Is Satanic Panic Seeing A Comeback?
Over the past week, the now instantly recognisable sight of Lil Nas X sliding down a pole into the depths of hell has become a focal point for intense public discussion.
The scene in question comes from MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name), Nas’s new music video that subverts striking biblical imagery to explore themes of sexuality, persecution and self-acceptance.
A video of epic proportions, we see Lil Nas seduced by a humanoid snake in a blazing pink Garden of Eden. Then, chained and chastised, he is condemned by different versions of himself in a heavenly colosseum, before lap dancing for and ultimately usurping, Satan himself.
Lil Nas has spoken openly about the meaning of the song and the video, and nowhere has he declared a love for Satan and what the devilish entity of the Abrahamic religions supposedly stands for.
Indeed, like so many conversation-worthy pieces of art throughout history, LNX has taken ideas about heaven and hell and used these as a means of conveying his own lived human experiences.
The first part of the title refers to LNX’s real name, Montero, while the subtitle refers to the 2017 LGBTQ+ coming-of-age film of the same name.
As he explained in a video for Genius’s ‘Verified’ YouTube series, LNX was inspired to write the song after falling for a man who was not yet out.
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During an interview with TIME magazine, LNX explained why he had chosen to set his video in an ancient, biblical landscape:
I wanted to use these things that have been around for so long to tell my own story, and the story of so many other people in the community — or people who have been outcast in general through history. It’s the same thing over and over.
The video, which has been watched more than 71 million times at the time of writing, is clearly an act of creative self expression, with religious motifs used to tell a time-old story.
Like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden before him, LNX has used the fallen angel Lucifer as a literary device, as well as a countercultural reference point against those who feel compelled to judge and condemn.
However, the existence of metaphors and creative expression hasn’t stopped a fair bit of hand-wringing from certain reactionary corners of society, with eyepopping accusations about LNX coming thick and fast.
Republican music video director and producer Robby Starbuck has accused LNX’s label of ‘targeting kids and delivering disgusting trash that celebrates evil to minors’, saying, ‘the entertainment world is 100% trying to sexualize kids and destroy any semblance of Judeo-Christian values’.
These paranoid quotes, which obsess over the welfare of children as well as a secret ‘system’ of corruption, could be lifted straight from the mouths of outraged pundits during the time of the Satanic Panic.
For me, a lapsed Catholic and natural sceptic from Manchester, it’s difficult to comprehend the idea of fearing the devil entering your life on a daily basis, of being vigilant against a figure I largely associate with hokey horror films.
But of course, there are those for whom the devil is a very real threat, an insidious force with the potential to drag you down into eternal damnation. For such people, I can imagine watching Lil Nas X pulling on a pair of devil horns is a different experience altogether.
I spoke with Marc Heal, the author of The Sussex Devils: A true story of the 1980s Satanic panic. In his book, Heal tells the story of Derry Knight, a man who claimed to belong to a secret Satanic group operating at the highest levels of British society.
After finding a newspaper clipping about Knight in 2012, Heal realised the trial had unfolded in the weeks after an elder from his parents’ evangelical Christian church attempted to exorcise him in December 1985, believing him to be possessed by demons.
More than most people, Heal, who now lives in California, has felt the effects first hand of what can happen when mass hysteria stirs people up into a frenzy, and the lasting, real world hurt this can inflict.
We may be living in modern times but, as explained by Heal, using the words Satan and Satanism is still very much a ‘red rag to a bull’ in certain circles of the US, a topic as inflammatory as gun ownership or immigration.
Heal told UNILAD he doesn’t believe people in the UK understand how much more religious the US is, or indeed how much the type of religion differs from ‘your nice, local Anglican priest with the happy clappy tambourine’:
You’re talking about people who genuinely believe that the Bible is true. They believe the creation story. They would deny evolution, they would deny climate change. All of those things that would be kind of a consensus around, broadly, in the UK.
I’m not talking about progressives versus conservatives. Even amongst conservatives, I think in the UK there’s a real consensus that evolution happened and that the miracle stories in the Bible probably aren’t true.
Even amongst Christians in the UK, most Christians would probably say that the Bible shouldn’t be taken completely literally. Whereas in the states, I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a large section of the population that does believe that, and believes it fiercely and passionately.
