Alex Mar

Satan in Poughkeepsie

Anton Lavey exposed the show business of religion when he founded the church of satan. Half a century later, its high priest holds afternoon tea in suburban New York.

DISCUSSED: Baby Rabbits, The Initial Accusations, Leading Questions, Aftereffects of the Counterculture Movement, That Goat’s Head, Satanism’s Highest Holiday, Lost Nuances, Reporting by Geraldo Rivera, Tangerine Dream, The Black House, Full Bava Lighting, Wurlitzer Gigs, Spooky Names, The Nazarene Eunuch
Satan in Poughkeepsie

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Maybe it was during nap time or snack time or shortly after their parents dropped them off each day, but it was certainly during preschool hours that the teachers Mrs. McMartin and Mr. Buckey led the children through trapdoors in the classroom floor and down into the maze of tunnels. There below, the cold walls were covered in images of Satan, with his red face and massive horns (any child would have recognized him). There underground, the children—all of them young, between two and five years old—were touched in private places and made to pose for dirty pictures. And maybe those tunnels made up a vast underground network, because somehow, in daylight, without any witnesses, the teachers managed to take the entire class to a nearby Episcopal church, where the grown-ups donned black robes and masks and stood before the altar and slit the throats of baby rabbits and birds and even a couple of turtles, letting the hot blood run into fancy cups. And they passed the cups to the children and forced them to drink the animals’ blood. And babies were killed (maybe); and corpses were dug up from the ground (maybe); and the teachers took the kids out into the cemetery, among the tombstones, and touched them between their legs. And once Mr. Buckey took a long knife and chopped a pony to death right in front of them, saying that their parents would die that way, too, if any of the children said a word about anything that had happened at preschool that day or any other day or ever. And everybody spoke the name of the Devil over and over again, dancing.

These were among the 208 charges of abuse leveled against the seven teachers of the mostly family-run McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1984. It began when the mother of one two-year-old boy claimed that her son had been molested by his teacher. The initial accusations were so over-the-top—not only was there baby killing and blood drinking, but clown costumes were involved—that the DA dismissed them as utterly unsubstantiated. (The mother had also accused the boy’s absent father of abuse, and was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.) But at this point, the Manhattan Beach chief of police took it upon himself to send around a “confidential” letter to parents of two hundred present and former McMartin students, outlining the charges in detail, and advising them to ask their kids if they, too, had been assaulted. When nearly all the children denied mistreatment, the authorities recommended that the parents take them to Children’s Institute International, a Los Angeles center with a new focus on child-abuse prevention, where they were interviewed with puppets and anatomically correct dolls and asked leading questions, with some case workers outlining very specific abuse scenarios for the kids before they were given a chance to answer on their own.

Of the hundreds interviewed, about forty eventually filed claims. Of those, only nine were seen as credible-­enough witnesses for the prosecution to risk putting them on the stand. Over the course of seven years, all “Satanic” charges were eventually dropped, and the accusers were narrowed to eleven, the McMartin defendants to two. They both were ultimately acquitted on all counts—after a seven-­year trial that, at fifteen million dollars in total costs, is still widely considered the most expensive in American history. But long before the trial proved a disaster, the McMartin case set a pattern. In the months following the initial charges, accusations of “Satanic” child abuse surfaced at seven other preschools in Los Angeles County, and the panic soon began to spread throughout the country. Over the decade that followed, more than twelve thousand recorded cases of such abuse were investigated—accusations that ranged from group sex abuse to baby sacrifice and cannibalism—and in no instance was substantial physical evidence uncovered. No traces of blood or carnage, human or animal, were ever found; medical tests on the young victims were later discredited: there was no proof.

The ’70s counterculture and wo­men’s movements had derailed all kinds of assumptions about American family life and sexuality, and, in their wake, a collective nightmare had emerged: the notion that an invisible underground network of Satanists was lurking in the shadows, poisoning the water with sexual and moral depravity, waiting to turn out or torture our children. This period in the ’80s and early ’90s became known as America’s “Satanic Panic.” As absurd as it sounds now, the Panic was a time of thousands of accusations of “Satanic” abuse of children—so many that authorities coined the term “Satanic ritual abuse,” or SRA. Charges were brought against hundreds of child-care workers and suburban parents around the country. In courtrooms, prosecutors relied entirely on the accusers’ personal narratives, with no conclusive evidence. On the national level, law enforcement, prosecutors, and social workers began meeting at conferences around the country to hear from self-­proclaimed experts on how to deal with the SRA plague. One of the leading social workers in the McMartin case testified before a congressional committee in 1984, warning of SRA involving the slaughter of animals in front of small children. It all would have been a bizarro comedy of errors if the charges had not been so disgusting—and if some of those accused hadn’t gone on to spend decades in prison.

Throughout the Panic, one group was turned to again and again as the best evidence that the Devil had droves of organized followers: the Church of Satan.

