Satanic baby-killers: What the Devil happened in Arkansas?

Beginning in the 1980s, a feverish hysteria swept across America. It was centered in one demographic — the white evangelical subculture — but it wasn’t confined to that group, and it came to reshape the wider culture, the agenda of elected officials, and the political landscape of the country in fundamental ways, placing a fear of imaginary monsters at the core of our national identity.

That same moral panic continues to shape American culture today, decades after it first began making national headlines. It began in the 1980s, but it did not end there. It continues to wreak havoc on individual lives, and its reshaping of American politics has never been undone.

Nathanael Rich discusses a parallel hysteria in The New York Review of Books in an essay titled, “The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three.”

Rich is reviewing four documentaries on the infamous case of wrongful conviction, as well as the memoir written by Damien Echols — who was arrested at age 18 and sentenced to death for his role as the supposed ringleader of a “satanic cult” responsible for the murder of three young boys.

The “nightmare” fueled by fears of imaginary monsters resulted in three poor teenagers spending years in prison for a crime they did not commit. And it meant that whoever did kill those three children remains free — unpunished and unpursued. That’s what happens when we become obsessed with imaginary monsters: Real injustices go unaddressed even as new injustices are done to the innocent.

The existence of a satanic cult turned out to be wholly imaginary — not just in West Memphis, Ark., but anywhere. The central lie of the Satanic Panic is entirely fictional, entirely fabricated. But it persists because it is a lie that many people want to believe. People want to believe that our society is permeated by secret satanic cults practicing all manner of perverse and diabolical rituals. People want to believe that Satanists are out there killing babies.

If you’re not familiar with the story of the West Memphis Three, Rich’s essay provides a good introduction, summarizing the revelations from a series of documentaries produced for HBO Films:

Were it not for HBO Films, there would be no “West Memphis Three” — only three convicted murderers, two serving life sentences and one, most likely, executed. This is not a credit to HBOas much as it is an indictment of the American justice system and one of the founding assumptions on which it stands.

Paradise Lost’s directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were not lured by a story of wrongful conviction; they went to West Memphis to make a film about Satanic bloodlust and sexual mutilation. The crime occurred at the end of a roughly five-year period, beginning in the late 1980s, in which fears of Satanic ritual abuse had become widespread in American popular culture. The scare extended even into law enforcement, to such an extent that the FBI commissioned a study on the subject in 1991. (The authors concluded that “after all the hype and hysteria is put aside, the realization sets in that most Satanic or occult activity involves the commission of no crimes, and that which does, usually involves the commission of relatively minor crimes such as trespassing, vandalism, cruelty to animals, or petty thievery.”)

Berlinger and Sinofsky spent their first several months in Arkansas interviewing the victims’ parents. The filmmakers began to question the premise of the suspects’ guilt only after they went on to interview the young men in prison. They realized then that they’d stumbled upon a story with even higher dramatic stakes — instead of a real-life Rosemary’s Baby, they had a modern-day Salem Witch Trials.

Rich’s chronology is off. He rightly sees that the West Memphis case can only be understood within the wider context of the Satanic Panic, but he shares the widely held, but incorrect, view that the panic was a brief, 1980s phenomena. He thus tries to compress the Satanic Panic into a “roughly five-year period” including the West Memphis case. But the West Memphis trial was in 1994 — more than a decade after the McMartin Preschool hysteria began and nearly a decade after the notorious 1985 20/20 “special report” on Satanism.

Rich’s compressed timeline doesn’t work. The Satanic Panic began in the early 1980s (the fraudulent “memoir” Michelle Remembers was published in 1980), and as the West Memphis case demonstrates, it was still influential well into the 1990s.

The foremost “expert” in that 1985 20/20 report is Mike Warnke — a comic-turned con-artist who made his fortune selling fraudulent stories of his lurid past as the high-priest of a Satanic “coven.” Warnke was exposed as a fraud by two reporters from Cornerstone magazine in 1992. Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott published a book-length report on Warnke’s scam in July of 1993 — Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal.

And yet the following year, a self-proclaimed “occult expert” named Dale Griffis was the prosecution’s star witness in convicting the three teenagers in West Memphis. Griffis was also featured in that 20/20 report, and he cites Warnke as a scholarly authority in his “research.” Nearly all such “expert witnesses” still do — even now, 20 years after Hertenstein and Trott’s book exposed Warnke’s expertise as nothing but lies.

I’ve only seen one of the Paradise Lost documentaries — the third one, produced after the West Memphis Three were released from prison in a begrudging Alford plea deal. It is by turns heart-breaking and infuriating — a picture of just one case that shows how much real damage is done by the obsessive battle against imaginary monsters.

