In honor of the release of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master, VICE will be cherry-picking articles from our vault of the peculiar and grotesque that have to do with strange sects and cults. Keep checking VICE.com throughout the week as we roll out more of these oldies but creepies.
Zeena standing at the edge of the Grunewaldsee in Berlin. Portrait By Florian Büttner
Even by the standards of New Agey, cult-friendly LA, Zeena Schreck had a bizarre and abusive upbringing at the hands of parents who made the devil more famous than he’s ever been. Zeena is the daughter of Church of Satan (CoS) founders Anton LaVey and Diane Hegarty, as well as the recipient of its first baptism.
By 13, she had been completely indoctrinated by the CoS, received death threats regularly, and was pregnant. She went on to be ordained the CoS’s high priestess and spokesperson just as Reagan-era yuppies began to completely freak over tales of children being sacrificed in the woods by her congregation.
Against all odds, Zeena managed to rebel against the self-absorbed zealots who raised her and left the church in 1990 with her husband, Nikolas Schreck. In 2002, the couple founded the Sethian Liberation Movement, a religious body that allows people to learn and practice magic without answering to an oppressive sect and helps free ex-cult members from their troubled pasts. Somehow, she’s managed to turn her life of chaos into one of spiritual peace, and while I can’t say for sure whether she has magical powers, several times during our interview she seemed to anticipate exactly what I was going to ask her.
VICE: Do you remember the first days of Satanism or was that before your time?
Zeena Schreck: My father was experimenting with various gimmicks: holding Friday-night lectures he referred to as the “magic circle,” hosting burlesque shows with strippers dressed up as witches and vampires, but nothing that was necessarily “Satanic.” He had a pet lion he would take around with him on the streets of San Francisco, so he really was doing whatever he could to market himself locally. It wasn’t until a publicist wrote a story about him that referred to him as the “first priest of Satan” that he got the idea he could start his own religion. It was very similar to the way L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology, and the same way all of these cults spring up in California. My mother was mortified because she just wanted to be like the Addams Family, but it all took off so quickly and spun very much out of his control.
Did you interact with his initial followers? What were they like?
He had followers who took things very seriously and genuinely believed in this entity Satan and not so much in Anton LaVey’s idea of Satanism. As it turns out, he wasn’t very knowledgeable on the subject and, in essence, created a postmodern version of Satanism as he went along. It was a manifestation of his ego.
Did he fully know what he was getting into?
He was very confused, and as a result, so are the inheritors of the church. He’s been accused of being a con man—which is accurate—but he wasn’t a very efficient one. He was lazy and never planned for the future or looked after his family because that is the nature of LaVeyan Satanism: Get what you can, live only in the here and now, care only about yourself, and get other people to care for you. It’s like you’re one big infant.
What was it like living under a roof owned by a guy who was responsible for a national freak-out over Satanic practices?
We were not liked in our neighborhood, as our presence created a lot of disharmony. He attracted a lot of psychopaths who’d leave threatening answering-machine messages that we had no choice but to listen to day and night. I’ve gotten over most of the traumas of my childhood, including when I was 11 and had to transcribe these messages for the SFPD describing in great detail how I’d be killed and raped. I was also trained to take down the license plate of any car that sat out front for too long because vandals would throw eggs and bombs and shoot bullets at the house. The sound of a car engine still gets to me this day—the sound that always preceded an attack—Satanism was not a beloved thing.
Did your parents warn you about the difficulties you would undoubtedly face as their child?
I had to defend myself because my parents wouldn’t get out of bed to defend me. They had other people caring for me since they were too wrapped up in their own problems and fought constantly. This mentality—along with our dysfunctional relationships and my father’s violence, fear, and paranoia—were the forces behind his teachings.
Zeena, age three, at her Satanic baptism, 1967.
What lead you to become the CoS’s spokeswoman?
In the 80s, Christian fundamentalists started using the church as their scapegoat, the group they could point a finger at as being responsible for these secret cattle mutilations, child abductions, and crazy government-related conspiracy theories they were hearing about in the news. I panicked, feeling as though they were attacking my religion and my father, so I contacted him and asked what his plans were to address the situation. I learned that he had no plans because he no longer had anyone to help him, and there really wasn’t a Church of Satan anymore. All of the members from the 60s and 70s no longer participated; they were just names on a mailing list. I decided I’d act as its temporary spokeswoman in order to show everyone that we really did exist. Somehow one year turned into five, and my fighting actually ended up helping to form new memberships within the church again.
Reading over those old interviews, I thought you handled yourself pretty well.
