Anton LaVey arrives at LAX in 1967
Anton LaVey arrives at LAX in 1967
Photo © Walter Fischer-Alf Wahlgren

Who Was Anton LaVey? An L.A. Exhibit Sheds Light on Satanism's Black Pope

In the spring of 1967, inside Jayne Mansfield's Pink Palace on Sunset Boulevard in Holmby Hills, a paparazzo named Walter Fischer took a series of photographs of the actress with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. In one of the best images from that session, Mansfield kneels on a tiger-skin rug and gazes at the wax skull in her hands. LaVey kneels behind her, wearing his horned hood and a comically large medallion engraved with the Satanic Sigil of Baphomet; he's spreading his black satin–lined cape like a B-movie vampire about to besiege its virgin prey.

Less than a month later, Mansfield was dead. And LaVey's place in the annals of pop culture history was all but solidified.

Danny Fuentes, founder of the Westlake art gallery Lethal Amounts, stumbled on the Fischer photos in a recently released book called California Infernal. He was mesmerized. In addition to the Mansfield session, the book also features photos Fischer took of LaVey surrounded by nude women performing a ritual in the living room of "the Black House," his home and headquarters on California Street in San Francisco; LaVey's daughter Zeena's Satanic "baptism," as well as a Satanic wedding and funeral; and LaVey visiting Marilyn Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. In one series of images, LaVey geeks out over movie memorabilia at the home of Forrest Ackerman, a sci-fi writer and editor of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Photos of the rituals in particular were a hit with men's magazines.

The pictures, some of which hadn't previously published, are a cavalcade of natural breasts, full bushes and smoldering looks from the burgeoning religious leader. LaVey used shock value, a carefully crafted aesthetic rooted in everything from German Expressionist film to Flash Gordon comics, and a dark sense of humor to make a humanist philosophy a hell of a lot sexier. LaVey himself said, "A Satanist without a sense of humor would be abhorrent, would be intolerable."

LaVey's larger-than-life persona and embrace of a Swinging '60s brand of sexual liberation — i.e., women liberating their boobs from their blouses — made him a hit among Hollywood types whose images needed some edge, including Mansfield, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace, and who presumably were attracted to his ideas about carnal indulgence. LaVey went from hosting seminars on the occult in his San Francisco living room to dining with one of Hollywood's most famous blond bombshells at Beverly Hills' luxurious La Scala restaurant and, later, serving as a technical adviser on the schlocky 1975 horror film The Devil's Rain, starring Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner and a young John Travolta. His Satanic Bible came out in 1969, the same year the Manson Family's faux-Satanic murders made palling around with Satanists seem less desirable, but that wouldn't keep generations of gloomy 12- and 13-year-olds from picking up the book to piss off their parents and finding creative empowerment in the process. LaVey's fingerprints are all over modern metal and punk, even though the organist personally preferred classical music, polka and '60s girl groups.

Anton LaVey in a photoshoot with Jayne Mansfield
Anton LaVey in a photoshoot with Jayne Mansfield
Photo © Walter Fischer-Alf Wahlgren

Since he opened the gallery in 2012, Fuentes has wanted to do something around LaVey, so finding the Fischer photos just prior to the 20th anniversary of the so-called Black Pope's death felt like the Satanic equivalent of divine providence. Fuentes is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the Church of Satan, although he became interested in Satanic philosophy as a young person, right around the age a lot of counter-culture youth start questioning their parents' authority and the faith they were raised in.

Fuentes is gay, and Satanism said that being gay was OK when Christianity just wouldn't budge on the issue. The first of the Nine Satanic Statements laid out at the beginning of The Satanic Bible says, "Satan represents indulgence, instead of abstinence!" No. 8 says, "Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical mental or emotional gratification!"

Once Fuentes secured use of the Fischer photos, arranging for a Swedish collector of LaVey ephemera (aka "LaVeyana") named Alf Wahlgren to fly to Los Angeles with the goods, he set about organizing "Disobey," a one-night-only Halloween exhibit in Hollywood.

