A Documentary on the Birth and Growth of the Satanic Temple

A Documentary on the Birth and Growth of the Satanic Temple
Theatrical one-sheet for <em>HAIL SATAN?</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (all images courtesy Magnolia Pictures)Theatrical one-sheet for Hail Satan?, a Magnolia Pictures release (all images courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

On her way to becoming one of the most respected documentarians working today, Penny Lane has a reputation for her skill at using archival material. Her 2013 masterwork, , repurposed candid Super 8 footage shot by aides of President Richard Nixon to contrast with the paranoid, bigoted man that Americans grew to know through his secret Oval Office recordings. Her 2016 follow-up, Nuts!, delved into home movies, news reels, and excerpts from a biography to tell the story of early 20th-century huckster John R. Brinkley.

Baphomet monument in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR, featured in <em>Hail Satan?</em>Baphomet monument in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR, featured in Hail Satan?, a Magnolia Pictures release

While her current film, , marks the first time that Lane has filmed contemporary events as they developed, her deftness with archival material is crucial to the appeal of this story of the birth and growth of the Satanic Temple. The organization — known as “TST” by its members — was born from a 2013 press conference in which an actor dressed in a black robe and horns praised Florida Governor Rick Scott for his support of prayer in schools, citing the fact that this opened the door for Satanic prayer likewise entering learning institutions. Building from there, TST became known primarily for its legal challenges of any instances of Christian religion intertwining with government, most famously by proposing that . Lane sources a wide variety of archival material ranging from media appearances (usually featuring the Temple’s co-founder Lucien Greaves) to a decades-old animation of Adam and Eve in the Garden to an episode of Geraldo entitled, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” Through these archives, she brilliantly illustrates how TST uses the tools of the opposition to its advantage.

Still from Jex Blackmore-led ritual in Detroit in <em>Hail Satan?</em>Still from Jex Blackmore-led ritual in Detroit in Hail Satan?, a Magnolia pictures release

However, the most powerful archival material by far is footage of TST’s “public actions,” protests that engage performance art to counter enemies in the religious right. In the film, the Temple’s members paint activism as a crucial component of their Satanic faith, and their public actions are the most effective realization of this relationship. In press conferences, black masses, and more, they repurpose the symbols and practices of their enemies to vividly illustrate their opposition. When the film reveals that — to most TST members — Satan is an allegorical figure of rebellion and opposition rather than an object of worship, the importance of these public actions as a keystone of their Satanic practice becomes apparent, and Lane delves into a wealth of archival footage recorded by Temple members to share these performances in detail.

Lucien Greaves delivering a speech in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR in <em>Hail Satan?</em>, a Magnolia Pictures releaseLucien Greaves delivering a speech in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR in Hail Satan?, a Magnolia Pictures release

One figure stands out in this footage and in accompanying interviews as crucial to the development and execution of these performances. Raised by a theater director mother before studying art history at the University of Michigan, Jex Blackmore — former National Spokesperson and director of TST Detroit — brought a deep knowledge and practice of performance art to the Temple in its early days.

“I feel that all activism is performative. All politics is performative in general,” Blackmore explained in a recent phone interview. “Certainly all religion is performative.”

Preparations for a TST "Grey Faction" protest event featured in <em>Hail Satan?</em>, a Magnolia Pictures releasePreparations for a TST “Grey Faction” protest event featured in Hail Satan?, a Magnolia Pictures release

What’s most compelling about the Temple’s public actions is that they appear to come from a place of complete joy and excitement about the work being done. Throughout the film, Greaves is rarely seen in public without a barely contained, crooked smirk as he discusses or executes the work of TST, and sporadic laughter peppers Blackmore’s discussion of the process leading up to a performance. And from Blackmore’s descriptions, the hard work that goes into each event sounds genuinely fun as like-minded people come together to creatively address injustice. “Hours and hours of work”— including rehearsals, scripting, ordering supplies, sign-making sessions, risk assessment, and more — go into actions that might not last longer than 10 minutes.