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

iStock
iStock

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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER