The Rise of the Occult in 1960s America

The rise of the interest in the occult can be traced back to the 1960s in America. This era is often associated with the New Age spiritualism, influenced by the trend of the awakening of the subconscious. This decade in the American history was marked by numerous controversial events, such as the popularisation of the psychedelic drugs, the spread of non-traditional religions, the spike of the ritualistic murders, all resulting in a great social unrest. These changes had a significant influence on the development of the occult topics, manifesting in art and popular culture.


Figure 1. Liberation Through Seeing. Grey, A. 2004

In the 1960s, the young people of America found themselves revolting against the current political status quo and the social climate in the country. This time was marked by numerous protest marches against the Vietnam War, racial segregation, and overall establishment of the contemporary society. Moving towards a different counter-cultural mentality, many young Americans were forming communities in an attempt to follow a lifestyle that took them away from the mainstream society. LSD was first introduced in 1961, and along with a common usage of cannabis and other psychedelic drugs, by the mid-decade coastal California turned into the epicentre of the gathering hippies in search for alternative paths. In 1967, a very-well known cultural phenomena The Summer of Love occurred in San Francisco, when more than 100,000 young people gathered together, inspired by the “idealistic Utopian vision for world peace, love and anti-materialism” (Varga, 2017, para. 12). This event had spiked controversial opinions and was regarded either as a celebration of unity and hope for the new generation or as a psychedelic trip, full of mass-hedonism, near-anarchy, and rock music.



For the conventional society, hippies or the youth attracted to their lifestyle presented a counterculture, moved by non-traditional and dangerous ideas. Many of them rejected mainstream religion, which drew them into the search of alternative belief systems and forms of spiritual experience. “Disenfranchised with conventional Judeo-Christianity, they sought alternative theologies that reflected contemporary attitudes and a sense of spirituality and connectedness” (Smith, 2021, para. 6). Some of these youth turned to the paths of the Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and Hindu, as those were the religious movements brought from the East. The “New Age” movement was specifically popular among the hippie culture, as it blended in its principles Eastern philosophy in the context of an American society. (Hart, 2015, p.66).


Figure 2. The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (n.d.) 1967.

In the light of the development of new religious movements, “satanic discourse was reinvented” and reformed by the influence of current politics, sociological theories, and the counterculture (Dyrendal, 2015, p. 48). In the context of the '60s reality, Satanism acquired a more positive, liberating, and even human connotation. This movement shared some of its core values with the counterculture, such as freedom from the state, freedom from the church, and free love. However, Satanists tended not to support the use of drugs and did not embrace the concepts of peace and love touted by the hippie communities. In contrast to the other religions emerging at this time, Satanists did not seek higher spiritual power or a deity to worship. Instead, they relied on human earthly desires and promoted “self-assertion, rebellion against unjust authority, vital existence, and undefiled wisdom” (Melton, 2016, para. 3).

Figure 3. The Occult Revival. Time Magazine. 1972.

The existence of Satanism as an organised religion in the United States can be traced to one man – Anton Szandor LaVey, the author of The Satanic Bible (1969). LaVey founded a Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966, the year “marked Year One, or Anno Satanas – the first year of the dawning Age of Satan” (Corcoran, 2021, para.2). The activities of the Church were widely covered in the press and on the television in 1972, which made the original group of the followers grow, and the Church – flourish. The rituals conducted during the Black Mass were more of dramatic shows observed by journalists rather than sacred ceremonies. LaVey’s appearance in the media made him a celebrity, and mainly due to his work and publicity, Satanism earned recognition as a religious practice in the late '60s.


This controversial movement, realised through the Church of Satan, adopted the Devil more as a symbol of rebellion against established authority. However, LaVey was not the first person who invented this concept. The ideas of individual freedom were presented by the earlier occultists, such as Aleister Crowley, who published his philosophical works in the first half of the 20th century (Dyrendal, 2015, p.40). The Decadent movement of the late 19th century also employed the Devil as a sympathetic figure, which was heavily inspired by Romantic heritage. This interpretation of Satan as a rebel was influenced by the Romantic poets’ understanding of Satan’s role in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Dyrendal, 2015). This “romantic” Satan, the arch rebel, became a widespread figure in post-Romantic culture. It started gaining its popularity again around the 1960s due to the rise of occultism, and its appropriation can be found in various contemporary forms of art.

Figure 4. Anton LaVey and his wife Diane. (n.d.) 1967.

Even though the Church of Satan’s beliefs were not centred around worshiping the Christian Devil or advocating senseless violence, its rise to popularity was considered a very disturbing social development from the perspective of the mainstream American society. “Cults of all kinds found fertile ground in this period, including the “Family”, formed in the late 60s by the monstrous Charles Manson, who alternately envisioned himself as Christ or the Devil” (Jacobs, 2018, para. 9). One of the key historical events that created widespread fear of anti-Christian cults and which later developed into the full-blown “satanic panic” of the 1980s was the murder of Sharon Tate by the members of the Manson Family in 1969. Most of the Manson’s followers lead an unconventional lifestyle, living in the commune and using psychedelic drugs. In addition to this, Manson believed in a secret meaning of the “apocalyptic race war” hidden in the lyrics of the Beatles, and “by borrowing the imagery of the time and bending it for his own gain, he rotted the hippie movement from the inside” (Donaghey, 2019, para.5).


