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'Satanic Panic!' A Brief History Of How And Why The Whole Thing Started

Culture | October 22, 2019

A detail of the cover art of Iron Maiden's 'The Number of the Beast' (1982) by Derek Riggs. Source:

The "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s is one of those episodes of mass hysteria that leaves you wondering: How did this happen? Because even after it's explained, the Satanic Panic still doesn't make any damn sense.

We like to think that as a society we can’t be swayed to mania. That we have our own thoughts and beliefs that can’t be altered by a story or an over saturation of erroneous and intriguing facts. Sure, there was the Red Scare, when McCarthyism took hold across the country and turned every neighbor into a secret communist. There was also the Salem witch trials, but that happened so long ago that it barely registers as something that Americans would do in the 20th century, right?

One of the most well known and prolonged mass hysterias of the 20th century gripped the U.S. in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The “Satanic Panic” was a troubling melange of false allegations of ritual abuse, the insistence by fundamentalist Christians that devil worshippers and satanists were implanted in the entertainment industry, and that playing a board game could turn your children into sex-hungry, cannabilistic demon lovers.

In spite of the economic prosperity of the Reagan Era, Americans were terrified of their families falling apart. The idea that the nuclear family could dissipate at any moment was a major fear across the country, but rather than focus on the actual cause of this changing way of life, people turned to the supernatural. Everywhere people looked in the 1980s they saw the Devil.

 The Rise Of Satanism in America

source: reddit

The Satanic Panic of the 1980s didn’t just happen one day, there were a series of sensational headlines, ritual murders, and strange holdovers from the hippie days that lit the fuse of this demonic craze. The Manson murders in 1969 firmly planted the idea of ritualistic murder in the minds of everyday Americans. It doesn’t matter that Manson was out of his mind, hopped up on goof balls, and not a Satanist, the idea was there.

It’s likely that a publishing sensation of the same year acted as connective tissue between the Manson murders and Satanism. The Satanic Bible, cobbled together by Anton LaVey from various sources (Aleister Crowley, Ayn Rand, etc.) served as the main teaching tool of the Church of Satan. While LaVay didn’t take the Satan in his personal brand of Satanism all that seriously, the rest of the world did. To fundamentalist Christians and frightened parents everywhere, LaVey may as well have been the Devil himself. 

The slayings committed by Manson and the carnival inspired Satanism of LaVey were propped up by a series of fictional works that followed throughout the 1970s - although they were treated like gospel. William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of The Exorcist did as much to convince middle America that the Devil was real as LaVey, and it gave a face to teenage demonic possession. Where cinephiles and horror fans found a shared interest, those in fear for their soul saw a warning sight. In 1972 the fabricated memoir, Satan Seller, by Mike Warnke was released; in it the Evangelical comedian claimed that he was once a high priest in the Church of Satan and that he carried out ritualistic murder while taking part in orgies and casting magic spells.

Warnke was debunked by the Christian publication Cornerstone in the early ‘90s, but after 20 years his fiction had become fact to many Christians who worried that their children were being swayed by Satan. His false narrative created a template in the minds of Christians and concerned citizens for the innerworkings of Satanism. 

Dungeons And Dragons Inspires Panic And Comes Out On Top

source: pinterest

By 1979 the American people were primed and ready for a full blown panic over the occult, and when James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University on August 15, 1979, it was believed that his mind was so warped by Dungeons & Dragons that he suffered a psychotic break and took off to the steam tunnels beneath the school to enact a game that lasted the rest of his life. Detective William Dear was brought in to work the case and found Egbert beneath the school, he later summed up his initial thoughts on the disappearance in the book The Dungeon Master from 1984.

Dear initially believed that Egbert entered the tunnels beneath his school to take part in a personal live action role play, but he’s since stated that Egbert was depressed after being sent to college at the age of 15 and that he entered the tunnels in order to commit suicide. D&D had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance and additional accomplished suicide attempt, but that didn’t stop fundamentalist Christians from glomming onto the idea that the game contained instructions for carrying out occult rituals. Dungeons & Dragons was referred to as “the most effective introduction to the occult in history,” and within a year of Egbert’s initial disappearance sales for the game quadrupled. 

