Essays · Movies

The Satanic Panic: A Cinematic Syllabus

Your essential guide to giving Lucifer a film history high five before Halloween.
Satanic Panic Syllabus
By  · Published on October 23rd, 2017

When The Satanic Bible was first released in the 1960s, Satanism was largely considered unorthodox hippie shenanigans, or more accurately, as a harmless if kinky bedfellow of old-Hollywood nostalgia. From its counterculture origins, the seeds sown by Anton LaVey percolated well into the Reagan era, where the popular understanding had mutated into a full-blown moral panic that transformed Satanism into one of pop culture’s great archetypical scapegoats. There’s a Black Philip joke in there somewhere.

Popular media like Ira Levin’s seminal novel Rosemary’s Baby and The Rolling Stone’s Their Satanic Majesties Request (both 1967) piqued societal curiosity in occultism. In the early ‘70s, publications like Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, and Time all ran stories on “The Occult Revival,unleashing a floodgate of stylish and pulpy satanically-themed paperbacks and periodicals. By the ‘80s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a sensational TV expose or a “true” crime tell-all ripping off the false narrative of Michelle Remembers (1980).

As with most instances of mass media scares, these exaggerated accounts of a Satanic conspiracy had virtually shit all to do with the actual Church of Satan so much as a fraudulent perception of Satanism. All to say that during the ‘80s, the public was primed and ready to accept the possibility of nefarious covert Satanic machinations in everything from MTV, role-playing games, crime, and (drumroll) film.

Below, I’ve supplied a brief list of films that show how the Satanic Panic played out on-screen; how cinema fuelled, enacted, and responded to the moral panic of the ’80s. 

Abandon all hope and happy reading!

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

All the cool kids are doing it

Plot: When a local boy accidentally exhumes a mysterious corpse, the local kids become convinced it was once possessed, and under Satan’s influence use the body to conduct rituals.

Because really, what’s scarier than peer pressure? The major thread of paranoia fuelling the Satanic Panic was a neurotic conviction that satanic activity was taking place right under the surface of American culture and that these nefarious groups specifically corrupted and exploited young people. Kind of like late Capitalism but with more candles and drapery.

See Also:

The Exorcist (1973)

The origins of optics

Plot: Two priests (Max von Sydow and Jason Miller) are called upon to exorcise a young girl (Linda Blair) who has become violently possessed by a demonic force.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby hailed William Friedkin’s masterpiece as the “biggest thing to hit the industry since Mary Pickford, popcorn, pornography, and The Godfather.” He also called it “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap” which is coincidentally the phrase I intend to slap on my tombstone. While audiences flocked to demonic possession the likes of which had never been seen, as some wrist-wringing moral boards predicted, The Exorcist helped cement a popular perception of possession into the public conscience. By bringing demonic and satanic activity into the everyday, film helped manifest a visual lexicon of popular occultism in the American psyche.

See also:

The Omen (1976)

The popularization of pedophobia

Plot: When a well-to-do couple adopts the unnervingly sullen Damien (Harvey Stephens) and the bodies start to pile up they begin to suspect that they’ve adopted the Antichrist.

When the ostensibly innocent, non-threatening status of children is corrupted, problematized, or in the case of The Omen, thrown out with the bathwater—it’s very fucking scary. There’s an interesting cognitive dissonance in the Satanic Panic’s alarm at alleged ritual abuse and the way it carved out a space in pop culture for terrifyingly devilish children. Apparently, there’s some undisclosed tipping point where “children are vulnerable to Satan’s influence” becomes “burn that hell-spawn with fire right now please.” You got some issues to work out, the ’80s.

See Also:

Evilspeak (1981)

Technophobia and the satanic ritual

Plot: A tormented military-school weirdo (Clint Howard) stumbles across an arcane Latin tome in an old chapel and invokes an ancient demonic force when he translates it on his Apple II computer.

While the commingling of Satanism and emerging communication technologies might appear like a clumsy attempt to appeal to younger audiences, both the Satanic Panic and ‘80s technophobia are both essentially concerned with the same cultural anxiety: that some insidious force is fracturing families and corrupting the youth. It is a two-pronged fear: that technologies make dangerous knowledge (*cough* porn) more readily available and that young people’s unthinking ambivalence towards new tech renders them slavish. You may think enjoying boomerangs of barbecue on Instagram is innocuous but then whoops before you know it you’re a servant of the techno-devil.

See Also:

Trick or Treat (1986)

That bedeviling heavy metal

Plot: After heavy metal rocker Sammi Curr (Tony Fields) burns to death in a satanic ritual he is resurrected when a teenage fan (Marc Price) plays his unreleased record backward.

Ah yes, rock and roll, that crunchy and marketable melange of youthful rebellion and occultism. Films that cunningly brought the two together reflected (inadvertently or otherwise) the real-life anxiety of out-of-touch parents fixated on the idea that music would introduce their children to all kinds of debauchery. Early metal trailblazers like Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin famously played up satanic themes; a stew of visibility, intriguing visuals, and supposed devil worship ripe for demonization and, of course, for cinema. Even in films where heavy metal isn’t directly responsible for satanic ills, there’s always a lingering assumption that the kind of person who involves themselves with that scene is more susceptible to occult influence. And hey, musicians have been making alleged crossroads bargains with Lucifer since Robert Johnston.

See Also:

The ’Burbs (1989)

Paranoia plus time equals comedy

Plot: An antsy suburbanite (Tom Hanks) is convinced the eccentric new family on the block are members of a Satanic cult, and makes it his mission to get the goods on the newcomers.

With the Satanic Panic in full swing and with several disturbing ritual abuse trials underway, Joe Dante released The ’Burbs, a suburban comedy starring America’s uncle about suburbanites trying to take down a supposed moral threat, only to drag their cul-de-sac to Hell in the process. While murmurs of the Panic echoed well into the ‘90s Dante (whose last name is hilarious in this context) offered a punctuation mark to an era of hysteria by pointing out its hypocrisy:  that there is a fundamental, terrifying, and darkly funny culty-ness to the obsessive moralistic purging of the Other. Satan is our pal indeed.

Class dismissed.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.