FILM REVIEW: HAIL SATAN?
You don’t mingle within the horror community this long without running across a few Satanists. It’s a designation that is often misunderstood and shrouded in secrecy. The recent documentary HAIL SATAN? aims to dispel most of the myths and fallacies about them, while also shining a light on a misunderstood and often maligned group of individuals. I found this film to be very humorous at times. The laughs provided some relief from how disturbing it felt seeing how deeply religion has made its way into modern politics. And in case you’re wondering, the question mark in the title is quite deliberate, and for good reason. Hang on to your horns folks because these ain’t your granddaddy’s Satanists.
Director Penny Lane embedded herself into the lives of various members of The Satanic Temple to get a better understanding of the individuals behind the “religious” movement. As the film opens, we are introduced to a few of these Satanists as they get ready to attend a political rally in Tallahassee. They seem harmless enough with their costume robes and elaborate horned headdresses. At first glance, it just seems like a group of nerdy outsiders looking to make a statement, and by all accounts that’s how the official group was started. Once the leader of this particular group gets up to speak on the steps of a government building, he’s greeted with shouts of “go to hell”. Maybe not the smartest insult to throw at a Satanist, to which he replies “I believe it, and I’m excited about it”. He then follows up with “we’re not what you think we are”, and as the next 90 or so minutes will prove, boy is he right!
As they film progresses we start to learn a little bit more about The Satanic Temple as a whole. We are introduced to the head of the temple and de-facto leader Lucien Greaves. If you’ve seen any news about the groups political actions, you’ve undoubtedly already met Mr. Greaves in some capacity. He begins to talk about how the organization came about, and about how shocked he was when his shared ideologies began to take hold around the world. He insists that The Satanic Temple was never meant to be a global organization, but once the word got out, there was little they could do to stop it. Since the behemoth couldn’t be contained, he and his cohorts decided to shape the group into a global organization with a set of unified principles. As Mr. Greaves states quite bluntly “I never wanted to be the face of this movement, but I knew I wanted to be the voice”. When asked how he came up with the name, he smiles and reveals that after a google search, the name was one that simply wasn’t already taken. He considers himself a “non-theistic champion for rebellion”.
What the film quickly begins to reveal is that these people are a lot less evil, and a lot more political activism. This is a group of people tired of having Christianity shoehorned into government policy and legislation. They quickly realized that you must fight fire with fire. Since so many Christian activists have their expression protected by free speech and freedom of religion, that coin goes both ways. By organizing and creating The Satanic Temple, the Satanists are also protected by these same freedoms that the religious right often throws in their faces. It’s actually quite brilliant, and hysterically funny at times…until it isn’t.
The members of The Satanic Temple are really political activists for equality and that’s how most of them see themselves. You often picture goth types, or metalheads in these groups, and there are plenty of those. But there are also first amendment lawyers, atheists, and people just plain fed up with religious zealots legislating on their behalf. Many of them identify as atheists, but they admit that atheists by nature do not congregate or have a “church” to meet with other like minded individuals. The Satanic Temple provides that outlet and sense of community, while also allowing many of the so-called atheists to have a protected religious platform in government. They consider themselves “trolls” to the religious right. The glee in which some of the members take their responsibility is actually inspiring in a lot of ways.
What I found downright fascinating what the level of adversity they face, and people unwilling to see the irony in their actions. The members of The Satanic Temple are non-violent protesters with a political agenda, just not one that people are comfortable agreeing with without hearing the facts. The amount of death threats and violent hate speech directed at them is unsettling to say the least, especially from so-called Christians. If you read the 7 tenets of The Satanic Temple, #1 is to do no harm to any living thing within reason. People on the opposition just choose to believe that they’re evil without hearing their point of view, or why they’re opposing something.
Now that’s not to say that these Satanists don’t walk a fine line between political activism and political agitation. One of the first instances of their civil disobedience has to do with the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps. He’s the guy who organizes the “god hates fags” (which is also the URL for the church’s website) rallies outside of political events and military funerals. The Satanic Temple decided to fight fire with fire yet again by hosting a “pink mass”. What’s a pink mass you might ask? How about filming several gay weddings over the grave of Fred Phelps deceased mother, facetiously hoping to “turn her into a lesbian in the afterlife”. The whole affair culminates with Lucien Greaves urinating on her gravestone. So, yeah…this is undoubtedly going to upset some folks. And boy did the Christians do their best to find a way to take legal action, there just wasn’t any way to do it. Love or hate the Satanists, but don’t underestimate them.
But for every pink mass, there’s also a lot of good being done in the name of a secular society, which is ultimately what they aim to make people aware of. They organize trash cleanups along busy highways, and they even use little pitchforks just to add some humor. They organize after school programs for less fortunate children in several cities. They provide a number of social programs that do a lot of good in the communities they’re a part of, but in almost every instance they are met with threats of physical violence. It’s jaw-dropping to see a Christian on national television advocating for the murder of people he or she has never met or bothered to learn about. It seems like some folks need to go back and read what the Bible has to say about murder.
Ultimately, they aim to be the opposition to religion in politics. The piece de resistance for them, and in the film, is what many of the casual onlookers may already be familiar with. For every state that has the ten commandments or some other religious idolatry on state land, the temple has commissioned an 8 foot bronze statue of their “deity” Baphomet to be placed right next to it. Mr. Greaves is adamant at every meeting that he will withdraw his petition as soon as the other religious artifacts are removed. You can always sense their joy when they win, and you get an almost equal sense of joy hearing the state lawyers having to side with Satanists on constitutional grounds. The defeat in their voices is palpable.
Lucien Greaves is someone you really want to like. He always knows what to say, and is unwavering in his commitment to keeping religion out of government. He sees the organization as a “symbolic embodiment against tyranny”. The film discusses the “Satanic Panic” of the 80’s and how much violence and fear it spread unjustly. As many of the Satanists are quick to point out “the evil was in the witch hunt”. Many people were put on trial in a literal modern day witch hunt and some of them are still serving sentences today.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and I think it’s an important statement on tolerance and religious freedom. All religions are protected in the United States, even the ones you don’t agree with. It’s really mostly about how freedom of speech and the separation of church and state are under attack in our modern times.The film was a real eye-opener and I think it had some very interesting things to say about the religious infiltration of society. I think it’s a film most people can relate to in some way, and I think it’s important to see the double standards at play and the genius ways this group has found to combat them. I’d like to end with a quote from Lucien Greaves when he was asked why he continues to fight, especially in the face of countless death threats and violence. He’s asked if he’s sincere about his beliefs or if he takes some pleasure in the political theater he’s creating. He replies “ you’d have to be absolutely sincere…or psychotic”…cue devilish smile.
Click here to see where and when HAIL SATAN? is playing near you!
“HAIL SATAN? is an important statement on tolerance and religious freedom.”
4 1/2 Tombstones out of 5…