Hey, remember when Satanists nearly took over the US back in the 80s? I sure do.
If you’ve ever read Charles Mackay’s seminal work on societal mania, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, you know mankind is prone to fads and hysteria, and sometimes you wonder what it was like to live during the events he outlines, including Crusades, witch hunts, animal magnetism crazes. Wonder no more (I find myself living through one right now, but let’s leave politics out of it for the moment), because even if you weren’t around during the 80s, you still feel the echoes of this strange, strange fixation.
FAB Press has released the Second Edition of Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, a heavily illustrated book edited by Kier-La Jannisse and Paul Corupe. It has twenty chapters by twenty-one contributors, each examining a facet of that phenomenon; we’re not talking facile remembrances, either, these are well-researched articles, frequently with lengthy bibliographies.
Satanic Panic kicks off with an examination of the book that almost inarguably started the Panic, Michelle Remembers, which introduced the world at large to – and began the destruction of – Recovered Memory Therapy. Michelle Smith, under hypnosis, began recalling repressed “memories” of what would soon be known as Satanic Ritual Abuse when she was a child in the 1950s. I’ve never cared to track down this long-debunked book, but it is reported to have a pulp-novel ghoulishness in its descriptions of the horrors supposedly visited upon the young girl: murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, baby crucifixion. My favorite remains that at one point, a tail and horns were surgically attached to her body, which is something you’d suspect a routine medical examination could prove or disprove.
From this one case comes an extraordinary cottage industry that would tell America it was under attack by an astoundingly well-organized and powerful Satanic Underground. Numerous people began making serious coin by not only telling their disgusting and horrifying tales of debauchment while in the ranks of these nefarious ne’er-do-wells, but also training police departments about the modus operandi of these cults. Training films on the subject are still circulated on YouTube, mainly for the lulz.
Satanic Panic examines the subjects you’d expect, like backmasking in heavy metal music, that training ground for demonology – Dungeons & Dragons (and Jack Chick’s Christian comic industry going all-in on RPG’s dangers), and that hotbed of Satanic thought, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Horror movies, of course, like Evilspeak and 976-EVIL, which also spoke to misgivings about the new technologies ruining our lives. Let’s not even get into MTV.
But the search for knowledge goes to strange places, too. There’s a chapter on Playboy Press’ mass paperbacks (which I had totally forgotten about), which included a popular series by Russ Martin whose major underpinning was “The Organization”, a far-reaching network of devil worshippers which enslaved women to birth babies for sacrifice. This tasteless bit of grand guignol plotting would be reported as fact in a 1988 book, Satan’s Underground.
America doesn’t get to hog all the blame either. The book has chapters on the spread of the Panic to Quebec, Britain and Australia. A special scathing chapter is reserved for Geraldo Rivera, in this period on the cusp between “controversial” investigative journalist and national embarrassment. His two-hour TV special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground (hm, that title sounds familiar) earned him a cover of Newsweek entitled Trash TV.
The book maintains a rough timeline of 1980 through 1990, when the infamous McMartin Pre-School trial served to wind down the hysteria somewhat, and makes a fairly good case for Joe Dante’s underrated movie The ‘Burbs providing a catharsis through comedy, lancing the nation’s moral boil with satire.
That’s also indicative of the book’s welcome willingness to point out a bit of levity here and there, because the history of this thing is actually pretty brutal: there are a lot of lives absolutely destroyed by the most vicious – and often in hindsight ludicrous – of accusations. The Afterword by John Schooley points out a case where people convicted on a bad diagnosis and testimony from children coached by unscrupulous police and therapists were finally acquitted – after 23 years in prison, in 2015.
This is a heavy read, not only in page count, but in the weight it puts on your soul. You have to pause after every chapter, just to give yourself time to process what you’ve just uncovered. This was a period I lived through; there is enough that is familiar that it allows me to think, “Oh, yes, I remember this”, but there is so much more that makes me follow that up with, “Oh hell, I had no idea it got that bad.”