Long before QAnon, in a time preceding MAGA, when the phrase “Satanic Deep State” was but a cough caught in Alex Jones’s throat, there was another moment which mirrored our own. Satanists murdered children in blood sacrifices, and demon-worshipping cabals orchestrated mass infiltrations and takeovers of daycare centers. America itself was under attack by a left-hand threat it had never before encountered. Mothers and fathers, teachers and community leaders—everyone was a part of a coven or cult. Only a select few could identify this threat, God’s anointed warriors waging a (culture) war.
What does the phrase “Satanic Panic” conjure in your mind’s eye? Today, we remember this period, loosely spanning the eighties and nineties, as a moral panic focused on heavy metal bands and Dungeons and Dragons. But our collective memory processes history through the gloss of curation, as a product of media analysis, obscuring the difficult and deleting the inconvenient. The Satanic Panic caused far more damage than we remember. It can offer insights into pathways to power because it was not a hiccup or a momentary lapse in judgment. It was a political project across decades that almost took down as a sitting president.
Between 1980 and 2000 Christian ministries created and distributed hundreds of self-produced videos. These productions imitated popular genres in the then burgeoning home video market, from earnest dramas to light-hearted comedies and true-crime documentaries. That latter group, documentaries, made up only a small portion of the Christian home video market, a few dozen were ever produced, but would result in some of the most memorable titles of the era: Youth Suicide Fantasy (1984), Satanic Cults and Ritual Abuse (1990), and UPC Codes and 666 (1994). Nothing was too risqué. Escaping Satan’s Web (1987), probably the most lurid documentary ever produced by a church, provided convicted killer Sean Sellers an opportunity at navel-gazing as he walked viewers through the double-murder of his mother and stepfather, then blamed his actions on Satanism.
None shone brighter, however, than the videos of a California-based production company named Jeremiah Films. The company’s founder Patrick Matrisciana had a history of turning innocuous secular causes into political currency for the evangelical movement. He co-founded the Christian World Liberation Front,¹ an outreach project devised by the Campus Crusade for Christ to convert hippies and college students in Berkeley, California, and organized evangelical activists through groups like California Christians Active Politically.² (CCAP’s executive board included other apocalyptic cranks like Council for National Policy founder Tim LaHaye and Late, Great Planet Earth and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth author Hal Lindsay.³) Not content to rest on prior accomplishments, Matrisciana jumped into the world of video production, though it soon became clear he would not be content churning out sermons.
Jeremiah Films’ first brush with notoriety came in 1983 when Matrisciana produced a documentary on Mormonism titled The God Makers. Advertised as a look into the history of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the video is more akin to agitprop. It veers wildly between accusations of bigamy, antisemitism, and occultism. Midway through The Godmakers we are introduced to a man named Bill Schnoebelen who recounts his experiences as an alleged former Satanist and Mormon. He explains that he converted from Satanism to Mormonism because it borrowed rituals and symbols from witchcraft and the occult. Schnoebelen cites the LDS Church’s appropriation of an inverted five-pointed star (the pentagram) as one such example. (The star has roots in early Christianity and first appeared on the Church’s Nauvoo Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois in the 1840s before it was adopted as a symbol of evil by occultist Éliphas Lévi.⁴)
The God Makers drew both intense scrutiny and widespread acclaim; the Anti-Defamation League called it “scurrilous,” but Baptist churches would hold public screenings of the film for over a decade after its release. Looking to capitalize on the film’s notoriety, Matrisciana produced a spin-off titled Gods of the New Age (1984). It continued Jeremiah Films’ obsession with the occult, though the focus had now shifted to New Age spiritual gurus like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, founder of Rajneeshpuram (an intentional community that would later be found guilty of a mass poisoning of the residents of The Dalles, Oregon⁵). Matrisciana’s wife Caryl appears as a kind of all-purpose expert—she authored a tie-in book of the same title—as she and other self-identified experts outline the occult influence of Hinduism in American popular culture, in everything from the Star Wars franchise to Dungeons and Dragons. In what should have been a harbinger of the evangelical movement’s eventual embrace of New World Order conspiracies via personalities like Pat Robertson, Gods of the New Age makes its most damning accusation in the film’s conclusion. Caryl claims collective consciousness mantras are prepping Western nations for a takeover by a Hitler-like charismatic leader. As evidence, the Matriscianas invoke the image of the swastika and its background as a symbol appropriated from Hinduism.
