stranded on a desert island, our United States Of Fear are perpetuated by these granular takes on real-life human suffering. All of which was on my mind when, with some reluctance, I sat down to watch Hail Satan?, the disarmingly feel-good documentary about the Satanic Temple by director Penny Lane. The Satanic Temple is often confused with the Church of Satan, the late 20th Century movement led by Anton Szandor LaVey which was more infatuated with devil-horned theatricality, the satyricon of human sexuality and fucking with small-minded Christian rubes than advocating for religious pluralsim. In fact, the Satanic Temple is “a non-theistic religious and political activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts, that is recognized by the IRS as a legitimate church for the purposes of tax exemption, with chapters in 13 states and Canada,” quoth Wikipedia. The Satanic Temple’s raison d’etre is vividly illustrating the dangers of the Religious Right’s blithe disregard for “separation of church and state” by way of biting satire, gallows humor and political theater.
Through archival footage supplied by the Temple we get to see the very humble beginnings of the organization, which in its infancy dabbled in LaVey’s brand of carnival showmanship. In the ensuing 95 minutes we see the organization go from simply trolling local elections in Halloween costumes to making national headlines lobbying on behalf of women’s reproductive rights and championing the First Amendment. Led by the cerebral, articulate and well-reasoned Lucien Greaves, the group finds their cause in their opposition of the construction of a Ten Commandments religious displays on government property. Challenging white Christian privilege, the Satanic Temple advocates for religious pluralism by insisting that their semi-serious sacred totem, the goat-headed Baphomet, be given equal time/space alongside the Ten Commandments while pointing out the inconvenient truth that the law is on their side. Faced with the prospect of sharing the public square with the goat headed deity, evangelicals abandon their quest to have Ten Commandment displays installed in statehouses across the nation. Satan 1, Religious Right 0.
Circling back to the controversial origins of the demise of separation of church and state in America, Lane examines how anti-Communist hysteria was used to backdoor Christianity into the formerly secular safe spaces of government infrastructure and iconography. Bringing us back to the present, she chronicle the satanists and their mission in a way that eschews the exploitation and sensationalism you’d expect given the subject matter. Instead, she focuses on the surprisingly heartwarming story of a gang of disparate misfits that join forces to challenge the status quo and build a community in the process. It’s an underdog story in the most traditional sense as we watch the Temple of Satan begin to attract more and more members with their message of tolerance and empathy, all the while insisting that America honor the intentions of its Founding Fathers. Hail Satan? is a much needed beacon of clarity and reason in the confusion and irrationality of present-day America’s dark Age Of Unreason.