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