Sheila Flynn – Daily Mail Jan 21, 2019
- The Satanic Temple, founded in 2012 by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, has since spread to dozens of chapters across the US and Europe
- Its evolution is chronicled in new documentary Hail Satan?, directed by Penny Lane, which has its world premiere this month at Sundance Film Festival
- The Temple, which runs a property open to the public in Salem, Massachusetts, sets out seven tenets focusing on activism, diversity and the body’s inviolability
- TST has made various political moves, from demanding a statue of Baphomet be displayed on state property to suing Netflix for a portrayal in new Sabrina series
- Detroit chapter head Jex Blackmore, who features prominently in the film, has been kicked out of the Temple
- Greaves says in the film: ‘This is the infancy of The Satanic Temple. In our own humble little way, we are changing the world’
They first cropped up seemingly out of nowhere about six years ago, adorned in black capes with curved devil horns affixed to their heads, holding posters and black American flags as they shouted ‘Hail, Satan’ on the steps of government institutions from Arkansas and Florida to Oklahoma and Detroit. The antics and declarations seemed like a hoax to many – onlookers and journalists and politicians alike – until it became apparent that members of newly-formed The Satanic Temple were here to stay.
And they were growing, exponentially. Since TST’s founding in 2012, the organization has increased from a handful of members to tens of thousands, with chapters all over the US and the globe, from Stockholm to London and Los Angeles to Texas. And their ‘pranksterism,’ as filmmaker Penny Lane first considered it, has given way to a well-conceived ethos, forming an organized ‘religion’ for a ‘group of contrarians’ opposed to any organization at all.
The Satanic Temple, it seems, is becoming more and more firmly established across the United States – largely composed of individuals who don’t even worship Satan in the first place but center on a different interpretation of biblical teachings. And Lane’s new documentary about the group, premiering later this month at Utah’s famed Sundance Film Festival, paints a surprising portrait of the unlikely ‘religion’ – one which has challenged even the preconceived notions of the director herself.
‘The reason this became a feature length documentary was that I found so many interesting surprises at each stage of discovery,’ says Lane, the title of whose documentary – Hail, Satan? – fittingly addresses the controversy surrounding the relatively neophyte group.
‘Every layer of the onion that we peeled back, there was like something really surprising at the next layer. The first thing you know, I could see, was how serious and intelligent they were – despite what you might expect of a bunch of Satanists. They were really sophisticated thinkers, and many times the people who would go out in public against what they do would sound like raving lunatics.’
In comparison to the protesting hardcore Christians, she says, ‘the Satanists were like the adults in the room – not at all what I was expecting.
‘The next thing I came to understand was they weren’t pretending to be Satanists to make a political point. They were Satanists. My understanding of what a Satanist was simply incorrect – so those were the first kind of two layers of surprises for me.
‘Modern Satanism is a non-theistic religious practice that uses the symbol of the literary symbol of Satan as a kind of symbol … against tyrannical authority,’ she tells DailyMail.com.
Hail, Satan? follows not only the TST founders but also regular members across the country and the world – trying ‘to get a more accurate picture of day-to-day life at a local level, which is really at the heart of what the Satanic Temple is,’ Lane continues. ‘Like, oh, it looks like a bunch of headline-grabbing clever pranks – but in reality … what’s going on here is nice people gathering in their communities who organize [charity events] … or do challenge very, very local power.’
The documentary initially focuses on co-founders Lucien Greaves – not his real name, though he’s pictured on camera and has essentially become the spokesperson for TST – and Malcolm Jarry, whose face is never shown. Many members, in fact, are pixelated in footage, and quite a big deal is made of the threats to members from people opposed to their views, despite the fact that many detractors have no idea what TST members actually believe.
Greaves, for example – an articulate, well-educated 43-year-old with a somewhat disconcerting eye condition – is shown putting on a bullet proof vest before a public event, as fellow temple members go over security plans to keep him safe.
