I did not expect Hail Satan? to be my favorite movie of Sundance, but that’s usually how it works. I walked into Hail Satan? with an open mind, and when it ended I had to talk to director Penny Lane. We spoke on the last weekend of Sundance and I’m presenting the interview now as the documentary opens in theaters.
Looking back at this interview it really became more of a conversation than most of my interviews, just by the number of my statements that don’t end in a question mark. I suppose I could have formed them as questions, but The Satanic Temple got so in my head with their showmanship and political activism, I just wanted to talk more about the things I had witnessed. And you can too now that Hail Satan? has opened in theaters.
WLE: My first impression was they are brilliant satirists.
PL: Yes, exactly. That’s what was so great. From a distance, just knowing that. Just knowing the brilliant trolling satire tactics politically and culturally, they seem really smart. Then of course there’s unfolding layers of understanding that one could have if one wants to engage with them seriously, which no one’s ever really done. That was part of the impetus was seeing how deep their ideas really were, just how coherent their worldview actually is, but you’re never going to get that from a Fox News interview or a quick Vice headline. There was this kind of coherent and, I thought, worth taking seriously worldview that hadn’t ever been explored and that was kind of the goal.
WLE: Did they become political activists through finding subjects worthy of satire?
PL: Humor does a lot of work for us, doesn’t it? It does. My movie had to be funny. That’s why I picked them but you can’t ask an audience in a depressing register to question all their beliefs, but you can do it if you can make some jokes. Humor does so much work. It’s really an underappreciated tool in the political world. One of the fun ongoing themes of the film is the idea of a joke becoming real, or an idea manifesting into reality. Even someone like Nicholas Crowe, he tells the story of the Black Mass at Harvard. He says, “That was the moment I really became a Satanist.” So there’s kind of this radicalization that happens for a lot of them. They go out a bit as a joke, and then in the pushback they receive, they realize what they’re doing is really serious.
WLE: Separation of church and state is really serious.
PL: It’s ostensibly a really important value of the American project.
WLE: We don’t see a lot of people fighting for it. We see more the opposite these days.
PL: Exactly. I mean, you know, the atheists have been out there. The secular people have been out there fighting this fight for a long time. They don’t get very much attention.
WLE: They don’t have the showmanship.
PL: Exactly, they don’t have the cool merch.
WLE: As the Temple was growing, did it provide a place for reclusive introverts to find a group that allowed them to socialize?
PL: Yeah, if the film has a failing, it’s that I’m trying to do too much because everything’s so interesting. Some of the stuff I wish I had been able to push into the film a little more includes more of the personality types of the people who are attracted to this movement. Social misfits, real social misfits, not just people who think their nerds. I watch The Bachelor. I love that show. there’s a moment in every season of The Bachelor where one of the girls, the Bachelor contestants, says, “I’m just a huge nerd.” And you’re like, “No, you’re not. You’re really not.” A gathering place for real nerds, to me, was extremely emotionally compelling as someone who always felt a little bit on the outside myself.
WLE: It’s been at least 20 years where it’s been cool to say you’re a nerd, but they don’t understand that means no one’s asking you out, you’re not getting invited to parties.
PL: Nobody likes you. People literally hate you.
WLE: I’ve even heard, “I’m such a nerd. I love Star Wars.” Great, you love the most popular thing ever.
PL: It’s so funny. I think The Satanic Temple, in the kindest possible way when I say they are true nerds. They are cosplay, D&D, the whole thing.
WLE: Is it telling that the Satanists don’t raise their voice and the Christians scream at them?
PL: Yes, it’s very telling. I think it’s very telling. You have to think of being a Satanist in two registers. There’s the trolling element as Jesper, our religion expert, says in the film. Satanism is the original troll because just saying you’re a Satanist produces this response that’s so interesting and productive, but that’s only part of it. Most of them are just normal people who are not looking for fame or glory or headlines or to get interviewed on local news. They’re just expressing who they really are authentically deep within. Most of what they do its private. It’s not mostly about fighting these big battles at the legislative level. It’s mostly about getting together with their community and exploring and expressing their own religious identity. It’s mostly normal religious people, what they want. They mostly want to be left alone kind of.
WLE: And people refuse to find out any more than the name Satanist.
