Sympathy for the devil? A new documentary highlights the humor and humanity of the Satanic Temple

Satanists demonstrate outside of the Arkansas Capitol building on Aug. 16, 2018. — still from ‘Hail Satan?’

Update: FilmScene’s showing of ‘Hail Satan?’ at 6 p.m. Friday, May 17 will include a post-screening dialogue with Hollow Axis, interviewed in the film.

A minute into my phone interview with Penny Lane, on a train to her next premiere, the director sighed with relief.

“OK, good, all the people standing near me who I thought were going to be offended by me talking about Satanism have left,” she said. “Now I feel a lot less awkward having this conversation.”

There was a time when Lane herself would have raised an eyebrow on overhearing a stranger discuss the virtues of Satanism. Today, her perspective on the religion — yes, the Satanic Temple (TST) is a card-carrying, tax-exempt religion — is much different, after spending the better part of the past two years interviewing Satanists and gathering footage of TST rallies for her latest documentary, Hail Satan?. The funny and provocative film premieres at FilmScene on May 17.

Lane grew up during the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s and ’90s, when Americans were gripped by widespread fear that secret devil worshipers were infiltrating their communities. Death metal and Dungeons and Dragons were gateways to Satanism, according to news reports dug up by Lane. As silly as it seems, the Panic resulted in real arrests and incarcerations of individuals falsely accused of being Satanists, and for crimes having nothing to do with Satanism, creating a 20th century incarnation of the Salem witch trials.

Satanists prepare protest signs. — still from ‘Hail Satan?’

Actual Satanism is much different than most Americans imagine, Lane said. Her film focuses on TST, formed in 2013 by a small group of atheists as a reckoning for the Satanic Panic (not coincidentally, TST is based out of Salem, Massachusetts) and a reaction to the rising influence of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. government.

“If you asked me four years ago what kind of person was­ a Satanist, I would have thought they were annoying teenagers that were just rebelling against their parents,” Lane admitted. “I didn’t know there was any depth to the Satanic philosophy at all. So discovering these people I was meeting through TST were really smart and really thoughtful and were really knowledge-hungry, thinking people … really blew my mind.”

The temple has grown to more than 50,000 members who unite around seven tenets, including, “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason,” “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone” and, “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.”

Temple members don’t worship Satan or even believe in him, Lane assures, but rather admire the role he played in the Bible (“tempting” Eve with knowledge and freedom in the Garden of Eden, encouraging Abraham not to murder his son on God’s orders, etc.) and identify with the outcast character of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“We view Satan as a symbolic embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny,” TST co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves (a pseudonym) told a furrow-browed Megyn Kelly on Fox News in 2015.

“They are a nontheistic religion based on honoring — I guess I would use the word ‘honoring’ — this kind of mythical figure while expressly acknowledging that it is fiction,” Lane said.

TST members combine stereotypical Satanic theatrics such as horns, capes, Christian blasphemy and Gothic and punk imagery with political protest, often designed to reveal the hypocrisy of Christians — from Florida Gov. Rick Scott to Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps — who advocate for a brand of “religious liberty” that favors their personal beliefs.

Lane began following TST in 2016, during the temple’s campaign to erect a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed occult figure that TST gave an “Iggy Pop torso” (knowing they wouldn’t get away with Baphomet’s traditional bare breasts), outside the Oklahoma State Capitol next to a monument of the Ten Commandments.

The Satanic Temple bring their Baphomet statue to an Aug. 16, 2018 demonstration at the Arkansas Capitol building. — still from ‘Hail Satan?’

“The Baphomet monument is far more than simply some middle finger to the evangelical right,” Greaves says in Hail Satan?. “Really, we were giving the Oklahoma government a civics lesson.”

TST has pushed back against policies they see as blurring the line between church and state, from Christian symbols on public property to prayer in public schools, often by seeking to ingrain their own symbols and prayers into these institutions.

