Hi and welcome back! It’s so bizarre to me to see the Satanic Panic back in the news these days. It was simply incredible, the amount of harm done by those conspiracy theorists. And now they want another ride on that merry-go-round! Today, let me show you why the idea of another Satanic Panic makes me nervous–and why it should make all of us nervous. Let me show you how it hurt one of my dearest friends in the 1980s.
Stuff Authoritarians Love.
There ain’t much that authoritarians love more than unleashing a big ol’ huge blown-up moral panic on the world. Leaders and followers alike love it–for slightly different reasons.
Leaders love a big ol’ huge moral panic because–if successful–it gains them an incredible amount of social power. They’ve convinced a whole lot of people that a huge crisis and threat exists, and that the only way to fix it is to do exactly what they demand.
In turn, followers love being part of their leaders’ moral panics. Such panics downright titillate them. Moreover, panics grant them a lot of opportunities to:
- Swan around and grandstand
- Make grandiose claims without fears of pushback or demands for citations
- Pretend to have been deeply involved in the threat at one point, and
- Earnestly warn the world about the danger they’re all in if they don’t comply with the tribe’s demands!
How do you know Satanic Panickers are lying?
Their lips are moving.
The Conspiracy Theories of Everything.
The best part of it all, to these authoritarian followers, is that the moral panic will always deeply affirm and validate the beliefs of those pushing it. It grants these followers an active role in the big huge imaginary battle their leaders have created. Really, helping to propagate a moral panic is even better than listening and parroting apologists because it’s a real-world conspiracy theory, not a fancy-pants fast-talker trying to spin
straw into gold arguments into evidence.
The moral panic functions as an outgrowth of wingnut beliefs, yes. However, it also amplifies the wingnuttery of those participating, as conspiracy theories tend to do. Literally everything can be twisted into support for the conspiracy theory.
When we’re dealing with a tribe of people who literally don’t understand how to assess claims–or are unwilling to do so–then all the usual checks on behavior fly out the window. The panic escalates, with no way at all to pull back on the throttle.
Meanwhile, the stakes rise ever-higher.
Sweet Dreams Are Made of These.
I’ve mentioned Big David before, here and also here. Before those incidents, though, in the 1980s, he was one of my best friends in the Pentecostal church I joined. Our circle of friends were thicker than thieves and hung out all the time. Most of us carpooled to church, and several of us attended the same university. We were all new converts–not raised in Pentecostalism–so we were very fervent. Of course, we attended church several times a week, volunteered quite a bit, and most of the young men in the group planned to go into ministry careers somehow.
(BTW: We called him “Big David” because another young man in that social circle was also named David. So the other young man became “Little David.”)
Big David switched to Pentecostalism very recently from the Assemblies of God (AoG). In that denomination, he’d attended the church of a big-name televangelist–I want to say Jimmy Swaggart–and claimed he’d been on a familiar basis with him.
But then disaster struck: he’d realized that the Trinity was a foul Satanic doctrine! Oh noes!
Immediately, he converted to Oneness Theology and joined the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI).
Authoritarianism: In His DNA.
In my mind’s eye, Big David appears larger than life. He had beautiful crystal-blue aquamarine eyes that seemed to look into forever and a strong voice made for public speaking. Everything he did happened at mach speeds and 110% intensity. Tall and lanky, with black hair and pale skin liberally dotted with freckles, he looked like a country boy. He needed to be wearing denim overalls and a well-loved straw hat and carrying a homemade wooden fishin’ pole.
But he wasn’t a country boy at all.
In fact, Big David was Houston born and bred.
His dad was the absolute epitome of a stereotypical hard-bitten Irish cop. He hailed from a family line of the same and probably felt grumpy that Big David hadn’t gone that route career-wise, breaking the combo.
As the patriarch of the clan, he ruled like a king from a throne. His word was law.
His father’s authoritarian control-lust might have been Big David’s downfall. He grew up learning the ways of authoritarianism, just like I did. He understood that mindset very well, just like I did.
In hindsight, I perceive that he was as foregone a conclusion for recruitment into extremist hard-right fundagelicalism as I was.
