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.
I read that, initially, you couldn’t tell if the Satanists were sincere or kidding, but eventually realized that they were both. At what point in the reporting process did you get a sense for how sincere this was?
I think pretty early. But you have to realize, I was meeting so many people and there were so many different things going on. It’s one thing to say, oh I realize Lucien Greaves was sincere about his mission to create the Satanic Temple; but it’s kind of different to realize that individual Satanists on the ground in Arizona were sincere about Satanism as a religion. You know what I mean? It was kind of an ongoing process, where every step we took it just became more and more clear that the only way to make sense of what was happening was to accept that these people were sincere.
Did you see that change over the course of the time you spent with them? In the opening scene, you have them endorsing Rick Scott’s bill to allow student-led prayer. That’s plainly ironic—they’re not actually endorsing him. But later, you see them do these counterprotests that are actually about Satanic values. Was there a shift?
I think there might have been a shift, but you have to realize I wasn’t around that early. By the time I showed up they were already on their way to Arkansas. So if you look at the film, basically the entire first act had already happened. By the time I showed up, the move from the Satanic Temple as a concept to the Satanic Temple as a real organization with actual members, that had already happened—that idea of it becoming real, or something funny becoming serious, or an idea manifesting into reality. That was what we kept feeling over and over again. It was already part of the story, if that makes sense. There are places in the film where my subjects will say things like, that’s the moment I really became a Satanist. There’s a sentiment of sort of faking it until it’s real, in some cases.
When, roughly, did reporting for this begin?
I’m not really a reporter, but I started researching it in the spring of 2016, and then we started filming in the fall of 2016.
Are there any statistics on the Satanists? How many there are? They obviously have to have some amount of money—for their house and the lawsuit. Are there numbers on that?
I don’t have any numbers for how many there are. Lucien Greaves says it’s somewhere around 100,000 people. But membership doesn’t really mean—it’s like $20 to get a membership card—there aren’t like membership dues or anything, so the number of people doesn’t necessarily translate into their financial thing. But they pretty much make most of their money, meager as it is, through merch sales. They sell T-shirts and tote bags and bathmats. Figurines. Medallions. Stuff like that. People really like them and they have good merch. They also get some donations through their non-profit arm. I don’t really know anything about their finances.
Someone says early in the film that Satanism is the original troll. Trolling has become a kind of central theme in our political landscape. For the most part, at least in the film, the Satanist’s adversaries are relatively humorless, very sincere people. I’m wondering if, while following these Satanists, you ever saw them interact with opponents—like the alt-right, like 4chan—who are also irreverent about their beliefs, but just happen to have the opposite ones?
No. Nope. Never saw that. I’m sure they exist but we never came across them. It’s an interesting observation. Because I think part of what’s made the idea of trolling so salient in our culture is, frankly, it’s Twitter. It’s the flattening of the hierarchy. Everyone’s tweet is the same as everyone else’s tweet. And you too can have a big impact that belies your actual numbers. Suddenly, you can have a group like, I don’t know, the fucking white supremacists, if you want to go there. There aren’t like that many of them, but they can sure make a big impact, because if they send out incendiary tweets, we’re all going to pay attention. The Westboro Baptist Church is a good example too. At the height of their success, what did they have? Like, 20 members? I mean, they’re not a big group. It’s like one family. Yet everyone in America knows who the Westboro Baptist Church is. Isn’t that crazy? There’s an element of trolling in that. You could say it’s good media manipulation. But now we have this new word for it.
There is this climactic moment in the movie where the Detroit representative, Jex Blackmore, threatens to execute Trump on stage. You start to see these divisions in the group. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What was the response when that first happened?
Well, first of all, it’s super-important to be clear about what she did and didn’t do. Because if we’re not clear about that, we can inadvertently bring down an FBI investigation. And we don’t want to do that. So, she did not threaten to execute anyone. She was doing an artistic performance in a private context. In that performance, she says the words, “execute the president.”
I was in the room, and no one in that room interpreted what she said as a literal call for violence. No one. Just to be clear, it was an art piece. It certainly was an art piece that toes the line about what is legal. You can go back and find lots of examples of stand-up comedians and other people who have said things like that and been investigated by the FBI. It’s a big First Amendment quagmire. It’s just a big mess.
