During the 1980’s, the American Satanic Panic epidemic was in full swing. The previous decade planted the seeds for hysteria concerning the cloven hoofed lord of the abyss and his earthly worshippers; but it wasn’t until allegations of Satanic ritual abuse ascended the national headlines following the infamous McMartin trial that people really started to lose their shit. Evangelical leaders saw this as the perfect opportunity to pummel the fear of God into people with their propaganda, though the tidal wave of Luciferian frenzy would come crashing down on Conservative households as well. As such, genre cinema was more than happy to unleash Hell on celluloid, while the rise of heavy metal music sung Satan’s name from the speakers. Throw in accusations of Dungeons & Dragons board games serving as tools for demon worship, and it must have been a fraught time to be a teenager with a taste in ghoulish entertainment and worried parents to contend with as a result. The 1970’s might have planted the seeds for Satanic Panic outbreak, but it was the 1980’s where it soared like a bat out of Hell.
The book Michelle Remembers – co-written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his then-patient and subsequent wife Michelle Smith – ushered in the accusations of ritual abuse claims that would beset the decade. The book recounts Smith’s repressed memories recovered during therapy sessions. They documented the Satanic rituals was supposedly forced to attend during her childhood. In the book, she states attending her final ritual 1955, though she had been to a lot of them previously. However, the final one was the most eventful occasion, due to the summoning of Satan himself – only to be interrupted by Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael. According to Smith, the heavenly triple team erased memories of her trauma until she was an adult. During these alleged rituals, Smith said she was tortured, locked away and raped; in addition to witnessing numerous murders and being covered in the blood of the victims. Despite being debunked by experts since, the book was a best-seller that played an integral part in establishing a panic.
Michelle Remembers might have made some lucky publisher a small fortune with its lies, but the McMartin trial would cost the American taxpayers a huge one with its own falsifications. The case cost a hefty $15 million, and none of the accusations were proven to be true in the cases six-year investigation. Now what were these accusations you ask? What type of ungodly shenanigans cost that much money to investigate? Well, the main accusations were understandably examined with a fine tooth comb: the case centred around day care workers, reported to be part of a cult sect, sexually abusing children. However, some of the allegations took a turn into bizarre territory with accusations that included flying witches and Chuck Norris being involved. However, despite all charges being dropped, it was merely one of many well-documented child sexual abuse case involving day care workers in the 80’s, which only fed the hysteria even more.
Naturally, the fear would spread over into pop culture as well. As previously mentioned, the Dungeons and Dragon’s board game caused controversy following a string of suicides involving players during the 1980’s. The well-publicized Steam Tunnel Incident – which led to the eventual suicide of teenager James Dallas Egbert III – was the progenitor of tragic cases involving game players (the case even served as inspiration for the Tom Hanks movie Mazes & Monsters in 1982, back when the actor was still an industry bloomer). Much like Marilyn Manson’s music in the 1990’s, depression and mental health issues were dismissed as the cause of self-harm and death in teenagers, as fandom was there to serve as a scapegoat. Instead of facing the reality that some people have deep rooted psychological issues that need to be addressed, fingers were pointed at a misunderstood past-time. For religious leaders, they saw it as an opportunity to stigmatize a past-time as something wicked – they would even go on to accuse it of inciting acts of perverse sexuality – such as rape – or what they considered to be sinful – such as homosexuality.
On top of perpetuating self-harm, suicide and sexual misdemeanors, the game was also perceived as a form of witchcraft. That claim didn’t fade with the times either, as it’s been vocalized in some religious circles even in this century. In an article published by the pro-Christian organization, Chick Publications in 2001, titled Straight Talk On Dungeon’s & Dragon’s, writer William Schnoebelen described the game as “essentially a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft.’’
The 1970’s was a decade in which Satanic cults were beleaguered by trashy B movies as their representation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trash (if it wasn’t for trash, most of us genre writers wouldn’t have careers), but the output during that decade did lessen the impact Rosemary’s Baby had just a few years before (a film that made many people fear their neighbors and even their loved one’s as it placed the idea in people’s heads that anyone and everyone could be in collusion with Beelzebub). Granted, there were some good efforts and one absolute rollicking masterpiece (I’m talking to you, Race with the Devil). But the reality is that cults just weren’t portrayed as all that scary. For downright terrifying films about the devil, possession and offspring were what gave audiences the willies, as The Exorcist and The Omen set the bar very highly. The 1980’s didn’t bring Satanic cinema back to credence, but some movies did playfully use the devil in accordance with the world changing.
Evilspeak, directed by Eric Weston and released in 1981, was a fun blend of technological growth demonology. At the time, the concept of a computer was a pipe dream for many, as they weren’t readily available to the majority of households like they are today. Couple that with this technological vessel being used to summon demons, and what you have is an interesting idea brought down spectacularly in the grand scheme of things. Granted, the movie is an entertaining romp and I wouldn’t change a frame of it for anything less than world peace, but it was a missed opportunity in regards to instilling fear in people observing the rapid growth in technology as a connection to unleashing Hell on earth.
That being said, there was one Satanic horror film that changed the game during the 1980’s. A masterpiece that is, to this day, and undisputed champion of a film to many fans of our beloved genre. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a British-American production released in 1987, based on the author-cum-directors own novella, The Hellbound Heart, is a film which encapsulates the moral panic of its time period. In the film, demons are summoned through the means of a magical puzzle box to inflict pain and pleasure. Furthermore, a wicked stepmother uses her seductive charms to perform ritual sacrifices so she can bring back her dead brother-in-law and commit more infidelity. On top of that, the film contains anti-Christian symbolism and underlying themes that could be perceived as an antithesis to the moral zeitgeist of good God fearing folks at the time. The hints of sadomasochism and homosexuality in the film have been well-documented: the idea of these emerging subcultures and alternative sexual practices were still alien to many people at the time, and for religious types, were classified as a sin against God. In the 80’s, America’s emerging gay culture was primarily underground and directly associated with the aids epidemic.
However, the spirit of the 1970’s hadn’t completely vanished. John Schlesinger’s The Believers, released in 1987 and starring Martin Sheen, is one of the better films out there at portraying cultists as credible horror villains. Again, it’s no Rosemary’s Baby and not totally devoid of cheese, but it did at least try to be a serious horror film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Though it didn’t set the world aflame with controversy in lieu with the times, it is a serviceable slice of Satanic fare with a few decent chills here and there, lifted a few notches by having the mighty Martin Sheen in the leading role. It is not a film that you hear discussed so often these days, but it deserves to be acknowledged when traversing the cinematic history of the Satanic Panic epidemic.
While there is evidence throughout history that confirms atrocities have been carried out in the name of Satan, the ritual abuse cases which spawned a widespread fear epidemic during the 1980’s and into the 90’s, in the end, proved to be as substantial as definitive scientific proof of the devil himself. Out of the millions of misunderstood game enthusiasts to have rolled a dice in D&D throughout the years, there hasn’t been any solid evidence of sorcery or demon’s appearing in the real world to encourage self-harm. It was a turbulent time in American history for sure, and like all cycles of panic, pop culture was both blamed and inspired. For the latter, the influence of Satan must be hailed.