Sex at the Satan Club

At the height of '60s counterculture, the sexual revolution found itself an unexpected bedfellow: Devil worship

Topics: Sex, Satan, Satanism, sexuality, Devil Worship, Film, literature, Editor's Picks, Books, counterculture, The 60s, ,

Sex at the Satan ClubA still from "Eyes Wide Shut"

A mining expedition in the South American jungle: Edward MacKensie, jealous of his business partner’s lover and wanting to keep the expedition’s riches for himself, engineers an “accident” that kills the partner and his lover. Twenty years later, MacKensie is a rich and successful man, married with a teenage daughter. Despite (or perhaps because) of his wealth and success, MacKensie finds himself bored with life, in particular, his sex life. He pays the office boy and secretary to have sex in front of him, and then cruelly mocks them when they do not perform to his expectations. He searches for hookers who might better understand his peculiar “tastes,” which center on sadistic forms of torture and humiliation, and longs for the Victorian era for the fabled abandon of its sexual underground. “Now there was an era,” he laments to himself, “when a woman like Mrs. Berkeley would earn a thousand pounds for inventing a whipping horse on which a pretty girl could be postured in a thousand different lascivious ways for the lash.” After another humiliating failure with a prostitute, MacKensie meets the mysterious Carlos Sathanas, a worldly, rich sophisticate. Their conversation quickly turns to “unusual pleasures.” “To put it bluntly,” he tells MacKensie, “for all this talk about the new sexual freedom, I for one fail to perceive it except in the huge dissemination of titallitory books and magazines and movies, which are nothing more or less than pure psychic masturbation. They depict fantasies that are not in existence, but perhaps were in another century.” Sathanas confides that he is the founder and sole proprietor of “the Satan Club,” an organization devoted to fulfilling the most bizarre sexual desires of its secret, exclusive membership. MacKensie joins eagerly and soon finds himself participating in a series of increasingly exotic sexual scenarios.

Three weeks into his membership, MacKensie anticipates what promises to be the most provocative show yet, the one that will make him an official member of the Satan Club for life. Encouraged to partake of a very special mixture of Spanish fly—an hallucinatory blend discovered by Sathanas himself—a blindfolded MacKensie is escorted into a basement and strapped into a strange device called “the chair of Tantalus,” guaranteed by Sathanas to enhance his sexual arousal to unprecedented heights. With the blindfold now removed, a curtain parts to reveal two nude women intertwined on a couch. Aroused to point of physical pain, MacKensie looks down to see there is a collar device attached to his penis making orgasm impossible: the chair of Tantalus! But his horror and despair are only beginning. As the effects of the Spanish fly begin to wane, he recognizes the two women on the couch as his wife and her recently hired personal masseuse. They mock him with contemptuous laughter as their sexual escapades become more intense. Worse yet, his teenage daughter now enters the tableau on all fours, eagerly mounted by the family dog! The agony of arousal and humiliation is overwhelming, and MacKensie begs for release. Calm and collected, Sathanas appears on stage to explain. He is in fact the business partner MacKensie left for dead twenty years ago in the jungle. Having been told of MacKensie’s murderous past and philandering ways, his family now hates him— utterly. All money and property have been transferred to the wife, who plans to divorce him and run away with the masseuse. His daughter no longer has any interest in men, only her beloved German Shepherd. His former partner’s revenge is complete. The show is over. Later, as the lights go up, MacKensie is alone but still strapped into the chair of Tantalus. He realizes the night’s spectacle has unfolded in the basement of his very own Long Island home—of which he is now dispossessed. Destroyed by material and erotic greed, he stares “unseeingly at that stage where all his life had collapsed about him.”