Christians Raised Hell Over Heavy Metal

source: pinterest

ELO, Styx, The Eagles, and Judas Priest, what do these bands have in common? According to evangelical Christians each artist used backmasking in order to place subliminal messages in their music to turn fans into dyed in the wool Satanists. Basically, evangelicals believed that artists from across the rock spectrum were placing secret messages in reverse on their albums. In order to decipher their meanings all one had to do was play a record backwards. For instance, light rockers Cheap Trick supposedly included the phrase “Satan holds the keys to the lock” in their song “Gonna Raise Hell.”

The backmasking controversy of the Satanic Panic reached its climx in 1990 when Judas Priest were taken to court after it was claimed that they’d driven two fans to suicide through the song “Better by You, Better Than Me.” The accusation claimed that they injected the subliminal message “do it” in the song, which was meant to push their fans to a suicide solution. Judas Priest were exonerated, but heavy metal remained a lightning rod for controversy and a clear sign that anyone listening to anything heavier than Burl Ives was in service to the beast. Peter Bebergal, author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll told io9

[The police] had this whole thing about how the teenagers were into the occult. But in the court documents, they would always make note that they listened to heavy metal. That was a key point. The music that they listened to, it was believed, would make them more susceptible to whatever Satanic conspiracy. It was a way of noting that the kids were troubled.

A Vast Network Of Satanists Was Traced To The Day Care Centers Of America

source: tumblr

While games like Dungeons and Dragons and music by Judas Priest were seen as gateways to Satanism, in the 1980s people across the country were incensed with the idea that a system of Satanic ritual abuse was occurring throughout the Daycare centers of America. At the time there was a kind of passive aggressive backlash against day care from the Christian church. These places were seen as a mitigating factor in the dissolution of the nuclear family. They allowed women to enter the workforce full steam ahead; suddenly strangers were raising our children.

The tide turned against the day care system in 1983 when a parent accused staff members at the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach, California, of abusing their child. An investigation was put underway by local police officers with zero training in handling children or abuse victims, and they brought in an unlicensed psychotherapist named Kee MacFarlane. Macfarlane and two unlicensed assistants carried out an investigation that made of use “anatomically correct” dolls, leading questions, and praise for outlandish statements.

In her investigation McFarlane “uncovered” a series of increasingly bizarre and unfounded claims that led to 321 counts of child abuse by 41 children placed on seven staff members of the McMartin pre-school. The children told MacFarlane that the staff members made them sit in a pool of baby eating sharks, that they witnessed the ritual slaughter of a horse, that their teachers could fly, that children were flushed down toilets into an underground location before they were flown around the world in hot air balloons. At one point Chuck Norris, a man who as far has been reported never visited the pre-school, was listed as one of the perpetrators of these crimes.

The trial became one of the most expensive cases in California history, and eventually the unsubstantiated claims against the staff of McMartin were dropped, but that’s just one of the many cases surrounding a daycare that occurred around the country. In the mid ‘80s easily excitable members of law enforcement, therapists, and prosecutors sent more than 20 people to jail with no substantial evidence but with a hefty dose of fear of ritual satanism. By 1990 the McMartin pre school was destroyed and no evidence of underground chambers were found. The lives of several of the people connected to the day care cases across the country were ruined, with many people remaining in prison for crimes that were never corroborated. 

Horror Movies Capitalized On The Zeitgeist

source: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

As bad as things were for those in the child care industry, the horror business was booming in the ‘80s. Rather than shy away from occult content, b-movie filmmakers leaned into the craze and created work that was ripped from the headlines. Films like Rock’n’Roll Nightmare, Black Roses, and Trick or Treat (which featured Ozzy Osbourne as an evangelical preacher) crated a subgenre of heavy metal horror movies that were all based around the themes of the then current Satanic Panic.

Trick Or Treat dealt with a deceased rock star who could be reached via backmasking on a vinyl record, Black Roses saw a wannabe rocker sell his soul to be the best guitarist in the world, and Rock’n’Roll Nightmare is a basically a fever dream that’s all about buff heavy metal icon Jon-Mikl Thor going head to head with Satan. These films aren’t high art based around the themes of conservatism and rebellion, but they’re pretty fun and they show that not everyone took the Satanic Panic all that seriously. 

Satan Was Waiting In The Toy Aisle

source: tumblr

If Satan could invade music, movies, and games, what else could he do? Fundamentalist firebrands looking for a distinct angle on this whole Satan hiding in plain sight thing turned to the toy box and Saturday morning cartoons as a way to continue scaring the easily led. Christian fear mongers started holding up figures from He-Man, Thundercats, and even The Smurfs as agents for the Devil.

