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That Time BLACK SABBATH Was Stalked By The Occult in The 70s

Even during the height of their infamy, when a wide range of folks thought that they were actual devil worshippers, the two most common symbols used by Black Sabbath were the Christian cross and the peace sign. Not very evil. Yet, the connection between Black Sabbath, the undisputed founders of heavy metal, and the systemic practice of the dark arts has proven hard to break over the years. Besides residual fear stemming from the band’s debut in the late ‘60s and simple pearl clutching, the idea that Black Sabbath really are Satanists comes from two things: the band’s name and heavy metal in general.

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While the latter should be obvious to all us of metalheads (quick poll: how many of you have been called a Satanist, or at the very least a weirdo for wearing a black t-shirt more than once in a week?), the explanation for the former stretches back for centuries. Although the band actually named themselves after a Mario Bava horror film, the “black sabbath,” or rather the black mass of the Middle Ages was a sort of ghost story whereby defrocked priests and other diabolical congregants would gather together in order to perform a blasphemous inversion of the Roman Catholic Church’s Latin Mass. Think hymns to Satan instead of Jesus and creative uses of the sacraments. Oh, and lots and lots of sex.

The best, most detailed depiction of a black mass can be found in J.K. Huysmans’s novel Là-Bas (which either translates to The Damned or Down There), which is appropriate since the black mass is more of a Victorian contrivance than anything else. Also, given that the black mass, or at least the one we’re most familiar with, was created by novelists, it’s fitting then that Black Sabbath, whose lyrical themes originally came from bassist, occultist and horror novel enthusiast Geezer Butler, should turn to it as their own form of branding.

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Despite the fact that Black Sabbath’s name and image came from a preexisting horror fiction culture and not reality, this did not stop real loonies from trying to link the band to supposedly true instances of the occult. During the band’s early days in the U.K., popular culture was awash in Satan. Due to public fears over the excesses of the counterculture and the Manson Family murders, filmmakers found a quick way to cash-in by making devil-heavy fright films. In America, American International Pictures, who first came to the public’s attention during the 1950s with films such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Girls in Prison, made a string of Satanism-themed movies that stretched deep into the 1970s, while Great Britain’s own Hammer Studios beat out the competition with 1968’s The Devil Rides Out (which was based on one of Geezer Butler’s favorite Dennis Wheatley novels). Before long, horror fans wanted their everyday lives to be like the movies.

So, sometime around 1970 or so, “freaks with white make-up and black robes” started showing up at Black Sabbath concerts. As Ozzy himself details in his autobiography I Am Ozzy, these “freaks” wanted Black Sabbath to come along, too.

I couldn’t believe it when I learned that people actually ‘practised [sic] the occult.’ These freaks with white make-up and black robes would come up to us after our gigs and invite us to black masses at Highgate Cemetery in London. I’d say to them, ‘Look, mate, the only evil spirits I’m interested in are called whisky, vodka, and gin.’ At one point we were invited by a group of Satanists to play at Stonehenge. We told them to fuck off, so they said they’d put a curse on us…Mind you, we did buy a Ouija board once and have a little seance. We scared the shit out of each other.

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While this may sound like a group of working class kids from Birmingham giving the old toss off to a bunch of all-too-serious occultists, the truth is that the occultists, who were most certainly not serious magicians, were more than likely dipping too deep into the their own favorite fiction. Take Ozzy’s paragraph for example. First of all, Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out contains a scene in which a coterie of well-heeled Satanists summon the Devil while performing a ritual orgy at Stonehenge, plus the novel also describes how a powerful warlock, the Aleister Crowley lookalike Mocata, tries to lay multiple curses upon the novel’s heroic protagonists.

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So far, so fake. But this part takes the Devil’s food cake – black masses in Highgate Cemetery. During the late 1960s, rumors began to fly around London that an ancient vampire was haunting the rundown Highgate Cemetery, a Victorian-era necropolis whose most famous permanent resident is Karl Marx. These reports proved too perfect for the sensationalist press to pass up. Soon enough two men came to the forefront as occult experts and vampire slayers – Sean Manchester and David Farrant. Inspired by the assertions of Manchester and Farrant, as well as articles in the Hampstead & Highgate Express such as “Does A Wampyr Walk in Highgate,” one of the largest vampire hunts in British history occurred on March 13, 1970. It turned out to be a dud, but by that point, the case had already become folklore, with whispered repetitions of Highgate’s vampire being an 800-year-old King Vampire from Wallachia. And even despite Manchester and Farrant’s very public falling out, which consisted of back-and-forth accusations of charlatanry, Hammer went ahead and made a film loosely based on the hysteria called Dracula A.D. 1972, which stars the late and oh-so great Christopher Lee as the original King Vampire, Count Dracula.

Who knows what would’ve happened if Black Sabbath had accepted that invitation to Highgate Cemetery so many years ago. Probably nothing too dramatic. After all, people back then already thought Black Sabbath were knee-deep in the occult, so it’s safe to say that religious protestors would’ve still showed up at all those gigs. Then again, Sabbath, who were regular lads who just wanted to scare some squares without actually believing any mumbo jumbo, might’ve slapped some sense into the vampire hunters who couldn’t jump on the occult bandwagon fast enough. There remains a final option: after Geezer Butler’s experience with a dark shadow over his bed, maybe, despite Ozzy’s dismissal, the Sabbath boys didn’t want to scare up any more trouble.

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