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Has the Church of Satan Gone to Hell? 

Jack Boulware meditates on the devilish infighting over Anton LaVey's legacy

Wednesday, Jun 17 1998
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Banners hang from either side of the stage. They read "666." Five guys appear in the blackness, to the taped strains of the piano theme from the '70s film The Exorcist. Somebody cues the smoke machine. The lights blaze up to reveal an almost comically sinister guitar assault, as the band furiously plunges into riffs built around a single chord and the singer screams throaty, unintelligible lyrics. Every member of the band wears at least one spiked wristband. The group is Infestation. Its members are from Concord. They radiate pure evil.

There are perhaps 30 people in the bar. A handful of heads twitch to the speed metal rhythms. A young bottle-blonde stands by herself in tank top and tennis shoes, head bobbing, eyes fixed on the musicians. Everybody seems to wear a band logo -- Altamont, Nausea, Iron Maiden, Metallica, King Diamond.

After one song chugs to a halt, the drummer gives the devil horns to the assembled. Somebody yells, "Rock on with a violent fury!"

"Fuck you!" answers the lead singer, and the band roars into another song.
John Corbett has been producing the Tuesday night club called "Lucifer's Hammer" at the Covered Wagon for a couple of months. Last week, Corbett says, he threw a signing release party for the new book Lords of Chaos, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind, a compendium of the satanic black metal music scene in Scandinavia. That night, he says, the Covered Wagon was packed with 300 sweaty kids wearing satanic Baphomets and pentagrams.

But if Satan seems well-represented in this South of Market sardine pit, across the fog-shrouded city, in a paint-peeling black Victorian in the Richmond District, Lucifer's reign is in question.

There, at the home of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, the future rides confusion on the flock. Eight months after LaVey died of heart failure, the organization he started in 1966 now stands, so to speak, at a fork in the tail.

A protracted, nasty divorce settlement has left LaVey's scions little in the way of a legacy. LaVey's daughter and his longtime companion are wrestling each other in a San Francisco courtroom for the remnants of his estate. The infamous black house -- the headquarters for world Satanism -- is for sale and could be demolished.

And down in the flaming bowels of the netherworld, as he toasts the arrival of Anton LaVey, Satan himself is no doubt wondering what in the hell happened to the first public church in history to bear his name.

While a fair portion of America's youth migrated to the Haight-Ashbury in the mid- and late-1960s to seek enlightenment from a tab of acid, other young people were making a very different pilgrimage to the living room of a home on California Street. On April 30, 1966, Anton Szandor LaVey signed away his soul forever and became leader of the most feared -- and perhaps the most entertaining -- religion in the world.

The news media quickly accepted LaVey into the pantheon of great San Francisco characters, at least in part because of the background he claimed. Before founding the Church, LaVey asserted, he had worked as a psychic investigator, a police photographer, a burlesque organist, and a lion tamer for the Clyde Beatty Circus. He was, he said, briefly a lover of Marilyn Monroe's. As a child, the legend went, he played oboe with the San Francisco Ballet Symphony. And for a long time, no one questioned the legend.

In the late '50s and early '60s he gave weekly lectures at his home on eccentric topics, among them vampires, cannibalism, and lycanthropy (i.e., humans who take the form of wolves). The building itself, he claimed, was once a brothel operated by Barbary Coast madam Mammy Pleasant. Regulars called themselves the "Magic Circle." The group included aging socialites, sci-fi writer Forrest J. Ackerman, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, realtor Donald Werby and his wife Willy, who was heiress to the Chock Full o'Nuts coffee fortune, and a dildo manufacturer. Members of the group claimed to once have sampled portions of a human leg, prepared by LaVey's wife, Diane, and obtained from a doctor acquaintance.

During the first year of the Church, LaVey conducted a satanic wedding, a satanic funeral on Treasure Island (in cooperation with the U.S. Navy), and a satanic baptism of his young daughter, Zeena. His pet lion Togare appeared regularly in Herb Caen's column. He ran ads in newspapers for a Witches' Workshop that taught women how to manipulate the opposite sex. To boost the ranks, church members scattered phony dollar bills around the city, with an invitation to join the Infernal Empire printed on the reverse sides.

The Church was brazenly and publicly devoted to selfish hedonism. In 1968, LaVey opened up his home to a documentary film crew. satanic rituals were staged for the cameras, with a nude woman serving as the altar. LaVey sat in his lair, cocktail clinking in one hand, and announced slyly:

"It occurred to me for many, many years that there was a large gray area between psychiatry and religion that was untapped. And no religion had ever been based on man's carnal needs or his fleshly pursuits. All religions are based on abstinence, rather than indulgence. And all religions therefore have to be based on fear. Well, we don't feel that fear is necessary to base a religion on."

In 1969, The Satanic Bible, LaVey's collection of Nietzschean common-sense philosophies, was published; it has gone on to sell nearly a million copies. (Sales remain steady, with a noticeable rise every Halloween, according to an Avon Books publicist.) The Satanic Rituals appeared the next year, followed by The Compleat Witch, both of which also remain in print. (A copy of The Satanic Bible is exhibited under glass in Moscow's Russian Museum of Atheism.)

Celebrities -- from Sammy Davis Jr. to Lawrence Harvey and Jayne Mansfield -- joined the fun. LaVey consulted on Hollywood horror films. Supposedly, he owned a fleet of automobiles, luxurious estates in Italy, Bavaria, and Switzerland, and three oceangoing salvage ships.

About The Author

Jack Boulware

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