True Believers Theatrically Rail Against Homophobia, Racism & “Hate” in “Hail Satan?”

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.” 

– Maximilien Robespierre

Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane observes the activism of a tax-exempt religious organization founded by Lucien Greaves called The Satanic Temple (TST). Hail Satan? focuses heavily on an action that took place on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol involving a campaign to install an arresting statue of the goat-headed deity, Baphomet, with two young children looking up to him with innocent vulnerability and trust. This caused outrage among Arkansas Christians.

Greaves’s response: “None of the Ten Commandments are cited in the constitution or any of your state laws.”

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The group’s intention was to provide a counterpoint to a monument of The Ten Commandments already on the capitol grounds. For them, this represented favoritism toward Christianity, though the TST associates as represented by members say little about The Ten Commandments as part of the Jewish legacy in which it is fundamentally and historically rooted. Also notable is that the Baphomet concept is offensive to many Muslims, aware of how it has been chronically used to vilify those of their faith.

At any rate, the Baphomet choice was made in the name of religious freedom to counterbalance what Satanic Temple members fear is a Christian theocracy takeover of the U.S. that has become re-popularized by Nobel Laureate Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are forced to live in total submission to men. The recent Elisabeth Moss television version has revived the Atwood ethos.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This development is uncannily reminiscent of a visceral fear so many us men like myself, who were sexually active with men in the AIDS Crisis Era had of the government rounding those of us from high risk populations into internment camps. We who lived through that time, in which Atwood’s novel was read widely by gay men such as myself, may have a sense of deja vu with Greaves’s movement and his breakaway comrade in Satan’s ideological army, Jex Blackmoor, founder of the Detroit TST.

Note that term, “ideological”. Lane’s presentation of TST showcases a group spread across the U.S. and Canada whose members are quite articulate about their temple’s social justice ideology, but there is little about actual theology. Nonetheless, Blackmoor, as the film reveals, may qualify as a prophet should TST continue to make inroads in North American populations and political parties and increase in numbers. Whatever you think of her, she is a charismatic figure.

Hail Satan? showcases many of its followers, including a Princeton professor and a California trans activist. At points throughout, followers plainly voice the urgent need for “social justice”. Most shown are Caucasian but there are persons of color included. That said, one person cryptically conceals their identity by being shot in silhouette with devil horns discernibly worn on their head. We see that TST passionately decries racism, sexism, and homophobia. Its rhetoric is similar to that of the #resistance movement.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

TST defines itself more in opposition to Christianity than as belief system all its own. Its Seven Tenets alternative to the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, are crafted to counter grievances against Christianity that trigger and activate so many of its participants. These points stress compassion; justice which the current followers stress passionately as “social justice”; autonomy of one’s physical body; the freedom to offend; the primacy of science; rectification of wrongs done to others; a general call for wisdom and compassion. Though perhaps not as concrete as those commanded by Jehovah, those of us who attended Christian Sunday school as children, across the denominational spectrum, likely had some, if not most of such tenets instilled there in us.

This points to a very debatable assumption in TST complaints that these values are not present in Christian practices. In reality, Christianity is vast and diverse its denominations, divisions within those denominations, and interpretations, ranging from very conservative to “let it all hang out” attitudes sprung from the ’60s flower child era. Nonetheless, as the Lane film relates, Greaves and company implement programs in public schools. One scene of a group of TST activists getting resistance from an outspoken woman regarding this is unsettling.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Vintage footage, some of it ritualistic in content, about the Church of Satan begun in the 1960s by Anton LaVey certainly reminds us how the hey-day of the Sexual Revolution was fertile soil for the Satanic Revival of the 1960s.  Though Lane is spot on about this, she doesn’t relate much about the vastly longer history of Satanism, nor of any of the competing views of the history of the modern Sexual Revolution itself. Nor does she sufficiently address the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s, though it is brought up.  It is worth noting that those still associated with the earlier Church of Satan are at odds with TST’s emphasis on political activism.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

TST activism, Jacobinical in style, stems from various wounds, psychic and sexual, that followers use to fuel their zeal. Child abuse by Roman Catholic priests, the low-hanging fruit for those seeking to tarnish Christianity’s reputation, is held up as a prime example. It continues to be the gift that keeps on giving as abuse allegations still regularly cascade. It is an irrefutable wrong by all conventional standards, and has been a matter of record for decades if not longer. Of course, as far as is known, most child sex rings have nothing at all to do with Judeo-Christian institutions.

