A few years ago Bryan Alexander at Infocult blogged about a horror entrepreneur who, for a fee, would take on the guise of a terrifying clown and stalk a person of a client’s choosing over the course of days, culminating with a dreadful arm’s length meeting and a cake in the face. It was both the inversion and evolution of the haunted house, the dark ride, and the freak show. Whereas those experiences allow the ticket buyer to enter and then leave a dark underworld, the clown stalker slips into the world of his subject, the real world from which there is no exit. It is a deeper immersion into terror.
It’s a 2,000-word creepypasta, however, compared to Satanic Panic. The bulb-nosed menace stalks his quarry for a week or so, alone, creating a realtime play for a cast of perhaps a couple dozen. Satanic Panic, on the other hand, alleged a global network of robed, chanting Devil-worshippers with adherents in every town – your town – the imminent threat of which was shouted from televisions, pulpits, newspapers, magazines, and person-to-person. They were everywhere. They were after children. And it went on for a decade.
None of it was real, but that didn’t matter once enough people believed it.
SATANIC PANIC WAS A MORAL PANIC, not a literal one, that gripped the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Moral panics are half-calorie versions of mass hysterias. Large numbers of people observe something that disturbs them, maybe social changes or the emergence of some new activity or behavior, and connect that phenomenon with another group of people who are outsiders of some sort. They assign outsized importance to those phenomena, determining that society will suffer horrible consequences if something isn’t done. The outsiders are blamed for the phenomena, and thus become a “folk devil” – a real or imagined group whose real or imagined beliefs and behaviors are at the heart of the perceived threat. The basic building blocks are an initial reason to be pissed off or scared, an inflated sense of the situation’s gravity, a scapegoat, and some mistaken beliefs. But it stops short of Salem-style rolling on the floor, hallucinating, and fainting.
Satanic Panic in particular was the 10-year bender that resulted from what has to be one of the stiffest bullshit cocktails men have ever created, from ingredients potent and numerous, that started to coalesce in the 1960s. These were anxieties that had been around for a while, but they were stirred into this new mix, wittingly and unwittingly, by a procession of loonies, hucksters, and showmen.
The old pulque you might detect was fermented by a certain diminutive Cincinnatian who meandered out to sunny California. I don’t mean Doris Day. Satanic Panic wasn’t the first to cast youth as deviants (nor as victims, which it also did), but in that era of protest and revolt the time was ripe for a panic in which young adults would be villains. Into this moment stepped No Name Maddox.
Satanic Panic never would have gotten off the ground without the reactionary backlash of the 1970s, which itself wouldn’t have soared had the idealism of the 60s not devolved into something dark, ugly, and violent. Charles Manson drove a dagger into the image of the flower child in a way that even Donald DeFreeze or the Weather Underground could not rival. A career criminal, Manson cloaked his hideousness in free love, personal liberation, acid, and bad folk music. He was a pimp, an abuser, a racist, and finally a murderer. But boy did he look and act the part of a hippie. And he put into the collective consciousness the idea that your straight-A, college bound, respectful teenage son or daughter could be turned against their adoring mother and father and led astray into drugs, sex, and criminality by a longhair svengali with a bead necklace and an acoustic guitar. A Pied Piper who would so brainwash your child that they would even kill for him, without remorse. Given his role in setting the stage, it was entirely appropriate that he landed on Geraldo Rivera’s prime time devil worship expose in 1988.
Joining Chuck and Gerry for that evening in the spotlight were Zeena LaVey and Michael Aquino, daughter and protege, respectively, of another denizen of the fringe of the 1960s counterculture. Anton Szandor LaVey’s contribution to the world was the Church of Satan, which he founded in 1966 in San Francisco, perhaps because Scientology hadn’t taken off yet and Thelema was really fucking passe. LaVey’s church was a bit of a media sensation back in the day, which was probably the point. He went around performing Satanic weddings, funerals, and baptisms. This included Zeena’s baptism, during which he wore a hokey devil costume that Spirit Halloween would refuse to stock today for looking too tame. In addition to the garb, the ceremonies, and the mere fact that there was an actual Church of Satan with a street address and everything, LaVey also published books like The Satanic Bible, The Satanic Rituals, and Satan Speaks!, and released albums like The Satanic Mass. If you were of a mind to look for God’s earthly opponents in all their horned and hooded nefariousness, Anton LaVey was your man. He was “proof” that the Devil had human agents in the real world, working to undermine good.
