A new book recalls the 1980s fear of teenage Satan worship, and its effect on pop culture.
Along with cuter trends like the California Raisins and fingerless gloves, mass fear of the devil was hot in the 1980s. The pervasive idea that Satan was spreading his influence and message through popular media and cult activities became so widespread that a term was coined to describe the hysteria: “Satanic Panic.” The movement has lent its name to a book launching this week at the Carlton Cinema: Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, a compilation of 20 pieces detailing the satanic conspiracy that many parents and media figures were convinced existed.
Local writer and film programmer Kier-La Janisse edited the collection alongside Paul Corupe, the founder of The Black Museum film lecture series. “When Paul and I were deciding what would be the next Spectacular Optical book, we zeroed in on the Satanic Panic,” says Janisse. “There seemed to be a really obvious resurgence of interest in it in recent years, and many of the books about it are a couple decades old now, or they focus on specific cases. We were coming from a pop-culture background and wanted to approach it from that angle since, for a lot of people our age, that was our initial connection to the Panic.” Both editors solicited essays and accepted submissions from all over the world, compiling the book as they ran a pre-order Indiegogo campaign to ensure the print run could be paid for. Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s is a beautifully designed, diverse collection of essays and interviews on a topic that is difficult not to be interested in, especially once you’ve read a couple of these pieces.
Many of the essays deal with topics that featured prominently in Janisse’s youth in Canada. “As a kid, my parents were very concerned about Dungeons & Dragons in particular because we grew up in Windsor, where just over the border the James Dallas Eggbert case happened—he was the University of Michigan student who disappeared into the tunnels beneath the school in an alleged D&D-fuelled delirium [which later became the inspiration for the book and TV movie Mazes and Monsters], so yes, it was a notable part of my upbringing.” Janisse has memories of being an inmate at a juvenile detention centre in Winnipeg in 1988 when the talk show Geraldo aired a special on devil worship. Her cellmate claimed to be a teenage satanist.
In addition to specific case studies of madness and hysteria, horror movies and heavy metal make a few appearances in Satanic Panic, along with oddities such as the effect the panic had on Christian comic tracts. The text is full of photos and illustrations, making this book a satanic artifact that testifies to the rich ideas and delusions that structured paranoia can lead to.
While H.P. Lovecraft’s horror has more to do with incomprehensibly ancient evils than it does with the Christian Satan, there’s a clear horror overlap. The book launch at the Carlton will happen alongside a screening of animated shorts that celebrates H.P. Lovecraft’s 125th birthday. Shorts and animation are a perfect fit for Lovecraft’s difficult-to-capture style, which had much more to do with dread, the unknowable, and the unresolved than it does with character and plot.
Janisse and Corupe have aimed to make all of their Satanic Panic events more than ordinary book launches, and the Toronto launch will be their third. “We had two launches in Montreal,” says Janisse. “One was more of a cinq-a-sept cocktail with DJs playing a mix of ’80s hair metal and weird Christian music while I sold books, and the other was a presentation/clip show at the Drawn & Quarterly store. Both went really well and were just the first in a series of launches we have set up—after the Toronto launch this Thursday, we have a launch in Austin as part of Fantastic Fest, then in October we have launches at the Brattle Theater in Boston, PhilaMOCA in Philadelphia, the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London, UK, and the Sitges Film Festival in Sitges, Spain. Because all the books I’ve worked on to date are film- or pop-culture-related and are non-fiction, it makes more sense to tie them into screening events than traditional readings. And since Satanic Panic is an anthology, having the launches in so many cities allows for different authors to be present at each one, depending on where they are based. It’s also just more of a draw for potential audiences to have a film tie-in, and brings the books to people who might not attend a reading.”
The Satanic Panic Book Launch / Lovecraft Re-Animated Shorts Program takes place at the Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street) tomorrow, August 20. Advance tickets are available here.