There’s a question mark at the end of the title of Hail Satan?, but when the phrase is spoken aloud in the movie it’s more often followed by a giggle. There’s some naughtiness in the giggle, given that most of the people who say it have come from some kind of religious background, and uttering such blasphemy likely still feels a little radioactive, even in their atheistic adulthood. It’s the laughter of a shared inside joke, which immediately turns into the nervousness that comes with doing any big group action, whether it’s a play or a protest. The Satanic Temple, which filmmaker Penny Lane followed for three years, is a little of both — a staged drama complete with spooky costumes and performance art that becomes as real as the cause it’s in service of. The full title of the documentary could be Hail Satan? Hail Satan!
Lane opens with a scene from 2013 in Florida, where the still-nascent Temple held a rally to “support” Governor Rick Scott’s bill making student-led prayer at public schools legal in the state. By this logic and given the First Amendment, the Satanic group contended, prayer of all faiths was now allowable in schools, including but not limited to prayers to Satan. In their Party City robes and horns, a goth entourage watches as a speaker (what’s his name? “That’s not important,” he tells a reporter ominously, with all but a Jedi hand-wave) stays remarkably straight-faced while praising Scott’s supposed allyship.
But if Lane was just documenting the stunts of a group of shock-hungry pranksters, Hail Satan? would not have the weight that it does. After that first rally, the Satanic Temple’s M.O. becomes more refined: They insert themselves into any situation involving a Christian god and state and federal law. In the process, they become a rigorously principled, sprawling network of chapters with a set of beliefs called the Seven Tenets. (Look them up, they’re great.) Lucien Greaves (a so-called “double pseudonym” that gets repeated incredulously by every news anchor and conservative politician with whom he crosses paths) becomes the de facto leader of the Temple, after realizing that if someone who didn’t fully believe in the idea of Satanism wasn’t the mouthpiece of the movement, it would remain dismissible as a hoax. Lane observes with both wryness and palpable admiration as groups across the country embrace the gothic pageantry of the Temple as a means of exercising their political freedom.
The Temple’s perhaps most famous campaign was to get a Baphomet statue erected on the lawn of the Oklahoma state capitol in response to the installation of a Ten Commandments monument in the same place. Lane is there for the conception of the statue, the construction of it, even the plaster-casting of the children that stand flanking the winged goat-man in the finished sculpture. (She is not there for the moment the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina folks blatantly rip it off for the atrium of their School of the Dark Arts.)
If the satanic mission feels excessively arch or insincere, we are quickly reminded of the flimsiness of the Ten Commandment monument it opposes — both physically vincible (a man ran his car into the monument and toppled it in the midst of the Temple’s campaign) and ideologically. There’s a fascinating sidebar detailing the surprisingly modern history of the church’s imposition on the state, going back to Billy Graham’s faith-based fearmongering over communism, and the addition of the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1948. Those Ten Commandments monuments that have popped up around the country for the last half century — they were originally distributed as promotional tie-ins to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments. To add to the cinematic irony, “Family Friendly” film studio PureFlix ends up funding the reconstruction of the destroyed monuments. The Satanic Temple isn’t the only one engaged in a kind of theater to make a point.
But throughout the film, Lane finds moments to talk to individual members of the Temple, and the façade doesn’t fall away so much as it helps illuminate something truer. Many of the members Lane talks to have their own Dark Arts pseudonyms (Jex Blackmore! Dertryck Von Doom! Lanzifer Longinus! Jill!). But as each subject talks, it’s clear their aliases are less something to hide behind than something to grow into. An Arkansas Temple member who grew up as a devout Christian, only to become a devout atheist, speaks about the loneliness of the latter stage, a sentiment echoed by others who never saw themselves as joiners. That becomes a central tension for Greaves and other members of the Temple’s leadership as the movement becomes bigger and more structured — how do you corral a group dedicated to freedom? But in the Temple, among the ritualized nudity and sculptural odes to sodomy and wild dance parties, they’ve found the fellowship they didn’t know they needed, fighting for a cause they truly believe in. Lane’s film asks us: Is this not only what democracy looks like, but what religion looks like?