A product of flamboyant, late-’60s countercultural San Francisco, the Church of Satan was, and still is, the largest organization centered around Satan (it trademarked that goat’s head). Founder Anton LaVey, a former carnie, presented himself as a caricature of the Devil—complete with satin cape, shaved and Vaselined head, and appliqué horns—and gave lectures on the occult and the absurd, led workshops on how to manipulate the squares, and threw decadent “ritual” parties at his Richmond District “Black House” (a Victorian painted mainly black). The whole thing was an attention-seeking enterprise, but underlying the “church” was a sincere crusade against the evils of organized religion. Contrary to what most outsiders thought, LaVey and his (literally) card-carrying Satanists did not believe in the Devil or Satan or superhuman entities of any stripe. (“Man has always created his gods,” LaVey wrote.) Above all else, they were—and remain today—cynics and pragmatists, atheists and libertarians. The Satanic Bible, the church’s best-selling central text (over one million copies sold to date), is LaVey’s unrelenting critique of institutionalized religion; and in light of the violence that continues to take place in the name of God (or Allah, or Whoever), whether here or abroad, certain passages read like brutish common sense. He slams religion as fueled by self-hatred, false feelings of guilt, and a denial of man’s essential nature. Man is a self-­interested animal, writes LaVey, and there’s no reason to go around apologizing for it. “Just as the Satanist does not pray to God for assistance, he does not pray for forgiveness for his wrong doings… [C]onfessing to another human being, like himself, accomplishes even less—and is, furthermore, degrading.” Each Satanist, members like to reiterate, is his own god. In keeping with its rampant egotism, Satanism’s highest holiday is each member’s own birthday.

LaVey became known as the “black pope” with good reason: his church, from a Christian perspective, is extravagantly blasphemous, using the format of Catholic high mass to create its own brand of gothic theater. If the substance of religious ritual is guilt-­inducing reactionary nonsense, Satanists believe, the form of ritual can still tap into some primal truths about man. And so Satanists use high-mass drama to get the blood flowing (though, as far as I know, not in the literal, open-wound sense). “Hail Satan!” they chant, over and over: Satan and evil and hell are trigger words to encourage members to embrace a freethinking, contrarian, wildly egocentric life outside the mainstream—​a life-affirming mantra. “When we say ‘Hail Satan,’” says Peter Gilmore, the church’s current high priest, “what we really mean is ‘Hail Ourselves.’”

These nuances, however, were lost on the media during the Panic years, when the stakes were high for associating with the Devil—even in name alone. Throughout the ’80s, major outlets fed the paranoia, from ABC’s 20/20 and NBC News to The Oprah Winfrey Show. The material covered ranged from the ridiculous—20/20 correspondent Tom Jarriel, after listening to “Stairway to Heaven” played backward, announced that Robert Plant was singing “My sweet Satan!”—to the unverifiable. What these high-­profile media reports all had in common was the insupportable logic that these “Satanic” networks were impossible to uncover, which only proved how wily they were. As Jarriel announced, in a bizarre call to action, “Nationwide, police are hearing strikingly similar horror stories—and not one has ever been proved!” Without proof, what exactly was anyone reporting?

NBC gave a hefty prime-time slot to Geraldo Rivera’s special “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” Over the course of two hours, Geraldo roped the Church of Satan, heavy-metal fans, and a handful of serial killers into a bloodthirsty, “highly organized, secretive network” of Devil worshippers “over one million” strong. Images of LaVey and his Satanic Bible were shown, while LaVey’s daughter Zeena protested that the Church of Satan was a “legitimate religion” and Dr. Michael Aquino, founder of the Satanic splinter church the Temple of Set, explained, unsuccessfully, that Satanists didn’t believe in Christianity’s Antichrist. (Geraldo continued to call them “Devil worshippers” anyway.) The Church of Satan’s theater of the absurd, and its rallying cry against guilt complexes and original sin, was on trial—as if wearing too much black silk and red velvet and collecting antique swords were crimes. From LaVey’s earlier carnival antics to the church’s ritual provocations (inverted pentagram, Devil’s horns), the “wicked” paraphernalia and role-playing of the Satanist had always been intended to get a rise out of the masses and free the Satanist from the hang-ups of mainstream “Christers.” But these antics now had real-world weight. Just owning a copy of LaVey’s book, or doodling a pentagram on your journal, was enough to be found guilty by association.

The guilty-by-occult-association line of prosecution culminated in one of the most recent, vivid high-profile Panic cases: that of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were murdered in the Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, Arkansas. The friends were discovered naked, bound, and drowned, and, adding a horrific detail, one was found with his penis mutilated. Three local teenagers—Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Baldwin’s best friend, Damien Echols—were convicted of the crime. The sentences—life for Misskelley and Baldwin, death row for Echols—were based largely on a confession coerced from Misskelley, who was mentally challenged, as well as depictions of the teenagers as outsiders and social misfits. Echols in particular was a perfect target in a conservative small town: he listened to Metallica (in court he was asked if having a Master of Puppets poster made him a Satanist), wore a pentagram necklace he’d bought at the mall, and kept a found animal skull as decoration (he was asked if this, too, had any kind of Satanic meaning). He was just another teenager fantasizing about the occult. The case was resolved with their release, in 2011—but only after all three had spent over eighteen years in prison.

