Occult America


Occult America

By John Godwin; 1972, Doubleday & Company, Inc.


(section concerning Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan)

All you have to do is ring a certain San Francisco telephone number and wait until a chirpy secretarial voice at the other end says, “Good morning, Church of Satan.” It is, let’s face it, a wee bit anticlimactic.

The Church was founded in 1966 by Chicago-born Anton Szandor LaVey, whose exotic names derive from Romanian, Alsatian and Georgian ancestry. He got off to a rather creaky start when—in order to raise support for his movement—he staged some embarrassingly naïve nightclub rituals involving topless witches and a bikini-clad “inquisitioner”; allegedly a former counselor for Billy Graham.

Millions of moviegoers saw LaVey in action, although his name didn’t appear on the credit list.”

But two years later came the film release of Rosemary’s Baby and with it a tremendous upsurge of popular interest in matters demoniacal. The Catholic Legion of Decency helped by bestowing a “C” (condemned) rating on the movie. This positively convinced vast segments of the public that they were getting inside dope on Witchcraft and/or Satanism, despite the fact that director Roman Polanski’s knowledge of—and interest in—either subject amounted to zero. (There was, incidently, more concentrated evil in one pallid smile of Cocteau’s Infants Terrible than in Rosemary’s entire pregnancy.)

Millions of moviegoers saw LaVey in action, although his name didn’t appear on the credit list. He was the curiously reptilian Satan who raped Rosemary. The film’s box office success resulted in a blaze of publicity for America’s only registered Satanic Church and enabled its High Priest to drop his nightclub routine. At the moment you have to shoehorn your way into his presence through throngs of newspaper reporters, magazine interviewers, occultist researchers, and would-be adherents.

Before meeting LaVey, I was inclined to regard him as an American version of Aleister Crowley, the gentleman from Leamington, England, who called himself the Great Beast, imbibed ten grains of heroin per day and never got much beyond being a grubby little boy thinly disguised as a monster.

I once met a Reuters correspondant who had known Crowley well before his death in 1947. And I recalled his comment on the self-styled “Wickedest Man in the World”: “Crowley was a fine mountaineer and a pretty good chess player, but as a Satanist he was a crashing bore. You see, everything about him was secondhand. Even his motto, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.’ He had lifted that from Rabelais.”

LaVey, as it turned out, did not resemble Crowley. He is no bore.

The Church of Satan is a black-painted Victorian structure of memorable ugliness. The type of house rampant in London’s Bayswater district, but rare in San Francisco. A plate on the door said, “Do Not Disturb Unless You Have An Appointment,” but there was a very welcoming black Manx cat sitting underneath. Anyway, I had an appointment.

I was greeted by Mrs. LaVey, a smiling, outgoing, hospitable little blonde, with long hair and stylish spectacles. “Please sit down,” she said. “Anton will be here in a few minutes.” She kept me company, but refused to be interviewed. “That’s Anton’s department.”

The front parlour smelled like the inside of an antique matress; either the walls were damp or the windows were never opened. I sat down beside a tombstone serving as coffee table and admired the fittings. There was a regular dentist’s chair, an operating table, a hanging skeleton, a lumpily stuffed possum, and a large bookcase with the warning: “Whoever removes books from this shelf will have their hands chopped off.” The telephone, decorated with a Satanic seal, bore the notice: “Do not make outside calls with this phone.” The Church, it appeared, was big on notices.

LaVey made a good entrance. He is a massive six-footer in his early forties, dressed completely in black, wearing a clerical collar and a silver pentagram medallion around his neck. His skull is clean-shaven, Tartar fashion, and he sports a black chin beard à la Ivan the Terrible.

He has a forceful, calm voice, a surprisingly amiable laugh, and a patiently cautious way of answering questions he must have heard several hundred times before.

“How do we visualize Satan? Purely symblically, as the all-pervasive force. The only true God, in fact.”

“Well, then whose adversary is he?”

LaVey smiled. “The adversary of all man-made spiritual religions. To all that we consider the contemptable crutches man has had to invent. We totally reject the concept of there being an antithesis to God. He is God.”

“In other words,” I said, “you consider Satan the personafication of life—good and evil. Do you think that evil outweighs the good?”

“Well, we consider that what the theologians regard as man’s prediliction for evil will always outweigh the good. So—from the theological point of view—we are evil individuals.”