As a book trading in sexual fantasy, the very “psychic masturbation” so deplored in the text by Sathanas, “The Satan Club” is rather relentless in its emphasis on frustration, failure, and damnation. As one would expect from a “dirty book,” MacKensie’s saga links a number of extended and graphically rendered sexual interludes clearly crafted for the reader’s arousal. Yet the overall structure of the book, despite its “immoral” status as pornography, is strangely, even prudishly moral in its actual execution. We must assume until the very last page that Sathanas is in fact Satan himself, tempting MacKensie’s desire for ever more perverted sexual scenarios in order to take possession of his soul. In any case, MacKensie’s lust does lead to his “damnation,” broke and humiliated in Long Island if not actually burning in hell. Sexually adrift through most of the novel, MacKensie learns a powerful lesson about fantasy and desire, a lesson, in turn, that one would think might prove unsettling to the man who would seek out and buy a copy of “The Satan Club” for his own arousal. What exactly is the pleasure to be had in following the inexorable downward spiral of a man seeking to realize his own sexual fantasies? Moreover, what is gained by situating this prurient yet prudish narrative within the “satanic” conventions of temptation, trickery, and damnation?

“The Satan Club” serves as a reminder that of all the various avenues of morality policed by religion, none absorbs more mental and social energy than sexuality. Innumerable historians of religion, culture, and sexuality have discussed how civilization emerged (at least in part) from the social regulation of unfettered sexual expression, leading in the West to the eventual ascendance of property relations, heteronormative monogamy, and reproductive futurism—as well as all of this social order’s attending “discontents.” Playing on these repressions, Lucifer’s role within modernity has focused most intently on tempting the chaste to overthrow their superego masters, profane their faith, and reclaim forbidden desires and practices, forsaking the stabilizing institution of monogamous reproductive marriage for the entropic energies of “unbridled” lust. In modern fiction, this template is at least as old as J. K. Huysmans’s scandalous account of fin de siècle Satanism, “La Bas” (1891). Huysmans’s narrator, Durtal, a bored author interested in learning more about satanic sects said to be proliferating within the Catholic Church, infiltrates a Black Mass presided over by one Paris’s most respected priests. Like any good decadent, he assumes the rite will at least be diverting. Attending with his lover—the wife of a rival author—his bemusement turns to horror as the priest “wipes himself” with the Eucharist, women writhe in ecstasy on the floor, and the choirboys “give themselves” to the men. Escaping this “monstrous pandemonium of prostitutes and maniacs,” Durtal flees with his mistress (a possible succubus) to a seedy hotel, where he is then seduced (seemingly against his will) in a bed “strewn with fragments of hosts.” Satan makes no definitive appearance in “La Bas”—like much nineteenth-century fiction, Huysmans’s realism emphasizes the plausible horrors of clerical contamination over the gothic pyrotechnics of supernatural intervention—but the novel’s interlinking of power, profanity, sexual transgression, and shame remains central to the genre even today.

Published in 1970, “The Satan Club” stands at the threshold of the most recent wave of popular interest in Satanism, one that traces its beginnings to the social transformations of the 1960s, especially the baby boomer alignment of sexual, spiritual, and psychedelic politics attending the so-called hippie counterculture. By the end of the 1960s, “Satanism” assumed an increasingly public identity, traceable in large part to the efforts of Anton Szandor LaVey. Although neither a hippie nor a baby boomer, this former carnie and crime-scene photographer exploited the countercultural currents of San Francisco when he founded the Church of Satan in 1966 (see figure 9.1). Fluent in the art of self-promotion, LaVey garnered international press in founding the church, including pieces in such journalistic mainstays as Time, Life, Look, and McCall’s. LaVey also appeared as a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and as the devil himself in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), a film that ushered in a decade-long wave of satanic fictions. “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Omen” (1976), and their various sequels further mined this vein, as did a made-for-TV movie asking the question: “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby?” (1976). By the mid-1970s, Satan had become such big business that Alan Ladd Jr., then president of Fox’s film division, noted that “almost every movie company has five or six Devil movies in the works,” a sentiment echoed by Ned Tanen of MCA: “Devil movies” have “eclipsed the western in popularity all over the world.” The reason, for Tanen, was clear, a logic still invoked to explain any and all trends in moviemaking: “Devil movies play equally well in Japan, Ecuador, and Wisconsin,” he observed. A more “pop” Satan also became a staple of the Christian-publishing industry in this period, most notoriously in the widely read screeds of Hal Lindsey, including “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970) and “Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth” (1972). Long before the “Left Behind” series transformed the Book of Revelation into an epic soap opera, Lindsey scoured the headlines for signs of the antichrist’s arrival and the onset of the apocalypse. Flirtations between rock music and Satanism are well know in this period, from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s purchase of Aleister “the Beast” Crowley’s Boleskin House to the coded imagery of the Rolling Stones’ album, “Goats Head Soup.” The devil was such a ubiquitous presence in the American popular culture of the 1970s that minister C. S. Lovett even penned a diet book in 1977 under the alarming title: “Help Lord—the Devil Wants Me Fat!” “When You’re Watching tv, the commercial break is one of the devil’s favorite moments,” warns Lovett. He then suggests a script for warding off Satan’s “food attacks”: “I know you’re trying to dominate me with food, Satan. So, in the name of Jesus Go . . . get off my back!”

