Has the Church of Satan Gone to Hell?

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

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. [page]

The Church eventually expanded into a network of grottoes across the United States, but LaVey — feeling that members were treating the organization as a meeting lodge, rather than living their lives according to satanic principles — shut the entire system down. Several followers left to form the rival Temple of Set, and LaVey went into seclusion for many years.

He resurfaced in the 1990s, granting media interviews, and hosting young cognoscenti at his home for late-night discussions. To them he was known simply as “Doctor.” This next generation of the curious would gobble up the new releases of his books and albums, on which he plays organ.

After years of heart problems, LaVey died on Oct. 30, leaving unfinished projects ranging from a collection of essays to a novel and another album of organ music. His obituary was carried in newspapers worldwide.

Three months and a day after Anton LaVey died, his daughter Karla filed a petition for probate, seeking to administer his estate, such as it was. Despite all the talk of mansions and ships, at his death the total value of Anton LaVey's holdings — the legacy of the Black Pope, the most evil and materialistic man in the world — came to $60,000, adjusted for annual book royalties. Several years of divorce proceedings and an ensuing bankruptcy had cleaned him out.

Less than two weeks later, LaVey's longtime lover, Blanche Barton, his biographer and mother of his young child, filed an objection to Karla's petition, providing the court with a copy of a hand-written will signed with LaVey's distinctive forked-tail signature. Dated 1995, the one-paragraph document appointed Barton as executor of the estate, and designated their toddler son, Xerxes, as sole beneficiary.

Karla LaVey filed an objection to Barton's objection. Karla claimed, essentially, that the alleged will was a fraud. Karla's filing noted that the will was dated a few days after Anton LaVey left UC Medical Center, where he had lain in a coma for three days. She suggested Barton had falsely informed LaVey that his daughter had abandoned him. Karla's filing also alleged that Barton had exerted undue pressure on LaVey to make the will, which, she asserted, contradicted her father's long-stated opposition to the very notion of wills.

Barton denied all of Karla's allegations. The case is pending. So is the furor over the future of the Church of Satan.

Anton LaVey's church has long been besieged by bickering former adherents who insist that he was a fraud and that his institution does not worship the devil properly. With LaVey's passing, these quarrels have become a playground shoving match that could be seen as a fight over the future direction of Satanism. A key element of the ongoing spat seems to involve the complete discrediting of Anton LaVey.

The people who seek to debunk LaVey have their own reasons for doing so, but all agree with these basic conclusions:

1) The Church had its heyday in the late '60s and early '70s, and has been going downhill ever since;

2) Anton LaVey fabricated much of his supposedly colorful past;
3) The Church of Satan has been in financial straits for years; and
4) The future of the Church is very much in question.

Michael Aquino began corresponding with LaVey while a psychological operative for the U.S. Army, stationed in the jungles of Vietnam. Aquino returned to the United States and was soon a high-ranking priest and editor of the Church's Cloven Hoof newsletter. His distinctive appearance — he had a prominent widow's peak and darkly accented eyebrows — was further enhanced by a small “666” tattooed on his scalp.

As the years passed, Aquino grew more and more frustrated by LaVey's administrative policies. In Aquino's eyes, LaVey had always refused to believe in Satan as an actual supernatural being. Now, the high priest was selling priesthoods in the Church for cold cash. This undermined the true purpose of Satanism, Aquino thought, and reinforced the ongoing reputation of the Church as a farcical sideshow.

In 1975, Aquino left with many church members and priests (some say 28, he claims 100) to form the Temple of Set, a tightly organized religion that revolved around an Egyptian deity on whom the Hebraic Satan supposedly was based.

Church of Satan members snort at Aquino's accusations, and describe the detail-oriented Aquino as emblematic of the type of person Anton LaVey was more than happy to get rid of.

Oregon painter and sculptor Rex Church is one of the oldest and highest-ranking officials in the Church of Satan. To him, Aquino is inconsequential.

