In our podcast episode "Satanic Panic," Christian and I explore the moral panic that gripped American culture in the 1980s and early 90s. We're talking about a time in which the existence of a vast, underground organization of Satan-worshiping deviants seemed entirely possible. They were out there, in every level of society, and they posed a clear and present danger to our children.
A media-fueled witch hunt ensued, focusing in large part on the alleged widespread sexual ritual abuse (SRA) of children. Not only did this concern the children at large, but it also impacted the children we once were. Therapists worked to unearth buried memories of SRA from the minds of troubled adults. Soon, the doctrine of Satanic Panic had gone international; spreading everywhere that American therapeutic and criminological literature was read.
And then, in the early 90s, the flames of Satanic Panic died away. Criminal investigations that hinged on the existence of Satanic cults fell to pieces. Experts moved into dispel the bogus statistics, accounts and memories that underpinned the entire fiasco. The media changed its tune and the world found other things to fear beside nonexistent cultists in the dark.
Our podcast episode explores the phenomenon in depth, but I thought we'd take a visual journey through the culture of Satanic Panic.
The roots of Satanic Panic go back centuries, springing as much from the culturally resonate concepts of black mass, ritual magic and the witches' sabbat as anything in the 20th century. Here we see an engraving of children initiated into Satanic ritual by Francesco Maria Gouachem taken from the 1626 tome "Compendium Maleficarum" or "The Book of Witches." This vision of supernatural stranger danger stems from an age of intense witchcraft persecution (explored in our episode "Hammer of the Witches"), in which zealous witchcraft theorists tortured and murdered as many as a half-million innocents in the name of weeding out a non-existent threat to society.
Here we see a 1964 newspaper photo from the small Canadian tobacco town of Delhi, Ontario. A painted pentagram scars the floor of a barn loft in the wake of Satanic cult rumors. Already, we see Satanic fears at work, based in large part on misconstrued histories of witchcraft and its fictionalization in sci-fi and horror publications of the day.
Here we see the 1967 "Satanic Baptism" of 3-year-old Zeena Galatea LaVey by her father Anton Szandor LaVey, founder and high priest of the Church of Satan. While LaVey and his followers had virtually nothing in common with the sort of nonexistent cultists popularized by Satanic Panic, the mere existence of such a group helped to substantiate the public's fear. LaVey and his followers eagerly accepted media attention to spread their philosophical message and freak out the squares, thus inadvertently adding kindling for the cultural fires to come.
Here's a still from Roman Polanski's 1968 horror film "Rosemary's Baby" which depicts demonic hands molesting the movie's titular mother. Such a mainstream motion picture, in addition to piles of b-movie and exploitation titles, helped to cement the concept of secret, malevolent cultists in the public mindset.
Here we see convicted murderer Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker" responsible for a string of 13 murders between 1984 and 1985. At his first court appearance, Ramirez raised a pentagram-etched hand and yelled "Hail Satan," punctuating Satanic elements in his crimes while also providing a solid, mainstream example of a Satanic killer of the media to feast upon.
How can we forget the corrupting power of heavy metal? Along with "Dungeons and Dragons," the music of acts such as Ozzy Osbourne frequently came under fire as a corrupter of youth. Listen to this filth, the fear mongers warned, and you're treading down a slippery slope to sacrificial murder and madness. The 1981 photo-shoot, complete with horror styling and an inverted cross, certainly played into those fears and added more fuel to flames of Satanic Panic.
Here's a glimpse into the Satanic Panic of 1990: a feature photo of Atlanta's Faye Yager, who "became a sort of American Robin Hood when she launched an underground network to protect and hide child victims of child abuse or devil worship. On her desk we see a copy of 1988's panic-inducing "Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship in America" and an array of children's therapy-derived illustrations detailing their own Satanic abuse.
As for those therapy-derived illustrations of Satanic abuse, here's one from Yager's desk: an illustration coaxed from a 10-year-old Texan boy about his "devil daddy's" ritual abuses. Here's a telling quote from the original 1990 photo caption: "Getting the children to do the drawings is a painstaking and demanding job requiring skilled observation. The drawings, often very precise, are not, however, used as legal evidence."
Finally, we see one of the more disheartening ramifications of Satanic Panic: the 1993 murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas which subsequently lead to the wrongful imprisonment of three teenagers. The prosecution focused on the alleged ritualistic nature of the killing and 17-year-old suspect Jessie Lloyd Misskelley's statement to police investigators about orgies and animal sacrifice in the woods. Here we glimpse West Memphis' local "Stonehenge," an abandoned cotton-gin-turned-teen-hangout tagged with vaguely Satanic graffiti. The ruins can be seen as something magical in their own rite: a place where teen rebellion, Satanic Panic and real-life horror converge with terrible consequences.