There aren’t many documentarians who can claim they’ve made a movie which turns people into Satanists. But Hail Satan? director Penny Lane is one of them.
“People are very surprised by the film,” says Lane. “The transformation they undergo was not the one they were expecting. People feel really inspired and empowered. A lot of people walk out with this kind of puzzled, perplexed look on their face and they’re saying to their friend, ‘I think I might be a Satanist!’ It really disturbs them to even say those words, but that’s the best possible reaction, and it’s very common.”
The just-released Hail Satan? tracks the rise of The Satanic Temple, an organization which, as the film makes clear, is far more about political activism than actively worshipping the Devil. Founded in 2013, the Temple has organized a series of campaigns designed to advocate for religious freedom and challenge corrupt authority. To protest the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church — which is infamous for displaying homophobic placards at public events — Temple cofounder Lucien Greaves performed a “Pink Mass” over the grave of the Church’s leader mother, a ritual which purports to turn the deceased’s straight spirit gay. He also placed his naked testicles on the gravestone. After a local politician paid for the installation of a Ten Commandments Monument on the front lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol, the Satanic Temple petitioned to install a one-and-a-half ton bronze statue of the goat-headed occult deity Baphomet. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Ten Commandments statue must be removed but Baphomet later traveled to Arkansas, when another Ten Commandments monument was erected on the grounds of that state’s capitol. While detailing these campaigns, Lane’s documentary also looks into the ways Christianity has crept into areas of traditionally secular public life. (Did you know, for example, that the phrase “In God We Trust” has only been featured on paper currency since the late ’50s?)
Lane became interested in the Satanic Temple after reading a 2014 Village Voice cover story about its activities.
“I thought it was a joke,” she says. “I actually didn’t believe there was anything called the Satanic Temple. I thought there was some people pretending there was a thing called the Satanic Temple. My producer sent me this article. I realized that the story was way more interesting. I started to understand the totality of the work they were doing. I also guessed — correctly — that lots and lots of people would be enthusiastic about this if they knew more about it.”
While many of the Satanic Temples’ activities are clearly designed to garner publicity, Greaves was reluctant to accommodate Lane’s request to make a documentary about the organization.
“There’s this common misperception about the Satanic Temple that we just embrace any type of media we can get and we love the attention,” he says. “In fact, we’re very strict when it comes to our media. My knee jerk reaction was that it was best to say, ‘No,’ but politely. I was pretty certain at that point that that wasn’t something I’d submit to, that it wouldn’t be in our best interests, and it wasn’t something that I wanted to waste the time on.”
Lane persevered, speaking with Greaves and other Temple members “for maybe six months or something before we picked up a camera. I think that ultimately they agreed to it because they saw that the vision I had for the film was sufficiently in sync with the vision they had for the kind of change they wanted to make.”
The film’s most dramatic chapter takes place in Arkansas as the statue of Baphomet is unveiled at a rally of Satanic Temple supporters.
“We were dealing with all kinds of threats,” says Greaves. “We got there and there were a bunch of armed people lingering about. We had the KKK and some kind of neo-Nazis off to the sides. It was deemed most appropriate for me to have my bullet proof vest on.”
Greaves believes the battle is one worth fighting.
“As you see in the movie, you have people holding up money saying, ‘It says In God We Trust,’ and they feel that gives them license to be the only voice at the city councils,” says Greaves. “That’s a very scary precedent. When we’re fighting against the Ten Commandments monument being put up in Arkansas, it’s not a smart-arse prank by any means. We feel the outcome is going to have ramifications for generations. We have a growing theocratic movement, we have Mike Pence in the vice-president’s chair, and it’s a scary state of affairs. I just hope people see that, when they see that battle in Arkansas, they realize that this speaks to a much larger conflict and one that affects everybody.”
According to Greaves, Satanic Temple membership was grown dramatically. “I keep saying a hundred thousand, because that’s what it’s been for some time,” he says. “It’s been steady, consistent growth to the point where people aren’t going to be able to ignore us anymore.”
A one-and-a-half ton bronze statue is also difficult to ignore. Where the devil is Baphomet, these days?
“Oh, in our headquarters in Salem,” says Greaves. “We had to have the floor reinforced, so it could support the weight. It would be difficult to take out, but we’ll definitely take it out when the situation calls for it. It’s on duty!”
Watch the film’s trailer below and an exclusive clip, above.
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