Also compelling is an example of Christian application, or perhaps better said, “misapplication”, of a follower whose teacher told him in his youth that Mohatma Gandhi, for all his goodness and extraordinary efforts toward nonviolence, was going to hell because he was not a Christian. This made a damaging imprint on his young mind. Little could many a young person, with limited experience in the world, understand that such interpretations do not speak for all Christians, to be sure. However, many smaller conservative cities and towns in the Bible Belt that Greaves and followers are ever-ready to tag as “far right”, backward, and fundamentalist, actually seethe with all sort of differences among their biblical believers over how scripture is to be or not be interpreted. Hardly the monolith that many anti-Christian detractors think it is. In Minnesota, we often hear jokes about Lutherans being at odds with Catholics in small towns. And course, both of those denominations have and have had rifts within them about how scripture should be interpreted.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It is such a surface view that gets TST followers into the conundrum Hail Satan? ultimately leads to. Perhaps it was an ardent lack of forgiveness for perceived wrongs of certain bad Christian actors. Perhaps it was a glib attitude toward images like one shown of a demon with another figure’s tongue rimming its rectal area. Perhaps spending too little time developing a substantive theology in favor of easy political ideology, TST’s various chapters, which purport to be nonviolent, tumbled into a dreadful exposure of their subconscious coming to the foreground.

As the film moves forward, we ultimately see what fills that theological vacuum and be warned—it’s not for the faint of heart. You can feel a rupture beckoning as the film moves forward. Whether Lane was aware of this beckoning or not, even as the filmmaker, is difficult to decipher. Hail Satan? has Blackmoor plainly stating “you can’t dismantle systems of power while functioning within them.” She says that “directly confronting injustice and corrupt authority is an expression of modern Satanic faith. And I believe activism is a Satanic practice traditionally.” 

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It would be unfair to say such rhetoric differs from TST’s standard line. Throughout Hail Satan? references crackle that denounce homophobia, sexism, hate, transphobia and racism. One follower of color says that invoking Satan is invoking the struggle for justice and equality in everyone.

These are assertions that can easily float within the ether breathed in by libertarians and progressivists alike. Hence, TST’s reputation for guerrilla theatrical “happenings”, a genre that flourished in public spaces in the anti-establishment activism of the 1960s. One of the most heretical was Greaves’s visit to Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church infamy. The Satanic leader took his genitals out at the extremist antigay minister’s mother’s grave where TST followers also baptized the dead woman with lesbi-erotic interaction by two female followers on her grave as a way of converting her to homosexuality in the afterlife—a mockery of a Mormon practice. (Many Christians reject Mormonism out of hand as a false religion.) It’s an odd choice in that such an action can actually be seen as lesbi-phobic and shaming of sexual congress between two women, the very antithesis of what so many early lesbian activists ever wanted.

This intention also recalls how some extremist gay activists in the 1980s and ’90s would go to the funerals of men they knew or suspected were closeted homosexuals and go into graphic sexual, and at times, scatalogical details about the dead man’s hidden sex life in front of family members who had no idea of their relative’s gayness, much less his supposed specific proclivities and techniques in his homosexual interactions. To this very day, older gay men disgusted by those among them who acted in such a way, smolder still. The unreported divisions of us older gay guys.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Blackmoor, whose image is reminiscent of a Warrior Princess out of a graphic novel, is essentially a ritualistic performance artist who stands on the shoulders of the 1990s transgressive movements. That was when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and supporters railed against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding art works like a photo of a crucifix in a container of urine, pieces of absorbent paper stained with blood containing HIV used as stage performance objects, homoerotic BDSM photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, among others.

