My Dinner With the Devil
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because evil is as evil does.
By Eugene S. Robinson
It was almost impossible to imagine doing a God issue of a magazine without, in the name of equal time, expressing a little sympathy for the devil, but where and how? If history is any indication, Lucifer only does background anyway.
“Stay away from that house.” The speaker was a superstitious friend, who was passing the black Victorian house in San Francisco. She made the sign of the cross and noted the goat’s head pentagram badge spiked at the entry. It was the Black House or, to his neighbors, just the domicile of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. “Seriously. Nothing good’s going to come from that.”
But like a song that you can’t stop singing, his name — and his game — played the possibilities as we put together the themed issue of The Birth of Tragedy magazine, a newsprint gazette that took monomania to a very special place and covered, issue by issue: Sex, Depression, Fear, Power. And now? God. We wrote LaVey a letter. To a post office box in San Fran, from a post office box at Stanford. And we touched the right touchstones and made mention of who else would be in the issue — French philosopher René Girard, among others — and who had been in past issues: Allen Ginsberg, Charles Manson, Lydia Lunch.
A week later we got a letter reply. After a few follow-up phone calls with the Doctor’s assistant Blanche Barton (and later, his wife), an interview time was set up. Not at the Black House, but at another house he had. After nightfall on a weeknight, we pulled up to a house on a steep hill that winded up into thickening San Francisco fog. The streetlights dimmed by the fog, the wind and chill blowing, and below, a house that rode high on stilted supports, barking. We couldn’t have gotten closer to Castle Dracula if we tried.
A bodyguard met us at the door, asking us to remove our shoes. He ushered us up a staircase, all ’70s shag carpet, with the inverted pentagram mounted on the beaver board siding that covered the walls. We stood chatting easily with Barton, the bodyguard off to the side, silent, vaguely menacing and just as silently on shoeless feet. LaVey appeared behind me.
“Hello.” All more than 6 feet of him, shaved head and goatee.
The man who had claimed — in claims that sometimes were found to be true and sometimes found to be not so true — at odd times to have worked as a lion tamer, a police crime photographer, musician, a consultant on Roman Polanski’s devil-themed Rosemary’s Baby and as a carnival worker knew the value of a theatrical entrance. An entrance that was received with great merriment because it was, well, just about perfect. He went on to explain why he had gone radio silent for the better part of the last 10 years.
“Every Halloween, some not very serious comedian from a newspaper would call me,” said LaVey, now spread into the leather folds of his couch, “and misquote me. This did not benefit me at all.”
Then why us?
“Your Stanford address and the fact that you had good people in your past issues,” he smiled. I go to turn on the tape recorder.
“Oh.” The kind of “oh” when everything is about to go south. “We don’t use tape recorders.” He explained that this led to interviews full of “umms” and “ahhs,” and he had no desire to sound like a stutterer. So he starts to answer the first question and holds forth to the idea that some of us are sheep and some of us are wolves, and I am scribbling furiously. And then: mercy. “Use the tape recorder.”
And off to the races. His time hanging with Sammy Davis Jr., Jayne Mansfield, Travolta. His time with the darker side, “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez or avoiding “occultniks” who were, in general, taking all of this way too seriously. “Psychic vampires,” he called them. But this was all window dressing to the matter at hand, a philosophical grab at whatever might constitute evil. After all, his signature 1969 tome, The Satanic Bible, sold over a million copies and had been translated into no fewer than five languages.
“Well, evil is what doesn’t feel good.” I keep pushing: Like a colonoscopy? “It seems like you’re attaching some special flavor to your use of the word ‘evil.’”
Yes. The wild rush of a deep, proto-animal desire for cruelty and delight in said cruelty. A headlong plunge into violent nothingness. A philosophical dedication to nonlife.
“Look, I’m an atheist,” LaVey said finally, smiling ever so slightly. “Satan is symbolically representative for us, and when you see the kind of liberating freedom that people are feeling when they say something like ‘Hail, Satan,’ well, it seems like it’s needed. Hating yourself for being human seems pointless.”
The conversation jockeyed back and forth after that. LaVey was deeply serious about music — he played keyboards, mostly all night, and slept during the days. “The magic works better then.” He read quite a lot, he found Nazis confused but fascism to have some merits. We had dinner a few times after that, bringing along a few more members of the Church, all dressed to the nines, full-on film noir style. Something that tied in quite well to his penchant for “total environments” — dioramas complete with mannequins that he set up in his houses, evoking times past. We went to a movie (Joe Sarno’s great 1972 cult film Young Playthings). “Eugene, you’re absolutely satanic,” he laughed once at my continued probing after the true dimensions of this evil I was chasing in the late ’80s, and then went on to explain that Paul Robeson was as well, and then “Promethean” was the word he used to explain what he had meant. Jesse Owens too. He tried to explain to me so I’d get it, and I got it.
And then he died. Some heart issues. Post-death, everything exploded. Family members at each other’s throats, a dirty laundry airing of financial difficulties, and while the Church had weathered defections over the years, nothing that had made the news like these. And on top of that, continued accusations that he had cribbed a lot of what he was supposed to have written, said or thought. Then deeper cultural resonances, some even preceding his death: satanic metal, other satanic churches, other satanic books, a never-ending stream of Satan-infused flicks and Satan-fueled felonies with narco-death cults in places like Matamoros, near the Mexican-American border where dozens had been killed. In short: chaos as usual.
When asked at some point if he felt like he shared any responsibility for framing Satan in a way that normalized evil, LaVey turned unexpectedly dark: “There’ll be no deathbed conversions for me,” he said, well before he had had any idea how it was all going to end for him. “God help us all if that’s all it took.”