One of the interesting things about working in the ol’ historical archive is seeing how many things slip through the cracks, lost to the pages of history. But even weirder to me is the stuff that is well documented, but that people have just kind of forgotten about. Especially if it is from the more recent past. It’s one thing for events that happened hundreds of years ago to fall out of the collective consciousness, but when it is something from your own lifetime, the lack of acknowledgement is more glaring.
For example, if you weren’t a rock n’ roll fan in a small town in the 80s, you might not appreciate just how much people were seriously worried about satanic cults back then. You’ve heard about the West Memphis Three, but you might think you heard about it because it was such a bizarre story, that it came to people’s attention because it was such an anomaly and the injustice was so glaringly obvious. Actually, the kind of attitudes that led to the arrests and convictions of the West Memphis Three were a lot more common than you might suspect.
It was a commonly known fact “that there are over 1 million satanists in this country… The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network” and that “their satanic sexual child abuse, child pornography and grisly satanic murders” were a serious problem, causing much hand wringing and bed-wetting.
Sounds like comedy today, but the quotes above were stated as if they were facts by Geraldo Rivera on a nationally televised “news” report, and quoted by fundamentalists as “proof” of their fears for years afterward. Innocent people got arrested, were imprisoned for lengthy sentences, had their children taken away from them and their lives turned upside down, with little to no evidence. All because they were thought to be part of this satanic threat.
Turns out that it wasn’t even close to being real, of course. As a society, shouldn’t we remember this a bit better than we do? Maybe I’ve just been spending too much time around twenty year-olds lately, but it seems many people have no idea that this ever happened.
You’d kind of assume that the people who got everybody whipped up into a panic over this ridiculous imaginary threat would have either become laughingstocks, been ruined in public life, or at least would have shown some small degree of shame regarding their actions. And the people who bought into it, after some self-reflection, well, they’d probably recognize how irrational they had been. They’d learn a lesson, and be more wary and skeptical in the future. Right?
Naw, dawg. Turns out that for the most part, everybody went on like nothing ever happened, learned nothing, and just never brought it up again. Or, more bizarrely, some still claim it was real, despite the complete lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Geraldo somehow remains employed in television “news.” Welcome to the odd world of the 1980s Satanic Panic.
It is hard for somebody who wasn’t around at the time to believe that people actually took this stuff seriously. But back then, a band like Iron Maiden struck fear into the hearts of parents, clergy, and even other kids. This is especially hard to believe if you’ve seen some footage of Iron Maiden from that era. Look at that spandex.
And this is before they even bring out the giant Eddie.
Now that Ozzy is more famous for being a harmless, doddering old man than he is for fronting Black Sabbath, the whole thing is tough to imagine. Going to a Slayer concert would be considered a wholesome father-son outing nowadays. Who would you consider more likely to molest your child today: Judas Priest, or a Catholic priest? But even AC/DC was considered Satanic because Back In Black had a song called Hells Bells. It is almost impossible today to grasp that people were that worked up about it, but they really were.
Luckily, this ridiculous story has been documented in books like Satanic Panic by sociologist Jeffery S. Victor. Apparently, people want to forget about the whole episode, as the book has sadly fallen out of print. Published in 1993, when the panic was finally winding down, Victor tries to explain how anybody in a supposedly modern society could have fallen for these stories of murderous Satanic cults:
Satanic cult rumors are symptoms of anxieties deeper than fantasy worries about secret, conspiratorial kidnappers and murderers. These rumors are collaborative messages in metaphorical form, which speak of a moral crisis.
This metaphor arises out of concrete sources of shared social stress in rural and small town areas of the country, areas which manifest particularly high rates of economic decline and family disintegration. The social stress is most intense for poorly educated, blue-collar workers, whose jobs are rapidly disappearing and whose families are disintegrating. Economically stressed blue collar workers are those people who are most likely to believe the Satanic cult rumors. They are also those people who have held most uncritically to traditional American cultural values, such as the ideal of hard work, the ideal of unquestioning patriotism, the ideal of religion as a force for morality in society, and the ideal of the family as the central source of stability in life.
…A major component in the informal communication network active in the dissemination of Satanic cult rumors is that of fundamentalist Protestants. The fundamentalist Protestant component is disproportionately composed of economically stressed, poorly educated blue-collar workers. They hold most tightly to traditional American values which are affirmed in fundamentalist religious ideology.
– Jeffery S. Victor, The Satanic Panic.