Blackmoor’s incendiary performance art on film, some of which Lane includes, is perhaps meant to serve as scripture for the future of Satanism that could give a woman a rightful place in the Satanic pantheon that acknowledges figures from the Middle Ages to Rasputin. Her dark aesthetic stands on the shoulders of the performance art that rose to prominence during and after the Helms era, some the most controversial of which were seen in the Twin Cities.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In one Blackmoor action she drags a cross, wearing a representation of a crown of thorns, imitating Christ heading toward Golgotha with darkly clad intimidating figures carrying black, white, and grey American flags. She stages public street theater scenes where adults and children can see on a public street in broad daylight several scantily clad men dressed in diapers, flagellating themselves, mock-crying like babies as an apparent female clad in dominatrix attire herds them into a performative ecstasy. She claims this is in response to what she calls “the fetishization” of the fetus by the pro-life movement. In her view, she stresses that seeing the unborn, whether in the womb or after it has been taken from the womb before birth, is a fetish on the part of those who want to see that. When Blackmoor calls pro-life activists “perverse and disturbing” there will be those who will wonder if she is projecting.

Ritual conjurer Blackmoor states, “If I can, I use bodies of men. I’m very interested in steering away from the fetishization of the beautiful female body. We have used wine in the past the idea of choking on wine because the Church uses wine as a metaphor for the blood of Christ. But we see it as a form of oppression and control.” However, her depiction of female dominatrixes is apparently not seen in the same light.

However, what may be Blackmoor’s most ghoulish presentation has been captured as well in Hail Satan? We are privy to a jolting ritual under the glare of spectral lighting. While she speaks a Satanical doctrinal oratory in pulpit fashion, hooded naked men in chains in submissive positions writhe dramatically in portrayal of long suffering agony. Do they represent gay men or slaves exploited and tortured by the status quo?  A mummy-like figure aggressively places what certainly appear to be actual severed hog heads on spikes. At the end, in an evocation of catharsis, the men remove their masks. It recalls methods of ancient sacrifice and of orgasm.

Blackmoor reinforces with the following words—call them ideological or mystical or both: “When we go and do political actions, it’s more than just a protest. To us it is a celebration of our Satanic spirit. It’s a ritual in and of itself. In our of our ritual practices we are taking traditional symbols of what we see as an oppressive religious institution and destroying those symbols as a form of empowerment. We often use nudity because there is a sense of shame that  still exists and is pervasive today.”

Some will understandably say to all this: so much for TDT’s call for reason instead of blind faith; cruelty to animals; as well as the TDT insistence that the U.S. suppresses free speech, free expression, artistic freedom, religious freedom, and nonviolence. Lane never mentions Christian persecution that is going on throughout the world today. Though the Sri Lanka massacre happened after Hail Satan? was completed, the evidence has been out there for years. China’s persecution of Christians and Muslims has long been at crisis level. The beheadings of over 20 Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS in 2015. Iraq and Syria have been the setting of chronic persecution of Christians. Christians are persecuted in Syria. These are just some of the places where Christian persecution has occurred and continues to take place.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Perhaps sensing that the party had lost its bearings, many TDT chapters were shocked and scared. What Blackmoor failed to see is that the severed hogs heads on the pikes were malevolently symbolic of butchering the altruism that TDT followers thought they were adhering to, as well as Christianity. Hence, for all intents and purposes, Blackmoor was excommunicated. Greaves said, “I originally imagined that The Satanic Temple would have no central authority but at this point we’re very keen to make sure that chapters don’t put out the wrong message.”

Oh, what a difference a crisis makes! Throughout the first half of the film and beyond, Greaves portrays a cheeky attitude. He’s ever the “Coy Boi” emulating the mischievous aura of his spiritual forebearer, LaVey. It’s plain to see he delights in upsetting vocally devout southerners and “hicks” he thinks he is exposing as backwater yokels.

But when Blackmoor’s Tarantinonian ritual’s “by any means necessary” fervor renews the stigma against Satanism, one can sense a veil has lifted from Greaves’s eyes about dark potentials, yet to be evoked, that lie beneath. The smirk we see on his face earlier in the documentary when trying to shock figures like Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert, and older women the camera seems to have picked out because of supposed prudishness, is gone—replaced by a sense of …. dare I say….. shame. The subconscious is a perilously tricky thing.

Special Note: One section of Hail Satan? contains an ahistorical commentary on Old Hollywood as if it was the same as our present time. After the release of The Ten Commandments in 1956, director Cecil B. DeMille promoted the placement of Ten Commandments stone monuments across the U.S. The interviewee interprets this as a right wing Christian effort to indoctrinate American masses into theocracy. There’s a sense with both the interviewee and the interviewer, of a profoundly inaccurate notion: that the nation wasn’t already quite devout. In reality, it had been since the Republic’s founding. The dispute over whether the U.S. is a Christian nation or not is separate issue.

