HAIL SATAN? is a documentary about the rise of The Satanic Temple, directed by Penny Lane. I was expecting a story about sulky teenagers who worship the devil or a weird death cult but found instead — a wonderfully, moving story about the power of community.

Penny Lane is an independent filmmaker, known for original works such as Nuts! and Our Nixon. She chose to follow a Satanic group of pranksters around for three years as her follow-up documentary, which couldn’t have been an easy task, but it’s so worth it. HAIL SATAN? is a sharp and funny political documentary about satire and religious privilege in America.

The Satanic Temple is an inclusionary, benevolent Church of activists, challenging the Religious Right with political satire. They are Satanists who don’t believe in the devil, so they don’t worship Satan, except as a metaphor. For a long time, people used the saying “Hail Satan” as a joke to disregard power structures erected by racist, sexist, homophobic, and trans-exclusionary systems. “Hail Satan” has always meant — fuck tyranny. And possibly derived from the tongue-in-cheek, devil worship of heavy-metal bands in the 80’s, who indirectly took much of their imagery and rhetoric from Milton’s poem, “Paradise Lost.”

The ‘head’ of The Satanic Temple is Lucien Greaves, an extremely intelligent, funny, and discerning spokesperson — he studied neuroscience at Harvard before becoming an essayist and activist. He’s the merry leader, who shows up on talk shows for the Temple, though he sometimes enjoys confounding the opposition. But he’s a gentle, rational soul, and he makes clear that The Satanic Temple is different from Anton Lavey’s Church of Satan, suggesting that it worships authority and authoritarian systems.

When The Satanic Temple first appeared in 2013, many thought they were just pranksters or trolls, attacking Christian privilege, but it turned out their pranks ran deeper than that, for the group evolved into a ‘real’ church with chapters in different cities. Their members are sincere people, who care for each other and the community. The best part of the documentary was listening to them describe how much the Church meant to them. They are Satanists who like to read — according to the director, Penny Lane, who said that most of the Satanic members are the kind of people who spend their time in libraries and bookstores.

A scene from HAIL SATAN?, a Magnolia Pictures release | Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The Satanic Temple first started attracting notice when they pranked Rick Scott, then Governor of Florida, when Scott signed a bill that allowed prayer in public schools. The Religious Right quickly pointed out that the law was inclusionary to other religions, not imagining that Satanists would want to be included. But the Satanists accepted the invitation. The Satanic Temple accepted the invite by arranging a one-man, improv-sketch character press conference at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. A Satanic member, dressed up like a horned demon, in a delightfully absurd, black robe — announced that The Satanic Temple was delighted with the new bill because it’s time for “Satanic children to pray to Satan in school.” Hail Satan! Hail Florida!

This prank and the rest of their merry acts are absolutely hilarious — truly visionary, and next level comical attacks against the abuse of power in education and government. In particular, the merge of Church and State happening in public schools. For example, the inclusion of Christian lead activities such as Good News, a specifically Christian after-school program. The Satanic Temple challenged this…by forming their own after-school program as an alternative: After School Satan, where children are cared for by Satanists. The little kids read, they color, and they get snacks by kind Satanists in black T-shirts. Pass the demon cookies!

The Satanic Temple is making their point with satire and parody — for the separation of Church and State and ironically, religious freedom. The Satanic Temple has the right to worship Satan, just like any other perceived ‘real’ religion. And what better way to show how absurd organized religions can be…by demanding rights for a Satanic Church? It’s a unique and bold way to address Christian groups, forcing their way into the public education system as the de facto religion, alienating those from different backgrounds.

The Satanic Temple is attacking that with a double punch of comedy and earnestness. It’s hilarious because the Satanic activists are brilliant satirists: using theater, improv, sketch comedy, performance art, art installation, and brilliant costumes — to challenge the presumption and hypocrisy of the Religious Right. The temple also has something healthy and playful that’s missing, at times in theater and activism: irreverence.

Jex Blackmore in her office in Detroit in HAIL SATAN?, a Magnolia Pictures release | Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

But The Satanic Temple has become…a real church, or similar, to what we’d call a church, for isn’t a church just a group of people gathering and agreeing to a certain code of conduct? The Satanic Temple gathers, united by events and happenings, and has a code of ethics that’s inclusionary and anti-authority. The Satanic Temple is the antithesis to certain churches that are inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, trans-exclusionary, classist, ableist…and has become a beacon to artists, underdogs, and smart people who form the community.

Secondly, the Satanic Temple is peaceful — they don’t harm others and they resolve conflicts within their organization with civility. They do wonderful churchy things like pick up garbage on the highways in an Adopt-A-Highway campaign. Of course, they do it dressed like Satanists, in black garb, which challenges minds in the bible belt, to look past clothing to discern character and intent, which may be difficult for some who have a hard time imagining that a ‘Satanic worshiper’ could be a good person. It may be even more difficult for them to realize that the Satan worshippers — don’t really worship Satan, except as a symbol.

The Satanic Temple is one-part satire and one-part — a real church, dedicated to positive change. Can we understand these dualities? If not, we can blame our dismal education system, which is seemingly, brainwashing children into group-think instead of discernment. Light is a wave and a particle. Satan isn’t real but we worship their rebellious image. The Church isn’t real but it’s real.

The Satanic Temple is providing a base for the like-minded and fellow merry pranksters. The members are people who have rejected or been excluded from typical churches, for a number of reasons, ranging from being a POC, LGBTQ, a feminist or a freethinker. The documentary shines a spotlight on the good that the temple is doing by building a fair community for others.

If anything, HAIL SATAN? demonstrates the power of activism, and how creative and imaginative it can be, it doesn’t have to be just…a sign or a march, it can be something more, like a staged show of demons and adult babies, or an improvised town hall meeting. HAIL SATAN? is an inspiring, intelligent and super funny documentary, it made me want to do more than just tweet about politics. HAIL SATAN? opens in limited released on Friday, April 19, 2019. Hail Satan!

Tiffany Aleman
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