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.

20 Facts About Eyes Wide Shut On Its 20th Anniversary

Warner Bros./Liaison via Getty Images Plus
Warner Bros./Liaison via Getty Images Plus

In the late 1990s, stories about what was happening on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s already-secretive film Eyes Wide Shut constantly made headlines. Everyone wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes with real-life celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the 15-month shoot only intrigued people more. Finally, the film was released on July 16, 1999—more than four months after Kubrick had passed away. While there is still a lot we don’t know about the movie, here are 20 things we do.

1. Eyes Wide Shut is based on a 1926 novella.

Eyes Wide Shut is loosely is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was published in 1926. Considering that the movie takes place in 1990s New York, it is obviously not a direct adaptation, but it overlaps in its plot and themes. “[The book] explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage and tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality,” Kubrick said. “The book opposes the real adventures of a husband and the fantasy adventures of his wife, and asks the question: is there a serious difference between dreaming a sexual adventure, and actually having one?”

2. Production on Eyes Wide Shut began in 1996.

By then, Kubrick had been holding onto the rights to Traumnovelle—which screenwriter Jay Cocks purchased on his behalf, in order to keep the project under wraps—for nearly 30 years. Kubrick had planned to begin working on the film after making 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then got the opportunity to adapt A Clockwork Orange.

3. The studio pushed Stanley Kubrick to cast A-list names.

Terry Semel, then-head of Warner Bros., told Kubrick, “What I would really love you to consider is a movie star in the lead role; you haven't done that since Jack Nicholson [in The Shining].”

4. Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.

Kubrick liked the idea of casting a real-life married couple in the film, and originally considered Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. (He also liked the idea of Steve Martin.) Eventually, he went with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were married from 1990 to 2001.

5. London stood in for New York City.

Though the film is set in New York, it was filmed in London. In order to construct the most accurate sets possible, Vanity Fair reported that Kubrick “sent a designer to New York to measure the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines.”

6. Some of the shots in Eyes Wide Shut required no set at all.

In order to give the movie a dream-like quality, the filmmakers used an old-school method of shooting—and a treadmill. “In some of the scenes, the backgrounds were rear-projection plates,” cinematographer Larry Smith explained. “Generally, when Tom’s facing the camera, the backgrounds are rear-projected; anything that shows him from a side view was done on the streets of London. We had the plates shot in New York by a second unit [that included cinematographers Patrick Turley, Malik Sayeed and Arthur Jafa]. Once the plates were sent to us, we had them force-developed and balanced to the necessary levels. We’d then go onto our street sets and shoot Tom walking on a treadmill. After setting the treadmill to a certain speed, we’d put some lighting effects on him to simulate the glow from the various storefronts that were passing by in the plates. We spent a few weeks on those shots.”

7. Eyes Wide Shut holds a Guinness World Record.

The film has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest constant movie shoot, with a total of 400 days, which was a surprise to the cast and crew. Cruise and Kidman had only committed to six months of filming. The extended shoot was a lot to ask of Cruise in particular, who was at the height of his career. He even had to delay work on Mission: Impossible II to finish Eyes Wide Shut. He didn’t seem to mind though. “We knew from the beginning the level of commitment needed,” Cruise told TIME. “We were going to do what it took to do this picture.”

8. The script for Eyes Wide Shut kept changing.

Todd Field as Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut
Warner Bros. via Getty Images Plus

According to Todd Field, who portrayed piano player Nick Nightingale (and is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker in his own right), “We’d rehearse and rehearse a scene, and it would change from hour to hour. We’d keep giving the script supervisor notes all the time, so by the end of the day the scene might be completely different. It wasn’t really improvisation, it was more like writing.”

9. Tom Cruise developed ulcers while shooting Eyes Wide Shut.

“I didn't want to tell Stanley," Cruise told TIME. “He panicked. I wanted this to work, but you're playing with dynamite when you act. Emotions kick up. You try not to kick things up, but you go through things you can't help.”

10. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman slept in their characters' bedroom.

In order to reflect their real-life relationship, Cruise and Kidman were asked to choose the color for the curtains in their on-screen bedroom, where they also slept.

11. The apartment featured in the movie was a re-creation of Stanley Kubrick's.

According to Cruise, “The apartment in the movie was the New York apartment [Stanley] and his wife Christianne lived in. He recreated it. The furniture in the house was furniture from their own home. Of course the paintings were Christianne's paintings. It was as personal a story as he's ever done.”

12. Stanley Kubrick temporarily banned Tom Cruise from the set.

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise star in Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999).
Warner Bros. via Getty Images Plus

Given his penchant for accuracy, it’s quite possible that Kubrick wanted to stir up some real-life jealousy between his stars in order to help them embody their characters. In a fantasy sequence, Kidman’s character has sex with another man, which motivates the rest of the film’s plot. Kubrick banned Cruise from the set on the days that Kidman shot the scene with a male model. They spent six days filming the one-minute scene. Kubrick also forbid Kidman from telling Cruise any details about it.

13. It took 95 takes for Tom Cruise to walk through a doorway.

Six days for a one-minute scene is nothing compared to the time Kubrick had Cruise do 95 takes of one simple action: walking through a doorway. After watching the playback, he apparently told Cruise, “Hey, Tom, stick with me, I’ll make you a star.”

