The Satanic Temple is the Merry Pranksters of this generation. No, they’re not doling out acid, and they’re not the carnal circus act of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, though they have learned a few tricks from the master magician. TST’s Lucien Greaves wants to use his demonic powers for good. He believes you can spell devil without evil if you use the right spell. His group of elastically iconoclastic faithless may not believe in Satan, but are deeply committed to all his works and pomps, as Michael Corleone attests to in The Godfather. The Satanic Temple is working to take a hex off the First Amendment and Magnolia Pictures’ documentary Hail Satan?, directed by Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Nuts!, The Pain of Others), catches all the pomp as they ride their magic bus into town.
Like the newly anointed Don in the Francis Ford Coppola gangster classic, upstart Greaves is trying to make real change and he’s trying to do it by going legit. The young Al Pacino watched as the oil and wine were poured, and looked away as his minions did vile and murderous deeds. Michael Corleone lied making that oath. And not just on a bible, on the forehead of his nephew, played by the director’s daughter. Greaves does not lie. He doesn’t need to put a hand near The Bible to testify. The documentary shows him surprisingly prepared.
Hail Satan? also shows the group’s got a sense of humor. The question mark in the title itself speaks the same volumes the interviewees heard before joining up with the rabble rousing hellions. Hail Satan? opens with the group hailing Governor Rick Scott at the Florida State Capitol signing a bill allowing inspirational messages at educational institutions, “openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school.” When Fred Phelps Jr. and his gloomy doomsayers remind New Yorkers how his god hates fags, the TST shows the gay community loving a Phelps. Greaves takes his merry pranksters on a bus to Phelps’ mother’s grave where they perform a ritual transitioning the deceased into a happy homosexual heaven.
The Pink Mass on the grave of Fred Phelps Jr.’s mother is alchemically designed to convert her to being a lesbian in the afterlife. Greaves even sealed the deal with his own testicular signature. Cable news reports said the TST could turn dead people gay in headlines. Who is the butt of the joke? Everyone and that is the most moving part of the movement.
Hail Satan? brings a light touch to a dark political action cult. The Satanic Temple headquarters is a black house in Salem, Mass., not too far from where Netflix’s Chilling Adventure of Sabrina, a show the temple is currently suing, is set. It’s also not too far from the heavily Roman Catholic city of Boston, where the media-savvy TST staged a Black Mass.
The Satanic Temple was founded in 2012 to test the strength of the First Amendment. The group sued Missouri over abortion law, using performance art to fight legislation which is being passed by an increasingly religious constituency. The documentary lays a lot of the Christian Nation reframing blame on evangelical barnstormer Billy Graham, who even got to meet the Queen of England on the latest season of The Crown.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” according to the Constitution. The words “under god” weren’t taped onto the Pledge of Allegiance until the 1950s. The motto “In God We Trust” was relegated to a two-cent piece when it was first forged in 1864, and didn’t become part of the currency until July 30, 1956. Most Ten Commandment monuments you might find at government building actually come from Cecille B. DeMille, who donated them as a publicity stunt for the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston. The film also featured a volcanic Edward G. Robinson, as the man who dared to forge a gold cow and got the sacred tablets thrown at him.
The Satanic Temple organizes a series of public actions designed to advocate for religious freedom and challenge corrupt authority. When a monument to the big ten comes up for vote in Oklahoma, the TST start building and file paperwork to erect a seven foot tall statue to Baphomet. The statue never went up, but neither did the Ten Commandments monument. When Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert gets the funding to erects a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol, Greaves takes the Baphomet statue to Little Rock. The monument goes up, but some religious nut knocks it down with his car.
There are some unintentionally funny bits. Many of the people on camera have their faces pixilated or appear in shadow to protect their identities. This is also like the mobsters portrayed in the era of The Godfather when people would block their faces from news cameras while doing a perp walk. But some of these people on camera have their faces obscured at the very moment they are talking about having the courage to come forward and be who they are. One face is blocked while he is talking about being one of the recognizable faces of The Satanic Temple. I never forget a face. In his case I made an exception.
Hail Satan? takes outsiders inside a world of outsiders. These satanists are “not what you think we are.” Lucien Greaves is the organization’s semi-reluctant public face. Lucien’s not his real name, even the real name he has listed on certified on Facebook isn’t his real name. His identity is bound by a double-blind security. Malcolm Jarry is a high ranking member whose face is un-certifiable. For most of the temple’s followers, blasphemy is a personal statement of free thought and independence. This is often a solitary pursuit.
The breakout star is Detroit’s Jex Blackstone. She got out the punk vote. She is the most committed and most magnetic. If this was The Craft, she would be Faruiza Balk, because when she embodies the spirit of rebellion, she takes it all the way. Blackstone enthusiastically features nude performance in her public rituals, but righteously limits these to naked men, so she doesn’t play to the fetishism of the female form. Then she has the gall to say out loud what we’re all thinking at a political ritual, calling for more extreme measures than the TST is prepared to stand behind.
The topper is how proud Blackstone is to be proclaimed too radical for The Satanic Temple. And well she should be. The speech, or incantation, which gets her kicked out of TST is the most rousing. Part “give me liberty or give me death,” part “bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia,” it gave this reviewer pause to consider conversion. And I’m a nihilist, a step lower than atheists, the most useless of ists. Satanists are nothing like atheists who the documentary paints as lonely creatures, without community, without philosophy, without rules or hope. TST is all about rules. That’s the devil of it. Seven of them, in all.
The Seven Fundamental Tenets of The Satanic Temple are:
“One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend.
To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and remediate any harm that may have been caused.
Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought.
The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.“
The documentary touches on the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s which happened while most members were young and impressionable, but not easily fooled. Using examples like the human resources department at Hobby Lobby, the Satanic Temple members make a lot more sense than the holier rollers. They have passion. They believe in rights. They believe in freedom. They are willing to go to extremes to balance religious extremism in a country unwilling to change and a people who will violently oppose it. One member joined The Satanic Temple because he was told Gandhi, who practically invented non-violent resistance, was going to hell. Meanwhile Greaves is forced to wear a bulletproof vest at a lot of the public events and in and out of state buildings for protection against religious fanatics.
Hail Satan? brings Satanists together and not just on Facebook. Disaffected defenders of justice don’t have to come from DC Comics. These people have chosen the ultimate antihero as their superhero. Satanism is rebellion against tyranny. Get behind me Satan. I can’t see the screen past your horns.
Hail Satan? premieres in theaters on April 19th.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.