As Fuentes began contacting LaVey's family, friends and some notable Satanists, few people didn't want to be involved, which has presented its own complications. Lots of people feel possessive of LaVey's legacy, and they don't always see eye to eye.

Fuentes says he has spoken to Glenn Danzig about potentially contributing photos of LaVey from the Misfits frontman's reportedly vast collection of 1960s men's magazines. Legendary outré filmmaker and nonagenarian Kenneth Anger (who wrote the introduction to California Infernal) is slated to speak in person, and performance artist and provocateur Steven Johnson Leyba is bringing his own Satanic visual art and performing a cleansing ritual. LaVey's eldest daughter, Karla, has said she is coming to town from San Francisco with artifacts, including actual pieces of "the Black House," which was demolished in 2001. And musician Matt Skiba is DJing.

"I think the coolest thing about the Church of Satan was the era it happened, with Rosemary's Baby and the Satanic panic and all the weird Charles Manson–y, witchy shit that went on, when it was really threatening and purposefully tacky," says Skiba, frontman for Alkaline Trio and Blink-182 and a Church of Satan member for roughly 15 years. "It's just amazing and romantic, and those are bygone days. That's more for me what it really means, and Anton was the heartbeat of that aesthetic."

LaVey started a religion in which indulgence led to immortality, and you could say he's achieved something like it. "I think his defiance and rebellion is what made him become and remain a cultural icon 20 years after his death. Along with his image, too, of course," Karla LaVey said in an email note following a long telephone conversation. "He had the guts to come out against hypocrisy in religion and every aspect of life." Two decades after his death, Anton LaVey lives on — and controversy continues to follow.

Danny Fuentes of Lethal Amounts
Danny Fuentes of Lethal Amounts
Danny Liao

Since he began organizing the exhibit, Fuentes has repeatedly stressed that he is "not speaking about anybody's philosophy and I'm not trying to retell history — this is only about pop culture influence." That's easy to say, but for every high school metal band that co-opts the goat-horned Sigil of Baphomet because it looks cool and scary, there's a real-deal Satanist who considers LaVey a guru, even a father figure.

"This is religion, or at least something that people take very serious. I know it's sensitive to a lot of people," Fuentes says.

The Church of Satan that Anton LaVey founded on the last night of April 1966 — Walpurgisnacht, to pagan types — is pretty widely misunderstood. As a younger man, LaVey traveled the carnival and circus circuits as a musician, playing calliope and organ, and working as a big cat handler, and he had a keen sense of what it takes to "separate the rubes from their money," as Peter Gilmore puts it in the intro to a recent re-pressing of The Satanic Bible. The religion's overtly theatrical elements, the naked ladies and the cast of campy Hollywood stars LaVey befriended allowed people to write him off as a performance artist at best, or a two-bit huckster at worst. At its core, Satanism is a philosophy of rugged individuality and self-preservation — but isn't that instantly less interesting without the boobs, devil horns and spooky rituals?

Over the years, in churches and on televised talk shows ranging from Geraldo to evangelist Bob Larson's Talk Back, Christians have done their share to raise Satanism's profile by manufacturing outrage and perpetuating falsehoods. No, Satanists don't sacrifice babies or animals; it's right there on page 89 of The Satanic Bible. (LaVey loved animals and once owned a lion named Togare, who ended up at Tippi Hedren's big cat sanctuary when neighbors in San Francisco got fed up with his roaring.) Satanists don't even really worship Satan: "Man, the animal, is godhead to the Satanist."

Ever the pragmatist, LaVey saw Satanism's relationship to Christianity as mutually beneficial, even symbiotic. In Nick Bougas' 1993 documentary Speak of the Devil (a version that looks as if it was transferred from VHS is available on YouTube), LaVey says, "I think we've given the religious community a great deal of sustenance and perpetuated far more than we've destroyed at least in what they call their end times. Explicitly, the Church of Satan has been a shot in the arm, a sort of rejuvenation."

