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.

Cook a Game of Thrones-Inspired Feast With This Video Tutorial

Kristofer Hivju, Kit Harington, and Emilia Clarke celebrate in Game of Thrones
Kristofer Hivju, Kit Harington, and Emilia Clarke celebrate in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Tonight marks the series finale of Game of Thrones. Hosting a watch party? Consider skipping the chips and dip, and try whipping up a dish inspired by the show. In the video below, first spotted by Laughing Squid, Binging With Babish host Andrew Rea provides recipes for three foods featured in the fantasy series: Purple Wedding pigeon pie, Dothraki blood pie, and Sansa Stark’s lemon cake.

For the uninitiated, Binging With Babish is a YouTube tutorial channel that features Rea cooking—and in some cases, improving on—foods from popular movies and television shows. Game of Thrones's characters are likely better on the battlefield than they are in the kitchen, so Rea takes a few culinary liberties while recreating Medieval and Dothraki fare: His “pigeon pie” is made with squab, and the blood pie, in Rea’s own words, is “essentially a black pudding in pie form” that’s garnished with figs, goat cheese, and black sea salt.

Updated for 2019.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

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