Banners proclaiming "666" hang from either side of the stage. Five shapes appear in the blackness, to the taped strains of the theme from "The Exorcist." Somebody cues the smoke machine. The lights blaze up to reveal an almost comically sinister guitar assault and a singer screaming throaty, unintelligible lyrics. Each member of the band wears at least one spiked wristband. The group calls itself Infestation.
In the bar, a handful of heads twitch to the speed-metal rhythms. The patrons all seem to wear a band logo: Altamont, Nausea, Iron Maiden, Metallica. After one song chugs to a halt, the drummer flashes the Devil-horn salute to the assembled. Somebody yells, "Rock on with a violent fury!"
Every Tuesday night, the Covered Wagon nightclub transforms itself into a death-rock scene known as Lucifer's Hammer. Recently, a party for the authors of the new book "Lords of Chaos," a compendium of the satanic music movement in Scandinavia, drew hundreds of sweaty kids wearing pentagrams and goat's head symbols, Baphomets.
But if Satan seems well represented in this trendy club, across the fog-shrouded city, in a Victorian home with black peeling paint, Lucifer's reign is in question. There, at the home of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, the organization he started in 1966 now stands at a fork in the tail, so to speak.
Ten months after LaVey died of heart failure at age 67, a protracted, nasty divorce settlement has left his scions little in the way of a legacy. LaVey's longtime lover and one of his daughters are wrestling in court over remnants of his estate. The infamous black house -- the headquarters for world Satanism -- is for sale, and could be demolished.
And down in the flaming bowels of the netherworld, having finally claimed the soul of Anton Szandor LaVey, Satan himself is no doubt wondering what in the hell happened to the first public church in history to bear his name.
While a portion of America's youth migrated to Haight-Ashbury in the mid- and late 1960s to seek enlightenment from a tab of acid, other young people were making a very different pilgrimage to the living room of a home on California Street. On April 30, 1966 -- the occult holiday of Walpurgis Night -- Anton LaVey signed away his soul forever and became leader of the most feared -- and perhaps the most entertaining -- religion in the world.
The news media quickly accepted LaVey into the pantheon of great San Francisco characters, at least in part because of the background he claimed. Before founding the church, LaVey asserted, he had worked as a psychic investigator, a police photographer, a burlesque organist and a lion tamer for the Clyde Beatty Circus. He was, he said, briefly a lover of Marilyn Monroe's. As a child, the legend went, he played oboe with the San Francisco Ballet Symphony. And for a long time, no one questioned the legend.
In the late '50s and early '60s he gave weekly lectures at his home on eccentric topics, among them vampires, cannibalism and lycanthropy, as in wolf men. The building itself, he claimed, was once a brothel operated by Barbary Coast madam Mammy Pleasant. Regulars called themselves the "Magic Circle," a group that included science-fiction writer Forrest J. Ackerman, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, an heiress to the Chock Full o' Nuts coffee fortune and a dildo manufacturer. Some members of the group once claimed to have sampled portions of a human leg, obtained from a doctor acquaintance and prepared by LaVey's wife, Diane.
Local journalists helped LaVey crank out press releases and stage ever-wilder publicity stunts. In the church's first year, LaVey conducted a satanic wedding, a satanic funeral on Treasure Island (in cooperation with the U.S. Navy) and a satanic baptism of his young daughter, Zeena. His pet 700-pound lion appeared regularly in Herb Caen's column. He ran ads in newspapers for a Witches' Workshop that taught women how to manipulate the opposite sex. To boost the ranks, church members scattered phony dollar bills around the city, with an invitation to join the Infernal Empire printed on the reverse sides.
The church was brazenly and publicly devoted to selfish hedonism. In 1968, LaVey opened up his home to a documentary film crew. Satanic rituals were staged for the cameras, with a nude woman serving as the altar. LaVey sat in his lair, cocktail clinking in one hand, and announced slyly:
"It occurred to me for many, many years that there was a large gray area between psychiatry and religion that was untapped. And no religion had ever been based on man's carnal needs or his fleshly pursuits. All religions are based on abstinence, rather than indulgence. And all religions therefore have to be based on fear. Well, we don't feel that fear is necessary to base a religion on."
In 1969, LaVey published "The Satanic Bible," a collection of Nietzschean philosophies and repudiations of Christian teachings: "Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other"; "Say unto thine own heart, I am mine own redeemer' "; "There is no heaven of glory bright, and no hell where sinners roast."
The canon has gone on to sell nearly a million copies. (Sales remain steady, with a noticeable rise every Halloween, according to an Avon Books publicist.) A copy of "The Satanic Bible" is exhibited under glass in Moscow's Russian Museum of Atheism. LaVey's follow-up texts, "The Satanic Rituals" and "The Compleat Witch," also remain in print.
