Review: Hail Satan?
In these modern, morally complex times, so many words are constantly being reevaluated and recontextualized from formerly acceptable words for groups of people to simple words like “troll.” “Troll” used to bring to mind giant, often disgusting fantasy creatures, but now, trolls are people who live to stir up trouble and offend. Most of the time, we think of these people as being on the wrong side of things, aiming to offend for the sake of it. Or, if there is a purpose, it’s clearly antagonistic toward a group of people. But what if trolls as we think of them today made good trouble rather than bad?
In Penny Lane’s fascinating and often laugh-out-loud funny documentary, Hail Satan?, we are given a glimpse of what this might look like through The Satanic Temple, a modernized, more progressive version of the Church of Satan. The Temple is a redefinition of what commonly comes to mind when one thinks of Satanism. Founded in 2013, this group is decidedly non-theistic and, therefore, not terribly interested in the actual activity of worshipping the devil except to occasionally annoy some of the people who picket and protest their events.
Instead, the Temple focuses on political activism that promotes religious freedom and the separation of church and state. One of the first pitches we are given of Satan is the ultimate symbol of rebellion against tyranny and unjust leaders. As they see it, blasphemy is just a different kind of declaration of independence. These are intensely sympathetic archetypes and ideas for anyone with even an iota of remaining American patriotism, as well as a really effective and interesting new perspective to put on a story we all know backwards and forwards.
The group became more well-known recently for acting out that rebellion by getting a Ten Commandments monument removed from state grounds in Oklahoma. They petitioned to put their own Baphomet statue nearby to promote more than one religion on federal property. (The lawmakers’ reaction becomes the first of many stunning moments wherein these men would rather destroy their own traditions rather than honor the Constitution as it is written.) These protests and demonstrations take different forms and analyze different issues over the multiple years this documentary covers, from the straightforward speeches in front of government buildings to counter-protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood location with a truly wild and pretty questionable piece of performance art.
When they aren’t demonstrating or fighting against the political powers that be with some lawsuit, they are often off being altruistic within their communities. After all, their very first tenet is to “strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.” So, they hold donation drives for clothing and supplies of all kinds for the homeless on top of their political activism.
Even though these outreaching actions and the resulting amassment of new members that might suggest a sense of proselytizing, The Temple stands out from its opposite, evangelical Christianity, by rejecting this idea entirely. Nonetheless, a new plot starts to emerge as The Satanic Temple goes from a small local group to an international organization and begins to deal with the complications of organized religion. Different branches teach more radical ideas and have to be reined in, bureaucracy takes over, marketing becomes a factor, and people are kicked out for not following the core beliefs of the church. The oddness of a bunch of Satanists talking in such clinical business words is funny on its own, but also a reminder of the fact that money and business concerns will always grow alongside the beliefs and morals of a religion. If you’re lucky, that core will stay intact, as it does with the Temple. If not, well, look at some of the more wealthy Christian churches that have completely corrupted the teachings of Christ.
If you couldn’t tell with the description of the Temple so far, Hail Satan? is definitely not an objective documentary film. We are definitely, decidedly supposed to be on the side of the subject. But, when the filmmaker’s focus is on humanizing a group that’s so thoroughly demonized, it’s hard to blame them. The Satanic Temple makes as bizarre and intriguing of a documentary as one would think, and yet, you’ll undoubtedly leave Hail Satan? having considered the possibility of converting at least three or four times before the film’s end.