In other words:
The book is fascinating. It includes a map of areas of the United States affected by the panic, which are primarily rural areas with white populations. If you were a teenager in the big city, it was likely that you could probably listen to your Metallica records without getting hassled too much. But if you were a Baptist in a small town in Iowa, even if the music you liked was something as lame as Def Leppard, you were assumed to be in the service of the Dark Lord.
One aspect of the book that will totally ring true to anyone who was young and into rock n’ roll at the time is the idea that anybody who was remotely “different” by small town standards would get lumped together in the same category, that of “weirdo.” A goth who loved Souxsie and the Banshees, a kid in a Megadeth t-shirt, and a teenage deadhead might have felt they had little in common, but they all would have been considered potential satanists. Can you imagine trying to explain the differences between skinheads?
You: Those skinheads are Nazis, while these skinheads like ska.
1980s concerned parent: *head explodes*
The inability to draw distinctions between any music that wasn’t George Strait or Alabama was still going strong for rural dumbshits long into the 1990s, when I was in college. I had some blues records, which made me a bit of an oddity. That wasn’t all I listened to, but once known as a blues fan, it didn’t matter. I’ll always remember the redneck guy walking by my room when I was cranking up the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F and yelling, “Schooley, you’re always playing that goddamn BLUES shit!”
Of course, when the kids into metal were also morons who took it too seriously, it only added fuel to the fire. Similar to their Norwegian counterparts in the 90s:
The humor and empty boasts inherent in Death Metal were lost on Norway’s youth. They took Death Metal literally, and quickly discovered that it wasn’t “evil” or “authentic” enough. There were too many “poseurs.” And more important, too few genuine corpses for a scene that claimed to be so obsessed with death and violence.
At least the Norwegians made some good records. Small town America in the 1980s was such a stultifying environment, and the kids living there so bereft of imagination, that our teenage satanic killers could conceive of committing a murder but not of starting a band. There had probably been murders in their town before, after all, so at least there was a precedent for that. There probably weren’t any bands for miles around.
Unlike the West Memphis Three, you can’t even feel sorry for these kids, since they were actually guilty. In rural Missouri (of course), some poor kid named Steven Newberry got killed in 1987 by his redneck dumbshit friends, apparently for no reason other than that they were bored, living in the middle of nowhere, and they’d heard some Megadeth and Slayer records and were too stupid to get the joke. The crime is barely remembered today, and doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia page, but you can be sure it served as evidence for many that all these rumors about rampant Satanism among the metalheads were true.
The story would be lost to the pages of internet history if not for a pandering and sensationalistic L.A. Times article that still comes up in a Google search. For a story by a staff writer at a big-city newspaper, it completely captures the tenor of the times in flyover country:
The kids called their music “thrash”–speed metal so loud, so fast and so dissonant that it often takes 30 or 40 playings just to make out any of the lyrics. Parents would buy their children headphones to escape the din. Ron Clements and Jim Hardy listened for hours at a time and learned the words by heart.
The repulsive songs fed a raw, unspeakable hunger that had gnawed at Jim since he was small.
-Tamara Jones, Satanists’ Trail, from the L.A. Times, October 19, 1988
“The repulsive songs,” she says! If this was how they wrote about metal in L.A., what hope was there in towns where the stories in the local newspaper ended with “and a good time was had by all”?
Of course, it was easier to blame heavy metal for dumbass kids doing stuff like this, than to take a hard look at the dully oppressive nature of living in most small towns in the middle of nowhere. Parents in these towns wonder why there is a drug problem sweeping their community, the outside world wonders, “How could anybody stand to live there without doing tons of drugs?”
The Stephen Newberry murder pre-dates the suicide of Per “Dead” Ohlin by five years, and Varg’s murder of Euronymous by six. In addition to claiming that I can out-hick any new country artist, can I also claim to out-metal the black metal types? The Ozarks is the authentic home of murdering metalheads, Norway is for posers!
What keeps the Satanic Panic phenomenon from completely crossing over from tragedy to black comedy is the fact that there are some fundamentalist Christians, conspiracy theorists, and others out there who somehow still think Satanic cults are real, despite the complete lack of evidence that they ever existed. Obviously, parallels to contemporary right-wing hysteria and rumormongering are easy to draw.
Meanwhile, in more civilized areas of the country, the idea of a heavy metal fan as a dangerous entity was laughable then, and almost unbelievable now. The metalhead has become a pop-culture caricature: a harmless, loveable stoner who just wants to rock n’ roll, get wasted, and get laid. Just watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot today, and try to imagine how these people were ever seen as an ominous force of evil. You won’t fear for the safety of your children, only for the safety of your stash: