On a recent Saturday night, while Sundance attendees partied in Park City, a cabal of Satanists gathered miles away in a small theater in Salt Lake City for a midnight ceremony of sorts. As the clock struck 12, the lights dimmed and the acolytes began to cheer in anticipation of what was to come. There were no goats slaughtered or crucifixes defiled or any of the other pop culture clichés that have been tacked onto Satanists over the years. The crowd was there to watch and celebrate the silver screen debut of their young, rapidly growing non-theistic religious movement, The Satanic Temple (TST), at a special screening organized by Sundance.
To be distributed by Magnolia pictures, Hail Satan? highlights the headline-grabbing political activists’ rise to prominence since their founding in 2013 and seeks to present their audacious-yet-noble mission to a wider audience.
TST's prime directive is maintaining that America is a pluralistic nation: one where many cultures, religions, and ways of life should coexist harmoniously without the largest of those groups attempting to dominate or exert their will over the others. The majority of this fight has been spent combating the slow creep of America’s Christian far right into local, state, and federal government. Using stunt activism where they judo-throw most people’s inherent revulsion toward Satan right back at them, TST highlights why folding the Abrahamic God into government proceedings establishes a bad precedent.
Over their five years in operation, the group has made national headlines with their “pink mass” to turn Fred Phelps’s deceased mom gay, various litter clean-up initiatives, and, most notably, their (copyrighted) Baphomet statue created to counterbalance any ten commandments monuments erected on public property. These and other campaigns feature heavily in the doc, and though filmmaker Penny Lane, whose past documentaries include Our Nixon and Nuts!, says she was already familiar with and liked the group, her opinion and understanding of TST changed dramatically over the course of the project.
“There were so many points of discovery for me along the way. First realizing that they weren't pretending to be Satanists, but were actually Satanists," Lane, who describes herself as "living in a “secular atheist bubble,” told VICE.
"Then realizing that I actually had no idea what it meant to be a Satanist and that my ideas were largely wrong. And then realizing how many people were really involved with this movement and how personally meaningful it was to them, beyond any sort of trolling content, but as like any other religion,” she added.
As Lane learned while making Hail Satan?, TST members are not affiliated with the Anton LaVey Church of Satan, nor do they worship or believe in the classic horns and pitchfork devil. Their site's FAQ page explains that "to embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions." These non-theocratic core beliefs are likely to have contributed to TST's numbers growing from a handful of friends to over 50,000 global members, according to the film.
Though she doesn’t expect many from the Christian nationalist camp to see her film (save for a few hate watches), Lane insists she isn’t trying to recruit her less dogmatic audiences to Satanic worship either.
“By no means do I expect the audience to walk into the film open to any of these ideas,” said Lane. “The film asks you to do a lot of intellectual work in 90 minutes to overturn about ten deeply held and incorrect assumptions about reality. If all you get from the film is learning that ‘under God’ was added to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s, that's cool!”
Lucien Greaves, co-founder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple tells VICE that he was initially reluctant to agree to a feature film about his movement. But after attending a screening of Lane’s previous documentary, NUTS! , about a Depression-era man who transplanted goat testicles into humans, he felt he’d finally found a suitable filmmaker to tell TST’s story, especially after a post-screening Q&A where she fielded questions about topics like anti-vaxxing and the archaic medical practices seen in NUTS! (goat testicle transplants were apparently believed to boost sex drive) with what he saw as a healthy skepticism.
"I know there's this image we have of being kind of press hungry, but people would be amazed if they realize how much press we turned down,” said Greaves. “We had gotten a lot of pitches for people wanting to do documentaries. We've gotten pitches for people wanting us to be on daytime talk shows, even gotten regular pitches for people wanting to put together reality type shows. To all of that we say no.”
Greaves seems pleased with his decision to open up to Lane, and hopes that even those who walk away from the film still put off by the Satanic Temple can't deny that their messaging has "resonated with a large population in a short time, which indicates a real need for what we're doing.” And they seem to be doing a lot. Beyond their Ten Commandments statue victories, they've helped score a win for reproductive rights in Missouri, have stewardship over a Santa Cruz beach for a year, and have launched a "Grey Faction" initiative that seeks to highlight instances of the ongoing "Satanic Panic" of the 80s as well as expose what they deem to be harmful pseudoscientific mental healthcare practices.
In the meantime, as buzz for the festival favorite grows, the spokesperson so used to adversarial press is learning to contend with an “unusually positive” side of fame.
“These executive types were coming up to me at Sundance and saying ‘you realize you're in a whole new level of exposure and things are going to be different now,’” said Greaves of his sudden shift from despised to lauded figure. “I’m still not used to walking into an interview where the interviewer says ‘I think what you’re doing is very uplifting and brave.’”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.