The Devil Made Them Do It: 8 Examples of Satanic Panic in the '80s

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In the 1970s, films like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror thrilled audiences with stories of occult occurrences: Catholic church-sponsored exorcisms, demon-spawned children, and haunted houses, respectively.

But by the 1980s, social critics were sounding alarms that a groundswell of actual Satanic activity was responsible for subversive, soul-polluting behavior. A 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, purported to tell the story of Satanists who kidnapped and brainwashed a young woman, a spark that led to both the media and law enforcement driving home narratives that blamed ritualistic evil for crime and mass entertainment. Take a look at eight instances where self-appointed pop culture analysts insisted the devil was in the details. 

1. SATAN'S VESSELS: THUNDERCATS AND THE SMURFS

In 1986, author Phil Phillips published Turmoil in the Toybox, a book detailing how Masters of the Universe and other popular cartoons of the era were endorsing Pagan practices through coaxial cables. With pastor Gary Greenwald, Phillips also shot a video that elaborated on his theories.

“The question is, is there a well organized plot, an insidious design right now, to program and influence the minds of our children toward the occult and witchcraft?” Greenwald asked. It was rhetorical, as the two explained that the ThunderCats were inspired by “heathen gods,” that E.T. “died and was resurrected again” and could therefore be confused with Christian figures, and that “there are things we need to look at concerning The Smurfs.” Because the characters are blue with black lips, they were “depictive of dead creatures.” Collectively, Saturday morning cartoons would teach children “to get into spells and witchcraft.” The two concluded their video essay by pointing out that Rainbow Brite had a Pentagram on her cheek.

2. THE JUDAS PRIEST TRIAL

In December 1985, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance ended a long night of drinking by committing to a suicide pact. Belknap shot and killed himself; Vance attempted to do the same but wound up surviving—with grievous and permanent disfiguring injury—the shotgun blast. Both men had been fans of the rock band Judas Priest, who had been reputed to have recorded subliminal messages in their music.

Vance’s parents decided to sue the band and CBS Records for $6.2 million in damages, alleging phrases like “do it” and “let’s be dead” were being delivered to Vance’s subconscious. When the case went to a civil trial in 1990, audio engineers played the group's music backward and forward at varying speeds in an attempt to discern whether or not there were any hidden urgings for listeners to kill themselves. Ultimately, a judge ruled there were no messages in the music.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2015, lead singer Rob Halford expressed both relief and disappointment in the tragic circumstances. “Had the judge found in favor about the so-called subliminal messages having the power to physically manifest themselves and make people to do something, the ramifications of that would've been extraordinary,” he said. “How do you prove to somebody that there are not subliminal messages on your record when you can't hear them in the first place?”

3. THE DUNGEON MASTER

Introduced in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons quickly captured the imaginations of gamers who relished the opportunity to take on different guises in fantasy settings—and almost immediately found themselves embroiled in controversies over the game’s sorcery and occult elements. That hysteria reached new levels with the 1979 disappearance of James Egbert, a 16-year-old computer science student who was believed to have gotten lost in the underground steam tunnels near Michigan State University. The media quickly jumped on the theory that Egbert had become too absorbed in his role-playing and suffered a mental breakdown.

The truth was less sinister, though just as tragic: Egbert had been suffering from the demands of being a child prodigy as well as shame over his homosexuality, prompting him to run away from school. He committed suicide in 1980. A fictionalized account of the case, Mazes and Monsters, was made for television in 1982 and starred Tom Hanks.

All the negative publicity—one mother formed a group labeled "BADD "for "Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons," while creator Gary Gygax hired a bodyguard after receiving death threats—was free advertising for the game’s publisher, TSR. D&D sold $16 million in rule books in 1982 alone.

4. PAMPERS DIAPERS

In 1985, Procter & Gamble found itself in the unusual position of having to hold a press conference to deny that they were funding a Satanic church. Since 1982, the company had been the target of anonymous accusations claiming their logo—a man in the moon surrounded by 13 stars—was secretly the mark of the devil. So many calls poured into the distributor of Ivory soap, Pampers diapers, and other household toiletries that they were forced to set up a toll-free number to refute allegations that they were beholden to the Church of Satan. (As for the stars: When the company was formed in 1882, they were intended to represent the original 13 colonies.) The rumors ultimately prompted Procter & Gamble to remove the symbol from its packaging.

