Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Penny Lane
Starring: Lucien Greaves, members of the Satanic Temple
By Caz Armstrong
This provocative yet cheeky documentary by director Penny Lane follows the Satanic Temple through an incredible rise in popularity and details their aim of challenging the dominance of conservative Christianity.
I can understand why some would be put off by the title and subject matter of this film but it might help to know that the question mark is important. So please stay with me on this.
As the film opens members of the Satanic Temple are seen as silhouettes, wearing big horns and cloaks. They’re shadowy scary figures we can’t see and don’t understand.
But they’re soon shown as regular people, protesting against the hateful Westboro Baptist Church and discussing how the government should not be allowed to dictate what is appropriate religious expression.
So are these evil scary people who believe in a literal Satan, or a protest group deliberately pushing people’s buttons in order to make a legitimate point?
“Satan represents rebellion against arbitrary authority”
The structure of the documentary drip-feeds information and creates a narrative without feeling like it’s manufacturing a story that isn’t there. It guides us by the hand using both new and historical footage as well as talking heads and voiceover.
As we get to know the Satanists we follow their quest to have a statue of the Satanic deity Baphomet erected at the State Capitol. This is a direct response to the proliferation of Christian symbolism on government property.
After all, if a statue of the Ten Commandments can be placed on a federal property then surely freedom of religion means that other monuments should be allowed too. If you can have Christian prayers before a council meeting why not another religion? And who gets to choose which religions can say these prayers?
The Baphomet statue is the anchor at the centre of the story but it is just one example of the activism undertaken by the Satanic temple.
As a nonviolent organisation, we see them picking up litter and donating blood and socks. They fight for women’s right to choose whether to carry a baby, for fair treatment of trans people, for the voices of the marginalised people to be heard and every religion to have their fair share.
Despite the subject matter, there is a light tone to the film, brought with humour, jovial music and humanising the subjects. Where else would Satanists get the outfits they need but a fancy dress shop, served by a somewhat bemused assistant?
The levity doesn’t just make the film slightly more palatable for anyone who’s nervous about the theme, it’s actually important to the message. These Satanists are not evil dangerous people. They’re a protest group playing conservative Christianity at their own game. They don’t actually worship a literal Satan.
But the light-hearted tone is balanced with the strong sense of justice held by the Satanists and that comes through clearly. While accusing Satanists of all kinds of evil, the Church covered up widespread child abuse for decades, denied women reproductive healthcare and excluded LGBT+ people.
“Christian privilege is a huge problem in our country because it dictates our laws, it dictates everything we do, what bathroom I can use.”
Neither the documentary nor the Satanic Temple is anti-Christianity itself. I was particularly interested in the historical aspects that showed the rise in the idea that America is a Christian nation. The only mentions of religion in the constitution are to separate religion and state.
There was something of a sidebar about the leader of the Detroit chapter’s divergent views. I would have preferred this to either be explored more thoroughly or left out because it doesn’t fit the rest of the structure particularly easily.
I was also uncomfortable seeing some of the Satanic rituals even after it was explained what they meant. Some pig heads are involved and I couldn’t watch those parts at all.
Even with these elements in mind, I found it an incredibly well delivered and accessible documentary about a topic I knew little about. The topic is very important and the subjects came across as passionate and caring people.
“The real evil was in the witch hunt itself”
After you’ve seen the documentary you can decide whether the Satanic Temple is a real religion or purely a protest group. And if they are successful in their aims of eliminating the harm done by conservative Christian dominance over society then does it matter?