I saw Satan for the first time at about eight years old, on a VHS tape I played over and over again at my friend Becky’s house. For months, even years, afterward, this was how I saw him: a dark red man-beast, just tall enough to be superhuman, swaying, backlit by a tremendous, roaring fireplace that must double as a gateway deeper into hell. Hooves and shaggy haunches, red barrel-chest, and, towering above that, a massive horned head. His horns, a high-sheen black, are three times those of a tremendous bull or water buffalo. His red fingers are veined and prehistoric, capped with fat black claws. He has all the heft of a beast, but he carries himself like a dark aristocrat. He’s dancing with a girl—a grown woman, really, but young enough to be my babysitter, strapped into an intricate black gown. And though she’s a Good Girl, literally some kind of woodland princess, the Lord of Darkness has swept her up without resistance, made her over into a hell-bound, ultra-gothic shadow-­image of herself; and now she’s spinning around in his enormous arms, in slow, broad circles, the kind that make a person’s neck go limp.

The movie was Legend, a pretty terrible 1985 fantasy film by Ridley Scott, scored by… Tangerine Dream? But there was no such scene in the movie, of the girl dancing with the Devil in front of the fire: the details and the setting are right, but I’d fabricated the moment myself. At eight years old, I’d already begun to give the Devil life in my imagination.

It’s not surprising: children have plenty of opportunity to absorb our culture’s myths of evil incarnate. Fairy tales had me believe that some dark overlord sent demons to wait in my closet; my mother’s Catholicism taught me that the darkness had a name (Satan, or Lucifer) and that it could tempt you, take the form of a serpent, and hypnotize you into doing what you shouldn’t—things unimaginable to someone as young as I was. And friends with older siblings (or one particular metal-head kid) conjured up “Satanists” and spun them into reality through late-night sleepover talk.

Many years later, I realized that I had yet to come to my own conclusions about this hidden cabal. And so I did what, as an adult, I was now permitted to do: I reached out to the Church of Satan.

To my surprise, I discovered that Satan’s Vatican moved out of San Francisco nearly twenty years ago. High Priest Peter Gilmore (only their second in nearly fifty years) and his wife, High Priestess Peggy Nadramia, relocated church headquarters first to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and then, more recently, to their dream house in Poughkeepsie. The bland New York college town has become the heart of global Satanism. Gilmore and I corresponded, and, after a few weeks, on a spring day, I found myself invited to “afternoon tea” at the new Black House.

On the train ride north from Penn Station, we pass houses in Colonial Revival and Federal style and, now and then, old stations packed with stalled freight cars. Nearing Poughkeepsie, the buildings turn Victorian. This was the spot, back in 1788, where Alexander Hamilton and Co. ratified the Constitution; we’re not far from the former weekend homes of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. It’s a setting that invokes a wholly different incarnation of the Dark One than West Coast, Altamont-era dark psychedelia.

I step off the train, and, within minutes, a very new-looking black Mustang pulls up: out comes the High Priest, a gothic Santa in a dapper three-piece black suit. A salt-and-pepper beard, meticulously trimmed, hovers over his shirt collar. He introduces himself—​“Peter!”—pumping my hand with gusto: he is one of the jolliest men I’ve ever met. He opens the passenger door for me with gentlemanly ceremony, and we take off.

En route to the Black House, Peter talks about the area with pride—how across the river, in Orange County, he grew up with his two siblings, a father who groomed and showed dogs for a living, and a homemaker mother with a sensitive hobbyist’s interest in painting and dance (she won a few Lindy contests). Even though his mother was Roman Catholic, and placed young Peter in religion classes in the local church, he found both Christianity and Judaism “obsessed with guilt” and “repugnant”—he preferred the “heroism” of the ancient Greek gods. He was a precocious kid, openly declaring himself an atheist. As a teenager, Peter defined himself as “a creative outsider,” an amateur neo-surrealist painter, and a theater geek, designing and building sets and special effects for school plays. His future wife, Peggy, edited the school newspaper, he edited the yearbook, and with their friends they formed a clique of bookish art kids (mostly National Honor Society students) who spent their time listening to classical music and hanging around museums, dressed in elaborate outfits and “unusual hats” to set themselves apart from everyone else they knew. Peter discovered Satanism in a pretty typical fashion. At thirteen, after taking the bus down to Manhattan to visit the Museum of Natural History, he stopped by a bookstore in the Port Authority station, where he liked to browse for sci-fi paperbacks by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. On that day he happened to notice The Satanic Bible on the rack. He took it home, read it in one sitting, and had a revelation: “I wasn’t just an atheist, I was a Satanist.” As a teen aesthete, here was a religion, he thought, that was “rational, yet darkly theatrical”—a movement that shrugged off the idea of sin and suited his tastes. And so he graduated, valedictorian of his class, determined to become a card-­carrying member of the Church of Satan.