Hollywood celebrities joined the fun. Jayne Mansfield enlisted as a satanic "priestess"; Sammy Davis Jr., another member, proudly wore a Baphomet medallion on stage. LaVey consulted on Hollywood horror films. Supposedly, he owned a fleet of automobiles, luxurious estates in Italy, Bavaria and Switzerland, and three oceangoing salvage ships.
The church eventually expanded into a network of grottoes across the United States, but LaVey -- feeling that members were treating the organization as a meeting lodge, rather than living their lives according to satanic principles -- shut the entire system down. Several followers left to form the rival Temple of Set (named for an Egyptian god), and LaVey went into seclusion for many years.
He resurfaced in the 1990s, granting media interviews and hosting young cognoscenti at his home for late-night discussions. To them he was known simply as "Doctor." While on tour here in 1994, shock-rocker Marilyn Manson received an invitation to meet with LaVey at his home. At the end of the visit, Manson was made a priest in the Church of Satan; he would later dedicate his autobiography to LaVey. This next generation of the curious gobbled up new releases of the Doctor's books and albums, on which he plays organ.
After years of heart problems, LaVey died last year on Oct. 29, though his death certificate, for unexplained reasons, was dated Oct. 31, Halloween. Three months and a day after her father's death, Karla LaVey -- his daughter from his first marriage -- filed a petition for probate, seeking to administer his estate, such as it was. Despite all the talk of mansions and ships, at his death the total value of Anton LaVey's holdings -- the legacy of the Black Pope, the most evil and materialistic man in the world -- came to $60,000, including book royalties. Several years of divorce proceedings and an ensuing bankruptcy had cleaned him out.
Less than two weeks later, Blanche Barton -- a zaftig blonde in her mid-thirties who was LaVey's lover, biographer and mother of his young son -- filed an objection to Karla's petition, providing the court with a copy of a handwritten will with LaVey's distinctive forked-tail signature. Dated 1995, the one-paragraph document appointed Barton as executor of the estate and designated their toddler, Xerxes Satan LaVey, as sole beneficiary.
Karla LaVey, 46, filed an objection to Barton's objection. Karla claimed, essentially, that the alleged will was a fraud. Karla's filing noted that the will was dated a few days after her father left the hospital where he had lain in a coma for three days. She suggested that Barton had falsely told LaVey that his daughter had abandoned him. Karla's filing also alleged that Barton had exerted undue pressure on LaVey to make the 1995 will, which, she asserted, contradicted her father's long-stated opposition to the very notion of wills. (Barton has denied all of Karla LaVey's allegations.)
The case reflects a long-running feud over the future direction of American Satanism. LaVey's church has been besieged for years by bickering former adherents who insist that he was a fraud and that his institution does not worship the Devil properly. A key element of the ongoing spat seems to involve the complete discrediting of Anton LaVey, who appears to have fabricated much of his past.
The people who seek to debunk LaVey have come to these basic conclusions: The church had its heyday in the late '60s and early '70s, and has been going downhill ever since. It has been in financial straits for years. And it may not, in fact, survive.
Oddly, the Church of Satan's decline has paralleled a sharp rise in warnings by Christian church leaders about Beelzebub's sway over American society -- from the early '70s, when heavy metal musicians like Black Sabbath started singing the praises of Old Scratch, to the era of Marilyn Manson and schoolroom shootings, when twisted, gun-toting teens would claim the Devil made them do it. All of which seems to beg a question: If the Devil is so damned powerful, how come he can't even hold together one little church?
Michael Aquino began corresponding with Anton LaVey while a psychological operative for the U.S. Army, stationed in the jungles of Vietnam. Aquino returned to the States and was soon made a high-ranking priest and editor of the church's Cloven Hoof newsletter. His distinctive appearance -- he sported a prominent widow's peak and darkly accented eyebrows -- was further enhanced by a small 666 tattooed on his scalp.
As the years passed, Aquino grew more and more frustrated by LaVey's policies. In Aquino's eyes, LaVey had always refused to believe in Satan as an actual supernatural being. Now, the high priest was selling priesthoods in the church for cold cash. This undermined the true purpose of Satanism, Aquino thought, and reinforced the reputation of the church as a farcical sideshow.
In 1975, Aquino left with many church members and priests (some say 28, he claims 100) to form the Temple of Set, a tightly organized religion that revolved around an Egyptian deity on whom the Hebraic Satan supposedly was based.
Church of Satan members snort at Aquino's accusations, and describe the detail-oriented Aquino as emblematic of the type of person Anton LaVey was more than happy to get rid of.