“This guy's greatest curse was that Anton LaVey completely ignored him,” Church maintains. “And he couldn't stand that. Even to this day.”

While declaring the Church of Satan extinct, Aquino has kept an abnormally keen interest in the life of Anton LaVey. His own biographical history of LaVey and the Church, which he mails out to interested parties, runs to more than 800 pages.

“My estrangement from Anton LaVey caused me intense personal pain,” writes Aquino. “For six years I had regarded him as a friend, mentor, and ultimately 'Devil-father' — a bond of affection and respect clearly as profound and meaningful to him as to me. That an impasse of principles should have brought about the destruction of this bond, replacing it with an almost pathological hatred on his part and an impatient exasperation on mine, seemed the harshest of ironies.”

He has gone out of his way to make public court documents that reflect negatively on LaVey's personal life, including restraining orders, divorce proceedings, and LaVey's bankruptcy filing.

(In response, ex-Set members and LaVey supporters post unflattering documents to the Internet about Aquino's own courtroom appearances, related to a 1987 child molestation scandal at the Presidio. Aquino was investigated twice but never charged.) [page]

Peter Gilmore, the Church of Satan's highest-ranking priest and editor of its Black Flame magazine, says that the Temple of Set is in no way pertinent to the future of Satanism. As Gilmore remembers the situation, LaVey kept Aquino at a distance, uninterested in providing him such a father figure, but Aquino was obsessed.

“The behavior of Aquino over the years,” Gilmore says, “has been the classic 'woman spurned' kind of behavior, this weird, bitchy, obsessive attacking of [LaVey].”

Anton LaVey's youngest daughter, Zeena, is sultry and erudite, and like her father, stubborn as a mule. She is also his cruelest critic.

The platinum blonde had an unusual childhood, to say the least. She was baptized in a satanic ceremony, and had given birth to a son before she was old enough to drive. In the mid-1980s, when she was in her early 20s, she began acting as high priestess and spokesperson for the Church, appearing on many talk shows and contributing a new introduction for a reprint of her father's book The Satanic Witch. She considered a career in Hollywood. It seemed she might succeed her father as leader of the religion, but in 1990 she renounced all association with the Church of Satan and LaVey.

“While I have no regrets in my battle with the forces of ignorance, and my own unswerving dedication of my religion has only grown,” she wrote in a letter to Michael Aquino, “I could no longer defend such an ungrateful and unworthy individual as the so-called Black Pope. … The cosmic cards are stacked against him.”

After her father's death, Zeena and her husband, Nikolas Schreck, now both priests in the Temple of Set, prepared a volatile document called “Anton LaVey: Legend and Reality.” The document is most persuasive when it refers to the research of Lawrence Wright, a veteran reporter for Texas Monthly and The New Yorker who investigated LaVey's life in 1991.

Wright specialized in writing about American religions. On assignment for Rolling Stone to profile LaVey, Wright discovered a host of inconsistencies in the legend LaVey had woven around himself.

Wright was unable to confirm, among other claims, Anton LaVey's rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe, his Clyde Beatty circus affiliation, his job as an SFPD photographer, or the existence of any ballet symphony that LaVey might have played for. Wright did document that LaVey was born Howard Stanton Levey. His parents were Mike and Gertrude, who moved from Chicago to the Bay Area, where his father worked as a liquor distributor. And he was definitely not wealthy. According to 1962 divorce paperwork, Anton LaVey's sole income at that time was the $29.91 a week he earned playing organ at the Lost Weekend club in the Sunset District.

Speaking from his home in Texas, Wright says he found LaVey very intriguing, but was stunned at the blatant embellishments.

“Being such a conspicuous and widely hated figure as he was, it surprised the hell out of me that nobody'd ever checked up on him,” Wright says. “He had gotten very careless. When I met him, he had been essentially gulling journalists for years, without any consequences.”

Wright recalls that the Church of Satan appeared to be largely finished as an organization even by 1991. “Whatever it had been in the past, it certainly wasn't when I went to meet him,” Wright says. “I think he was very glad to meet my expense account.”