Horror of Horrors!
When Big David converted to Assemblies of God in his mid-teens, they felt a great deal of alarm over the situation.
When he went Pentecostal, however, they went absolutely ballistic.
I don’t know why AoG was moderately tolerable to them while the UPCI was out-and-out demonic. Maybe it was the more out-there Pentecostal practices like speaking in tongues, exorcisms, casting spells like hedges of protection, and all that mystic oogly-boogly stuff.
Or maybe he offended them with his denial of the Trinity and his absorption of various anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. As an ex-Catholic, I myself often noticed Pentecostals saying stuff about Catholicism I knew wasn’t correct. If Big David spread those ideas to his parents, I can see them getting really tetchy about it.
Whatever the case, his dad became convinced that Big David had joined a cult that was in league with Satanists.
An Imaginary Secret War.
We talk a lot about the Satanic Panic on our Monday chat series, Lord Snow Presides (LSP). In the 1986 book This Present Darkness, writer Frank Peretti outlines a conspiracy theory that took evangelicals by storm back then:
The forces of ultimate evil seek to take over the entire world for Satan. To do it, they infiltrate all kinds of community organizations: from the police and local governments all the way to schools, the entertainment industry, advertising, everything.
And y’all: a tiny remnant of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are all that stand between them and the subjugation of the entire world.
I jokingly call their imaginary enemy the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) because these culture warriors don’t really recognize any difference between the two groups.
They think Satanists totally cast Wiccan spells. By the same token, they think that any Wiccan who doesn’t know that Satan is the real leader of their religion simply hasn’t been let in on the secret yet.
Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate: Cops and the Satanic Panic.
The huge irony here, of course, is that the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ represent the villains of the story, not the heroes. And they’re the ones trying hard to infiltrate every vaguely-powerful group they possibly can, so they can exert dominance from the inside.
One of the biggest coups achieved by the Satanic Panickers was the takeover of American law enforcement officers (LEOs). It looks to me like the instigators of this moral panic found it laughably easy to get huge numbers of LEOs on board with their ideas.
These mountebanks sold their scam to the police as a fusion of Satanism and general cult activities, but very dangerous cults committing homicide, torture, kidnapping, child abuse, and much more.
In their telling, even innocuous-seeming Christian cults targeted young adults and teens for recruitment. Then, once they’d indoctrinated their victims, they pushed them into a life of Satanic abuse and crimes.
And hooboy. Once they bought into the scam, LEOs went completely gung-ho on the mess.
Today’s people just have no idea how tight that link was between the Satanic Panic and LEOs. Oh, sometimes modern folks get a little whiff of the reality we endured back then. It’s just a whiff, though. Way too many LEOs were beyond obsessed.
“The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults” from 1994.
How It Worked.
Generally speaking, here’s how the takeover happened.
One member of a police force would be involved in one of the many wackadoo churches whose leaders had bought into the Satanic Panic. That member–almost without exception white, male, and middle-aged–would then sell the panic to his brothers in the force.
This first LEO–a sort of patient zero–often styled himself a cult expert. In that guise, he’d hold seminars and invite faux-experts like himself to come in and give presentations about topics like spotting Satanists and cult members, identifying Satanic/culty symbols in graffiti, and showing his fellow LEOs what clothes, slang, entertainment choices, and music preferences could tip them off to a potentially dangerous person.
(For the uninitiated, all their Satanic “signs” looked exactly like being a normal if slightly goth-y teenager in the 1980s.)
An entire little cottage industry sprang up to support LEO “cult experts.” Besides supposed “survivors” of these cults, like Glenn Hobbs mentioned above tryin’ his darndest to break into a saturated field, plenty of Christian pastors and evangelists plied their trade giving presentations.
A Few Names and How Far They Reached.
Mike Warnke, the first member of our Cult of Before Stories, gave such presentations. Kerr Cuhulain, a Wiccan LEO, has written extensively about many of these presentations that he attended–on and off the clock–aimed at “teaching” LEOs.