If you believe that, personal evil in the form of Satan and the devil has a particular resonance. I just don’t think people in the UK quite understand the resonance that has if you believe in that kind of religion.
The results of a 2008 Harris Poll found more Americans believed in the devil, hell and angels than they did in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. More than a decade on, and it’s clear such anxieties are still bubbling away beneath the surface.
For those yet to read up on this period in American history, the Satanic Panic unfolded in the 1980s and ’90s, a burst of mass hysteria over a supposed network of Satanic cults across the US. A network for which there has never been any evidence.
The baseless conspiracy theories suggested these cults were committing widespread child abuse on a mass scale, as part of their debased Satanic rituals.
Accusations began in 1983, with the now infamous McMartin Preschool abuse trial. Judy Johnson, a mother at the pre-school, accused one of the teachers at the Californian pre-school of sexually assaulting her young son, kicking off a series of alarming events.
Johnson’s accusations quickly escalated, leading to multiple individuals facing allegations and, ultimately, long stretches of jail time.
The allegations led to one of the longest, costliest trials in US history, with many years going by until those accused were able to clear their names. This moral panic spread throughout the US, and to other countries such as the UK, damaging reputations, businesses and families.
Dubious testimony from children about secret underground tunnels, flying witches and the ritual use of baby blood were discussed on daytime talk shows as a ‘topical’ discussion segment. As surreal as they were, the effects of such accusations left lasting hurt, which can still be felt to this day.
Heal told UNILAD:
For many people, myself included, it was a defining moment in their life. The feelings about these kind of things were incredibly strong at the time.
[…] I think there’s very few issues that are more emotionally charged than the abuse of children. Combine that with other factors – secrecy and so on and so forth – it’s a very powerful cocktail.
I sometimes step back and giggle a bit at it, but it’s not funny really. There was an occult shop called The Sorcerers Apprentice, and I spoke to one of the guys who’d run it. He’d had to go into hiding. I mean, they were accused of child abuse and all kinds of things.
We all have to be alert against all of this kind of talk. It’s all nonsense, and this talk of magic and Satan and all the rest of it is all complete nonsense and it’s a means to whip up hysteria about things.
And group hysteria is a terribly, terribly dangerous thing, and under the guise of group hysteria, awful things are done, and that’s the real danger. The real danger isn’t Satanism, the real danger is in us.
Of course, this panic didn’t spring out of nowhere fully formed. It had been simmering away in the collective sub-conscious for some time, exacerbated by fears over pop culture and changing social norms. The same sort of fears that sparked such a severe reaction to Lil Nas X and his pole.
Heal told UNILAD ‘the growth of the evangelical Christian movement and the charismatic Christian movement’ in the ’60s and ’70s played a significant role in forming this mindset, a growth that ultimately brought American evangelical religion to Britain ‘in a big way’.
As Heal himself witnessed in his younger years, this allowed for a much more ‘muscular’ form of Christianity to take hold, even in the sleepy Sussex village of Newick, providing a ‘fertile ground’ for beliefs to spread.
Heal also noted the influence of works of fiction at this time, which ‘gave shape to the threat’, with two films and one book in particular wielding significant influence:
The book was The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, which was turned into a Hammer Horror film in 1968. The film laws were relaxed a little bit, and they allowed Hammer to deal with issues of the occult, which had previously been banned.
[…] Suddenly people could see what a Satanic kabbalah looked like for the first time.
The plot of The Devil Rides Out involved a ‘secretive group of highly important people’, a ‘charismatic leader’ and ‘salacious dollops of sex’ – a potent cocktail for those with existing anxieties about Satan and his power on Earth.
Heal noted that The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) also served to give further shape to these imaginings:
[These films] whipped up the popular imagination. The devil, Satan, this became a trope which was very popular, and the churches – as their religion changed – began to take this much more seriously.
Heal also remarked that there was a strong feeling of a ‘crisis coming to a head’ in the ’80s, with the world still plagued by fears over impending nuclear catastrophe.
As retro as it may sound now, Dungeons and Dragons was once a target for such terrors, espoused publicly by politicians at the time, as was the idea of playing records backwards to hear Satanic messages:
So rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, films, books, art. Everything was suddenly suspect. Suddenly if you wanted to see it, Satanism was everywhere.
