Sympathy for the Devil: 'Hail Satan?' Challenges Church-and-State Ethos
By Ron Deutsch
Penny Lane makes a point on her website, pennylaneismyrealname.com, to remind us that she is neither a street in Liverpool, nor a Beatles song, nor the famous 1960s groupie (who spells her name “Pennie”). She is Penny Lane, film director and educator. And yes, as her website also notes, her parents “clearly liked the Beatles.”
Lane has been making films and earning awards and grants since 2002, including her 2005 short The Abortion Diaries, which featured women from all walks of life and different ages speaking about their abortion experiences. She's also been teaching video and media arts for over a decade at institutions including Bard College and Colgate University. In 2010, she began a year of programming nonfiction films at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. But it was her first feature documentary in 2013, Our Nixon, an archival expedition featuring previously unseen home movies by President Richard Nixon's inner circle, that propelled her to greater recognition.
She followed that in 2016 with Nuts!, a “mostly true” feature documentary about early 20th-century confidence man “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley, or as Lane has described it, “a good old story about a big fat liar, some goat balls, and a million-watt radio station… [that also serves as] an opportunity for viewers to actively wrestle with the ethical and epistemological issues central to the narrative nonfiction form... and have fun.”
Her third feature, released last year, The Pain of Others, she calls a “body-horror documentary”—a found-footage project culled from YouTube videos of three women who believe they have Morgellons disease. Though to the majority of the medical community, it's merely a psychological phenomenon, the women claim to be plagued with parasites under their skin. The film lets the viewer come to their own conclusions. For Lane, it was an opportunity to explore these so-called “contested diseases.”
And now, Lane brings us Hail Satan?, a 95-minute visit into the world of the Satanic Temple and its activist members, which also allowed her an opportunity to delve into deeper notions of religion, the separation of church and state, and the role media plays in creating mythologies we believe.
The Satanic Temple was founded in 2013 as a response to then-President George W. Bush's “faith-based initiative.” Their first action was a rally in Florida, where a bill had passed to allow student-led prayers at school assemblies. Since the bill could not specify any particular religion, the staged rally by the group announced they welcomed the law so Satanic children could hold prayers at schools just like other religions. The controversy and ensuing media attention encouraged the group to continue other actions, most notably a crowd-sourcing campaign to place a bronze statue of Baphomet (a goat-headed, winged creature supposedly worshiped in the 14th century by the Knights Templar) on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol, in response to a “Ten Commandments” monument erected there in 2012.
Shortly after Nuts! was released, Lane met Swedish producer Gabriel Sedgwick (Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart), who had been fascinated by the unique and “complicated relationship between faith and politics in the US,” he says, and was looking for a way to explore that through a documentary on the group.
The Satanic Temple had also been on Lane's radar. “It was a good sign,” she says, “because most of the time people bring me projects that I don't understand why they brought them to me. But I had been fairly obsessed with 'Satanic panic' for a quite some time.”
The “Satanic panic” was a hysteria that swept across America in the 1980s. The widespread madness included a belief that devil worshipers were encoding secret Satanic messages in heavy metal music, and were behind non-existent child sex abuse rings using daycare centers as a cover. Also, supposed ritual murders were attributed to these non-existent Satanists (see the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky). Much of this hysteria was stoked by the media, and especially by Geraldo Rivera in a series of televised specials at the time.
“So I'd been looking for a film project about that,” Lane continues, “and this wasn't that exactly, but my interest was piqued by the idea of this Satanic Temple. Where I had left off with my research on the 'Satanic panic' was like, 'Oh, there really weren't any Satanists,' but then, 'Oh, wait, now there are some Satanists, but they're clearly not the people I was told existed when I was a kid.'”
Lane and Sedgwick spent 18 months developing Hail Satan? before getting funded, and then another year filming once they did. Though to see how well they worked together, in the interim they made a delightful and dark short film for CNN, Just Add Water: The Story of The Amazing Sea-Monkeys™, the strange history of the man behind the novelty item that sold for decades in the pages of comic books.