‘There’s huge amounts of death threats and hatred and actually, to be frank, some mentally individuals out there who absolutely are really scary,’ Lane tells DailyMail.com. ‘Every time they went to an event, there were sensitive conversations about security. I don’t want to overstate the fear, but it’s more like, you never know what can happen – and the amount of daily kind of vitriol and violence that is threatened against them is really shocking.’
Because The Satanic Temple has been formed years after the devil-worship panic of the 1980s and 1990s, when a veritable witch-hunt by the far right fueled urban legends and blamed horrid crimes on followers of Beelzebub. There were multiple incarnations of Satanic-centric religions and cults going back centuries; ‘The Satanic Temple did not invent modern Satanism,’ Greaves says in the film.
Jesper Aagaard Peterson, who wrote The Invention of Satanism, says that a ‘founding aspect of Satanism [is] that you troll people. They faint or get angry or whatever happens, and then you move on.’
He refers to the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by the flamboyant, Hollywood-esque character Anton Szandor LaVey – which billed itself as ‘the first above-ground organization in history openly dedicated to the acceptance of Man’s true nature – that of a carnal beast, living in a cosmos that is indifferent to our existence.
‘To us, Satan is the symbol that best suits the nature of we who are carnal by birth – people who feel no battles raging between our thoughts and feelings, we who do not embrace the concept of a soul imprisoned in a body. He represents pride, liberty, and individualism – qualities often defined as Evil by those who worship external deities, who feel there is a war between their minds and emotions.’
Author Peterson, in Hail Satan?, says: ‘The Church of Satan is the watershed moment in the history of Satanism. That’s where the attribution of Satanic identity is not just something people do to others; it’s something people to do to themselves.’
While both Church of Satan and TST members self-identify, he says, the Church of Satan was ‘much more of a ratpack carnival. They were never political, whereas The Satanic Temple is actually refining Satanism and making it into a new tool, a new weapon in the ongoing culture wars.’
The Satanic Temple, for example, is not afraid to take legal action when it feels that representations of Baphomet and other Satanic icons are not accurate reflections of its ethos and organization. When Netflix released its new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series last autumn, for example, the show featured a goat-headed statue of Baphomet – very similar to a sculpture commissioned by TST – which the Temple contended was portrayed as evil.
The Satanic Temple sued Warner Brothers and Netflix – and in November announced that it had ‘amicably settled’ the lawsuit, which also resolved that TST would be acknowledged in credits for pre-filmed episodes of the series.
The Satanic Temple, religious studies professor R. Andrew Chesnut tells DailyMail.com, ‘actually present themselves as atheistic and really see Satan more as a metaphor.
‘They’ve actually been criticized by other old-school Satanist groups – how on earth can you say you’re Satanists, but at the same time claim to be atheistic? Because if you believe in Satan, Satan is a supernatural figure. So they’re really kind of a new generation of Satanists, and I think more than actual veneration of Satan, this is really about much more kind of politicized.’
He adds: ‘They don’t really seem engaged in the kind of organized rituals and worship that the older-school Satanist groups do.’
While the organization, as a whole, is unafraid of the spotlight, however, many individual members are not as eager to be identified. Most of the interviewees featured in Hail Satan?, from the top of the organization down, go by pseudonyms. Many of them, however, look as one would expect; Jex Blackmore, for example, the former head of the Detroit chapter, is a pale beauty favoring dark hair and makeup, shown in one protest dressed as a nun, her nose pierced and her attitude defiant.
‘If you’re godless , free-thinking and are a rebel, then you are a Satanist in the eyes of many in our community and society and, certainly, by people in your government, whether you like it or not,’ Blackmore says in the film. ‘Before I decided I was a Satanist, it was really the Bible that said, “This is what a Satanist was like.’
Blackmore, who ironically once played Eve in a middle school play, continues: ‘The story of Adam and Eve is a story of Eve’s original sin. Eve was very curious, as her nature was as a woman. The devil appeared in the form of a snake and offers the fruit of enlightenment. We are taught to fear that, but at the same time, it seems the most liberating – because if we did not have that opportunity, we would have to be in total servitude, without free choice.