He continues: "Actually, Christians are the only people who embrace the idea of an anthropomorphic Satan or a Satan that is a real being that infiltrates their lives and gets them to do things and can be used as a scapegoat. ... We believe in taking responsibility for our own actions." Satanists are expected to police themselves; if it ever smacks of modern-day libertarianism, that's no coincidence — LaVey's occultism was inspired by Aleister Crowley, but his ideas about individualism were influenced by Ayn Rand.

The culture warriors who fed the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s have turned their attention to other issues, such as keeping trans people from comfortably using public restrooms and protecting Christian bakers from having to make wedding cakes for gay couples.

If you see Satanism in the news these days, it's likely the Satanic Temple, a rapidly growing political action group that formed in 2012 and bears little resemblance to LaVey's church. A self-proclaimed "association of politically aware Satanists, secularists and advocates for individual liberty," the Satanic Temple was created to challenge the ways in which Christianity tends to elbow its way into secular life and every rung of government. If a church wants to put the Ten Commandments in a taxpayer-funded building, fine, but the Temple will fight to put a statue of Baphomet — with the head of a goat, human breasts exposed — right next to it.

"A lot of people think that we're just hungry for attention or trolling Christians or whatever, but it's a lot more than that," says Ali Kellog, a spokesperson for the Temple's L.A. chapter. Peter Gilmore, the current leader of the Church of Satan, has spoken out against the Satanic Temple, specifically for erecting religious monuments, since Satanism has always been atheistic.

The Temple's main focus at the moment is women's rights and abortion access in particular. (It has a case before the Missouri Supreme Court.) If LaVey was a feminist, it's a brand of feminism that feels sort of dated now, ideologically miles away from this more contemporary Satanic offshoot. In the Church of Satan, women were literally used as objects in rituals. And in 1971, LaVey wrote a book called The Satanic Witch, which coaches women in how to use their sexuality to get what they want from men. Even feminists of the time found it problematic. "Problematic is a good word for it," Kellog says.

Ultimately, LaVey just wasn't interested in politics. Industrial musician Boyd Rice — who performs as Non — became friends with LaVey and was made a magister of the church in the late 1980s; he says, "Anton didn't care who was running the show. Because he saw politics as a dog-and-pony show. Your life never changes drastically as a result of the choices and actions of politicians but only as a result of your own choices and actions. Period."

Alf Wahlgren, a 48-year-old IT specialist who lives in Uppsala, Sweden, is not a Satanist. He says he doesn't like religion, period, but all the same he has become one of the most prolific collectors of LaVeyana. After paparazzo Walter Fischer died, Wahlgren acquired the photographer's estate so he could own the photos Fischer took of LaVey, including the Mansfield images. In a recent Skype call, Wahlgren says he found a Swedish translation of The Satanic Bible in a bookstore in the late 1990s, and as the internet became more of a thing, he started collecting LaVey ephemera on sites such as eBay. Eventually he'd work with LaVey friend and Satanist Carl Abrahamsson to compile the Fischer images into the 2016 book California Infernal. Then one day, Wahlgren got an email from Danny Fuentes.

Fuentes recalls their first conversation: "He's like, 'I've bought the estates of many other photographers so I can obtain the rights to all those photos of Anton LaVey.' He's like, 'I actually have about 2,000 images that I own the rights to.' I'm like, 'Whoa, you're blowing my mind.'"

As Wahlgren embarks on his first visit to the United States in roughly 20 years, he's bringing with him Satanic medallions handmade by LaVey's onetime partner Diane Hegarty (mother of Zeena LaVey); original pencil drawings signed by LaVey; recruitment and movie posters; and around 150 photos by Fischer. He's also presenting images by Nick Bougas and personal photos taken by Hegarty and Blanche Barton, a priestess of the church who became LaVey's companion later in life. Wahlgren is still actively acquiring LaVey images and artifacts and having them sent directly to Fuentes in Los Angeles.