In fact, one of Cuhulain’s excellent essays led me to the discovery of Larry Jones, a retired Lieutenant with the Boise, Idaho police department! Jones appointed himself a cult expert, as I’ve outlined, then rushed out to make sure all the other LEOs in his area–even across the nation!–knew about the dangers of Satanic cults.
Larry Jones was very active in the late 1980s, right around when Big David’s father realized his son’s soul and body were both in danger. When I discovered him, I read every single thing I could get my hands on about him. His influence spread all the way to California’s law enforcement bodies. The first pushback I saw to his claims occurred in 1994. I’m pretty sure he’s dead now, but it looked like he was passing the mantle down to his son, last I saw.
If you’ve heard of Patricia Pulling, that was right around her busy period as well. A lot of the big names show up in this big list of active mid-1980s Satanic Panickers.
Normies knew next to nothing of any of these many-dozens of people, of course. The infiltration of their law enforcement bodies happened right under their noses. You know, exactly the same thing these same Christians claimed the CSWWSW was busy doing.
Big David Disappears.
One day, Big David didn’t show up to church.
That was unusual, but not alarming; we all got busy sometimes.
Then he didn’t show up again. And again. Again. For weeks.
We worried quite a bit, but we knew his parents were really hostile to our church. I don’t remember if any of us called his home. We talked about his absence, but didn’t want to antagonize his already-really-fraught relationship with his folks. So we very earnestly asked the ceiling to bring him back if at all possible.
A couple of weeks later, our prayers were answered! Hooray Team Jesus!
One day I entered the church building and Big David stood in the foyer, surrounded by our friends!
I rushed forward to hug him in greeting. Oh, he hugged me back, sure. But he seemed really off somehow.
In moments, I found out just how off he was.
He’d been kidnapped by his own parents and forced into a psychiatric hospital to be deprogrammed.
Before converting to the UPCI, he’d attended some kind of Bible college run by that televangelist. So he was very probably about 19 at the time of this tale.
Spring Shadows Glen.
If you’re from Houston and you’re pushing 50, then you likely remember all those ubiquitous ads for the hospital in question, Spring Shadows Glen Hospital. They were famous in the area. They offered help for people who thought they had Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as well as deprogramming for the victims of cult indoctrination. Seriously.
We know now that most of these treatments were based on false memory recovery. Therapists convinced patients that they’d had various experiences that they really hadn’t had. Most of these experiences were beyond horrific–patients thought they’d suffered child sexual abuse (CSA), ritual sexual abuse (RSA), physical abuse. And therapists convinced them that they’d dabbled in cannibalism, cult activities, and even murder.
And Spring Shadows Glen operated like that for many years before someone finally put a stop to it through a huge lawsuit in 1997.
We all vaguely understood that Spring Shadows Glen wouldn’t look kindly upon our brand of religion. All of us lived under the spectre of accusations just like those.
So we were aghast when we heard what had happened.
But the deprogramming hadn’t worked.
Big David stayed there a week or two before escaping “against medical advice.” I think he forced them to allow a third party to evaluate him, and he hadn’t been found to be psychotic or anything.
The experience had been deeply traumatizing, though. Back then, cult deprogramming was a brutal affair. We asked how Big David had defeated the demons of psychiatry.
He told us that he’d chanted in his mind, sung songs to himself, repeated Bible verses he’d memorized.
In a lot of ways that memory now reminds me of Hans Zarkov’s escape from his mind-wipe in the 1980 movie Flash Gordon:
Dale Arden: So that’s why they let us escape; Klytus thought he’d wiped out your memory.
Dr. Hans Zarkov: But do you know why it really failed?
Dale Arden: I can’t imagine.
Dr. Hans Zarkov: As I was going under, I started to recite Shakespeare, the Talmud, the formulas of Einstein, anything I could remember, even a song from the Beatles. It armored me, girl. They couldn’t wipe those things away. You can’t beat the human spirit!
Of course, I didn’t think of that movie at the time.
Rather, I was convinced that Jesus Christ himself had heard our prayers and helped armor Big David against losing his faith.
