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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

25 Facts About Back to the Future On Its 35th Anniversary

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985).
Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

On July 3, 1985, Michael J. Fox created a time travel movie for a whole new generation when he hopped inside a tricked-out DeLorean and zoomed back in the time—with a little help from some stolen plutonium—to ensure his future existence. In celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary, here are a few things you might not have known about Marty, Doc, and Doc's pet chimpanzee.

1. The Back to the Future script was rejected more than 40 times.

Back to the Future may be considered a contemporary classic today, but the initial response to the script hardly predicted how big of a hit it would become. As screenwriter Bob Gale told CNN in 2010:

“The script was rejected over 40 times by every major studio and by some more than once. We'd go back when they changed management. It was always one of two things. It was ‘Well, this is time travel, and those movies don't make any money.’ We got that a lot. We also got, ‘There's a lot of sweetness to this. It's too nice, we want something raunchier like Porky's. Why don't you take it to Disney?"

2. Disney’s studio executives thought Back to the Future was too raunchy.

Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson in Back to the Future (1985)
Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Ironically, whereas other major studios saw Back to the Future as a sweet, family-friendly picture that would make a perfect fit for Disney, the Mouse House’s executives thought otherwise. After hearing “take it to Disney” enough times, Gale and director Robert Zemeckis decided to do just that. “This was before Michael Eisner went in and reinvented [Disney],” Gale told CNN. “This was the last vestiges of the old Disney family regime. We went in to meet with an executive and he says, ‘Are you guys nuts? Are you insane? We can't make a movie like this. You've got the kid and the mother in his car! It's incest—this is Disney. It's too dirty for us!"

3. One studio thought Back to the Future would work better if it was retitled Space Man From Pluto.

Worried that people would shun a film with the word future in its title, one of the executives Gale and Zemeckis met with suggested that they retitle the film Space Man From Pluto.

4. Steven Spielberg sent his own memo in response to the note about changing the future of Back to the Future.


Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

In a 2014 interview with ShortList, Bob Gale admitted that he and Robert Zemeckis were at a bit of a loss over what to do with the title change suggestion. “We took the memo to Steven [Spielberg], who told us ‘Don’t worry, I know how to handle him,’ before writing a letter back which said, ‘Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep ‘em coming.’ Steven knew he would too embarrassed to say that he wanted us to take the letter seriously. Luckily nobody questioned the title after that. Without Steven, it could have all been very different."

5. At no point in any of the Back to the Future movies did anyone predict the Florida Marlins would win the 1997 World Series.

Or the 2003 World Series—no matter what any social media posts you’ve seen to the contrary. Though the rumor has been around since 1997, but as Snopes reports:

“As intriguing as it might be to believe so, the film Back to the Future Part 2, the 1989 sequel to the 1985’s hit Back to the Future, made no prediction, correct or otherwise, about the results of the 1997 World Series. At the beginning of the film, time-travelling scientist Doc Brown takes Marty McFly forward in time to 21 October 2015 in an effort to alter the future and prevent Marty’s (as yet unborn) children from ending up in prison. While in the future year 2015, Marty watches a holographic sports news broadcast announcing that the Chicago Cubs have swept an unnamed Miami team (represented by a gator, not a marlin) to win the World Series. This broadcast inspires Marty to buy a sports almanac and take it back to the past with him so that he can make accurate bets on future sporting events, but the contents of the almanac are not revealed in the film.”

6. Marty McFly and Doc became friends when Marty snuck into his lab as a teen and ended up with a part-time job.

Have you ever wondered how Marty and Doc became friends in the first place? Well, we did—often enough that, in 2011, we posed that very question to Bob Gale, who shared the origin of Marty and Doc's friendship with Mental Floss:

"He snuck into Doc’s lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. When Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was. Both of them were the black sheep in their respective environments. Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc."

7. Slate wasn’t totally convinced that it was Bob Gale who had, in fact, told us about Marty and Doc’s Back to the Future backstory.

When Slate wrote a story questioning whether Bob Gale was actually behind the explanation, the screenwriter very kindly helped prove the story did indeed come from him by sending us this:

8. In the early drafts of Back to the Future, the time machine was made out of an old refrigerator.

Well, sort of an old refrigerator. “Way back in that second draft, it was going to be a ‘time chamber,’ not unlike a refrigerator, and Doc Brown had to carry it on the back of his truck," Gale explained.

9. Doc Brown originally had a pet chimpanzee in Back to the Future.

Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal, was anti-chimpanzee: "I looked it up," he told Gale, "no movie with a chimpanzee ever made any money."

“We said, what about those Clint Eastwood movies, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can,?” Gale and Zemeckis countered. “He said, ‘No, that was an orangutan.’ So, we have a dog.”

10. Pizza Hut sold Back to the Future Part II promotional sunglasses, a.k.a. “solar shades,” for $1.99.

They were totally ‘80s and pretty sweet. Fortunately, if you missed out on the original 1989 promotion, you can still find a pair on eBay on occasion. Get yours today—just prepare to spend $40 or more.

11. Princess Diana attended the London premiere of Back to the Future Part II in 1985.

No word on what Di thought of the film.

12. Ronald Reagan quoted Back to the Future in his 1986 State of the Union.

It has long been stated that Ronald Reagan was offered the role of Hill Valley's mayor in Back to the Future III, but turned it down. What is known is that the Reagans hosted a screening of the movie at the White House, and both the POTUS and the First Lady were fans of the film. So much so that Reagan even quoted it in his 1986 State of the Union address, stating: "Where we're going, we don't need roads."

13. Tom Wilson, who played Biff, carried around a card that answered every Back to the Future fan’s most frequently asked questions.

After 35 years of being asked the same questions about Back to the Future again and again, it makes sense that Tom Wilson—who played bully Biff—might want to streamline the process. So who carried around a card that answered all of the questions he was asked most often.

14. Elijah Wood made his film debut in Back to the Future II.

Elijah Wood’s first big-screen appearance came in 1989, where he played the kid playing the arcade game Wild Gunman in the Cafe 80s.

15. John DeLorean wrote Bob Gale a letter thanking him for Back to the Future.

John DeLorean, the visionary behind the sports car-turned-time travel machine, sent Bob Gale a note of gratitude about featuring his vehicle in the film. It read: “Thank you for keeping my dream alive.”

22. The real Hill Valley High School counts one former president among its alumni.

Whittier High School, a public high school in Whittier, California, played the role of Hill Valley High School in Back to the Future. In real life, it was Richard Nixon's alma mater.

23. Richard Nixon makes an appearance in Back to the Future II.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Look closely at the headlines on the front page of the Hill Valley Telegraph, which reports that Doc Brown has been declared legally insane and committed to a psychiatric institution. Just to the right of that story, you’ll see another story—purportedly from 1985—that reads: “Nixon to Seek Fifth Term; Vows End to Vietnam War by 1985.”

24. The whole Hill Valley Telegraph is worth another look.

As Jonathan Chiat noted in an excellent round-up of the paper's front pages for New York Magazine, "It is unclear why the Telegraph’s editors would devote such extensive space to Biff Tannen gambling coverage."

25. Homer Simpson took a stab at portraying Back to the Future’s Doc Brown.

In the early 1990s, there was a Back to the Future cartoon which featured Dan Castellaneta as the voice of Doc Brown. Castellaneta is best known as the voice of Homer Simpson on The Simpsons.