14. Security on the set was tight.

Aside from Kubrick, Kidman, Cruise, and their tiny crew, no one was allowed on the set, which was heavily guarded. In May 1997, one photographer managed to capture a picture of Cruise standing next to a man that the photographer thought was just an “old guy, scruffy with an anorak and a beard.” That man was Kubrick, who hadn’t been photographed in 17 years. After the incident, security on the set was tripled.

15. Paul Thomas Anderson spent some time on the set.

One person Cruise did manage to sneak onto the set was his future Magnolia director, Paul Thomas Anderson. While there, Anderson asked Kubrick, “Do you always work with so few people?” Kubrick responded, “Why? How many people do you need?” Anderson then recalled feeling “like such a Hollywood a**hole.”

16. Stanley Kubrick makes a cameo in the movie.


Warner Bros.

He’s not credited, but the film’s director can be seen sitting in a booth at the Sonata Café.

17. Stanley Kubrick died less than a week after showing the studio his final cut of Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick died less than a week after showing what would be his final cut of the film to Warner Bros. No one can say how much he would have kept editing the film. One thing that was changed after his death: bodies in the orgy scene were digitally altered so that the movie could be released with an R (rather than an NC-17) rating. Although many claim that Kubrick intended to do this, too. "I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next 20 years," Kidman said. "He was still tinkering with movies he made decades ago. He was never finished. It was never perfect enough.”

18. By the time Eyes Wide Shut was released, a dozen years had passed since Stanley Kubrick's last directorial effort.

Eyes Wide Shut came out a full 12 years after Kubrick’s previous film, 1987's Full Metal Jacket.

19. Eyes Wide Shut topped the box office during its opening week.

The film earned $30,196,742 during its first week in release, which was enough to take the box office’s number one spot—making it Kubrick’s only film to do so.

20. Tom Cruise didn't like Dr. Harford.

One year after the film’s release, Cruise admitted that he “didn’t like playing Dr. Bill. I didn’t like him. It was unpleasant. But I would have absolutely kicked myself if I hadn’t done this.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

Top 50 Best-Selling Artists of All Time

Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images

Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.

  1. The Beatles

Albums sold: 183 million

  1. Garth Brooks

Albums sold: 148 million

  1. Elvis Presley

    Elvis Presley is seen playing the guitar in his 1966 film, 'Spinout'
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 146.5 million

  1. Eagles

Albums sold: 120 million

  1. Led Zeppelin

Albums sold: 111.5 million

  1. Billy Joel

Albums sold: 84.5 million

  1. Michael Jackson

Albums sold: 84 million

  1. Elton John

    Elton John plays a concert in 2008.
    LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images

Albums sold: 78.5 million

  1. Pink Floyd

Albums sold: 75 million

  1. AC/DC

Albums sold: 72 million

  1. George Strait

Albums sold: 69 million

  1. Barbra Streisand

    Barbra Streisand
    Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

Albums sold: 68.5 million

  1. The Rolling Stones

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Aerosmith

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Bruce Springsteen

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Madonna

Albums sold: 64.5 million

  1. Mariah Carey

    Mariah Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
    Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Albums sold: 64 million

  1. Metallica

Albums sold: 63 million

  1. Whitney Houston

Albums sold: 58.5 million

  1. Van Halen

Albums sold: 56.5 million

  1. Fleetwood Mac

Albums sold: 54.5 million

  1. U2

    The Edge and Bono of the rock band U2 perform at Bridgestone Arena on May 26, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
    Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Albums sold: 52 million

  1. Celine Dion

Albums sold: 50 million

  1. Neil Diamond

Albums sold: 49.5 million

  1. Journey

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Kenny G

    Kenny G performs onstage during the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall
    Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Shania Twain

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Kenny Rogers

Albums sold: 47.5 million

  1. Alabama

Albums sold: 46.5 million

  1. Eminem

    Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, California
    Kevin Winter, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 46 million

  1. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Albums sold: 44.5 million

  1. Guns N’ Roses

Albums sold: 44.5 million

  1. Alan Jackson

Albums sold: 43.5 million

  1. Santana

Albums sold: 43.5 million

  1. Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift performs onstage at 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango presented by The JUVÉDERM® Collection of Dermal Fillers at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 01, 2019
    Rich Fury, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 43 million

  1. Reba McEntire

Albums sold: 41 million

  1. Eric Clapton

Albums sold: 40 million

  1. Chicago

Albums sold: 38.5 million

  1. Simon & Garfunkel

    Pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, comprising (L-R) singer, Art Garfunkel and singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, performing on ITV's 'Ready, Steady, Go!', July 8, 1966
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 38.5 million

  1. Foreigner

Albums sold: 38 million

  1. Rod Stewart

Albums sold: 38 million

  1. Tim McGraw

Albums sold: 37.5 million

  1. Backstreet Boys

Albums sold: 37 million

  1. 2 Pac

Albums sold: 36.5 million

  1. Bob Dylan

    Bob Dylan
    Evening Standard/Getty Images

Albums sold: 36 million

  1. Def Leppard

Albums sold: 35.5 million

  1. Queen

Albums sold: 35 million

  1. Dave Matthews Band

Albums sold: 34.5 million

  1. Britney Spears

    Britney Spears performs at the 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2016
    Christopher Polk, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 34.5 million

  1. Bon Jovi

Albums sold: 34.5 million

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