But as Lane began to learn more about the Satanic Temple and its membership, focusing on the group's leader, Lucien Greaves, and one of its early converts, Jex Blackmore (neither being their real names), it became apparent they were not Yes Men-inspired pranksters, but something much more.
“I thought that's what I was dealing with at the beginning,” she says, “But I had it totally wrong. I assumed the Satanic Temple members were not in fact Satanists, but were just pretending to be in order to make a political point. The truth was, Satanism may have started like that, but it's a prank that becomes a kind of movement. So, that's part of how the film is structured—you follow along with my journey. It's a long journey from where you start; you just never imagine that's where you're going to end up.”
These Satanists are not really praying to Satan, but are using the concept and mythology of it to form a league of like-minded outsiders who see in the mythology a call for rebellion against systemic corruption and prejudice, and, in general, to find commonality with others who feel the same way, and to live an ethical existence doing good in and for the world—and yes, often in humorous, in-your-face, troll-like fashion. Most members would describe it as an atheist/humanist religion. The seemingly ever-growing local chapters around the country are involved in projects like “Adopt-a-Highway” programs (using pitchforks to pick up trash), blood drives (“Give Blood for Satan”), and donation programs for the homeless and veterans (“Heathens for Heroes”). Meanwhile, the national organization takes on laws around the country they feel seek to either muddy the line between church and state or formally declare America to be a “Christian country.” And just to be clear, there are no animal or human sacrifices involved in their worship.
“At first, I wasn't totally clued in to the whole religious aspect,” Lane admits. “I knew Lucien and I knew their work from afar and I understood those philosophical principles. And I understood, in principle, that there were people for whom this was a religious identity. But I wasn't there yet in my head until we started getting to the chapter level, meeting people in different places. It was then I started to understand that this story was actually way more inspiring and beautiful than I had imagined.
“And while not a satirical group,” she adds, “there’s still a lot of humor involved in their work, and that's why it was such a good fit with me as a director. I feel like I’m on a personal mission to prove that smart movies don’t have to be deadly serious, and fun movies don’t have to be stupid.
“That's kind of my rebellious side,” Lane continues. “If you go to art school, there's the everyday assumption that films that are really unpleasant are better somehow. I never really bought into that. There's a lot of self-important ideas in the art world about how dumb the audience is and that it's your job to educate them. So making a film nobody comes see is a badge of honor, but if you make a film that airs on CNN for 11 million people, you almost feel a little bit embarrassed about it. So I always wanted to make things that people liked. And I like entertainment. It's okay to have fun. And the Satanists, in the way they are trolling religious people, are making fun of them. But if you get close to it, and spend time with them over a long period of time, it's not the total of what's going on.
“Part of the reason I love the Satanists is that their goal is very similar to mine. You want to shock people, but then you want to do something with it, so that in that moment when they've been knocked off kilter, something new can happen. And for me, I had so many experiences making this film where that happened.”
Two of those experiences she had, which she's incorporated into the film, were, first, her realization about the history of America's official motto, “In God We Trust.” It did not, as Lane believed, come from the Founding Fathers, but rather was officially adopted in 1956, during the Red Scare anti-communist era as a way to say America was not a “godless country” as the Russians were.
The second was the history behind the “Ten Commandments” monuments you find across the country, often at city halls, state capitols and parks. As Lane discovered, the monuments were initially distributed as part of a promotional campaign for Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, who would appear at unveiling ceremonies to help plug the picture.
“The movie thing kept coming up,” Lane says. “It was part of my intention in the beginning to do a media critique. That idea was expanded over time—like starting to realize how culpable our Hollywood movies are in propagating some of the things that become the 'Satanic panic' later.”