Peter and Peggy have fulfilled a decades-long dream of owning an “Addams Family–style” house, and he tells me, fairly brimming with pride, about all the work they’ve put into restoring theirs: “It was built in 1877; it’s in the registry.” As we turn a corner, the Black House is visible from down the block: a classic Victorian, complete with tower, painted jet-black, with a dark, candy-striped scheme for the trim (shades of red, purple, and copper) “based on Victorian practice.” While briefly a down-and-out boardinghouse, and then a squat for crack addicts and meth heads (complete with a lab in the dining room), the place is now fully restored, its looks falling somewhere between historic landmark and, as Peter would put it, “archetypal haunted house.”

As I follow him up the front steps, I have the feeling of entering a suburban-gothic circus. Over the entranceway hangs a painted glass panel: the Sigil of Baphomet, from the church’s famous logo: a goat’s head inside a pentagram. The house number has been inverted to form a pitchfork. Past the threshold, I hear the lively sounds of Satanists gathering at the far end of the house: tea is being laid out in the dining room. But before I can investigate, Peter sweeps me into a tour.

We pass through a room hung with Peter’s artworks: black-and-white collages made from xeroxed cutouts of Aztec gods, B-movie “natives” worshipping en masse, variations on the apocalypse, humongous black angels, Adolf Hitler. In the “media room,” the black walnut bookcases are stocked with a vast collection of DVDs, and on the walls hang replicas of the death masks of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Peter is a movie buff who’s authored reviews and zines about all stripes of excellent, obscure B cinema: early sci-fi, Mexican horror starring luchadores in full costume, Italian horror maestros Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. (Later on he’ll say about a particular ritual, “We did it in full Bava lighting!”) Also in this room are the family photos: the extended Gilmore family, from Peter’s mother, in place of pride on the top shelf, to Peggy’s brother, a US marshal on the dog squad; and the Satanic family, from LaVey (whom Peter calls “Doctor”) to LaVey’s only son, Xerxes, as a toddler, and Jake Appelbaum, the WikiLeaks hacker profiled in Rolling Stone as “the Most Dangerous Man in Cyberspace.” Appelbaum has been advising the church on how to maintain its privacy on the Internet—​“which is important for an organization like ours.”

If anonymity comes at such a Satanic premium, I ask how they store information about their members. Peter says that when applicants write directly to him, “Peggy and I are the only ones who know they’re involved… We have some celebrities who wouldn’t want their affiliation to be known—they’re people with several years left to their careers, and some damage would be done.” This is one of the essential ironies of the Church of Satan: it is so eager to impress, with its theatrics and talk of secret members in high places, but it is both unable and unwilling to back it up—a fact the media exploited during the Panic, distorting the church’s influence to justify their coverage. Most members remain anonymous, and the church will not share their numbers. Peter writes, “­[L]ike an iceberg, most of our membership remains hidden in the murky depths.” (LaVey’s daughter Zeena estimated in a 1988 interview that the church had a few thousand members, maybe tens of thousands—maybe, just maybe, putting it on a par with the real figures for the Church of Scientology.) This seems to serve it well: faceless, and impossible to quantify, the Boogeyman has that much more sway.

We step into the ritual chamber, once the front parlor, the bay windows covered in blackout drapes. The room is decorated in the spirit of the church’s original ritual space in San Francisco: the same dimensions, the same red paint, hung with a huge black-and-white painting of the church logo. In a corner is another of Peter’s paintings: the goat-headed Baphomet, all red and engorged, his huge erection pressing up against his stomach, bat wings outspread, sitting atop Planet Earth. By the fireplace are a brightly polished gong and a formidable sword, and laid out on the mantel, instantly recognizable as “Satanic,” are a human skull and tibia bones (a first-wedding-anniversary present). A skull was always somewhere in the church’s old promotional images, along with its infamous “living altar”—a pale, plenty-fleshy, and totally naked young lady stretched out on a dais. The classic accoutrements of the church since LaVey’s day.

The personal history of Anton Szandor LaVey, the notorious, flamboyant founder of the Church of Satan, is the stuff of self-made music-hall legend. Raised in San Francisco, LaVey dropped out of high school and, from the late ’40s through the ’60s, he supposedly worked as a circus calliope player; a cage boy for lion tamer Clyde Beatty; an organist at burlesque clubs in downtown Los Angeles (where he claims to have met and bedded a young Marilyn Monroe); a crime photographer for the SFPD; and, though he’s a dedicated skeptic, a “psychic investigator,” inventing far-out explanations for the phenomena his superstitious clients were convinced they’d experienced. The official church narrative presents this as the period when LaVey became steeped in both old-timey romance (the circus, the glamour of old Hollywood) and deep cynicism (strip clubs, crime scenes, and superstitious chumps).

