Historical events are inevitably viewed with the benefit of hindsight, and this can sometimes play funny tricks. Events can acquire a certain eerie prescience or sense of tragic irony with the benefit of hindsight. This, we assume, is only because subsequent events happened to follow a certain course, and retrogressively imbue what went before with an air of inevitably, or the odd presentiment we sometimes have of future events laying a trail of bread combs towards their eventual actualization. In his 1927 essay An Experiment with Time, the aeronautical engineer and eccentric philosopher J.W. Dunne proposed that anybody who keeps an assiduous record of their dreams will find the events of their conscious existence prefigured again and again in the errant, muddled juxtapositions of their dreams. The sceptic reasonably supposes that Mr Dunne was merely allowing his subconscious to cold call him, and retrogressively connecting the Rorschach blobs of his dreams to events which could have gone any number of different ways, just as we are do with historical events when we know their outcomes. Playwrights and authors can foreshadow, but in reality tomorrow never knows. Any sequence of events would probably assume peculiar contours when subjected to a sufficient degree of scrutiny. In the film Blow Up, David Hemmings’ jaded photographer studies and enlarges a series of his photographs until a narrative of murder begins to emerge in their murky borders. The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination has been similarly over-analysed, to the extent that some conspiranoids have made so bold as to suggest that it depicts the driver firing the fatal shot.
Nevertheless, some historical sequences are stranger than others; and some, like the Kennedy assassination, become virtual strange attractors, weaving about themselves a maddening web of connections and coincidences, and leaving a trail of melted brains in their wake. The Manson story has similar strange attractor properties; circling around its black centre one finds a rich, dense tapestry of post-war popular culture. What lends the Manson story to conspiranoid readings is the extent to which all its various elements seem to fit together, either directly or in a more oblique fashion, like the details of a bad dream. The next two posts are a study of the peculiar linkages between the Beatles’ White Album, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary Baby, the Manson murders, and the rise of the Church of Satan as a Randian cult of hedonistic individualism in the late 60s. These linkages can be read as revealing the tendrils of a vast Satanic conspiracy…..or as a series of non sequiturs strewn together with the logic of a pothead flicking between documentaries and camp horror films on late night TV…..as a sidelong glance into the synchronistic underworld of causality…..or just a particularly diabolical addition to the popular awesome people hanging out together meme.
“All of them Witches.”
In her first significant film role, Sharon Tate played a seductive witch in a British occult thriller called Eye of the Devil, released in 1966. Apart from Tate’s involvement, the film is largely remembered today as a less distinguished precursor to The Wicker Man and the folk/pagan horror genre which became popular in British cinema and children’s television in the late 60s and throughout much of the 70s. Like Rosemary’s Baby, the folk horror genre didn’t come out of nowhere; it was a cultural reflection of a real sociological trend. The failure of Victorian and Edwardian notions of rational and technological progress, writ large in the carnage of the World Wars, had led to a frantic scramble to discover new values which stood at variance to the failed ideologies of both Christian monotheism and technological modernism, and out of this emerged the second great occult revival in the modern West. A massive neo-pagan revival had been underway in Britain and elsewhere since the fifties, and one of the great myths underlying and animating this movement was the idea of the return of the Old Ways. In brief, this was the notion that the old, animistic covenant between man and the natural world, and all its traditions and practises, had never been fully vanquished by either Christianity or the Industrial Age. The Old Ways remained as vital as ever under the surface, waiting to be rediscovered, re-invented, or in some cases simply invented out of whole cloth. The witchcraft revival in Britain had been initiated by the colourful naturist and magician Gerald Gardner in the late forties. It was, however, to Alex Sanders, the most noteworthy of the Wiccan revivalists after Gardner, that the makers of Eye of the Devil turned to act as a creative consultant in order to insure that the rituals in the movie had a certain degree of authenticity. While making the film, Sharon Tate became acquainted with Sanders and his then wife Maxine, and Sanders claimed to have initiated her into the Alexandrian tradition of witchcraft. This is a fairly plausible assertion, and probably true, although, like a great many occult leaders, Sanders was by no means averse to tall tales and the lure of attention and publicity. At any rate, he was not averse to appearing in irresistibly kitsch exposes (in every sense of the word) such as the following:
Also in 1966, Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow. As a wedding present, Salvador Dali gave Farrow an owl, parts of a frog, and a moon rock. (A word to the wise surrealist: give up the day job when you’re selecting wedding presents.) It was a bizarre coupling, the considerable age difference being in 1960s America a difference between two worlds, between Kansas and Oz. Sinatra was a walking contradiction. Professionally, he was one of the most sensitive and emotionally intimate performers in popular song; privately, he was a control freak, bully, cultivator of unsavoury alliances, and one of the century’s most prodigious users of women as objects (known admiringly among his cronies as the “Pope of Pussy”). Sinatra had revolutionized American popular music in the 50s, but by the time he married Mia Farrow, his era had distinctly passed. Farrow was one of the flower children. Her androgynous look reflected changing sexual mores and tastes; when Sinatra asked Shirley MacLaine for her opinion, she replied “What do you say about someone who looks like a twelve year old boy?” A certain legendry surrounds Farrow’s cropped, pixie haircut which is worth mentioning here. Farrow gave herself the cut with fingernail scissors in ‘65 while working on Peyton Place. As a Vidal Sassoon cut is mentioned in the Rosemary’s Baby novel, Farrow’s androgynous haircut became a significant feature in Polanski’s adaptation. She wears a wig in the earlier scenes, before appearing with the cropped cut and announcing, “I’ve been to Vidal Sassoon’s”. Her narcissistic husband (played by director John Cassavetes) is disgusted by the new look. It’s an oddly powerful moment in the film, which intensifies the viewer’s sympathy for Farrow’s vulnerable, put-upon Rosemary. (In time, the fiction of Rosemary’s Baby became mingled with fact, and popular legend had it that Farrow got her hair cut specifically for the film, and a repulsed Sinatra served her divorce papers on the set for this reason.)