Beginning in the 1980s, a feverish hysteria swept across America. It was centered in one demographic — the white evangelical subculture — but it wasn’t confined to that group, and it came to reshape the wider culture, the agenda of elected officials, and the political landscape of the country in fundamental ways, placing a fear of imaginary monsters at the core of our national identity.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Satanic Panic began at the same time, and within the same demographic, and with the same emotional fervor in pursuit of the same emotional rewards. But the two things are too similar for me to accept such an extraordinary coincidence.

  • AnonaMiss

    Oh god the Mongrelfolk

    Why, D&D, just why

  • J

    We will only be free once religion is DEAD.

  • J

    Ritual abuse does not exist. Ritual abuse survivors do not exist either.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Jendi, I would like to strongly advise you to IGNORE J. (Or the ‘An unregistered user’ who’s posting that religion should die and that ritual abuse and survivors thereof do not exist, if you’re reading by email. Fuck Disqus anyway.) Known troll.

  • J

    Ritual abuse is nothing but a power-grab by evil godmongerers. Anyone who defends the idea is clearly a murderous person who wants to have power over others.
    There is no god. There is no satan. And there has never been an act of ritual abuse in the history of the human species. And there never will be.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    You need to:
    1. Shut the fuck up right now.
    2. Get a dictionary and learn what “ritual” actually mean.
    But mostly 1. Shut up.

  • J

    Ritual abuse does not exist. It is either a delusion or a power-grab.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    You’re still typing, and you still don’t know what a ritual is. In the words of Barbara Bush, “I’m through with you”.

  • other lori

    I’m honestly not sure that I’d say that SRA and repressed-memory stuff was focused in the evangelical subculture: feminists were equally enthusiastic about the idea, and were just as responsible for spreading the hysteria. I’d recommend reading Making Monsters by Richard Ofshe for a particularly compelling read about how these ideas came to be professionally accepted, which evangelicals played very little role in.

    Historically, I think we can say pretty confidently that any time radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians team up, it’s for bad reasons, against a misunderstood or imaginary wrong, and will have awful results.

  • J

    “Ritual” is like when a cleric in D&D casts a spell. Except that it doesn’t actually do anything.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The order in which you brush your teeth and wash body parts in the shower is a ritual. Unless you change it up every time, which I suppose is possible.

  • J

    Oh, wow: A liberal christian using redefinition, wordquibble and dictobickering to forestall obvious criticism. I’ve certainly never encountered that 50,000 times.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Point one: Atheist. Point two: Wiktionary ‘ritual’.

  • histrogeek

    It is weird to me too. I recall a very ex-Catholic friend telling me that she always felt she was being told that Jesus’ death was HER fault. In a very twisted way, I suppose there’s a kind of logic to that, dying once for all of sinful humanity could be super-reduced down to each person caused it. Of course that’s akin to saying that global warming, the war in Iraq, the Hiroshima bombing, and some future American atrocity are my (or your if you’re an American) fault because hey we’re a democracy and you have a responsibility.

  • J

    Oh, wow: A fake atheist using redefinition, wordquibble and dictobickering to forestall obvious criticism. I’ve certainly never encountered that 50,001 times.

  • histrogeek

    I don’t think that is where Pope Francis was going with that. The more traditional way of interpreting expressions like “profess Christ Crucified” is to emphasize the servant nature of Jesus and the extreme love of Jesus, willing to die for all people. “Profess,” in this case, is not so much teach or say as “show.” Like Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words.”

    At least if I were saying something like that, that’s what I would mean.

  • other lori

    “Trauma and Recovery” is based not on bad science, but on no science. The brain does not work that way. As somebody who was almost convinced by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis that I was sexually abused–I was, in my early 20s, anxious and depressed and unfulfilled, I picked up “The Courage to Heal” since I’d seen it on some friends’ shelves, and their complete certainty that, even if you had no recollection of abuse, if you demonstrated any symptoms (you know, high self-esteem, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, carelessness, perfectionism, sleeping too much, sleeping too little, overeating, undereating, wanting the approval of others, rebelling against other’s standards–very specific stuff that couldn’t possibly describe every single woman out there), you could safely conclude that you *were a victim of abuse–I know how easy it is to start to believe things that simply aren’t true, even for intelligent, sane people.

    I’d highly recommend reading Ofshe’s Making Monsters and Loftus’s The Myth of Repressed Memory, which compassionately but clearly explain how intelligent, healthy, sane people can come to believe completely false things about their past. It’s usually not the result of malicious intent on anybody’s part, but simply what happens, because of how human memory work, when certain therapy techniques are employed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What the fuck is a ‘fake atheist’? And you’re the one not using the word ‘ritual’ in the same way the rest of us are.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    intelligent, healthy, sane people can come to believe completely false things about their past. It’s usually not the result of malicious intent on anybody’s part, but simply what happens, because of how human memory work, when certain therapy techniques are employed.