5. THE MCMARTIN PRESCHOOL SCANDAL

In one of the most sensationalized criminal trials of the 20th century, employees of the McMartin Preschool near Los Angeles stood accused of improper behavior and molestation of their students. After one 3-year-old’s mother grew convinced her son had been subject to abuse, several more children came forward. Some of the accounts included details of ritualistic animal slaughter, leading investigators to believe the school had become the epicenter of an occult organization.

After a six-year trial—the longest in American history—no one was convicted; a post-mortem of the investigation revealed several children had been subject to coercive interviews with law enforcement.   

6. THE MR. ED MESSAGE FROM HELL

It wasn’t solely popular culture of the 1980s that was being examined for traces of occult worship. In 1986, two evangelists from Ohio—Jim Brown and Greg Hudson—claimed that they had excavated a hidden message in the unlikeliest of sources: the theme song from Mr. Ed.

The 1960s sitcom about a talking horse opened with the title song “A Horse is a Horse.” Played backward, the preachers insisted, one could hear sinister undertones like “The Source is Satan” and “Someone heard this song for Satan.” The discovery was mentioned during a seminar for teenagers on the moral evaporation caused by rock music. The teens then burned 300 popular albums in a pyre.

Despite the discovery, Brown said he didn’t think the producers of Mr. Ed were actual Satanists. “We don’t think they did it on purpose,” he said.

7. CHILD SACRIFICE ON HALLOWEEN

In 1989, parents in North Carolina were reluctant to send their children out for Halloween candy on the heels of rumors that Satanists planned to abduct and murder them in ritual sacrifice. More than 500 calls flooded area police stations in Raleigh after word spread that blonde boys from the ages of 2 to 5 were the devil worshippers’ preferred targets; mothers indicated they were considering dyeing their sons' hair to avoid a catastrophe. Police never found evidence of the plot.

8. THE GERALDO INCIDENT

Geraldo's tips for profiling a Satanist. Kiran Kava via YouTube

At the height of Satanic hysteria in 1988, broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera compiled a two-hour special for NBC that purported to detail the lurid mission of devil worshippers. Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground posited that a secret cabal of Satanists numbering in excess of one million were responsible for messages in heavy metal and inspiring the behavior of cult leaders like Charles Manson.

“The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network,” Rivera intoned. “From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town."

The special aired in primetime to stellar ratings, grabbing the attention of nearly 20 million homes, although advertisers were reluctant to buy commercial spots. While Rivera presented a compelling case for concern, the mass media took care to note that the special didn’t come from NBC’s news programmers: it was a product of the network’s entertainment division.

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Legend of Cry Baby Lane: The Lost Nickelodeon Movie That Was Too Scary for TV

Nickelodeon, Viacom
Nickelodeon, Viacom

Several years ago, rumors about a lost Nickelodeon movie branded too disturbing for children’s television began popping up around the internet. They all referenced the same plot: A father of conjoined twins was so ashamed of his sons that he hid them away throughout their childhood. (This being a made-for-TV horror movie, naturally one of the twins was evil.)

After one twin got sick the other soon followed, with both boys eventually succumbing to the illness. To keep the town from discovering his secret, the father separated their bodies with a rusty saw and buried the good one at the local cemetery and the evil one at the end of a desolate dirt road called Cry Baby Lane, which also happened to be the title of the rumored film. According to the local undertaker, anyone who ventured down Cry Baby Lane after dark could hear the evil brother crying from beyond the grave.

Cry Baby Lane then jumps to present day (well, present day in 2000), where a group of teens sneaks into the local graveyard in an effort to contact the spirit of the good twin. After holding a seance, they learn that the boys' father had made a mistake and mixed up the bodies of his children—burying the good son at the end of Cry Baby Lane and the evil one in the cemetery. Meaning those ghostly wails were actually the good twin crying out for help. But the teens realized the error too late: The evil twin had already been summoned and quickly began possessing the local townspeople.

MOVIE OR MYTH?

Parents were appalled that such dark content ever made it onto the family-friendly network, or so the story goes, and after airing the film once the Saturday before Halloween in 2000, Nickelodeon promptly scrubbed it from existence. But with no video evidence of it online for years, some people questioned whether Cry Baby Lane had ever really existed in the first place.

“Okay, so this story sounds completely fake, Nick would NEVER air this on TV,” one Kongregate forum poster said in September 2011. “And why would this be made knowing it’s for kids? This story just sounds too fake …”

While the folklore surrounding the film may not be 100 percent factual, Nickelodeon quickly confirmed that the “lost” Halloween movie was very real, and that it did indeed contained all the rumored twisted elements that have made it into a legend.

