The question mark baked into the title of Penny Lane’s new film, Hail Satan?, points to a certain reality of her subject, the Satanic Temple. First established in 2014 out of Salem, Mass., of all places, the Temple is less a religious organization and more a conglomerate of skeptics compelled to ask questions about the moral fabric of their countries and cultures. That innocuous bit of punctuation reflects the guaranteed curiosity, even confusion, of the public. “Hail Satan” is a directive. “Hail Satan?” is a query and a challenge to society’s grip on what actually comprises Satanic belief.
In short: Don’t be a dick. Stand for kindness and justice. Adopt a stretch of highway, or perhaps a beach, and put in the time to scour it of trash. Make the world a better place. Maybe play a couple rounds of Magic: The Gathering or listen to heavy metal on your downtime. “Satan” tends to evoke bad things, grim rituals involving blood sacrifice and violence inflicted on the innocent—the stuff of the Satanic Panic that gripped the United States back in the 1980s (and plenty of other places at other times).
Lane, her film and the scores of Satanists she interviews and spends time with, mean to turn that long-held view on its head, and maybe kick the legs out from beneath the Christian right’s smug, unconstitutional influence on American politics and culture while they’re at it.
In a recent conversation with Lane, Paste discussed the Satanic Temple’s mission with Lane, as well as her career-long focus on cultural outsiders, redefining patriotism, and what ultimately makes America great.
Paste: Are these people the best kind of Americans out there, do you think?
Penny Lane: [laughing] Yeah, I mean I kind of do! I think it’s such a funny thing to think and say, but it’s really true. I would say that the biggest surprise for me with this project was how patriotic it is. It made me believe in America, and the potential for America to actually live its own stated values! It’s about the beauty of the constitution. It’s just a very surprising outcome. Nobody would think that going to see a documentary about Satanism would really have that feeling in the end, so I’m glad that you felt that way. My producer and I kept saying to ourselves during the making of it, “This is really such a patriotic movie!”
It’s also about that kind of person, American or not, who is performing the role of the skeptic, and the heretic, and the outsider who pushes against whatever kind of comfortable complacency is in place. That was probably my initial attraction to the subject. That’s such an important role in society, and I wanted to elevate that role to like a heroic dimension.
Paste: Outsiders, or people on the fringes of history, make up a big fixture of your work. Not that I want to pigeonhole you, but it makes sense that this is a Penny Lane film. I’m assuming that’s the first thing that compelled you toward Lucien [Greaves] and the Satanic Temple?
Lane: Definitely true. And also, there was some confusion for me at the beginning around the question of whether they were for real. Back in the very early stages of research, I thought they were kind of performing Satanism. I thought they were kind of trolling. And then I started to understand that they were not pretending to be Satanists. That confusing slippage between, performance and authenticity, or truth and fiction, or pretense and reality—that was all very interesting to me at the beginning.
I came to understand that if you were looking at the question of religious identities specifically, that those issues are always there. What does it mean to say that you’re a religious person, a Christian or a Catholic or whatever? To some extent it means that you play a role: you put on the clothes, and you say the script, and you do the ritual, and you kind of perform it.
Those were things that I was interested in besides the political stuff about patriotism: these ideas about what religion is, what religious belief is, and how you perform it.
Paste: Yeah, that performative aspect kept coming back to me. I kept on thinking about [Lane’s 2016 film,] Nuts!, and the performative component of that film. But this is such a positive kind of performativity compared to that!
Lane: Yeah, yeah! It’s a nice feeling for me. I’ve never made a film about activist heroes before. I was really pleased that I was able to finally find a political movement that I could wholeheartedly endorse. It’s just not common for me. If you’re the kind of person who walks around with this skeptical bias, who feels that whenever you become part of a group you start to want to leave it because you hate groups so fucking much, that makes it really hard to feel engaged in politics. I hate slogans. I hate joining. I hate groups. I hate consensus. So I’ve always felt despondent at my lack of ability to glom on to something. So even though I didn’t become a Satanist making this film, I felt so happy to be able to make a film about people that I admire so much. You don’t always have to be skeptical and myth busting. I, too, can show you some heroes in a positive light! [laughs]
Paste: I think you may have converted some of my friends in the Boston Online Film Critics Association to Satanism after it played at [Boston Underground Film Festival] the other night. So, job well done!
Lane: Thank you! It doesn’t surprise me one bit because if you take the time to explore Satanic philosophy, there’s a lot there for an intelligent, sophisticated person, especially the kind of person who might mostly in their life have looked down on religion, or who thought religion was kind of dumb. And then you think: “Well, maybe religion isn’t the problem, but the specific tenants of the religions that we are living with in Western civilization. Maybe those are the problems, but religion itself can be cool.” Why not? Why can’t we have a religion that’s about great things and not stupid things or whatever, or about liberation instead of oppression?