DeMille’s film was a phenomenon unto itself. It was one of numerous biblical and Roman epics of that era. Many of these films were very profitable and won awards and nominations. There was clear public demand for them in a time when the public was processing the gruesome horrors perpetrated on Jews in Nazi Germany and the collective grief felt by my grandparents’ generation. American blood was shed in Germany to liberate them. These films, which generally were quite sympathetic to Judaism, were crucial in the U.S. and other countries where the films were also popular, to regain its bearings.

The Ten Commandments was by far and away the most profitable film of the entire 1950s decade. Though another biblical epic, Ben Hur, released in 1959, was a not too distant second place, its gargantuan profits were also reaped in the following. Its then-record win of 11 Oscars drove all the more people to see it. Adjusted for inflation, The Ten Commandments looms as the sixth most profitable film in American history, and Ben Hur, the 14th.

To put the this in perspective, it wasn’t until the box office success of The Sound of Music released in 1965 that any film came anywhere close to the record that had been held by Gone With the Wind released in 1939. Only two films approached the numbers those two reached: The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur (1959),  both of which were biblical epics exceeding three and a half hours. Moreover, DeMille’s 1923 silent era version of The Ten Commandments held Paramount Studios box office record for 25 years.

It was the release of Jaws in 1975 that shifted the paradigm where onslaughts of advertising could swiftly generate box office blockbusters unlike ever before. Granted three other record-breakers ensued after 1965: one might argue that The Godfather, released in 1972, Love Story in 1970 and The Graduate in 1967 were examples of clever marketing to pull a fast one on the public. But they, like The Sound of Music, happened to speak to the zeitgeist of their time and people wanted to see them in the era of Vietnam.

The Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises and certain other Steven Spielberg films took that to the next level. The current success of the Marvel films is certainly culturally significant but the way in which blockbuster films, pre-Jaws, were marketed to the public was quite different. Indeed, the marketing of blockbusters post-Jaws are thought of by some as social engineering.

In Hail Satan? however, the interviewer crows incredulously off-camera about a movie like The Ten Commandments having that much influence. It shows a lack of perspective to say the least. Even by today’s standards, The Ten Commandments is a liberal film that is powerful in its anti-slavery message and is beloved among many persons of color. Not to mention Jews all over the world. Gandhi, as mentioned, has actually been legitimately compared to Ben-Hur directed by the Jewish William Wyler. Both are powerful statements for pacifism. Charlton Heston plays the heroic Jewish protagonist in each.

As for Gone With the Wind, it was banned in Hitler’s Germany. As for The Sound of Music, it is itself a flat out repudiation of Nazi Germany. So the demonizing of Hollywood, like the demonizing of classic Broadway musicals, is problematic and is one of the bones of contention between those proverbial gay men who value those classics and progressivists who want them devalued or banned.

Therefore, in looking at the time frame in which DeMille promoted the Ten Commandments monuments, he was a reflection of, not the causation of, religious hegemony.

Additionally, since the mid-1960s, very few major American studio films have come on strong with clear cut themes where Christianity was held up positively rather than something potentially or definitely jaundiced. In 1966 John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning marked the end of that artistically rich era. Though it drew great numbers to cinemas it didn’t make back its expensive costs. It was considered a masterpiece by some critics but panned by others, marking a new era of a more secularized era with occasional blockbuster exceptions like Fiddler on the Roof with its rich sense of Judaism (1971) and The Passion of the Christ (2004), which caused controversy because of its portrayal of Jews. The numbers of American films with negative views of Christianity since the 1960s are legion. The number of people attending Christian churches has declined since then as well.

In the 1980s there were also a few notable exceptions. Two films were deservedly nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall and Betty Buckley (1983) and Places in the Heart (1984) with Sally Field and Danny Glover. Geraldine Page deservingly won the Oscar for Best Actress for the pro-Christian The Trip to Bountiful (1986). There’s hardly been an onslaught of pro-Christian indoctrination by Hollywood. Though there is definitely a market for Christian films that has been steadily emerging, and the quality of some of those films is first-rate.

Hail Satan?
Now screening
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis
612-823-3020
www.landmarktheatres.com

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