[Satanism] is the only [religion],
I think, in complete accordance
with human nature”

He did not, however, go along with the dramatization of evil as performed in the original Black Mass. “Those,” he explained, “were psychodramas at a time when people needed them. They had to express their opposition, their rebellion against an established church. Our rituals are suitably modified to express the needs of our particular era.”

The rituals are outlined in LaVey’s Satanic Bible, a piquant mixture of liturgy, history, and magical recipes, such as how “to Cause the Destruction of an Enemy” or “to Summon One for Lustful Purpose or Establish a Sexually Gratifying Situation.” It’s an intriguing book, although chunks of it are written in a mysterious tongue called Enochian, rendering certain parts—literally—unspeakable.

For a time LaVey also played the role of a sulphurous Ann Landers by running a weekly tabloid column, “Letters from the Devil.” Among the do-it-yourself tips he passed out were the correct specifications for a voodoo doll, and the brewing of love potions, using ginseng root as a substitute for the hard to get (in fact unobtainable) Mandrake.

“Our religion,” he said gravely, “is the only one, I think, in complete accordance with human nature. It is based on indulgence. Instead of commanding our members to repress their natural urges, we teach that they should follow them. This includes physical lusts, the desire for revenge, the drive for material possessions.”

LaVey gives a low, rumbling laugh, that semed to come from his solar plexus. “That’s how most of them live already, in any case. Only hitherto have they been following the devil’s creed without giving the devil his due. And suffering from guilt complexes because their hypocritical faiths keep telling them they have to live differently. This religious dichotomy is a breeding ground for neurosis. We free them of such conflicts by making it clear that Satan—or God—meant them to live according to their inborn tendencies.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that you encourage drug habits or alcoholism?”

He fielded that one easily. “We certainly don’t. Both are self-destructive. Typical of losers. And we don’t want losers. Satanism is a winner’s creed. Now”—a sweep of his black sleeved arm—“would you care to see the rest of the house?”

The church is a veritable Fu Manchu castle, bristling with hidden doors and secret panels. Wildly sinister or high camp, depending on your attitude. The parlor fireplace and sections of the bookcase swing inward on silent hinges, revealing dark passages into the bowels of the place. The smell gets mustier the deeper you penetrate.

Downstairs is the Ritual Chamber, draped in black and scarlet. The centerpiece consists of the altar, next to it a large Hammond organ, which LaVey plays with magnificent fluorish. (He used to play a calliope in a circus.) “No, we don’t have any special Satanic music.” He ran a finger over the keys. “We use Wagner for some ceremonies, Berlioz, Liszt, even church tunes.”

Everywhere you look, there are artfully gruesome masks, a titanic papier-mâché spider, an arms collector’s dream of carbines, pistols, swords, daggers, maces, clubs, some ceremonial, others businesslike. Also skulls, phallic symbols, the inevitable black candles, a bell, and a very handsome chalice. The whole sanctum is rather like a cross between a chapel, an arsenal, and the clubhouse of a juvenile gang.

By opening a case containing a mummy you step into the Red Room next door. Most of it is occupied by a towering bed, hung with black drapes, contemplated from the ceiling by ceremonial masks that look as if they remembered everything that went on below.

Upstairs we were joined by seven-year-old Zeena LaVey, just back from school. Zeena was the cause of a minor scandal some years ago when her father baptized her into his church.

Although as a minister he was entitled to do so, he created considerable indignation by performing the ceremony before the live, nude, and female diabolical altar, sprinkling his daughter with earth and water while intoning, “Welcome, Zeena, new mistress, creature of magic light, child of joy….”

When we arrived back in the parlor, the child of joy was being hauled off the hinged fireplace by her mother. “How many times have we told you not to step on the fireplace! We’ve already had it fixed twice!”

She abandoned the fireplace and agreed to show me her art class work. Her drawings were lively, imaginative and mostly of ponies. I asked her if she intended to become an artist when she grew up.

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I’m going to be a ballet dancer.”

LaVey said, “I’m sorry we can’t show you our lion. He used to live in the back. We had to present him to the zoo, unfortunately. The neighbors complained about his roaring at night.”

The Satanic Church has less trouble with hostile elements than might be expected. “Occasionally, some nut comes to the door, but I can handle that,” grinned the devil’s High Priest. “And we have very good burglar alarms in the house.”

He grew rather laconic when I asked about membership figures.

“We stopped divulging them after we reached seven thousand. That was—er—some time ago. But I can tell you that the Church is nationwide. We have grottoes—that’s what we call them—all over the country. And then there are large numbers of crypto-Satanists. People who are not Church members, but like what we’re doing. We get quite a lot of donations from them.”

