Haunted story or not? On vampires, Satanism and murder

Day after day, the stunning story of young Morgan Lane Arnold has unfolded in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, with each revelation only making key elements of this bloody crime more and more mysterious.

Here are some of the core details. Sometime after 4 a.m. on May 10, Arnold’s boyfriend allegedly stabbed her father to death. The boyfriend told police that Arnold left a sliding door unlocked and urged him, in a barrage of personal messages, to kill her dad while he slept — so that the youngsters could flee as a couple. The girlfriend of the divorced dad managed to escape the attack.

In a recent update, the Sun team noted — no surprise here, in this day and age — that Arnold had previously been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Her parents had radically disagreed with one another on the prickly issue of how to treat her condition, in terms of medication, counseling and a strategy for mainstream schooling.

How much of the following information — the overture for this latest chapter in the drama — will surprise readers who have been paying attention to tragic news stories of this kind?

Morgan Lane Arnold, an emotionally frail 14-year-old freshman, navigated the hallways of her Howard County high school each day filled with anxiety, unable because of a learning disorder to decipher the social cues, jokes and emotions of her peers.

Her preferred environment, often accented by a Japanese anime soundtrack streaming through snug earplugs, featured a mix of fairies, mermaids and vampires, according to her mother. They were the protagonists of a digital realm where she said she was “practicing making friends” through role-playing games and social media.

“Her electronic communication devices were her world,” Cindi Arnold said in an interview last week, the first extended comments since Morgan and her boyfriend were charged with murdering her father, Dennis Lane, in his Ellicott City home. “That is how she felt comfortable interacting with her peers.”

So what makes this a GetReligion story? Is there a religion ghost in this tale?

I will say, right up front, that I am not sure. After the initial reports, I kept reading — expecting a religion shoe to drop in this tragedy.

Finally, there was this, via her mother, Cindi Arnold:

As time went on, Arnold said she heard more about vampires, and eventually her daughter mentioned Satanism. The word, while extreme, didn’t alarm Arnold, though she did have conversations with her daughter about it.

Morgan had always learned about the world through temporary fascinations — at one point dinosaurs and later fairies, Arnold said. This time it was vampires and the devil, things many kids these days have interest in, she thought.

“She had this idea that there was a ‘dark side,’ and she was curious about that. I saw this as another exploration. I thought it was a phase,” Arnold said. “Everybody’s watching the ‘Twilight’ series, and I saw it as part of the cultural mentality of that age group.”

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who has studied teens’ social media use, said interest in vampires these days is not surprising, given that they are the subject of hit TV shows such as “True Blood” and the “Twilight” movies.

“What kid isn’t into vampires right now?” Rosen said. A mention of Satanism could also be a “manifestation of culture,” or a sign of “something more serious,” he said.

In other words, this West Coast expert said that there is pop-culture Satanism and then there is Satanism that parents should worry about.

Right. How do parents know the difference? What are the crucial signs that would tell parents that a child is close to veering over a cliff?

Of, at this point, is it judgmental for parents to worry about kid talk about Satan and the occult? Is it judgmental to suggest that this interest in a “dark side” is a clue pointing toward a state of mind that might have led this young woman to ask her first boyfriend to stab her father to death?

It’s hard to know, since this is all the content the Sun team provided on this front. I find it hard to blame the newspaper for that gap, at this point in time. I would think there’s a good chance that — with prosecutors trying to nail down a motive — that his side of the story is currently being discussed behind closed doors and only behind closed doors. Amen.

My journalistic question? Is this a religion angle or simply a pop-culture angle? Can journalists take these revelations seriously without appearing to assume that these alleged ties to Satanism were serious and/or negative? How do you cover this angle without assuming that it’s real?

Stay tuned.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jay

    Interesting thoughts, but I agree with the question you raised: How would you go about determining whether this is a religion angle or a pop-culture angle. My limited experience with those who have delved into Satanism and Wicca (both different, but both linked at least in the respect of how much of Western civilization has viewed them) has given me the impression that most who delve into them start out with mere curiosity/wanting to be rebellious in some way, and then later on start to become more serious… Was this girl’s fascination with it all pop culture, all seriousness, or a mixture of both? When you add on top of that her diagnosis, you’ve just got so many variables flying around I’m not sure how you would go about asking questions to family members and friends who are really hurting in this difficult time.

