In April of 1966, San Francisco’s epochal Summer of Love – when tens of thousands of young hippies would flood the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood – was still well over a year away. Yet, even then, there was something in the air, a crackling of electricity, a tension so tightly wound that it was already fit to burst. Poised on the furthest reaches of the Californian Coast and tinged with the romanticism of the lawless Wild West, San Francisco had already been mythologised by the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s. For Jack Kerouac, author of the countercultural travelogue On the Road (1957), “Frisco” was the promised land that awaited the weary pilgrim at edge of mythic American West. Other Beat writers, artists and various hangers-on congregated at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in North Beach from the early 1950s onward. San Francisco was a Bohemian utopia. LSD, first synthesised in 1961, soon began percolating through the city, opening the minds of those who imbibed to an acutely reflective, often intensely spiritual experience. Ken Kesey’s group, the Merry Pranksters, held the Trips Festival in early 1966. The event lasted for three nights and there was acid in the ice cream. For many of the young people who made their way to San Francisco during those years, hopping Greyhound buses and hitch-hiking across America, experiments with sex and drugs were not simply a hedonistic release, but a sincere attempt to access a higher spiritual truth. New religious movements flourished with an unprecedented vibrancy in that time and place, as a generation disenchanted by the conservatism of traditional Judeo-Christian faiths attempted to cast off conventional belief systems in favour of something more authentic. Alternative spiritualities derived from Eastern religions, Native American practices and revived paganism proliferated throughout the 1960s. However, while many of these looked heavenward, seeking divinely inspired spiritual fulfilment, one new religion looked downward to earthly desires and the iconography of hell.
The provocatively named Church of Satan was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey fifty-five years ago, on April 30th, 1966. On that night, LaVey, who had already been running a popular occult lecture series at his home on San Francisco’s California St., ritualistically shaved his head and announced the formation of a satanic church. For LaVey, 1966 marked Year One, or Anno Satanas – the first year of the dawning Age of Satan. In contrast to many of the new religions that emerged at this time, the Church of Satan did not worship a deity, nor did it serve any kind of higher spiritual power. The Devil, who was positioned as the figurehead of the nascent Church of Satan, was not a literal figure and had little in common with the antagonistic entity of Christian lore. Instead, as Peter H. Gilmore, the current High Priest of the Church of Satan, explains, “Satan is embraced, not as some Devil to be worshipped, but as a symbolic, external projection of each individual Satanist”. Where other religions might be ethereal, otherworldly, self-sacrificing and spiritual, the Church of Satan was created to be carnal, earthly, epicurean and materialistic. In an interview conducted in 1970, LaVey himself outlines the essential precepts of his Church: “This is a very selfish religion. We believe in greed. We believe in selfishness and all of the lustful thoughts that motivate man because this is man’s natural feeling.”
The Church of Satan was the first official and publicly visible satanic religion to articulate a cohesive, self-aware ideology. However, Anton LaVey was not the first individual to conceive of Satan as a manifestation of humanity’s carnal desires, and the Church of Satan was certainly not innovative in its use of the Devil as a symbol of darkly romantic individualism. Many of the ideas that shaped the Church during its early years had their source in earlier literary and philosophical paradigms. The English poet John Milton created a prideful, destructive, but tragically human Lucifer in his poem Paradise Lost (1667). Milton’s Devil is cast out of paradise because he ardently believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” Later, Romantic writers such as William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, among others, would draw on Milton’s work to reimagine Satan as a symbol of individualism and artistic rebellion, a Promethean figure who gifted humankind with the knowledge of good and evil.
The Decadent movement of the late nineteenth century also employed satanic imagery to evoke eroticism, sensuality and a seductive inversion of conventional morals. Occultists of the period imagined Satan or Lucifer as the bringer of forbidden knowledge. The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, echoed the Romantics in its vision of Lucifer as a Promethean figure. The magician Aleister Crowley, who developed Thelema as an esoteric philosophy in the early 1900s, likewise maintained that “This serpent, Satan, is not the enemy of Man, but he who made Gods of our race, knowing Good and Evil; He bade ‘Know Thyself!’ and taught initiation.” Deeply immersed in occult lore from an early age, LaVey’s brand of Satanism self-consciously fused these earlier ideologies with literary images of Lucifer and the philosophies of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. The Church of Satan therefore emerged as a fundamentally atheistic religious system grounded in the notion that human beings are merely animals, no better or worse than any other living creature, and that physical and psychological gratification can be achieved by indulging in sinful behaviour. Each Satanist is encouraged to live according to their own rules, embracing their own unique ethical paradigms and pursuing pleasure in whatever manner they desire. For the Church of Satan, sexual desire and related animal instincts are understood to be humanity’s primary motivating drives. However, the Church also values consent, and endorses only those sexual encounters that take place between willing adult participants. In contrast to other spiritual movements of the period, the Church of Satan condemned all illegal behaviour, including drug use. Satanism, as conceived by LaVey, also inhabits a hazy middle ground between ritual magic and performative psychodrama. In The Satanic Bible, published three years after the founding of the Church, LaVey writes that “The Satanic philosophy combines the fundamentals of psychology and good, honest emotionalizing, or dogma. It provides man with his much needed fantasy”.