LaVey began his career by dropping out of high school and joining the Clyde Beatty Circus as a cage boy—which meant feeding lions, tigers, and leopards. He also had a decided musical bent. Taught himself piano and organ and played the oboe in the San Francisco Ballet Symphony Orchestra.

From the circus he graduated to a carnival, learning hypnosis, stage magic, and the elements of carny spieling. Then—oddly enough—he enrolled in college as a criminology major, which—even odder—led to a job as forensic photographer with the San Francisco Police Department. He made—and maintained—some handy contacts during his three years with the force. In consequence the Church of Satan is one of the best protected establishments in town.

Before shaving his skull and emerging as “Black Pope,” LaVey was one of thousands of rather shadowy figures operating in America’s metaphysical twilight world; an occult all-rounder with his powerful fingers in half a dozen esoteric pies. He dabbled in astrology and ESP, lectured on hypnosis and black magic, conducted a bit of psychical research.

“I went ghost hunting long before Hans Holzer thought of it,” he told me. “But instead of taking along a medium—the way he does it—I went at it with electronic alarms and infrared cameras. Maybe that’s the reason why I never came to believe in ghosts.”

His church evolved from his quiet clientele who came to hear him lecture. “One night I had something like a breakthrough into the grey area between religion and psychiatry,” he remembered. I found I could help people by bringing the devil out into the open, so to speak. By proclaiming his creed as a legitimate, active faith.”

LaVey’s main concern is to keep out the “losers”—his pet expletive for the varieties of kooks inevitably drawn to a cult that allegedly conducts weekly orgies.

Candidates must fill in a lengthy questionnaire containing points like, “What do you expect to gain from Satanism?” and “If you are a woman, would you consider being an altar?” They also have to pass muster at a confrontation, which is frequently arranged by subterfuge. If accepted they pay a forty dollar registration fee, then an annual ten dollars, which is not expensive by cultist standards.

The Satanic congregation tends to be on the young side of thirty, and composed of very much the same types you would find in, say, scientology or Golden Circle meetings. Good-looking, rather tense, and slightly vague men and women who indicate that they know what everything is about, but can’t quite express it. The High Priest—or another appropriate guru—does it for them.

Friday night is the big night for Satanists, the night of the High (not Black) Mass. It opens with a lengthy ceremony in the Ritual Chamber, conducted by LaVey in full regalia, complete with a silken horned cap. Organ music and chanting, which has Gregorian overtones, punctuated by the exclamations “Shemhamforash!” and “Hail Satan!” repeated by the entire congregation.

The naked altar girl lays fairly comfortably on a fur rug. After LaVey has emptied the chalice (contents optional) he places the vessel on her belly or pubic region,where it stays for the remainder of the ritual.

Then follows the business part of the evening, but it’s a fair way moved from the orgiastic.

Members come forwards to lay their requests before Satan. Almost in the forms of almost classical maledictions directed at unseen enemies: “Let his rotting dungheap brain writhe in unending agony as hordes of phantom rats gnaw at his diseased spirit for the rest of his life…” Others, in a gentler vein, ask for love, sensual pleasures, business triumphs.

LaVey touches them with his sword, rather as if dubbing them knights, while the congregation joins in a united “willing” of fulfillment, their voices rising in a tremendous “Hail Satan!” to drive their message home.

Occasionally, there is an elaborate psychodrama, in which one member impersonates someone he or she detests. It can be a boss, a rival in love or—frequently—a father or mother. The actor hams up the role gleefully; ranting, lecturing, or whining to bring out the ugliest, most ludicrous feature of the subject. LaVey plays judge, the congregation the jury, as they sit in trial over the hate object. If their verdict is “guilty” (depending on the virulence of the impersonation), they can bring down any of a score of horrific punishments on the (absent) offender.

At the end of the evening the participants are emotionally replete, warmed with a sense of accomplishment, and pleasantly relaxed. Their curses are cursed, their hatreds spilled, their enemies smitten hip and thigh. They are—temporarily—at peace. And their peace may quite possibly endure until the next High Mass, come Friday.

At the moment LaVey heads the only officially recognized Satanist movement in the United States; the only one, that is, entitled to baptize, marry and bury its members, and enjoying the tax-exempt status of a church.

From the collection of and transcribed by Draconis Blackthorne.


Occult America
by John Godwin
ISBN 978-0385036627

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