The question mark in the title of Hail Satan? indicates that worshipping the devil, as many people think of the practice—celebrating an evil being and indulging in debauched acts—is not the goal of its subject. The Satanic Temple, as revealed by Penny Lane’s highly entertaining documentary, is devoted to opening rather than perverting minds, and offering an alternative to the religion that is strongest in America and getting stronger.
Not related to Anton Szandor LaVey’s Church of Satan, the Satanic Temple uses attention-grabbing iconography and stunts to espouse a message of open-mindedness while exposing the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church. Early in the movie, we see them wearing plastic devil horns while hosting a rally in support of Tallahassee governor Rick Scott’s bill allowing prayer in Florida schools. Their message: Allowing children to express their devotion to any deity, even Satan, is a positive. Of course, those who believed those kids should only show devotion to one particular God disapproved.
There is plenty of entertainment value in the Temple’s ironic pranks that Lane covers, like the gay “Pink Mass” ritual they conducted over the grave of virulently homophobic Baptist minister Fred Phelps’ mother. They also established an After School Satan Club in Portland, complete with a Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, in response to the formation of an After School Christian Club there. Their fight for freedom of religious expression, however, is very serious, and other ironies Hail Satan? reveals are more troubling, like the fact that a Boston church that condemned the group had harbored a child rapist. Portions of the doc take aim at the way church has crept into state over the last less-than-a-century—the U.S. has only been a so-called “Christian nation” since the ’50s—and touches on “Satanic panic” and other projective symptoms of paranoid religious hysteria. It’s a subject that has been covered before (and that some would say can’t be covered enough), given fresh context via its juxtaposition with the Satanic Temple’s activities and activism.
Lane finds drama within the group as well. Lucien Greaves, their leader and spokesman who puts on a good show in public but encourages restraint behind the scenes, winds up clashing with Detroit Temple leader Jax Blackmore, who oversees a rally that becomes a dark performance art piece. Overall, though, Lane’s emphasis is that the Temple’s followers do not conform to outsiders’ preconceived notions of “Satanists”; one member, a converted Christian, is a model of aw-shucks honest piousness. He could be a guy sitting in church next to someone who believes God hates gays and doesn’t want women to have abortions, and Hail Satan? makes a compelling case that invoking the name of the devil is a necessary way to combat an intolerance that has only grown stronger in the last couple of years. (Lane avoids taking or presenting easy shots at the current president; the closest the movie comes is a shot of a sign reading “Build This Wall”—one between the church and state.)
Hail Satan? is framed by coverage of the Temple’s attempts to place statues of the goat-headed Baphomet (being adored by a little boy and girl, for extra irreverence) outside government buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas, after stone markers inscribed with the 10 commandments were set up on their grounds. (If there’s any doubt that Christianity is a media conglomerate of its own, the film reveals that many such monuments were distributed to tie in to the 1956 release of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments movie.) At the same time as these iconographic gestures, the Temple has done positive grassroots work, such as improving access to feminine products for women in need via a “Menstruatin’ With Satan” campaign. The ultimate message of the Temple and Hail Satan? is that good deeds can be done under a bad name—and that this is all the more necessary when the reverse is so often true.