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.

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    The prosecutor in the Todd Willingham case in Texas took a heavy metal poster in his living room as evidence that Willingham was a ‘Satanist’ and inspired to murder by those beliefs. A man with the power to send people to jail (or Death Row in this case)
    seriously believes that there is such a thing as Satanic child sacrifice. Horrifying.http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Cameron_Todd_Willingham_Wrongfully_Convicted_and_Executed_in_Texas.php

    One thing I noticed in both this and the West Memphis case was how the satanic myth was used to justify pure narrow-mindedness; to sanctify a knee-jerk dislike towards generic ‘strangeness’ or rebellion as something more than priggishness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobby.herrington.1 Boze Herrington

    “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.”

    I love when Fred appears to be talking about one thing while really talking about another (see also his blog post on The Hobbit and the Book of Jonah, which never once mentioned the book of Jonah).

  • Magic_Cracker

    I guess believing in a vast conspiracy of Satanic baby killers is preferable to accepting the fact of independently operating sado-sexual serial killers — especially when your day-to-day behavior shows you don’t really believe in the former, but don’t want to think about the latter.

  • Holden Pattern

    Also, too, remember Christine O’Donnell “I was a witch”. Same stupid moral panic.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    There was a similar panic surrounding a set of murders committed in Eustis, FL. The ringleader of the crime was from a small bible belt town in KY that’s the home of a small college. The town freaked out, blame the whole thing on a vampire cult, a claim that wasn’t really substantiated by the perpetrators that I can see, and led to few beatings of college students who dressed in all black and the like. This was in 1996.

  • LoneWolf343

    Wiccans are not Satanists.

  • Daniel Martin

    I wonder if someone’s done a proper academic comparative literary analysis of the fake “I was an abortion nurse, let me tell you tales” books and the “I was a satanist, let me tell you tales” books. It seems that those two genres have much to say about each other, but I lack the relevant academic chops to look at them properly.

  • vsm

    Surprisingly, the same ideas started gaining popularity among the Swedish feminist left in the 00′s. The stories were pretty much the same, only they emphasized that the Satanic baby-killers were all part of the patriarchy. The organization most involved with these claims runs women’s shelters, so one would presume they’d have enough to do with existing violence against women and children, but apparently not.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Yeah, but O’Donnell didn’t know, or care, about the difference.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    And since her anecdote was almost certainly fictional, it’s not like Wicca was actually involved in any way.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    One more excellent reason to abolish the death penalty (among a whole host of other things, obviously).

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    But that wasn’t about establishing a panic. O’Donnell was doing what born-and-raised evangelicals do all the time – creating a false veneer of worldliness so they don’t appear so insular. Note that she also claimed to have dabbled in Buddhism – claims to have followed an Eastern religion are common because those faiths seem foreign and were traditionally tied into the new age movement.

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    The Satanism cases were all modern day witch trials – decide the guilty party first, find evidence later. But what you get from Paradise Lost about the West Memphis Three trials – and particularly the case against Echols – is how much the whole thing resembled a deadly serious case of school bullying. The prosecution’s case against Echols amounted to little more than calling the kid a freak, then arguing that he had to be guilty because he was a freak. That was the whole case – they didn’t fit in, therefore murderers.

    I grew up in the 90′s, just after the Satanic panic had peaked. I used to hear rumors about cults lurking in the parks or lying in wait in the sewers, waiting to abduct, kill and eat people. They were ridiculous stories, but they made sense – kids believe stuff like that. Adults really shouldn’t. It was ten years of communities being run by paranoid adolescents, except these children had the power to arrest and kill.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Altemeyer said two things drive authoritarians to lash out. One of them is fear, the belief that the world is a dangerous and deranged place and if they are not constantly on guard against something or another they will fall pray it to. The second is self-righteousness, the belief that they are morally better than those Others, and thus quite qualified to punish those Others for their transgressions. The fear creates a constant kind of fight-or-flight mentality, and the self-righteousness gives it an outlet, a cathartic channel to express their pent up nerves.

    I think what the whole Satanazi thing has so much traction with them is because it satisfies both conditions at the same time. Imagined satanists serve both as a potential threat to feed that fear, and an easy other against which anyone else seems morally superior. Heck, they felt the same way about communist infiltrators during the Cold War, or the government when a Democrat is in power. Always with the combination of fear-mongering and superiority, always the same pattern.