LaVey's daughter Zeena combines Wright's conclusions with Aquino's findings and her own investigations to list some blistering allegations about her father.

For instance, she says, the black house on California Street — the infamous headquarters of the Church of Satan — was not a former Mammy Pleasant brothel at all, but merely the home of LaVey's parents, who transferred ownership to him and his wife Diane in 1971.

According to “Anton LaVey: Legend and Reality,” the founding of the Church was not a flash of satanic destiny, but a business and publicity vehicle designed by LaVey and a publicist friend.

The myth-busting continues: The Satanic Bible was conceived by Avon Books to cash in on the occult faddism of the 1960s, and LaVey paraphrased much of it from books by Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand and an obscure writing from 1896. According to an interview with the original producer of the film Rosemary's Baby, LaVey was not technical adviser, as he claimed, and not a single member of the cast or crew has ever mentioned LaVey's involvement. The Church's boast of having hundreds of thousands of members was wildly exaggerated; membership was never more than 300. According to family members, LaVey was not a millionaire possessing many homes and cars, but had relied on the generosity of friends and relatives since the mid-1970s. LaVey's supposed affair with Jayne Mansfield was a stunt arranged by publicists.

When it comes to debunking her father, Zeena spares not a single grisly detail. She insists that he forced many of his female disciples into prostitution. She even attempts to discredit his reputation as an animal lover, describing one night from her childhood when she woke to discover LaVey beating the bloodied face of her German shepherd puppy with a board.

And as a final anti-tribute to her father, the day after his death, Zeena Schreck appeared on Bob Larson's radio program, a daily religious broadcast syndicated nationwide from Denver, Colo.

The red-haired Larson figures into the Church of Satan in an odd way. For years, he has boosted his ratings by inviting Church members onto his programs. In 1995, he even hosted a “satanic Summit,” flying several priests to Denver for a series of one-on-one television interviews. Larson's debates with Satanists have served both to scare his Christian audience and to promote the Church of Satan, which tapes the same programs and distributes copies for its own use. [page]

Zeena had been a frequent guest on Larson's show. On the day after her father died, she took to the air once again, this time giving Larson's listeners a startling bit of information: She had performed a ritual and put a death curse on her father, and it had finally killed him.

Despite the legal wrangling over the LaVey estate and the almost ritualistic attacks of detractors, the Church of Satan's governing Council of Nine remains supremely confident of the organization's future. They are also supremely dismissive of his daughter Zeena.

“She's an ass,” declares Jeff Nagy, a Stockton businessman and Church of Satan priest. Like many in the church, Nagy believes Zeena turned on LaVey in hopes of making herself famous. “He was definitely saddened by it, don't let anybody kid you. That's flesh and blood.”

Peter Gilmore says Zeena and Schreck were Church spokespeople at one time, and anticipated taking over its reins, but when LaVey decided not to hand it over to them, “They left in a huff.”

According to Church members, it will take more than negative publicity and the death of the founder to derail the 32-year momentum of Anton LaVey. “We are just as focused now as we have ever been on reaching the goals of the Church of Satan as put forth,” says Rex Church. “We're also realists. It's the idea that we are left behind for other men to pick up and use as tools for forging the future. That all sounds probably fascist and magnanimous, but that's what we really feel.”

Los Angeles rock poster artist Chris “Coop” Cooper, himself a priest, insists that as long as LaVey's books are still in print, the religion will never die.

“All that 'Who's gonna take over?' Honestly, who cares? I really don't think that's important. It's a portable feast, man. All you have to do is to go to B. Dalton's and buy The Satanic Bible. It's all there. If that loser Jesus could keep a church going for 2,000 years, I think Doctor can certainly fucking compete with that!”

Gilmore insists the Church has been vigorously working on improving its hierarchy and recruiting quality people for the priesthood. The absence of the founding leader will not create a problem, he says.