THE PAGAN INVASION
Caryl would move into a larger role as Jeremiah Films embraced the mania of the Satanic Panic. In 1989, the Matriscianas released Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism, an hour-long pseudo-documentary, and Caryl shifted from talking head to narrator. Devil Worship alleges to report on the growing threat of Satanism in America. Violent horror movies depict Satanic rituals (Night of the Demons ); children’s toys hide references to black magic (He-man). America—nay, Christianity—is under attack! Only Caryl and her team of spooky researchers and reformed Satanists can shine a light on these dark influences.
The documentary is not so much a leap forward as it is a refinement of that old obsession. Favorites like Bill Schnoebelen (now promoted to “Occult Expert”) even pop up to provide continuity. But where The God Makers and Gods of the New Age could offer only brief tangents on the subject, Devil Worship is a fully realized declaration of the most deranged fantasies of the Christian right, the kind of gibbering madness one might experience when confronted by the shapeless visage of an eldritch horror. It plays out like a fever dream in which Richard Ramirez stalks the streets looking for Satanic blood sacrifices, or a hallucination where shadowy cults create generational bloodlines of Satanists through physical and sexual abuse. The world of Devil Worship is one where Satan is real and he controls everything.
By the time of Devil Worship’s release, the Matriscianas’ madness had spread and Christian ministries flooded the home video market with conspiratorial documentaries drawing from the same milieu as Jeremiah Films. Texas-based pastor Dave Roever self-released Exposing the Satanic Web (1989), a general overview on Western occultism which mirrors the format of Devil Worship, and televangelist Bob Larson delivered In the Name of Satan (1990), a kaleidoscopic view of the various arms of the occult. These documentaries recycled the same claims, the same stories, and the same people. Sean Sellers appeared in some form in Escaping Satan’s Web, In the Name of Satan, and Kids and the Occult (1990). The amplification of Satanic conspiracy theories in these documentaries created a kind of negative feedback loop that propelled the Satanic Panic to ever higher levels of cultural relevance. Jeremiah Films, the company that had created a market for this kind of (black) magical thinking, was now poised to deliver its defining work.
The Pagan Invasion series can be seen as a culmination of Matrisciana’s political project up to the point of its release, in part because it is the clearest distillation of evangelical conspiracism committed to videotape— a taxonomy of every Satanic influence in America, in 13 parts—but also in the sense that he is recycling Jeremiah Films’ previous works to reorganize ideas in a way that could fit an ascending zeitgeist. The first video in the series is also the best-known: Halloween: Trick or Treat (1991). Now viewed as a campy expose into the pagan roots of Halloween, the video is, in fact, a direct attack on America.
Trick or Treat kicks off with Caryl and apocalyptic co-host Chuck Smith targeting American institutions. They begin by railing against the free market system which allows Satanists to manipulate young children. The video connects real-world violence, such as the murder of American tourist Mark Kilroy by Narcosatanists Adolfo Constanzo and Sara Aldrete, to Hollywood and movies like The Believers (1987). Consumerism, it argues, has blinded Americans to the great evil of Satanism, creating a generation of Satanic slaves ignorant to the difference between fake violence and the real thing. The film’s most absurd moment come in a callback to Devil Worship, where a man named Glenn Hobbs described his ordeals as a victim of Satanic ritual abuse. Here, Glenn returns to explain, in graphic detail, how Satanists celebrate Halloween. How, you ask? Glenn’s grandfather, he claims, forced him to murder another child as part of his initiation into a Satanic cult. The documentary uses Glenn’s testimonies as a kind of lived experience to counter journalistic and academic research into claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse—if he says he is a victim of abuse, who are you to argue? It would become a tactic Matrsciana would develop to great effect in the future.
THE CLINTON BODY COUNT
Concurrent to the release of Satanic Panic-inspired material, Matrisciana began producing videos that focused on America’s then developing culture war. In rapid succession, Jeremiah Films released AIDS: What You Haven’t Been Told (1989) and co-produced Gay Rights, Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda (1993) with Matrsiciana-run front group Citizens United for the Preservation of Civil Rights. The documentaries attack the LGTBQ community, drawing on the same kind of tenuous logic as Devil Worship and Trick or Treat, but substituting gay and trans activists for Satanists.