  • Chloe Lewis

    Whoa! (to vsm, re: satanic panic among Swedish feminists.)

    Has that wound down? did anyone apologize?

  • Worthless Beast

    The “cruelty to animals” bit has me worried in that respect. A small group of dorky teenagers who want to be “edgy” by pretending to be “Satanic” and doing so by sacrificing a neighbor’s cat or doing something to that effect aren’t going to make me worry about a worldwide conspiracy so much as the individual budding psychos themselves.
    Individual serial killers who never pretended to be in cults usually started out by torturing animals. And, of course independantly operating sado-sexual killers are scarier because they, being indiviudals, can hide anywhere. There are no tribal markers by which they can be easily identified.

  • stardreamer42

    You know that, and I know that. But ask pretty much any Fundamentalist Christian, and you’ll find that *they* don’t know that. In fact, I’ve spoken with a fair number who will tell you just as happily that Muslims are Satanists, and Hindus are Satanists — in fact, anyone who does not identify as Christian is a Satanist, and atheists are the worst Satanists of all. It’s a very binary viewpoint.

  • stardreamer42

    I used to know (in a fanzine, one of the precursors to the Internet) someone who claimed that she was a victim of ritual abuse practiced by her family and some of their friends. I don’t recall that she ever said “Satanic”, though, and she had rather a lot of mental problems. One wonders which came first, the problems or the ritual abuse; either version would be plausible, though for different reasons.

  • badJim

    Even Pope Francis proclaims, “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil”.
    Crickets, rocks, mosses, distant galaxies all pray to the devil?

  • Mary

    I woul also say that it is quite likely that people develop these nutty theories in a desperate attempt to control things that can’t be controlled. The fact is that the world often is a dangerous and deranged place and often we can’t do a damn thing about it. But if we make the problem “the other” then we can make the solution seem more managable. Of course that is a complete illusion, but I think for some people it seems to be reassuring. So you get wacky things like the gays are responsible for bad weather or that everyone who voted for Obama is a secret muslim out to destroy America. What is ironic is that these fears actually become BIGGER THAN THE ACTUAL THREATS THEMSELVES. So for instance if you believe than God is punishing us for tolerating gays by sending mega-storms, then you will work yourself into a frenzy imagining the WORST WAYS THAT GOD WILL PUNISH US.

  • Guest

    I see that’s what he’s doing, but I don’t get what feverish hysteria he’s talking about. Rapture stuff started before that… does he mean anti-choice rhetoric? I feel slow. :(

  • vsm

    The panic wasn’t nearly as widespread as it was in the United States, so there wasn’t that much to wind down. Most Swedes probably didn’t hear about the stories until a 2005 expose, which effectively ended the careers of most of the peddlers. The most notable thing about the case is how influential some of the people were; you had people with influence on the government, like a major feminist scholar (yes, this actually makes you influential in Sweden), the head of a women’s shelter organization and even a former minister. One of these people, Gunilla Ekberg, is now apparently trying to forge a new career in Canada as an anti-prostitution activist.

  • fraser

    They also shared the trait with the Salem trials of ignoring established rules of evidence (which Cotton Mather, I believe, complained about re: Salem). Therapists believed that if they bullied and threatened toddlers into saying their parents abused them it had to be true, because kids would never lie about their parents.

  • Mrs Grimble

    That pretty much happened here in the UK where anti-patriarchy feminists teamed up with fundamental Christians to spread the myth that Satanists were sacrificing babies. Because, of course, it’s all about nasty patriarchal Men doing horrible things to innocent defenceless Women.

    See for example the Broxtowe case, in which a real case of intergenerational incest in one family was turned into a city-wide Satanic conspiracy. This involved Nottingham’s Chief Constable*, local politicians, Freemasons etc. attending monthly orgies in a semi-detached council house, a public park and mansions with gold-plated bathroom fittings, where they sacrificed goats and raped children. One of the ‘proofs’ of satanic activity that social workers proudly presented were drawings of a red-and-black devil done by one of the children – which was in fact Manchester United’s Red Devil mascot.

    *He successfully sued the Social Services dept for publicly identifying him as a baby-eating Satanist.

  • AnonaMiss

    Given his namesake, it would be appropriate for him to believe that these things pray to the Lord.

    Though he did say “anyone”, not “anything”, so your comment might have been kind of goalpost-move-y anyway.

