A documentary called Hail Satan? seems aimed squarely at provocation, which is fitting: Filmmaker Penny Lane (as her website URL proclaims, it’s her real name) likes to provoke audiences a little. Last year she made a movie called The Pain of Others, cut together entirely from YouTube footage uploaded by those who believe they have Morgellons disease. Her 2016 film Nuts! is a semi-animated documentary about an eccentric radio magnate named John Romulus Brinkley who, during the Depression, built an empire by claiming to cure impotence with goat testicles.
Lane’s films are always funny and weird and always pushing at the way we think about “truth.” Her latest is Hail Satan?, a portrait of the Satanic Temple, a Satanist organization that frequently advocates for total secularism in the public square by, for instance, trying to install a statue of Baphomet onto courthouse grounds in Little Rock to “provide an alternative” to the dominance of other religions signaled by a prominent display of the Ten Commandments. The film tracks with members and leaders, exploring the rise of the organization and its activism — or, depending on your perspective, trolling — in Arkansas and other parts of the country.
The movie plays like a comedy, not least because the organization is purposely cheeky about what it does. They call themselves Satanists not because they worship the devil — they don’t believe in the existence of a being called Satan — but because they hold to a set of tenets that emphasize overturning theocracies and traditional hierarchies (including, and maybe especially, any that privilege Christianity) and emphasize the autonomy of the individual. For Satanists, Satan is a symbol of ultimate human freedom and agency.
But in a world still heavily influenced by conceptions of Satan drawn both from Christianity and (perhaps even more so) pop culture, and which experiences the lingering effects of the Satanic Panic, saying you’re Satanist is a deliberately provocative move. And that’s what Hail Satan? unpacks: why people join the Satanic Temple, what they’re looking for, and whether it really is a religion, or if it’s actually a political movement or just a band of trolls.
The film debuted in January at Sundance, a film festival that takes place about 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, the seat of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or Mormonism). There, it was the subject of plenty of chatter among festivalgoers. Now, it’s opening in theaters.
I sat down with Lane in New York a couple weeks ahead of the film’s theatrical debut to talk about why she made it, whether it’s a religion or a political movement, and how the film changed her mind, as an atheist, about religion. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
This is quite a project. How did you end up making the film?
By the time I heard of them, the Satanic Temple had gone from being kind of a joke to being a real thing. I thought that was pretty cool. The notion of a religious movement being born out of a joke seemed like kind of a cool story, and not one I’d ever heard before.
I started by asking, “Are they serious, or are they kidding?” And realizing that the answer was “yes” and “yes” was just really fun. If the answer had been only yes to one of them, then I probably wouldn’t have been interested.
I loved the idea of watching a new religion get born, right before our eyes, and how goofy and weird that looks, especially if you’re not part of it. They’re literally doing rituals with things they’re getting from the Halloween store. Which I think even they would acknowledge is goofy, but it’s especially goofy if you’re on the outside looking in and you have no idea of what the personal meaning would be for them.
Part of what it meant to say that it had become “real” was that it had become a really interesting, and in some ways very efficient, political movement. Their activism had already proven to be effective in certain ways. But then I came to understand that their religious convictions were sincere, too. They weren’t just trolls. That was kind of mind-blowing.
I had to resist — as you do when you’re making a documentary — other stories taking over. For example, it could’ve become a biographical sketch of some of the members, and I resisted that, because it’s actually not that interesting.
It also could have very easily become a portrait of an organization as it grows. Substitute in any activist movement and you can watch it fall apart as it gets bigger. That’s in the film. We certainly gestured at it.
But I refuse to let that take over, because the underlying political stuff was so important. And also because the story, as I envisioned it, challenged my ideas about religion, religious identity, what religion is and could be. That was much more interesting to me.
Plus, I knew it’d be funny.
That’s what’s surprising: The film is deadly serious, but it’s also hilarious. It plays like a comedy. And that can be nice, in a landscape of documentaries that are very somber and serious.
This is my role in life. I’ve often been very blessed to have directed the only movie that you saw that week that didn’t make you want to slit your fucking throat. Well, [2018’s] The Pain of Others is depressing, but most of them are pretty funny, and that’s helped my career, I think, to some extent.
But this one premiered at Sundance, and that was very interesting. Normally, when you’re at Sundance, you can forget that you’re in Utah. But I had one festival volunteer, who I think was, like, 75 years old, tell me at the beginning of the screening, in no uncertain terms, with a very straight face, that she was not happy to have been assigned to my film.
And I was like, “I’m sorry, it may not be exactly what you think ... Maybe you’ll enjoy it?” I don’t what I said, but it was very awkward.
But at the end of the film, she literally came running up to me and said, “I think I might be a Satanist.” It was such a weird experience.
