Filmmaker Penny Lane takes an eye-opening, myth-busting look at a religion that’s growing rapidly
“The night Donald Trump was elected president, we saw a huge spike in people becoming members of the Satanic Temple,” says Lucien Greaves, enigmatic leader of the dynamic and rapidly growing religion. In fact, the Satanic Temple is expanding at such a pace, it’s become the focus of a new documentary – but what exactly is a 21st century Satanist?
To find out, filmmaker Penny Lane takes us deep inside the inner-workings of Greaves’ grass-roots movement in Hail Satan?, a movie detailing the Temple’s efforts to highlight the importance of the separation of church and state. That question mark is no typo, either. In addition to gathering a mammoth amount of controversy, the Satanic Temple is surrounded by a glut of misinformation, but with Hail Satan?, Lane aims to set the record straight about what being horny in 2019 is really all about.
“I’d seen news stories about the Satanic Temple, and they were all pretty similar,” Lane tells Dazed. “They were saying it was a satirical prank and that they weren’t really Satanists. It wasn’t until I came across a longer piece where I learned more about what was going on – and that there were all these new chapters forming all over the place. It became more interesting the more I engaged with it.” Eventually Lane’s research led her to Greaves, the Temple’s self-described ‘reluctant leader’ and figurehead for all media dealings.
“The first thing that struck me was how quiet and unassuming he was,” she says, recalling their first meeting. “He didn’t come across as your typical religious leader: he’s quiet, studious, serious and private, and wasn’t exceptionally excited to be on camera. It felt like he’d been called to do this work so was going to do it the best he could.”
Lane’s first impressions were accurate. For Greaves, the Satanic Temple is no gimmick. It’s a place for those who feel disenfranchised with the world and want a community to help them combat it. “I didn’t take it lightly when I determined to become the voice of this movement – it really felt like suicide to me,” Greaves reveals. “I was keenly aware of the Satanic Panic from the 80s and 90s and how lives were ruined by the attribution of Satanism. I felt like if we weren’t vindicated in what we were doing, we would ruin our lives. We live in a Google era and I would never be able to walk away.”
It’s truly no wonder Greaves was so wary. Talk to anyone about Satanism, and blood-drenched ritual sacrifice and tired old stereotype emerge. “The Hollywood conception of Satanism? That doesn’t exist,” asserts Lane. “There aren’t people like there are in Rosemary’s Baby or American Horror Story that literally worship the devil, do acts of evil, and try to bring about the apocalypse. The people who exist in the world and call themselves Satanists are typically atheists who embrace the idea of Satan as a literary figure that stands for rebellion, skepticism, and the value of being an outsider,” she explains. “The Satanic Temple is one instantiation of that belief system.”
“The Temple is growing and they will have to manage that growth. There’s lots of opportunities for triumph and missteps along the way” – Penny Lane
Greaves echoes this statement: “It’s a conservative estimate to say that just over 50 per cent of our membership are part of the LGBTQ community – that gives you some idea of who’s attracted to the Satanic Temple. It’s people who feel disillusioned by traditional religious institutions, but still desire that sense of community.”
“The people who identify with the Satanic Temple take it really seriously as their religious identity,” Lane adds, “it’s hard to organise your beliefs into something that feels bigger than yourself and has a purpose. Moving through the world is much more possible once you find your tribe.”
Considering the fraught political and social landscape of 2019, it’s hardly surprising that alternative religious groups are growing in popularity and keen to make themselves known. In the case of the Satanic Temple, that message comes via a giant half-man-half-goat-all-metal-album-cover-esque Baphomet statue created as a political tool. “A lot of people look at it and, depending on their beliefs and cultural baggage, either see a beautiful work of art or a monstrosity – but the symbolism was very important to us,” says Greaves. “It’s part animal, part human, points above and below, there’s a male child on one side, a female child on the other, and Caduceus in the middle representing reconciliation – it was the perfect symbol for pluralism.”
This idea of pluralism and the separation of church and state looms large in Hail Satan?, and it couldn’t be a more prevalent issue. “We’re taking steps backwards every day during the Trump administration,” says Greaves. “We see them trying their best to make access to abortion prohibited and roll-back the rights of gay couples. All the while, they premise this on religious liberty claims, never thinking some alternative religious voice will come along and claim equal access. There comes a point where there has to be a reckoning.”
As Lane’s documentary shows, perhaps that reckoning is at hand. “The film is really just the origin story,” says the director. “The Temple is growing and they will have to manage that growth. There’s lots of opportunities for triumph and missteps along the way.” Greaves’ view? This is just the beginning: “The Satanic Temple has established itself in such a way that it’ll have a long lasting presence,” he says assuredly. “If I end up getting shot any time soon, it will be able to continue without much hiccup. I feel very proud of that fact.”
Hail Satan? previews nationwide Tuesday 20 August ahead of its cinema release on 23 August