That Anton LaVey should be the man to provide his adherents with such necessary fantasy is not at all surprising. Anton LaVey was born with the somewhat less exotic name of Howard Stanton Levey on the 11th of April 1930. His family background was a conglomeration of Ukrainian, Russian and German immigrants, though LaVey claimed both “Gypsy” and Transylvanian heritage. Growing up in California, the young LaVey was a devoted fan of pulp magazines and Universal monster movies. Indeed, his own satanic iconography owes much to the aesthetic of the 1934 Boris Karloff – Béla Lugosi chiller The Black Cat.
The quintessential outsider, LaVey despised team sports and regularly skipped gym class in order to devote himself to his own, less mainstream interests. After dropping out of high school, LaVey began working in circuses and carnivals, initially acting as a roustabout before moving on to the more coveted role of organist. He claims to have provided accompanying music for both late-night burlesque shows and Sunday morning religious revival meetings, often seeing the same audience members attending both performances. According to LaVey, not only was he a musical prodigy, performing in nightclubs as well as carnivals, but he also worked as a lion tamer, a hypnotist, a photographer for the San Francisco Police Department and as a psychic investigator. LaVey was a consummate showman with a noticeable flare for the dramatic, so it is difficult to ascertain how many of these biographical facts are true. We do know that for a time, LaVey kept a pet lion named Togare and professed an affinity for big cats. He also appeared on a children’s programme called The Brother Buzz Show in 1965 where LaVey, his partner Diane and children, Karla and Zeena, were presented as a quirky, real-life Addams Family.
The Church of Satan grew out of a series of “Friday night classes in various occult subjects” that LaVey began hosting sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The classes were held in the same house on California St. where LaVey would establish his church a few years later. A small Victorian house purchased in 1956, the building was comparatively nondescript until LaVey decided to paint it black. Soon, the so-called “Black House” was filled with an eclectic cohort of individuals, from academics and artists to businessmen and police officers, all eager to learn about the supernatural and the mystical. This group was known as the “magic circle,” and their conversations eventually led to the establishment of the Church of Satan. While discussions about the creation of a church may have been underway as early as 1965, the Church of Satan revealed itself to the world formally on April 30th, 1966. The date chosen to announce the Church’s existence was significant. Not only did 1966 allude to the number of the beast, 666, but April 30th is Walpurgisnacht, a night LaVey believed was the “traditional Witches’ Sabbath.” Alongside Halloween and the Satanist’s own birthday, Walpurgisnacht is one of the most important dates in the satanic calendar. Popular European folklore imagines that on Walpurgisnacht, witches meet atop Germany’s Brocken mountain to worship the Devil and practise their diabolic rites. Consequently, Walpurgisnacht serves as an ideal, even mythic, starting point for the Church of Satan. Not only is it associated with witchcraft and nefarious rituals, but the date itself, the night before May Day, connotes a wealth of connections with springtime, fertility and sensuality.
The Church of Satan flourished in the years following its foundation, with the original “magic circle” growing with the help of adverts and numerous clever PR stunts. LaVey, dubbed the Black Pope, adroitly channelled his talent for showmanship into the expansion of the new Church. Rituals were regularly conducted at the Black House where LaVey had transformed the living room into a temple. Photographers and journalists, as well as curious members of the public, who attended these rites were often shocked by their explicit sexuality – a nude woman regularly served as the group’s alter – and the theatrical diabolism at the heart of the performance. The assembled Satanists would light candles, ring bells and chant “Regie Satanas! Ave Satanas! Hail Satan!” LaVey himself normally appeared in cape and sporting headdress complete with plastic devil horns. In one ritual, filmed for the 1970 documentary Satanis: The Devil’s Mass, a man dressed as the Catholic Pope has his buttocks whipped while lying atop a naked woman. As a former carnie, LaVey was an expert in thrilling audiences, participants and the media more broadly. In 1967, he invited the press to observe the satanic wedding of socialite Judith Case and journalist John Raymond. In the same year, the media was also present for the satanic baptism of LaVey’s daughter Zeena Galatea.
Media interest in LaVey and his Church made him something of a celebrity in San Francisco and around the world. Stars of the period, including actress Jayne Mansfield, singer Sammy Davis, Jr. and underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, frequented the Black House. Mansfield, whose early death at the age of 34 is often blamed on her association with the Church of Satan, even participated in a staged photoshoot where she appeared to take part in satanic rituals with LaVey. Later, LaVey visited Mansfield at her ostentatious pink mansion, and the pair posed for another set of photos. LaVey also released books outlining his Church’s philosophy, produced a number of popular records and appeared in documentaries, on talk shows and in feature films.
