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"Some Chinese restaurant with a comedy club up top of it just off-campus agreed to host the Black Mass."

"I think you have to take people at their word, and the Westboro folks are Christians just as much as The Satanic Temple are Satanists."
Penny Lane

In 2013, some activists formed the Satanic Temple in order to challenge violations of the separation of Church and State in the United States. They bought Halloween robes, hired an actor to play their leader, "Lucien Greaves," and made a demonic statue of Baphomet which they carted from state to state and demanded be placed beside government-building monuments of the Ten Commandments. They made some salient political points and had a lot of fun.

Then things turned a little more serious.

In 2019, documentary filmmaker Penny Lane chronicled their story.

Hail Satan? effectively negotiates a range of tones. The gleeful first third frequently elicits laughs while underscoring the exploitative nature of contemporary media and the simple-mindedness of current political and religious thinking. Lane cleverly edits original footage with a bewildering range of sources, including horror movies, Christian films, and TV news—leaning heavily towards local coverage and Fox commentary. It's surprisingly easy to make Fox commentators sound idiotic. It then must deal with the more serious issues, as the Temple gradually becomes something akin to a real religion. Greaves grows into his character, and the group must expel a member, Jex Blackmore, who threatens, among other things, to "execute the president." They establish tenets, receive multiple serious death-threats, and find that what started as politically-motivated fun has become hard work. As always, the devil is in the details.

Documentaries necessarily must be selective. Penny Lane has acknowledged leaving out1 many of the internal conflicts and controversies within the group, focussing only on the Jex Blackmore incident. It mentions but necessarily shortchanges the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s and abuse scandals within mainstream churches—although a more complete handling of these events would further make TST's point.

Perhaps the most egregious oversight is her handling of the connection between the Ten Commandments monuments and the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. We're left with the impression that the monuments came about entirely because of a Hollywood promo. The reality is more complicated—though the monuments are far more recent than most people imagine, and Hollywood and Cecil B. DeMille certainly played a role in getting so many of them set up and publicized.

As TST become more real, the group has to agree on some tenets. Many people I know would agree whole-heartedly with the ones they embrace, though I suspect a lot of them might balk even at a literary Satanic label. Conflicts notwithstanding, the Satanic Temple received tax-exempt status in 2019, having met all of the IRS requirements for a religion.

What will happen next, I imagine only God and the Devil know.

1. Lauren Wissot, "I Was Watching Midcentury Hollywood Biblical Epics, Anti-Communist Propaganda Films, and 1970s B-Movies about Devil Worshippers": Penny Lane on Hail Satan?. Filmmaker Magazine, January 25, 2019.

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