An Oregon painter and sculptor who goes by the name Rex Church is one of the oldest and highest-ranking officials in the Church of Satan. To him, Aquino is inconsequential. "This guy's greatest curse was that Anton LaVey completely ignored him," Church maintains. "And he couldn't stand that. Even to this day."
While declaring the Church of Satan extinct, Aquino has kept an abnormally keen interest in the life of Anton LaVey. His own biographical history of LaVey, which he mails out to interested parties, runs to more than 800 pages.
"My estrangement from Anton LaVey caused me intense personal pain," Aquino writes. "For six years I had regarded him as a friend, mentor, and ultimately Devil-father' -- a bond of affection and respect clearly as profound and meaningful to him as to me. That an impasse of principles should have brought about the destruction of this bond, replacing it with an almost pathological hatred on his part and an impatient exasperation on mine, seemed the harshest of ironies."
Anton LaVey's daughter Zeena, now 35, is sultry and erudite, and, like her father, stubborn as a goat. She is also his cruelest critic.
The platinum blonde had an unusual childhood, to say the least. She was baptized in a satanic ceremony at age 3 and had given birth to a son before she was old enough to drive. In the mid-1980s, when she was in her early twenties, she began acting as high priestess and spokeswoman for the church, appearing on many talk shows and contributing a new introduction for a reprint of her father's book "The Satanic Witch." She considered a career in Hollywood. It seemed she might succeed her father as leader of the religion, but in 1990 she renounced all association with the church and LaVey.
"While I have no regrets in my battle with the forces of ignorance, and my own unswerving dedication of my religion has only grown," she wrote in a letter to Michael Aquino, "I could no longer defend such an ungrateful and unworthy individual as the so-called Black Pope. . . . The cosmic cards are stacked against him."
After her father's death, Zeena and her husband, Nikolas Schreck, now both priests in the Temple of Set, prepared a volatile document called "Anton LaVey: Legend and Reality." The screed is most persuasive when it refers to the research of Lawrence Wright, a veteran reporter for Texas Monthly and the New Yorker who investigated LaVey's life in 1991.
Wright specialized in writing about American religions. On assignment for Rolling Stone to profile LaVey, Wright discovered a host of inconsistencies in the legend LaVey had woven around himself. The reporter was unable to confirm, among other claims, Anton LaVey's rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe, his Clyde Beatty circus affiliation, his job as a police photographer, or the existence of any ballet symphony that LaVey might have played for.
Wright did document that LaVey was born Howard Stanton Levey. His parents were Mike and Gertrude, who moved from Chicago to the Bay Area, where his father worked as a liquor distributor. And he was definitely not wealthy. According to 1962 divorce paperwork, Anton LaVey's sole income at that time was the $29.91 a week he earned playing organ at the Lost Weekend club in San Francisco.
Speaking from his home in Texas, Wright says he found LaVey intriguing, but was stunned at the blatant embellishments: "Being such a conspicuous and widely hated figure as he was, it surprised the hell out of me that nobody'd ever checked up on him. He had gotten very careless. When I met him, he had been essentially gulling journalists for years, without any consequences."
Wright recalls that the Church of Satan appeared to be largely finished as an organization even by 1991. "Whatever it had been in the past, it certainly wasn't when I went to meet him," he says. "I think he was very glad to meet my expense account."
LaVey's daughter Zeena combines Wright's conclusions with Aquino's findings and her own investigations to list some blistering allegations about her father. For instance, she says, the infamous black house on California Street was not a former brothel at all, but merely the home of LaVey's parents, who transferred ownership to him and his then-wife Diane in 1971.
The myth-busting continues: "The Satanic Bible" was conceived by Avon Books to cash in on the occult faddism of the 1960s, and LaVey paraphrased much of it from books by Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand, and an obscure 1896 work, "Might Is Right."
According to an interview with the original producer of the film "Rosemary's Baby," LaVey was not technical adviser, as he claimed, and not a single member of the cast or crew has ever mentioned LaVey's involvement. The church's boast of having hundreds of thousands of members was wildly exaggerated; membership was never more than 300.
And LaVey's supposed affair with Jayne Mansfield was a stunt arranged by publicists.
When it comes to debunking her father, Zeena spares not a single grisly detail. She insists that he forced many of his female disciples into prostitution. She even attempts to discredit his reputation as an animal lover, describing one night from her childhood when she woke to discover LaVey beating the bloodied face of her German shepherd puppy with a board.
And as a final anti-tribute to her father, the day after his death, Zeena Schreck appeared on Bob Larson's radio program, a daily religious broadcast syndicated nationwide from Denver.