Where some people saw a decade of hard fought victories for democracy, equality, and basic human rights, other people saw only the long hair, LSD, and S-E-X. The way things looked by 1971, maybe that’s understandable, or at least predictable. The backlash started during the 60s (or arguably even earlier) but achieved ascendancy over the collapsed yippie counterculture in the following decade. Sometimes I’ve wondered how strongly the reactionaries of the 1960s and ’70s really believed in some of their positions, like continuing the Vietnam War or preserving limits on the availability of birth control pills. My suspicion is it was just social revanchism. There had been a series of struggles that the right mostly lost, leaving them resentful and anxious. Then a moment arrived – four dead at Altamont, Manson with his young-love death cult, the SLA robbing banks, the Beatles broken up, political heroes of the left assassinated, cultural heroes dying of overdoses – “where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” It was an opportunity to counterattack.
There was no undoing many of the changes, and no holding back some that were in motion. But the reactionaries could and did try to return young people to a state of Pat Boone wholesomeness, railing against the licentiousness of popular music and the entertainment industry. Televangelism boomed as the 80s began, with at least a half dozen celebrity mega-preachers jockeying to be the leader of the new religious right. Whether they were in it because they really believed in it, or because they craved the fame, or because they were getting rich, their stock and trade seemed to be pointing to signs of moral decline and saying, “See! See Satan’s growing power in America!” Jimmy Swaggart put out albums of this stuff. Can you imagine being invited to a friend’s house as a teenager and having a recorded Jimmy Swaggart sermon sprung on you?
The values voters mobilized. They were an army.
THIS IS A TON OF BACKSTORY. There’s just one or two more things to say though about Old Scratch’s purported earthly lieutenants and the state of play circa 1980. In 1956 a guy named Screamin’ Jay Hawkins popped out of a coffin with a bone through his nose and had himself a minor hit with “I Put a Spell on You.” Hawkins was the first shock rocker, the first guy to marry Grand Guignol theatricality with rock ‘n’ roll. Within about 15 years – and let’s pause to be amazed at how much rock changed and branched out between “Heartbreak Hotel” and “You Never Give Me Your Money” – you had the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath. KISS followed not long after. Cooper’s music and performances were a pan-horrific melange, taking a lot of inspiration from horror movies. Sabbath was overtly Occult-oriented, which Ozzy Osbourne doubled down on when he split and went solo in 1980. KISS on the other hand … If Gene Simmons had chosen anything other than “The Demon” as his character, they would have just been Sweet with more makeup, more glitter, and a shitload of pyrotechnics. But you take an otherwise typically-attired glam band and add a guy with demon boots and flame makeup, and the rest as they say is Knights in Satan’s Service. There was AC/DC too, with their album Highway to Hell – and it’s then-infamous cover – released in summer 1979. Bon Scott (not horned and tailed, that’s Angus Young) died a short time later, in early 1980. COINCIDENCE OR THE DEVIL COLLECTING HIS SOUL?
Lastly, there was the devil kid subgenre of horror movies. The motif of a child who is wicked or commits a murder, like in The Bad Seed, or of a malevolent child with supernatural powers, like in Village of the Damned, was old. The motif of a Satanic child was novel in film when Rosemary’s Baby premiered in 1968. Novel and also terrifying. It was excelled by The Exorcist five years later, a film that stoked fear and controversy like no other before or since. Damien Thorne followed in The Omen in 1976.
So at the dawn of the 1980s you had a raging Christian fundamentalist backlash to the relaxing of sexual, gender, artistic, and other cultural norms in the 1960s; the firmly implanted idea that a pseudo-spiritual Pied Piper could turn youth away from parents, propriety, and Providence; growing ranks of hellfire-tinged shock rockers; a public that had been fed a steady diet of movies in which darling children are revealed to be devils in disguise; and an actual Church of Satan.
So much powder, just looking for a spark.
One of the key ethical rules of psychiatry is, “Don’t fuck your patients.” Dr. Lawrence Pazder would seem to have read Tender is the Night and concluded that Dick Diver’s real problem wasn’t that he had married an unstable patient with a history of sexual abuse, but that he didn’t also encourage her delusions and then co-author a lurid bestseller about them.
Pazder and his patient with benefits Michelle Smith wrote Michelle Remembers, a madcap mishmash of horror movie tropes about cults and devil worship that the two believed were Smith’s recovered memories, brought back to her conscious mind under hypnosis. You see nobody knew in 1980 that hypnotic regression and recovered memories were bullshit; on the contrary, it was new and very in vogue. (On a related note: Never take the polygraph.)
