Chronicling the rise of one of the most controversial religious movements in American history, Hail Satan? is a new feature documentary from director Penny Lane (Nuts!, Our Nixon). (Read our review of the film here.) We sit down with the organisation’s spokesman, Lucien Graves, to talk about the actual nature of the group and the film:
How did the documentary come about, first of all?
Well, Penny (director Penny Lane) reached out to me and I can’t even remember the initial email, but I know that my initial reaction was that I didn’t want a documentary done. We’d had many pitches for documentaries previously, and we said no to them all. And most of those pitches were fairly insulting, people who felt that we would jump at the opportunity for any kind of exposure, and often without much research into what we actually believe in and who we are. And beyond that, we can be very difficult subjects to work with, because we don’t allow the story to be boiled down into somebody’s personal biographical vignette, we don’t want this to become a cult of personality – we want this to be about the issues and we want it to be about The Satanic Temple at large, if it’s going to be done at all. Penny was willing to work with those kinds of restrictions and we weren’t going to do reenactments either. And she also approached us with a very apparent knowledge of who we were and what we actually believed. But that said, even still, I wasn’t sold on the idea that we needed or wanted a documentary. It wasn’t until I saw her prior feature film, Nuts, and saw how it was narratively constructed, and I saw her do a Q&A in which she was talking about her feud with the anti-vax movement, her general scepticism and lack of supernaturalism that I grew much more interested in who she was and what she was doing, and ultimately that lead to us agreeing to having a documentary made over the course of some two or three years. I had no idea what narrative course she was going to take until I finally saw the final cut.
I was going to ask you, how closely did you work with Penny during the shooting?
Well, I had to work closely with her to help her schedule film shoots and her participation or attendance at various events, her press access and that type of thing. But I had no say in what material would be used, not used, or how it would be put together. So it was very stressful, kind of wondering where all this is going and what it’s coming together into. Also, I was quite aware that there’s been documentary subjects throughout the history of documentaries who have probably thought that one thing was being made and it turns out to be completely another. So when I first watched the final edit of Hail, Satan?, I was just pleased that I didn’t find it to be inaccurate, but I had no idea what audiences would see in it when they saw the film, just because I was too close to the topic matter myself.
Was anything off-limits during the filming or were there lines in the sand?
Yeah, there were. Because we didn’t want it to be diminished into personal profiles or reality TV-style shoots, we didn’t allow for the kind of behind-the-scenes family-type interactions. We didn’t contrive reality-style conflicts. There were going to be no dinner table arguments, that type of thing. We really wanted to be sure that it focused on the issues and on the Satanic Temple at large. And, as I said, we weren’t going to do any reenactments either and I don’t think this takes anything away from the film, I kind of feel like we have this culture now where narratives always have to be these personal narratives, or larger stories need to be personalised in some kind of slice-of-life narrative and I just think that’s a real mistake and something to get away from. And I think the Hail, Satan? film benefits from those restrictions we placed on it – I don’t think anybody’s missing anything at all when they don’t see individual members arguing with their families about their religious identification or other such nonsense.
Now that you’ve seen the film, what’s your reaction?
Actually, when I first saw the film, I didn’t have a good sense of whether or not it was even a good film, no idea what the audience would make of it. It took seeing it many times with audiences, seeing what they applauded for, what they laughed at, before I felt I really had a sense of what the film was. Now I see that the film just gets a really great reaction wherever it plays – I haven’t gone to a single screening where it fell flat. The crowds are very engaged and enthusiastic and seem to come away with a much clearer understanding of who we are and why we’re relevant.
The film has the potential to open people’s eyes to what you actually do. Was that ultimately part of the appeal?
It’s definitely part of the appeal now. Originally, I was trying to persuade Penny to focus almost solely or entirely on our Grey Faction campaign, which I think is really this kind of under-explored – at least, by the media – aspect of the Satanic Temple, where we fight for mental health care reform, to disallow professional sanction of those who use recovered memory therapies. The same kind of therapies that would be used to draw forth memories of Satanic ritual abuse, during the Satanic Panic, are also used to draw forth memories of alien abduction and past lives, which I think rational people know are bogus. And I think that’s just kind of indicative of how focused we are, in making sure that any media project really has a defined function for us in illuminating the issues. You know, the film didn’t go that direction and it went into kind of a more general narrative of who the Satanic Temple is, and to that end we can hope that it really opens people’s eyes to what we really are and what we truly believe.
I read a review that described the Satanic Temple as “part pressure group, part social activism and part performance art”. Is that fair? And if so, which of those do you most closely identify with?
Everybody tries to – I think out of confusion – isolate any element of the Satanic Temple, and put it as the primary thing that the Satanic Temple is. People often ask are you political, are you a religion, are you a prank, all these other types of things, as though any of these elements are mutually exclusive and there can’t be a kind of combination of every different element that they mention. I mean we very much view ourselves as an authentic religious identification. We see our ethics and principles as being inextricable from politics and therefore we find ourselves engaged in all these actions. But we don’t see it is as being primarily any one thing – it’s all of these things you see, all at once. And for some people, they might be more interested in one of those elements than another, but I think overall, it’s everything.
On a similar note, is “Church of Misfits” a label you can identify with?
