The Satanic Temple at Sundance: mockumentary or documentary?

Crucifix Credit cosma Shutterstock CNA cosma/Shutterstock.

The Satanic Temple shocked Catholics when it scheduled a purported black mass at Harvard University in 2014.

While the temple founders have repeatedly claimed it is a religion, not a hoax or a performance, at its origins are credible reports indicating it was launched for a mockumentary, with several of its founders having a background in film and entertainment.

For some critics, these would-be Satanists are acting in bad faith, as a political-cultural stunt, making use of the trappings of Satan for publicity.

Now a documentary premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival covers the recent history of the organization and its public efforts-but apparently not with skepticism.

The film, "Hail, Satan?" is directed by Penny Lane and produced by Gabriel Sedgewick.

Lane said her artistic goals were "to explore the lines between performance and authenticity, pretense and sincerity, belief and reality - and to situate The Satanic Temple within a much longer story about the fraught relationship between church and state going back to the founding of the United States."

Speaking to Filmmaker Magazine in an interview published in January 2019, Lane said she resisted pressure to cover "drama" during filming, such as the departure of some high-profile chapters from the Satanic Temple organization, the hiring of a controversial lawyer, and "all kinds of accusations and callouts left and right."

The documentary includes interviews with contemporary adherents to the Satanic Temple, coverage of its advocacy and the protests in response, and historical coverage of the 1980s "Satanic panic." Its commentary takes a swing at Catholic sex abuse scandals.

Lucien Greaves, the pseudonymous co-founder and spokesman for the organization, reportedly had only one condition for the movie, a refusal to do re-enactments, Lane said.

In response to Filmmaker Magazine interviewer's questions about whether the Satanic Temple might be "manipulating" Satanism to serve their political agenda, Lane replied: "They are Satanists and I am not, so I certainly would never worry about them somehow 'manipulating' Satanism."

According to Lane, she has begun to think of religion "less as a list of beliefs and more as a practice."

"How do our beliefs manifest every day into reality - into how we treat other living beings and ourselves?" she asked. "The fact that the Satanists get so much grief for somehow not being authentic and sincere is, to me, mind-boggling - and evidence only of prejudice against a marginalized group, and a misunderstanding of what religion actually is."

The "Hail, Satan?" documentary, besides premiering at the Sundance Festival, is also an official selection of the Rotterdam International Film Festival 2019.

While the documentary's director appears to take the temple at face value, its history includes parody, discussions about its sincerity, and inflammatory claims to have a consecrated Host from a Catholic Mass in its possession.

Among the Satanic Temple's earliest events was a January 2013 demonstration at the Florida state capitol appearing to support Republican Gov. Rick Scott from a Satanist position. Legislation backed by the then-governor would allow school districts to have policies allowing students to read "inspirational messages" of their choice at school assemblies and sports events.

The demonstration featured an actor in the role of a satanic high priest. Several would-be minions and spokesman Lucien Greaves were also at the rally, saying the law would allow students to distribute Satanic messages.

"This is not a hoax. This is for real," Greaves had said ahead of the 2013 event.

More in US

That same month, the Miami Herald's Naked Politics blog reported that Lucien Greaves was listed as casting director of a feature film called "The Satanic Temple." A casting call on the Actors Access website sought actors "to be the followers of a charismatic yet down to earth Satanic cult leader," required to wear "tasteful Satanic garb."

"Spectacle Films and Polemic Media … are producing a mockumentary about the nicest Satanic Cult in the world," said the casting call, according to the Huffington Post.

The Satanic Temple was behind a reputed attempt to hold a black mass on the campus of Harvard University in May 2014, but the event was moved and then cancelled after intense outcry from Catholics and others who saw it as a grave sin against God, deliberate provocation of Catholics, or a violation of basic norms of civility and respect.

The event was reported to be held under the aegis of the Cultural Studies Club of the Harvard Extension School.

A spokesperson for The Satanic Temple initially told media outlets that a consecrated Host would be used, although the temple and the Cultural Studies Club both later denied this, insisting that only a plain piece of bread would be used.

