What We Can Learn from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s
We caught up with the team behind the surprise hit, 'Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s,' about our obsession with the devil.
In a complete surprise to its editors, Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, sold out its first run. The second release by Spectacular Optical—a Canadian small-press publisher named after the ominous storefront from David Cronenberg's Videodrome—explores the hysteria that percolated in the 1980s over devils hiding behind every door, be it in film, TV, music, or even children's toys. Satan was everywhere. No one was safe.
Luckily the book's UK publisher, FAB Press, has just released a new printing to catch up with the unexpected demand. We met up with editors Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe to talk about their book's success, if Satan is still relevant in 2016, and what's on the horizon.
VICE: Were you surprised the book sold out so quickly? Or were you surprised that the book was so quickly embraced?
Kier-La Janisse: I was surprised it sold out so quickly only because I usually don't have that kind of luck, not to mention we only sold it in pre-sales through Indiegogo, on our website, and in person at events. And hardly anyone reviewed it—but the good thing about that is that it means the FAB Press edition can still get out there a lot more widely. But in terms of the appeal of the content, I wasn't surprised people responded to it—people are very interested in this stuff and yet seem to have a superficial understanding of how it all played out, what influences were at work, etc. And so the book tries to show how all these different elements combined to create kind of a perfect storm.
What parts of the book still resonate in 2016?
Paul Corupe: Obviously, the popular fascination of the time has died down but most of it still resonates today since so much of it ended in questions, rather than answers. There are still heated corners of the internet who passionately debate this kind of stuff, and current scandals like the Jimmy Savile allegations seem to dredge up the past again and again. Like, if this stuff really happened, then the McMartin preschool case wasn't so far fetched, right? Every time some kid up in court blames a heavy metal or rap song for what they did, the shadow of the panic will rise again
Janisse: As gets mentioned in the book a few times, this kind of a panic resurfaced in the UK in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and in both cases the idea of organized child abuse always somehow gets lumped in with a supernatural conspiracy in a way that undermines the charges. So as far as that significant part of the Satanic Panic that involved sexual abuse cases, those allegations and anxieties have been more visible in the news in recent years, but the pop-cultural artifacts of the 80s relating to fears about heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons, those are a part of their time, and so they are of interest to people due to a very distinct aesthetic that people are nostalgic about.
This fear of the unknown seems ludicrous today yet as a child I would have nightmares about Satan. My brother's Iron Maiden wall poster scared me. Did either of you have the same fears?
I was raised Catholic so I definitely feared Satan and demons and all these things as a kid. And Catholicism is an especially fertile place for these anxieties to fester because Catholic imagery is so violent and grim. And in turn I think Catholicism totally fed my love of horror films—but my love of these films, and of dark music with gruesome theatrics—Alice Cooper was a favorite as a kid—also made me realize that it was possible to engage with these things and not be evil—so when musicians like Ozzy Osbourne were persecuted, or kids who played Dungeons and Dragons were portrayed as being under Satan's spell, I felt it, because I knew that could be me. Luckily I was never denied access to horror films because my parents liked them too, but my mom's anxiety about Satanism came out in other weird ways, usually involving household products we weren't allowed to buy because of Satanic origins (i.e. anything made by Procter & Gamble).
With Alison Lang's essay on the Geraldo TV special and Ralph Elawani's essay on Satanic anxiety in Quebec, I sense that a large function of this book is to address the power and hypocrisy from white male authorities in the Catholic church, no?
Corupe: That's certainly a good interpretation of what happened, although we tried to keep our focus on the pop culture aspects of the panic. For me, the book is more about the con artists, conspiracy theorists, and mentally unbalanced individuals that had this unprecedented impact on pop culture at the time. I don't personally believe that the panic was really waged by the church and hardline religious types, but more by the supposed born-again Satanic priests who built cults of personality around claims that they committed atrocities before turning to God. It's true that many influential religious organizations hypocritically embraced these figures and accepted their stories as authentic, but it's not terribly surprising because they were being told what they wanted to hear—that those without God were tools of Satan.
Janisse: We just wanted to document things as objectively as possible (while still allowing individual authors their opinions) and as we were working on it, it became a much heavier thing than we anticipated, full of tragedy that was the result of hypocrisy, ignorance, and those who took advantage of it. So, yes, that did end up being the overarching theme of the book.
Do films on Satan still hold up due to their primal power or are they just plain silly?
Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen have not lost their power. That's partially the primal urge to believe these stories due to centuries of being hammered over the head with them, but it's also indicative of expert filmmaking. A great filmmaker should be able to imbue a film with that power regardless of whether or not the audience are even familiar with Catholicism. Take a movie like The Believers or Angel Heart—I would guess a big part of their audience were not familiar with the practices of Voodoo or Santeria—but the idea of a religion you are not a part of and don't understand is probably even freakier to most people than something that uses traditional devil imagery as depicted in the Christian bible. Anyways, the classics I mentioned are not part of the Satanic Panic era—many of the films of that era remain thoroughly enjoyable—Trick or Treat or The Gate for instance—but are definitely campy and silly.
Are we seeing a return to the occult in cinema with movies like The Witch, Kill List, and the heavily Judeo-Christian The Conjuring? Why do you think that is? Before that, there seemed to be a period where the monster was Matthew Lillard or that Michael Myers simply had a bad childhood.
Corupe: Yes, House of The Devil (2009) seemed to kick off a wave of new Satanic thrillers over the last decade. I can't really say why we've seen a resurgence, but perhaps it has something to do with the increased polarity of political viewpoints in the United States, and groups like the Westboro Baptist Church gaining media attention. To many, religion can still be an all-consuming and scary thing.
Janisse: Agreed—we are in a time of religious extremism, so it makes sense that religion has become a popular poison in horror films again, and I suppose Satanism and other types of marginal occult religions are easier to demonize without having to engage directly in a political discussion.
What's your favorite, made-up, ludicrous 'fact' that was perpetuated in that era?
Corupe: There's all kinds of facts that get passed around in TV specials and Christian videos of the time, from baby sacrifices to the Smurfs getting kids acclimatized to death to Satanists consulting on horror movies. But I particularly like Jack Chick's comic book Spellbound, which says that all rock songs (including Christian rock) are essentially evil magic spells that are made by combining ancient druidic melodies with lyrics written by witches. Then, the master tape is blessed by "Satan's top demon" at a ceremony under a full moon before it is put into the hands of impressionable teenagers. Seems plausible.
Why did Satanic Panic end?
Nothing concrete ever came of all the accusations. The McMartin trial fizzled out, the West Memphis 3 case began, and rock musicians began to actively rally behind their cause. Some of the concerns about heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons faded as those particular pastimes started to fade in popularity to make way for other teenage preoccupations in the 90s. It was kind of like all the stars aligned in the 1980s for the panic to happen, but by the 1990s the case that the devil controlled popular culture started to unravel a bit. Of course, there are still people who believe this, though.
Kid Power, the first book by your company Spectacular Optical was about child empowerment in film. This book seems to be more about the scary puberty years where one would flirt with evil. What will the third book be?
Our next book is going to cover Christmas horror in film and TV. There's never been a comprehensive look at this phenomenon, and we hope to look at everything from Santa slashers to holiday ghost stories to the recent resurgence of Krampus.
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