Goats play an important role in Penny Lane’s work. No stranger to unusual subject matter, the director’s experimental 2016 documentary Nuts! tells the story of a doctor claiming to cure impotence by transplanting said animal’s testicles into humans. In Lane’s new doc, Hail Satan?, a goat returns in the shape of an 8ft statue of the winged, goat-headed demon Baphomet. Used as a weapon against the seeming encroachment of evangelical Christianity into public life and matters of state, the bronze billy proves surprisingly effective.

Hail Satan? charts the rise of the Satanic Temple – founded in 2013, and a different entity to Anton LaVey’s 1960s-established Church of Satan – as they morph from a small band of activists campaigning for the separation of church and state to a fully-fledged nontheistic religion with thousands of members internationally. Citing the first amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the temple, aided by articulate, enigmatic co-founder Lucien Greaves and an image of Satan as the ultimate rebel (rather than literal devil), does its best to keep America a secular nation, encourage religious pluralism and overturn prejudice.

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Whether threatening to erect satanic statues to prevent Christian monuments on government property, performing ‘pink’ or black masses to expose religious hypocrisies, advocating seven tenets based around “compassion, wisdom and justice” but respecting “the freedom to offend”, or simply engaging in community actions – like litter picking with tridents – the temple’s activities prove provocative, challenging, inspiring and comic in equal measure.

We spoke to Lane about the temptations of satanism and how her own preconceptions were altered.

Hail Satan? (2019)

What led you to make a film about satanists?

I started hearing about the Satanic Temple in 2015 when they were doing their Baphomet campaign in Oklahoma. I was seeing headlines and thought, “OK, I get it. These are media pranksters. They’re not really satanists. These are just a few people making a really good joke.” It functioned very well in that way.

But a couple of years later, I started looking into them more and immediately realised my initial assumptions were totally wrong. They had to be wrong because by then they had 50,000 members, and I thought, “Well wait, it’s obviously not just a joke or where would these 50,000 people be coming from?” So that was the initial interest for me: what is this organisation and movement?

And what does the Satanic Temple represent to you?

To me, the temple represents a radical and much-needed reinvention of the very idea of religion in a way that makes sense in the 21st century. This is what religion would be if we were starting from scratch and weren’t inheriting it from an archaic past.

In reality we know what religion is for: it’s mythology, it’s helping us understand the world better through storytelling and art and ritual. So I thought a religion that starts by acknowledging that those stories they’re telling are fiction would be a very smart way to start. Because you wouldn’t be arguing about stupid shit like, “Did God invent the world in seven days?”

And also, their values are humanism. That’s what satanism is essentially, humanism plus acknowledging that for a specific minority of people, the idea of being the adversary, of embracing that role as the outsider and rebel and heretic is just so cool.

Do you feel that in terms of their political activism they have an advantage in being a religion rather than just a humanist movement?

Well, in terms of the types of legally based activism they’re engaged in in the US, yes. That activism only works if they’re a religion, because you can’t say all religions deserve equal treatment if you’re not one.

There’s a cynical view of the Satanic Temple that says, “Well, it’s not really religion, but they have to all wink and nod and pretend to be a religion.” It’s possible there are some people involved in the movement who think that way. But when you get to the leaders and founders that have devoted their lives to this movement, for them they’re not just kidding. This is really their own religion, and they really mean it.

Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves in Hail Satan? (2019)

There’s lots of surprising moments in the film – how much was preplanned before shooting and how much was a process of discovery?

Actually, it was all a process of discovery. I knew at the beginning that I was not especially interested in making a biographical film that would be like, “Okay, who is Lucien Greaves, who were his parents, and what happened to his eye?”

My thesis was satanism: a new type of religion that went from being something of a publicity stunt to a legitimate religion in a very short time. Let’s tell that story. In crude shorthand, it was showing how something can be a joke or publicity stunt one day and then evolve pretty quickly into something much more real and serious and significant.

As the temple grows, there’s a danger of it becoming more like the organisations it’s fighting. How do you see them coping with that?

If you have a satanic organisation, there’s going to be constant questioning of authority. People who are attracted to satanism score high on the rebellion index, so they’re not going to fall in line and just do what you say. And I don’t envy the job of being a satanic leader. It sounds horrible – you’ve got satanists yelling at you!

There’s some fundamental tension with the idea of an organised satanic movement. When I spoke to members, they said, “That’s true. And it’s a good thing. We don’t want to be like the Catholic church. We’re not trying to have a movement where our members just fall in line.” So even though it’s way more of a pain in the ass, they welcome the constant conflict.

One of the satanists comments that on joining the temple he experienced people’s prejudiced hatred. Have you experienced that – has the film proved controversial in the States?

Actually, I expected it to be more so, so the film has been disappointing in terms of directing public hatred towards me. I was prepared for a huge uptick in my hate mail, and it didn’t really happen. I think it just shows why the Satanic Temple has been as successful as it has been. If you take the time to understand what they’re doing, which I think this film really helped people do, then it’s just not that objectionable.

Hail Satan? (2019)

Did you find it quite different to working on your previous films?

Part of the reason I picked the topic was that it would be a different process. I’ve always felt very insecure in shooting environments. But with this film, I had a producer working with me who’s had experience on shoots, and I had a whole crew. Now I feel I can do anything, because previously I was doing these wacky films that were taking advantage of the things I felt comfortable doing – I loved doing archival research and editing and post-production. This was more like, “OK, will I succeed in doing a film that’s going to rely a lot on filming?” The answer is yes. So now I know I can do anything.

And finally, were you tempted to join the temple?

Yeah, I was. I spent a long time thinking about whether I was a satanist; it was a confusing topic. I felt like here’s a religion that I really believe in. The philosophical thought to me is very well constructed, and it all fits together and makes sense. So why am I not a satanist? Many people watching this film walk out and say, “Huh. Am I a satanist?” So it’s not surprising the filmmaker wondered if I was a satanist too. But I eventually came to the conclusion that I was not, and it was weird because I just never thought I’d have to spend so much time in my life justifying why I’m not a satanist.