Anton LaVey founded his Church of Satan on theatricality and showmanship, drawing thousands into his glamorous satanic world.
If there was one thing Anton LaVey did, it was stick to his brand.
A lifelong lover of the dark and unusual (like Aleister Crowley before him), LaVey was about as close to the devil himself as a mere mortal could get. Indeed, he even played the devil in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. At six feet tall with a cleanly shaven head and a movie-villain goatee, living in a pitch-black house, LaVey was the picture of dark and sinister.
His lifestyle choices just added to the mystique of his physical appearance. After dropping out of high school, LaVey joined a traveling circus and worked as a “cage boy” for the tigers and leopards. Eventually, he began to dabble in magic and hypnosis, a turning point which piqued the young man’s interest in the mysterious.
Eventually, he moved on from the circus and went on to college, where he studied criminology and later began a job with the San Francisco Police Department as a forensic photographer. His interest in the macabre quickly turned into an interest in the supernatural, and he began to dabble in ghost hunting in his spare time. Finally, he left the department to devote himself full-time to the supernatural.
His efforts eventually peaked in 1966 when he founded the Church of Satan.
The headquarters of the newly established church were at LaVey’s own home — an ugly, entirely black Victorian house on California Street in San Francisco.
Anton LaVey had learned long ago how to spin a show or turn a head during his days in the circus, a talent which he put to use when attempting to arouse interest in his church. Bypassing the evangelist tradition of spreading the word of God through outreach, LaVey took a much more appropriate approach for spreading the message of Satan.
He began to host theatrical nightclub shows, which he called rituals, featuring topless women dressed as witches and a bikini-clad “Inquisitioner” dancing across the stage. There would be nude women lying across altars, and participants were urged to join in the festivities. He’d don in a satin headdress topped with devil horns and join the dancers on stage, becoming known as the “Black Pope.” The entire performance balanced precariously between a religious ceremony and opulent orgy.
The word of Anton LaVey’s antics inside his black house of hell spread far and wide amongst the young, experimental generation. His gospel soon traveled to the home of America’s most sexually adventurous, morally ambiguous, and religiously curious – Hollywood, California.
The first big name convert to the Church of Satan was Sammy Davis Jr. The singer, actor, and Rat Pack member was well known for his devil-may-care attitude, which led him to see whether or not the devil really did care. While at a nightclub known as The Factory, he noticed a group of women all with a single nail painted blood red. That night, he found himself at the Church of Satan, in the midst of what he called “dungeons, dragons, and debauchery.”
Later converts included British actor Christopher Lee, a fellow horror guru, and the unlikely blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield, who became a Church of Satan High Priestess. Legend has it that Mansfield’s boyfriend mocked LaVey, who put a curse on him. Shortly thereafter, Mansfield and her boyfriend were killed in a car crash. Though the claims have been denounced as preposterous, rumors of the curse still swirl.
Anton LaVey even pulled his family into the church and made history by baptizing his daughter Zeena into the Church of Satan, the first child to be anointed as such.
Over the years, the church has gained followers in the tens of thousands, save for a decline in the 70s. After Charles Manson and his Family murdered several Hollywood stars, the idea of satanism seemed to hit a little too close to home for some, and a large number of people abandoned the church.
LaVey, however, 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 Oct. 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.