We might consider it a sign of just how far we've travelled through the looking glass in the first years of the 21st century that a small group who self-identify as Satanists have become something like the voice of reason in latter-day America. Earlier this decade, the documentarist Penny Lane fell in step with the New York-based Satanic Temple as it relocated to the heartlands of Salem, Massachusetts (yes, site of the notorious historical witch trials) after a high-profile series of standoffs with the blowhards at Fox News and the hardliners of the Westboro Baptist Church. There was a vaguely archaic, Middle Ages feel about these heated conflicts of dogma - unlike their forcefully evangelical opponents, the Temple insist on a clear separation between church and state - but as one observer in Lane's film Hail Satan? observes, the Temple's wall-eyed founder Lucien Greaves has done much in recent years to refine Satanism as "a new tool in the culture wars", his every public utterance and appearance intended to test how far tolerance and free speech will stretch in a notionally Christian country. The funny thing, as Lane spots from the off, is that these Satanists are all so nice. "We're here to spread a message of good will and benevolence," one tells the press at a protest, and yes, internationalist in their outlook, sex-positive and pro-choice, with policy proposals inspired by It's a Wonderful Life that generate afterschool care for underprivileged students and sock drives for the homeless, these are every bit the Satanists you could take home to meet your parents.
Of course, they're not really Satanists in the Hammer House of Horror sense; there's not a blood sacrifice in sight. (You suspect actual Satanists would be reluctant to let a camera crew in on their daily activity, defending their darkness against the lights.) In spirit and deeds, Greaves's lot are closer to media-savvy performance artists like the Yippies, seizing on Satanic imagery and rhetoric to juice up what used to be called actions or happenings. Lane films a number of these: there is nudity, as there always was, and pigs' heads, and a sense of ritual being done on an art student's budget. What's new is the theme: that it is as absurd to align yourself uncritically with the Devil in 2019 as it would be to align yourself with God. Here, Lane floats the idea there might be successive waves of Satanists, much as there have been successive waves of feminism, each involved in knotty discussion with their predecessors. The Temple has clearly learnt a lot from the moral panic that surrounded Satanism as it was in the 1980s, and resolved not to be backwards about coming forwards. Nowadays, as Greaves proposes, Satanism is largely performative: Lane duly catches this troupe shopping for robes, rehearsing their gestures, sweeping up after themselves. Though some hide behind pixellation or horned masks, the talking heads have the well-drilled air of spokespeople for Internet start-ups. (These are the first Satanists with a social-media presence: on Twitter alone, Greaves can claim 24K followers, more than Anton LaVey or Aleister Crowley had in their lifetimes.) Their rituals are a strange mix of social activism - confronting the Catholic Church over allegations of historical sex abuse one day, outshouting anti-abortionists the next - and constitutional cosplay.
To some extent, Lane is preaching to the converted: she knows full well that Hail Satan? isn't ever going to play on the Fox network. That much is evident from the film's wry tone, reminiscent of early Louis Theroux/Michael Moore ventures, which knocks a snort or a chuckle out of you simply by confirming your biases. Asked about the Black Mass, one devotee shrugs "it's kinda vulgar... but then an actual mass is kinda vulgar, if you think about it"; the dramatic throughline concerns the Temple's efforts to crowdfund a statue of the bat-demon Baphomet to cancel out a stone scroll of the Ten Commandments being erected outside a state building in Arkansas. Lane can't resist approaching much of this as an eyerolling, only-in-America joke, artlessly tossing some of her material up in the air like a documentary equivalent of the shrug-with-raised-hands emoji. Yet when she looks beyond the stunts to hone in on the personalities involved, Hail Satan? takes on a more touching aspect. Although they tend to dress in one shade exclusively - black, pitch black - those who take up the Satanist garb arrive in many colours: brown, tattooed, trans, nerdy. One acolyte, sporting an unlikely brushcut and bow tie combo, appears to have transferred in on a Bosman from the Jehovah's Witnesses. What Lane shows us is a truly multicultural band of outsiders, made up of those who would have most to lose in any sustained push towards a white Christian monoculture. If you can get past the forked tongue-in-cheek business, Hail Satan? holds some value as a resistance story, illustrating the devilish organisation that may now be crucial to any serious bid to overturn the status quo. Deplorable as it might sound, perhaps we are all Satanists now.
Hail Satan? is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.