Fifty years ago, in 1966, ex-carny, cocktail bar organist and noted fabulist, Anton Szandor LaVey, ran away from the circus to found the Church of Satan. LaVey – who claims amongst his many accomplishments to have bedded a young Marilyn Monroe and to have been in the paid employ of the San Francisco Police Department as a psychic (unbeknownst to them) – domiciled his church in northern California, the natural habitat of the American cult. For LaVey the establishment of the church was so significant a moment that he would reset the world’s calendars, as Pol Pot would do in Cambodia, to ‘year one’. But despite being in league with Satan and the anxieties this stirred in the vast American suburbs, Satanism was largely a horror of the imagination, fuelled by popular culture.
With a theatrical, bald pate (that would inspire a hundred camp television caricatures) and a grandiose bearing, LaVey became something of a one-man attraction. A list of minor celebrities such as the underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger were drawn to his parties and would help form the hilariously named Order of the Trapezoid – which would operate as something akin to the politburo for the Church of Satan. Other influences on LaVey and his church included such delights as Ayn Rand, racial-caste fruit-loop H.L. Mencken, Enoch Powell and a Zarathustrian Friedrich Nietzsche.
But unlike the movie depictions of Satanism, the church was really concerned with hedonism, fetishisation of the ego and pomp. Rather than concern themselves with things spiritual and devilish pacts, LaVey’s claque of followers were more correctly symbolists, orgyists and acquisitive creatures the likes of which would have disgusted the abstemious Nietzsche. In reality, the values of the Church of Satan would have been better suited to the ‘80s cult of the body and narcissistic yuppie culture outlined in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.
The late 1960s was a period in which America was in violent flux. The post-war population boom and the expansion of tertiary education meshed with near nuclear catastrophes, the civil rights movement, political assassinations and conscription to Vietnam in a volatile combination. The mainstays of American liberal-democracy and its’ abiding religious-cultural mores fell apart. The American desire for mystical group apocrypha, however, did not and Occult esoterica germinated in this new context.
Be that as it may, the practice of Satanism had much darker resonances in the world of film than it ever had in LaVey’s rather banal and pompous Church. Truly murderous cults, like that of the Manson Family or Reverend Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, emerged in this period and like all freak shows they set-up shop in San Francisco, but Satan was not at the centre of those eschatological, catastrophizing madhouses – The Manson Family and the People’s Temple were a secular brand of insanity. Nevertheless the idea of Satanism as an influential and pernicious scourge took flight in the American imagination.
The seminal Satan film of this era was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Satan certainly makes appearances in earlier American movies but usually belongs in the morality play/Faustian category where the protagonist enters into a flawed moral pact, often unwittingly, with Satan. Rosemary’s Baby by contrast features the innocent protagonist Rosemary, who is drugged at a dinner party and raped by the devil in order to procure him spawn, which she eventually does. This act perhaps isn’t the most shocking part of the film because that’s what we might expect Satan to do – the frightful element is an all too human conspiracy which involves her husband, her neighbours and her doctor, who collude to drug and deceive Rosemary all the way through. It was really the American box-office that briefly saturated the popular imagination with the spectre of Satanism.
Following Rosemary’s Baby came The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) where Satan was central. These satanic films in turn spawned interest in supernatural films like Carrie (1976) and Poltergeist (1982) and Kubrick’s secular psychological horror, The Shining (1980).
But what relation did Satanic films have to real life Satanic practice? As it happens the films were much more dramatic than the real goings on at the Church of Satan or its offshoot the Temple of Set, but two things are going on here. Firstly, as director Billy Wilder proclaimed; there are 10 Commandments in film, the first nine of which are ‘thou shalt entertain’. For most people – including LaVey’s church – life doesn’t have a dramatic structure therefore a screenwriter gives it one. Secondly, horror creates a frightening and more serious sub-genre, one where the threat is no longer exterior to the protagonist but inhabits them – much as America’s enemies in this period were seen as internal aliens inhabiting the body politic. The idea of the body as a vehicle of escape from an antagonistic outside force gives way to a body and mind inhabited and in utter chaos – in thrall to dark and irreconcilable forces which convulse the body – the outstanding example being The Exorcist (1973).
Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately a more socially critical and nihilistic film than The Exorcist because it doesn’t provide a final reckoning where an alien and uninvited force is expelled for good from the body before it returns to a state of repose. Rosemary is an innocent from start to finish and that innocence is a pre-condition for her being duped by darker forces in the world. Ultimately, despite her horror at what she has given birth to, she must accept that she is just a meat-puppet in the world whose very body – the core of a person – even that, she has no domain over. In the late 60s, the American body-politic, the bodies of young men sent to Vietnam, the bodies of women – nothing was outside the bounds of the state or the business of malevolent neighbours.
As a disturbing footnote to Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was ritualistically murdered by Susan Atkins of the Manson Family along with celebrity hairdresser and Church of Satanist, Jay Sebring, whom she was bound to. Notwithstanding the burlesque and kitsch origins of LaVey’s organisation, it was a cultural article to hand for a deranged nation to seize upon. For a period Satanism as depicted in the entertainment industry – and seemingly found like a dark miracle under every rock – caused many bittersweet agonies and thundering Jeremiads in American life in the 1980s but might be aptly described as America taking fright at its’ own shadow. Rosemary’s Baby remains what it was, an investigation into the horrors that humans not only allow to occur to one another but are complicit in. That’s the true horror story then and today.