They noted that Skeletor was a practitioner of mystical arts, while young boys believed that He-Man was more powerful than Jesus. But what about The Smurfs? According to author Phil Phillips, author of Turmoil in the Toy Box, these little creatures that mean harm to no one were called out for being “blue with black lips,” something that he took as a representation of a corpse. 

The Police Were On High Alert For Satanists

source: youtube

With all of these Satanists running around and committing ritual murders in between playing with their Smurf dolls it was up to the police to stop them. But how do you know what a Satanist looks like? Even though the average devil worshipper is adept at hiding in plain sight, a document called “Identification, Investigation, and Understanding of Ritualistic Criminal Activity,” helped the Chicago police keep an eye out for Satanic activity in the Windy City.

The document provided “insight” into symbolism used by Satanists (everything from pentagrams to standard hiking markers) and even provided the characteristics that one should look for while speaking to a potential Satanist, i.e. intelligence, creativity, and boredom. It’s not clear how often this document was used to catch a “satanist,” or if the police even regarded it as fact, but its existence shows that some members of the local authorities at least believed that our mortal souls were in danger. 

The Acid King Strikes Fear In The Heart Of New Jersey

source: tumblr

The Satanic Panic was an exercise in jumping to conclusions that branded people as Satanists for life, while unintentionally mythologizing crimes while linking them to a broader story. Ricky Kasso had nothing to do with the McMartin pre-school or Judas Priest, but he was a teenager in the ‘80s who liked to take drugs and listen to heavy metal, and his crimes were so violent and hard to comprehend that he was immediately branded as a Satanist and used as proof of the Devil’s grasp around the teens of suburbia.

One night in June 1984, Ricky Kasso and three other boys went into the woods in North Point, Long Island. One of them, Gary Lowers, a 17-year-old boy, was stabbed to death by Kasso and allegedly had his eyes cut out during the attack. The two witnesses to the murder claim that Kasso forced Lowers to say that he loved Satan before killing him, but like the media frenzy following the murder, it’s hard to know what actually happened that night in the woods. Kasso committed suicide on July 7 of that year, and both of the witnesses altered their stories to varying degrees throughout the investigation.

That two teens who were high out of their minds would change their stories is understandable, but the media’s coverage of Kasso’s crime and the police investigation are so fraught with errors and bad information that it’s hard to parse what’s real and what’s imagined. In a Rolling Stone piece about Kasso one person who claimed to know the boy said that Kasso claimed he saw the devil in the form of a tree, while another teen dusthead claimed that Kasso was trying to start a cult. In the weeks and months after the murder, Kasso had entered into the realm of folklore, his real life as inextricable from the myth surrounding him as Wild Bill Hickok's. Most people didn’t care to look further into this teen’s life to understand what went wrong, they simply took his crimes as proof that Satan was on Long Island. 

Recovered Memory Therapy Helps People Remember Their Previous Lives Of Satanic Abuse

source: goodreads

The 1980s was a decade full of hucksters posing as therapists with their own personal brand of analysis that they claimed could help patients remember painful memories that had long been buried. Patients who underwent “recovered memory therapy” discovered horrible things about themselves; that they were involved ritual abuse, satanic orgies, and cannibalism. Fortunately, none of that happened, but the damage was done.

Recovered Memory Therapy first came about in the American conciousness thanks to a now discredited memoir called Michelle Remembers. This bestseller by psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his wife Michelle Smith took audiences through Smith's childhood. According to the book, she "remembered" spending her young life under the thumb of Satanists, where she suffered gruesome sexual abuse. None of the claims in the book have ever been substantiated and it’s been debunked, but that didn’t stop Pazder from pedaling his false narrative throughout the ‘80s while claiming to be an expert on the occult. 

The Devil's In The Details

source: youtube

One discredited book about occult rituals or a single claim about backmasking in rock records isn’t enough to start off an entire panic. But with so many unfortunate incidents and bogus claims happening at the same time it’s not a surprise that fundamentalist hucksters and Evangelical attention-seekers jumped on the Satanic bandwagon to drum up terror across America while making a buck or two in the process. Everyone likes to think of themselves as well meaning and level headed, but all it takes is a push from a news report, or a best selling book to put a seed of fear into the mind of a normal person. Satan isn’t real, but in the 1980s he was waiting around every corner to strike. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Dungeons And Dragons | Evangelical Christianity | Heavy Metal | Remember This?... | Satanic Panic | The Church Of Satan

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.