By the mid-’60s, back in his hometown, LaVey became a locally known eccentric, taking on regular Wurlitzer gigs at cocktail lounges, throwing decadent holiday parties, and conducting Friday-night lectures on the occult and the absurd—from werewolves to criminology to the history of torture and ESP and love potions (whatever would attract attendees, Peter says). He wore dark glasses all day, claiming he was clinically photophobic. They gathered at a Victorian house LaVey had bought on California Street in the Richmond area, between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park: this became the original Black House, covered in gothic paraphernalia, from a stuffed raven to antique medical equipment, a tombstone turned coffee table, and rare editions of Lovecraft in the library, as well as vintage Barnum & Bailey propaganda in tribute to his carnie days. And just to take things completely over the top, guests were sometimes confronted by Togare, the Nubian lion LaVey and his small family kept as a pet. Even for mid-’60s San Francisco, this was a scene.

While it’s still unclear what pieces of his backstory were fabricated whole-cloth to serve his outsider legend, LaVey’s occult research and philosophy were “always meant to be taken seriously,” Peter says. “That he never distorted.” As his lectures caught on, LaVey realized that he wanted to found a new belief system, a bona fide religion. So in 1966, LaVey announced the founding of the Church of Satan. The year 1966 marked the start of a new Satanic Age—“the year One, Anno Satanas.” “Hail Satan!” became the rallying cry. In a Satanic case of chicken versus egg, around the same time that phrase would appear in Ira Levin’s best-selling “Devil cult” novel Rosemary’s Baby and, shortly afterward, in Roman Polanski’s now-­classic film adaptation. Peter, invoking a kind of hipster credibility, insists the church came first: “‘Hail Satan’—people weren’t doing that then.”

Regardless, any of the church’s pop-cultural resonance was the result of a homegrown campaign for visibility. True to his carnie roots, LaVey displayed a natural savvy for baiting the media. He gathered the pieces of the culture’s fantasies-slash-nightmares of Satan and built a church from them, with himself as black pope and ringmaster. Soon after the church’s founding, he orchestrated its first visible event, to which reporters were welcome: a “Satanic” wedding between a journalist and a New York socialite. Presiding over the ceremony himself, LaVey was decked out in what would become his signature attire: a black robe and silk cape with a black cowl topped by two short white Devil’s horns—the overall effect being more bargain-basement Halloween than Beelzebub. The ritual chamber featured a naked woman, strategically draped with a cheetah-patterned blanket, and the new church logo was writ large on the wall. The ceremony was covered by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.

LaVey went on to write missives outlining the church’s rituals and ideology, heavily influenced by Nietzsche, H. L. Mencken, and Ayn Rand. He released a record of his three-year-old daughter Zeena’s Satanic baptism ritual; he started a series of workshops designed to teach female Satanists, or “Satanic witches,” how to attain their personal goals through the manipulation of men in positions of power; and he starred, in full costume, in one of artist Kenneth Anger’s underground art films, Invocation of My Demon Brother, scored by Mick Jagger. That same year, 1969, LaVey finally unveiled The Satanic Bible.

Media coverage of the church ranged from Newsweek to McCall’s, Phil Donahue to Johnny Carson. At various points, the church has boasted that its membership included Sammy Davis Jr., Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Manson, Marc Almond from Soft Cell, and various members of law enforcement. Mansfield, who posed for photos with a caped and horned LaVey, apparently called Satanism “Khalil Gibran with balls.” Just how close she and LaVey were is up for debate—the intro to the Bible claims that she was one of his “most devoted witches”—but she was clearly curious about both the man and his religion, and found it helpful in justifying her use of her vampy looks to gain success. His anti-religious-establishment stance was de rigeur—and besides, people got a thrill from the safe encounters with “evil” that his personal carnival provided. “All religions are in the ‘show business,’” Gilmore would later write, “but the Church of Satan is the only one honest enough to admit it.”

But this is what strikes me most: the disconnect between the fundamental seriousness of much of LaVey’s philosophy and the “show business”—the circus silliness, the shtick—of the silk capes, pointed goatee, and tiny Devil’s horns. Why did a man who said plenty that intelligent atheists and libertarians could agree with live in a house packed with Addams Family kitsch and sign his name with a Devil’s tail on the y? Why use the word Satan at all, or employ such dismissible theatrics, when it’s intended to provoke a knee-jerk reaction in the very people you don’t have anything in common with? At what point does it all become a junior-high taunt, on the level of the pranks LaVey ordered from the Johnson Smith catalog as a bored kid? This was the cheeseball side to LaVey that he could not help, the attention-seeker who liked to play dress-up and tell tales. Rather than separate the church from bogus stories about the powerful reach of a Devil he did not believe in, when Hollywood called, LaVey rushed to take part in the storytelling: he helped drum up press for the San Francisco premiere of Polanski’s film, and he was the on-screen organist and “technical advisor” for the ’70s cult film The Devil’s Rain, giving tips on accurate “Satanic” chants and ritual protocol. He was paid for his expertise—​on ancient-seeming Satanic ceremonies he knew he’d made up only a few years earlier—but, in turn, he himself had to pay, by associating his rational, anti-religion philosophy with flesh-melting Devil worship.

