Following in the footsteps of British occultist Aleister Crowley, Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan with an impressive talent for showmanship and theatricality — drawing in thousands.
If there was one thing Anton LaVey knew well, it was the power of branding. A lifelong lover of the dark and unusual, he understood the impact of properly-wielded symbology. Following in the footsteps of controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley, he used theatricality in his endeavors — and founded the Church of Satan.
Even LaVey’s physical appearance was stark and memorable. He stood at six feet with a clean-shaven head and the goatee of a movie villain. His was the image of a man with sinister secrets, whose intriguing allure bred an ominous following and claims he portrayed the devil himself in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
LaVey lived in a pitch-black Victorian house in San Francisco, California, which became the headquarters of his newfound Church of Satan in 1966. It was a turning point for the hippie generation’s carefree spirit, which became fertile ground for alternative religions — like LaVey’s dedicated mission to spread the word of Satan.
Not unlike the devil himself, LaVey came from humble beginnings. He was no angel, but grew up in modest conditions before nurturing a hedonist flock. His fall from grace was one from high school to the circus, reject Christian morality, and publish The Satanic Bible — as high priest of a dark church still controversial today.
Anton LaVey’s Early Life
As a lifelong showman with sleight of hand firmly in mind, Anton LaVey made no qualms about obfuscating the truth in order to draw in crowds. Before he became an entrancing figure of America’s counter culture of the 1960s, however, LaVey was but a humble child raised by earnest second-generation immigrant parents.
Born Howard Stanton Levey on April 11, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, his father Michael Joseph Levey worked in real estate and auto parts while his mother Gertrude Augusta Coultron was a homemaker. The family relocated to San Francisco shortly after LeVey was born, and was anything but mystical.
Anton LaVey’s curiosity of the supernatural grew just like his musical talent, however. He claimed his grandmother was Transylvanian and told him stories of demons and vampires, and that her brother trained a bear to performed with gypsies along the Danube. Meanwhile, LaVey revealed himself as a gifted musician.
He played the organ in a Sunset District bar while playing the oboe in the San Francisco Ballet orchestra. It was clear, however, that he yearned for the mysterious lifestyles that his grandmother had whispered about. He dropped out of Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley when he was 16 years old to exactly that.
Legend has it that LaVey left academia to join a traveling circus. He would claim to have been a worker and then a “cage boy” in dangerous animal acts with big cats. American journalist Lawrence Wright, however, found no evidence of that eclectic digression — and that LaVey was a nightclub organist after dropping out.
It’s rather clear that LaVey met Carole Lansing in 1950, and married the 15-year-old the following year. It’s also substantiated that they had a child in 1952, and that LaVey enrolled at City College of San Francisco to avoid the Korean War draft and study criminology. His self-imposed mystique, however, had already begun.
LaVey said he worked for the San Francisco Police Department for three years. While later research yielded no proof of that, Lavey had already established himself as an entrancing figure of the local counterculture. Claims that he slept with Marilyn Monroe or hypnotized animals with his music had only furthered his legend.
The Church Of Satan
By 1966, Anton LaVey and his bizarre performances had nurtured a following that included high-profile figures. He felt confident enough to start his own movement, as a result. The Church of Satan was founded on April 30, a date coinciding with Walpurgisnacht — a Christian festivity celebrating a Medieval abbess.
Saint Walpurga was originally celebrated for protecting Christians against witchcraft. It’s no coincidence that LaVey chose to hijack that date, in a presumable act of inversion and mockery of canonical Christian faith. He marked 1966 “the Year One” and shaved his head, crowning himself high priest of the Church of Satan.
While LeVay’s home on California Street became the headquarters of his newfound religion, he had also begun hosting theatrical nightclub shows. He called these rituals, and orchestrated topless women dressed as witches and a bikini-clad “Inquisitioner” to dance across the stage — as naked women laid across altars.
