“Dost Thou Want to Protest Deliciously?”
Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota)
Every night at 4 A.M. for the past week, my cat Kibbutz has meowed hysterically outside of our bedroom, sprinted down two flights of stairs, and then flung his body violently against the nearest piece of furniture. I’m fairly certain he’s demonically possessed (others reassure me he’s “just being a cat”). Hobgoblin or house pet, there’s no mistaking Kibbutz’s brand of diablerie for the righteous antics of The Satanic Temple: a political activist group that protests Christianity’s encroachment on the separation between Church and State with a panoply of flamboyant and often ludicrous tactics, and the subject of Penny Lane’s rollicking 2019 doc, Hail Satan?. Co-founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry (namesake of the absurdist writer Alfred Jarry, whose 1896 play Ubu Roi, or “King Turd,” skewered the French bourgeoisie), The Satanic Temple (TST) infuses secular nihilism with satirical protest (or vice versa).
It’s no surprise that Lane finds TST such an apt documentary subject—their tactics are fascinating and poignant. Like the Irish provocateur Jonathan Swift, who modestly proposed to kill two birds with one stone in 1729 by cannibalizing human babies (thus solving overpopulation and endemic starvation), TST acolytes take the bad faith arguments of religious freedom agitators to their absurdist conclusions. In the name of science, reproductive rights, religious diversity, gay marriage, climate activism, and sometimes even anti-corporatism, they claim the mantle of religious liberty on behalf of Satan, who’s enshrined as the unlikely figurehead for persecuted minorities, intersectional feminisms, geeky subcultures, and anyone else who wants to jump on the bandwagon.
For example, TST subverted the twisted logic of the Supreme Court’s 2014 “Hobby Lobby Decision,” which dictated that privately owned companies could evade federal regulations on the basis of religious objection, by demanding that women everywhere should have free access to abortions, because otherwise it would violate TST’s core belief in “the inviolability of one’s body.” They lost the case but attracted a slew of publicity, with headlines such as “Satanists Troll Hobby Lobby,” “Laugh or Cry: Satanic Temple Asks for Religious Exemption,” and (since all puns are demonic), “Satanists Use Hobby Lobby Decision to Play Devil’s Advocate.” Herein lies the real danger of TST’s satirical rhetoric—it risks becoming a gimmick, an exploitable stunt that generates likes, clicks, ad buys, and further ideological fodder for the aggravated culture wars. The group’s very existence often feels like the fever dream of a partisan cable news network.
So how does TST’s devil-worshiping symbolism square with its big-tent ambitions of leftist political protest? This is the core question of Lane’s film, which gets up close and personal with the leaders and followers of the movement. It bears mention that political documentary—like Mephistophelean activism—has become a highly entertaining and lucrative genre, a box-office darling at least since Michael Moore’s 2004 anti-war doc, Fahrenheit 9/11, which still tops the charts for all-time biggest draw of the genre. In the age of demographic micro-targeting and web-based streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.), there’s no better strategy for staying in the black than by preaching to the choir.
Hail Satan? pitches itself as ideological outrage porn, laced with the novelty of Satanic allegory as a radical protest strategy. It’s not always clear in the film whether TST’s congregants are pranksters or true believers, Sacha Baron Cohen or Rosemary’s Baby. But that ambiguity is a symptom of the movement’s own imperative towards self-exploitation in order to make its cause visible. In other words, it’s all a stunt AND it’s absolutely real: TST offers a refuge for outcasts, a tactic for dissidents, and a wealth of iconography to scandalize the hypocritical religious right. Because who better to combat neoliberal corporatism’s unholy pact with far-right, Bible-thumping conservatism than His Malevolency Beelzebub?
But the film is loath to acknowledge the movement’s gaping contradictions between its own ends and its means—its madness versus its method. Repeatedly, Hail Satan? appeals to anecdotal testimony and melodramatic interviews with the group’s members, as if emotional honesty could square the circle whereby gimmicky tactics run roughshod over heartfelt convictions.
Hail Satan?, more than anything, exploits a rampant cultural obsession with the powers of Satanism to mount a makeshift critique against whatever else ails us, i.e. neoliberal capitalism, patriarchal misogyny, repressive state racism, environmental degradation, and so forth. As Silvia Federici reminds us, the transition to capitalism from late feudalism in 16th century Europe itself was staked on the mass altar of gynocidal violence, unleashing the furies and torments of barbaric “witch hunts” that further cemented the sexual division of labor under capitalism. And wouldn’t you prefer prank-Satanists to witch-hunting plutocrats?
But the henchmen of Satanic neoliberalism seduce us into believing that we do not have to choose. We can have our protest and monetize it too. For example, Black Phillip (the Satanic talking goat from Robert Eggers’ 2015 Puritanical throwback, The VVitch) now has his own line of alcoholic cider. King Paimon from Hereditary (2018), another arthouse cult horror film, has spawned an encyclopedically detailed, commoditized web mythology (don’t Google it!). In documentary no less than in horror filmmaking, devil-worshipping bridges the gap between late capitalist nihilism and radical utopian faith in the possibility of a better world. Everyone needs a scapegoat (if not a Black Phillip), especially during moments marked by world-ending violence and rampant inequality.
But it’s a slippery slope between depoliticized movie tropes and nihilistic conspiracy theories. QAnon has effectively rebooted the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, provoking viral hysteria that devil-worshipping pedophiles have infiltrated the Democratic Party and steamrolled the upper levels of government. Hail Satan? invokes this resurgence of “Satanic Panic,” but hedges its bets about whether moral outrage or eye-popping spectacle is the more appropriate response. What is the task or even ethical responsibility of documentary to intervene in the problems it depicts (and too often symptomatizes)? Hail Satan? makes expedient use of its titular question mark to avoid putting its thumb on the scale either way. The film’s moral imperative to action comes across as a naïve joke, much like the demonic puns that aestheticize TST’s protest strategies.