Shane Bugbee, an early collaborator of the Satanic Temple, told a version of the group's history at the Vice magazine website, and then a more critical version in an interview with the Village Voice and related blog posts in 2014. He said that Lucien Greaves is in fact Doug Mesner, who reportedly studied at Harvard University, focusing on neuroscience and false memory related to ritual abuse and alien abduction.

Bugbee himself had interviewed Mesner for the website Vice, an interview published July 30, 2013.

(Story continues below)

Bugbee named Cevin Soling, president of Spectacle Films, as the real man behind "Malcolm Jarry," the pseudonymous co-founder of the temple. According to Bugbee, Soling was president of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club at the time it attempted to host the black mass. Bugbee alleges that David Guinan, owner of Polemic Media, was a third co-founder of the temple.

Claiming a long history with Satanism, Bugbee himself said he and his wife held the final interview with prominent Satanic figure Anton Lavey, who allegedly made Bugbee a Satanic priest. He contended that Mesner is an employee of Soling and that Soling asked Bugbee to play the role of Lucien Greaves.

Bugbee said he at first saw the Satanic Temple as a prank, believing it was "thrilling" to participate in "a joke on the public at large and, in general, the grossly inept media."

He said the group's purpose seemed to shift after the fake rally for Rick Scott.

"The dissolving of the original idea of making a mockumentary and the rise of a want for a real religious sect seemed to happen very quick," said Bugbee.

He objected that Soling and Guinan had "no real relationship with Satanism."

In his Vice interview, Mesner said a friend had conceived the Satanic Temple as "a 'poison pill' in the Church-State Debate" to help expand the idea of religious agendas in public life.

"So at the inception, the political message was primary," Mesner told Bugbee, though he acknowledged that there are self-identified Satanists who deserve "just as much consideration as any other religious group."

Mesner later told the Village Voice he would not rule out making a movie or a television series.

Invoking the name of a famous pioneer of 20th century publicity, Bugbee charged that the Satanic Temple is "just the act of a group of social and career climbers using slick psychological marketing tricks in the tradition of Edward Bernays to meet their ends,"

Mesner said the group planned to leverage the Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby religious freedom decision to advance "a women's rights initiative."

The group backed a woman's legal challenge to Missouri's abortion law on religious freedom grounds, a challenge argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2018. The case was tossed out.

It had crowdfunded expenses to help pay for a Missouri woman's abortion. It has also crowdfunded its "reproductive rights" campaign, gathering over $45,000 by July 2015.

Other projects include Satanic after-school programs and efforts to place Satanic displays on public grounds, citing the precedent of the Ten Commandments and other religious displays, including religious memorials.

In response to a Minnesota town's debate over a veterans' memorial that had a cross, the group proposed its own version of a memorial involving pentagrams.

The Satanic Temple's Los Angeles chapter held a ritual purporting to counter Pope Francis' canonization of St. Junipero Serra in October 2015.

The group's philosophical and religious beliefs are somewhat flexible, but it tends to reject supernatural belief and to promote rationalism, individual liberty, secularism and "Enlightenment values." It claims to oppose tyranny and to identify with Satan's putative outsider role.

An October 2017 story at Vox portrayed it as "equal parts performance art group, leftist activist organization, and anti-religion religious movement." It claimed that though it began as "internet trolling going mainstream," the organization is becoming "more serious" and "more complicated" to outline. It said chapter leadership members debate which historic works about Satan to recommend and whether it should host more ritual.

While the Satanic Temple appears to be pro-abortion rights, citing as one of its tenets "one's body is inviolable, subject to one's own will alone," it put out a previous version of its beliefs that lacked that tenet. It previously claimed "all life is precious in the eyes of Satan" and "the Circle of Compassion should extend to all species, not just humans." The earlier version is available in a March 2013 cache at the Internet Archive website.

At present the Satanic Temple website appears to reject claims that media attention is its primary object, or that it is a hoax or trolling.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.