LaVey adorned himself in a satin headdress and horns to appear like the devil, joining the dancers on stage. He became known as the “Black Pope” to loyal audiences, who were encouraged to join in the festivities — which teetered between religious ceremonies and opulent orgies. Naturally, Hollywood soon took note.
Though most of the church’s meetings were initially rooted in discussion, these rituals began to dominate the cult’s activity. Recruiting efforts for willing participants occurred at venues like the Topless Witches Revue, which employed future Manson family member Susan Atkins.
Despite the carnal overtures, there was a philosophy beneath LaVey’s salacious religion. Published in 1969, The Satanic Bible aimed to clarify that the Church of Satan promoted human self-determination in the face of Christianity’s guilt-centric conceit and an indifferent universe — and that humans should enjoy their lives.
While LaVey certainly exaggerated the aesthetic shock of his appearance and ritual-based church, he preached for pleasure rather than god-given forgiveness. Despite the costuming, he argued that the devil’s promoted image as a horned beast was a human invention, and that waiting for the afterlife was a waste.
“The whole concept of Satan’s tempting man is wrong,” said LaVey. “On the contrary, he motivates man. We just think it’s time the devil was given his due…The devil is the guy who’s kept all the churches in business.”
The Legacy Of Anton LaVey
Naturally, news of the eccentric cult leader had spread far and wide. Anton LaVey had officiated Satanic weddings, including that of New York City socialist Judith Case and journalist John Raymond in 1967. It garnered nationwide attention, though LaVey never allowed his congregation to grow larger than 2,000.
Actress Jayne Mansfield was certainly invited to become a devoted follower. Though she reneged, she posed for pictures with LaVey and called him a “genius.” Sammy Davis Jr., at a time where Rat Pack actor couldn’t have been more famous, was famously introduced to the church at an orgy. When Mansfield and her boyfriend died in a car crash in 1967, rumors swirled that LaVey had put a curse on them.
It was surely just as demonstrably false as LaVey’s claims regarding Marilyn Monroe. Nonetheless, these fabricated claims and ominous tales were whispered about and continuously argued for and denied. This, ultimately, accomplished the same end result that the church had purportedly fought for all along — curiosity.
Even LaVey’s claims of having consulted for Roman Polanski or portraying the devil in his film were proven false.
Perhaps most blasphemous to stern Christian onlookers, Anton LaVey even pulled his family into the Church of Satan — and baptized his own daughter into the fold in May 1967. With three-year-old Zeena being dedicated to Satan, LaVey drew worldwide attention and even chronicled the event on his Satanic Mass LP.
LaVey spent much of his time charging between two and $100 to accompany paying customers in graveyards to hunt for ghosts or stand watch at supposedly haunted houses. He was a paid consultant for those who believed in other realms and needed guidance or connection to those who had passed on.
Though Anton LaVey was a central figure in California during the hippie heyday of the 1960s, his time in the sun soon came to an end. Charles Manson and his Family murdering several Hollywood luminaries in August 1969 seemed to put a global damper on alternative lifestyles, particularly those associated with Satan.
With the notion of saddling up to the devil falling out of favor, a large number of people abandoned the church in a 1970s exodus that would seemingly never recover. Nonetheless, the Church of Satan has since purportedly gained followers in the tens of thousands, as the very notion of Satan these days seems passé.
“He was a defiant, bold man, who acted on his convictions with great personal courage,” his daughter Karla said. “Some called him the world’s most dangerous man; that was because he was not afraid of the consequences of being considered evil.”
Ultimately, Anton LaVey continued to spread the word of Satan until his death on Oct. 29, 1997. In keeping with his specially cultivated image of dark and mysterious, his death certificate lists his date of death as October 31, All Hallows Eve.
His family says it was to make sure his followers weren’t distracted during their most important holiday season. Alas, even in death, Anton LaVey was especially good at sticking to his brand.
After learning about Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, read about Aleister Crowley, another satanic worshipper. Then, read about Madame LaLaurie, New Orleans’ wickedest woman. Finally, read up on the real-life murder that may have inspired the movie Jennifer’s Body.