Sundance: 'Hail Satan?' Director on the Misconceptions About the Satanic Temple

Hail Satan?-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The doc tracks the rise of the six-year-old organization, which began as an elaborate media stunt but has evolved into a recognized religion fighting for legitimacy.

"We are so desperate for political solutions that perhaps Satanism has something to offer us," says Penny Lane, director of the U.S. Documentary Competition title Hail Satan?, premiering Jan. 25.

The doc has already has been picked up for distribution by Magnolia, which is behind the box office success and now Oscar nominee RBG. The doc tracks the rise of the Satanic Temple, which began as an elaborate media stunt but has evolved into a recognized religion fighting for legitimacy. The Satanic Temple, formed in 2012, has taken on everyone from the Westboro Baptist Church to the Arkansas State Capitol (and more recently settled with Netflix and Warner Bros. TV over copyright issues relating to a Satanic statue that appeared in the series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). 

"[The Satanic Temple] is a canny, modern manipulator of the media, and they know that," says Lane. "They do things with the eye on generating that outraged Fox viewer." Indeed, what may surprise viewers is that the temple is as much of a social justice-minded advocacy group as it is a religion. Lane spent nearly three years with organizers, documenting everything from black masses and the construction of goat statues to beach cleanups and Adopt-a-Highway events. 

"In every community, there are people that are doing all this kind of labor to be good neighbors," Lane explains. "In some towns, that's the Elks Lodge."  In others, it's a group of do-gooding satanists.

THR talked to Lane about her new doc and what America can learn from this contingent of satanists. 

How did you find the Satanic Temple?

Like most people I heard about them through the news media. Part of what they do is generate headlines. The more outrage or full of weird stuff the better. These headlines kept showing up in my social media bubble. And I thought, "Oh I get it." They aren’t really Satanists but it is a clever strategy. But as I looked a little deeper I realized that that was not the story at all and there was something much richer and more complicated going on.

Was TST growing while you were filming?

It felt like wrestling an octopus. There was no way for us to know when some chapter was about to do something interesting. We usually found out after on Facebook, like everyone else. I would say over time we extended our focus to the approximately seven chapters that we filmed at the local level. That took us all over. From London to Boston to Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Arizona.    

What were you most surprised by?

When we started sitting down with local membership, at the chapter level. We kept being told that people are in it because they value the community and do good work, but to really meet those people and talk to them and just have one person after another say, with complete sincerity, how much this group has changed their lives and how meaningful it is to them, that was a big deal for us. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about TST that still persist?

Vice has written endless pieces on this group and yet everyone who has seen those still believe that they are not really Satanists. They are just "pranksters." People have a hard time believing that they could be both joking and serious. That they could be performing and sincere. It is a pretty deep set of misconceptions that they are fighting against. A big pitch to them for the film was that with a feature length film we will be able to move viewers seamlessly from thinking "I get it. They are pranksters" to "Wait a minute they are sincere" to "Oh my goodness this is actually a religion?"

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.