Yeah, we’re definitely an outsider movement and I think we don’t wish to become any more mainstream than we already are. I feel like you lose some of your higher ground when you actually become more mainstream. There’s this concept of moral self-licensing, where those who define themselves as having the ultimate authority over what’s morally correct are more prone to acting in morally reprehensible ways, and I think we should always keep in mind that we’re here to defend the outsider, we’re here to act as a buffer against the unjust accusations and witch hunts and we never want to engage in that kind of mob mentality ourselves, where we become a part of a witch hunt.
There’s a sense that [former Satanic Temple member Jex Blackmore] is expelled with a heavy heart on your part, though at least she takes it relatively well in the film. Do you have any regrets there?
I mean, I regret that all happened, but I felt like we were left with no real choice. She had been warned before, she had done this kind of public-facing activity without warning us in advance previously, where she was encouraging people, I think to send their used condoms or something like that to Congress people who were endorsing anti-abortion measures. And we weren’t sure, at the time, when she announced this effort, whether it was a federal offence or not – we’re talking about sending biological waste to people, and it’s just not the kind of thing we endorsed. A lot of the membership and leadership were outraged at that point and felt that she was acting unilaterally and taking a carte blanche, acting in any way she saw fit, and not consulting with the rest of the organisation, so a lot of people wanted her ejected at that point, and I argued on her behalf. We just made it clear to her that we have a National Council now, we need to make sure that any public-facing projects are understood and approved, so that we know what we’re all getting into, right? We don’t want our membership to suddenly be worried that we’re going to be considered a criminal organisation or anything of the type, or do anything that they don’t align themselves with, that they feel disparages their name. And then, when she did the activity that you see in the film itself, that was another public-facing event where she didn’t warn us what she was doing, announced that some proverbial “we” are going to execute the President and she claimed that this was an event that was independent of the Satanic Temple, but at the same time she invited a documentary crew that was making a documentary about the Satanic Temple, so there was no way that the National Council could have not removed her from her position, expelled her from the Satanic Temple, without a revolt and an exodus from the rest of the organisation.
What was your background before founding the Satanic Temple? You seem very media savvy in the film.
I really didn’t have media experience before the Satanic Temple. I never really imagined that this would be my position. I always hated public speaking. I never really wanted this kind of personal attention – I never sought celebrity. And I really was hoping that I could coach somebody else to be a spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, but I also, as you see in the film, became quite convinced that I couldn’t really coach anybody well enough to take the interviews in real-time, especially if I was trying to coach somebody who didn’t have any real, authentic attachments to what we were doing. So I picked up the slack then, but I think what a lot of people don’t realise is, from the very beginning, I had a lot of interview requests, I engaged with media quite a bit, so I needed to adjust very quickly or fall. And so I had my kind of trial by fire and I think I adjusted quickly enough to the point where people now say that they think I’m a good public speaker, that I do a good interview. I’m not so sure, but it seems to go well.
You mention in the film that it’s very much a full time job, this sort of thing and there’s no real sense of downtime in the movie. So my question is, do you watch films and TV shows on streaming services, and if so what have you been watching and enjoying recently?
I haven’t really been watching anything. I’ve loved the Black Mirror series, and I heard there’s a new season of that. As for films, I can’t think of what I’ve really liked recently, but mostly because I just haven’t had much of a chance to watch anything at all.
Is that because the job takes up so much time?
Oh yeah, it’s the entirety of my life at this point. And even when I feel like I’m not doing it, I’m doing it, you know? I find that I’m responding to emails, text messages, and so, even when I’m not writing material or researching and constructing arguments, or doing interviews or whatever, my time is taken up by other peripheral things within the Satanic Temple.
One burning question, after seeing the film: are the Ten Commandments still standing in Arkansas?
Yes, they are still standing in Arkansas, but they’re in a very difficult spot right now. Like I said, they constructed their whole argument for their defence, of religious discrimination, on this idea that we were a satirical religion, beneath the dignity of the court, but they really can’t make that argument anymore, now that the IRS announced that they recognise us as an authentic religion, deserving of the tax-exempt status. It’s the only federal agency that has any type of test for measuring something that’s actually a religion or not, and it’s simply not going to be the place of Arkansas to argue against that on some kind of arbitrary standard of their own. So we feel that the Ten Commandments monument will absolutely have to either come down, or they’ll have to allow the Baphomet monument to go up, and they’re probably going to take the Ten Commandments monument down, rather than allow another religious voice to have placement on the public grounds.
Finally, what are your upcoming projects with the Satanic Temple?
Well, we’re really embedded now in the war against prohibitive abortion restrictions, and in Indiana, they put ceremonial standards now on the disposal of remains, saying that they need some kind of proper burial or cremation, and they’re really just trying to make abortions more cost-prohibitive and instil guilt and shame in the women who get them. We feel, of course, that putting burial standards upon the disposal of biological waste is a religious imposition. Burial rites have always been under the purview of religion and we also feel that the contextualisation of the biological material is very much one that is a religious question as well, whether the woman views it as biological waste and part of her own body or whether she views it as a prospective child or individual. And on those grounds we’re claiming exemption from the burial laws and we’re going to proudly litigate that in court and I think people will be very interested to see how that plays out and very interested to know whether our religious liberty claims will stand or if the courts will start diminishing their understanding of what religious liberty means, which typically has only been asserted, or at least, most often asserted, in the name of evangelical rights. That’s the next big thing, in any case – the abortion restrictions and our litigation there.
Hail, Satan? is out now in UK cinemas and on VOD.