Anton Szandor LaVey (1930—1997) was the founder of the Church of Satan, the first organized church in modern times promulgating a religious philosophy championing Satan as the symbol of personal freedom and individualism. Unlike the founders of other religions, who claimed exalted “inspiration” delivered through some supernatural entity, LaVey readily acknowledged that he used his own faculties to synthesize Satanism, based on his understanding of the human animal and insights gained from earlier philosophers who advocated materialism and individualism. Concerning his role as founder, he said that, “If he didn’t do it himself, someone else, perhaps less qualified, would have.”
Born in Chicago in 1930, his parents soon relocated to California, that westernmost gathering place for the brightest and darkest manifestations of the “American Dream.” It was a fertile environment for the sensitive child who would eventually mature into a role that the press would dub “The Black Pope.” From his eastern European grandmother, young LaVey learned of the superstitions that are still extant in that part of the world. These tales whetted his appetite for the outré, leading him to become absorbed in classic dark literature such as Dracula and Frankenstein. He also became an avid reader of the pulp magazines, which first published tales now deemed classics of the horror and science fiction genres. He later befriended seminal Weird Tales authors such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Barbour Johnson, and George Hass. His fancy was captured by fictional characters found in the works of Jack London, in comic strip characters—like Ming the Merciless, as well as historical figures of a diabolical cast such as Cagliostro, Rasputin and Basil Zaharoff. More interesting to him than the available occult literature, which he dismissed as being little more than sanctimonious white magic, were books of applied obscure knowledge such as Dr. William Wesley Cook’s Practical Lessons in Hypnotism, Jane’s Fighting Ships, and manuals for handwriting analysis.
His musical abilities were noticed early, and he was given free reign by his parents to try his hand at various instruments. LaVey was mainly attracted to the keyboards because of their scope and versatility. He found time to practice and could easily reproduce songs heard by ear without recourse to fake books or sheet music. This talent would prove to be one of his main sources of income for many years, particularly his calliope playing during his carnival days, and later his many stints as an organist in bars, lounges, and nightclubs. These venues gave him the chance to study how various melodic lines and chord progressions swayed the emotions of his audiences, from the spectators at the carnival and spook shows, to the individuals seeking solace for the disappointments in their lives in distilled spirits and the smoke-filled taverns for which LaVey’s playing provided a soundtrack.
His odd interests marked him as an outsider, and he did not alleviate this by feeling any compulsion to be “one of the boys.” He despised gym class and team sports and often cut classes to follow his own interests. He was an avid reader, and watched films such as those which would later be labeled film noir as well as German expressionist cinema such as M, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the Dr. Mabuse movies. His flashy mode of dress also served to amplify his alienation from the mainstream. He dropped out of high school to hang around with hoodlum types and gravitated towards working in the circus and carnivals, first as a roustabout and cage boy and later as a musician. His curiosity was rewarded through “learning the ropes” and working an act with the big cats, and later assisting with the machinations of the spook shows. He became well-versed in the many rackets used to separate the rubes from their money, along with the psychology that lead people to such pursuits. He played music for the bawdy shows on Saturday nights, as well as for tent revivalists on Sunday mornings, seeing many of the same people attending both. All of this provided a firm, earthy background for his evolving cynical world view.
When the carnival season ended, LaVey would earn money by playing organ in Los Angeles area burlesque houses, and he relates that it was during this time period that he had a brief affair with a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe. Moving back to San Francisco, LaVey worked for awhile as a photographer for the Police Department, and, during the Korean War, enrolled in San Francisco City College as a criminology major to avoid the draft. Both his studies and occupation revealed grim insights into human nature. At this time he met and married Carole Lansing, who bore him his first daughter, Karla Maritza, in 1952. A few years earlier LaVey had explored the writings of Aleister Crowley, and in 1951 he met some of the Berkeley Thelemites. He was unimpressed, as they were more spiritual and less “wicked” than he supposed they should be for disciples of Crowley’s libertine creed.