    Absolutely.

    In addition, intelligent, healthy, sane people can also come to believe completely false things about their past without any particular therapy techniques. One thing I wish we could teach more broadly to people is the evidence indicating that recollection is a creative process… it’s not at all like reading a previously stored record.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Interesting. I’ve never heard it described that way. For me, depending on the era and my attitude toward Christianity, the cross has either symbolized redemption or needless death. I interpreted “Christ without the cross” as a reminder that Christ died for our sins and trying to take that out of the equation is dissociating Christ from his function as redeemer.

    At present, since I value Christianity for its teaching rather than its theology, Christ-as-redeemer has little meaning for me and I can readily imagine taking the entire redemption-by-sacrifice out of the equation altogether. Condemning “Christ without the cross” kind of sounds like an attack on people like me in that context.

  • other lori

    Right. You don’t need to be in therapy for this to happen. We incorporate other stories and our own present into our memories. I have this incredibly vivid image of standing on a stool and peering through the observation window to see my sister after she was born, and it never happened; I was at home with my grandparents when she was born, and never visited the hospital. My “memory,” which feels very, very reliable to me, must have been formed from a mix of stories I was told, books and movies where people did visit siblings in the hospital, etc. But it’s not based on what actually happened, and it didn’t form because anybody lied to me or I was lying, just because our memories are in dynamic interplay with our present, not static relics we can just call up untouched.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    You’re not actually an atheist, you know. You’re an anti-theist. You define yourself by what you oppose. The Republican party does the same thing…

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Children in particular are capable of passing lie detector tests while spewing complete inanity. It’s not lying when a child assures you that the reason trees move (in the wind) is because they’re putting on fresh socks. With a little prompting, they can generate a story that has no keeping with reality, but which would pass any character examination test we trust to adults.

  • other lori

    My 3yo just told me that she doesn’t need to nap because she didn’t sleep last night because her friend came to our house and stole her pillow. Not a single part of that is true, but she’s not actually lying.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Exactly! For children, the world is malleable. ^^

  • histrogeek

    The boundary for reality and imagination is fluid, but it’s important not to overstate that. Too many children’s stories of abuse are dismissed that way.

  • Carstonio

    From my reading, those two types of hysteria were separate phenomena pushed by separate groups. Feminists had almost nothing to do with the Satanism issue, and ditto for fundamentalists regarding repressed memories. The only real commonality was the amount of media hype.

  • other lori

    I don’t know: if you read Debbie Nathan’s “Satan’s Silence,” she does a pretty good job documenting the role of feminists in the SRA abuse panic, and it wasn’t an incidental role. “Recovered memory” therapy, which was practiced and celebrated by many feminist psychotherapists at the time, often resulted in people “remembering” ritual abuse: people in these therapies, rather than getting better, just kept remembering more and more depraved traumas. And a generation of social workers and therapists who believed in repressed memory theory went on to work with children in any of these large-scale SRA cases, and were already primed to believe–even though they weren’t evangelicals themselves in most cases–that there was an epidemic of ritual abuse going on. MPD and SRA also went hand-in-hand, and again it was feminist psychotherapists who really pioneered the diagnosis of MPD. All of these things–recovered memories, SRA, and MPD–went hand-in-hand.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Aw, but Ellie, you aren’t an angry eliminationist obsessed with your own cleverness despite actually being very stupid. Clearly you’re no true atheist!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Good point. *vanishes in a puff of logic*

  • Lori

    I was taught this same thing, and not in the global warming, cumulative fault way either. I was taught that even if I was the only person in the world it would still have been necessary for Christ to die for my sins and that he would have done it because he loves me that much.

    I was never given an explanation of how exactly Jesus would have died for my sins if I was the only person on earth since I certainly wasn’t going to kill him and there wouldn’t be anyone else around to do it. If I did I’d presumably be damned like Judas, which would rather defeat the point of the entire exercise. “Jesus committed suicide for your sins” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

  • histrogeek

    It’s not just fundies who get that message; it’s pretty common among Catholics too.

    I am Episcopalian, so personally I was taught that Jesus died for humanity cumulatively and out of love for fallen humanity, which is why “You killed him!” seemed really weird. Jesus committed suicide for you sounds sort of weird too but it’s closer to my own theology. The best (still not good) metaphor is more like Jesus took a bullet for you. Not perfect because the metaphorical bullet doesn’t represent anything clear.

    Even though, we Episcos get some sense of responsibility, in a ritual way, in Passion readings, that always seemed to be a reminder that if we were there in AD 33 Jerusalem, we’d probably do the same thing.
    It’s true that any of these things could still be used to say “You killed Jesus!,” but it’s a pretty tricky bit of theology.

  • Lorehead

    Who of course started out as the Mongrelmen? But then became folk, because wouldn’t want to sound sexist.


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