In the same year, the Manson cult committed a few other horrific crimes, breaking into people’s houses and creating panic among the people in Los Angeles. There was no evidence of the direct connection between Charles Manson’s cult and the Church of Satan. However, the events attracted widespread rumours in the media about the Mansonite’s real motivations and their connection to “Satanism.” The idea that the Manson cult was also “an evil conspiracy of devil worshipers, was one of many” explanations for the atrocities (Dyrendal, 2015, p.57). Further, more incidents had followed that planted a fear of ritualistic killing and demonic cults into many people’s minds. “The growing fascination with the occult also coincided with a number of extremely well-publicized serial killer cases that took place in the ‘70s”, such as the Zodiac Killer and the Alphabet Killer, Ted Bunty, John Wayne Gacy, and the others (Romano, 2021, p.13). Also, the media played a big part in feeding the public’s fears with the misconceptions surrounding occult practices.

Figure 5. The Illustration of Charles Manson. Huynh, M. 2019.

Despite gaining a bad reputation, occultism had a great influence on the American popular culture during the 1960s, and further it only continued growing in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Playing around with the Devil and occult symbols, such as pentagrams, inverted crosses, the number 666, demonic attributes like horns, and magical symbols, became quite common in various forms of art. These elements were quickly absorbed into the youth horror culture that spanned paperback novels, comics, cartoons and role-playing games; however, there was still a stigma of obscenity and terror around these topics. No wonder that many rock and metal bands of that era, both American and British, used (and still use) the elements and topics of the occult. It was present in the artistic design concepts of music albums created by bands such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, KISS, Mötley Crüe, Slayer, and many others. There were a music style, lyrics, and the aesthetics of horror and the demonic, which were feared and scorned by the mainstream society and Christian organisations, but all this made the genre only more attractive (Dyrendal, 2008, p.75).

Figure 6. Rosemary's Baby book cover. Pater, S.F. (n.d.)

The dawn of the horror movies about occult and demonic can be seen in Hollywood with the release of major films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). This decade was also responsible for the witchcraft revival on-screens, with such examples as Night of the Eagle (1962), The Witches (1966), The Devil’s Bride (1968), and many others. Finally, the topics of witchcraft hit the mainstream with such popular shows as Bewitched (1964-1972) and the original The Addams Family (1964-1966), presenting the witches in an approachable and amusing way. “There are endless instances of the occult crossing over with pop culture and mainstream media,” but perhaps the greatest contribution to witchcraft was to plant its image into the public consciousness (Smith, 2021, para.14). The interest in witchcraft had grown through the ‘60s, efficiently coexisting with the hippie movement, and reached its peak in the ‘70s with the rise of Wicca and neo-Pagan religions.


Occultism had a great influence on the American culture through the decade, both negative and positive. Its connection to the horrific murders, serial killers, satanic rituals, and everything demonic gained the occult a certain negative connotation, spreading fear and panic among the people through the media. However, it undoubtedly had an important influence on the horror genre as a whole, specifically in movies and music, being an inexhaustible source of inspiration for many artists. In its essential meaning, it also opened new spiritual paths for many people seeking alternative beliefs. Seeing the rise in the 1960s, the interest in occultism continued growing in the following decades, and it still has a wide representation in popular culture.



Bibliographical References

Corcoran, M. (2021, April 30). ‘Hail Satan!’ 55 Years of the Church of Satan. Diabolique Magazine. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://diaboliquemagazine.com/hail-satan-church-of-satan-anton-lavey/


Donaghey, R. (2019, June 7) How Charles Manson Put an End to the Hippie Movement. VICE. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.vice.com/en_us/partners/strange-angel/how-charles-manson-put-an-end-to-the-hippie-movement


Dyrendal, A. (2008). Devilish Consumption: Popular Culture in Satanic Socialization. Numen, 55(1), 68–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27643294


Dyrendal, A. et al. (2015). The Invention of Satanism. 1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195181104.001.0001


Jacobs, L. (2018, May 31). The Devil Inside: Watching Rosemary’s Baby in the Age of #MeToo. Vanity Fair. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/05/watching-rosemarys-baby-in-the-age-of-metoo


Hart, A. (2015). "Religious Communities of 1960s America." The Forum: Journal of History, 7(1). Article 9. DOI: 10.15368/forum.2015v7n1.4

Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/forum/vol7/iss1/9


Melton, J. G. (2016). Church of Satan | American movement. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Church-of-Satan


Romano, A. (2021, March 31). Satanic Panic’s long history — and why it never really ended — explained. Vox. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained


Smith, M. A. (2021, October 28). Witches of the sixties: how on-screen occultism bolstered the patriarchy. Dazed. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/54619/1/witches-of-the-sixties-how-on-screen-occultism-bolstered-the-patriarchy


Varga, G. (2018, April 2). The Summer of Love, an epic tipping point for music and youth culture, turns 50. San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/entertainment/music/sd-et-music-summer-of-love-20170515-story.html


Visual Sources

Author Photo

Anna Artyushenko

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn