How loathsome a villain do you have to be for a religious group to defile your mother’s grave? Well, in Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, you’re Fred Phelps, reprehensible founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps, now deceased, was known for, among other hateful acts, protesting the funerals of gay people (because the church’s motto is “God Hates Fags”) and victims of natural disasters (which occurred because God is angry, apparently about fags). So members of the Satanic Temple decided to have a little gathering at Phelp’s mother’s final resting place. They held a “Pink Mass,” complete with two same-sex couples kissing over her tombstone, which officially anointed her as a lesbian in the afterlife. And then TST leader Lucien Greaves tea-bagged it.
Stay classy, Satanic Temple. Now, when you first hear of this, your inclination will probably be to laugh (especially when you see this Vice headline: “Mississippi Police Want to Arrest the Satanists Who Turn Dead People Gay”). But wait: Why take the sins of a man, despicable though he may have been, out on his dead mother, especially at her gravesite? It’s tasteless and disrespectful. Then again, Westboro doesn’t believe in “worshipping” the dead, so maybe that makes the now-scissoring Mom fair game.
At any rate, the Satanic Temple is used to getting people’s panties in a bunch. The often hilarious Hail Satan? is full of one action after another that rouses Christians: getting permission to hold a Black Mass in Boston (it was canceled at the last minute), challenging a 10 Commandments statue at the Oklahoma State Capitol by filing its intention to erect a statue of Baphomet—a demon with a goat’s head—on the grounds in the name of religious freedom and equality (in a win, the government remarkably decided to remove the 10 Commandments instead), asking to lead prayer at the Phoenix City Council meeting (the members who were going to do it changed their minds after receiving death threats).
The intention of the Satanic Temple was to underline that the U.S. is a pluralistic nation whose government isn’t supposed to dictate which religion gets to express itself. Frequently, the reaction to these exploits will be galling to anyone with a sense of reason and a healthy respect for the notion of separation of church and state, from Greta Van Susteren’s laughably G-rated claim that the Satanic Temple participants in the Boston Black Mass were “very mean-spirited” and “awful” to the protesters at a Phoenix City Council assembly who repeatedly invoked the name of “Jah-HEE-sus.” Didn’t they realize they were proving TST’s point?
Lane (Our Nixon) talks to current TST members, some interviewed in shadow, about why they joined the church—which doesn’t, for the record, worship Satan, a point that can be confusing, particularly because members at every rally cry out, “Hail Satan!” And, you know, the traditional idea of Satanism goes hand in hand with evil, so at times it’s understandable that people get into a tizzy at their demon-heavy events. (“Why would anybody claim to embrace evil?” says Jex, head of the Detroit TST chapter. “But we’re not doing that.”) One member, a lawyer named Stu de Haan, says, “It’s called Satanism because there’s nothing else to call it.” Well, that’s not exactly true. So he continues his argument by relating what seems to be the real sin to him: “Being an atheist is boring.”
Hail Satan? opens Friday at Landmark’s West End Cinema and the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.