Paste: It strikes me so much that if Lucien and the other people we meet in the film were just skeptics, the people they’re skeptical of still wouldn’t like them. But as soon as you throw in TST, that gives these people immediate moral high ground, which feels completely unfair.
Lane: I think it’s all tied back to the endlessly interesting question of why you would call yourself a Satanist. Because when you do that, there’s a series of things that happen, and what you just described is one of them. First of all, these are people who don’t care what you think of them. It doesn’t matter if you want to just go ahead and say, “Well, Satanists, I mean everyone knows that they’re evil!” They don’t care if people think that. They’re not trying to be loved by everybody or fit in.
Second, if you happen to end up in a situation where you’re willing to reconsider your preconceptions, then perhaps you would find that calling yourself a Satanist doesn’t actually mean that you’re aligned with evil, and who told you that it did? Where did that idea even fucking come from? I was never a Christian. I didn’t grow up in any religious context, but I still was absolutely certain before making this film that I knew what a Satanist was. I knew that meant they loved evil and worshipped the devil. And then I was like, “Where did I even get that idea from? Why was I so certain that I knew that?”
So I think that they would love it. They don’t care if you just hate them based on what they call themselves. But I think they would be proud if instead of doing that, you took a moment to question where your deeply held beliefs came from and whether they’re right. Because that’s what a skeptic is for, right? You want people to consider if they’re really so sure that they know what they think they know.
Paste: There’s the spirit of liberation from caring what people think about them running throughout the film. If we step that back to skeptics writ large, is that the key to being a successful skeptic, to successfully questioning the fundamental beliefs of the world that you live in?
Lane: Definitely. You have to be the kind of person who is okay with most people misunderstanding you. That’s why most people wouldn’t be a Satanist, and that’s fine. The whole idea of Satanism is not that everyone should be one. If everyone was a Satanist, then you would need a new thing that would be the anti-Satanism. You also have to have empathy and compassion, and you have to be smarter and nicer than your foes because you can’t just be a troll. Being a troll doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
You have to kind of be a nice, good person, and I think that’s one of the things that the Satanic Temple … if you want to criticize them, you’d say, “Wow, they’re so boring. They’re just a bunch of really nice people, and they kick people out who are too radical.” But engaging in successful political activism is really an important thing for them, because if the issue is that everyone assumes that you’re an evil, anti-social person, then it needs to be really clear that if they actually look at your actions, you are a kind, pro-social person. That’s a huge part of what they’re trying to accomplish. They don’t want to confuse people.
Paste: That’s quite the task to accomplish, too. Changing perception is such a complicated thing. We keep referencing the word “troll,” and it’s said in the movie that Satan was the original troll. If that’s the case, then overcoming that very ingrained perception is just a monumental feat…
Lane: It is a monumental task, and a neverending one. I can’t remember right now which tenet it is of the seven tenets, but one of them contains the sentence, “the struggle for justice is ongoing.” And that’s what it is! They’re not going to win. They’re not going to call it a day. There’s always going to be another battle, another set of harmful, false beliefs to overcome, or oppressive, old mythologies to smash.
But I also think it’s not impossible. One of the things that you see in the film is that the meaning of symbols and ideas change over time. I think that even over the six years that the Satanic Temple has existed, you see it. You see for how many people the meaning of the word “Satanist” has completely changed. It’s pretty amazing.
Paste: To hear you talk about it now, and to watch the movie, I feel like this is very much a statement piece about optimism, and hope, which I wasn’t expecting when I walked into it. Does it take a long time for symbols and their symbolic power to change?
Lane: I think it doesn’t necessarily take a long time. It can be slow, and it can be fast. The Satanic Temple is an example of something that’s happening rather fast, but I can’t say for sure that if we flash forward 10 years, that rate of success and growth will continue at the same pace. I have no clue. But I just see how much it’s changed already and it’s pretty inspiring.
Paste: “Inspired” was, again, not a feeling that I expected to have leaving the theater…
Lane: I didn’t, either! It was such a nice surprise. Towards the end of the edit I started to really see it, and I was like, “Holy shit, we made a fucking incredibly uplifting, inspiring, patriotic film about Satanism.” I was very proud. Somebody asked me the other day if the Satanic Temple really wants to work within the system—that’s a phrase that one of their lawyers uses in the film. And yeah, that’s true! They actually believe that the U.S. constitution is good and should be upheld, which is such a refreshing political activist point of view. Instead of saying something like, “Burn it all down, everything is terrible!” they say, “We actually have really good values that are written into the core of this country. We should just stick to those.” That’s so weirdly refreshing to me right now, in this terrible dark time.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.