“Hail Satan?” Tracks the Satanic Temple’s Strategic Trolling for Justice

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Back in 2013, Tea Partying Florida governor and Turtle Guy from Master of Disguise Rick Scott signed a bill that pretty much allowed prayer in public schools via “inspirational messages” delivered during assemblies—an egregious violation of the separation of church and state and a slimy workaround all at once. In response, members of the Satanic Temple stood in front of the Florida state capitol with a big sign that read “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” and puckishly praised Scott for signing the bill. The bill could not be solely a victory for Christian supremacy, they decided to pretend to believe; it could only mean Florida was now a place of true religious pluralism, meaning Satanists, just like Christians, were finally free to practice their religion in schools too. Thanks, Rick.

The ridiculous praxis of the Satanic Temple is the true subject of director Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan?, currently screening at the Parkway. The Temple began by trolling hard and turned into something else altogether: an activist-y reboot of the Church of Satan’s contrarianism with tens of thousands of members, a penchant for big goofy pranks, and simple community-building acts, such as cleaning up trash and handing out tampons to people experiencing homelessness.

In the sense that the “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” stunt made an entertaining case for religious freedom and got the Satanic Temple a lot of press, it was a success. So, soon enough, Satanic Temple leader Lucien Greaves began going after Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, rubbing his balls on Phelps’ mom’s tombstone and inviting gay couples to kiss over top of it, anointing Phelps’ dead mom a lesbian in the afterlife. And Detroit-based former Satanic Temple member Jex Blackmore confronted anti-choice zealots, undoubtedly good at spectacle, with a spectacle of her own: men in bondage gear wearing babyface masks with milk poured all over them—a response to the way anti-choicers fetishize the fetus in rhetoric and signage.

Jex Blackmore in her office in Detroit in Hail Satan?

Hail Satan? finds a villain in Arkansas Senator Jason Rapert, who looks like Satan masquerading as a Sonic manager rather than a senator and a preacher. In 2017, Rapert stuck a statue listing the Ten Commandments in front of the Arkansas statehouse, provoking the Satanic Temple to present plans to place a statue of Baphomet—the goat-headed figure whom you’ve likely seen at least on a metal band T-shirt—at the statehouse too. A legal battle kicks off and what follows is loads of anger and a disturbing and distinctly Amerikkkan sense that a whole lot of people in this country are willing to give up their rights if it means other people don’t get to have those rights.

Placing Baphomet in front of the Arkansas statehouse and battling Rapert becomes the movie’s focus—which is a bit of a frustrating fake-out since the legal battle over it remains ongoing—and through it, we watch the Satanic Temple grow, get more complicated and become accountable. At one point, Greaves, who a few years earlier was letting his nuts hang on a tombstone, is talking about how to “cohere organizational structure” among the Satanic Temple’s many chapters, and one member is kicked out for being too radical. The Satanists going somewhat corporate is a funny twist, though Lane wisely does not spend too much time on it because the movie lets these obvious juxtapositions whiz by and prefers not to punch down.

The accumulation of Satanic Temple members we meet suggests an alternative to the alt-right, where all that outrage and embrace of the epic troll might have manifested very differently. In small towns especially, where late capitalism and corporate Christianity colluded to take all of the culture and fun away, where Starbucks and Barnes & Noble become the places for the cool kids, weirdos, and goths to gather, the Satanic Temple could likely be a serious organizing force in a way that, say, the Democrats or hell, even the DSA just couldn’t. Lane’s story here is a loopy and very American one. Grandiosity, passion, and a huckster’s approach to the truth and change all link up to accomplish something almost monumental.

Preparations for a TST “Grey Faction” protest event featured in Hail Satan?

RIYL Hail Satan?:

Here are a few more movies about the devil—or the idea of the devil—and more documentary work by Hail Satan? director Penny Lane. In an attempt to counter the very convenient though inarguably movie culture-killing world of streaming, I have limited these recommendations to movies that are available at Baltimore’s nonprofit video rental store Beyond Video (2545 N. Howard St.).

The Gate (Tibor Takács, 1987): A heavy metal record opens up a pit to hell in a suburban backyard in this goofy Satanic Panic comedy that feels made by kids rather than made for kids.

The House of The Devil (Ti West, 2009): A Chantal Akerman movie with a male gaze, a schticky slasher flick with all the exciting parts taken out, a challenging piece of proto-A24, post-horror trash.

Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1972): Satanic ritual, rap video aesthetics, and a hard-prog soundtrack from a Manson family member mingle in this ecstatic, experimental film landmark.

Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016): A deadpan documentary about a radio huckster that hawks goat testicles as a cure for impotence done in a deceptive PBS style with Mike Judge-esque animation detours.

Our Nixon (Penny Lane, 2013): A portrait of paranoiac Richard Nixon via staff-shot 8mm footage and audio of Nixon rants making you feel like the walls are closing in.

Hail Satan? is screening at the Parkway Theatre through May 30. For more info, visit the Parkway’s website.

Images courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Brandon Soderberg is a reporter from Baltimore. He is the former editor-in-chief of Baltimore City Paper, the cofounder of Baltimore Beat, and is currently co-writing a book about the Gun Trace Task Force for St. Martin’s Press.

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