    • Darren Blair

      More things to consider:

      1. Who or what introduced her to the topic? Was it an online “friend”, something in her pop culture, or a backfire from someone complaining about her vampires being Satanic?

      2. What, specifically, was she looking into for information? (see above)

      I’ve seen even relatively mundane things being written off as “Satanic” because someone, somewhere, thought that it was evil (or at least not sufficiently adherent to the belief system of the person who made the declaration).

  • Sari

    I have more issue with how Aspergers was represented than I do with a possible religion ghost. Many teens dress “goth” and express fascination with the darker side of things without repercussions.

    Reading between the lines, there’s a lot more story that’s yet to be told, particularly about the boy involved and each child’s socio-emotional competency. What readers need to know is that perseveration on areas of interest is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorders -and- that many higher functioning individuals, those who have language, gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy, because the worlds, unlike their own, are well-delineated and the rules spelled out. Intense interest in Satan or vampires or washing machines or toilet bowl plungers is par for the course and may be indicative of nothing more than having an ASD.

  • Thomas Ormon

    The question I have is “Why cover the angle less it be established as real?” As I understand it, Satanism was founded as a reaction to more traditional teachings on Christianity. They have rituals that glorify the capital sins of Christianity (such as wrath, lust, jealousy, etc.), and they reject the notion that humans should work to curtail these “natural” vices. Satanism can have less to do with beliefs in God, Satan, & an eschatology that plays out, and more to do with opposition to what they deem “oppressive” rules. There may be more virulent strains of Satanism, whereby adherents actually worship & follow the rebel angel, but it would be necessary to establish it as a religion (& not just merely a philosophy based on opposition to something else). Based on the scant sentence I read (i.e. her daughter “mentioned” Satanism), we know next to nothing. We lack the context, not to mention whether she was only curious, or looking into getting more involved in the movement.

    I’ll stay tuned till hopefully something more concrete surfaces.

  • tamsin

    Terribly sad that the teen could “find Satan”, but we have built a culture in which she is not allowed to “find God”.

    Satan? Satan who? Where have I heard that name before? Who speaks of Satan? Reporters don’t even know there is a loop to close.

  • JasonMankey

    “Satanism” is an extremely ineffective term, because there are many different kinds of Satanism. Generally when a 14 year old becomes a “Satanist” they are making up a religion of their own, usually through books or articles online. Their Satanism might be an amalgamation of the Cthulhu mythos (found in books like “The Necronomicon”) along with the writings of Anton LaVey.

    Your comment “In other words, this West Coast expert said that there is pop-culture Satanism and then there is Satanism that parents should worry about” is completely accurate, but you might want to provide links to explain the comment. Organized Satanic groups do not engage in criminal behavior, do it yourself teenagers usually with mental issues do sometimes engage in criminal behavior and often label it Satanism.

    If you are going to “get religion” you should do a better job explaining the complexities of an idea like ‘Satanism.”

  • K Wiley

    This girl is anything but frail. She would stalk and “hiss” at the girlfriends of her crushes, she was obsessed with being a cat and would endlessly recite My Little Pony lines in the voice of Fluttershy and the knives in the house were locked up, not because she was a danger to herself but because she was uncontrollable when she was angry. She orchestrated the murder of her father because he told her that at 14 she couldn’t marry her 19 year old high school sophomore boyfriend. The only Satan she found was Hot Topic’s version, not any true form of Satanism. Jason Bulmer was a developmentally disabled fantasist who played with the dark side via listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath but lacks any level of intelligence beyond that.

    Dennis Lane lived around the corner in my neighborhood. He regularly played poker with my husband. My daughter was one of her stalking victims and my younger daughter was hissed at routinely because of who her sister is.

    The girl belongs in prison.


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