Before Cry Baby Lane was a blip in Nick’s primetime schedule, it was nearly a $100 million theatrical release. Peter Lauer, who had previously directed episodes of the Nick shows The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, co-wrote the screenplay with KaBlam! co-creator Robert Mittenthal. Cry Baby Lane, which would eventually spawn urban legends of its own, was inspired by a local ghost story Lauer heard growing up in Ohio. “There was a haunted farmhouse, and if you went up there at midnight, you could hear a baby crying and it’d make your high school girlfriend scared,” he told The Daily.

BIG SCARES ON A SMALL BUDGET

Despite Nickelodeon’s well-meaning intentions, parent company Paramount wasn’t keen on the idea of turning the screenplay into a feature film. The script was forgotten for about a year, until Nick got in touch with Lauer about producing Cry Baby Lane—only this time as a $800,000 made-for-TV movie. The director gladly signed on.

Even with the now-meager budget, Cry Baby Lane maintained many of the same elements of a much larger picture. In a bid to generate more publicity around the project, Nickelodeon cast Oscar nominee Frank Langella as the local undertaker (a role Lauer had originally wanted Tom Waits to play). All the biggest set pieces from the screenplay were kept intact, and as a result, the crew had no money left to do any extra filming.

Only two scenes from the movie ended up getting cut—one that alluded to skinny dipping and another that depicted an old man’s head fused onto the body of a baby in a cemetery. The story of a father performing amateur surgery on the corpses of his sons, however, made it into the final film.

The truth of what happened after Cry Baby Lane premiered on October 28, 2000 has been muddied over the years. In most retellings, Nickelodeon received an "unprecedented number" of complaints about the film and responded by sealing it away in its vault and acting like the whole thing never happened. But if that version of events is true, Nick has never acknowledged it.

Even Lauer wasn’t aware of any backlash from parents concerned about the potentially scarring effects of the film until The Daily made him aware of the rumors years later. “All I know is that they aired it once,” he told the paper. “I just assumed they didn’t show it again because they didn’t like it! I did it, I thought it failed, and I moved on.”

But the idea that the movie was pulled from airwaves for being too scary for kids isn’t so far-fetched. Though Cry Baby Lane never shows the conjoined twins being sawed apart on screen, it does pair the already-unsettling story with creepy images of writhing worms, broken glass, and animal skulls. This opening sequence, combined with the spooky, empty-eyed victims of possession that appear later, and multiple scenes where a child gets swallowed by a grave, may have made the film slightly more intense than the average episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

IMPERFECT TIMING

Cry Baby Lane premiered at a strange time in internet history: Too early for pirated copies to immediately spring up online yet late enough for it to grow into a web-fueled folktale. The fervor surrounding the film peaked in 2011, when a viral Reddit thread about Cry Baby Lane caught the attention of one user claiming to have the so-called “lost” film recorded on VHS. He later uploaded the tape for the world to view and suddenly the lost movie was lost no longer.

News of the unearthed movie made waves across the web, and instead of staying quiet and waiting for the story to die down, Nickelodeon decided to get in on the hype. That Halloween, Nick aired Cry Baby Lane for the first time in over a decade. Regardless of whether the movie had previously been banned or merely forgotten, the network used the mystery surrounding its origins to their PR advantage.

“We tried to freak people out with it,” a Nick employee who worked at The 90s Are All That (now The Splat), the programming block that resurrected Cry Baby Lane (and who wished to remain anonymous) said of the promotional campaign for the event. “They were creepy and a little glitchy. We were like, ‘This never aired because it was too scary and we’re going to air it now.’”

Cry Baby Lane now makes regular appearances on Nickelodeon’s '90s block around Halloween, which likely means Nick hasn’t received enough complaints to warrant locking it back in the vault. And during less spooky times of the year, nostalgic horror fans can find the full movie on YouTube.

The mystery surrounding Cry Baby Lane’s existence may have been solved, but the urban legend of the movie that was “too scary for kids’ TV” persists—even at the network that produced it.

“People who were definitely working at Nickelodeon in 2000, but didn’t necessarily work on [Cry Baby Lane] were like, ‘Yeah I heard about it, I remember it being a thing,'" the Nick employee says. “It’s sort of like its own legend within the company.”

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