Part of what you learn at your premiere, and when you’re doing the festival run, is: Who does this film resonate with, actually? I think it’s been pretty different than who I’d thought. I worried that it would be baseline too offensive. I don’t know how to put it, but people were coming from places in the country where a Christian worldview is so integrated into everyday life that it would just be beyond offensive to even imagine the movie existing.
So I worried that it would just be too offensive. From my Massachusetts world, the world I grew up in, I felt like it could be punching down at “dumb yokels” in Arkansas; that felt real to me, and I didn’t want the film to feel like that, especially since all of the legal battles in the film are small and local. Like, who cares what the Phoenix City Council does? Or who cares if there’s a Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock — like, really, who cares?
But I actually think that the real impact of the film was the opposite of that. It was people for whom [Arkansas State Sen.] Jason Rapert is in charge of their bodies and lives that actually understand the stakes of the film better. That was really interesting.
So the Utah-ness of the premiere was helpful to me, in understanding that the film would actually resonate more in those places, not in New York and LA.
But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens at theaters.
It’s interesting, because it seems like the groups of people who are offended by the idea of talking about Satan and Satanism go far beyond just Christians. Maybe because of the legacy of the Satanic Panic?
Absolutely. Especially early in the pitching process, it didn’t matter who I was talking to, or if they came from a Christian background. They were just all offended. Everyone’s offended by it, no matter who they are.
And that’s what was so delicious about it, Alissa — I’ve never made a movie where, in common conversation, ... everyone is very certain they know everything there is to know about Satanism. Like, everyone. It doesn’t matter how many times I say, “Well, you know, actually you’re wrong, and I’ve been researching this for three years,” ... They’re like, “No. You’re wrong.”
If you ask them, “Where did these ideas come from?” Like, how do you know that a Satanist is a devil worshiper and kills babies? They don’t know, but they won’t even consider that they’re wrong. For them, it’s just a fact.
These are ideas that came from Hollywood movies and daytime talk shows, and then before that, thousands of years of fear that had manifested into fantasy, largely in the Catholic Church. There never was a “black mass.” The descriptions we have of black masses came from Catholics who were going into detail about what they thought must be happening at these imaginary black masses down the road. They get real detailed. They’re like, “And then they get the communion wafer, and they shove it up the ass.” And you’re like, “Sure, okay.” [chuckles]
The whole notion of Satanism is a long history of fear and fantasy. Only very recently has it become an actual history of people who call themselves Satanists. Which is amazing. I didn’t know any of that.
Right, Satanism as it’s practiced today is a very postmodern phenomenon, and not at all what people are expecting.
No. A lot of people are so entrenched in those other conceptions of Satanism that they watched the entire film and said, “I loved it. Totally loved it. So great. But why do they call themselves Satanists?”
And I’m like, wow. This is a very tough one to break through. But even I had those thoughts. Six months into the project, I’d be washing the dishes, and be like, “But wait ... but why do they call themselves Satanists, again?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be better if they called themselves something else?”
It is a super complicated worldview that takes a long time to digest.
Right. For them, there are rituals and practices, but they’re not about worshipping some being called Satan. They’re about something else. But most people’s mental picture of Satan is drawn from pop culture, a little red man with horns and a pitchfork. But watching the film, it occurred to me that their ideas about what “Satan” is are a lot closer to what some more progressive Christian denominations think Satan is: a force of evil that can live inside of us, and is out there in the world.
The difference is that for Satanists, that’s not evil. That’s just you. That’s fine, and you should embrace it. But that means what they believe they’re communing with in their religion is very different from the perception other people have of them, right?
Since the film makes the point that the Satanic Temple is not just an activist movement, but also a religion, how did that affect you? How did making the film change or challenge your conceptions of religion?
I basically have no religious background. I’ve never even been to church — maybe for a funeral once or something. For those of us who have never been religious, you think, as an atheist who knows nothing, that religion is primarily about a list of beliefs that, from the outside, are patently absurd and stupid. Who would believe these things?
But I came to understand that for most people, the importance of religion is not about a list of beliefs, but about experience, day-to-day life, community, and a coherent narrative — a sort of organizing force that provides meaning and structure to existence.
I definitely started out the project believing, as I had my whole life, this “New Atheist” kind of dogma, that religion is stupid and that the world would be better off if people weren’t religious. Then I came to understand that the function that religion plays for people in their lives is so valuable — not even valuable, just so important and foundational, in terms of what human existence is. And it’s not going anywhere.
So it would be better to imagine better religion — or maybe “better religious institutions” is even a better way of putting it — than to fantasize that the future is gonna be all just individuals floating around in relationship to other individuals with no tribes, and no mythologies, and no narratives.
Not only would I not want to live in that world, but I don’t think it’s possible.
I think that was my own personal evolution in the project, which is somewhat irrelevant to the film. But that’s where I went. I’ve never understood religion or religious people more than doing this project. I started out thinking I was making a film that made fun of religious people, and then I realized I was making a film about religious people, and that’s a very big realization for me.