LaVey used to say that Satanists are born, not made, so any recruiting he did focused on attracting people who already lived by Satanic principles rather than proselytizing people with different belief systems. An artifact Fuentes acquired for the show is a Church of Satan religious tract LaVey distributed throughout San Francisco that looks like a folded $10 bill. (If you've been a restaurant server, particularly in the South, you've likely received the Christian version as a "tip.") Once unfolded, the inside reads: "You are a sinner! Church of Satan advocates indulgence instead of abstinence. For information on classes & other activities — write or call," followed by his full name, address and actual phone number.

LaVey was open about his aversion to people in general, although he was conscious of the conundrum that attitude presented. In Speak of the Devil he says, "I don't want people, I don't need people, I don't really like people, and yet I recognize that people basically are interested in many of the same things that I am and many of the things that I do, so I can't really say that without being a hypocrite, say that I don't like people, because if there were no people who liked or were interested in what I was doing, there should be no point in my doing it."

The people he did like were people he thought were special in one way or another — they were talented or they were misfits or maybe a combination of the two. Sammy Davis Jr. was a black Jewish convert in an all-white Rat Pack. Mansfield was a fading Hollywood sex symbol who was quickly losing relevance in the wake of the sexual revolution. Liberace was flamboyantly gay way before his dinner-theater crowd was progressive enough to accept it.

"They weren't just ordinary people," Karla LaVey points out. "These people had musical talent, they shared the same philosophy, these were not just the average boring person on the street."

His relationship with Mansfield remains the most memorable, likely because of LaVey's proximity to her gruesome death. Just days after his visit to the Pink Palace in Holmby Hills, Mansfield and her lawyer/lover Sam Brody were killed in a horrific car accident outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, and a rumor quickly spread that the accident was the result of a curse LaVey had put on Brody. Regardless of your opinion on the efficacy of Satanic curses, it gave the story legs and made LaVey part of the narrative. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, who executive produced the 2013 documentary Room 237, examine Mansfield's dalliance with LaVey in the new documentary Mansfield 66/67; Kenneth Anger, who is appearing for a sold-out VIP talk at "Disobey," is among the talking heads the filmmakers tapped.

For the rest of his life, LaVey sought out friendships with people he thought were interesting, particularly musicians. He didn't go to shows but he'd invite musicians who interested him to visit after their San Francisco gigs. They could even take him out to dinner if they liked; Izzy's Steakhouse was a favorite, as was the Olive Garden, according to Ebersole and Hughes. Karla LaVey fondly recalls these visits, in particular the time Marilyn Manson brought over Traci Lords.

In 1988 or '89, LaVey sent two witches to fetch Danish black-metal legend King Diamond — aka Kim Petersen — after his San Francisco show. Petersen asked where they were going so he could let his tour manager know, but the witches wouldn't say. He remembers the house's black-and-gray façade and a pair of Dobermans in the front yard, but the most memorable part of the visit was being shown into LaVey's ritual chamber. LaVey told Petersen it had been closed up for 18 months to allow energy to collect within. Petersen remembers the feeling of eyes burning into the back of his neck, jealous witches who hadn't been granted the privilege of seeing inside the ritual chamber.

"We started talking, and I think we spent at least an hour and a half in there," Petersen recalls. "I didn't want to be some little boy nodding my head, saying the same as you say. I said, 'Can I speak first and tell you what I think about Satanism and the book and what you've done for me in my life?'" After their conversation, LaVey took off his Baphomet symbol and pressed it into Petersen's hand.

LaVey seldom penned handwritten letters, but he wrote one to Petersen. "He's a highly respected human being who I have very high regard for," Petersen says. "[It was special to] meet him and feel that he was absolutely dead serious about the book he had written, not someone who'd tried to come up with some stuff to make a book."

Petersen won't be submitting that letter to be displayed at "Disobey" because he keeps it with him at all times.

A ritual at the Black House in San Francisco
A ritual at the Black House in San Francisco
Photo © Walter Fischer-Alf Wahlgren

When LaVey died of pulmonary embolism, a complication of rheumatic heart disease, in October 1997, his Washington Post obit read: "Family members said Mr. LaVey died Oct. 29, but for some reason his death certificate lists him as having died Oct. 31 — Halloween. Deepening the mystery, the family said they kept his death secret for a week in order not to distract his followers over their most important holiday season."

