Penny Lane’s 2019 documentary Hail Satan? has just hit theatres, and it’s a whirlwind of hilarity, rebellion, controversy, and spunk. Striking a chord between satire, religious critique, and observation, Lane closely follows the Satanic Temple as it sets out to make their presence known and fight for religious pluralism within the borders of United States Christianity. We chatted with Lane to learn more about how this dark and punchy documentary came to be, and what it’s all about.
Head to hailsatanfilm.com to see if Hail Satan! is playing in your area.
What sparked your interest in the Satanic Temple?
Penny Lane: The first time I heard of the Satanic Temple, it had already been around for about three years. In that short period of time, it had moved from being a kind of joke to a real movement with 50,000 members and chapters all over the country. I was like ‘what is going on’? It was really just a desire to answer that question initially that led me to make this film.
Can you explain what the aims of the Satanic Temple are?
TST is a Satanic religious organization that essentially operates as a church. Part of what they do is they advocate for religious pluralism in the public sphere. They’re not just fighting for their rights as Satanists to exist and to practice, but they’re also fighting for the rights of everyone, for believers and non-believers.
Something I took away from the film is that Satan is tied to this notion of rebellion: opposing the status quo, advocating for equal rights, and not becoming a slave to the systems that govern you. Essentially TST is a departure from blindly following along—a call to question things.
It turns out what the Satanists actually believe is much more interesting than what people think they believe, which is just some kind of devil worship.
There are some tense moments in the film where Christians and conservatives are very upset with the Satanists. Did the crew or yourself have any negative experiences while filming?
The only thing I could say was negative was that some people we tried to hire for the film didn’t want to work on it. A surprising number of camera and sound operators, when they found out about what we were actually doing, were like “no thanks.”
Throughout the film, there are really stark moments of contrast between Christian groups and TST. For example, the Abortion Protest footage, where the adult babies seem vulgar and humorous, yet they fit right in with the pro-life protesters’ posters and gruesome images. What do you think these moments of contrast say about the current political and religious climate in the US?
A lot of the big political culture war battles actually are connected to a Christian-evangelical mission to turn America into a Christian nation. They don’t mean Christian nation as in most people are Christian; they mean a nation which chooses the tenants of Christianity as the guiding principles for government. They mean that openly. It’s not even a conspiracy theory, this is what they say they want, and they are actually succeeding.
You start looking around the country and seeing all these things, like the city council in Phoenix having Christian prayers, a state with seriously restricted abortion laws, or a state that won’t let transgender people use the bathroom of their choosing. Once you see the larger patterns of how these things are all connected to this greater mission of making this country into a theocracy, you see the world in a really different way. And that’s one of the things that the Satanists are best at, they can shock you. They beg you to start looking around and to question your surroundings.
Something I wanted to touch on was founder Jex Blackmore’s departure from TST. Jex talks about killing the president in a performative art piece, and this violates TST’s rules about peaceful protest. Jex mentions that the direction the Satanic Temple are going is more organized and institutional, and that’s not what they started out as. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on what the future of TST looks like?
The first thing to say is that, with what happened with Jex, we had to be careful about how we described it. She certainly did not advocate for violence, but in the context of an artistic performance piece she uses the phrase “Execute the President.” She doesn’t say which president. She’s actually quite careful about how she words it, and I think it’s pretty important to say so. TST didn’t think she would do anything violent either of course, but they knew that other people outside the group would jump at the opportunity to show what violent terrible people they are. They just felt that it was too far and it would damage their credibility, and possibly breach the safety of their members.
We include in the film Jex’s kind of warning, or critique, that the organization might become something that they hate—a top-down tyrannical oppressive authority figure. That very well could be the case. Of course, people involved in TST hope for it not to be, and they think they have some ideas on how to keep that from happening.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.