‘Ultimate servitude is slavery; reframing it in the light of salvation is probably one of the greatest tricks ever played on humankind.
‘Satanism is about embracing that Satanic status, rather than being controlled by it. After I learned about The Satanic Temple, I set up a time to meet with Lucien. Throughout the conversation, I realized that we have very similar ideas of what contemporary Satanism was evolving to be.
‘The devil directly challenged God, so – as a Satanist – I believe that directly confronting injustice and corrupt authority is an expression of one’s Satanic faith – and I believe activism is a Satanic practice.
‘Traditionally, Satanists practice very privately, closed doors, black candles, black metal music, but with the Satanic philosophy being where Satanism represents rebellion against arbitrary authority, we believe it requires a level of political participation. I think that we need to go into the public sphere and announce ourselves without shame.’
That’s exactly what the temple has done over the past nearly six years. It’s fought for a statue of Baphomet – the goat demon representation of Lucifer – to be displayed on government grounds alongside the Ten Commandments to demonstrate the pluralism and religious diversity of the United States. It planned a Black Mass on the Harvard campus in Boston – one of the most Catholic cities in America – to directly contravene the teachings and traditions of one of the world’s largest religions (though it was postponed and moved to a Chinese restaurant/comedy club when the Boston Archdiocese staged a massive counter march).
To act out against the Baptist Church –perhaps one of the most reviled religious factions in America, which protests soldier funerals, denounces gays and basically thinks that everyone is going to hell except members – the Satanic Temple held an unholy ceremony at the grave of founder Fred Phelps’ mother. TST is nothing if not good at grabbing headlines, but Lane, through her years documenting the group, discovered additional undercurrents, philosophies and altruism embraced by the Satanic group.
‘There is a sort of sizable portion of people who, even if they are not actually religious themselves or don’t have any particularly strong kind of faith, still have kind of a negative reaction to Satanism, which is completely understandable, because we are talking about like the most reviled figure perhaps in human history,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘So it’s not surprising that kind of blind assumption … comes with the territory.
‘I think that we live in an era which is increasingly secular, especially amongst younger people. People do research from here to here; there are more and more younger people who are separating themselves from that kind of religious tradition of religious institutions. And there’s something really lost with that. You lose a lot.
‘Religion provides a way of healing, meaning, and organization and narrative, coherent and community and ethical kind of standards or ways we consider difficult problems of how to live your life,’ says Lane, who was raised with no religion herself. ‘That’s heavy stuff. So when you lose religion, you get a whole lot of people like myself who find themselves casting about for that kind of organizing principle.
‘In The Satanic Temple kind of reincarnation of Satanism, they set up a kind of answer to that problem that resonates for a lot of people. It’s not for everyone; it’ll never be popular, per se. If it was, it would obviate the need for its own existence. I mean, they’re supposed to be the outsider; they’re supposed to be the outsider. They’re supposed to be the kind of minority.
‘They’re not going to take over the world or anything, but there’s obviously people who see themselves as being part of that marginalized outsider status [who] still want to be able to engage society and find brethren and organize themselves. That’s what they do, and they’ve really hit upon something that really does resonate for a lot more people than maybe I thought at the beginning.’
The Satanic Temple has seven clearly laid-out tenets – guidelines that would, perhaps, surprise many who think they know what Satanism is. They are: One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason; The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions; One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone; The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To wilfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s one; Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs; People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused; Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.’
Professor Chesnut tells DailyMail.com: ‘In many ways … those are more Christian than a lot of parts of the Bible – and so what a lot of us would think about Satanism is definitely not reflected there. And advocating social justice and compassion and nobody has the right to tell you what to do with your body and everything – and I would say, also, putting it into a larger context, we’ve seen the proliferation in general of paganism and Wiccanism, witchcraft and stuff.’
