In 2012, when Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a new law which would allow prayer in public schools, a handful of citizens wearing hooded, polyester robes and twisted demon horns held a rally on the steps of the capitol building chanting “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!”
Despite only a small scattering of TV cameras, the stunt, which had been organised by the Satanic Temple as a means of spotlighting the hypocrisy of America’s religious pluralism, transformed the organisation and its co-founder Lucien Greaves from an unknown oddity to a national bogeyman overnight.
As laid out by the First Amendment, the United States government cannot pass any laws “respecting the establishment of religion” which might promote one faith over another. Any legislation opening the door to religious activities in school, the Satanists argued, would have to accept not only Christianity but Satanism as well.
In Hail Satan? Penny Lane deftly captures this and a litany of other, devilishly provocative, media savvy moments from the organisation as she probes beyond the headlines to better understand how the Satanic Temple has grown from a handful of activists to more than 100,000 members in the last three years.
What does it mean to be a Satanist? Are they performance artists? A protest movement? Or should we take them seriously when they say they’re simply following a code of ethics in fellowship with their brethren? Hail Satan? explores all these questions and more with nuance, clarity and a wickedly dark sense of humour.
Ahead of the film’s release nationwide this week, we caught up with Penny Lane to find out more whether Satan is more likely to help or hinder the group’s cause, how we might better understand Satanists as a group of outsiders, and what she learnt about activism whilst filming with the group.
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When people join the Satanic Temple, do you think they’re expressing a desire to be a part of a community? That community and fellowship with others is more important, perhaps, than Satan?
Well no. To the extent they’re all Satanists, it really is about Satan. It’s kind of a common misunderstanding.
The problem with this organisation is that there’s nothing else like them. People get confused – they ask, is it more like this? Or more like that? It’s totally sui generis, it’s a very unique group.
People who argue they don’t really need Satan – yes they do! It’s not like people wander around looking for groups to join and then just pick the Satanic Temple. People who come to Satanism are a very particular subset of people, it tends to be a certain type of person who actually isn’t looking to join a group.
That’s the irony of the Satanic Temple, Satanists tend to be really individualistic, not joiners at all. It surprises them to find themselves part of a group.
Do you find yourself empathising with that impulse? That individualism?
I identify with it completely. I’ve never liked groups, I still don’t like groups, I’ve never joined a group, I’ve never wanted to be part of a group, I hate groups. I can’t stand being part of a crowd, I don’t like to go along with the programme.
I’m allergic to orthodoxy. I find myself wanting to say whatever the opposite is of what everyone around me believes. All of that I totally get. I felt that I genuinely understood the type of person that I was dealing with. I had an understanding of them.
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As you learnt more about Satanism, did you find yourself drawn to it? Was that unexpected?
I don’t think I’m a Satanist. I’m very sympathetic to and appreciative of this religious worldview. I think it’s probably the first religious worldview that I’ve ever encountered that I’d even consider joining. For a while I did think, maybe I’m a Satanist, but I’m just not. It is a religious identity, it’s not like a t-shirt you can put on (laughs).
Some of their goals are quite political – freedom of expression, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ advocacy – do you think they’d be able to achieve these goals more effectively without the label or mascot of Satan perhaps? Does Satan galvanise people against them?
The answer is tricky. In some ways, of course, they could be “more effective” if their goal was to make people like them. Being a Satanist is a sure-fire way to lose a popularity contest. If your “goal” is to win people over to your cause, or to get votes or something, then of course, this would be a terrible method of doing that. But that’s not their goal. They are Satanists, period.
On some level, we don’t really believe in the sincerity of Satanists. We think they must be doing this because of other reasons. Well no, they’re Satanists, they’re just authentically expressing who they are. On the other hand, being a Satanist is at the heart of their activist work. The entire point is to test the limits of the first amendment, and the limits of religious pluralism in a secular society. That’s what they want to do.
You can’t really test the limits unless you’re doing something that’s considered offensive to a great number of people. Even if their goal was to pick the best mascot for their made-up, fake religion, I would argue they do have the right to pick that mascot. The reason I made this movie and the reason we’re having this conversation is because of Satan. That’s the point, it’s all about Satan.
I feel like there are two models for activism – there’s one group that says assimilate, show people how ‘normal’ you are, and over time that’ll convince people that being gay, for example, isn’t as scary or different as they think it is.
Then, the other route is to be as loud and assertive as you can to break the structure that defines being a queer person as abnormal. Do you think this film engages with that dynamic?
Yeah, I do think so. There’s really only one conflict that’s presented as internal to the Satanic Temple, and that’s the conflict that you just described. It’s the only conflict that’s interesting. Naturally there were a million other conflicts happening (laughs) but this is the only interesting conflict for a film like this.
At the end of the day, there’s not just one way to be a Satanist, just like there’s not just one way to be an activist or a person in the world who wants to see change. It seemed important to let the audience see that and remember there’s not one answer to that question.
I didn’t want the film to present Satanism as just this one thing, one technique – it’s a bunch of people who take a Satanic philosophy and apply it in all these really different ways.
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Did you learn anything about that dichotomy whilst you were making this film?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, I think it’s really complicated. For the sake of analysis we tend to invent these heuristics – it’s either work within the system, or destroy the system. Of course in reality it’s a little bit of both. Things are not as dichotomous as they seem usually. That’s what I thought the Satanic Temple were so good at, they can do a press stunt, but they can also work within the system, using legal challenges to make their points. I’m not sure I’m saying anything bright here … I guess I learned that it’s really complicated!
Do you hope this film will help people rethink their attitudes towards the Satanic Temple in some way?
I think the core of this film is asking people to reconsider their preconceptions about a lot of things – what it means to say we live in a secular society; what are the values of a secular society; are we living up to those values; what is a Satanist; what do they believe. Those are all in the list of things I hope the film makes people reconsider.
The most obvious thing, I hope, is making you understand Satanism better (laughs). That’s what the movie is about so … I do think that most viewers walk out of the film with a feeling of urgency about the question what does it mean to have a secular society? What does it mean to protect the point of view of people you don’t like or don’t agree with?
I’m not trying to convince you that you should be a Satanist, it’s really OK if you walk out the film thinking what they’re doing is offensive and stupid, that’s fine. But, the value of allowing that speech to continue is important, and it’s important to everyone. Everyone has an equal stake in that proposition.
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Hail Satan? screens in select cinemas nationwide from August 23rd.
Words: Thomas Curry