Larson figures into the Church of Satan in an odd way. For years, he has boosted his ratings by inviting its members onto his programs. In 1995, he even hosted a Satanic Summit, flying several priests to Denver for a series of one-on-one television interviews. Larson's debates with Satanists have served both to scare his Christian audience and to promote the Church of Satan, which tapes the same programs and distributes copies for its own use.
Zeena Schreck had been a frequent guest on Larson's show. On the day after her father died, she took to the air once again, this time giving Larson's listeners a startling bit of information: She had performed a ritual and put a death curse on her father, and it had finally killed him.
Despite the legal wrangling over the LaVey estate and the almost ritualistic attacks of detractors, the Church of Satan's governing Council of Nine remains supremely confident of the organization's future. They are also supremely dismissive of his daughter Zeena.
"She's an ass," declares Jeff Nagy, a Stockton, Calif., businessman and Church of Satan priest. Like many in the church, Nagy believes Zeena turned on LaVey in hopes of making herself famous. "He was definitely saddened by it, don't let anybody kid you. That's flesh and blood."
Church members contend it will take more than negative publicity and the death of the founder to derail the 32-year momentum of Anton LaVey. Los Angeles rock poster artist Chris "Coop" Cooper, himself a priest, insists that as long as LaVey's books are still in print, the religion will never die: "All that Who's gonna take over?' Honestly, who cares? I really don't think that's important. It's a portable feast, man. All you have to do is to go to B. Dalton's and buy The Satanic Bible.' It's all there."
But simple realities -- financial and otherwise -- suggest the Church of Satan may be headed south, so to speak.
"There's no future for that church," journalist Lawrence Wright says. "Unless some other person comes along who can spin out the same kind of charisma that LaVey was able to do."
That someone, many church officials hope, will be LaVey's companion and biographer, Blanche Barton.
The black Victorian stands out as if it were the Addams Family mansion, a rude interruption in the rows of pastel-colored homes that are its neighbors. An eight-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, intended to discourage vandals, seals the house from the sidewalk. The windows are completely shuttered.
Since 1993 the home has been owned by hotelier Donald Werby, a longtime LaVey friend from the old days of the Magic Circle. Werby paid $240,000 for the building as part of LaVey's bankruptcy arrangement; the money was used to satisfy a divorce settlement of nearly a half million dollars.
In a city that cherishes its eccentric tradition, the structure may have value as a historical landmark. Rumors have circulated that church priest Marilyn Manson might purchase the building to preserve its legacy, but they remain unconfirmed. To church members, the black house constitutes a shrine, a monument of ultimate religious rebellion.
On the local real estate market, though, the black house is just a dump.
According to court documents, the 1905 building has deteriorated beyond repair. It has no heat. All plumbing and wiring is original and substandard. The owner's representative informs potential buyers that renovation is out of the question. It's more cost-effective to demolish the house and build something new.
But the Black Pope's home is not history yet. On a recent Friday evening, Blanche Barton answers the door and ushers a visitor into the former living room, long since converted into a satanic ritual chamber. Under a blood-red ceiling are pieces of antique furniture, including a grand piano, a church organ, a coffin and a rocking chair that supposedly belonged to Rasputin. The brick fireplace altar, upon which nude women once reclined, now displays a small photograph of Anton LaVey. It seems a shame that the occult artifacts and black walls and the strange energy that emanates from them could soon be leveled.
Barton offers a sofa and sits in a chair, reportedly once owned by Benjamin Franklin. Wearing a small Baphomet pin on her white blouse, she appears as relaxed as any mother of an energetic 4-year-old can be.
She says she discovered "The Satanic Bible" as a teenager living in San Diego, and kept it in mind through college. She met Anton LaVey while vacationing in the Bay Area with her family in 1984 and, she says, has been with him and the church ever since.
Court documents list Karla LaVey as a resident of the house, but Barton says Karla recently moved out, and she would rather not discuss it any further.
On the efforts of Michael Aquino and Zeena Schreck to discredit LaVey, Barton can only chuckle: "All you can really do is laugh at them. It's what the Doctor used to call satanic dismay.' "
Blanche Barton learned from the best, and she insists the Church of Satan is here to stay. And it's hard not to believe her. God knows, we'll always need the Devil -- if not as a scapegoat and excuse, then as something to strike fear in sinners' hearts. Jack Boulware is a staff writer for SF Weekly, where a version of this article originally appeared. CAPTION: Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan: "No religion had ever been based on man's carnal needs or his fleshly pursuits." CAPTION: Clockwise from top: Karla LaVey holds a wax statue of her father at a news conference announcing his death; Anton LaVey at the organ; LaVey in 1986; the Church of Satan headquarters; and LaVey's "Satanic Bible."