Satan is Loose
". . . the specter of something dark and evil has
community. . . While we're reluctant to give credence to the
rumors, both because rumor breeds rumor and because we simply hate to
think that devil worship is a fact in our own community, we're afraid
the talk is grounded in fact." West Memphis Evening Times, June 7,
Over the course of the
20th century as
America urbanized, notions of the devil seemed relegated to a Puritan
past or, at least, to backwater pulpits. With the dawn of the 1960s
some saw the coming of an age of enlightenment. There was the
giddy optimism of youth, symbolized by Camelot and the age of
Aquarius. But the devil would not be silenced.
Perhaps the devil's return to popular
marked by the 1967 publication of Ira Levin's novel, "Rosemary's Baby,"
wherein satanic covens directed events and toyed with people's lives
from behind the facade of cultured society. In the film
adaptation, director Roman Polanski blurred art with reality by using
self-proclaimed Satanist, Anton LaVey as a "technical
consultant." Soon after, the fantasy achieved a horrific edge
reality as Polanski's wife was killed by cult-leader Charles
In the 70's, popular fictions of the
devil such as
"The Exorcist" and "The Omen" were complemented by best-selling
religious authors warning of Satan's reality. Evangelist
Warnke autobiography about his days as a satanist, The Satan Seller,
sold millions. Author Hal Lindsey followed up his wildly
apocalyptic vision, "The Late Great Planet Earth" with "Satan Is Alive
and Well on Planet Earth." Lindsey preached against the
"thought-bombs" of our modern consciousness such as Freudianism and
relativism. During a time of rapid technological and societal
change these books appealed to the fundamental notions of good and
evil, black and white, and tapped into people's primal
Soon, the belief in the actuality of a
to shape policy. Stories appeared of widespread Satanic based
crimes that had gone unrecognized by law enforcement and the
public. In 1980, Michelle Smith and her therapist/husband
published a landmark book, Michelle Remembers. It spoke of
tortured early life of its author. She recalled being
raped by covens of Satanists who committed other atrocities including
child sacrifice. These phenomena termed, Satanic Ritual Abuse
(SRA), began to appear in other accounts, notably in the autobiography
of Laurie Stratford. A vast network of Satanists was claimed
be responsible for breeding children for rape and murder with a death
toll described as between 40 and 60 thousand each year.
Pseudo-experts in the occult began to lecture police departments on how
to recognize Satanic crimes in their communities. The fact
there was little to no evidence for such activities did not deter its
believers. The argument was made that it took decades for the
to recognize the existence of the mafia, so why not such an underground
network? Wasn't a basic principle of a conspiracy to make
it went undetected?
Talk shows, forever seeking the
on the bandwagon. Michelle Smith made the talk show circuit
Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Geraldo Rivera
ran episodes on the subjects of SRA and satanic murders.
Geraldo's episode "Satanic Cults and Children" was claimed by the
murderer Timothy Hughes as his reason for killing his wife; he had
become convinced she was possessed.
"From small towns to large cities, they [one million satanists] have
attracted police and FBI attention to their satanic ritual child abuse,
child pornography and grisly satanic murders." Geraldo
The FBI was paying attention, but only
skeptics. With an annual national homicide rate of 20,000,
allegations would have tripled to quadrupled the number of murders, and
it would do that without leaving behind substantial evidence.
FBI estimated the number of satanists, self-described or active in
covens, as being in the low tens of thousands. An FBI agent
assigned to investigate such stories, Kenneth Lanning, wrote a series
of articles debunking their existence.
Regardless of the FBI's statements, the
Satanic Ritual Abuse had an impact on local law enforcement.
Across the US and on into England, allegations of SRA taking place at
day care centers caused mass hysteria, lengthy trials, and occasional
convictions. To this day, these cases excite emotions and
controversy with some believing that mass child abuse did occur, others
believing that there was a more limited degree of molestation, and
still others believing that nothing had happened at all.
Allegations at the McMartin Day Care
Southern California resulted in the state's longest and costliest
trial. The defendants were found not guilty. The
razed and after the verdicts the land was dug up to search for the
networks of tunnels where the abuse supposedly took place. Some
claimed to find evidence of tunnels; others claimed that the lack of
tunnels were proof that nothing had occurred. In Wanatchee,
Washington, prosecutors charged a group of alleged abusers with a total
of 30,000 child rapes. Several defendants went to prison only
have their convictions overturned and their sentences
commuted. In this case, the general consensus is that no crimes had
These investigations and trials were not
to areas of the nation associated with religious
They were as likely to be in rich suburbs as in small towns.
were in the Pacific Northwest, Long Island, New England, and on into
the Orkney Islands of Great Britain. But neither could the
Belt consider itself immune. By 1993, satanic ritual murder
peaking in the sensationalist media and in the public consciousness,
and the city of West Memphis was primed to be its next victim.