Lovely Bones

Film Review: Hail Satan?

2 September 19 words: Fabrice Gagos

Fabrice Gagos headed down to Broadway Cinema to check out Mayhem's screening of Hail Satan?

Director: Penny Lane

Starring: Jeb Blackmore, Chalice Blythe, Nicholas Crowe

Running time: 95 mins

In the endless battle between good and evil, have you ever asked questioned who's the good and guy and who's the bad guy? Chances are, you’re haven’t, because lots of other people and organisations have done it for you. And whoever challenges that status-quo finds themselves on the 'bad side' and, to put it biblically, is probably under the influence of Satan. 

Because Satan is evil incarnated, right? At least that's what I heard. Whether you’re a religious person or not, it takes a lot of hindsight to avoid this idea and think otherwise; to try and understand the symbolism of such a figure beyond the usual narrative. Indeed, like everything in Christian mythology (and all mythologies for that matter), Satan isn’t evil incarnated, it’s merely a symbol subject to interpretation. So much so that Satan won’t have the same signification in Judaism, Christianity or Islam and this signification (or even existence) has hugely evolved in time, too. Mostly depending on who is in power and how useful it is for keeping people afraid of any kind of transgression. Surprisingly enough, most beliefs about Satan are quite recent, and the fear of Satanism is stronger than ever, especially in the US.

For some, a Satanist is some kind of dark wizard worshipping the devil and drinking virgin blood in huge orgies, defiling innocence in order to create chaos and bring Hell on Earth. That’s romantic. But most likely, so-called Satanist are atheists using the symbol (and the imagery) to challenge and hold accountable established power and promote free will and free speech. Satanist are basically trolls.

For once, we're seeing a positive representation of the movement

Penny Lane’s documentary aims to introduce these trolls, and what is arguably the most colourful and controversial recent religious movement in America: the Satanic Temple. Funded in 2013, the temple position about Satan is clear: they don’t believe in any form of paranormal entities, and their actions are not designed to bring Hell on Earth, but merely advocate the separation of State and Church in secular America, and fight corrupt authority, bringing liberty and justice for all.

You could argue that, if TST members are atheists, it is only by pure provocation (or marketing) that they chose Satanist imagery to promote their ideas and appeal media coverage, something that is clearly stated by members in the film. But it also makes sense and is fair game: US politicians use religion to justify their stance on subjects like abortion and, as the documentary shows, the US massively used religious rhetoric to fight communism and avoid political debate after WWII by proclaiming communism as a creation of Satan, reinforcing the use of the motto “In God We Trust”. This same motto is overused by evangelical Christians in the documentary to claim that the USA was funded as a Christian country and that Satanists have no rights there. This is, however, fake news. The well known phrase was first used only during the Civil War and appears misplaced in a country which precious first amendment claims: “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

From creating after school program focused on science and rational thinking - as an alternative to Christian-based after school programs which focus on the Bible - to their fight for a right to erect a Baphomet statue in Little Rock, Arkansas next to the Ten Commandments monument, as well as fighting anti-abortion laws, the Satanist Temple is relentless in its fight for social justice against the revisionist idea that the US is a Christian country.

Fast-paced, funny, smart and highly entertaining for anyone who is not Mike Pence, Hail Satan? is a must see

Owing of the limited running time, Lane has had to be selective in her use, and exclusion, of certain elements of the Temple's story. Some may find it disturbing (or convenient) that she specifically chose not to include part of the criticism against the Temple, criticism mostly coming from ex-members, the Church of Satan or other rival organisations. It did puzzle me (as I believe that a documentary should always be balanced), but, with hindsight, I do think that it’s been a wise choice to avoid the drama: it is easy to have access to criticism against the Satanic Temple, or Satanism for that matter, and to create the balance we need with this insider-ish point of view. For once, we're seeing a positive representation of the movement. 

Fast-paced, funny, smart and highly entertaining for anyone who is not Mike Pence, Hail Satan? is a must see for those interested in rethinking how we perceive the relationship between religion, state and power, but also fancies having a laugh. It is also, as co-funder, Lucien Greaves (not his real name, and don’t try to outsmart him about this) stated during the post-screening Skype interview, “a clear and perfect introduction” to whoever seek to know more about the Satanic Temple outside of the mainstream media coverage which never fully try to understand the institution. The spokesman of the Temple turned down countless pitches in the past, because they were all more interested in the sensational and the othering narrative usually found in documentaries about Satanism than honestly depicting their actions. This one does the job.

As good as it is, there’s an important question which is not answered by the film, though: if members of the Satanic Temple, who fight for human rights and collect socks for the homeless are bound to go in Hell, where do the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston priests go?


Did you know? After filming had finished, director Penny Lane joined the Satanic Temple as a member. 

Hail Satan? is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 5 September

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