However, the Satanic Panic can’t accurately be viewed as a specific period of time we now look back on.
Indeed, it’s perhaps not so much a question of whether or not we will return to such hysteria, but whether or not such terror ever really went away in the first place.
I spoke with La Carmina, a travel journalist and subcultures blogger committed to the fair and positive reporting on Satanism worldwide.
La Carmina, who hosts history, art and culture web TV show Satanic Show + Tell for The Satanic Temple TV, was not surprised to hear of the uproar surrounding LNX’s video:
The Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s never really ended – these baseless accusations of worldwide Satanic cult conspiracies simply take on different forms. For instance, QAnon is now spreading lies that clandestine devil-worshipping, cannibalistic child abusers plotted against Trump.
The claims are so over-the-top and outrageous, and yet they find footing among seemingly regular people.
Having dressed in a Gothic manner since her teenage years, La Carmina has experienced ‘this type of pearl-clutching reaction first-hand over the decades’, as well as through her own extensive professional research.
Considering why such fears persist in the year 2021, La Carmina explained that the US still wields a ‘strong Christian theocratic influence’, resulting in ‘legislation that hinders reproductive rights, and actions that create encroachments on public spaces’.
Christians consider the opponent of their God to be Satan, who modern Satanists do not consider a theistic deity – but a symbol of the rebel who seeks knowledge, empathy and justice.
Because of this, it’s easy for evangelicals to label anyone who appears to go against their dogma (such as people in the LGBTQ community, and women seeking safe abortions) as evil Satanists.
The lurid language and visuals of a Dark Lord are compelling to them, and distract from real issues like social-economic crises, and racially targeted hate crimes.
Social media also creates maximum engagement echo chambers that fan these flames. Hence people focusing their outrage over 666 sneakers or Potato Head’s pronouns.
In a world where we are ‘overloaded with fake news’ and ‘addicted to social media that is designed to spread fringe theories’, La Carmina suggested ‘Satan is an easy scapegoat in this environment that lacks critical thinking and proper sources’.
Many people are unclear about what the Church of Satan actually involves, imagining cinematic portrayals of devil worship and ritual sacrifice.
The church is actually opposed to ideas of spirituality and the supernatural, with a strong focus on atheism, libertarian ideals and living life on your own terms.
Psychic Tarot reader and witch, Inbaal, tol UNILAD, ‘Satanism is not, in itself, a religion – it is a stand against religion’. Inbaal said: ‘I’ve partied with many Satanists, and they are awesome people. Dedicated to individuality and opposing indoctrination, we occupy different corners of the same occult sphere.’
I love that Lil Nas X has explored the very rich tapestry of Satanic imagery in his video, the colours and atmosphere can be seen, to the untrained eye, as very occult.
However, to my eyes, the video mostly represents Biblical imagery – the God face in the cloud, the snake on the tree trunk, descending to the fiery pit – the only properly Occult imagery we encounter is the Pentagram on Satan’s floor, and his horns.
One of the groups tackling this widespread misinformation is Grey Faction, the campaign branch of The Satanic Temple which this week will be holding the 2021 World Congress on Moral Panics from April 9 to 12.
Grey Faction seek to educate people about the harm the Satanic Panic inflicted on so many individuals, while calling out fringe mental health professionals who seek to promote these unfounded conspiracy theories to this day.
Part of Grey Faction’s work includes debunking the widely criticised practice of ‘recovering’ lost memories, the most famous example being documented in the 1980 bestselling book Michelle Remembers.
Regarded as being a factor in heating up the panic, Michelle Remembers tells the story of a woman who recovered horrific childhood memories of ritual Satanic abuse. Despite extensive investigations, police were unable to corroborate the events detailed, which are regarded as unlikely.
Like Lil Nas X, I find it difficult to understand why reactionary figures spend time searching for evil in pop culture when children face far greater, non-supernatural threats every day, both in America and further afield.
As explained so perfectly by Heal, the real danger lies in allowing such ideas to fester and take root, to let ourselves get swept up in a wave of emotion-driven panic.
Perhaps we will always have a niggling fear of dark, supernatural forces beyond our control, but we need to remain vigilant about how such terrors cause real life damage the lives of others.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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