Matriscana soon found spiritual allies in other evangelicals. Jerry Falwell had ascended to the highest levels of political power through the Moral Majority and the Liberty Alliance, groups that engaged in grassroots organizing and propaganda campaigns around many of the same issues (Matrisciana ally at CCAP Tim LaHaye also sat on the board of the Moral Majority). One of Falwell’s primary methods, like Matrisciana, was the home video market. Productions like The National Endowment for the Arts Exposed (1993), a video produced by the Liberty Alliance, excoriated the government for funding art by openly gay artists. So, in 1994, Matrisciana and Falwell set their sights on a common target: Bill Clinton. The 1992 Democratic primary saw Democrats adopting LGBTQ issues into their platform and primetime speeches by gay activists at the Democratic National Convention.⁶ This new progressive agenda provided Falwell-affiliated groups an opportunity. Martin Mawyer, founder of the Christian Action Network and one-time editor of Falwell’s Moral Majority Report newsletter, was quoted as saying, “We hope to educate the American public on what Bill Clinton has promised the homosexual community.”⁷
Matrsiciana and Falwell began pooling resources to develop documentaries attacking Clinton on multiple fronts. Matrisciana created another innocuously-named front, Citizens for Honest Government, and put together a documentary titled Bill & Hillary Clinton’s Circle of Power (1994), which Falwell promoted through his Liberty Alliance. The bulk of the video is a testimony from Larry Nichols, a former marketing director hired (and then fired) by Clinton at the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, on the various crimes he witnessed while working under Clinton. None of the accusations made by Nichols—which include affairs, embezzlement, and bribery—are compelling, and as a result, the video failed to catch on. But Circle of Power was an important first step because it ended with an advertisement for what would become Matrisciana’s largest contribution to the world of politics.
Citizens for Honest Government released The Clinton Chronicles (1994) that same spring. Falwell aired the video weekly on his Old-Time Gospel Hour cable program in May,⁸ ahead of its official June release date, and Matrisciana hand-delivered copies to Republican members of Congress with an accompanying endorsement letter from far-right Illinois representative Philip Crane.⁹ Oregon House Republican William Dannemeyer (who appeared in The Clinton Chronicles) promoted the video in public to anyone that would listen.¹⁰ Public screenings were also organized by civic and religious groups, from local chapters of the John Birch Society to the Love Church of the Horseheads.¹¹ The video penetrated the right-wing media economy like nothing before. What could cause such a stir?
The Clinton Chronicles opens with a title screen stating: “All information presented in this program is documented and true.” The 90 minutes that follow include charges that Bill Clinton was responsible for prostitution rings in Arkansas, drug trafficking out of the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, and the murders of private investigator Luther Gerald “Jerry” Parks and Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster. The deaths of Parks and Foster, in particular, make up most of the second half of the video, as Matrisciana use his speciality, personal testimony, to draw a web of connections between Clinton and various conspirators. Parks’s son, Gary, acts as Matrisciana’s surrogate as he explains how Parks, a private security contractor for Clinton, uncovered a series of affairs by the Arkansas governor. Parks began collecting evidence going back to 1982, but as he was getting ready to make his research public, he was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Matrisciana strongly hints Clinton ordered a hit.
But the most damning allegation closes The Clinton Chronicles. The video connects the suicide of Vince Foster on July 20, 1993 to a cover-up of the Whitewater scandal. In the film’s telling of events, Foster allegedly helped to destroy documents exposing Clinton’s role in coercing investment firm Capital Management Services into providing a loan to his Whitewater partner Jim McDougal, and to ensure Foster’s silence, Clinton (as with Parks) ordered his murder. Talking heads dispute forensic reports from the crime scene and allege members of the federal government assisted in the cover-up. The final minute of the video goes a step further and connects Clinton to the deaths of two more individuals, Ronald Rogers and Kathy Ferguson.¹²
Matrisciana’s reporting on Foster’s suicide and the other deaths contributed to what became known as the Clinton Body Count, a list of names of people who were alleged to have been killed by the Clintons, though neither Matrisciana nor Falwell were responsible for its creation. The conspiracy theory had already been circulating as early as 1993. Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis lawyer, quit her job after Randy Weaver’s arrest following a shoot-out with federal agents at Ruby Ridge and founded the American Justice Federation so she could produce media exposing, what she called, the New World Order.¹³ Her work included the Branch Davidian apologia Waco, the Big Lie (1993) before moving into the Clinton Body Count. She compiled a list of alleged Clinton victims titled “The Clinton Body Count: Coincidence or Kiss of Death?” around the same time as Foster’s death but did not identify him as a victim.¹⁴ The list made its rounds among far-right activists over the course of the next year, ending up in the hands of William Dannemeyer who attempted to pass it along as a legitimate document certifying crimes committed by the Clintons before himself ending up in The Clinton Chronicles.