During the 1950s, LaVey supplemented his income as a “psychic investigator,” helping to investigate “nut calls” referred to him by friends in the police department. These experiences proved to him that many people were inclined to seek a supernatural explanation for phenomena that had more prosaic causes. His rational explanations often disappointed the complainants, so LaVey invented more exotic causes to make them feel better, giving him insight as to how religion often functions in people’s lives.
In 1956 he purchased a Victorian house on California Street in San Francisco’s Richmond district. It was reputed to have been a speakeasy. He painted it black; it would later become home to the Church of Satan. After his death, the house remained unoccupied until it was demolished by the real estate company which owned the property on October 17 of 2001.
LaVey met and became entranced by Diane Hegarty in 1959; he then divorced Carole in 1960. Hegarty and LaVey never married, but she bore him his second daughter, Zeena Galatea in 1964 and was his companion for many years. Hegarty and LaVey later separated, and she sued him for palimony and this was settled out of court. LaVey’s final companion was Blanche Barton, who bore him his only son, Satan Xerxes Carnacki LaVey on November 1, 1993. According to LaVey’s wishes, she succeeded him as the head of the Church after his death on October 29, 1997. In 2001, she passed-on this position to Peter H. Gilmore, a long-time member of the Council of Nine.
Through his “ghost busting,” and his frequent public gigs as an organist, including playing the Wurlitzer at the Lost Weekend cocktail lounge, LaVey became a local celebrity and his holiday parties attracted many San Francisco notables. Guests included Carin de Plessin, called “the Baroness” as she had grown-up in the royal palace of Denmark, anthropologist Michael Harner, Chester A. Arthur III (Grandson to the U.S. President), Forrest J. Ackerman (later, the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland and acknowledged expert on science fiction), author Fritz Leiber, local eccentric Dr. Cecil E. Nixon (creator of the musical automaton Isis) and underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. From this crowd LaVey distilled what he called a “Magic Circle” of associates who shared his interest in the bizarre, the hidden side of what moves the world. As his expertise grew, LaVey began presenting Friday night lectures summarizing the fruits of his research. In 1965, LaVey was featured on the The Brother Buzz Show, a humorous children’s program hosted by marionettes. The focus was on LaVey’s “Addams Family” life style—making a living as a hypnotist, psychic investigator, and organist as well as on his highly unusual pet Togare, a Nubian lion.
In the process of creating his lectures, LaVey was led to distill a unique philosophy based on his life experiences and research. When a member of his Magic Circle suggested that he had the basis for a new religion, LaVey agreed and decided to found the Church of Satan as the best means for communicating his ideas. And so, in 1966 on the night of May Eve—the traditional Witches’ Sabbath—LaVey declared the founding of the Church of Satan as well as renumbering 1966 as the year One, Anno Satanas—the first year of the Age of Satan.
The attention of the press soon followed, particularly with the wedding of Radical journalist John Raymond to New York socialite Judith Case on February 1st, 1967. Famed photographer Joe Rosenthal was sent by the San Francisco Chronicle to capture an image, which was then printed in the Chronicle as well as the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers. LaVey began the mass dissemination of his philosophy via the release of a record album, The Satanic Mass (Murgenstrumm, 1968). The album featured a cover graphic named by LaVey as the “Sigil of Baphomet:” the goat head in a pentagram, circled with the Hebrew word “Leviathan,” which has since become the ubiquitous symbol of Satanism the world over. Featured on the album was part of the rite of baptism written for three-year-old Zeena (performed on May 23rd, 1967). In addition to the actual recording of a Satanic ritual, side two of the LP had LaVey reading excerpts from the as-yet-unpublished The Satanic Bible over music by Beethoven, Wagner, and Sousa. His Friday lectures continued and he instituted a series of “Witches’ Workshops” to instruct women in the art of attaining their will through glamour, feminine whiles, and the skillful discovery and exploitation of men’s fetishes.