We reap what we sow, and again today, it feels like we’re irresistibly hurtling toward the apocalypse, with declining prospects for the future every which way—planetary extinction, escalating class inequality, rising authoritarianism, and so forth. Who wouldn’t want to take refuge in the arms of the assassin? That’s precisely the problem. TST, as per Hail Satan?’s narrative, attempts to parlay nihilistic negation in aggregate into the ultimate sign of existential affirmation. Fancy footwork indeed. Perhaps thou doth protest too much?
Kyle Stevens (Appalachian State University)
I can’t remember the last time I saw so many good people in one documentary. Folks organize charity events, champion female bodily sovereignty, combat anti-trans bathroom laws, donate socks to the poor, and work tirelessly to ensure that the religious freedom enshrined in the US Constitution is not corroded. If such a group sounds more saintly than satanic to audiences today, that is precisely the point of Hail Satan?. Whether or not one is surprised that a collective that values diversity, inclusivity, and the moral treatment of others are Satanists indicates what you might stand to learn from director Penny Lane’s cheery defense of this subculture, which is, at the same time, an offense maneuver against the contemporary political machinations of white evangelical Christian conservativism.
Yet, who does Hail Satan? think it is hailing (in Althusser’s sense)? A film with such a title is unlikely to reach the audience that needs to hear its message, and so, we might well worry that documentaries are learning to abide by the tenets of social media echo chambers. I, for one, did not approach the film assuming that white Christians are an obvious force for good in the contemporary US political sphere. Christianity has arguably been coopted since the nation’s birth (1619, mind you) by some as a convenient yet fraudulent aegis, a scapegoat, for greed, racism, misogyny, sex-phobia, gender regulation, and so forth. It is no coincidence when the (all white) protesters at anti-Satanist rallies show up brandishing Confederate flags and wearing shirts with the likes of “Diversity is just a genocidal scam!” printed on them. I grew up amidst evangelical Southern Baptists and witnessed how common it was for religious convictions to be bound up with racist and anti-government attitudes, for people to unthinkingly accept that Southern culture and their version of Christianity were simply inseparable. I vividly recall how often appeals were made on the basis of Christian faith to retain the Confederate flag atop South Carolina’s capital building in 2000, and how one of South Carolina’s famous barbecue chains, run by an avowed white supremacist, was rumored to avoid paying taxes by holding Bible study groups in its restaurants on Sunday mornings—a story told in admiration. (The irony, of course, that the states who receive the most federal aid are those most opposed to federal taxation shows no sign of abating).
Nevertheless, perhaps the film will find viewers with assumptions to challenge. Matt Zoller-Seitz, for instance, describes the Satanists’ logic as “ass-backwards” in his review of the film (One could only hold such a view if one does believe in a real and evil devil). And I very much hope that the film does reach the audience who needs to think through relations of church and state power. (Though the incessant winking tone—beginning with the very title—threatens to foreclose that possibility by consistently presuming agreement with Lane’s liberal outlook, a tone that may cause audience members who regard religious matters with gravitas to turn off). Hail Satan? distributes such good information, information largely unknown in the conservative political circles that deliberately remold the nation’s history in the image of their chosen, and even changing, beliefs. Lane, for instance, discovers that the statues of the Ten Commandments that dapple the nation outside its courthouses are evidence not of the moral convictions of our ancestors but rather the wiles of Hollywood. Paramount Studios erected them as a promotional gimmick for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. (This, strikingly, is the one time that the audience hears Lane laugh). A more well known, though still underappreciated fact, is that the words “In God We Trust” did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance and on the nation’s legal tender until the 1950s. In many ways, Hail Satan? is about the destruction wrought by this decade, and reinforced in the culture wars of the late 80s and 90s, when campaigns were organized to terrorize parents over popular toys and board games (such as Dungeons & Dragons), and, in turn, to win their votes for political conservatives advocating censorship and “family values.” Ultimately, the Satanists interviewed and Lane bring out the importance of the fact—one that informs our news almost every day now, subtending which TV news networks folks choose to watch—that ours is not a Christian nation. It was founded explicitly on a charter of religious freedom, and yet politicians are routinely asked about the intensity of their Christian faith, and we’ve never had a non-Christian president.
Despite its limited address, even for those who already agree with the film’s overall perspective, it offers insight into the complexity of what it means to be a Satanist. Different members have very different views on the nature of the organization in which they participate. One defines the group this way: “Satanism is looking out for the other because we were the other.” Another says they are not “anti-Christian” but “post-Christian.” Yet another declares that “Being an atheist is boring. There’s no community…no tenets. It’s just defining what you’re not. And with modern Satanism you can define what you are.” Most tellingly, and perhaps most accurately, another shrugs, “It’s called Satanism because there’s nothing else to call it.” On one hand, it may be liberating to acknowledge that all these conflicting views can peacefully coexist. On the other, the organization remains framed as an institutional religion and exists within religious rhetoric. Depicting this struggle to define the group’s mission, even from within, is a strength of the film. Lane exposes that white politico-Christianity is such a totalizing institution that any opposition is insufficient, catachrestic. (It’s worth pointing out that in the UK, for example, a group that is analogous in most ways to Satanists are called simply “humanists”). Might we in the US imagine, or ever be able to imagine, a way to step outside of totalizing systems of belief that are tied to politics? Because that is what is truly bad faith.