Beneath this sheen of Hollywood “black horror,” devil rock, and mass-market Satanism, however, lurked another circle of hellish cultural production. Shadowing “mainstream” Satanism was a cycle of sexploitation films, pornographic magazines, and adult paperbacks that—like “The Satan Club”—centered not so much on the gravitas of demon possession, the antichrist, and the apocalypse, but on a more licentious engagement of sexual tourism and erotic experimentation. As the dark overlord of a larger interest in occult sexuality, Satan presided over a ludic proliferation of transgressive temptation and “forbidden” pleasures in adult media of the 1960s and 1970s. Explicit paperbacks of the era promoted Satanism as a nonstop orgy in such titles as “Infernal Affair” (1967), “Devil Sex” (1969), “Sex Slaves of the Black Mass” (1971), and “Satan, Demons, and Dildoes” (1974), to name only a few. At the grind house, sexploitation movie titles also foregrounded the lure of satanic spectacle with such offerings as “The Lucifers” (1971), “Satanic Sexual Awareness” (1972), “Sons of Satan” (1973), “The Horny Devils” (1971, aka “Hotter Than Hell”), and the perhaps inevitable Exorcist knock-off: “Sexorcism Girl” (1975). In the increasingly targeted market for print pornography, magazines such as Sexual Witchcraft and Bitchcraft specialized in provocative images of occultists staging sexualized rituals (“Nudity in Witchcraft! The True Inside Story,” proclaims one banner headline). Even the infamous Ed Wood Jr. threw his hat into the occult-sex ring by appearing (most painfully) in the 1971 cheapie, “Necromania.”

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Already a central figure in the West’s psychic economy of sexual prohibition (at least in its religious iterations), the devil’s historical relation to God, religion, and faith made “occult sex” a fundamentally perverse genre, even when tales such as “The Satan Club” ultimately sided with “real-world” explanations over the supernatural. As the Christian embodiment of evil temptation, Satan promised access to any and all sensual pleasures—an invitation to lustful exploration that resonated within the postwar era’s ongoing disarticulation of sex, marriage, and reproduction. And yet, as a product of the authority of religious morality, this eroticized occult could not, by definition, escape the very moral order it sought to evade, undermine, or destroy. Satan (or a surrogate such as Sathanas) is both a saboteur of morality and its most damning enforcer, the ambassador of temptation and the executioner of guilt. Drawing his prey from their moral orbit by appealing to their most base and selfish of desires, Satan—in his supernatural, dialectic relation to God—ultimately reasserts the very repression that a bored MacKensie foolishly believes might be overcome. Such is the essence of “taboo” pleasure—a desire to violate convention and custom that ultimately reaffirms the authority of the law on which the taboo depends. This dynamic made satanic sexploitation a doubly perverse genre—“perverse” in its appetites and its effects. Although such fare offered the lure of ever-more “exotic” sexual adventures, for both protagonist and audience, the horned ambassador of such indulgence demanded nothing less than the sexual adventurer’s eternal soul!