Lane incorporates many clips from films and television programs in Hail Satan? as a way to get us to consider how the media has shaped our notions of what a Satanist is supposed to be, believe in and act like. “There was so much movie stuff that I wasn't thinking about at first,” she explains. “Then, I was just thinking mostly about Fox News today, and going back maybe as far as Geraldo. But there's at least as much that we left out. I do think there's a much longer story to be told, like what we do with religious minorities and how we ‘Satanize’ them. That's a story that really goes back thousands of years.”
While Lane comes out of a more experimental film background, “This is my first, definitely more normal movie,” she admits. “But it was really because of what the topic was and what would be the right film to make on this topic. The most radical film you could make about the Satanic Temple is a completely normal commercial one. What would be the point of making some inaccessible experimental film about a philosophy that most people already find inaccessible? I wanted to make a convincing and accurate and coherent movie about something that most people would never take the time to understand.
“But yes, Hail Satan? was kind of out of my wheelhouse,” Lane admits. “I had to learn new things to do it. I think of it as 60/40 when I'm deciding on a film project. I make a list of things that would probably be needed to make that film successful, and I pick projects where I feel pretty confident about 40 percent of those things. So, with Hail Satan? I knew I could handle the philosophy, the fact that it was basically very dense philosophical ideas. I knew there would be a lot of archival, and I love archival, and I knew there would be a lot of formal studio interviews, and I love formal studio interviews. Sometimes the challenges are more on the production side and less on the creativity side, and so this had a much bigger budget than anything I had ever made before.”
One thing Lane’s been very concerned about is how all the media attention caused by the film will affect the Satanists and their movement. A key moment in the film is when Jex puts on a transgressive performance piece in which she advocates a more confrontational stance, and she is later asked to leave the organization. “There will be good and bad attention put on them,” Lane says, “and I think everyone involved in the group is sort of dealing with their own preparations for that. Part of what you're doing when you're doing festival premieres is learning what you have to know when the movie comes out wider. We’ve been trying to get our publicist to help, especially with Jex and Lucien, on how they're going to handle the attention. For me, I’m used to people on the Internet being mad at me, so it’s not like a new experience.”
However, Lane says she's really enjoyed the screenings the film has had so far, especially interacting with audiences afterwards. “People would come up to me afterwards and say, 'I think I might be a Satanist.' And the look on their face actually saying those words was amazing. But it's also super confusing for people. It's a lot to ask people to go from what you think a Satanist is, and then to get to the end of this film where so many assumptions have to be overturned. But that's where the real action is happening and you see the wheels turning in people's heads.
“For me,” Lane observes, “it was also really such a surprise to finally start to understand the value of religion and the value of a religious identity, and what that brings to an individual. I'm so not into groups and so not into joining. But I really feel a very strong kinship with the Satanists in that way. In the end, it didn't turn me into a Satanist, but it did make me want to think about that there could be groups that aren't simply bad, and that there are things you can't do alone in this world and you need to have a community around you.
“I think it's kind of cool to watch people in real life grapple with these really difficult problems about religion and modernity,” she continues, “and watch them come up with solutions that are coherent and taken seriously. But I knew intellectually that this was an authentic religion, but it didn't really register as that until we got into it. And it started me thinking about religion—about what religion should be, could be, and would dare to be into the future. It made me realize, as this hyper-individualistic atheist kind of loner, what I was missing and that there was potential to have that sense of communion, purpose, organizing principles, but be fun and art and beauty, and have that restored in your life and not become the monster that you hated your whole life.
“I’d love for viewers to realize through Hail Satan? that you can make a really big impact on people’s lives without lots of money, or political influence, or powerful connections,” Lane concludes. “With nothing more than a really smart idea, and maybe a few friends, you can change the world in some way. That’s what the Satanic Temple made me remember. In the end, the most surprising part of this whole experience was discovering just how profoundly inspiring their story is.”
Hail Satan? opens nationwide April 17 through Magnolia Pictures.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman.