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In search of Satan: Evil is as evil does.

by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 04.28.99 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro April 2019 here.

 

Satan: formidable mythical and literary figure scapegoated for human weakness, odious to the Christian world, lionized in rebellious forms of art, and rendered as a cartoon to sell products.

Here in the culturally liberal “city of fruits and nuts,” attitudes are philosophical and/or flip about Beelzebub, but in the Bible Belt, it’s a different story altogether.

As a child I was forced to go to an Evangelical Christian church three times a week, where we listened to demonic-possession tapes, sang songs of paranoia about Satan’s habits, and were taught to watch for him in every nook and cranny and suspect his hand in every deed that brought pleasure.

In circles like that, the zealots actually believe that nature and nurture don’t have as much impact on behavioral tendencies as Lucifer’s roving, pointy-tailed cloud of malevolence. But from the Zoroastrian point of view, evil is necessary to make good look good. And as any circus performer knows, sin and danger sell tickets.

Little coincidence, then, that America’s foremost spokesperson for the Prince of Darkness was a former carny who believed in indulgence over abstinence and used button-pushing histrionics to get his point across and piss off the status quo.

Anton Szandor LaVey tamed lions and played organs in the seedy sideshow circuit of the 1950s. A dabbler in the occult and an entertainer to the core, LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966. Although the hokey, filmed rituals that circulated seem to denote a strained penchant for depravity, the satanists claim that members “have nothing to do with kidnapping, drug abuse, child molestation, animal or child sacrifice, or any number of other acts that idiots, hysterics, or opportunists would like to credit us with.”

While its tenets veer toward the fascist (the abolishment of affirmative action) or just plain creepy (the creation of a race of artificial human companions for the purpose of slavery), the Church of Satan follows the sane, Darwinist (albeit elitist) philosophy of Nietzsche almost to the letter. They don’t believe in God, so they don’t believe in Satan, either. They’re just borrowing his name.

Satan’s representative here on Earth wants to take you out to the ballgame

LaVey’s house, once host to the first-ever Satanic wedding and funeral, now sits dilapidating deep in the Richmond. After LaVey’s death in 1997, financial strain led to the eviction of his longtime companion and their toddler son; his two grown daughters then ransacked and trashed the joint.

As I and a companion discover on our visit to LaVey’s (dis)possessed lair, the monarch of hell has left the building. The solid black Victorian peels to reveal more layers of black paint; the boarded-up windows aren’t telling; discarded ketchup packets and tatters of paper behind the fence fail to broadcast evil. We clutch the fence, squint, and say “Bloody Mary” three times. Nothing happens.

Anton LaVey’s house in San Francisco, then and way back then. Verdict: Not scary.

In between crosstown jaunts to suspected Satanic lairs, we discuss our childhood run-ins with Mattel’s tool of darkness, the Ouija board. We fail to construct a concrete theory (the power of the subconscious mind? mischievious spirits of former people no smarter than us?) as to how real words get spelled out and the electricity goes off more often than not.

One of my companion’s more fervent teenage friends purportedly took her Ouija’s advice to heart, ran away from home, and eventually went insane.

Ouija Girl probably listened to Slayer, too — after all, isn’t it true according to popular Christian lore that heavy metal causes insanity and murderous behavior just as rap causes shootings, rockabilly causes premarital sex, and gospel causes piety?

(It’s worth noting here that Nietzsche said, “I could not have stood my youth without Wagner’s music. When one wants to rid oneself of an intolerable pressure, one needs hashish. Well, I needed Wagner.”)

and well, *we* needed slayer

At the Slayer show later that night, the world’s premier thrash-metal band churns and heshes onstage in front of 24 imposing Marshall stacks as more than a thousand sweaty, shirtless, bald, tattooed jocks get out their aggressions in the moshpit and the aisles.

A Satan wanna-be in the lobby wears a gory mask, a mustache, a mullet, and acid-wash jeans. (We all know that Satan really looks like … Pat Riley of the Miami Heat.)

Not one Goth in sight. No cloven hooves anywhere. The bass is so low that my teeth threaten to fall out. I borrow a pen from an older woman who turns out to be drummer Paul Bostaph’s mom. She does not radiate evil.

I ask the people at my table about the close calls they’ve had with Satan.

A Pentecostal-bred woman tells us that her mom’s uptight friend once had the cops called on her during an after-church outing when she freaked out and thought she saw Satan in the bathroom at McDonald’s.

“My aunt was really religious,” another says. “At Great America, we could ride every ride except for the Demon, because it was called the Demon.”

“I met Anton LaVey once,” one veteran of the Bay Area rock scene says. “Nicest guy you’d ever meet. And I met a high priest of the church, although you wouldn’t know it to look at him. We went back to his house, and he had literally thousands of books. He’d read them all. Nice guy.”

His girlfriend: “I used to live with all these annoying witches. They weren’t satanists or anything, but they were really into Aleister Crowley. Before each of their rituals, they would dip themselves in a purifying herb bath in the bathtub. At one point I was sick of all their mystical black-robed shit. So I peed in it.”

Now that’s evil.

young slayer aren’t they cuuute

After Slayer has grunted out its last homage to the Dark Lord, we head to Lucky 13, a bad-luck-and-Lucifer-themed nightspot. Behind the undulating bar, dozens of black ceramic cats ogle the beer drinkers; posters of zombies and demons (and Iggy Pop, go figure) glow in the black light.

In the bathroom I mention the Bloody Mary thing again, and one of the lightbulbs clicks off. Coincidence? It comes back on. Hm.

Back by the pool table, we stare at a 3-D mural on the wall: it’s Satan. Hyperactive, neurotic, and looking not a little like Bill the Cat.

At the exact moment I vocalize that the day’s search for Mephistopheles is over, I kid you not, the Rolling Stones’ “Dancing with Mr. D” comes on the jukebox.

Maybe the Christians weren’t so wrong … look for something hard enough, and it’ll show up.

 

This is the 43rd piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 05.06.2009, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B talks about hoofin’ it.

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter

update: found him; he’s smaller than we thought

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