‘Hail Satan?’ Director Penny Lane Regrets Becoming a Card-Carrying Satanist

‘Hail Satan?’ Director Penny Lane Regrets Becoming a Card-Carrying Satanist

Five years ago, I was eating dinner at a Chinese joint in Boston when a parade of black-clad guys in hoods and horns trudged into the restaurant, up the stairs and into the black box performance space on the third floor. They were members of the Satanic Temple, who had come to Boston to perform a Black Mass—a parody ceremony aping the rituals of a Catholic service.

Their arrival had caused chaos. Catholics who believed the group planned to use a consecrated host in the ceremony poured into the streets in protest. Op-eds condemning the ceremony popped up in publications from the Boston Globe to the BBC. At the core of the fight was the question of whether fringe spiritual groups could expect the same freedom of expression that Christians exercise on a daily basis. As it turned out, they couldn’t. The Satanists were kicked out of venue after venue, until they wound up on the third floor of the Hong Kong restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue, lighting candles and murmuring in mock religious fervor.

Now, that same scene appears in the opening act of a new documentary from Penny Lane (her real name), documentarian and chronicler of weird Americana. Lane’s other movies—which range from a look at patients who believe they have Morgellons (The Pain of Others), to an examination of Richard Nixon’s home movies (Our Nixon), to the biography of a wacky radio host who launched a national campaign to cure impotence with goat testicles (Nuts!)—tend to dig into the underbelly of our national oddities. Her latest, Hail Satan?, which premiered at Sundance in January, continues the trend. The film follows the Satanic Temple and its co-founder Lucien Greaves from its rise in the early 2010s, into the streets of Boston, and up to their legal battles in Oklahoma and Arkansas to erect a nine-foot statue of the goat-headed god Baphomet on capitol grounds.

I talked to Penny Lane about doctrinal differences among devil-worshippers, death threats, and why she regrets becoming a card carrying Satanist.

When did the Satanic Temple first register on your radar? 

I’m sure it was something about the Baphomet in Oklahoma—I read about it and I just thought the headline level was cool. Then I kind of forgot about them, and then a while later, my producer sent me Anna Merlan’s Village Voice piece about them, and he was like, hey, what do you think about this as a film topic to pursue? I was like, oh yeah, I’ve heard about those people. I meant to look into that.

You have a track record of documenting weird Americana. What do you look for in a story? Did this immediately register as a Penny Lane subject?

Oh yeah, totally. Even before I knew very much, it registered as something that I would like to do. It kind of evolved. Initially, I thought it would be interesting because I thought there was a lot of deception going on, and a lot of performativity. I didn’t really get it—I thought they were pretending to be Satanists and that they were so good at pretending or that the joke went so deep that they were really sticking to it. So, initially I thought, well this is beautiful; it’s this weird, what-is-true-what-isn’t thing. There’s all these pseudonyms. It just kind of gives off a vibe of lying or pretending. So I was interested, even at that level.

What were the details that caught your attention?

I would say that the first moment when I realized this was going to be a great movie was when I saw Lucien Greaves’ interview with Megyn Kelly. I was just astonished by the performance on his part. I could not tell what was going on. It was so hard to read. Was he smirking? Was he terrified? It was just super unclear to me. I loved the ambiguity.

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