    (The question remains, though, does he believe that people who ‘think’ they don’t pray, are actually praying to the devil? Or just those who consciously pray to not-YHWH?)

  • histrogeek

    There is a long tradition of believing in the secret, hyper-evil, ubiquitous, super-powerful cabal and they seem to be vaguely connecting through the American, white, conservative Christian subculture. First anti-Semites like Henry Ford and the Klan, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Then anti-communists like the John Birchers, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon starting in the late 1940s. Then the anti-cultists/anti-hippie bunch starting in the 1970s, which led directly to the Satanic panic.
    It’s the anti-cult hysteria in the 1970s and 1980s that I recall. There was a certain sense of supernatural control, dressed up with a lot of pseudo-psychology left over from the Korean War. The Satan panic didn’t seem to be of the same piece at the time, since the former was about nasty unconventional leaders seducing your kids and the latter was about a conspiracy of ritualistic killers, rapists, and kidnappers.

    Looking back though, it’s easy to see the connections. I think that the violent confrontations at Jonestown and Philadelphia lent support to the dangerous cult meme, which took only a small leap of imagination to reach the Satanist abuse conspiracy.

    Mind you the Satan conspiracy thing was genuinely absurd and many people tried to point out this at the time. The basic question, never answered, was where were all the bodies from these endless rounds of sacrifices.

  • misanthropy_jones

    the west memphis three case is a heart-breaking case.
    the saddest part is that despite the gaps in the evidence, people were happy to settle on the conviction of three innocents rather than pursuing the guilty. this is not, unfortunately, unique to this particular case.

  • Lori

    To me one of the worst aspects of the panic was that in the majority of cases the therapists truly thought they were helping. They didn’t threaten toddlers, or even bully them. They simply asked questions and totally failed to realize that the way they were asking the questions was totally inappropriate and was creating stories instead of uncovering them. Some of them still don’t acknowledge that, no doubt because they are unable or unwilling to face their part in what happened.

    I don’t want to go into a whole long explanation of how those therapists went so wrong since that’s probably not of interest to most people, but the short version is that it wasn’t malice in the sense of setting out to do harm. They had a strong desire to help and protect children, a set of erroneous beliefs about how the world works, a sloppy approach logic and evidence, and a set of therapeutic techniques that they failed to treat with the proper care. All that added up to disaster.

    I think it’s also worth noting that things went as far as they did in part because the relevant professional associations and licensing boards are not set up to deal effectively with practitioners who go totally off the rails like that.

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

    “When we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord,” the pope told the cardinals.

    Can anyone parse that part? All I can get out of it is “If you speak of Jesus without reminding people, ‘yo, hey, you’re all horrible sinners,’ you’re not actually doing your job and you’re just contributing to the sin.”

  • fraser

    Yes, I made it sound as if they were more villainous intent than they were, you’re quite right.
    Of course, even when the children started talking about how the evil satanists brought people they’d killed back to life or named members of the police department as abusers, nobody thought that indicated a weakness in the prosecution case.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I don’t know, I play Dungeons & Dragons & I’m an atheist who doesn’t vote Republican…MAYBE THEY WERE RIGHT?!?!?

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    These days we get “If you see something, say something,” which is the same drumbeat.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I want to think that is true– sort of an ostrich in the sand approach– but I think there is a larger mixture of defining any group outside their own ethnic & religious slice of the American pie as Other & than vilifying them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    I kept thinking it was Rosie O’Donell, who I don’t like anyway.

  • Jenny Islander

    Ritual abuse does exist because rituals evoke a feeling of power that abusers enjoy. My own father had his rituals for his “alone time” with me. If he had found a like-minded person online–thank God, he died long before the Internet was a thing–then they might well have shared; sometimes people who get excited by hurting and dominating children feel gregarious about it. But vast conspiracies of Satanists producing babies for sacrifice, digging secret tunnels in day care centers, and holding huge gatherings in parks–no, not so much.

  • http://twitter.com/bmk bmk

    The Frontline documentary “Innocence Lost”, about the North Carolina-Little Rascals daycare case, has always haunted me. Most of the defendants accepted plea bargains because they didn’t think they would ever be believed in the face of the panic.

  • Light_Sleeper

    I was exposed to the psychological abuse known as “Satanic Panic” by my church group, and tacitly by my parents. People who should have been taking care of us but who would rather credit and perpetuate the myth of monsters in our midst than make the most rudimentary enquiries into the facts of the matter. We were subjected to the lies of Mr. Warnke at church “lock-ins” and none of the adults took the trouble to explain to us that our neighbors might not actually be out for our innocent blood.