Smith recounted falling into the clutches of a Satanic cult who kept her captive for a year when she was five years old and living in Victoria, British Columbia. The Satanists kept her in a cage when they weren’t forcing her to participate in their black masses, during which she was tortured, molested, and smeared with the blood and body parts of sacrificed infants. Some of these rituals took place indoors, and some at an unsecluded cemetery, where strangely no one from the surrounding homes ever investigated the terrified screams of a brutalized child. Indoors or out though, the cult was large despite being a total secret. Smith’s ordeal ended amidst an 81-day devil-worship-til-you-drop blaspheme-a-thon when Jesus, Mary, and St. Michael charged to her rescue, healed her heavily scarred body, and made her forget her traumatizing experiences.
It wasn’t long before people all over were remembering horrors inflicted upon them by clandestine Satanic cults. Many of them were children under encouragement from parents, attorneys, police, and quack therapists, making accusations against daycare centers. The grand-daddy of them all was the the McMartin Preschool Trial. Fittingly perhaps, it began with a series of bowel movements – the most historically significant poos that didn’t actually kill anyone.
The painful loaves in question were pinched in 1983 by the son of one Judy Johnson, who concluded the discomfort resulted from her estranged husband, Ray Buckey, having raped the boy during his stays at a daycare center that was owned by Buckey’s family, the McMartins. Johnson, not her young son, also at this time alleged that Buckey could fly and the daycare staff liked sex with animals. And of all the questions that occur to one pondering this case, the first is, why do you leave your kid at your estranged in-laws’ daycare center if you believe they’re bestiality freaks and your husband is a flying rapist?
The police decided the thing to do was write up a form letter and mail it to the parents of children who had been to the daycare, requesting they ask their kids if they had witnessed anyone at McMartin having oral or anal sex, touching kids’ bad touch areas, or taking pictures of naked kids. A nice, reassuring form letter to send to a couple hundred moms and dads.
So parents, police, and therapists started questioning the kids, and the awful truth came out: The McMartin family were Satanists who forced children to participate in orgies at car washes, transported them in hot-air balloons, exposed them to witches, and flushed them down toilets so they could sexually abuse them in an underground chamber – and Chuck Norris was in on the whole thing. By the time the accused were finally acquitted in 1990 it had become the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.
The modern reader might ask how that could be; are such allegations not transparently bonkers? In the Satanic Panic milieu it took years for people to figure that out. By the mid-1980s belief in the existence of a secret worldwide network of cults that was abducting, abusing, and sacrificing children had taken hold. As I remember it, there were people who believed it hook, line, and sinker, and there were people who weren’t sure but were plenty freaked out. Naysayers were few. There was even an organization, Believe the Children, dedicated to discouraging anyone form exercising rational thought in the face of a child’s account of being flushed down a toilet into a secret underground Devil room. The contradiction of widespread and frequent human sacrifice not resulting in the country being emptied out of children apparently escaped most everyone.
It must have been a bizarre time to be a cop. On one hand, the allegations defied reason. On the other, their calling is to protect people, particularly the vulnerable. I understand why police couldn’t ignore it. There was an explosion in the reporting of “occult crimes,” which were any violation of the law that had any conceivable association with all this Devil stuff. Someone spray painted a pentagram on the underpass? A bored teenage headbanger, maybe? No. Worldwide Satanic cult network.
I’m sure not every policeman, deputy, and trooper believed this stuff. But for those who did, there were “occult crimes seminars,” which trained detectives to spot the Satanists’ fingerprints on crimes in their communities. I imagine they were a lot like the narcotics officers’ convention Duke and Gonzo infiltrated in Fear and Loathing. “Know Your Satan Fiend.” Satanic Ritual Abuse, daycare abuse allegations, and occult crimes became like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s – they were in every part of the country and every damn town had at least one of the three.
You didn’t have to get sacrificed to the devil or abused by a cult to feel Satan’s grip though.
For a generation that listened to so many songs about revolution and taking acid, the Baby Boomers sure as hell shat a brick when their kids were old enough to buy albums. Bizarrely, a lot of it fell on Twisted Sister. I guess “We’re not gonna take it, no, we ain’t gonna take it,” represents a dangerous radicalization of youth if you’ve conveniently forgotten that 15 years earlier you were grooving to “Volunteers” and “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” Ozzy Osbourne I can understand. He had skulls and upside down crosses on his album art, his previous group was called “Black Sabbath,” he bit the heads off a bat and a dove. I get it. It’s bullshit, he was just another shock rocker, but I understand why he became a lightning rod for concerned parents media-trained to see devil worshipers behind every tree.
