This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 18, Issue 3, from 2005.
My mother once put me on her knee and said to me:
“Son, let me give you a piece of advice; never trust journalists, politicians or anyone who believes in human sacrifice and claims they had a ‘vestigial tail’ removed due to their being genetically Satanic”.
Avoiding the first two at Goldsmiths College has been hard, but the latter character’s appearance is not often at the Union bar. Along with Aleister Crowley, Charles Manson and other messianic pop gurus, Anton LaVey served as the founder of the most controversial religion of the sixties, exercising principles of sacrifice and sexual orgies, claiming “life is the great indulgence, death the great abstinence”.
He served as the ideal bogeyman for the sensation-seeking American media of that tumultuous period. And did he want your soul? Well, he always claimed he had better taste than that…
Anton Szandor LaVey (1930-1997) was the High Priest of the Church of Satan, a notorious figure of the 1960s. A legend was created though interviews with journalists, discussions with his disciples, and two approved biographies, allegedly ghost-written by himself. The self-proclaimed ‘Black Pope’ claimed that he was introduced to the dark side by his Transylvanian gypsy grandmother, who regaled him as a child with supernatural folklore and tales of vampires and werewolves. His parents, Joseph and Augusta LaVey, gave birth to young Anton in Cook County, Illinois on 11 April 1930.
In 1945, the 15-year old was brought to post-war Germany by his uncle, a US Coastguard officer. There, he was shown top-secret films inspired by satanic cult lodges and their rituals. Once home, he played the second oboe with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, making him the youngest musician ever to play with the prestigious institution.
At 17, LaVey ran away with the Clyde Beatty Circus, where he was employed as a lion tamer. Once part of the family, he replaced the Circus calliope player. In 1948, 18-year old Anton was engaged to play organ at the Mayan burlesque theatre in Los Angeles. There, he met a young showgirl by the name of Marilyn Monroe, with whom he had a passionate love affair before her rise to film stardom. LaVey later in life showed visitors a copy of Monroe’s famous nude calendar inscribed “Dear Tony, How many times have you seen this! Love, Marilyn”.
In the early 1950s, LaVey became a photographer for the San Francisco Police, and was exposed to the savagery of human nature. Along with this, he studied criminology at the San Francisco City College during the Korean War. He bought a house, 6114 California Street, which became the infamous ‘Black House’, the headquarters of the Church of Satan. He bought this particular house upon the discovery that it was a former brothel of Barbary Coast madam Mammy Pleasant. The house was honeycombed with trapdoors and secret passageways, built by Pleasant to elude police raids.
On the night of 30 April 1966, at the German Satanic festival of Walpurgisnacht, LaVey pronounced the age of Satan had begun. In a ‘blinding flash’ he declared himself the High Priest of the Church of Satan, which he founded as a religious institution. His ethos was “nine parts social respectability (and) one part outrage!”. LaVey designed the Baphomet emblem as the official emblem of the Church of Satan. He wrote and published The Satanic Bible, his alternative scriptures. Later in life he wrote The Satanic Witch and The Satanic Rituals, selling in excess of a million copies.
LaVey claimed at the height of the religion’s popularity a formal membership of hundreds of thousands, including pop celebrities such as Marc Almond, Marilyn Manson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. On 31 October 1997, Halloween, sixty-seven year old LaVey died from heart failure.
The Truth is Out There
This legend of The Black Pope was somewhat tarnished a year later when on the 2 February 1998, Zeena LaVey, Anton’s daughter, revealed a number of truths on a web article entitled Anton LaVey: Legend and Reality. It brought to light the truth behind LaVey’s dark front. The truth is something quite different from the flamboyant dark prince America had loved to hate.
True parents Michael and Gertrude LaVey gave birth to Howard Stanton LaVey. Boy Beelzebub’s ancestry was in fact Ukrainian, not Transylvanian or of gypsy stock. Young Howard spent the entirety of 1945 in suburban north California, and had never visited Germany at any time of his life. The uncle whom he had claimed had brought him to Germany was incarcerated at McNeill Island Penitentiary for involvement with Al Capone-related criminal activity during 1945, and was never seen in the armed forces. Anyhow, the allied martial law forbade US citizens from entering postwar Germany. The ‘German’ rituals he wrote of later in his Satanic Rituals are poorly written, suspected unaccredited adaptations of the short story The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long and H. G. Wells’ famous novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.
