Satanist or satirist?

America’s tenuous separation of church and state in ‘Hail Satan?’

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A still from 'Hail Satan?'

Few words in the English language come as charged as “Satanism.” Conjuring images of blasphemy, ritual, sacrifice and perversion, Satanism seems to be the sort of thing people can oppose on name alone. Then again, few know what Satanists believe. Or what Satanists do. Or what, if any, threat they pose.

Led by Lucien Greaves — not his real name — The Satanic Temple (TST) formed, more or less, in 2013 as a way to troll Florida Governor Rick Scott. It probably would have gone unnoticed, but thanks to a 24-hour news cycle hungry for a story, what started as a lark quickly gained national attention. As one Satanist says, “Once you realize how the media is constructed, it’s incredibly easy to manipulate.”

Soon Greaves was being interviewed and covered on cable news. Some were furious, others baffled.

“Do people think you’re kidding, or do they think you’re evil?” a reporter asks.

That question forms the heart of Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan?, a movie that takes its subject seriously but contains a well-placed punctuation mark in the title.

Though there is a good deal of prankishness in TST, their overall aim carries a validity not easily dismissed. One of America’s founding tenets is the separation of church and state, but many assume the Founding Fathers were Christians and, ergo, America is a Christian nation. They point to “In God We Trust” printed on money, “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the presence of Ten Commandment statues on government land.

But these examples don’t date back to 1776, but to the 1950s. How and why? That story is a magnificent intersection of politics, paranoia and pop culture; easily one of the best anecdotes found in Hail Satan?.

Lane uses Hail Satan? to expose the silliness of superstition and the hypocrisy of righteousness. The opposition she finds abhors even the thought of Satanism. In the 1980s, the Catholic Church instigated the so-called “Satanic Panic” and urged paranoid parents to peer into their children’s rooms searching for Dungeons & Dragons books and Iron Maiden records. All while perpetrating and covering up sin so wicked, so depraved, we have yet to grapple with it properly.

But Lane’s aim is not merely to point fingers. Interspersing an array of archival footage, Lane interviews dozens of members of TST — all photographed against the same third-grade school photo backdrop — paying particular attention to their personal beliefs and diverse background. Most documentaries use talking head interviews as a crutch to fill the audience in on key pieces of information unimaginatively; Lane wields these interviews like an archeologist carefully uncovering a forgotten civilization. Rare is the movie that makes discovery this alluring.

Movies are a window into the world. Sometimes that window overlooks the familiar and the comforting; other times, it frames landscapes both new and challenging. Hail Satan? offers a bit of both. You might not like everything you see here, but it certainly will change how you see it.  

ON THE BILL: ‘Hail Satan?’ 8:45 p.m. Friday, May 10, Dairy Arts Center, The Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7825, thedairy.org

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