At first Peter loved the flamboyance of it all. By the early ’80s, recently married, he and Peggy had become public, active church members, and they soon received an invitation to visit LaVey himself in San Francisco. They flew cross-country—their first time on the West Coast—and Peter remembers a lightning storm as they approached the city. After a steak dinner with the high priest, they loaded into LaVey’s Jaguar and headed back to the Black House, where Peter and the Doctor talked until sunrise. From then on, the Gilmores visited San Francisco each year, thrilled to be welcomed into LaVey’s world. The two men, almost thirty years apart in age, grew increasingly close through hours spent watching films from LaVey’s huge video collection—everything from hard-boiled heists to B horror—or heading out to a reptile exhibit or a gun show. They passed the time in LaVey’s basement “Den of Iniquity,” where he kept his own life-size human sculptures, or in the kitchen, where the founding magus would play the banks of synthesizers, asking the young couple to sing along. For Peter, the high priest became family, a kind of “favorite uncle.” And his relationship with LaVey linked him to an association of original thinkers, the enlightened, folks it was hard to con, people ballsy enough to label themselves with that hateful word Satanist.

During this same span, however, the Panic took hold—what Peter now refers to as “a stressful time,” “this period of delirium.” He had just begun publicly representing the church, and it often fell to him to make the rounds on radio and TV to clear up false ideas about its beliefs. Of course, LaVey had courted this attention—but no one had anticipated that the Church of Satan would find itself in the middle of a genuine “witch hunt.” When the Panic was finally winding down, in the mid-’90s, LaVey had already withdrawn from the public eye, becoming more of a reclusive philosopher than the radical performance artist he’d once been.

By 2001—four years after the Doctor’s death, the original Black House now razed to the ground—power was transferred to Peter, and he was tired of all the baggage that came with the name Satan. He wanted to steer the church back to its ideas, its emphasis on atheism and reason. More bookish, solidly middle-class, and assimilated than his predecessor, with none of that scent of the carnie hustler about him, Peter’s been especially mindful that historians and scholars get the Church of Satan right. In 2007, he wrote his answer to LaVey’s Satanic Bible, called The Satanic Scriptures—a collection of essays reinforcing and updating the church’s values and worldview.

In his Scriptures, Peter tries to distance the church from its extravagant past, taking special pleasure in mocking those he sees as self-conscious, less-than-serious Satanic poseurs. “What is it with these people who feel the need to adopt these ‘spooky’ names” like “Damien Anton Manson Dragon Azathoth the 23rd”? How about, he suggests, “something simple and catchy, easy to remember”—like “John Wayne” or “Marilyn Monroe”—winning names, with real mainstream appeal, instead of “names that sound like they should be listed on a membership card for a Count Chocula fan club”? According to Peter, LaVey believed that “the original attitudes that shaped the US are congruent with Satanic values,” and the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit is one of righteous, relentless self-­realization—not the kind of underachieving loserdom associated with so much of the semi-goth online culture that’s sprouted up around Satanism. But the word Satan, he learned, is hard to contain: it sprawls out across the underbelly of the culture, up for grabs to anyone with a taste for the macabre or enough resentment about their Christian upbringing.

Satanists make use of ritual—not in a spiritual way, but as psychodrama, a way to use taboos to get their adrenaline flowing. (In this way, their ceremonies exist in a zone that LaVey called “the large grey void between religion and psychiatry.”) They perform rituals for typical spell-casting reasons: to acquire a person or thing they want, or to place a hex on someone. And they also have a history of performing rituals for the press. After their ’60s circus heyday, as the Panic took hold, this became increasingly rare—members are now discouraged from inviting anyone, even fellow Satanists, into their ritual chambers, unless they know them well, since every individual is someone who can rat you out to your conservative employer, your family, whomever. But nine years ago, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the church, they decided to mount and videotape a Satanic high mass on June 6, 2006—6/6/06.

I watch the footage.

