Sundance London 2019: Hail Satan? Review
When you sit down to watch a film entitled Hail Satan? aware it is about Satanists, then you are probably expecting a light-hearted documentary designed to poke fun at their beliefs. While the tone remains light throughout, you’ll be surprised as to what you think about this group of people come the end of Penny Lane’s fourth release. If all right-wing supporters are supposedly racist, sexist, homophobic and every other ‘ist’ imaginable, surely Satanists are the worst of the worst, evildoers that we can all unite against in hating? In fact, it seems as if the complete opposite is true.
The Satanic Temple was started as a joke of sorts by Lucien Greaves (not his real name) in 2013 with two other members. During the documentary it is revealed 50,000 people have since signed up to a network of groups now based around the world. Religion - and the Catholic church in particular - have had complete ownership of what the devil represents and means in modern western society. Greaves is attempting to modernise that concept by removing any belief in a horned supernatural being who lives in a pit of hell fire. To him and thousands of members, Satan is a symbol of rebellion against corrupt and oppressive authority. And in today’s world it seems they are not short of prime targets.
What Greaves and his fellow Satanists primarily have in their sights is the modern day belief that America is a religious, rather than secular, country. The gradual revival of the evangelical right over the past 10-15 years has seen the religion used to influence countless political decisions, and more recently successfully challenge the Roe v. Wade ruling. Some believers will staunchly argue America is a Christian country simply because every dollar features the words ‘In God We Trust’, but as Lane’s documentary reminds us, this has only existed since the 1950s.
The argument put forward by the Satanic Temple is that the positioning of Christianity as ‘America’s religion’ goes against the very principles of the 1st Amendment. So, if a statue of the ten commandments at the Oklahoma State Capitol (which we learn could be one of many sent around the country by Paramount to promote the release of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film) can sit at its entrance, why can’t a statue of the Sabbatic Goat, Baphomet, rest there too? And, come to think of it, a statue representing any other religion?
Lane follows Greaves as the organisation square up to republican senator Jason Rapert's plans to place a similar monument in Arkansas. Elsewhere, they petition to start up a Satanic After School Club where kids receive ‘The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities’, and one look around their headquarters reveals numerous ready-made marketing packs ready to be deployed. As you can expect, parents, the local Christian community and the conservative media are worked up into a frenzy. But as one talking head expert comments, Satanists are known for being the ‘ultimate trolls’.
But there is much more to the Temple than just attempting to wind people up the wrong way. Their seven tenets state they are for the fair treatment of everyone, that scientific facts should always prevail and that members must pledge to fight for freedom and justice in society. We also learn they are heartfelt community activists, collecting menstrual products for local shelters, socks for the homeless and clearing rubbish from beaches and roads. One member is asked by Lane why they use Satan as a symbol rather than atheism. He responds that atheism only defines what you are not, what it is you don’t believe in, while Satanism is fun, has an iconography and a close-knit community. From a neutral perspective he offers a pretty compelling case.
Those who feel sidelined by society, or unable to conform to its rigid expectations, tend to find their way into the Satanic fold. It’s surprising to see just how inclusive it is, thriving on people’s perceptions of their outsider mentality. Lane doesn’t have the time to dig too far, but she unearths some interesting points of discussion surrounding the rise of Christianity in America during the mid-20th century and the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the ‘80s and '90s led by the church. Even the fantasy role playing board game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ was propagated as an entry point into Satanism (as defined by Christianity). Meanwhile, thousands of kids were secretly being abused by priests across the world.
The reality is that the more time you spend with Greaves and the members of the Satanic Temple, the more level-headed they seem in comparison to the angry Bible-bashers who cling onto outdated and frankly incomprehensible viewpoints. When you consider voices against Christian theocracy in the world’s most powerful nation seem to be few and far between, someone has to be brave enough to remind the people this is not how it was supposed to be. And who could act as a more formidable opponent? Hail Satan.
Hail Satan will play in UK cinemas on July 26. You can visit the Sundance London website to buy tickets to watch at the festival here.