Southern California is as far as you can get in the contiguous United States from the puritanical roots, restrictive social norms, and old money of cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Los Angeles is nearly 2,700 miles from Washington DC, and the watchful eyes of the federal government. California is the westernmost destination of the American frontier, a land rich in natural resources like oil. A place you go to reinvent yourself. An area with a long, sometimes sordid history of new religions, experimental spirituality, far-out cults, and psychedelic occult activity.
From the financial and cultural behemoth of Scientology to the psychotic folkies of the Mason gang and the sex-crazed, psychedelic vegetarians of the Source Family and their messianic leader Father Yod, the occult in Los Angeles wears a number of guises. Yet each of these groups, and the history, mythology, and dogma associated therewith, was born of countercultural tendencies. L. Ron Hubbard didn't want to pay taxes. Edith Maida Lessing, who founded the Mount Helios cult compound in Glassell Park, "declared free love would replace marriage, believed in communal ownership of property, and boasted that she had control over more than 1,000 men". Carlos Castaneda, an anthropologist at UCLA, claims to have met an indigenous Mexican shaman at a bus stop in the southwest who had the ability to manipulate time and space, and taught him, among other things, kung fu and how to take peyote.
Scientology has attracted so many members it's frequently described as a legitimate religion, not a cult. According to CNN, there are at least hundreds of thousands of practitioners. The Church of Scientology claims that number is in the millions, with 167 missions and more than 10,000 churches spread across the globe. However, many believe these stats to be vastly inflated. Whether any religion qualifies as an occult organization is a debate for another day. Merriam-Webster defines occult as "matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them", a definition that could very easily apply to any and all religious beliefs. So, potato potahto.
A native of Nebraska who also spent time in Montana as a child, Hubbard moved to California after service in World War Two. Scientology's beliefs are perhaps most succinctly described by a South Park (watch the clip above and click through to the playlist that appears in the upper right corner) episode in which the whole system of apes with alien souls and ancient volcanoes is explained . Hubbard, a science fiction writer, has a background rooted in California occult circles. Before his rise to power, Hubbard lived for a time with Jack Parsons in Pasadena. The pair took part in the “Babalon Working” ritual in the hopes of bringing forth a goddess through a creative combination of chanting, parchment paper, and semen. Their relationship imploded when Hubbard stole Parsons's mistress, his boat, and $20,000 of his savings.
Hubbard’s son accused his father of fraud, drug use, black magic, and Satanism, and talked of how the organization is a business that used religion as a way to evade taxes. According to Hubbard's wife, he once said: "The only way to make any real money was to have religion. That's essentially what he was trying to do with 'Dianetics.' Get a religion where he could have an income and the government wouldn't take it away from him in the form of taxes." In 1993, the Church of Scientology won a decades-long battle with the IRS to be fully tax exempt, and the case was extremely bizarre. For instance:
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"Scientology's lawyers hired private investigators to dig into the private lives of I.R.S. officials and to conduct surveillance operations to uncover potential vulnerabilities, according to interviews and documents. One investigator said he had interviewed tenants in buildings owned by three I.R.S. officials, looking for housing code violations. He also said he had taken documents from an I.R.S. conference and sent them to church officials and created a phony news bureau in Washington to gather information on church critics. The church also financed an organization of I.R.S. whistle-blowers that attacked the agency publicly."
Jack Parsons was a rocket scientist whose pioneering work and role in the formation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were instrumental in the space race. Throughout the '30s and '40s, Parsons was also a devotee of the occult, performing sex magick rituals in his attempts to summon deities. When L. Ron Hubbard was living with Parsons before the founding of Scientology, Parsons had Hubbard sleep with his wife as part of one such ritual.
