W every manic news cycle out-frenzy the one that came before, Americans have been increasingly starved of both a sense of normality and access to a much-needed voice of reason, a dose of calm rationalism to cut through the endless absurdity.
Regardless of your religious belief system, you will be understandably wary of being customs that can be found in surplus in Hail Satan ?, an eye-opening new documentary that aims to provide a surprising amount of clear-eyed sense to a topic that appears luridly sensationalist on paper
From the 70s through to the 90s, the country was gripped by the so-called Satanic Panic, a widely reported phenomenon that crept up in everything from local news reports to Oprah, alleging that devil worshippers had constructed a solid underground network that had infected everything from daycare centers to dungeons and dragons. Their goal was to rape and murder, usually children, and as panic became more mainstream, satanism became a byword for real world evil, easily linked to any number of horrific crimes. There was one slight problem: it was all a lie.
“As a film-maker you talk about your movie with different people and everyone that I talked to about this was absolutely certain that they knew what satanism is and everyone's. ve talked to has been completely wrong, "Hail Satan? director Penny Lane said to the Guardian. Her film doesn't imply that you must accept or embrace satanism but instead it suggests that you at least understand them.
Her focus is the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic group started in 2013, based out of Salem, Massachusetts. While satanic imagery is used, it is not supported by any actual belief in Satan, which is often overlooked by the Fox News outrage which accompanies some of their attention-craving stunts. One of their overriding goals is to remind institutions and the broader public that America is a secular country and that a blatant Christian bias is antithetical to this, leading them to insist that any attempt to erect a statue of the ten commandments should be accompanied by a similar mission to erect a statue of the demon Baphomet. It's a battle that started in Little Rock, Arkansas, and one that's documented in the movie, perfect crystallization of what the temple seeks: equality.
Yes, it's a stunt and one that is shamelessly tailored to provoke, shock and, for some, but also many of the public-facing actions taken by the temple, it is one that primarily aims to challenge the notion of a theocracy and how religious values can have a damaging effect on lawmaking. The film is constantly unfurling, revealing a misunderstood network of outsiders bandying together to promote a liberal agenda, a reveal that Lane was initially unprepared for.
"I didn't even know that there were any modern satanists and when I found out there were, it was a whole series of revelations, ”she said.
Lane, whose previous documentaries have covered everything from Watergate to Impotence, was originally approached by Swedish producer Gabriel Sedgwick, who was nobody to use the temple as a way of commenting on the American political system. As Lane's preconceived notions about satanism fell away, she found that those around her were less receptive to the truth. ”“ It's mind-boggling to a conversation with people and say things like: 'I've been working on this project for years and I'm kind of an expert on this and I have the information you don't have and people are like: 'No, you're wrong,' 'she said. “If I say 'Where do you get these ideas from?' They don't have an answer because they have the misperceptions they have so deep that they can't even see the misperceptions, they actually just believe them as fact.”
These misperceptions also meant that the temple wasn't exactly an outsider following them around.
"It's hard to burn because I was not aware of what people were looking for from the very beginning and because of that, we never really wanted to explain our point of view or try and redeem ourselves, "Said Lucien Greaves, co-founder and spokesman for the temple. “There was a lot of dialogue that took place with Penny beforehand and there was a lot of things that we wouldn't do.”
Greaves was nobody for the temple's activity to be shown authentically with no reconstructions or coercion and he hopes that the movie will act as a real portrait of what the temple does, even if it doesn't lead to a rush of converts.
"All I can really hope for is what we do and what we stand for is authentically we are expecting everyone to embrace who we are and what we are doing and in fact we do a lot of what we do in direct opposition to theocrats within the United States and we do not seek their approval and nor would I want it, ”Greaves said. "But I would really like to be judged for who we are and what we stand for rather than some mythology that has been created about us."
As an act of clarification, Hail Satan? is more than effective. We see the even-handedness of Greaves who, shock tactics aside, is simply asking for parity while his temple works hard at engaging an important community work across the country. In west Florida, there's a sock drive to help the local homeless population ("It's matter what the name is or where they're coming from, as long as they're doing what they can," says one homeless woman). In Tucson, a campaign called "Menstruatin with Satan" collects menstrual products to distribute to local shelters. In Seattle, there is a blood drive. The tenets of the temple are remarkably grounded and rational, striving for "compassion and empathy" as well as "the freedoms of others".
"The Satanic Temple is a look at what religion should be," Lane said. “If we started from scratch, what kind of religion would you like to have? Would you like to have a religion that asks you to have blind faith in frankly ridiculous ideas or to others based on their lack of understanding of your one true way or would you want to be rational thought or empathy or compassion and pluralism? It seems to me that that's a much better ground for being in a modern world. ”
While Lane might not have become a card-carrying member, she has found herself questioning her original preconceptions, not just on satanism but a religion as a whole.
"I didn't see a movie that would give me personal hope and inspiration," said Lane. “I always ask the straight new line when it comes to religion, like religion is stupid and religion is dumb and we just got rid of it and the world would be better if everyone just dropped the stupid religion thing and I totally changed my mind on that. I just think we should be reconsidering what kind of religions might be going forward, ones that will better fit the reality we live in because the institutions we have now are thousands of years old. So yeah I think religion is cool, I just think we need some better religions. ”