But if his date of death was an actual point of contention, there were bigger issues still.

It was initially announced that LaVey's daughter Karla and Blanche Barton — his biographer, companion and the mother of his youngest son, Satan Xerxes LaVey — would be co–high priestesses of the church. But after a dispute over the legitimacy of LaVey's will and his true final wishes, Barton became the church's magistra templi rex and Karla disassociated herself, founding the First Satanic Church. She's become renowned for hosting an annual Black X-Mas party in San Francisco. LaVey's younger daughter, Zeena, who was a public face of Satanism throughout much of the 1980s, left the Church of Satan in 1990. She now goes by her married name, Schreck, practices tantric Buddhism and lives in Berlin. Zeena's son Stanton LaVey lives in L.A., and his wedding — on June 6, 2006 — was a huge event, although the Church of Satan's website says that he has "nothing to do with the Church of Satan nor is he considered by this organization to represent the philosophy of his grandfather."

The website bio page also accuses Karla of "withdrawing" from her father after the birth of his final child, which she says is ridiculous ("I was 43 ... I was an adult," she asserts).

It's easy to get wrapped up in the politics of the Church of Satan, the fraught interpersonal relationships and the ongoing feuds that were probably inevitable in a religion built around putting advancement of the self above all else — but, as Fuentes has repeated like a broken record, "Disobey" is a celebration of LaVey's cultural legacy. But even that can be complicated.

LaVey seems to have been drawn to controversial people, and vice versa. Performance artist Steven Johnson Leyba, who was a personal friend of LaVey and will be performing a cleansing ritual at the show, has been criticized for using swastikas in his work. (He identifies as Native American and doesn't think ownership of the symbol, which once was commonly used by indigenous peoples, should be handed to the Nazis.) LaVey's friend Boyd Rice is flying in from Denver for the show and bringing with him a Johnson Smith Company catalog LaVey gave to him. In the 1980s, Rice was briefly associated with Bob Heick of the White Supremacist organization American Front, so his name was removed from the show's promotional materials when the owners of the venue, Black Rabbit Rose, received an email complaint. Asked about his history with Heick, with whom he was photographed for a Sassy magazine spread on neo-Nazis, Rice replied, "I was never involved with this group, per se. I was never a member. I knew the guy for 15 minutes 30 years ago." Fuentes, who stresses the fact that he is gay and Latino, felt strongly about Rice's inclusion and did not officially disinvite him.

The Johnson Smith Company's book of jokes and tricks was one of LaVey's favorite things. In the documentary Speak of the Devil, he calls it his Gideon Bible and says, "I still sleep with one right next to me." Full of things like stink bombs that smelled like limburger cheese and sicker contraptions, like a gag "voice recorder" that would impale the dupe's thumb when a button was pressed, LaVey thought it was a perfect example of "man's inhumanity to man."

"It taught me that humans are basically very sadistic, at least in that respect, and they do like to torment their fellow creatures, and here was a company that was prospering on that premise," he says in the doc.

The show is shaping up to be a pretty comprehensive look at LaVey, and organizing it has given Fuentes more time to think about what made LaVey appealing in the first place — and what he believes has sustained LaVey's underground popularity.

"I think it was reactionary, I think a lot of it was the new age movement was in full swing. It was the summer of love and the hippie generation and civil rights was in full swing, women's rights and gay rights and all this stuff was starting to bubble up. It was very evident that there was a new generation and these kids were rejecting their parent's ideas," Fuentes says of the mid to late '60s. "[LaVey] was capable of understanding the strength of having some imagery and theater attached to it. He was able to come up with a really wild idea and sell it really well. I think that's a bygone era; I don't think you can really do stuff like that anymore."

Fuentes has celebrated a number of icons at his gallery over the years but this is the first time he's had to worry about magical intervention: "I just don't want a curse thrown at me."

"Disobey: Anton LaVey," Black Rabbit Rose, 1719 N. Hudson Ave., Hollywood; Tue., Oct. 31; $50. store.lethalamounts.com/products/antonlavey.

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