The “Black Pope”

As the author of “The Satanic Bible” and self-appointed spokesman of modern Satanism, LaVey frequently spoke to the press as the authority on Satanism’s history and future—a heritage LaVey often cast in terms of sexual indulgence. “The Satanic Age started in 1966,” LaVey explained. “That’s when God was proclaimed dead, the Sexual Freedom League came into prominence, and the hippies developed as a free sex culture.” Within the sweeping social transformations of the postwar era, LaVey’s brand of Satanism contributed to a significant rewriting of the devil, one that cast Satan more as a dandy or libertine than the Lord of Darkness. This “urbane” Satan was largely a function of growing secularization and new strategies for organizing erotic and social life within the so-called sexual revolution. Hoping to compete with the growing popularity of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, Stanley Publications introduced Satan magazine in 1957, billing it as “Devilish Entertainment for Men.” The magazine only survived for six issues, leading historian Bethan Benwell to speculate, “There were limits to how far the ‘playboy ethic’ could be pushed.

Perhaps . . . the magazine’s title and allusions flaunted the libertine ideal a little too brazenly.” Certainly, not everyone saw this new sexual “ethic” as progress—satanic or otherwise. “Increasing divorce and desertion and the growth of prenuptial and extramarital sex relations are signs of sex addiction somewhat similar to drug addiction,” accused Pitirim Sorokin in his book “The American Sex Revolution” (1956). It was a claim that has resonated with moral reformers to this very day. Responding to Sorokin, Edwin M. Schur commented in 1964 that many sociologists of the era believed “there really may not have been any startling change in sexual behavior in the very recent years.” Schur located perceptions of a sexual revolution more in an ongoing redefinition of the socioeconomic relationship between the individual and the family, pushing this “revolution” back even further in time by citing Walter Lipmann’s observation in 1929 that once “chaperonage became impossible and the fear of pregnancy was all but eliminated, the entire conventional sex ethic was shattered.” Whether sexual practices were actually changing across the 1950s and 1960s was less important than the widely held perception that more people were having more sex in more “liberated” scenarios. This sense that individual desire, expressed in sexuality and selfishness had eclipsed familial and social responsibility and would remain a core moral debate of the twentieth century, creating the conditions not only for LaVey’s Satanism, but also the Moynihan Report, Thomas Wolfe’s “The Me Decade,” and Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism.”

Promoting the Church of Satan in 1966, LaVey frequently invoked the libertine connotations already attached to such satanic sophistication, even as he attempted to distance his new religion from mere hedonism. Sex might lure converts to the church, but LaVey’s ambitions for his “religion” were more about philosophical empowerment than licentious abandon. In truth, LaVey’s Satanism had little to do with Satan. Although he was never reticent to appear in the trappings of Christianity’s satanic dramaturgy—donning capes, horns, and pentagrams for the camera—LaVey took great pains to divorce his version of Satanism from any actual biblical entity, his devil having more in common with Zarathustra and Ayn Rand than Lucifer the fallen angel. Although aspiring to provide a new philosophy of the mind, LaVey’s background in carnie ballyhoo made him more than willing to hustle some flesh in publicizing the church. An early promotional event involved LaVey booking a San Francisco nightclub to stage an eroticized witches’ Sabbath, a theatrical piece concluding with then stripper and soon-to-be Manson murderer Susan Atkins emerging nude from a coffin. Ever the showman, LaVey sparked another round of national press by performing a satanic wedding ceremony in 1967, complete with a nude redhead serving as the altar. “The altar shouldn’t be a cold unyielding slab of sterile stone,” reasoned LaVey, but “a symbol of enthusiastic lust and indulgence.” He also cultivated a public relationship with sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, leading to the rumors of her conversion to Satanism, amplified in the wake of her untimely and gruesome death in a car accident in the summer of 1967. Yet despite the salacious aspects of the early church (“Phase One . . . the nudie stuff,” LaVey would later call it), LaVey also made several attempts to deemphasize the sexual abandon seemingly promised by the “religion,” no doubt to defend against the many “sex criminals” who apparently contacted him just prior to their release from prison in hopes of joining the congregation. Many potential converts, he reported, were disappointed to discover there were no “orgies” in the ceremonies; indeed, LaVey appears to have had only contempt for the type of orgiastic ritual imagined by Huysmans and, according to LaVey, allegedly still practiced in the “amateur” Satanist congregations of Los Angeles (presided over, according to LaVey, by “dirty old men”). The church made no judgment about the morality of any sexual pursuit, advocating “the practice of any type of sexual activity which satisfy man’s individual needs, be it promiscuous heterosexuality, strict faithfulness to a wife or lover, homo-sexuality, or even fetishism,” in short, “telling each man or woman to do what comes naturally and not to worry about it.” Those looking to affirm their sexual appetites, whatever they might be, were welcome at the church; those actually looking to have sex were not. “There are some beautiful women that belong to the Church,” claimed LaVey, “but they don’t have to come here to get laid. They could go down to any San Francisco bar and get picked up.”

