The so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and early ’90s is generally dismissed today as a bizarre bout of Reagan-era excess, but it’s important to remember that it was a morally reprehensible witch hunt that injured thousands and saved none, orchestrated by grievously irresponsible religious and civic leaders, incompetent mental health providers and law enforcement officials, sensation-chumming media, deadbeat parents, charlatans and con artists, and remorseless criminals to divert attention from the real degenerates—themselves. And witch hunts, despite all of our vaunted “progress,” have a way of repeating themselves.
The panic began to surface with the 1980 publication of Michelle Remembers, a now-refuted chronicle of the alleged abuse of 5-year-old Michelle Smith by a satanic cult starting in 1954. The McMartin preschool trial, largely the result of allegations made by a paranoid schizophrenic, and tragically prolonged by “therapists” forcing false claims out of preschoolers, was pasted across TV screens and newspapers from 1984 to 1990, when the last two defendants were acquitted. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, the psychiatrist who “recovered” her “repressed” memories of abuse and then married her, acted as consultants for the prosecution and met with the alleged victims and their families.*
Meanwhile, “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez was terrorizing greater Los Angeles (including 12-year-old me), murdering 13 and assaulting and mutilating many more. At his 1988 sentencing he famously held up his hand, inscribed with a pentagram, and proclaimed, “Hail Satan.” By 1986, the media was calling Satanism an “unmeasurable force,” with the police investigating “as many as 800 crimes… linked to the devil.”
In 1988, as the McMartin trial was in full swing and Ramirez was being tried, Geraldo Rivera hosted a prime-time special called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” The special was very controversial and, predictably, hauled in huge ratings for NBC. In the special Rivera briefly interviews Sean Sellers, a then 19-year-old death row inmate who had murdered both of his parents and a convenience store clerk before he turned 17. Sellers claimed during his trial and afterwards that his actions were the result of demonic possession and converted to Christianity soon after he went to prison.*
I started to watch Escaping Satan’s Web on a whim and found myself unable to look away. It’s an extended (60-minute) interview with Sellers conducted by “Dr.” Fletcher Brothers, a pastor and founder of Freedom Village, a home for troubled teens “completely structured around the word of God.” The interview is intercut with warnings about the lures and dangers of Satanism and the occult. In his introduction, Brothers tells us that “Satanism is rampant in America and Canada” and that “young people by the millions now [are] captivated by something that can make killers out of them.” (Escaping Satan’s Web is dated 1987 by the YouTube poster, but Brothers mentions the Geraldo special [October 1988] and some footage from the show is used in the video, so the year has to be at least 1989.)
Among the animate and inanimate objects Sellers blames for his brutal crimes include his parents, comic books, the library (where he says his journey to Satan began), his babysitter, a “wild imagination,” Freddy Krueger, Zen Buddhism, a Catholic priest, heavy metal (“the lunatic fringe of music,” says Sellers), Dungeons & Dragons, and, of course, Satan himself. Not once does he accept any responsibility, and it was clear to me within the first few minutes of the interview that he was a manipulative sociopath without the slightest remorse for his actions. He understood that his only chance of getting out of prison was to claim the devil made him do it and publicly embrace the version of Christianity that had produced the societal anxiety about ritual abuse in the first place. I’m not sure what’s worse, listening to Sellers coldly describe and disown his calculated, violent actions, or watching Brothers suck up to him as the “saved” poster boy of a demonic affliction that never existed.**
Sellers starts out by describing the rise of Satanism in America—previously, it had been known to exist only “in Africa, or in some other country where there was no civilization”—and tells us that “at every school you’ve got kids who are interested in the occult,” whether they’re only “dabbling” (listening to metal and watching horror movies) or “really interested” (buying copies of The Satanic Bible, reading the Necronomicon—the latter of which is not a real book).
In the first cut scene, the narrator gives us a list of “signs that your child may be a target of Satanic recruitment”:
They come from middle to upper class homes
They have with low self-esteem
They are highly intelligent
They are loners
They come from broken homes
They are latch-key kids
They have a deep need for belonging
They are impressionable
They may be victims of sexual abuse
They are alienated from the church
They are very creative and curious
They are rebellious and looking for power
They are overachievers or underachievers
Aside from sexual abuse, these criteria describe just about every kid I ever spent time with growing up.
