Why does documentarian Penny Lane’s new film HAIL, SATAN? end with a question mark? It does so because this fascinating study of The Satanic Temple showcases all kinds of motives for people joining this organization and very few of its members actually participate with the idea of worshipping the Prince of Darkness. That’s right, ol’ Beelzebub himself is just window dressing for the most part. Instead, those interviewed in the film use the temple as a means to be provocative and get attention in their fight against authoritarianism and the squelching of constitutional rights. Why, the name Aleister Crowley isn’t even mentioned in the 95-minute film. So much for the father of modern paganism.
Lane’s film cleverly exposes that the Temple of Satan, despite its gothic and scary image, is actually just another PAC or influential organization using their resources to impact the issues they care about in their communities. Arguably, they’re not much different from many civil rights, libertarian, or even progressive groups on the playing field today, as the Temple is concerned about the environment, women’s productive rights, and upholding the separation of church and state established by the Founding Fathers centuries ago.
Not only is all of that quite relatable to most, but the members showcased in the film are everyday sorts, and hardly the clichés that film and TV have given us of devil worshippers in films like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE DEVIL’S RAIN, or THE OMEN. Take away the tattoos, piercings, extravagantly theatrical aliases, and black clothing, and you could have folks who could be the members of any book club or social organization.
The star of the film is the leader of the Temple named Lucien Greaves (That’s not his real name, of course.) He founded the Temple to be less of a modern take on Crowley’s belief system or those hedonistic desires at play in Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan during the 60s and 70s, and more of a lightning rod to bring swift attention to the causes the Temple is championing. The film focuses on their core issue of how the Christian right continually wants to make the state reflect their religious ideals, even though the Constitution is strictly against such partisanship.
Specifically, the conflict in the doc comes down to a marble statue of the Ten Commandments that the right wants to place in front of the Little Rock, Arkansas Courthouse. State Senator and Christian minister Jason Rapert believes that the United States is a Christian nation and that’s why he wants the laws of God placed on the steps entering the building. That leads Greaves to fight to have another statue placed in front of the public building too, one of Baphomet, a winged creature with a goat’s head signifying the Satanic Temple.
Greaves finds the fight rather bemusing, and that rattles Rapert all the more. It is a credit to Lane though that she doesn’t go out of her way to demean the Christian right. Instead, she lets facts and history present most of her argument. She explains how much of the fear of Satanism stems from fighting the godless Russians in the 50s, and how the phrase “One nation, under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by President Eisenhower to shore up America’s differences from its enemy in the Cold War.
Lane also explains what Satanism does and doesn’t stand for, including the spelling out of the seven fundamental tenets of the Temple that have a “Golden Rule” ring to them. Two of them are as follows:
One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
Nothing too scary there, is there?
In fact, Lane’s clearly out to tear down the image of terror that Satanists still have in the nation, but she misses some points that give credence to those fears. Yes, there was a misplaced and almost comical “Satanic Panic” in the ’70s and ’80s due to the proliferation of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, let alone the rise of the Moral Majority and Reagan, but there was plenty of the genuine devil to go around too. It wasn’t all just playing metal band records backward to identify hidden Satanic messages.
Lane misses the opportunity to remind the audience of how Charles Manson and his followers blended the idea of Jesus and the devil into one uneasy and murderous mix and its legacy. Additionally, she never brings up that the Son of Sam murders were connected to a Satanic cult. Interestingly, investigative reporter Maury Terry, who covered Sam in his crime bestseller The Ultimate Evil, appears on an old clip of THE GERALDO RIVERA SHOW as it focused on Satanism in the ’80s, but nothing else comes of the clip.
Who can argue with Lane’s pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians protesting Greaves and his followers in Boston, knowing how systematically the Catholic church has covered up rape and molestation for centuries? Yet as the film goes on, one can’t help but wonder if the Temple is hurting their cause by some of their own hypocritical stances. Most of the members are political activists and hardly those hellbent on selling their souls to serve in Hades. In fact, the Temple’s website advises those interested in joining to sell their soul, ask the devil for riches, or become part of the Illuminati, to “please look elsewhere.” Does the cover of the devil hurt their ultimate cause?
In the end, HAIL SATAN? is a compelling study of power and religion in America. It is a fairly sobering examination, yet one that manages to earn plenty of laughs. (Not for nothing is its musical score by Brian McOmber more carnival in sound than Jerry Goldsmith.) It invites us to admire and laugh along with these puckish purveyors as they stir the pot to fight pluralism and prejudice. Despite all the window dressing of blood and upside down crosses and the Gothic apparel, these activists are exercising their Constitutional right to protest. Hell, you can’t get much more American than that.