'Hail Satan?' Documentary Isn't All Devil Horns and Eerie Chants

Penny Lane’s documentary explores this divide of what the Satanic Temple is thought to be and what, in reality, it is

click to enlarge Penny Lane's "Hail Satan?" documentary - Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
Penny Lane's "Hail Satan?" documentary

Satanism isn’t all ritual sacrifice, shots of goat blood, eerie chants and devil horns. In fact, it’s really none of the above. Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? explores this divide of what the Satanic Temple is thought to be and what, in reality, it is.

And the title’s question mark is telling.

Founded by Lucien Greaves — yes, that’s a pseudonym and yes, he has many — in 2013, it first formed as a way to troll Florida Governor Rick Scott after he proposed a law to allow prayer in school. The organization pointed out that the bill didn't specify which religion. Thus, any prayer could be evoked by a student from any belief system. Including Satanism. At the time, the Satanic Temple stated that they "were coming out to say how happy (they) were because now (their) Satanic children could pray to Satan in school." 

It makes sense: Satan was the world’s first troll. And that's exactly the point. 

But don’t think of it as a religious group. As we’re reminded many times in Lane’s doc, the members don’t literally believe in the devil. It’s what Satan represents that they claim.

“We view Satan as a symbolic embodiment as the ultimate rebel against tyranny,” Greaves tells a baffled Megyn Kelly in a Fox News clip. “We want people to evaluate their notion of the U.S. being a Christian nation. It’s not. We’re a secular nation." 

As another member explains it, “Being an atheist is boring.” In the Satanic Temple, they have a place to gather, share common thoughts and goals.

But the core of Hail Satan? brings light to another case: when Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert wants to install a monument to the Christian Ten Commandments, members of the Satanic Temple decide they want to install a statue of Baphomet on Capitol grounds.

What emerges is a still-ongoing legal battle that considers issues of separation of church and state alongside other social justice issues. To members of the temple, their organization stands for anyone who is different than the norm. It questions the nature of Christianity and its pervasive influence on American culture.

The documentary is cut with dry wit, irony and ping-pongs from viewpoint to viewpoint. It's a truly fascinating look at a social movement borne of the internet age. In three years, the temple has grown to nearly 100,000 members nationwide — a feat that would likely have not been possible without the boost of social media.

You will cringe. That’s a given. But if you haven’t been exposed to the Satanic Temple, you’ll walk away with a more clear understanding of what they’re about, straight from the source.

At times, I wanted the doc to dive deeper into the nuances it presents. For example, there are divisions within the temple itself: At one point, they cut ties with a leader in Detroit for being “too radical" because she calls for violence. (The Satanic Temple is a pacifist group.) But the fallout, and also the emergence of divisions with the temple, could have been examined more closely.

The mainstream media plays a large role in the film as well. There are several moments where the film cuts to news coverage; it’s evident that chosen angles often cast members of the Satanic Temple in a ridiculous light, versus hearing them out. 

The strength of this documentary is in humanizing a group that is often dismissed. It sifts through preconceived perceptions and calls to recent historical moments, most notably the widespread satanic panic in the 1980s and the aforementioned legal cases.

Director Lane narrows in on small moments — Greaves trying on a cloak and laughingly flicking a devil’s tail — and cuts to heavier ones, like members standing on Capitol stairs proclaiming “Hail Satan!” during a protest. 

But through it all, Hail Satan? never loses focus on the members themselves. 

Grade: B+ 

Currently showing at The Esquire Theatre