Kier-La Janisse is the author of the excellent House of Psychotic Women, a Fantastic Fest programmer, the Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical Publications and the founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and she has a new book out called Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. And we're excited to debut the intro of the book right here!
INTRODUCTION: COULD IT BE...SATAN?
BY KIER-LA JANISSE
I was eight years old when the hysteria-inducing “memoir” Michelle Remembers was published in 1980, but the Satanic Panic first touched my life by way of an uncle who moonlit as a supplements writer for Dungeons & Dragons—which we were warned to never speak about in mixed company— and my mother’s refusal to buy the gel toothpaste that beckoned me from a torrent of rotating commercials promising “a new Crest flavor children will love!” Our household brand, Colgate, had not yet caught onto the gel market, but mom was steadfast in her decision. Without a hint of irony, she explained that we could not buy Crest because it was a Procter & Gamble product, and “they worship the Devil.” As proof of this, she cited the company’s logo, which supposedly boasted a barely-veiled 666.
It would be years before I understood that the Procter & Gamble logo scandal was a real thing and not just an excuse my mother made up to avoid driving over the U.S. border to Detroit to buy me my stupid toothpaste. But I experienced firsthand the furor surrounding heavy metal as the ‘80s wore on, and the fear that covert Satanic machinations were at work everywhere around us—in our cartoons, commercials, music, movies and, most tragically of all, our daycares. It was a time of Ricky Kasso, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and, later, Saturday Night Live’s The Church Lady. The media exploded with headlines and news specials about the supposed Satanic threat, and ambitious journalists tripped over themselves to attach a Satanic mandate to every societal transgression. My mother took these admonitions to heart, but she was also an ABC Movie of the Week addict, and lurid accounts like The Satan Seller (1973) and Michelle Remembers sat on her shelf alongside books like A Stranger is Watching (1977) and Flowers in the Attic (1979). She loved the stuff. She had her own baggage, eating up any sordid story about fantastical forms of victimization—and that place where pulp horror met religion was the most salacious of all.
But she wasn’t alone; this intersection of dogma and dread had been a pop-cultural preoccupation for some time before the particular anxieties of the 1980s manifested. The Satanic Panic did not exist in a vacuum—its seeds were sown as far back as the late 1960s and percolated through the next decade before reaching a fever pitch in the Reagan era.
In the early 1970s, with the Vietnam War in full swing amidst a rising tide of dissent and the bloodbaths at Altamont and Cielo drive officially bringing a disillusioned end to the Age of Aquarius, the Baby Boomers looked to unconventional corners of religious experience for answers. Alternative religions flourished, from the Jesus People movement and more radical end-times counterparts to neo-paganism, suburban witchcraft and, of course, Satanism.
In the wake of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request (both 1967) and the scores of celebrities visibly aligning themselves with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan (which had been founded a year earlier), there was a marked societal curiosity and acceptance of occultism, even among the most square pop-cultural daytrippers. Between 1969 and 1972, Time magazine ran a pair of cover stories on “The Occult Revival,” accompanied by similar articles in Harper’s Bazaar, McCall’s, Esquire, Look, LIFE and Ebony magazines, followed by a proliferation of niche occult-based periodicals and paperbacks. Suburban witches were a sexy fad, as attested to by the release of LPs by Louise “The Official Witch of L.A” Huebner (Seduction Through Witchcraft, 1969) and Barbara the Grey Witch (Self-titled, 1970), as well as a range of documentaries, from Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970) and the BBC’s The Power of the Witch (1971) to mondo films like Witchcraft ’70 (1970) and Australia After Dark (1975). In the October 15, 1971 issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Professor Marcello Truzzi—while sympathetic to the endeavors of many alternative religions, including Satanism—summed up the mainstream appeal of the occult rather succinctly: “You get asked to parties.”
Likewise, occult horror cinema found its most rich and prolific period in the 1970s, with acknowledged classics like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1973) paving the way for a slew of inspired B-pictures such as Simon, King of the Witches (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), The Devil’s Rain and Race with the Devil (both 1975). Most notably there emerged a strand of horror focused on pedophobia—from the overtly supernatural (I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975), Shock (1977)) to the sociopathic (A Little Game (1971), Devil Times Five (1974))—that reflected a backlash, conscious or otherwise, against the strides of second wave feminism. The relationship between working women and their children would become a major focal point of the Satanic Panic in the next decade.
All this is to say that, by the time the 1980s rolled around, people had already been groomed to believe that there could be occultists living next door. And after a decade that saw the rise of “latchkey kids” who were left to their own devices while often-absent parents sought to work out their own issues through a variety of spiritual and experimental therapeutic methods, concern turned again to the children. While the publication of Michelle Remembers in 1980 spawned renewed international dialogue about horrific child abuse behind closed doors, the double-whammy of the highly-publicized disappearance of Adam Walsh in 1981 (serial killer Ottis Toole later confessed to his murder) and the initial allegations of the famed McMartin preschool trial in 1983 effectively put an end to the carefree days of Gen-X kids. No more walking home from school alone. No more playing outside until the streetlights came on. No more Jarts.
The result of this reinvigorated watchdogging was a generation of children who increasingly felt the need to operate in secret. 1970s kids who had been taught to problem-solve independently and to speak openly to their parents through a decade Above: Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey graces the cover of Look Magazine, August 1971. 18 19 of countercultural children’s programming (from Sesame Street and Zoom to Willie Survive and Kids Are People Too) suddenly faced renewed strictness and anxiety at home. While intergenerational disconnection was certainly nothing new, a chasm opened up between ‘80s parents and their kids—and it wasn’t helped by efforts to target youth culture as inherently vulnerable to a globally-organized Satanic threat.
Many of the essays in this book recount tales of apathetic or lost teens turning to heavy music, extreme movies and role-playing games as a means of escaping a confusing and overwhelming world. For my own part, this included playing with guns, flirting with Nazi iconography and an obsession with serial killers, none of which were considered acceptable pastimes by the various social groups I tried in vain to latch onto. This combination of aimlessness and morbidity that characterized many teens of the era was alarming to parents because they felt it opened up their kids to dark compulsions and temptations. But for parents unable to think of solutions or to accept accountability, a scapegoat as tangible as the Devil proved too tempting in itself.
Even though the media freely bandied around the name of Anton LaVey as the personification of the dark force that had ensnared children and teenagers worldwide, these exaggerated fears had virtually nothing to do with the actual Church of Satan and its adherents as much as a fictional brand of Satanism cooked up by fraudulent “experts.” Ironically, if there had been a Satanic conspiracy, every parent and well-meaning preacher in North America would have been playing right into it. They created a ridiculous fervor, provoking an inevitable backlash that denounced the entire Panic as the decade came to a close. And both this hysteria and the response had their respective casualties.
Keeping this in mind, we approached this book from a fairly neutral standpoint, allowing our authors to express their own opinions but being mindful of the lives that were harmed the first time around and being cautious not to encourage history to repeat itself. It would be a mistake to assume that any one exposed fraud invalidates all claims of abuse that came to light during the Satanic Panic. If I learned anything from co-editing this book it’s that there are cover-ups, cock-ups and conspiracies—but often they’re not where you’re looking for them.
- Kier-La Janisse, May 2015
Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s is currently in the final days of an IndieGoGo campaign, and the campaign offers some amazing perks. I've currently contributed toward a perk that includes the book, a limited edition fake evangelical tract by Rick Trembles and a replica of an original evangelical tee from the era.