“Everyone has renewed their commitment to an even stronger degree than when Anton LaVey was here, because they now know that they can't turn to him for the final thing. That it's on all of our shoulders. I'm so proud of everybody for this, that they're willing to pick up the burden and take it even further. That to me is just beautiful.”

But simple realities — financial and otherwise — suggest the Church of Satan may be headed south, so to speak.

“There's no future for that church,” journalist Lawrence Wright says. “Unless some other person comes along who can spin out the same kind of charisma that LaVey was able to do.”

That someone, many church officials hope, will be LaVey's companion and biographer, Blanche Barton.

The black Victorian stands out as if it were the Addams Family mansion, a rude interruption in the rows of pastel-colored homes that are its Outer Richmond neighbors. An 8-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, intended to discourage vandals, seals the house from the sidewalk. The windows are completely shuttered.

Since 1993 the home has been owned by hotelier Donald Werby, co-owner of Grosvenor Properties and a longtime LaVey friend from the old days of the Magic Circle. Werby paid $240,000 for the building as part of Anton LaVey's bankruptcy arrangement; the money was used to satis-fy a divorce settlement of nearly a half-million dollars.

In a city that cherishes its eccentric tradition, the structure may have value as a historical landmark. Rumors have circulated that shock-rocker and Church priest Marilyn Manson might purchase the building to preserve its legacy, but they remain unconfirmed. To Church members, the black house constitutes a shrine, the site of the world's first satanic wedding, a monument of ultimate religious rebellion.

On the local real estate market, though, the black house is just a dump.
The chain-link fence could be uprooted, the secret panels could be nailed shut, and the devil-themed wall murals could be painted over — but according to court documents, the 1905 building has deteriorated beyond repair. It has no heat. All plumbing and electrical wiring is original and substandard. A representative from Grosvenor informs potential buyers the property is definitely for sale — but renovation is out of the question. From Grosvenor's point of view, it's more cost-effective to demolish the black house and build something new.

But the black house is not history yet. On a recent Friday evening, Blanche Barton answers the door and ushers me into the former living room, long since converted into a satanic ritual chamber. Under a blood-red ceiling are pieces of antique furniture, including a grand piano, a church organ, a human coffin, and a rocking chair that supposedly belonged to Rasputin. The brick fireplace altar, upon which nude women once reclined, now displays a small photograph of Anton LaVey. It seems a shame that the occult artifacts and black walls and the strange energy that emanates from them could soon be leveled.

Blanche offers a sofa and sits in a chair, reportedly once owned by Ben Franklin. Blonde and in her mid-30s, wearing a small Baphomet pin on her white blouse, she appears as relaxed as any mother of an energetic 4-year-old can be.

She says she discovered The Satanic Bible as a teen-ager living in San Diego, and kept it in mind through college. She met Anton LaVey while vacationing in the Bay Area with her family in 1984, and, she says, has been with him and the Church ever since.

Court documents list Karla LaVey as a resident of the house, but Blanche says Karla recently moved out, and she would rather not discuss it any further. [page]

On the efforts of Michael Aquino and Zeena Schreck to discredit LaVey, Blanche can only chuckle: “They have to let go! All you can really do is laugh at them. It's what the Doctor used to call 'satanic dismay.' ”

In most families, a curse meant to kill a loved one would be cause for concern, but Blanche doesn't raise an eyebrow in response to Zeena's final ritual.

“He lived his life in broad strokes,” she shrugs. If one lives a life of high drama, she suggests, one must be prepared to receive back what one has offered up.

As conversation shifts from philosophers to literature and film noir, Blanche's demeanor is pleasant, but it includes a confidence that hearkens back to the carnival midway. No matter how long it's been since LaVey died, or what happens to the black house, Blanche Barton says, the Church of Satan will always be around.

She has, after all, learned from the best. Perhaps she does deserve to be his successor.

On the way out the door, Xerxes the toddler, who is playing on the steps with a Dr. Seuss-character hand puppet, looks up and exclaims cheerfully, “My mom and I have a humongous house.

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