Dungeons & Dragons plays an important role in both Sellers’ fabricated conversion to Satanism and the Satanic Panic narrative. D&D had its first spell of national coverage when it was blamed—wrongly, always wrongly—for the disappearance of the unfortunate James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Fundamentalist Christian groups, sensing a powerful alternative to their authoritarian prescriptions, immediately attacked the game as an occult practice, but the real crusade against D&D and its makers didn’t get going until Patricia Pulling started Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) in 1983. Pulling blamed D&D for her son Irving’s 1982 suicide, and for the next decade she was often consulted by police departments, school boards, and the media on teen involvement in Satanism. She also served as an expert witness for the prosecution on the alleged involvement of D&D in several murder cases. (You can see Pulling in the 1985 60 Minutes segment on D&D, in which Gary Gygax destroys her and host Ed Bradley’s desperate attempts to connect the role-playing game to violent and anti-social behavior.) ***
Brothers repeatedly presses Sellers to condemn Dungeons & Dragons in the interview, and Sellers cooperates, describing the dangers of imaginative freedom:
That character that’s in front of him is absolute. It doesn’t change. It’s a friend to him. And when he becomes that character, he knows exactly who he is, he knows exactly what he can do and what he can’t do… and the fantasy world that he lives in has no morals, no limits, you know, no values except for his own…
You let a teenager loose in that world, and sometimes they don’t want to come back.
In other words, the player is role-playing in a not-specifically-Christian universe in which he or she decides what is right and wrong and what choices to make, and to a fundamentalist Christian, that universe is always going to be evil. Sellers’ conversion story collapses, however, when he talks about his leap from D&D to witchcraft at age 14, in the context of wanting to find “a mythological dragon” and “bring it back to life” in a D&D campaign. The book he says he used for reference was Wizards and Witches, a volume in Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series. He specifically names “Time-Life” and “Wizards and Witches.” The problem is that Mysteries of the Unknown wasn’t published until 1987. Sellers had been arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated in early 1986.
The cut scene that follows calls D&D “the most effective introduction to the occult in the history of man.” It teaches
demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex, perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satan worship, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination, and other occultic themes.
That’s a direct quote.
The next cut scene warns of “Signs of Satanism in Your Community,” some of which include “occult graffiti, mysterious murders, demand for occult-related jewelry, shoplifting in candle shops (my favorite), grave robbings, animal mutilations, and unusual tattoos.” The on-screen text is accompanied by video footage of supposedly “at-risk” teenagers committing sins such as smoking, hugging, kissing, dancing, wearing sunglasses and leather jackets, laughing heartily, and so on.
At the end of the video Brothers blesses Sellers, shakes his hand, and says, “One of these days we’re going to shake hands outside of this place without these [handcuffs] on.” The viewer is encouraged to purchase a copy of Satanism in America: What They Don’t Want You to Know, a “new publication” that will “give you the facts on occult and satanic activities that threaten you and your family… to give you the knowledge to protect your loved ones from those that would harm them.” Please send your $10.00 check to Freedom Village.
*In his satanism special, Rivera interviews a spokesman for several McMartin preschool parents who are gathered in someone’s living room. The woman to the right of the spokesman appears to be Michelle Smith (47:51), although I can’t confirm this.
**Sellers was executed by lethal injection in 1999. He did not acknowledge or apologize for his crimes.
***See the AP article “Dungeons, Dragons: Fundamentalists Attack Game as Road to Occult” from February 27, 1982. The writer of a letter to the editor in the December 12, 1980 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard calls D&D a “new fantasy game… based on the ability to promote demons to wipe out the opponent through information and formulas that could only be written by someone well versed with the occult.” She also calls the game an “introduction to the occult.” A December 1981 Milwaukee Sentinel article talks about the school board of Mukwonago High School approving Dungeons & Dragons as an official after school activity. 465 area residents submitted a petition to reverse the decision, calling the game “an active instrument in the practice of witchcraft.”