Culture war documentary is amusing but superficial as theology

David G Hughes on Penny Lane’s ‘Hail Satan?’ (2019)

The first thing to know about the Satanists of The Satanic Temple (TST) congregation – the central concern of Penny Lane’s amusing new documentary – is that they don’t actually believe in Satan, in the sense of his existence. They are, in actual fact, a nontheistic organisation, made up mostly of atheists, social activists and lapsed Christians who use the symbolism of Satan as a signal of religious pluralism in a nation that sometimes seems to forget its firmly secular foundation when privileging a Christian God. In plain words, they are culture war trolls out to give the evangelical right a “civics lesson.”

Part of the intent of Hail Satan? is to dispel the myths and hysteria associated with TST. Not so much a cesspool of sacrifice and baby kidnapping and more benign civility and socially aware citizens concerned about the abrogation of the separation between church and state. Appropriately enough for an organisation that masterfully uses provocative symbols in their activism, much of the documentary’s narrative thrust is centred on the tug-and-pull battle over symbols of Christian hegemony on publicly owned grounds. Specifically, it concerns the much-publicised battle over a monument of the Ten Commandments which sat on the publicly-owned governmental Capitol grounds in the state of Oklahoma. If the government can make such a brazen assertion of Christian belief, well, in a country that is constitutionally dedicated to religious freedom, the Satanist’s make the point that they better make room for Satan too and erect a monument of the theriomorphic Goat deity, Baphomet.

A lot of the pleasures in watching Hail Satan? is pure schadenfreude as we see the conservative right befuddled by the legal soundness of the Satanist’s proposal. They like to tell us that America is a “Christian nation”, a claim rightly pointed out to be a fallacy if one only reads about the God-phobic Founders. Watch as Megyn Kelly can only mock Lucien Greaves, the co-founder of the ST and the films central character, if there is one. See the infamously homophobic Westboro Church get their comeuppance as the Satanist’s perform a stunt ritual on their dead relatives that they say turns them gay in the afterlife. Pay witness to pro-lifers get a riposte in the form of strange performance art. The target is fair and fun, but let us not act like these are original or elevated pleasures, and that it does not pander. Countless documentaries in recent years have made the religious right in America the butt of the joke, including Jesus Camp (2006), For the Bible Tells Me So (2007) the particularly uninspired Religulous (2008). It’s the same pleasure that one gets in seeing Christopher Hitchens “own” a devout priest or Richard Dawkins “destroy” an irrational believer.

More than making a legal constitutional point, the Satanists also see their figurehead as a “symbol against tyranny”, a “declaration of personal independence” and an “eternal rebel”. It’s a Satanic figure envisioned by John Milton – the rebel angel, the original anti-hero. So Satanism is made synonymous with all forms of protest and activism; one talking head even says, “activism is a Satanic practice”, a statement that if a conservative pundit said it, the absurdity of which would shine forth. The film is challenging in as much as it says: not only are our religious freedoms not a result of a Christian God (the first, rather jealous, commandment is to not covet other Gods, if you recall) but they are in fact antithetical to them. It is a convincing presentation, but one easily complicated with basic knowledge of theology and philosophy.

When the Satanist’s challenge the authorities to erect their statue, the members of the legislature, whether they know it or not, are faced with an existential question: does pluralism exists as a codified reality or is it merely a nice illusion we like to tell ourselves? The results (or lack thereof) speaks wonders. The hypocrisy is rampant, particularly when you remind yourself that so many stick like glue to the inviolability of the Second Amendment while willingly, conveniently, forgetting the first. As such, the film posits a mighty conflict between the agreeable codified laws on Earth against those of supposed divine origin.

Discussing their moments of apostatic revelation, one Satanist reasonably interprets the bite of the apple in the garden as the dawn of free choice and, another, how after watching the film Gandhi (1982), was informed by Christian teacher that, despite being a moral exemplar, Gandhi is still going to Hell because “he’s not a Christian”. He rightly responds with incredulity: “that’s the message?!”. As entertaining as these anecdotes are, Hail Satan? is hardly a bruising to the Christian faith, and it fails in theology where it succeeds in owning the Neo-Cons. It is far too cocksure, too trivialising of the religious impulse to ever be taken seriously as a serious contribution to issues of faith or sociology. The notion that all we require is a simple perspectival volte-face and identify with the bad guy is theology for the era of Maleficent (2014). Hail Satan? comes at a time when the more relativist your morals, the more agreeable is your morality, paradoxically. As such, this documentary is firmly a product of this time.

The film is most effective when exposing the hypocrisy of its targets, particularly of the Catholic Church who, while fear mongering about the Satanist presence of child abuse, were only projecting their own (covered up) sins. But the film is less willing to dwell upon the hypocrisy and paradoxes of the devil it sympathises with. As you would expect of a vaguely defined “counter-culture” movement, what starts as a rather dry but laudable constitutional point that aims to defend the principles of the nation as they were founded (a rather conservative aim, it must be said) is soon, perhaps unsurprisingly, encompassing all manner of beliefs under its tentpole. Jex Blackmore, a radical leader of one wing, begins to denounce the nation itself as patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, racist and calls for the assassination of President Trump. In response, as a firmly non-violent institution, she is reluctantly forced out – “too radical for the Satanic Temple”, she beams with pride. But for whatever dramatic instinct led director Penny Lane to pursue these incongruities, her basic sympathy demands she avert her camera from where these most intriguing tensions and paradoxes dwell.

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that we, quite deliberately, spend our time with the brains of the organisation. Greaves is a highly articulate Harvard graduate, someone of sound disposition amongst a collection of seemingly middle-class higher-ups attracted to the organisation. An organisation of “outsiders” is an oxymoron that will inevitably lead to tension, and one is reminded of the quote, uttered without a modicum of self-awareness, from Quadrophenia (1979): “Look, I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a Mod, see?”. But Lane is more interested in celebrating their diversity and spirit of rebellion over questioning the underlying impulse to join the Satanic Temple, which surely, in its communal spirit, is no different than the basic religious one?

Lane’s activist point is dampened by the fact that the aesthetics and personalities of the organisation are wholly hegemonic and exclusionary — Gothicism, Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal. The emotional appeal of the film is a narrow patina too, its spectrum falling under mild liberal bemusement, which speaks to the lack of sincerity on the part of the Satanists who themselves admit to being in it for the “fun”. We are encouraged to laugh at and moralise against simple folk who believe Satanist’s to be, you know, actual Satanists, those not privy to the ironic joke that all the ST participants seem to be in on. It doesn’t make the ST as endearing as they are assumed to be. The Vice-like nature of the documentary filmmaking only serves to enforce this post-modern insincerity.

While we hear Penny Lane laugh riotously at the fact that the Ten Commandments monuments were erected across the country as part of a marketing ploy for the Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments (1956), she seems unaware of the irony that the Satanic Temple’s use of of religious symbols are themselves simply marketing tools, and the use of kitsch Halloween costumes and cheap props merely points to the death of spirituality via commercial culture, what Dylan rails against when crooning about “flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” And the death of authentic spirituality is surely more responsible for the problems in America than its products: the fervent and obnoxious bigots of Middle America and their counter-force, the Satanic Temple.

Hail Satan? is in select cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.