Judas Priest perhaps got the worst of it. In addition to hypnotic regression, people at the time also still believed in the efficacy of subliminal messages. (On a related note: Don’t. Take. The fucking. Polygraph. Ever.) In 1985 two of their fans, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, while smoking weed and getting drunk, thought they heard repeated encouragements to “do it, do it” while listening to the JP track “Better By You, Better Than Me.” So they decamped to a local playground to “do it,” which they construed to mean suicide by shotgun. Belknap went first and managed the deed, but Vance succeeded only in blowing off some of the lower part of his face. Forgetting the fact that no one hauled the Fabs into court when Charlie Manson was revealed to believe the entire White Album was a series of coded exhortations to start an apocalyptic race war, Judas Priest was actually put on trial for allegedly placing subliminal messages in the song intended to incite listeners to kill themselves.
Rock albums were not the only haunted media of the day. Just as famously, you could dice with the Devil too. Dungeons & Dragons, which you always thought was just another odd pastime for neckbeardy teenage fantasy fic obsessives, was revealed by the evangelicals to be a recruiting tool for Satanism. The kernel of truth in this was some fairly overt occult references in early editions of some AD&D sourcebooks, and the presence of magic-users and spellcasting in the game. It’s not much, but the hardline evangelicals of the 1980s were adept fabulists. They produced a born-again former Satanist who recounted being consulted by the creators of Dungeons & Dragons about the authenticity of rituals and incantations they wanted to include in their sourcebooks. The creators, they said, wanted the rituals and incantations to be as true to life as possible. Even if someone played (A)D&D with no intent to worship the Devil, the evangelicals argued, by “performing” the in-game blasphemies they could unwittingly summon a demon or cast a spell. “If you play at shooting your friend in the head with what you think is an unloaded pistol and don’t know a shell is in the chamber, is your friend any less dead because you were playing?” he asked.
I suppose no one really bothered to find out that D&D doesn’t contain anything approaching a ceremony or incantation, unless you count “roll one d20 and make a successful save against ‘turn to stone.'” Not one to be left out of religion-oriented fear-mongering, Jack Chick created a lovely tract about D&D. In his imaginings, the dungeon master of a small D&D group is a witch who uses the game to coach teens in spellcasting, and the players are so attached to their characters that they commit suicide if one of them dies in-game.
On top of that there was the steam tunnels incident. A very bright young man, James Dallas Egbert III, started college at 16 and disappeared from Michigan State University in 1979. His family hired a PI to find him, who heard reports that Egbert was a D&D fan and that some students played a live action version of the game in the steam tunnels below the university. (This was way before anyone ever heard of LARP.) The detective developed the theory that Egbert was injured during one of these subterranean game sessions. This was reported in the press, and as the news spread by word of mouth the tale morphed into one in which Egbert, crazed by repeated bouts of mind-altering live-action D&D, dissociated completely, believed he was his player-character, and wandered around the tunnels lost until he starved to death. This became pretty much the plot of novel and then the movie Mazes & Monsters, the latter of which starred a very young Tom Hanks. By the time I was in second grade, eight years after the actual incident, Egbert (who was never named in corrupted re-tellings of his disappearence) was a 12-year-old genius who went crazy, thought he was his character, hunted and killed all his fellow players with an axe, and then hid in the tunnels until he starved. In reality the poor kid went into the tunnels to kill himself – he left a suicide note – by intentional overdose but left campus for Louisiana when he survived the attempt. (He eventually committed suicide in 1984.)
IF YOU WERE AN AMERICAN YOUTH IN THE 1980s I guess you could say you fell into one of three categories vis-a-vis the worldwide Satanic network. If you were young enough, you could be molested, tortured, and sacrificed by the Satanists. If you were too old for that, you could be exhorted to commit suicide by subliminal messaging. And if that wasn’t your cup of damnation, you could be seduced into actually joining the Devil’s ranks.
The possibility that it was all bullshit didn’t gain traction until the end of the decade. Until then, all this stuff was in the background of the adult world constantly, and for a kid it was impossible not to hear it. I heard more than most – and this is key to my personal experiences of Satanic Panic – because my dad insisted on watching the news from 5:30 to 7:00 every evening. By the time I was in fourth grade I was worried that Satanists were lurking near my home and that I was also the subject of an unrelated Ayatollah Khomeini death plot. But other kids picked up on it too – the Devil stuff, not the Ayatollah stuff. The kids I went to school with traded these stories of human sacrifice, backmasking, and black masses in crumbling cemeteries like they were scenes from the scary movies we weren’t supposed to watch.
For a while the heavy stuff was at least happening at a distance from my hometown. That changed in 1987.