All You Need Is Satan
The Beatles have always appealed to conspiracists. Their playful, obscure, often dark lyrics and intriguing album artwork invite a psychedelic spectrum of interpretations and theories: Paul is dead, John is the walrus, Paul is the walrus—who was the walrus? As John, Paul, George and Ringo evolved from mop-top innocents to hippies and spiritual seekers, those conspiracies culminated in the holy grail of Beatle mystique: the union of the Fab Four with the Evil One.
The Beatles sold their souls to the devil in exchange for musical success. Or at least John Lennon did, claims Joseph Niezgoda in his 2009 book, The Lennon Prophecy. The writer dedicates his pages to proving this tale, even working out the date of the diabolical contract signed by the Beatles’ founder and apparent negotiator extraordinaire. Niezgoda’s proof is in the “clues” found on album covers and in song lyrics—wrapped in such cryptographic cloaks as numerology and anagrams—as well as Lennon’s murder, the fulfillment of his promise to Satan.
Conspiracy theorists include the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in their case for satanic affiliation. Among the celebrity cutouts that form the cover collage is an image of the notorious occult figure Aleister Crowley, a rumored but unprofessed satanist known as “the Great Beast.” The title song’s opening line—“It was 20 years ago today”—purportedly refers to Crowley’s 1947 death. In fact, the band’s Crowley discipleship was no secret. In a 1980 interview, Lennon confirmed Crowley’s influence, quoting the occultist’s philosophical dictum, “Do what thou wilt,” to explain the philosophy of the Beatles.
Fanatics have always scoured Beatles songs for hidden messages. Throughout the 1960s, the band faced allegations of drug advocacy, occult affiliation, communist sympathies and even the elaborate cover-up of the (rumored) death of bassist Paul McCartney, all based on supposed clues in their songs. But it wasn’t until 1968 that anyone accused the Beatles of promoting an apocalyptic race war.
Charles Manson, the leader of a California cult known as the Manson Family, believed the Beatles were instructing him through their songs to incite a global war between whites and blacks that would hail a new age. His misinterpretations of “Blackbird,” “Helter Skelter” and other songs from the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album (known as The White Album) supported his theories. He named the revolution Helter Skelter.
Manson decided the apocalypse needed a catalyst: a couple of murders to jump-start the war. On the nights of August 9 and 10, 1969, a group of Manson’s followers ambushed the Los Angeles homes of film director Roman Polanski and businessman Leno LaBianca, using guns, knives and a bayonet to murder seven people. Police arrived at the LaBianca residence to find “Healter Skelter” [sic] scrawled on the refrigerator in blood.
One of the homes targeted by the Manson Family during their two-day killing spree in Los Angeles in August 1969 was that of Roman Polanski, the director and screenwriter of Rosemary’s Baby. (Although Charles Manson had no connection to Polanski, he knew the house’s former resident, music producer Terry Melcher, who had discouraged the musically aspirant Manson in his quest for a recording contract.) Polanski wasn’t home, but his eight-months-pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was. Manson’s followers bound Tate and stabbed her to death, and killed four others at the house as well.
The murder scene had eerie parallels to Rosemary’s Baby, released a year earlier. Both involved a pregnant woman falling victim to a malevolent cult: Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is drugged, manipulated and finally stripped of her baby for use in satanic rituals; Sharon Tate was viciously stabbed to death, along with her unborn child, by members of a cult whose leader claimed to be the devil. The violent, pitiless victimization of a pregnant woman may be the ultimate clash between light and dark: the maternal imperative to put life into the world vs. the evil desire to take life from it.
The term Faustian is defined as the sacrificing of one’s moral or spiritual beliefs for power or material gain. It derives from legends about German magician Johann Faust, said to have sold his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge. Western culture is rife with Faustian folklore: Robert Johnson (1911–1938), a Mississippi-born blues guitarist, allegedly signed a diabolical contract in exchange for musical virtuosity, as did Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini and, in a more recently propagated legend, former Beatle John Lennon.
Hollywood has concentrated more on another satanic occurrence—the devil’s possession of a human body (the subject of the 1973 flick The Exorcist). Both of these evils come together in Rosemary’s Baby, the chilling story, based on Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, of a woman caught in the crossfire of a satanic covenant. In exchange for success in his acting career, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) consigns his first-born child to Satan, who is abetted by the occultist couple next door. Guy’s unsuspecting wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow), is then drugged and impregnated by the devil in a ritualistic ceremony. Convinced that it was just a vivid dream, she unknowingly begins cultivating the spawn of Satan in her womb.
In February 1968, the Beatles traveled to India to study Transcendental Meditation with Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Fellow students at the multi-week training course included American actress Mia Farrow, fresh from her role in Rosemary’s Baby (to be released in June of that year). The Beatles became close with Farrow and her younger sister Prudence, for whom John Lennon wrote the song “Dear Prudence.”
Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s satanic thriller, takes place at the Dakota apartment building in New York City (renamed the Bramford for the film), where Lennon lived from 1973 to 1980. The 1880s building has an almost demonic aura, with dark, Gothic-style entranceways, menacing gargoyles and flickering lanterns. Two acts of violence in the film take place at or near the building’s south entrance: A young woman, bewitched into committing suicide, falls to her death; and Adrian Marcato, a high-ranking occultist, is said to have been overtaken by a mob outside the building and nearly killed. On December 8, 1980, the building’s south entranceway became an actual murder scene when Lennon, upon returning home from a recording session, was shot and killed there by a deranged man.
In December 1980 Mark David Chapman flew from Hawaii to New York City with a .38 pistol in his luggage and the intent to kill former Beatle John Lennon. Nine years earlier, at 16, Chapman had become a born-again Christian—around the time that Lennon’s anti-religion songs “God” (1970) and “Imagine” (1971) were released. Some mark this as the period when Chapman first felt antagonism toward Lennon. Others say it came in the mid-1970s, when Lennon withdrew from the spotlight, essentially “abandoning” his fans. Still others say Chapman never hated the singer at all.
Interviews indicate that Chapman hated instead what Lennon represented to him: the celebrity embodiment of the “phonies” raged against by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Chapman’s favorite novel, The Catcher in the Rye. On December 8, Chapman purchased a fresh copy of Catcher and posted himself in front of Lennon’s apartment building, where fans often waited to get autographs. Around five p.m., Lennon emerged, signed Chapman’s outstretched copy of Double Fantasy, the 1980 album Lennon made with his wife, Yoko Ono, and departed. Approximately five hours later, as Lennon was passing back under the building’s entranceway, Chapman fired four shots into his back and killed him.
Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer, was consumed by The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel about teenage angst and alienation. He so identified with the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, that he believed himself to be Holden incarnate, sent to destroy the world’s “phonies.” But there was more beneath Chapman’s exterior than a lonely teenage boy. According to Chapman, if the large part of him was Holden, then “the small part of me must be the devil.”
To muster the courage to kill Lennon, Chapman underwent a ritualized transformation process: “Alone in my apartment…I would strip naked and put on Beatles records and pray to Satan to give me the strength. I prayed for demons to enter my body to give me the power to kill.”
These “demons” remained long after Lennon’s murder. Several years into his 20-years-to-life sentence, while at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Chapman (whose lawyers had futilely attempted an insanity defense for him) became so subjugated by the demons that he requested an exorcism. A priest was brought to Attica to perform the ritual (depicted in the 2006 film The Killing of John Lennon). Afterward, Chapman said he felt about seven demons lighter.