But essentially, the Satanic Temple as an institution decided that this performance was a huge liability to them. As I said, they don’t want to bring down a potential Secret Service investigation. They don’t want to give people even the slightest ammunition to say that they were a violent group. To do that is to put them all in danger. That’s why they didn’t want anything to do with that, which I understood. I also understood that, from Jex’s point of view, the First Amendment is supposedly very important to the Satanic Temple—in some ways I wonder if they could have supported her, instead of kicking her out? But these are all things I felt were good arguments on all sides, and we just wanted to represent it as accurately as we could. It was very painful for everyone. It was a little bit inevitable, just in terms of where things were going with the institution, and how Jex was feeling about the institution. But, it was still very sad.
When she said it while you were in the room, did you feel like, oh, crap?
No! It didn’t cross my mind! I’m so stupid. It was a really powerful performance. It was incredibly moving. It was really, really, intense. Jex is an incredible artist. Her ability to inspire a sense of urgent, creative rebellion in people is incredible. It’s really, really incredible. I’ve never known anyone like her and I have so much respect for her.
What is she up to now?
She’s doing her own thing. She’s still a Satanist—the Satanic Temple doesn’t own Satanism any more than the Church of Satan does. Although the Church of Satan thinks they own Satanism. Whatever. So, you know, it’s sort of like, she’s off doing her own thing now. I think it’s a much better outcome for everyone. She’s doing art performances all the time. She’s going to be in New York City this weekend doing something, although she won’t tell me what it is.
“This beef just doesn’t seem necessary. But that’s what’s happening. They all hate each other. They just argue on Twitter all day. It’s just super boring and depressing to everyone else in the world.”
Can you rewind to how the Church of Satan thinks it owns Satanism? Is there beef there?
Oh God, yeah. It’s the most annoying part of my life right now. A couple times a day I check Twitter to see what’s going on with my movie. And every review or every attention the movie gets, the Church of Satan has to be like: “They are not Satanists! We are the only real Satanists! This movie is not about Satanism!” And I’m just like, you’re only making yourselves look bad. No one is going to look at this from the outside and be like, who are these get-off-my-lawn-old-people? This beef just doesn’t seem necessary. But that’s what’s happening. They all hate each other. They just argue on Twitter all day. It’s just super boring and depressing to everyone else in the world.
To play inside baseball for a second, are there doctrinal differences? What’s the story of the beef?
It’s such a can of worms. But basically, Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966. Anton LaVey wrote a bunch of books in his life that the Church of Satan considers canon. And there are things in those books that are frankly, fucking ridiculous. Any modern person would read those books and think they were stupid. So many, many members of the Satanic Temple sort of grew up and had some exposure to LaVey’s writings, and some of what he wrote resonated deeply with them to the core, and then other parts of what he wrote made them cringe and made them wonder if they were Satanists.
Returning to the schism––not between the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple, but between the Satanic Temple and Jex Blackmore––was there a reaction from Trump when she said that? Was there any fall out publicly?
So, it was really an internal conflict. It didn’t make the news.
Yeah. It had a big impact within the Satanic community. Huge impact. Because many, many, many people came to the Satanic Temple because of Jex—because of her art, because of her point of view, because of her charisma. She brings a lot. She brought a lot to defining what the Satanic Temple was. It was really hard when she left. She took a lot of people with her.
There’s a lot of archival footage in the film—that old Adam and Eve clip, the Satan cartoons—can you tell me about digging through footage of biblical references, and how you wound up on those?
It was really fun. Each interview we did with different experts would send me down a different path. My editors were editing, doing all the really hard work of putting together a movie, and occasionally I would be able to go home and just spend the whole day watching Satanic Panic police-training videos, or another day might be 1960s and ‘70s horror movies. It was a fun process of watching tons and tons and tons of stuff, to find those tiny little nuggets we ended up using. We used such a small amount of it in the end compared to what we had.
Last question: I heard you joined the Satanic Temple. How’d that happen?
It never really occurred to me that this was going to be something that anyone cared about. And if I had thought it through, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It just causes problems for me now, because people want to be like, oh it’s made by a member! It’s propaganda! Getting a membership card to the Satanic Temple is a pretty low bar for supporting the organization. I sent them $20 and I got a card. I like my card and I feel very aligned with and allied to the work they do. But, like I said, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t have done it. Because it’s the kind of thing now that seems a little more significant than it is.