The 1960s was a period of social, political and spiritual upheaval, with new religious movements springing up seemingly overnight to fill the vacuum left by the decline of traditional faiths, particularly amongst the young. A few weeks before the Church of Satan was founded, the cover of Time magazine asked the provocative question “Is God Dead?” The visibility of LaVey’s organisation certainly seems to suggest that the answer was yes. However, the Church of Satan had little interest in tearing down God in order to raise up Satan in his place. Satanism, as envisioned by LaVey, can more accurately be described as a religion of the Self. There is no literal Devil in the satanic imagination. “The Nine Satanic Statements,” a manifesto central to LaVey’s Satanic Bible, is clear that “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence,” “undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit!” The sensational rituals that both entranced and horrified the public in the late 1960s were not constructed as a literal homage to the Devil but were instead intended to serve a psychological function. Engaging in these elaborate pageants of defilement, in which the sacred rites and symbols of Christianity would be inverted and defiled, Satanists were empowered to reject the guilt, inhibitions and anxieties of their own religious upbringings. Rituals such as the “black mass” are not magical ceremonies, but psychodramas that encourage the personal, intellectual and sexual development of the participants.
Fifty-five years after its founding, the Church of Satan remains a complex entity. Its spectacular rituals and theatricality often appear to contradict the religion’s more grounded emphasis on individual psychology and self-improvement. LaVey’s elaborately staged rituals, complete with devil horns and grotesque animal masks, at once confirm our conception of Satanism as deviant while at the same time appearing strangely quaint, a make-believe Halloween game for adults. Perhaps one reason we find ourselves so fascinated by the Church of Satan is that it so fully embodies a great many of our well-worn stereotypes and preconceptions about the satanic: its inversion of Christian iconography, its foregrounding of sexuality, even its berobed, chanting initiates. These tropes easily recall the often-caricatured Satanists we find in pulp horror novels, on cheesy detective shows and in the popular horror movies of the past century. There are, of course, two reasons for this familiarity. Firstly, Anton LaVey, as a showman, occultist and horror fan, borrowed extensively not just from the esoteric texts of earlier ages, but also from the iconic images of satanic villainy presented in popular films like The Black Cat and The Seventh Victim (1943). Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, the Church of Satan was a highly visible organisation, one that captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and wound its way into popular culture. Not only did Anton LaVey shrewdly involve journalists and celebrities in the activities of the Black House, but he was also as a technical advisor on satanic-themed films like The Devil’s Rain (1975) and The Car (1977). In doing so, LaVey actively shaped how the American public at the time imagined Satanism. LaVey was constantly in the spotlight. He appeared in movies – playing a satanic priest in The Devil’s Rain and acting alongside Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). He claimed to have acted as a consultant during the production of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and maintained that he played the role of Satan in the film’s disturbing rape scene. As is often the case with LaVey, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. What we can say, quite definitively, is that even if he wasn’t directly involved with the filming of Rosemary’s Baby, his organisation influenced both Ira Levin’s original novel and Roman Polanski’s subsequent cinematic adaptation, right down to their description of 1966 as “Year One”.
According to the historian W. Scott Poole, the membership of the Church of Satan has generally remained so small as to be almost uncountable. However, in spite of its comparatively low number of official devotees, the Church of Satan has left an indelible impression on the pop cultural landscape. It may have been one of many religious movements to emerge from the heady climate of 1960s San Francisco, yet it was, and is, a fundamentally unique organisation. Turning towards the earthly and the carnal at a time when other spiritual systems were attuned to the ethereal, the intangible, the Church of Satan radically reimagined devil worship for the twentieth century. Ensconced within an otherwise unremarkable San Francisco neighbourhood, LaVey’s Black House, and the rituals that took place there, inspired thousands, if not millions, of Americans to believe that Satanists might be living next door to them. At the same time, the Church’s notoriety, its popularity with celebrities and socialites, embodied the uniquely eerie glamour of sixties California, a time when even the Devil could be in vogue.
Asbjorn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper AA. Petersen, The Invention of Satanism. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Magus Peter H. Gilmore, “Opening the Adamantine Gates: An Introduction to The Satanic Bible.” Avon Books, 2005.
Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible. Avon Books,  2005.
James R. Lewis, Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore, and Popular Culture, ABC CLIO, 2001.
Mansfield 66/67 (2017), directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes.
W. Scott Poole, Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970), directed by Ray Laurent.
Sheila Weller, “Suddenly That Summer”, Vanity Fair, 14 June 2012, https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/07/lsd-drugs-summer-of-love-sixties
Julia Yepes, “The secret history of Jayne Mansfield’s bizarre connection to the Church of Satan”, Interview, 2 November 2017, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/secret-history-jayne-mansfields-bizarre-connection-church-satan