Mike Warnke was a con artist. He traveled the country for years, packing the pews of evangelical churches with his message of salvation from Satan, selling thousands of books and records while hauling in millions in donations for the children he had supposedly rescued from the clutches of Satan-worshipping abusers.
Warnke arrived in churches like Harold Hill from The Music Man — as charming and charismatically beguiling as any con artist could be. “You’ve got trouble right here in River City,” he sang. “With a capital T that rhymes with B that stands for Beelzebub!” And he’d gradually segue from lighthearted jokes, mostly at his own expense, into gruesome tales of his dark past as a satanic high priest — stories of drug-fueled orgies and grisly rituals of bloodletting, torture and human sacrifice.
And none of it was true.
Warnke’s lies eventually unraveled. His unbelievable stories — for which he never produced a shred of evidence — proved to be chronologically impossible and were refuted by dozens of eyewitnesses who knew him throughout the time he was supposedly a satanic high priest with six-inch fingernails. The supposed “satanic church” to which he claimed to belong never existed. Nor did the children he was raising all that money to rescue. He was, quite simply, a fraud — a huckster whose lies convinced millions to buy his books and to hand over their money to help him combat an evil menace that never existed.
I’ve written about Mike Warnke before, and about the scrupulous yeoman’s work performed by journalists Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott of Cornerstone magazine, who exposed his fraud, first in a detailed, 20,000-word article and then, even more expansively, in their excellent book Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal. Their careful, painstaking work brought Warnke’s long-running con game to an end. You can read much of their work online at The Cornerstone series on Mike Warnke, and if that interests you, let me again recommend Selling Satan as a fascinating, thorough and yet deeply compassionate exposé.
Hertenstein and Trott marshal their evidence to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Warnke was selling a lie and no reader could ask for a more comprehensive account of the supply side of that story.
But a similar account of the demand side still waits to be written. What was it about the lie that Mike Warnke was selling that made so many hundreds of thousands of evangelicals so desperate to buy it? If “Selling Satan” was a scandal, isn’t Buying Satan an even more scandalous, more disturbing phenomenon? What was the attraction? What made Warnke’s horrifying, lurid tales something that his eager audience wanted to be true?
Thanks to the valiant work of Hertenstein and Trott, Mike Warnke has gone away (mostly).
But that huge eager audience he tapped into is still there. The fascination or temptation or corruption that made so many evangelicals so enthusiastically gullible, so willing and eager to believe stories of imaginary monsters, is just as pervasive and popular as it was in Warnke’s heyday.
That demand-side aspect of the story is a much stranger phenomenon than the supply-side con game Mike Warnke was running. It’s not hard to understand what he was after or what he gained from selling his lies. He got rich and famous and lived the life of a rock star.
But what did his audience gain? What were they chasing after in choosing to believe his unbelievable and implausible tales?
I’ve wrestled with this question before when considering other scary stories, such as the ridiculous but persistent lies about Procter & Gamble (see earlier: False Witnesses and False Witnesses II) and I’ve speculated about some of what might motivate people to choose to believe scary stories they know to be false.
First, and perhaps most innocently, such scary stories are exciting. Most of us have, at some point, found delight or diversion in thrilling stories of monsters in the dark woods beyond the village. From Beowulf to Bilbo Baggins to Buffy to the BAU, we enjoy stories of monsters and the exciting lives of those who do battle with them.
For those who, in Thoreau’s phrase, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” those exciting stories of scary monsters can seem almost preferable to our safer, but duller, daily existence. For them the temptation can be to accept such stories as true in an effort to make life more exciting or meaningful. (For an illustration of how widespread such desperate credulity is, tune in to Coast to Coast with George Noory late at night, anywhere.) There’s always an element of self-deception in this embrace of thrilling fantasy, and self-deception is almost never wholly effective or wholly convincing. But if your situation is bad enough, almost convincing yourself that you’re the hero in an epic battle you almost believe may seem more attractive than your day-to-day reality.
A second motive for why some would try to convince themselves to believe scary stories like Mike Warnke’s is that they promise a sense of clarity and simplicity.
I think of this as the Cape Fear Scenario. The movie starts and we learn that Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange have got problems* — deep-seated problems they find confounding and confusing. They don’t know how to fix whatever it is that’s wrong. Their marriage would seem to provide the basis for one of those literary art films from independent cinema that provides a character study of a family in crisis. But then Robert De Niro gets out of prison and the complex and complicated lives of this family suddenly get much, much simpler. Being stuck on a houseboat in a storm with a psychotic killer may not be pleasant, but it concentrates the mind wonderfully.
That clarity and simplicity, too, can seem preferable to the foggy complexity of real life. Mike Warnke’s scary stories offered his audience the chance to join him in pretending that life was just that simple: the bad, evil satanists are over there and we’re over here. Choices don’t have to be complicated or difficult or ambiguous, he told them — it’s just a matter of opposing the scary monsters.
And that leads us to the third motivation, the least innocent of the bunch and also, I think, the dominant factor. Warnke’s stories allowed his audience to pretend that they were righteous and heroic — better than others. The worse they pretended those others were, the better they could pretend to feel about themselves. Call it self-righteous indignation or Melon Morality, it’s an intoxicating and addictive drug.
Mike Warnke made a fortune because he realized that much of his evangelical audience was already addicted to that drug — jonesing for their next fix of offense and umbrage at the appalling monstrosity of The Other. He fed that addiction and fed off of it until the day he was busted by Hertenstein and Trott.
But taking one dealer off the streets doesn’t really change anything when there are still all those indignation junkies out there, desperate for the next illusory reassurance that they’re better than everybody else. And without the jolt of Satanic panic to satisfy their longing, they’ve moved on to other scary stories to get their fix.
Such as the scary story about the Big Gay Menace.
Warnke controlled most of the market selling scary stories about a conspiracy of satanists, but there’s a lot more competition in the marketplace among the fraudsters selling lies about the Big Gay Menace. The audience eagerly buying those lies, however, is much the same. And that audience is still seeking the same things — excitement, simplicity and pure, uncut indignation.
Lately, though, sales of this particular lie have been fading. The dropoff hasn’t been as abrupt and precipitous as what happened with Warnke. His customer-base dried up almost overnight once Cornerstone’s reporting hit newsstands. But while there hasn’t been one single and thorough exposé of the lies being sold about the Big Gay Menace, those lies are still being exposed little by little, bit by bit, whittling down the market for them to a dwindling base of hardcore self-righteousness addicts.
Vermont adopted civil unions and the sky did not fall. Over the following decade other states followed suit and none of the monstrous evils that the fraudsters insisted would happen have come to pass. And on a more intimate, more personal level, more and more of the people in that potential market for these scary stories have gotten to know gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people — gotten to know them as people rather than as some amorphous Other — and so have come to realize that they’re not the monsters the scary stories make them out to be.
The lies are becoming harder and harder to defend, harder and harder to sell. And without those lies, it becomes harder and harder to explain why one group of people should be denied the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by the rest of us.
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* I’m referring here to Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake. The 1962 original is great, and Scorsese pays tribute to it by casting Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in his update, but the remake works better for what I’m getting at here. At the end of J. Lee Thompson’s movie, you get the sense that Peck and Polly Bergen can live happily ever after once Mitchum has been taken care of. At the end of Scorsese’s film he reminds you that De Niro’s menacing Max Cady was really just a distraction — that Nolte and Lange are back where they started, back in the complicated world of less lethal, but no less real, problems.