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Revisiting America's Satanic Panic: When Heavy Metal and the Devil Himself Stalked the Earth

'Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Panic in the 1980s' provides a fascinating a look back at this bizarre footnote in American history, from Dungeons & Dragons to Venom.

Images courtesy of Spectacular Optical

For a not-so-brief part of the 1980s, America collectively lost its goddamn mind. Spectacular Optical's upcoming book, Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Panic in the 1980s provides a fascinating a look back at this bizarre footnote in American history through the eyes of a variety of authors who tackle the phenomena piece by piece, from Dungeons & Dragons to Venom. "The Satanic Panic was a big part of my upbringing, and over the last five years or so I just noticed a renewed interest in it—possibly because people who came of age in that era are now writers, filmmakers, film curators—so I suppose we were tapping into that zeitgeist, " says Kier-La Janisse, founder and editor-in-chief of Spectacular Optical, the micro-publishing company who will be tackling the book.

"The 1970s popularized the idea that occultism was prevalent even in suburban neighbourhoods, so that made it easier for people to buy into the hysteria when it happened," she adds. "Even though the era bore his name, Satan himself seemed like a pawn in this whole hysteria—any kind of occultism, paganism, or harmless fantasy lore got muddled up into supposed “Satanism” in the 80s. I think the average parent was more afraid that there were deluded, dangerous people who believed in Satan who were willing to do anything in his name, or on the more conspiratorial side, possibly even powerful people who were capable of manipulating their kids or sacrificing babies outright. Or at the very least, if they didn’t believe in the wider conspiracy, they at least believed in the existence of self-identified “Satanists” (usually teenagers) that were bad influences on their own kids."

When the Panic hit, the Cold War had not yet thawed, traditional social structures were eroding, and youth culture was moving into a frightening new direction—teens were shunning their hippie parents' sappy pop records in favor of harder, faster fare like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Judas Priest. Pop itself was getting more risque—Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Prince turned off the lights and turned up the sex. It was a transitional time, and not everyone handled it very well. In fact, many Christian parents viewed it quite literally as the Devil's work.

As contributor Liisa Ladouceur notes, "It’s not just that parents were afraid of Satan. They were afraid, period. You have to remember that in the early 1980s there were a lot of major shake-ups in the traditional American family. Divorce rates had been surging since the 1970s, and more women were working outside the home than ever before. So, for the first time, parents were trusting their children to strangers at day care in great numbers, plus they often didn’t know what their teenagers were up after school because they weren’t home to supervise them. This was legitimately worrisome for many. So when tabloid papers and TV talk shows started doing stories on Satanic cults and devil worship, it was easy for them to believe this was a genuine threat, and to be afraid for the safety of their kids."

By 1985, Satan lurked in every suburb, reports of ritual sacrifice proliferated, and panicky parents threw away scores of heavy metal, punk, and rock'n'roll records in an effort to protect their little angels from the left-hand path. Not even Prince or "Darling Nikki" were spared. This period of moral outrage and fear was egged on by the diabolical propaganda of Tipper Gore's histrionic Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and their infamous Filthy Fifteen list—a document that pilloried fifteen seemingly arbitrarily-chosen songs for their supposed sexual, pro-drug, or occult themes.

Gore and her fellow Washington Wives sought to save the children from raunch and sleaze bty dint of instituting a mandatory rating system (the origins of those pesky black and white Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics stickers that stood between you and the second Limp Bizkit record way back when). As their crusade intensified, rock music itself came under fire, so much that Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider ended up defending the faith in front of a Senate Committee. Of course, their counterparts overseas were less affected—profoundly so, as Ladouceur discovered.

"It was such a big deal in North America, those warning stickers, and the PMRC hearings. It’s hard to imagine being targeted and not being completely involved, but then again welcome to life pre-internet," she explains. "While someone like Dee Snider from Twisted Sister was appearing as a witness to defend his art, across the pond, bands like Venom and King Diamond weren’t even aware their lyrics were being brought before the U.S. senate. It’s not like they would have been getting calls about their records being pulled from record shops — these were underground metal bands on independent labels that weren’t even that easy to find in North America. If you read interviews with them today they’ll tell you they even didn’t learn of this for years, and by then it was just another silly footnote in their histories of pissing people off."

While the Satanic Panic ulimately didn't do much to harm heavy metal—if anything, it made it look more enticing to rebellious teens—the Panic itself left a darker stain on the fabric of society. The wrongly incarerated West Memphis Three languished in prison for decades as victims of the time period's most high-profile witch hunt, but as Janisse learned, there were other severely fucked up happenings, too.

"The most unexpected thing about the book was how heavy it all got," Janisse confides. "I think for people my age who were teenagers in the 80s, we tend to look at that era in terms of how it affected our own youth culture at the time – we associate it with oppression and restrictions that were put on us by parents because of fears fueled by the media, and all those things are valid, but it overlooks the fact that much of the Satanic Panic had to do with children and children’s safety issues. And so in addition to more fun chapters like the ones on heavy metal horror movies or logically questionable Christian VHS tapes, we also had to deal with a lot of child molestation cases, many of which have never been definitively proven or disproven. Many people’s lives were ruined by false accusations in these cases, while others who were likely guilty got off because when the Satanic angle of the case was thrown out, the whole case got thrown out with it. This was one of the most tragic aspects of the Satanic Panic."

While researching her chapter, "The Filthy Fifteen: When Venom and King Diamond Met the Washington Wives," Ladouceur came upon another aspect of the tale that's perhaps less surprising.

"Very few people—even those who have openly participated in Satanic groups or acts— who’ve been accused of conspiring with the Devil ever want to talk about it after the fact. If you ask them to talk about their true opinions of the devil, such as if they believe He’s real, or how being targeted as a Satanist has affected their lives, they will completely refuse, and distance themselves from the topic," she says. "Even today, many feel the need to protect themselves and their families lest they get dragged back some new witch hunt—even though in terms of Satanic content, there is little that a contemporary metal band can do that is more extreme that what you’d find in the Bible, or 15th century Hieronymous Bosch paintings. So while I think Venom and King Diamond have been quite forthright with their experiences, one never really knows the whole story..."

Eventually, the dark forces of censorship were (mostly) conquered, and Satan, sex, drugs, and heavy metal prevailed. The aftershocks of the Satanic Panic have faded, but clearly, Tipper Gore and her cronies still have much to answer for, even as the WM3's Damien Echols walks free and King Diamond continues to thrill audiences around the globe. Ladouceur is far from a PMRC fan, but she does believe that metal still has some work to do.

"For me, it’s essential that artists do what is true to themselves without worrying about who it may offend, and for governments (and their wives) to stay out of the business of who can say what in music, and who can listen to it," she insists. "But it’s equally important for those us who are privileged to work in media to call out those who may spew hate in their music, to take them to task for it, and then for consumers to decide what kind of music they want to support. The good news about the Devil’s music is that it delights—or offends—everyone equally."

'Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Panic in the 1980s' is now available for preorder through Spectacular Optical.

Kim Kelly is possessed on Twitter: @grimkim