PL: Oh my God, you have no idea. I have been so shocked. I’m making this movie. I’m accustomed in my intellectual life, when I talk to people and I say, “Oh, I’m making a movie about X subject” and the person I’m speaking to doesn’t know anything about it, I’m accustomed to a certain way that that exchange goes, where you say, “Oh, I don’t know that much about that” and I say “Let me tell you” and they say “How interesting.” They might say, “Oh, I thought this thing. It’s interesting to find out that I’m wrong.” That is not how it goes with this topic ever. People are convinced they know what a Satanist is and what they stand for. There’s nothing I can say that will make them do anything other than dig their heels in. It’s fascinating how deep those layers of certainty go. If I was the first Jewish person you’d ever met and I said, “Well, what do you know about Judaism?” and you say, “I don’t know, I guess you kill babies.” And I say, “No, that’s actually not the core of Judaism. Again, people will watch this whole film and they will tell me, “I cried at the end and I really believe in what they do it but I really wish they’d call it something else.” I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you. You can’t tell people what to call their religion. This is their religion.” They would say it’s Satan for a reason. It’s not a Pickle Jar Full of Sand. It’s not arbitrary. It’s not the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s a specific set of images and iconography and stories and metaphors that have meaning. They are purposely choosing that meaning. They’re not arbitrarily picking Satan just to annoy people.”
WLE: They don’t just want to be atheists because atheism isn’t actually the opposite of Christianity. Satanism is.
PL: I think that’s why so many people find the movement so compelling and that’s why they’ve been so successful, because they pick up a lot of people in the world who are like me, who are these kind of unaffiliated atheists and remind us that it’s difficult to accomplish anything if you are just an unaffiliated atheist, right? Like, what are you doing? How are you trying to change the world? Are you actually engaging in these battles or are you just retreating into your smug liberal enclave saying, “Oh, these dumb religious people.” They are engaging in the fight. They don’t want to check out. They want to be part of popular culture and actively fight back where people like me tend to be like, ugh, leave that stuff over there. I found that very inspiring. It made me think a lot about who are my people and what is my tribe? How can I gather with those likeminded people and actually do something and not just sit back and think, “Look at all these dumb dumbs ruining our culture, potentially ruining America.” It’s not even just a joke. One of the things I think I finally got doing this film, this is so important, is that it’s super hard to convince Americans that secular democratic values as enshrined in the Constitution are not just sitting there rock solid, that they’re constantly under attack. It’s hard for us to understand that Iran was a secular democratic society until 1978 when it became a theocracy. It’s not to say that’s going to happen in America tomorrow but it is to say it is possible. It is totally within the realm of possibility because we see it happen all the time that a democratic secular society can fall or elevate itself I guess, depending on your point of view, into a God centric theocracy in which religion and the state are identical. It’s happened before in other countries and it can happen here. I think when I started this film, I wasn’t thinking about it that seriously. Again, it’s like oh, who cares what some senator in Arkansas is doing? Or some city council member in Phoenix.
WLE: Is your greatest asset filmmaking like mine is writing?
PL: Yeah, I’ll say this. For me, it’s always been very difficult for me to be politically active because I do relate to Satanists in many ways as a personality type. I am always the kind of heretic in the group. I’m always the kind of blasphemer in the group. If I’m in a group and a consensus begins to form, whatever it is, I’m like, “But what about the other thing?” So it’s always been really hard for me to feel able to do things like go to a march and do the chant. It makes me feel physically uncomfortable to feel like I’m part of a group because I think groups are so terrible. So this group is so appealing to me because I’m like what would a group look like that is a bunch of people who hate groups? How would that function? That was important to me.
WLE: Did filming any of those protests get hairy?
PL: Yeah, that final rally, that climactic rally in Little Rock was extremely tense and extremely frightening because there were a lot of people there with guns. It’s an open carry state. So openly surrounded by people with guns on their belts who are very, A, hateful and very offended by this Satanic group was really scary.
WLE: Did you ever try to talk to anyone at Paramount? I don’t think anyone from the Ten Commandments era is still there, but still.
PL: I never did, no. It’s a crazy moment as you can see int he film. I was genuinely shocked when I found that out. It’s important to say there are other Ten Commandments monuments that are a different design. It’s an ongoing thing but that specific design that you see all around the country, there were almost 4000 monuments made.
WLE: And residents of those time take it for granted it’s part of their city’s history.
PL: Oh, they take it so seriously. I mean, it’s a movie promotion. And then they complain about the Satanists and how they just want attention, it’s just all a media stunt. I’m like okay, look in the mirror.
WLE: Do you have your next subject?
PL: No, I don’t know. We just finished this movie. We’ll figure this out.