It was found that there were only three oboists in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; none of them were named ‘LeVey’ or ‘LaVey’. The same absence of the devil was found in the circus records. No lion tamers, musicians, or bible burners were found under his name. Consistent with this trend, LaVey had never worked for the San Francisco Police department.
Another myth was squashed for the devil’s image in relation to Marilyn Monroe, for he never knew her. In 1948, Monroe’s agent exposed and discredited the tale. Diane LaVey, Anton’s former wife, admitted that she forged the inscription on the calendar. LaVey’s former publicist Edward Webber confirmed that he never knew Monroe.
The infamous Black House does not seem so chilling when behind the eerie exterior one finds that 6114 was his parents’ house. It had never been a brothel, nor did Mammy Pleasant ever work or live there. LaVey himself created any secret passages and hidden rooms that did exist.
After declaring the age of Satan in 1966, LaVey supplemented his income by presenting weekend lectures on exotic and occult topics. He conducted ‘Witches Workshops’, for which he charged $2 a head, filling his living room with the curious, and establishing himself as a local eccentric. When he found he would never make any money by lecturing, and following some careful advice from his publicist Edward Webber, the Church of Satan was created as a business and publicity vehicle. Howard took artwork from another source, plagiarising the Baphomet as his own.
The Church of Satan’s membership was grossly exaggerated by LaVey, never exceeding 300 individuals, several of whom were non-member subscribers to the newsletter or friends of LaVey receiving complementary mailings. Behind the dark curtain lay a poor relationship between LaVey and his wife, Highest Priestess Diane Hegarty.
In 1991, LaVey filed for bankruptcy, owning just 50% of the house his parents had given to him, which was in such bad condition as to be nearly worthless on the real estate market. Family members have attested to the fact that by the mid-1970s the LaVeys lived in near poverty, frequently having to rely on LaVey’s father’s generosity. LaVey continued to rely on handouts from friends and relatives until the end of his life.
LaVey violently beat his wife Diane throughout their marriage. In 1984, a police report was made, describing Diane being strangled into unconsciousness by LaVey, who was in such a murderous rage that his daughter Karla had to pull him off Diane and drag her outside the house to save her life. LaVey routinely beat and abused those of his female disciples with whom he had sex, forcing them into prostitution as part of his ‘Satanic Counseling’, while pocketing the earnings.
In 1986, LaVey was a passive witness to the sexual molestation of his own grandson by an old friend, later convicted of sex crimes with minors. In 1990, LaVey informed a mentally ill stalker of his daughter Zeena’s whereabouts and the time and location of a public appearance, thus endangering his own daughter’s life.
LaVey always portrayed himself as a great animal lover, keeping many pets. Yet in private he was cruel and neglectful to his pets, including Togare, his pet lion. He was given Togare as a cub in 1964 and was clearly ill-equipped to deal with such an exotic wild animal, despite his pretensions as a circus lion tamer. LaVey used an electric cattle prod to harm and frighten the lion. Animal rights activists protested against LaVey’s behaviour towards the lion, which led to his arrest. He was ordered to donate him to the San Francisco Zoo where, due to the early trauma in his life, he needed special care as he did at every animal care facility in which he lived.
The last myth concerning The Black Pope was of his death. An official investigation by the City of San Francisco determined that LaVey’s actual date of death was 29 October 1997, not Halloween. The date had been illegally written on the document.
When looking back in an objective historical context, the idea of a supernatural pioneer of the dark side seems intriguing to say the least. Yet a wealth of information concerning the man beneath the Devil’s horns reveals a sadder life than the paranormal legend created. So has LaVey converted me to Satan? Well, as Boy George once said, “I think I’d rather have a cup of tea”.
- Belknap Long, F. (1975). Hounds of Tindalos. St.Albans: Panther.
- LaVey, A. S. (1976). The satanic rituals. New York: Avon Books.
- LaVey, A. S. (2001). The satanic bible (3rd ed.). New York: Avon Books.
- LaVey, A. S. (2003). The satanic witch (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Feral House.
- LaVey, Z. & Schreck, N. (1998). Anton LaVey: Legend and reality.
- Wells, H. G. (1996). The island of Dr Moreau. New York: Dover Publications.