“You’re supposed to uphold the First Amendment for people that you don’t like as well as those you do like,” Lane said. “When they show up to do a type of activist work in the public square, they frighten people. It’s like a stress-test to see how well we are upholding the First Amendment.”

Despite provoking the wrath of Christians across the nation, TST’s efforts have proven successful. When faced with spotlighting Satanism or removing all religious references, policymakers typically choose the latter.

“They are exceptionally willing to take on this kind of adversarial, outsider role: the questioner, the skeptic, the heretic,” Lane said of TST.

Satanic Temple co-founder “Nicholas Crowe” is interviewed in ‘Hail Satan?’ — film still

Modern Satanism is rather tongue-in-cheek, epitomized by the fact TST members in Lane’s film tend to laugh whenever they utter the catchphrase “Hail Satan,” even as a preamble to a serious discussion.

The question mark in her documentary’s title serves a similar purpose as the laughs, Lane said: softening the phrase, and reflecting the combination of cheekiness and sincerity that is TST. Lane and her crew not only depict the epic moment in which the Baphomet statue is forged in bronze, and Greaves’ most poignant interviews, but also the packages of Halloween store demon capes piled on the floor, and the process of sweeping up after a rally involving roiling speeches, ritualistic nudity and the impaling of pig heads. If the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was real, it’d look a little like Hail Satan?.

“Are they kidding or are they serious? The answer is that they’re both,” Lane said. “If you don’t get that, it’s really hard to get the whole movement. If you don’t accept that people can be both having fun, making jokes, laughing at themselves, pulling pranks, but also have a whole deep meaning behind it, none of it makes any sense at all.”

Some Satanic work is devoid of irony, including adopting highways to remove litter, collecting feminine hygiene products for the homeless and holding blood drives. There are 17 official TST branches across the U.S. and Canada; none are in Iowa, but an unaffiliated, TST-friendly group called Satanic Iowa has more than 60 members on Facebook. (TST also praised an Urbandale, Iowa student in 2014 for fighting a ban against wearing Satanic symbols at his high school.)

Lucien Greaves (center) and other Satanists crash the unveiling ceremony of a new Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock, Arkansas. — still from ‘Hail Satan?’

Lane, whose past works include Our Nixon and Nuts!, both of which rely heavily on archival film, said she was a little daunted by the idea of covering a contemporary topic, gathering footage in real time. Her nerves reached a fever pitch before a TST rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, which served as the last scene in Hail Satan?.

“I can remember standing in the room with Lucien as he was putting on his bulletproof vest, after weeks of pretty credible death threats online from the KKK and other people. It got pretty scary,” Lane said. “If you really do believe these are evil people doing evil things, what’s to stop you from killing them and justifying it?”

“They’re standing up and literally putting their lives on the line to fight for religious freedom and pluralism, which are values that protect all of us, and all they get back from it is mockery and death threats. That’s their award. It made me furious, really angry.”

Lane said Hail Satan? has gotten a stronger response from audiences than she expected — hate from avid Christians who have prejudged the film, sure, but also a lot of enthusiasm from viewers in the Bible belt, places where threats to women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and religious equality feel most real.

“My producer and I,” Lane recalled, “we had our first test screening of an early rough cut and [afterwards] we looked at one another and we were like, ‘We just made an uplifting, patriotic movie — about Satanism?’”

Jex Blackmore holds a controversial TST rally in ‘Hail Satan.’ — film still

Despite acquiring a TST membership card, Lane doesn’t consider herself a Satanist. But she does feel good about the prospect of her own film being used as archival footage for a future project reflecting on the rise of the Satanic Temple, with all its costumes and contradictions.

“I could go along and just be a quiet secular individual like a lot of people do,” says one of Lane’s interview subjects, a bow-tied TST member. “I don’t want to say the phrase ‘this has given my life purpose,’ but I would say this makes life fun.”

Emma McClatchey needs to get herself a mini replica of that Baphomet statue for her desk. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 264.

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