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Belief-Testing People: Penny Lane on Her New Documentary, Hail Satan?

As the new documentary from writer/director Penny Lane makes clear, the members of the Satanic Temple do not worship the Sunday school vision of Satan as the representative of evil. They do not believe that such an entity—or any other spiritual being—actually exists. They admire the mythological Satan as a free-thinker and rebel, and carry that ideal forward by challenging any government sponsorship of religiously based material, from a 10 Commandments monument in a courthouse to a Christian curriculum in a public after-school program. 

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In an interview with RogerEbert.com about "Hail, Satan?" Lane talked how the Satanic Temple membership is linked by a love of books, and how the one characteristic that connects her films is a fascination with the way people shape their stories.

You got remarkable access in this film, not only in your own filming but also in your selection of materials they filmed themselves.

When we first approached them, they were not especially interested at all. It did take a long time to convince them that our interests were sufficiently overlapping with theirs, for them to believe that our goal was to prevent their worldview accurately and coherently to the best of my ability, to a wide audience and not revel in shock for its own sake or make it all seem like a joke. They get plenty of that! They were very wary. 

I think what eventually won them over was they came to understand I wasn’t interested in trying to do a “Satanists! They’re just like you and me!” personal portrait or biography. They had less than zero interest in doing a film like that, especially [Satanic Temple co-founder and spokesman] Lucien [Greaves], who is very self-conscious about being the central figure of this organization. He does not derive any pleasure from being viewed in that way and he definitely does not want the Satanic Temple being confused with him. Once they understood we were not interested in watching them play with their kids and make breakfast in the morning they were more interested. We focused on their outward-facing activities.

Penny Lane / Magnolia Pictures

Your collection of clips showing the dismissive, willfully ignorant, and downright insulting attitude of the media is shocking.

Just to be fair, it’s local news, they have two minutes, and it is very confusing. They’re Satanists, but they don’t worship the devil and here are their values, and what does it mean that Satan is an allegorical figure and how can that possibly be a religion? Even if they have the best of intentions, they just end on a joke and let it go. It does take 95 minutes, which is what we have in the film, and I could have made it much longer.

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What about the willfully ignorant and inflammatory comments made by the politicians?

They have no excuse! But as long as they get elected and re-elected on their opposition to Satanists, their illegal prejudice and discrimination will continue.

The Supreme Court has said it will not question the sincerity or legitimacy of those who claim to have a particular religious belief or faith. But do you think the Satanic Temple is a religion?

I do. But I understand why some people don’t. Trying to define religion has been vexing scholars for a long time. It is incredibly complicated, which is why courts stay out of it. The sticking point for most people seems to be that they don’t have a supernatural deity or worship a divine being. They would say their divine being is mankind and their religion starts from there.

Our crazy culture seems to think that the measure of a religion is how impervious to fact it is. Whereas believing in justice and equality and civil rights is not crazy so it can’t be a religion. But if you take a broad view of what people believe defines a religion throughout history and around the world, you find that the deity at the core is not universal. 

The Satanists have an allegorical, mythological framework that is very meaningful to them, with symbols and art that have meaning and power, with rituals meant to access something bigger than themselves, and they have tenants with very affirmative values, not separating themselves from other people but confirming their commitment to science, justice, and compassion. They have everything that a religion needs. They just don’t believe in invisible people in the sky and obedience and blind faith in archaic texts that don’t change, and it’s increasingly untenable to continue to believe in that in this rational, individualistic age. It’s not just non-modern but anti-modern. The Satanic Temple could be the first modern religion.

One of the most fascinating moments in the film is when a member of the Satanic Temple is essentially excommunicated. Even a group explicitly committed to challenge and rebellion has its limits.

Do you need any more proof that it’s a real religion? When you start having schisms and excommunications, that’s a pretty strong indication. We knew from the beginning that there was a tension. Satanic and institution—those two words are not particularly well suited to be in the same sentence. They are anti-authoritarian! They hate groups! They can’t have dogma! This makes it very difficult for them to organize. That’s been its own set of problems. A handful of people doing volunteer work are trying to manage a growing group, at great personal cost. They make mistakes, they move on. I don’t know if the institution will continue to flourish. The legal stuff is its own vector of activity.

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"Hail Satan?" / Magnolia Pictures

The Satanists in the film are a pretty varied assortment. Some have piercings and tattoos but some are ordinary looking guys in suits. One even has a bow tie. What do they have in common?

If you ask any Satanist about their life story, about their religion, their foundational moments in their life, all their stories involve book stores and libraries. One hundred percent. I failed to get that in the film. We tried really hard but never got it in. Boy, they love books. They love to read. They are knowledge-seeking, information-gathering, belief-testing people. That binds them together despite their massive differences. 

The other thing they have in common is being okay with being the kind of people who call themselves a Satanist, which is a very particular kind of person. They’re saying, “I’m okay with being the vessel for everyone’s fears and hatred.” You’ve got to kind of like that. Most of us don’t. We say we want to be individuals and rebels but we also want to get along and have people like us. That’s good. You can’t have a society without most of us being like that. But you also can’t have a good society without some Satanists around who say, “I don’t care if my existence is offensive to you; I’m going to ask some tough questions.” That’s why there is such a large LGBTQ population in Satanism. There’s an overlapping population of people whose outward appearance is reviled by so many people.

There’s a moment in the film where the lawyer, a straight, white, good-looking guy, asks “Is this what everyone who is different is treated like?” That is really the moment he becomes a Satanist because now he understands what it is to be a minority in our culture. And the other “normal” looking guy, the one with the bow tie, will tell you he came from a total evangelical, almost zealot background that was like "Bible Bible Bible" all the time, evangelizing at work, on the street. After his crisis of faith and leaving the church and becoming an atheist he starts to care a lot about exposing certain hypocrisies that he feels he has been damaged by and society has been damaged by, too. And then, once you’re an atheist in the eyes of your former tribe you’re a Satanist, so why not be one?

And what is the common theme in your films? What keeps drawing your attention?

Essentially, all I really care about is why people believe what they believe. I made a film about this quack doctor who was able to convince people using the power of stories. And religious belief is about stories as well. That’s what binds us together as tribes and people. And also, they’re all kind of funny. I’m trying to have a good time! Making movies is hard, so I try to have some fun.

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