Matrisciana would edit a second version, now dubbed The New Clinton Chronicles (1996), to account for the mainstreaming of the body count conspiracy theory. It added Thompson’s list onto the end of the new video along with contributions from conservative journalist Christopher Ruddy, who had kept Foster’s death in the news through funding supplied by right-wing megadonor Richard Mellon Scaife and his pet projects The Western Journalism Center and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.¹⁵ (Scaife also backed the Clinton-obsessed American Spectator and its Arkansas Project.¹⁶) Witnesses sourced in The Clinton Chronicles and Ruddy’s writing would go on to appear in mainstream coverage of the case, often identified as experts, until journalist Murray Waas discovered that Matrsiciana had paid them with funds from a bank account jointly held with Ruddy.¹⁷
The Clinton Body Count story hit its peak in the middle of 1994 thanks to the constant stream of allegations offered by Matrisciana, Falwell, Thompson, and Ruddy. Department of Justice Independent Counsel Robert Fiske was appointed to investigate both Whitewater and Foster’s death in January 1994; the Senate Banking Committee reviewed information on Foster in July; and vocal Clinton critic Kenneth Starr reviewed the case in August. In spite of the fact that none of these investigative bodies could find any evidence of wrongdoing, the story would continue to grow and evolve. Today the list may extend up to 100 people, depending on whom you believe, and includes everyone from D.C. staffer Seth Rich to pedophile profiteer Jeffrey Epstein. There appears to be no end in sight: Clinton associate Steve Bing was added to the list in June 2020.¹⁸
SATAN PANIC (REPACKAGED)
Contrary to popular belief, the Satanic Panic never ended—the various players fanning the flames of the hysteria simply moved onto more overt political targets (Jerry Falwell) or kept keeping on (Bob Larson). For Matrisciana, it was both: he released another documentary about Foster, The Death of Vince Foster: What Really Happened? (1995), while Jeremiah Films dropped Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged (2001). The latter found Caryl and a team of Christian cranks again using their suspect problem-solving skills to connect the J.K. Rowling fantasy series to the occult. The video closes with Caryl suggesting that literacy programs incorporating Harry Potter books into their curriculum may be part of a larger conspiracy of pagan and druidic indoctrination.
While it is tempting to write off the Satanic Panic purely as religious hysteria, this ignores the political opportunities it has offered Christian conspiracists. Figures like Matrisciana came from the world of far-right politics and developed storytelling techniques still used to this day, such as the use of specious testimony. Matrisciana’s documentary films start with fringe figures like Bill Schnoebelen and Glenn Hobbs before evolving into political personalities like Larry Nichols and Gary Parks. Matrisciana would himself even portray an investigative reporter for an infomercial on Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour, his image hidden in silhouette and voice distorted, as he claimed Ronald Rogers had died under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash before he could deliver damning evidence on Bill Clinton.¹⁹ Techniques like this now appear all over the conservative media sphere, notably on news outlets like One American News and Newsmax. (Coincidentally, Christopher Ruddy founded Newsmax in 1998.²⁰)
But Matrisciana’s most important lesson is the recycling and repurposing of conspiracy theories. The Pagan Invasion series is re-edited footage from earlier Jeremiah Films documentaries, and the The Clinton Chronicles exists in at least two different versions. Moreover, many of the themes found in both versions of The Clinton Chronicles—shadowy cabals, secretive murders—first appeared during the Satanic Panic, in films put out by Jeremiah Films. Matrisciana is less a filmmaker than an architect of dirty tricks. He wrote the bible and laid down the commandments: reuse, remake, reanimate. His ideas live on, resurrecting every few years to find new followers and create new cults of Clinton Crazies. All hail the Ratfuck Messiah.