My father, who was too sickly and frightened to ever do his own PR, was happy to have me handle things, but he and the remaining members of the church provided no realistic support when I needed it. He lived in a dream world where absolutely nothing to do with social issues was of any importance. We were the targets of a nationwide witch hunt, and all he wanted was for me to talk about Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
LaVeyan Satanism wasn’t particularly rooted in spirituality, so I find it curious that you veered toward black magic. Did it fill a void for you that was left empty in the CoS?
I always had a natural inclination toward magic. A lot of the people who were attracted to the church considered themselves witches and warlocks in the traditional sense, so I learned a lot from them. When I became pregnant at 13, I began learning meditation since I had to find a way of getting through labor; I had to be awake during the [C-section] surgery. It was mind over matter, and I saw this as a form of magic. Had I not experienced that kind of fear and brainpower at such a young age, it wouldn’t have inspired me to pursue my spiritual side and push myself deeper.
Was there a specific moment when you decided that everything your father had taught you was a lie, or was it more of a gradual realization?
It was much later on, likely due to the intervention of the god Seth, who awakens through harsh disillusionment or scorn or through the shattering of everything that you thought was real being torn from you. I thought, “How could my parents have done this to me for so long assuming I’d never find out? How could they lie to me about my identity and religion and the things I went to fight the public for them about that made me look like a fool?”
Many CoS members, including your husband, Nikolas, left when you resigned as high priestess. Was your departure based on ideological differences with the church’s tenets?
I feel you should be able to learn anything without having to join an organization, so I began teaching black magic independently from the church. Consequently, a lot of the people I taught who were part of the CoS also saw what was happening behind the scenes and became just as disenchanted as I had.
Zeena’s last meeting with her father, Anton LaVey, shortly before resigning from her post as high priestess of the Church of Satan, 1990. Photo by A. Wyatt Mann
Zeena relaxing in her Hollywood home on her coffin/bed, 1988. Photo by Max Kobal
Was there any backlash from the remaining churchgoers?
Their harassment was part of the reason we left. Like most cults that are based on protecting the founder’s image, they do their best to attack anyone who says anything negative about their views or reveals the truth about them. So after we left, we said goodbye to the US and moved to Europe to focus on creative ventures, such as [experimental band] Radio Werewolf, which was part of the Werewolf Order, which was more of an environmentally inclined magical movement.
And after that you joined the Temple of Set [ToS]. Were you wary of joining another organization, even if it was more flexible than the CoS?
I waited a long time and didn’t just move from one group to the next. While I was residing in Vienna, I visited a museum where a Sethian altar lives. It was there that I had a very profound experience that enabled me to clearly see the course for my future. Still, I thought, “I’m not a joiner.” I really should have listened to myself, but I did it anyway. I wrote a letter of reconciliation to the founder, Michael Aquino, who was formerly part of the CoS, since I assumed he’d had a similar religious experience with the real entity of Seth before starting the group. It wasn’t until I became more involved that I realized it was an Anton LaVey fan club. Aquino didn’t know anything about comparative religions, couldn’t argue theology or Egyptian cosmology…I kept thinking, “Maybe he’s being coy; we’ll eventually get to know his secrets,” and that never happened. It was my father’s legacy, another abusive and corruptive group, and not at all what I was interested in.
It may seem obvious, but based on your insight, why are so many people attracted to these pseudo-occult groups?
Nowadays, people are very needy and searching for guidance, so in occultism you can’t jump into anything haphazardly. You should ask yourself, “Do they seem honest and know what they’re talking about?” And if they don’t have all the answers, will they try to find them or direct you to someone who does? But unfortunately, people’s longing for entertainment—to have something interesting to talk about at work on Monday—causes them to subconsciously find themselves enmeshed in these dangerous groups.
When you and Nikolas left the ToS, you founded the Sethian Liberation Movement. What is the main difference between the SLM and the groups you have left behind?
The SLM exists for personal-enlightenment purposes; it’s tantric in its nature and based on meditation and practices with Seth. We came from a cultlike hierarchal-degree system to organically form this new entity when we saw that a lot of the former members of the ToS, who were of a lower degree, had unresolved anger and hostility issues due to the ways they’d been mistreated. So the SLM came about, along with a sector called Phoenix that helps others resolve painful issues through meditation and spiritual guidance.
What sorts of painful issues?
I teach people worldwide regardless of their beliefs or background: drug addicts, child stars, religion-based cult members from sects like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of Iranian Marxist political groups. I felt the need to help people who have a short-range need for spiritual assistance, and the techniques I teach can aid them in overcoming their problems the same way I did. If I can help plant the seed, my teachings can continue to help later on in life, and even if they eventually end up searching elsewhere for guidance, that’s OK.
Archival images courtesy of Zeena Schreck