The Satanic Panic Connection.
Some of this I had to put together years after the fact, but the picture looks very clear all the same.
Big David’s father was a lifelong police officer who very fervently believed something untrue. He moved from there to another untrue belief about Satanism and cults invading America on the sly. And then he discovered his own son had rejected some very key tenets of Christianity (in his opinion) and was doing some very weird things and behaving in very weird ways.
I can easily see why it all seemed to fit the Satanic Panic.
And an entire framework existed at the time to help him conceptualize the situation as one that was deeply and hugely dangerous, one requiring his immediate and over-the-top intervention.
In his eyes, he was rescuing his only son from a dreadful fate. He was behaving like a concerned, loving father should–in his eyes. He clearly felt sure that David would thank him later for the help.
Sure, it’d seem unpleasant for a while. That was to be expected, a necessary evil, and he didn’t mind making David endure it. He just wanted his son back the way he remembered him.
Then What Happened?
There’s no other way to put it. Big David went weird after that deprogramming attempt. He became more grandiose and certain of his beliefs, which began to sound strangely extremist. He was all you’re either with us or against us, if that makes sense.
I got married not long afterward, maybe a year later. Right before the big day, he tried to convince me that Jesus wanted me to marry him and not Biff. I demurred, thinking privately that both of them were big mistakes to consider as husband material, but I was sure that “Jesus” had told me to go with Biff. So that’s what I did.
A couple of years later, Big David ran off with Little David to join a David Koresh-style Christian cult in Waco. They stood just down the road watching when government agencies attacked Koresh’s cult compound!
To his father’s credit, he took in both Big and Little David after that nightmare. But the cult broke something inside Big David. Along with Little David, he dropped out of church; we almost never saw either of them ever again, and after a year or two even that little contact stopped.
He was just Jesus-ed out, I guess.
I hope he’s all right now.
An entire industry existed to help Big David’s father put that intervention into action. It still exists.
The hucksters involved become more refined, targeting underage minors exclusively because that’s way safer for them, but yes, it exists even today and targets the same kind of worried Christian parents.
These hucksters use much the same tactics, too: they use fear to get those parents moving in the correct directions, and build off of existing untrue beliefs to spiral into more untrue beliefs. All they hafta do then is be sure to pick up all the money those parents fling at them to fix their imaginary problems. Yeah, I’m sure that’s a really big problem for them.
As for the Satanic Panicker hucksters themselves, I’m very thankful that activists have begun going after some of these predators. Recently, some actual members of The Satanic Temple (TST) exposed one former therapist’s past as one of those hucksters. This wasn’t 1980s old-time accusations, however. As late as 2011, she was busy writing books pushing this conspiracy theory and scaring the pants off of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ culture warriors.
I’m kinda wondering about some of these other Satanic Panickers–like our old pal Glenn Hobbs. He’s still listed as an associate pastor on his church’s website, but he never did answer my email.
I wonder if he thought about it when that news story about that one ex-therapist came about this week.
Aww, What’s the Harm?
When someone chirps at me that false beliefs aren’t a problem and do no harm, I think about stuff like what happened to Big David.
Now, most Christians don’t fall into that trap. They live in the here-and-now, and don’t really fuss themselves too much about religion.
But the ones who take it way too seriously?
Those are the ones who engage in moral panics. They become “cult experts” and give presentations based on lies to LEOs, and they have their kids kidnapped by deprogramming faux-experts for their own good, gyahhh.
They can’t evaluate claims involving their false beliefs because those beliefs are designed in such a way that it’s really hard to pierce through them. And they can’t separate their beliefs from reality and live in the here-and-now because a moral panic, by its very nature, demands believers forego the usual rules of civility and kindness. Their leaders tell them that they need to stop worrying about the reactions of the people they’re shoving out the way of imaginary buses.
The CSWWSW is tireless, thousand-eyed, and ever-evolving.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can’t let up for a moment.
NEXT UP: Everything you ever needed to know about the idea of a good witness–and how that venerable Christianese idea is biting evangelicals in the butt lately.
See you soon! <3
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