Parsons was taken with the occult as a young man, after witnessing a Gnosis Mass performed by Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an occult society co-founded by an Austrian esotericist and a German tantric occultist. The ritual, described: "On a black and white stage stood an altar embossed with hieroglyphic patterns, a host of candles and an upright coffin covered with a gauze curtain out of which the group's caped leader would appear. Poetry was read, swords were drawn, breasts kissed, and lances stroked. It was a highly charged sexual atmosphere. Wine was drunk and cakes made out of menstrual blood were consumed."
Not long thereafter, Parsons became an adherent of Thelema, a religion created by English occultist Aleister Crowley (and which was practiced as scripture by the members of Ordo Templi Orientis). He bought a mansion in Pasadena and used it as a new hub or OTO operations in Los Angeles. Witches and fellow scientists moved in with him. He was known to answer the door with a snake wrapped around his shoulder, and brought secretaries from the laboratory back to his place for drug-fueled ritualistic debauchery. Eventually Hubbard moved in, and the pair tried summoning a goddess. As author George Pendle writes: "For weeks the two of them engaged in ritual chanting, drawing occult symbols in the air with swords, dripping animal blood on runes, and masturbating in order to 'impregnate' magical tablets."
Parsons died at 37, ripped apart by an explosion in his home laboratory.
Charles Manson's troubled childhood is well-documented. In broad strokes: he never knew his father, his mother was 16 when he was born and landed herself in jail not long thereafter, he lived with an aunt and uncle for a few years before spending most of his adolescence and young adulthood in reform centers and jails for a slew of minor crimes. In 1967, at age 33, Manson was released from prison and moved to San Francisco, where he anointed himself a messianic figure and began his occult preachings, which foretold of a race war that would destroy America and leave Manson and his devotees, whom he referred to as the Family, in an advantageous position to rise ot power. The counterculture explosion that took place in the summer of '67 created just the right environment for Manson's message, and he attracted a following.
Around this time, Manson, who was also an aspiring musician, met Denis Wilson of the Beach Boys. He then relocated his Family to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, setting the scene for the Manson Family Murders. Between August 8 and 10, 1969, Manson's followers murdered seven people at his behest, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife to filmmaker Roman Polanski. One of Manson's followers even tried to assassinate Gerald Ford, then President of the United States.
Los Angeles's reputation for new age religions and seeking truth and divinity through the use of psychedelic drugs can be more or less totally attributed to Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda was born in Peru, though he told people he was from Brazil. He arrived in Los Angeles in the early '50s to study anthropology at UCLA. He spent the 17 years living in obscurity. At some point during this time, according to Castaneda's account, while at a bus stop in the southwest, he met Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui (indigenous Mexican) mystic who claimed, among other things, the ability to manipulate time and space. Castaneda became a pupil of Don Juan, and in 1967 submitted a manuscript entitled The Teachings of Don Juan to the University of California Press in Los Angeles. The book was published in 1968, and became a bestseller around the world. Castaneda wrote a total of 10 books, which are attributed with starting the New Age movement and invigorating interest in using drugs like peyote to achieve religious experiences.
The Castaneda's obituary in the New York Times states:
"Mr. Castaneda spun extraordinarily rich, hallucinogenic evocations of ancient paths to knowledge based on what he described as an extended apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian shaman named Don Juan Matus. His 10 books, etched in layer upon layer of psychological nuance and intrigue, became international best sellers translated into 17 languages and were credited with helping to usher in the New Age sensibility and reviving interest in Indian and Southwestern cultures."
A typical passage from Castaneda's writing, quoted from Don Juan: "We men and all other luminous beings on earth are perceivers. That is our bubble, the bubble of perception. Our mistake is to believe that the only perception worthy of acknowledgment is what goes through our reason. Sorcerers believe that reason is only one center and that it shouldn't take so much for granted."
Castaneda was frequently accused of inventing Don Juan Matus, or at least of making up the shaman's teachings. Rather than defend himself or provide evidence, Castaneda lived in Los Angeles in total anonymity, refusing to be photographed and never making public appearances. By the end of his life, he was such a recluse his death wasn't public knowledge until two months after it happened.