Scroll To Top

Op-ed: The Culture of Satanic Panic 

Op-ed: The Culture of Satanic Panic 


I'm not sure what it was that brought the name into my head. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was one of my synapses misfiring. For some reason, Rebecca Brown popped into my head not long ago. Brown wrote two books, He Came to Set the Captives Free and Prepare for War.

My mother insisted that I read both when I was in junior high school. The books told the story of Brown and her "associate," Elaine, and their self-described journey through Satanism. The books bordered on pornographic. As an eighth-grader in Houston at a private Christian school, I was young and impressionable. Mom wanted me to understand what she said was "really out there." She heartily disliked my desire to learn martial arts and had begun to stop letting me watch movies like The Karate Kid and most Disney films because of their perceived dangers.

As a kid my head was filled with tales of Satanism and evil pervading everyone around me. To this day I question my sanity. But fear of what is "really out there" has far-reaching effects.

As I waded through the now nearly endless parade of articles written debunking Brown's claims, I came across a story I hadn't heard about in years: the West Memphis Three. It isn't often that I side with the accused in a crime these days. I was long ago convinced, though, that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley are all innocent.

In early May of 1993, my family watched the news from our Houston living room as a massive story played out in Arkansas. In the tiny truck-stop town of West Memphis, three 8-year-old boys -- Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers -- went missing one night only to be discovered dead in the woods the next day. The boys were found nude, hog-tied, murdered, all suffering severe head trauma. Their clothing had been wrapped around sticks and stuck in the mud, although two of the boys' underwear was never found.

Police investigative techniques were terrible. The small-town police department was not trained to deal with such a horrific crime. Having been to crime scenes, I can tell you that any police officer, EMS worker, or coroner whose training is worth a damn knows when they spot a dead body. You typically smell it first -- even outdoors. Police officers in West Memphis, though, charged right into the shallow creek where the boys lay and dragged them out. All but one footprint was lost in the kerfuffle.

A juvenile parole officer named Steve Jones, who made the initial discovery, is quoted as saying, "It looks like Damien Echols finally killed someone." No evidence, no nothing; he just spit the words out effortlessly. Echols was one of his low-level troublemakers, a young man given to wearing his hair long and his clothing black, and who liked his music heavy -- and Jones was convinced because of his appearance and his deliberately shocking statements ("Sure, I'm a Satanist!") that Echols was pure evil.

Rumors swirled in the largely poor to middle-class town gripped with the Satanic panic of the '80s and '90s that Echols and Baldwin were members of a Satanic cult. Then, not quite a month after the murders, police dragged Jessie Misskelley in for questioning. For more than 12 hours he was questioned by police, and somehow only the final 46 minutes of the interrogation was recorded. He told police exactly what they wanted to hear: that best friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin had decided to ambush the three boys and kill them for a Satanic ritual. The problem with the confession was that the beginning of the recording catches what had already been going on for 12 hours -- Misskelley didn't know a damn thing about the crimes. He gave the wrong time, the wrong location, and inconsistent statements regarding what had been done to the boys. Detectives had to correct him multiple times before he spit out a story that was consistent enough for them to start making arrests.

Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life behind bars, and Echols was sentenced to death, even after Misskelley had recanted and refused to testify against the other two.

Until last week, there was little hope that the West Memphis Three would be freed despite DNA evidence that later emerged proving they were never at the scene. Over the past eight months, defense attorneys and prosecutors have scrambled to find a way to each find their own favorable outcome. Last week prosecutors tipped their hand: they offered the men an Alford Plea, basically asking them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence by admitting there was enough evidence to convict them. It was a game being played by prosecutors who didn't want to eat crow. They knew that it would be hard for anyone to resist, particularly Damien Echols, who sat on death row. The deal required all three to agree -- and Echols is the main reason they did.

The superstition that helped convict these three innocent men is the same concept used against LGBT people, and understanding this mind-set will be very important. The convictions were secured with no evidence at all. I believe that the outcome of this case, including the behavior of officers involved and the convictions from local juries, was heavily tainted by emotional reactions based entirely in a phenomenon we now call Satanic panic.

It was in 1992 that I first read He Came to Set the Captives Free. Everyone at my family's church was raving about the information in it. Brown described a life in which she was called on by God himself to save the masses from Satanism -- all on her own. She supposedly began with Elaine, who reportedly had been one of Satan's brides and a high priestess of a massive Satanic coven. The story contains claims that Elaine was married to Satan in a Presbyterian church and he later taught her astral projection so she and the other members of the coven could murder without leaving any evidence. As if that isn't enough, the book also claimed that Elaine routinely took part in human sacrifice and that the humans being used ranged from newborn to fully adult, and it graphically described the orgies supposedly held by the coven. Very little was left to the imagination.

A year ago I got a wild hair to start researching the yarns they spun. I remember Brown, a physician, describing interactions with patients deep in ICU psychosis and her belief that it was caused by demons. I remember reading the gory details of human sacrifices, including crucifixion. I remember reading claims that the movements taught in martial arts were really silent Satanic incantations (which I now find hilarious, having spent half my life in the martial arts, including Shaolin and Krav Maga). I remember reading about the claim that it took eight weeks to exorcise hundreds of demons from Elaine after her conversion to Christianity.

Every tale I heard as a kid involved demon possession. Rebecca Brown (who is, by the way, still in the ministry with husband Daniel Yoder, who is a convicted criminal involved in multiple cases of identity theft) went along with hucksters like Mike Warnke to sell overhyped stories of Satanic ritual abuse to gullible Christians all over the world. I believe they helped create the atmosphere that allowed three innocent teenagers to be convicted of a crime they were never involved in by convincing hordes of the faithful that Satanism afflicted the majority of the population. I very seriously doubt that there was even one single Satanic cult in or even near West Memphis when those three boys were murdered, but the police, Steve Jones, and their sham of an "occult expert" -- Dale Griffis, a former cop who claimed that the boys' blood and semen would have been collected for use in future rituals, even though none of the boys had been bled very much and that they were far too young to produce semen -- spoon-fed a deeply religious citizenry a drama they wanted to believe in, if for no other reason than to strengthen their own faith.

The claim made by Brown, one oft-repeated by my mom and many of her friends back then, is that Satan wants you to question the story. He supposedly wants you to to think it's so fantastic that it's unbelievable. To question whether it's true is dangerous, they said. While my logical mind realizes this is a falsehood on a grand scale, sometimes I still wonder if I'm wrong to question such stories. I do know this: During the time that I was reading those books, something felt very wrong. I always had difficulty sleeping because of the nightmares that plagued me. I'm sure most of the people I knew from Grace Community Church still believe in that garbage and would likely argue that the fact that I'm a lesbian now is proof of demonic activity and I'm only writing a missive like this to further confuse things.

I think that the culture of Satanic panic is just another emotional drug that some Christians like to cling to, much the way many of them do to high-energy "worship" that includes speaking in tongues without interpreters and being "slain in the spirit." There's no wisdom in it. Christ himself warned of these kinds of things. It was the lying, self-absorbed religious leaders he spoke seven woes against and damned to hell. I believe he'd have much the same reaction today.

Mel Maguire is currently an EMT in Phoenix. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and is a regular contributor to

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Advocate Contributors