  • http://twitter.com/JendiReiter Jendi Reiter

    I’m troubled by the leap made in this post that ritual abuse doesn’t exist or is so rare as not to be worth talking about. I have a close friend who is a survivor (and she is one of the sanest people I know) and I have met other survivors through her. The perps may not be members of a cult, as the fundies describe it, but they use the symbols of devil-worship to frighten the child victims and also to make the child’s memories so baroque that no one will believe her if she tells. This was the case for my friend, whose abusive father was an atheist intellectual, not a Satanist. Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Read Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery” before you keep on spreading destructive myths that ritual abuse survivors are brainwashed and deluded.

  • histrogeek

    There is a term, pseudo-Satanism, for abusers who use the trappings of magic and the occult as a cover for their abuse. As you describe it terrifies the victim further while making the victims look insane. Essentially every legitimate study of Satanic ritual abuse concluded that any substantiated claim of abuse was pseudo-Satanism.

    Pseudo-Satanism does exist. A cabal of hyper-efficient Satanists kidnapping and murdering at will throughout the country in the name of the Devil, that’s not real.

    It’s the latter that the Satanist panic was directed against, in part because the story was dramatic and scary. Child abusers who frighten their victims would never have created the twisted obsessions, or profit-making exploitation, of the 1980s and 1990s.

  • brightie

    Oh gosh.
    If you’ve performed the experiment with such results, then you run into different Fundamentalist Christians than I do… but… *facepalm* That shouldn’t exist. Nobody should be able to live in this world and still be that clueless about the people around them.

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

    There is a person in the Noah’s Ark thread right now who is arguing that Harry Potter teaches witchcraft linked to Satanism — that, in fact, any fiction which would incline one toward matters outside of the strictly historical is linked to witchcraft and Satanism.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I don’t particularly like Rosie either, but I’d rather have her in politics than Christine. Rosie’s at least on speaking terms with reality.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    Actual serial killers have pretended to be in cults. There’s a persistent myth about a cabal called “The Hand of Satan” mentioned by Henry Lee Lucas, Ottis Toole, Charles Manson, and others. It’s all bullshit, of course.

    Then again, Lucas did claim they would never let him be executed, and he turns out to be the one time GWB commutes a death sentence as governor…

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    At its core, D&D indoctrinates players into tolerance. Your PCs are often members of different races and multiple religions who learn to work together. Most RPG rules sets also posit no physical differences between men and women, and prominently feature women in combat roles and positions of authority.

  • Rae

    Oh, yes, we went through a lot of the details about the questioning styles and leading questions in my forensic psych class – it’s really amazing how sloppy all of that was!

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Yeah, the Rumpole episode “Rumpole and the Children of the Devil” was mocking that.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Really? Because at it’s core I think there is a dangerous message of colonialism, in which a bunch of white people– some of whom have pointy ears, it is true– break into the homes of other people on the basis of the fact that their race– orc, goblin, drow– is “evil.”

    (Just playing devil’s advocate on a lark, but there are lots of race issues in DnD that I think need addressing, for real.)

  • alfgifu

    A kindly way of reading it would be to assume that ‘the Cross’ means weakness, suffering and difficulty. The idea being that Christ without the Cross is the SuperJesus – no vulnerability. From a worldly perspective (using the language of the quote), this is great because it means the boss is the biggest bully in the playground.
    Jesus himself said that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him – there’s a whole route of powerful iconography that leads from there to the Servant King and the idea that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Basically, a willingness to be vulnerable as Christ was vulnerable is a key part of following him.
    That said, the association of the cross with accusing people of sinfulness is utterly strange to me and it took me a couple of minutes to parse what you’re saying, so I am not entirely sure I have got it right!

  • histrogeek

    I have long suspected that the guilty party or parties were well-connected enough that prosecutors decided to scapegoat a couple of outsider kids when the evidence started to lead them to someone powerful. Just a guess, it just seems that several people interviewed in the area seemed to have suspicions they weren’t willing to articulate.

  • AnonaMiss

    I believe the association between the cross and accusing people of sinfulness – in the minds of those fundies who bring it up all the damn time – is “You’re so awful, Jesus had to die for your sins!”


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