When she first cut it, Salvador Dali told Farrow that the act constituted a “mythic suicide”. Coincidentally, in July of ’69, Manson exhorted the female Family members to commit an act of “mythic suicide” by shaving her heads. According to Sanders in The Family: “Just before dawn, Charlie sent Brenda from the ranch with scissors bearing a wonderful announcement: it was the time for the sacred witchy Tonsure Rite. Charlie said that they were ready to cut their hair – for, at last, their egos were dead.” The appearance of Manson’s shaven headed young followers constituted a considerable element in the visceral shock of the media coverage of the trial.
Rosemary’s Baby, which shot in late ’67, did put paid to Farrow and Sinatra’s marriage however. The movie was running over schedule, and Sinatra wanted Farrow to appear in his film The Detective. It was another instance of fact and fiction becoming comingled. In the movie, her character Rosemary was manipulated and exploited by her self-centred actor husband in order to further his career; in reality, Farrow had to stand up to her self-centred and manipulative singer/actor husband in order to stay in the picture. This she did, and Sinatra responded by serving the aforementioned divorce papers on set. When events started to spiral out of control after its premiere, producer William Castle came to regard Farrow’s marriage as the first casualty of the Rosemary’s Baby curse. There is no doubt that even on the surface, Rosemary’s Baby constituted an eerie preface to the grizzly tragedy which overtook Polanski’s Cielo Drive residence (a few doors away from the home of The Outer Limits and Psycho screenwriter Joe Stefano) within a year of the movie’s release. With its themes of a contemporary satanic cult, and the anxiety of a young first-time mother regarding the safety of her unborn child, subsequent events made Rosemary’s Baby seem uncomfortably close to home – especially bearing in mind that Polanski even considered casting Sharon as Rosemary for a time. (Also, since the film concerns the drugging and rape of a young woman, it is difficult not to associate this with the subsequent event which would forever tarnish Polanski’s reputation.) Scraping under the surface, however, one finds a peculiar web of coincidences surrounding Rosemary’s Baby which Robert Anton Wilson would have labelled a “synchro-mesh” in his heavy Chapel Perilous days.
“To 1966, The Year One!”
The novel Rosemary’s Baby was a bestseller for Ira Levin in 1967. It had a strong hook – anxiety about first-time pregnancy – and the theme of contemporary urban occultism give it a topical flavour in the same year which the musical Hair proclaimed “The dawning of the Age of Aquarius”. Like Levin’s later The Stepford Wives, it had a strong feminist undertow – the real menace of Rosemary’s Baby is arguably the patriarchal desire to subjugate and control the female body. The novel (and subsequent movie, which remained very faithful to the source) is unusually specific about its temporal setting. It starts in the latter part of ’65 (the year of the first Papal visit to the U.S.A.), but is primarily set in ’66, the year of Eye of the Devil and Mia Farrow’s marriage to Frank Sinatra. “To 1966, The Year One!” the coven leader Roman Castevet toasts during a New Year celebration, and Rosemary’s baby is born June ’66 (6/66). Coincidentally, in the more or less real world of 1966, a small group gathered in a house at 6114 California St, San Francisco, on April 30 (Walpurgisnacht) to proclaim 1966 the Year 1, Anno Satanis, “the first year of the Age of Satan”. This house belonged to Howard Stanton Levey, a former carny man, nightclub organist, and weird fiction enthusiast who had fashioned himself Anton Szandor LaVey. It would later be known as the Black House, and function as the headquarters of his creation, the Church of Satan, until his death in 1997.