The ceremony was held on Holly­wood Boulevard, at a theater inside Los Angeles’ Center for Inquiry. About one hundred Satanists were in attendance, from a few countries, making it one of the biggest Satanic rituals in the church’s history. Set in a simple black-box theater, the stage had been done up in classic LaVey production design: altar draped in black, human skull, black pillar candles, censer of incense, curvaceous blond woman draped across a dais, the Sigil of Baphomet, dirge-like music. A man in a black priest’s robe, white collar and all, sets the ceremony in motion: “In the name of Satan, ruler of the Earth, king of the world, I command the forces of darkness bestow their infernal power upon us this night,” he announces. “Open wide the gates of hell and come forth from the abyss!” He calls out some of Satan’s many names, the crowd repeating each after him:


A rotating cast of priests and priestesses in dark robes, some with British accents, step forward and take turns saying things like “Lucifer, grant us thy favor!” and “Joy to the flesh forever!” It’s all a bit vague—there’s a lot of gesturing at the air with swords, a lot of gong-ringing, a lot of holding up chalices and drinking ceremoniously from them, and plenty of “Hail Satan!” I perk up when one hooded man announces, with high drama:

To the annihilation of all fanatics, enslaved to spiritual myth! Vile hypocrites! They are the rabid disease of mankind, a scourge on all civility. To this I issue my own fatwa. These mad dogs will be destroyed!

This document reveals more about the Church of Satan than its members intended it to. Taking into account the “celebrity” heft and deliberate mystery with which the church shrouds its membership numbers, it’s hard to rationalize away the video’s amateur-hour production values. If this is the best the church can do around a pivotal, relatively public event, then it has neither the financial resources nor the level of celebrity influence it’s been insinuating. And there’s this: at this point in time, having a slightly pervy private life, or a slightly pervy social circle, with a little kink thrown in and a collection of spooky anthropological oddities, isn’t nearly as much of a big deal as it was back in the church’s heyday. The Church of Satan, the spectacular dark media darling of 1969, seems to have entered its twilight years.

The dining room of the Poughkeepsie Black House has been laid out for a sort of “high tea,” complete with homemade sweets and an ornate tea set, under a restored chandelier embellished with pieces of bloodred glass. About a dozen tristate-area Satanists mill about from room to room, delicate porcelain cups in hand, pleased to see each other in person and bracing themselves to meet me.

I mingle, not sure of what I’m hoping to find. In the media room, I talk to a thirtysomething married couple from Staten Island: “Zoth,” a long-haired, metal-looking ex-musician who now works in computer graphics, and “Marilyn Mansfield,” an extra-­voluptuous pinup. Both are originally from Queens, and both did stints in Catholic school. (“In Queens, you’re Catholic,” Marilyn says.) A gothabilly Vargas Girl with generous breasts and skin like a bowl of milk, she’s posed for Old Nick, a goth girlie magazine. Marilyn shares a specific habit with LaVey: she owns about five hundred dolls whom she considers on a par with most humans she meets. “Sometimes,” she says, “I prefer the dolls to people.” Zoth, though metal-grim, loves talking about their kids: as parents, the couple takes a frank approach with their children that they see as consistent with LaVey’s Satanic vision—none of the typical childhood lies, like Santa Claus. “They’re a little bit more mature,” Zoth says, “because they see their classmates talking about Santa and they just hang back, knowing the truth.”

Then there’s Joe, a psychic who refers to himself as a “Satanic gentleman.” He’s Italian American—raised Catholic, “but witchy”—with dark, wavy hair and a carefully sculpted goatee. A jewelry designer as well, he once made a ring for LaVey himself, a bear-claw knuckle-duster for William Burroughs (who, presented with the gift, invited him to go shooting), and a ring for Vincent Price, whom he calls his “earliest and greatest influence.”

I wander into the kitchen, where a few other Satanic gentlemen are geeking out about something called the Chiller Theatre Expo. “I once saw Elvira sitting at a table next to the cast of What’s Happening.” Meanwhile, Peter is sharing his thoughts about professional wrestling—the WWF used to broadcast its TV show from Poughkeepsie. Peter talks about how Balls Mahoney, who enjoyed a long reign of pretend-terror, would throw down with the Church of Satan’s logo emblazoned on his black silk cape. A champion rising up from among the dispossessed! Peter shakes his head: the WWF used to have better villains.

I notice a man dressed in signature Satanist black who seems to be in the background of any room I wander into, lurking silently in the far corner or listening in on conversations. Carl is a film historian, and he has a very boyish face for thirty-four; his black hair is cut with precision, and he carries himself in the same way. Raised Catholic (big surprise), he’d known he was an atheist for some time, but part of him missed the high ritual and aesthetic of the Catholic Church. When Carl read The Satanic Bible—he found it on a bookseller’s table by Washington Square Park—Satanism bridged the two worlds for him. “Satanists are essentially atheists with melodrama,” he says, “and I really liked that.”

Carl uses the word stupid more than once in reference to organized religion—as do all of Gilmore’s guests, once we get past the requisite amount of pussyfooting around—and I can hear the spite in his voice when he says it. I hear the words idiotic and bullshit also, more than I have in a single evening in a long time—in reference to Christianity and belief in “angels” and “heaven” and “guilt.” That stuff is for suckers, for the delusional people who haven’t yet learned to think for themselves. For followers. Satanists are not equal-rights-tolerant of other religions; they are vehement in their opposition to belief systems founded on ideas of “God” and “sin” and “We’re going to tell you what to do.” But the greatest threat they pose, it seems to me, is that of offending you in conversation. No one in this crowd is likely to drive American teenagers to madness and murder. If anything, Peter writes, it’s the devout who are dangerous and macabre. “For them,” he writes of born-agains and “Christers,” “life is not precious, as they believe their true awakening will come postmortem. They long for death to complete themselves.”