Building on fantasies of libertine conquest and masculine sophistication, LaVey was savvy enough to recognize that one growth market would be sexual empowerment for women. Toward that end, he published “The Compleat Witch” in 1971, a manual teaching women how to seduce or otherwise manipulate men through witchcraft. Writing at the high-water mark of second-wave feminism, LaVey’s advice is strangely prescient of Camille Paglia and other postfeminist provocateurs. “Any bitter and disgruntled female can rally against men, burning up her creative and manipulative energy in the process,” he writes. “She will find the energies she expends in her quixotic cause would be put to more rewarding use, were she to profit by her womanliness by manipulating the men she holds in contempt, while enjoying the ones she finds stimulating.” No doubt such advice was appealing to women hoping to find a strategy for sexual success, and male readers fantasizing that they themselves might become the prey of such “sexual witchcraft.” LaVey’s practical advice for the aspiring witch included such tactics as positive visualization (“Extra Sensory Projection”), “indecent exposure” (showing as much flesh as legally possible—a “power” denied to men, notes LaVey), and not “scrubbing away your natural odors of seduction” (including keeping a swatch of dried menstrual blood in an amulet). As this is a book about witchcraft, LaVey includes some thoughts on the art of “divination,” but even here his comments are more in line with the art of the con than the art of the occult. A woman willing to follow LaVey’s sartorial and psychic program was promised an enhanced sense of personal power over the weak-minded male of the species, the book combining a rather conservative view of feminine seduction with a sexual will to power. Here LaVey put an occult spin on Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl,” another book notorious for allegedly empowering women by cultivating their essentialized wiles. Indeed, Dodd and Mead’s print campaign for “The Compleat Witch” dubbed it a study of “hex and the single girl,” suggesting the publisher saw the book more as a “relationship” title than a primer in black magic.

LaVey may have had his own detailed ideas about the philosophy of his religion and great ambitions for the future of Satanism, but he ultimately had little control over how the satanic 1960s and 1970s would play in the popular imagination; indeed, much of LaVey’s time as Satanism’s “official” spokesman appears to have been consumed in distancing his church from the atrocities of Satan-linked killers such as Charles Manson, “Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez, and dozens of cat-killing teenage boys in the Midwest—not to mention the general religious competition offered by the Process, the Raelians, the People’s Temple, and California’s other proliferating sects, cults, and “kooks.” Satan may have just been a convenient symbol for LaVey, but Lucifer’s very real presence in the lives of those hoping to either invoke or avoid him made it difficult for LaVey’s more “magical” form of Randian Objectivism to gain traction. Moreover, by building his church’s public facade, not on rock or sand but on images of a devilish libido and fantasies of a guilt-free eroticism, LaVey’s brand of Satanism could not help but be linked to the era’s larger transformations in sexuality, especially among those already intrigued or repulsed by the highly visible growth of various “countercultures” of the 1960s. As a “hot” new scenario promising unlimited sexual action and erotic power, LaVey’s bid to resurrect self-interested materialism became more naughty than Nietzschean, emerging as a prominent subgenre in the era’s developing and increasingly brazen pornography industry.

Excerpted from “Altered Sex: Satan, Acid, and the Erotic Threshold” by Jeffrey Sconce in “Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution,” edited by Eric Schaefer. Copyright Duke University Press, 2014. All rights reserved.

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