By Peg Aloi
These satanists are far less concerned with organizing decadent ceremonies (though there is a fair bit of that, and it’s thrilling to behold) than they are with exposing corruption and hypocrisy.
Screening tomorrow at the Salem Film Festival (before opening at Landmark Kendall Square Cinema on April 17), this absorbing new documentary from filmmaker Penny Lane (whose previous short and feature documentaries have featured such topics as the home life of Richard Nixon, a community of people who suffer a bizarre skin disorder, and “instant” sea monkeys) is appealing and relevant on many levels.
First, it’s a timely look at political activism in America at a time when many of us feel the need to resist somehow. Second, it’s a fascinating portrait of an American subculture that has roots in the ’60s but that has evolved in fascinating ways in recent years. And third, it’s a rather shocking look at the tension between hard-line Christians, who think we’re “one nation under God,” and those who value the separation of church and state.
The film starts out with a political action staged by a group of Satanists who want to protest Florida governor Rick Scott’s efforts to ‘authorize’ prayer in schools. The group asks for permission to hold a public event (these Satanists are zealously eager to obey local municipal laws) and hires an actor to be their public spokesperson. The group’s next protest generated more media attention: it wanted to erect a statue of Baphomet in Oklahoma, where a statue of the Ten Commandments was being erected on the grounds of a government building. By this time, founder Lucien Greaves (who will appear at a Q & A after the film screens tomorrow in Beverly) has reluctantly decided to step up and be the public face of the organization.
Given the media response and public reaction to their activities, the initial founders of The Satanic Temple (TST) were right to be concerned about their public appearances. Their activities are often greeted with fear and distaste; their safety is very much at stake given confrontations with angry right wing Christians. Televised interviews with Christian pundits include shocking calls for physical, even deadly, violence to be perpetrated against these peaceful protesters. By the end of Hail Satan?planning any of the TST’s public events raises serious issues of public safety.
But why are people so angry at these tattooed freedom fighters dressed in black? Well, sometimes it’s all about the children. In Sacramento, the establishment of an after-school Christian club was met with TST’s local chapter’s efforts to create an “After School Satan Club.” Despite the obvious fun the kids were having making art and being themselves, free of religious dogma, some local parents found the group offensive, and angrily interrupted peaceful after-school activities to voice their dismay. Members of the TST describe their own childhoods; as kids, they felt unmoved by conventional church or religious activities. They enjoyed things that later became associated with Satanism, such as Ouija Boards or Dungeons and Dragons. They modeled the TST’s after-school club (which produced a book titled “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities”) after these same treasured memories.
The film dramatizes what happens when members of minority religions, or atheists, challenge the Christian theology that is dominant in so much of the United States. When TST challenges instances where Christians are ignoring or violating the First Amendment guidepost calling for a separation of government and religion. They are usually met with pushback that is swift and often volatile. Historian Kevin Kruse points out that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. It was Billy Graham’s impassioned preaching about Communism and Armageddon in the ’50s that led to changed language in the Pledge of Allegiance (which did not contain the words “under God” until 1954) and the addition of “In God We Trust” to our paper money in 1957. These two simple phrases, however, are consistently invoked by those who want to drive the Satanists out of their communities, apparently because their rejection of Christianity makes them anti-American.
In addition to its mini civics lessons, Hail Satan? also presents fascinating nuggets of history via juicy archival footage from the ’60s, when Anton LaVey (author of The Satanic Bible) founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. There is also an illuminating segment on the origins of the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s, a craze that resulted in a number of innocent people going to prison.(Some, like Damien Echols, spent almost two decades on Death Row.) They were the victims of a cultural hysteria helped along by television specials helmed by Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey as well as the occult horror narratives that proliferated in the ’70s. In a decisive act of historical solidarity, The Satanic Temple decided to buy a house in Salem, Massachusetts to house its national headquarters.
The film explains that modern Satanism has always been more about free will and individual empowerment than about worshiping the devil per se. Indeed, the devil is understood as a metaphorical construct (much like any deity, Satanists would argue), described early on as “a symbolic manifestation, the embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny,” thereby illustrating the devil’s Christian origins as a perverse expression of Christianity. The organization’s antagonism towards Christianity is often expressed in satiric ways that inspire furious counter-protests, as when a Black Mass, a sort of parody/inversion of a Catholic mass, was scheduled to occur at Harvard University. The irony of the Catholic Diocese of Boston, who famously covered up decades of sexual abuse of children, protesting the “evil” presence of The Satanic Temple, is as delicious as it is horrifying. The film captures compelling footage from these public events, showing the rage and righteousness on both sides.
But Hail Satan?’s most intriguing quality is the way it almost inadvertently serves as an educational resource about many pertinent topics, not just minority religions in America. It exposes how satanists are viewed under the law and by the (often-biased) news media. The documentary also offers valuable lessons for effective protest. These satanists are far less concerned with organizing decadent ceremonies (though there is a fair bit of that, and it’s thrilling to behold) than they are with exposing corruption and hypocrisy. The Satanic Temple’s official tenets talk about compassion and empathy, respect for the freedom of others, and the struggle for justice. In order to fight for these values, chapters of the national Temple (which now exist in most major cities and some small ones) organize various events and protests. They raise money to buy socks for the homeless. They sponsor stretches of highway for trash clean up. They stage theatrical protests and public rituals aimed at promoting freedom of reproductive choice and women’s rights. Their activism targets a wide spectrum of social issues — not just the First Amendment.
Satan, witchcraft, and the occult are hugely popular in films and TV now. Social media is full of occult fashions and witchy self-care remedies. As a scholar of modern religious movements, including Wicca, I’ve been interested in how our cultural landscape reflects the shifting spiritual zeitgeist, and the increasing tensions sparked by the rise of religious extremism. I am horrified by the rise of religious extremism in the United States, and bewildered that it is not under more careful scrutiny. I found myself thinking often, as I watched Hail Satan?, how strange (and amusing) it is that the social group that may finally call serious attention to our national emergency should be a group that, in the past, has been ostracized and vilified. Here’s hoping that these scrappy, articulate, and impassioned underdogs — well-versed in the language and tactics of revolution and resistance — will continue to be a shining beacon of all that is good.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.