Along Salem’s Bridge Street, a cut-through dotted with doughnut shops, auto mechanics and a roast beef joint, sits a darkly-painted, solar-powered Victorian home. A shingle for The Satanic Temple dangles out front. It’s a modest setup as far as international headquarters go. I’ve driven by dozens of times without noticing it at all.
Salem and its centuries-long transformation from site of Puritanical horror to present-day haven for the supposed dark arts serves as the symbolic backdrop for a new documentary by Penny Lane (“Our Nixon,” “Nuts!”). The seriously funny “Hail Satan?” charts the origin and rise of Salem’s Satanic Temple (TST) and asks a lot of questions, like, could this “In God We Trust” country ever embrace Satanism? Did we get Satan all wrong?
“Hail Satan?” dares to point out that contemporary Satanism has not only evolved (it’s post-Christian, argues one expert), it makes a lot of sense. As the opening scene shows, the TST began in 2013 as a stunt, when a hooded clan gathered on the Florida State Capitol steps to endorse Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to allow prayer in public schools. “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” read their banner. From there, performative efforts to cleave church from state quickly “got real,” explains TST co-founder Lucien Greaves.
As the TST’s reluctant spokesman (he couldn’t train an actor well enough to authentically fill the role, he says), the soft-spoken Greaves appears, mostly through interviews, as Satanism’s voice of reason. He explains Satan is more of a concept than a singular entity — not evil and not the devil — not even necessarily a “he.” (I extrapolated that last part.)
“We view Satan as a symbolic embodiment as the ultimate rebel against tyranny,” he tells Megyn Kelly on Fox News. “We want people to evaluate their notion of the U.S. being a Christian nation. It’s not. We’re a secular nation,” he says. The Constitution agrees.
“Hail Satan!” shows how word spreads about TST’s efforts, especially through savvy use of media. TST chapters start popping up along with new protests for free expression. One of the most convincing cases on film comes when Phoenix TST members petition to open city council meetings with a Satanist invocation, to oppose exclusively Christian prayer. One person after another (some breathless as if their lives were at stake, for that is what they believe) testifies against the request. “Don’t mock God!” one woman warbles. Fear practically sweats through the screen.
“The more hate that was thrown at us the more important this seemed,” says Stu de Haan, one of the Phoenix instigators. Like many TST members interviewed, he started out annoyed with Christian privilege and ended up emboldened. “Is this how everyone who’s different is treated?” he wonders.
If any single characteristic unites the many Satanists Lane interviews, it’s a first-hand experience of feeling different. There are touchy-feely scenes of outsiders reluctantly embracing togetherness, often activism, in the name of Satan. Many never imagined themselves possible of joining such a group. But Lane doesn’t deliver character portraits. Greaves says little about himself aside from liking Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. (After a Q&A in Salem, Greaves said he chose Lane with an understanding that she wouldn’t make a personality profile.)
Instead Lane doses the film with priceless, often goofy archival footage (one of her particular strengths), giving entertaining context to the cultural history that led up to TST. A cartoonish Eve bites forbidden fruit and sends us all to hell, or gives us free will, depending on your read. Anton LeVay shows up in the 1970s and '80s, and Geraldo Rivera gets air time for perpetuating the “Satanic Panic” in the '90s. Some clips, like Melissa Joan Hart in “God’s Not Dead 2” aren’t even that hard to find. Then again, I wasn’t looking.
Some forms of TST’s documented activism get hyper theatrical and hilariously outrageous while others prompt public outcry. In 2014, the organization made headlines in Boston when Harvard approved, then rescinded, an offer to allow TST to perform a “black mass” on campus (amusingly, the Hong Kong restaurant and lounge stepped in to save the day). At first, one TST member feels guilty. Then he considers the church’s abuse scandal and feels vindicated.
With personalities off the table, the TST and “Hail Satan?” ironically echoes a Catholic approach to faith leadership, in which structure and hierarchy (theoretically) prevent a congregation from seeing too much God in one man. Greaves finds himself in the predicament of surging popularity among people who are practically hard-wired to break rules and defy authority. In the film one sympathetic chapter head gets the boot after veering too far off TST message. (“At this point we are very keen to make sure chapters don’t put out the wrong message,” says Greaves.) This is one way we know the group takes itself seriously enough that maybe we should, too.
The other clue is several members, past and present, feel it's necessary to obscure their identities. Nearly all have pseudonyms. Greaves has at least two, including "Lucien Greaves." For one protest scene late in the film he wears a bulletproof vest. In the Salem Q&A, he worried that scene may have looked misleading, since nothing happened to him. While I didn’t think to ask at the time, I later wondered if was wearing one that night.
Some of the humor in “Hail Satan?” comes from a baseline discomfort the audience will bring to thinking of Satanists as anything but evil. Mention the film to a friend or neighbor, you may see an actual shiver shoot up a spine.
It’s easy enough to see a movie that challenges the status quo. It’s something else altogether to invoke Satan as an ally in bringing deeply embedded religious hypocrisy to light. It takes guts to hang your Satanic shingle on Bridge Street — even in Salem.
“Hail Satan?” opens Friday, April 26 at Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theatre.