Echoing Lane’s observations about our increasingly secular society, he says: ‘I think this also is part of this kind of burgeoning interest in alternative pagan religions, particularly among millenials and Generation Z and stuff. The most important trend on the American religious landscape is the very rapid rise of the religious “nones” – those who have no formal religious institutional affiliation – which is now 25 percent of the American population, which is now more than Catholics. I think Catholics are down to 21 percent. If we’re looking at millennials and Generation Z, the religious “nones” goes up to at least a third of the population.
‘There’s growing, rapid disenchantment with the institutitional religions, and yes, in the US context, that mostly means institutional Christianity, because still about 70 percent of Americans say that they’re Christians.’
The tenets of The Satanic Temple – and the increasingly organized setup of TST, complete with a National Council – has thrown up perhaps some unexpected obstacles for a group opposed to organized religion. Jex Blackmore, the film shows, has already been thrown out for espousing views not in line with the larger TST ethos. At one event at her Detroit chapter – featuring pig heads shoved onto spikes – she shouted: ‘We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy and reclaim, resist and rebuild. We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion.’
For a Satanic organization disavowing violence, that marked a dangerous aberration shedding a spotlight on the group it did not want.
Greaves continues: ‘It was glaringly obvious that Jex, being the wildcard, that she is, wasn’t really going to fit in the organization anymore. So Jex Blackmore is no longer part of the temple at this point.’
‘I called her, ultimately, but that was a national council discussion,’ he says in the film. ‘She said what she said, and we just couldn’t have a double standard for anybody.’
Blackmore, undeterred, says in the documentary: ‘I have to say, it does feel a little bit satisfying to be fired from The Satanic Temple for being too extreme. There is a great fear that we are going to do something that is so off that it’s somehow going to discredit our work. I mean, we’re a Satanic organization. There’s this fear of our legal system, which is part of what I’m fighting against.’
For the national council and remaining high-level executives such as Greaves, however, the real fight – at least the one they purport to support – is for religious pluralism and democracy. The TST has a site in Salem, Massachusetts, complete with a learning center and a gift shop. Chapters around the country fight at a local level against abortion and other laws which they think are opposed to their tenet of the ‘inviolable’ human body. They still believe that, if Ten Commandments are displayed on government property, Baphomet and representations of other religions deserve an equal display.
They’re as likely to run charity blood drives or collect sanitation products for homeless women as they are to take part in any sort of dark ritual, the documentary seems to indicate.
‘Even just leaving the film aside, in personal conversations I’ve had in the last few years with people, kind of explaining what it is and what they do and what they believe, people often end up saying: “That sounds like something I could get behind,”’ Lane tells DailyMail.com. ‘That doesn’t mean they’re going to run out and join a chapter, but you can be Satanically aligned without being a Satanist.’
She adds: ‘Everyone thinks they know what Satanism is. Everyone I’ve ever asked … they answer quite positively that a Satanist is someone who sacrifices babies and drinks their blood. And you’re like, where does this idea come from? This was literally never true. People are completely convinced that it’s true, so I find that delightful, as a filmmaker. I just think, well, in a fun way, how can I get people to really challenge some very deeply held beliefs that they have?’
She adds: ‘I, frankly, always felt completely mystified and baffled by the existence of religion. I really didn’t ever understand what it was good for – and making this film has really, really challenged that for me … and transformed my understanding.
‘And I have so much more respect and understanding for religions and religious faiths than I ever had before.’
For his part, Greaves – the most recognizable face of TST – says: ‘This is the infancy of The Satanic Temple.
‘In our own humble little way, we are changing the world. More and more, as time goes on, people are seeing that we are a genuine movement. This would be very difficult to maintain if, somewhere in any of our minds, those of us who were actively working on this, we didn’t truly believe in every element of what we’re doing. And to be doing this as anything other than an authentic expression of who we are, I just can’t see doing that without being psychotic – which, I guess, is a theory.’