- Lembke, Darryl. “Christian front in Berkeley: Religious group turns ‘hippie’ to win youth.” The Los Angeles Times, 8 Feb. 1970, p. B.
- Dochuk, Darren. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. W .W. Norton & Company, 2011, p. 344.
- Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, p. 344.
- Wells Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 92.
- “FORMER AIDES TO GURU IN OREGON PLEAD GUILTY TO NUMEROUS CRIMES.” The New York Times, 23 Jul. 1986, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/23/us/former-aides-to-guru-in-oregon-plead-guilty-to-numerous-crimes.html.
- Miller, Alan C. “’92 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION : Gays Say They’ve Gained a Place in U.S. Politics : Convention: With their agenda worked into the Democratic platform and a strong backer in Clinton, many see the New York gathering as a watershed.” The Los Angeles Times, 17 Jul. 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-07-17-mn-3667-story.html.
- Isikoff, Michael. “GAYS MOBILIZING FOR CLINTON AS RIGHTS BECOME AN ISSUE.” The Washington Post, 28 Sep. 1992, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/09/28/gays-mobilizing-for-clinton-as-rights-become-an-issue/3a6d569b-e3cf-4ef8-b52f-d986ac356e0f/.
- Eckholm, Erik. “From Right, a Rain of Anti-Clinton Salvos.” The New York Times, 26 Jun. 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/26/us/from-right-a-rain-of-anti-clinton-salvos.html.
- Latz Griffin, Jean. “CRANE LANDS IN THE COMICS, BUT HE ISN’T LAUGHING.” The Chicago Tribune, 22 Sep. 1994, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-09-22-9409220174-story.html.
- Corn, David. “Here Come the Crazy Clinton Conspiracies of the 1990s.” Mother Jones, 20 Feb. 2014, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/02/clinton-conspiracy-theories-kathleen-willey-chronicles/.
- Price, Wayne T. “Church to show video that accuses Clinton of shady associations.” Star-Gazette [Elmira, NY], 27 Jul 1994, p. 1B.
- Paterno, Scott. “Plane crashes, suicide: Just another day at the White House.” The Daily Collegian, 2 Oct. 1996, https://www.collegian.psu.edu/archives/article_ced0bfc8-29d9-5172-87af-dded2c1affda.html.
- Vest, Jason. “THE SPOOKY WORLD OF LINDA THOMPSON.” The Washington Post, 11 May 1995, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1995/05/11/the-spooky-world-of-linda-thompson/d09e85b3-a789-47b0-bb66-fb21d95bc712/.
- Thompson, Linda. “THE CLINTON BODY COUNT: COINCIDENCE OR THE KISS OF DEATH?” AEN News, 1993. First Principles Archive, https://www.fpparchive.org/media/documents/war_on_terrorism/The%20Clinton%20Body%20Count%3B%20Coincidence%20or%20the%20Kiss%20of%20Death_Linda%20D.%20Thompson_1993_AEN%20News.pdf.
- Lieberman, Trudy. “The Vincent Foster Factory.” Columbia Journalism Review, Mar. 1996, https://web.archive.org/web/20040223081215/http://archives.cjr.org/year/96/2/foster.asp.
- Lewis, Neil A. “Almost $2 Million Spent in Magazine’s Anti-Clinton Project, but on What?” The New York Times, 15 Apr. 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/15/us/almost-2-million-spent-in-magazine-s-anti-clinton-project-but-on-what.html.
- Waas, Murray. “The Falwell connection.” Salon, 11 Mar. 1998, https://www.salon.com/1998/03/11/cov_11news/.
- “The Clinton Body Count Rises Again…” Outrage Patriot, 23 Jun. 2020, https://outragedpatriot.com/the-clintonbodycount-rises-again/.
- Waas, Salon, https://www.salon.com/1998/03/11/cov_11news/.
- Peters, Jeremy M. “A Compass for Conservative Politics.” The New York Times, 10 Jul. 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/11/business/media/newsmax-a-compass-for-conservative-politics.html.