With each manic news cycle out-frenzying the one that came before, Americans have been increasingly starved of both a sense of normality and access to a much-needed voice of reason, a dose of calm rationalism to cut through the endless absurdity.
Regardless of your religious belief system, you’ll be understandably wary of being told that both can be found in surplus in Hail Satan?, an eye-opening new documentary that aims to provide a surprising amount of clear-eyed sense to a topic that appears luridly sensationalist on paper.
From the 70s through to the 90s, the country was gripped by the so-called Satanic Panic, a widely reported phenomenon that crept up in everything from local news reports to Oprah, alleging that devil worshippers had constructed a vast underground network that had infected everything from daycare centres to Dungeons and Dragons. Their goal was to rape and murder, usually children, and as the panic became more mainstream, satanism became a byword for real world evil, easily linked to any number of horrific crimes. There was one slight problem: it was all a lie.
“As a film-maker you talk about your film with different people and everyone that I talked to about this was absolutely certain that they knew what satanism is and everyone I’ve talked to has been completely wrong,” Hail Satan? director Penny Lane said to the Guardian. Her film doesn’t implore that you must accept or embrace satanism but instead it suggests that you at least understand them.
Her focus is the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic group started in 2013, based out of Salem, Massachusetts. While satanic imagery is used, it’s not supported by any actual belief in Satan, a fact that often gets overlooked by the Fox News outrage which accompanies some of their attention-craving stunts. One of their overriding goals is to remind institutions and the broader public that America is a secular country and that a blatant Christian bias is antithetical to this, leading them to insist that any attempt to erect a statue of the ten commandments should be accompanied by a similar mission to erect a statue of the demon Baphomet. It’s a battle that started in Little Rock, Arkansas, and one that’s documented in the film, a perfect crystallisation of what the temple seeks: equality.
Yes, it’s a stunt and one that is shamelessly tailored to provoke, shock and, for some, enrage but like many of the public-facing actions taken by the temple, it’s one that primarily aims to challenge the notion of a theocracy and how religious values can have a damaging effect on lawmaking. The film is constantly unfurling, revealing a misunderstood network of outsiders bandying together to promote a liberal agenda, a reveal that Lane was initially unprepared for.
“I didn’t even know that there were any modern satanists and when I found out there were, it was a whole series of revelations,” she said.
Lane, whose previous documentaries have covered everything from Watergate to impotence, was originally approached by Swedish producer Gabriel Sedgwick, who was keen to use the temple as a way of commenting on the American political system. As Lane’s preconceived notions about satanism fell away, she found that those around her were less receptive to the truth.
“It’s mind-boggling to stand in conversation with people and say things like: ‘I’ve been working on this project for years and I’m kind of an expert on this and I have the information you don’t have’ and people are like: ‘No, you’re wrong,’” she said. “If I say ‘Where do you get these ideas from?’ they don’t have an answer because to them the misperceptions they have go so deep that they can’t even see the misperceptions, they actually just believe them as fact.”
These misperceptions also meant that the temple wasn’t exactly eager to let an outsider follow them around. The drawbridge was up and it took a lot of convincing to let Lane in.
“It’s hard to burn us because I was keenly aware of what people were looking for from the very beginning and because of that, we never really went out seeking press just to explain our point of view or to try and redeem ourselves,” said Lucien Greaves, co-founder and spokesman for the temple. “There was a lot of dialogue that took place with Penny beforehand and there were a lot of things that we wouldn’t do.”
Greaves was keen for the temple’s activity to be shown authentically with no reconstructions or coercion and he hopes that the film will act as a real portrait of what the temple does, even if it doesn’t lead to a rush of converts.
“All I can really hope for is that what we do and what we stand for is authentically portrayed and I can’t expect everyone to embrace who we are and what we’re doing and in fact we do a lot of what we do in direct opposition to theocrats within the United States and we don’t seek their approval and nor would I want it,” Greaves said. “But I would really like to be judged for who we are and what we stand for rather than some mythology that’s been created about us.”
As an act of clarification, Hail Satan? is more than effective. We see the even-handedness of Greaves who, shock tactics aside, is simply asking for parity while his temple works hard at engaging in important community work across the country. In west Florida, there’s a sock drive to help the local homeless population (“It doesn’t matter what the name is or where they’re coming from, as long as they are doing what they can,” says one homeless woman). In Tucson, a campaign called “Menstruatin with Satan” collects menstrual products to distribute to local shelters. In Seattle there’s a blood drive.
The temple has also worked at defending abortion rights, fighting against those who have tried to insert religious beliefs into the structure of the law. The tenets of the temple are remarkably grounded and rational, striving for “compassion and empathy” as well as “the freedoms of others”.
“The Satanic Temple is a look at what religion should be,” Lane said. “If we’re starting from scratch, what kind of religion would you want to have? Would you want to have a religion that asks you to have blind faith in frankly ridiculous ideas or to persecute others based on their lack of understanding of your one true way or would you want it to be about rational thought or empathy or compassion and pluralism? It seems to me that that’s a much better moral ground to be standing on in a modern world.”
While Lane might not have became a card-carrying member, she has found herself questioning her original preconceptions, not just on satanism but in religion as a whole.
“I didn’t set out to make a film that would give me personal hope and inspiration,” said Lane. “I’ve always toed the straight new atheist line when it comes to religion, like religion is stupid and religion is dumb and we should just get rid of it and the world would be better off if everyone just dropped the stupid religion thing and I have totally changed my mind on that. I just think we should be reconsidering what kind of religions might exist going forward, ones that will better fit the reality we live in because the institutions we have now are thousands of years old. So yeah I think religion is cool, I just think we need some better religions.”