I knew that they said that they were a religion at the beginning, but I don’t think I really believed it. I thought, “Well, you’d have to say that, wouldn’t you, if you were fighting for religious rights?” I didn’t really believe that they were until I got away from the leadership and went to the local chapters, and saw them doing good works in their communities I talked to all these different Satanists and got an understanding of how important this has been in their own lives.
It was so moving. It was so moving to me, to hear this over and over again — to discover that every one of these people have felt completely alone, their whole lives, and had never felt like they were part of a group. They hated groups, and never wanted to be part of a group, until they suddenly realized they could be part of this one, and it would be awesome. That they could do more as a group than they could alone. The sense of validation that they all felt.
And it made me feel jealous of them, to be honest. Because I didn’t come out of the project as devoutly Satanist myself, but it did make me realize what I don’t have. I don’t have that. I never have. I don’t think I ever will. There’s something about joining that’s so not for me. Whenever I try to join a group, I’m allergic to it. But somehow these Satanists have managed to be joiners. I think they’re a lot happier for it.
And it’s interesting to me that they have rituals together, which they’ve developed themselves. You watch them and think, why would you invent a religious ritual that looks so strange from the outside? But this is one among several documentaries I’ve seen over the past few years that make the point that all religions look weird to outsiders, especially at the beginning.
They all look weird from the outside. We don’t think a Catholic mass looks weird, because we’re just used to it. But, I mean, it is weird.
Honestly, when I was a kid growing up in an evangelical church, I thought Catholic masses looked weird.
The universe of meaning that is encoded in those rituals, for the participants, is illegible to us. We don’t know why they’re doing those things. Why are they doing that? Why are they doing this thing with the upside down cross? What is this stuff?
Honestly, that’s why I started to believe they weren’t just trolls, they were a religion. Because they do these rituals privately, and it has nothing to do with whether it offends you. It has everything to do with what that experience means to them, and nothing to do with anyone else.
For a while, I struggled with whether this was performative or authentic. You’re saying the script, you’re repeating the words, you’re putting on certain clothes, you’re singing certain songs — you’re sort of enacting these ritualistic behaviors in different ways, in community, that had been written and handed down. That’s how you authentically express your belief: to perform it. I realized that religion is both.
Right. The performance becomes authentic as you do it.
I think so. I mean, why else would people do it?
I often think about church services as theater.
I would think so. And art. And it’s a ritual.
But it’s also about becoming part of something bigger than yourself, in a bodily form. And that’s totally what they’re doing.
Experiential and spiritual and all those things. Again, it’s something that’s just bigger than you.
So, if Satanism is a religion, is the Satanic Temple a religion first and a political movement second, or is it the other way around? That seems important, because their perspective on politics seems fairly unique; they’re not advocating for their own dominance, but for nobody’s dominance. I think that might be what a lot of people wish all religious groups would do.
I had to disentangle Satanism as a religion from the Satanic Temple as an institution, because they’re not identical. I would say that if the Satanic Temple is a church, it’s kind of a failing one (in many ways that we don’t have to get into). But as an advocacy group, it’s very effective.
Satanism, as a religion, is growing and on the move. But that’s not a political stance; that’s a religious identity.
But what the Satanic Temple did that was so novel was bring the idea of activism into the idea of worship, and combine them. They say, “Whatever, it’s both. Get over it.” This is part of their religious practice. Take it or leave it, but that’s what they say.
In the end, I was more interested in the idea that it was a religion with political elements, but I don’t know that that’s accurate. It’s just what I was interested in. And I don’t even think that that’s what the film said. I think most people would say it’s a political movement with maybe some religion stuff in there.
It also depends who you ask. Some of the members are more politically motivated than others. There are some of them for whom I think 90 percent of the appeal of this identity is a kind of outward-facing, trolling, provocation, political movement, and 10 percent of it is about something that feels like what we might call religious. For others, it’s the other way around. There are hundreds of thousands of members.
It’s interesting to see this as a new religion, and wonder how it might change as it ages.
A local chapter of the Satanic Temple came to a screening, and were answering some questions afterwards — which was great, because I didn’t want to answer some of the questions for them.
One of the questions was, “How would you possibly think that you could avoid all the same pitfalls of any other institutionalized religion, for all time? How do you not become hierarchical and dogmatic?”
And the chapter head in Ontario said, “Well, you have to look at our core values. If five of the seven tenets are about willingness to change your mind if you’re wrong, in the face of new evidence, then that’s a good starting place.”
They would never carve their tenets in stone, quite literally, and that fact to them is an attempt to avoid dogma.
Is it going to work? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting idea. I’m sure everyone has these ideas at the beginning. But then ... flash forward.
Hail Satan? opens in select theaters on April 17.