To judge by the frequent uproarious laughter and widespread audience applause – at times drowning out onscreen dialogue – Hail Satan? is easily the biggest crowd-pleaser of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival so far.
It’s not hard to see why. Comparing it to the two biggest documentary box office earners of 2018, it has the affirming individualism and humanism of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, only with more cuss words. It inspires with the smash-the-patriarchy activism of RBG, but with the added bonuses of tattoos and ritualistic male nudity.
Hail Satan? will also inform progressive theists that they have an ally in America’s culture wars against power-grabbing, Trump-narcotized white evangelicals. For secular humanists, it educates that Satanic Temple members are not literal believers in Beelzebub, but see the Devil as the best metaphor for those who would fight all forms of tyranny.
Director Penny Lane packs beaucoup info into her film’s 95 minute run time, offering a concise history of this new religion’s meteoric rise since 2013. From three guys creatively protesting Florida governor Rick Scott’s pro-school prayer initiative, the Satanic Temple (TST) has grown into a worldwide organization with over 300,000 members. Heck, it even has a splinter faction of Radical Satanists!
From sea to shining sea, Hail Satan? shows TST pushing back against the false narrative of America as a Christian nation and against the erosion of First Amendment protections in schools, healthcare, and local government. In Little Rock and Oklahoma City, Satanists press for a Baphomet statue to counterbalance monuments to the Ten Commandments on capitol property. Using that favorite Christian wedge phrase of “deeply held beliefs,” they fight abortion restrictions in Missouri. In Portland, they start an After School Satan Club.
Lane also gives us a history lesson of how the Red Scare and Billy Graham’s political influence in the 1950s led to the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” to our coinage, usefully reminding us that such theistic insertions are not in our god-free Constitution. Thirty years later, we see how the Satanic Panic didn’t uncover any stealthy activity by the Devil, but led to wrongful imprisonments and spoiled many a teenager’s innocent enjoyment of Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, one Satanist insightfully posits that the Panic was a useful distraction from the very real abuse of children endemic to the Catholic Church.The editors of Hail Satan? keep things bopping along at a peppy pace, using a pleasing mix of interviews with rank and file TST members as well as national leaders Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore, and Nicholas Crowe. The latter is playfully silhouetted like a suspect under Witness Protection, only with horns added.
Lane adds cheesy ‘70s animation and classic film footage to amusingly dramatize the biblical narrative of Eve and the Serpent, and Charlton Heston’s descent from Mount Sinai. Clearly sympathetic to TST’s purposes, Lane makes some subversive musical choices, as when the Gospel standard “Send the Light” accompanies the metal casting of the Baphomet statue.
News footage of outraged Boston Catholics on the march, pearl-clutching Bible Belters, and the “fair and balanced” Fox News dunces asserting that Satanists are “awful people” and “should be shot” lend context to the death threats received by TST’s leaders. The “God is love” American Christian hegemony manifestly won’t yield their power without a fight.
In this embarrassment of narrative riches, the rank and file interviews are especially appealing, their several second, bullet point style giving each subject a chance to articulate their reasons for joining TST. I found those from a bowtie-wearing Arkansan particularly resonant, when he says that atheism by itself is boring, and only offers a negative, in stating what we don’t believe.
As a secular humanist – horrified by the prevalence of white supremacists in American atheism, disappointed by the acquiescent silence of certain prominent white guys in the atheist movement, and numbed by the tedium of podcasts content merely to bash Christianity and Islam redundantly – I heartily applauded bowtie guy’s statement.
By virtue of the joie de vivre and acceptance on display, I suspect Hail Satan? will prompt a membership surge for TST. To risk going slightly negative myself, their Seven Tenets alone convince me they’ve vastly improved on biblical morality. If I were to join a religion at this point in my life, this film persuades me that it would surely be the Satanic Temple.
4.5 out of 5 stars