SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Beneath the sunny psychedelia of 1960s California beat a dark heart of outrageous occultism, diabolical decadence, and all things unholy.
The first notable figure to spectacularly tap into the shadow currents of counterculture was Anton LaVey (above, left), a carnival magician and jungle-cat wrangler who founded the Church of Satan on June 6, 1966 (6/6/66 — get it?). LaVey instantly anointed himself the organization’s “Black Pope.”
Amid the head-spinning hippie onslaught of the time, the Church of Satan stirred up huge media buzz through sexually charged theatrical provocations. LaVey attracted Hollywood followers on the order of Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis, Jr., and got to be interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.By the decade’s end, though, a genuinely frightening figure of seemingly legitimate Luciferian power overshadowed LaVey’s sideshow-style antics.
Charles Manson claimed to be both God and the devil. As the head of his homicidal Manson Family cult, he exploded into the popular consciousness decisively as some sort of filthy, desert-dwelling, hell-spawned pope.
In terms of aesthetics and philosophy, universal notions of Satan connected both these California crackpots. However, another figure also bonds the two infernal agitators, though: an all-too-human anti-goddess named Susan Atkins.
Atkins would ultimately become infamous as “Sexy Sadie,” Manson’s highly favored henchwoman when it came time to launch what he described as the “Helter Skelter” race war.
On August 9, 1969, under Manson’s command, Atkins and her fellow Family members stormed the home of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and slaughtered five people therein. As Tate begged for the life of her baby, Atkins reportedly said, “Woman, I have no mercy for you!” Afterward, Atkins used Tate’s blood to scrawl the word “PIG” on a wall.
It was a long way from the “evil” play-acting Atkins engaged in two years prior, when she danced topless in a vampire cape during a LaVey strip club revue called “Witches’ Sabbath.”
In her 1977 memoir, Child of Satan, Child of God, Atkins wrote of the experience:
“I was just finishing [a strip routine] when Mr. Garnet, the owner, walked in with a man I had not seen before… The man seemed to be dressed entirely in black. His face and the top of his bald head were extraordinarily pale — white… The intensity of the stranger’s black eyes deepened as he watched my movements. A smile curled about his lips…
‘Hello…’ LaVey’s voice sounded as though it were in an echo chamber. ‘That was very good.’He turned to Garnet. ‘Yes. Yes. She would be very good for the vampire role.’‘Vampire role?’ I asked, silently.Garnet turned to me. ‘You see… Mr. LaVey has agreed to stage one of his productions here at the club — a witches’ sabbath, topless and all — and I think it could be fun for you if you’re interested.”What’s a witches’ sabbath?’ I asked, looking first at Mr. Garnet and then back at the bald-headed man.LaVey threw his head back and gave a barking sort of laugh. ‘It’s a time, my dear, when the witches worship their leader – Satan. It’s a marvelous ceremony and will be very colorful for your club. It’s a bit out of the ordinary.'”
From there, Atkins describes visiting LaVey’s ornately gothic home, which doubled as the Church of Satan’s headquarters. It freaks her out. She goes on to recount doing the vampire routine in the show. It freaks the audience out — as well as her boyfriend, who tells her:
“‘I don’t like what’s happening to you… This whole thing you’re into at the club is crazy. It’s changed you. All through the rehearsals I’ve watched you change.'”
Despite his pleas, Susan continued her stripping association with LaVey for the revue’s run, writing:
‘The show was a smash hit along the strip. Garnet had scored big. But the witches’ sabbath, and my total sellout to LSD, marijuana, and hashish, and to sex with virtually any attractive man, landed me in the hospital in four months. I was half dead from gonorrhea and had a complete physical breakdown.”
Soon enough, Susan Atkins traded Mephistophelean mentors, and fell under the spell of Charles Manson. That’s when she — along with so much of the world — really changed.
Main photos: Anton LaVey publicity photo [Wikipedia]; Susan Atkins mug shot [LAPD]; Charles Manson mug shot [California Department of Corrections]