But the Church of Satan, a “religion” in which you are your own god, is devoid of something that people turn to Christianity for: rules to live by, etched on stone tablets. It denies you that comfort. Jeff and Kimberly learned this acutely. A couple from suburban New Jersey, perhaps in their late forties, they are both former United Methodist ministers (they met in seminary). “So many people enter the seminary and come out agnostic or atheist,” Jeff says, “because what do you think happens when you start to look more closely?” He’s tall and straight-backed in a black suit and wire-rimmed glasses; you’d cast him as a preacher, or a ranch owner, if we were out west—if it weren’t for his precise goatee and the Sigil of Baphomet on a chain around his neck.

While Jeff says he doesn’t spend much time around people—a strange quality for a former minister but a recurring theme among the Satanists I speak with—Kimberly, in a ruffled dark dress, describes herself as a “people person.” She’s pale, with baby-blond hair cropped close in a style a little unconventional for their New Jersey “small town,” where “everyone knows everyone!” She speaks with great sympathy for the people who came to her when she was a chaplain. “I saw a lot of women who had been abused or were in abusive relationships, and the religion was telling them it was their role to take on a certain amount of suffering in this life, to be the good wife, and they would be rewarded in heaven.” Their belief seemed to her like a fierce desire for a gentle world that simply wasn’t. She shared that past and now sees it as a delusion.

The two of them have a fifteen-year-old son. They used to leave books on Satanism “out in the open in the house” and speak frankly to him about it—before they learned that he was mentally ill. “He had a psychotic break,” says Kimberly, “and he’s now most likely paranoid schizophrenic.” That was the end of their open dialogue about Satanism. “To talk to him about how he should be his only authority, his ultimate reference in the world, would not be possible. That would be so damaging.”

In the final act of the forty-­minute video I’d watched of that Hollywood Boulevard “Satanic mass,” Magus Peter Gilmore made his appearance, emerging like Oz from behind the curtain. The lights dimmed to near darkness, and then went up to reveal him standing under a spotlight, front and center. Unlike the others, he was dressed in a bright red silk robe—part Muhammad Ali, part kung fu master—his hands together but tucked away in his broad sleeves. A gold pentagram split through with a lightning bolt had been embroidered over his chest. The look on Peter’s face was self-satisfied, just the slightest grin, as if he were in on a small joke.

When the gong rang, he placed both hands on the altar like a preacher at a podium. “As our own gods, it is in our hands to move with surety and grace through the human zoo of our struggling civilization.”

He spread his arms as if to embrace the crowd, and continued: the message, consistently, was one of self-reliance and self-help—but couched in all this gothic show business. The smoke machine was pumping hard as the audience repeated after Peter:

Hail Satan, full of might!
Our allegiance is with thee!
Cursed are they,
The god-adorers,
And cursed are the worshippers
Of the Nazarene eunuch!

I’d never heard Jesus Christ referred to as “the Nazarene eunuch.” The blasphemy continued, as he prompted the audience to recite with him, line by line, a Satanic revision of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our father, who art in hell,
Unhallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom is come
Thy will is done
On Earth as it is in Hades
We take this night
Our rightful due
And trespass not
On paths of pain
Lead us into temptation
And deliver us from false piety
For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory
And let reason rule the Earth
Hail Satan!

The gong rang.

“I bid thee rise and give the sign of the horns.” And in perfect sync, as if at a metal concert, everyone stood and threw horns.

The lights dimmed once more, and Peter disappeared into the darkness. At the end of the ceremony, everyone rose to their feet, clapping and hollering. They were at a show.

I think back to the far more cinematic footage that introduced me to my own “sweet Satan,” tremendous, red, and barrel-chested, my dark aristocrat dancing in front of the fire. The personal fantasy he evoked had little to do with cruelty—I never thought about hurting people, or maiming small animals—and everything to do with access. Here was a creature beyond the reach of any adult I knew, who had frightening knowledge and power beyond that of any adult I knew. He existed on the other side of the looking glass, ruling over every taboo I’d ever learned from fairy tales or overheard in whispered conversations between people much older than me. My childhood fantasy of the Devil was of a relationship that would make me powerful and special. It was a fantasy that I am willing to bet some of the McMartin children were familiar with, the reason why it wasn’t that hard for them to join in the talk of rituals and robes and horned demons. They already knew the costumes and masks and accoutrements of evil. It is the earliest theater we are taught.

Alex Mar is a writer based in New York City. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Oxford American, Elle, the New York Times Book Review, Epic, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. She is also the director of the feature-length documentary American Mystic. Mar’s first book, Witches of America, was published this fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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