In fairness to him, LaVey was neither the most interesting, nor the most risible, of America’s many spiritual/occult entrepreneurs. Prior to the establishment of the Church of Satan, he had gathered a fairly interesting salon of writers and occult dabblers to the Black House. LaVey became friends with a number of writers associated with the legendary Weird Fiction magazine, and seems to have known the great ClarkAshton Smith through this connection. Attendees at his parties included the sci-fi/fantasy legend Fritz Leiber, king of sci-fi/monster movie fandom Forest J Ackerman, and the irrepressible mischief maker Kenneth Anger. These parties maintained a little of the ambience of the scene which had converged around Jack Parsons’ chaotic Pasadena mansion in the forties – a curious melting pot of pulp writers and occultists chasing the outer limits. (Another LaVey associate of the time, Anthony Boucher, wrote a famous locked room mystery novel called Rocket to the Morgue in 1942, which contains thinly veiled portraits of Robert A Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard, Jack Parsons, and various other Golden Age figures. The plot of Rosemary’s Baby is not unlike a Christianized version of Parsons’ bizarre and fascinating Babalon Working.) There is a certain incidental David Lynch character charm to LaVey at this point – I mean, the guy plays the Wurlitzer at a cocktail lounge called the Lost Weekend, and keeps a large black leopard called Zoltan as a pet. Bizarrely, a local American Humane Association television programme for children called The Wonderful World of Buzz came to visit LaVey’s house in 1964. This, needless to say, before the joint was called the Black House, and notorious for nudie orgies and HAIL SATAN chants.
LaVey’s satanic philosophy mixed Nietzsche and Ayn Rand with the post-war economic boom hedonism of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy, and served them up with a dressing of Dennis Wheatley’s occult pot-boilers. In a sense, its core philosophical values of individualism and self-gratification were perfectly in tune with the realities of mainstream America during the full bloom of the consumerist era, and illustrate the slippery slope by which the 60s counter-culture gradually fell into the vapid self-absorption of the Me generation of the 70s. This materialistic angle LaVey mixed rather incongruously with the ceremonial magic and initiatory grade left-overs of the Golden Dawn which innumerable other neo-pagan groups were experimenting with at the time. What alone distinguished LaVey’s group was its open avowal of the satanic image, and this one suspects was merely a piece of theatrical branding on the part of LaVey, a carny man at heart who knew how to stir up the rubes and get them to step right up. Contrary to popular urban myth, LaVey appears to have had no direct involvement with the making of Rosemary’s Baby. It was long supposed that he had acted as a creative consult for the film, and even rumoured that he donned the devil suit during the film’s disturbing dream/rape sequence. These stories were most likely put into circulation by LaVey himself, and probably possess no more substance than his claim to have had an affair with a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe during his nightclub days. That said, LaVey did act as a special consultant to a satanic horror picture, but it just wasn’t quite as prestigious as Rosemary’s Baby:
(You can watch the whole thing here. I’ve watched a lot of bullshit in my time, but I haven’t gotten around to this one yet. I probably will, though. You know you can rely on Shatner’s resume between Star Trek incarnations.) Although not explicitly connected with the making of Rosemary’s Baby, many tangential links remain between the Church and the movie and subsequent Tate/La Bianca murders. During the early days of the Church of Satan, LaVey took to a fairly time-honoured American strategy for drumming up publicity: he ran a “Topless Witches Review” in a theatre in San Francisco. One of his nudie witches was Susan Atkins (using the stage name Sharon King); Atkins of course became a member of Manson’s Family, and would later claim that she “felt nothing” as Sharon Tate begged her for the life of her unborn child in the house on Cielo Drive. In 1968, probably shortly prior to the release of Rosemary Baby, Sinatra’s Rat Pack compadre Sammy Davis Jr was hanging out in a LA club called the Factory when he encountered a group of actors whose fingernails were varnished red as a sign of their affiliation to the Church of Satan. The actors invited him to a party back at the Black House, and Sammy, being constitutionally up for anything, went along.
Sammy discovered a scene which he described as “dungeons and dragons and debauchery”, and which must have looked like The Omega Man for Me generation hedonists. All of the guests were clad in hooded robes or masks, and a nude woman was chained to a central red-velvet alter. “That chick was happy” he later observed, “and wasn’t really going to get anything sharper than a dildo stuck in her.” As Sammy Davis was beginning to get settled into the festivities, one of the revellers approached him and pulled back his hood. Small world: it was his hairdresser. Smaller world: his hairdresser was Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate’s former lover and fellow Manson Family victim. Sammy Davis Jr’s interest in the Church of Satan persisted into the mid-70s, and was probably at its height in 1973 when he produced and starred in a NBC pilot called Poor Devil, which endeavoured to kick-start the world’s first ever satanic sitcom. Needless to say, the world wasn’t ready for canned Left Hand Path laughter, and it was shit. Coincidentally, Sammy’s thelemically titled autobiography Yes I Can is featured prominently in Rosemary’s Baby; we first see Rosemary reading it early on in the film, and it is later shown on the Woodhouse bookshelf next to the occult tome Rosemary has gotten from Hutch.
In the next instalment: Mia Farrow decamps to India to groove with the Beatles and the “giggling guru” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and William Castle slips into an extremely conspiranoid reality tunnel in which he begins to believe that he and Paramount Pictures have unleashed a satanic curse upon the earth.
Books: Lords of the Left Hand Path by Stephen E Flowers, and The Family by Ed Sanders.