By the end of 1969, LaVey had taken monographs he had written to explain the philosophy and ritual practices of the Church of Satan and melded them with all of his philosophical influences from Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Mencken, and London along with the base wisdom of the carnival folk. He prefaced these essays and rites with reworked excerpts from Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right and concluded it with “Satanized” versions of John Dee’s Enochian Keys to create The Satanic Bible. It has never gone out of print and remains the main source for the contemporary Satanic movement.
The Satanic Bible was followed in 1971 by The Compleat Witch (rereleased in 1989 as The Satanic Witch), a manual which teaches “Lesser Magic”—the ways and means of reading and manipulating people and their actions toward the fulfillment of one’s desired goals. The Satanic Rituals (1972) was printed as a companion volume to The Satanic Bible and contains rituals culled from a Satanic tradition identified by LaVey in various various world cultures. Two collections of essays, which range from the humorous and insightful to the sordid, The Devil’s Notebook (1992) and Satan Speaks (1998), complete his written canon.
Since its founding, LaVey’s Church of Satan attracted many varied people who shared an alienation from conventional religions, including such celebrities as Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as rock stars King Diamond and Marilyn Manson, who all became, at least for a time, card-carrying members. He numbered among his associates Robert Fuest, director of the Vincent Price “Dr. Phibes” films as well as The Devil’s Rain; Jacques Vallee, ufologist and computer scientist, who was used as the basis for the character Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and Aime Michel known as a spelunker and publisher of Morning of the Magicians.
LaVey’s influence was spread by numerous articles in the news media throughout the world, popular magazines such as Look, McCalls, Newsweek, and Time, men’s magazines, and on talk shows such as Joe Pyne, Phil Donahue, and Johnny Carson. This publicity left a mark on novels like Rosemary’s Baby (completed by Ira Levin during the early days of the Church’s high profile media blitz) and Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Devil’s Rain (1975), The Car (1977), and many of the later “Devil Cult” films from the 1970s through the 1990s that picked up on symbolism from LaVey’s writings. A feature length documentary, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1969) covered the rituals and philosophy of the Church, while LaVey himself was profiled in Nick Bougas’ 1993 video documentary Speak of the Devil.
LaVey’s musicianship is preserved on several recordings, primarily Strange Music (1994) and Satan Takes a Holiday (1995), both originally released by Amarillo Records, now available through Reptilian Records. These reflect his penchant for tunes from the 1930s through the 1950s, which range from humorous to doom-laden as well as devil-themed songs. LaVey renders them on a series of self-programmed synthesizers, imitating various instrumental groups. They are impressive, as these are not multitrack recordings, but are done in one take with the sounds of the full instrumental ensemble created through the simultaneous use of numerous synthesizers played by LaVey’s hands as well as his feet, on an organ-style foot pedal keyboard hooked up via midi.
Two biographies have been written about LaVey: The Devil’s Avenger (1974) by Burton Wolfe and Secret Life of a Satanist (1990) by Blanche Barton. The authenticity of some of the events chronicled in these works has been disputed in recent years, particularly by detractors of LaVey, who accuse him of self-promotional exaggeration. LaVey was a skilled showman, a talent he never denied. However, the number of incidents detailed in both biographies that can be authenticated via photographic and documentary evidence far outweigh the few items in dispute. The fact remains that LaVey pursued a course that exposed him to the heights and depths of humanity, full of encounters with fascinating people; it climaxed with his founding of the Church of Satan and led to notorious celebrity on a worldwide scale. The Church has survived his death, and continues, through the medium of his writings, to continually attract new members who see themselves reflected in the philosophy he called Satanism.
For Further Reading:
Blanche Barton. The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton LaVey. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 1990.
Gavin Baddeley. Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship & Rock’n’Roll. London: Plexus, 1999.
Burton H. Wolfe. The Devil’s Avenger: A Biography of Anton Szandor LaVey. New York: Pyramid Books, 1974. (Out of print.)
Anton Szandor LaVey
A Biographical Sketch
by Magus Peter H. Gilmore, © 2003