Utterly fascinating and irrefutably endearing, Hail Satan? documents the roots and activism of The Satanic Temple (TST), a nontheistic religious group peacefully at war against Christianity’s intrinsic foothold in American politics and culture. Like Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, director Penny Lane brilliantly captures the (self-confessed) “awkward and awesome” traits of TST’s eclectic members and co-founder, Lucien Greaves, but retains a dark undertone as she evaluates what defines a Satanist in the wider context of the 1980s Satanic Panic and America’s 21st century culture wars.
TST rejects and challenges traditional parameters and institutions, but its motives prove to be more rebellious than ‘evil’. One member even compares TST to John Milton’s portrait of Satan in Paradise Lost — the free-thinking rebel, banished from Heaven for not following the rules. This is a vastly different archetype from the nihilistic characters and inexorably violent ideologies explored in works like Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Clive Barker’s Cabal, JG Ballard’s High-Rise and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
TST, instead, proves to be appealingly progressive and unexpectedly mischievousness and affable. They’re not simply anti-established religion — they’re non-violent and champions of “diversity and religious liberty”. They help the homeless, donate blood and pick litter with pitchforks. They even adopt purposely inclusive language, asking for ‘collaborators’ instead of ‘followers’. This stands in sharp contrast to footage of American Christians protesting with placards against gay rights and outside abortion clinics. The eloquent viewpoints of Greaves are also juxtaposed with the violent rhetoric utilised by his detractors, including a newsreader comparing TST to fundamentalists like ISIS. Ultimately, America itself proves to be more abhorrent and malevolent than anything TST can offer. As Greaves concludes, alluding to the Satanic Panic: “The real evil was in the witch hunt itself”, not the ‘witches’ mainstream values conjured.
Although Lane’s documentary could be interpreted as an exaggerated, perhaps simplistic snapshot of liberalism vs. conservatism (à la Michael Moore), it still delivers a truly unique perspective: an inverted, transposed battle of good vs. evil that’s farcical and horrifying in equal measures. In short, Hail Satan? isn’t just a captivating case study of The Satanic Temple, it’s a fascinating anatomy of contemporary American culture and the extremities of humanity’s eternal, tribalistic propensities.
23 Aug 2019