Archive for the 'Occult/Supernatural' Category

Panic in the Streets of Loudun: Escaping Satan’s Web (Circa 1989)

The so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and early ’90s is generally dismissed today as a bizarre bout of Reagan-era excess, but it’s important to remember that (1) it was a morally reprehensible witch hunt that injured thousands and saved none, and (2) it was orchestrated by grievously irresponsible religious and civic leaders, incompetent mental health providers and law enforcement officials, sensation-chumming media, deadbeat parents, charlatans and con artists, and remorseless criminals to divert attention from the real degenerates—themselves. Sadly, despite all of our vaunted “progress,” witch hunts have a way of repeating themselves.

The panic began to surface with the 1980 publication of  Michelle Remembers, a now-refuted chronicle of the alleged abuse of 5-year-old Michelle Smith by a satanic cult starting in 1954. The McMartin preschool trial, largely the result of allegations made by a paranoid schizophrenic, and tragically prolonged by “therapists” forcing false claims out of preschoolers, was pasted across TV screens and newspapers from 1984 to 1990, when the last two defendants were acquitted. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, the psychiatrist who “recovered” her “repressed” memories of abuse and then married her, acted as consultants for the prosecution and met with the alleged victims and their families. (The concept of repressed memory is extremely controversial and is not accepted by mainstream psychology)

Meanwhile, “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez was terrorizing greater Los Angeles (including 12-year-old me), murdering 13 and assaulting and mutilating many more. At his 1988 sentencing he famously held up his hand, inscribed with a pentagram, and proclaimed, “Hail Satan.” By 1986, the media was calling Satanism an “unmeasurable force,” with the police investigating “as many as 800 crimes… linked to the devil.”

In 1988, as the McMartin trial was in full swing and Ramirez was being tried, Geraldo Rivera hosted a prime-time special called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” The special was very controversial and, predictably, hauled in huge ratings for NBC. In the special Rivera briefly interviews Sean Sellers, a then 19-year-old death row inmate who had murdered both of his parents and a convenience store clerk before he turned 17. Sellers claimed during his trial and afterwards that his actions were the result of demonic possession and converted to Christianity soon after he went to prison.*

I started to watch Escaping Satan’s Web on a whim and found myself unable to look away. It’s an extended (60-minute) interview with Sellers conducted by “Dr.” Fletcher Brothers, a pastor and founder of Freedom Village, a home for troubled teens “completely structured around the word of God.” The interview is intercut with warnings about the lures and dangers of Satanism and the occult. In his introduction, Brothers tells us that “Satanism is rampant in America and Canada” and that “young people by the millions now [are] captivated by something that can make killers out of them.” (Escaping Satan’s Web is dated 1987 by the YouTube poster, but Brothers mentions the Geraldo special [October 1988] and some footage from the show is used in the video, so the year has to be at least 1989.)

Among the animate and inanimate objects Sellers blames for his brutal crimes include his parents, comic books, the library (where he says his journey to Satan began), his babysitter, a “wild imagination,” Freddy Krueger, Zen Buddhism, a Catholic priest, heavy metal (“the lunatic fringe of music,” says Sellers), Dungeons & Dragons, and, of course, Satan himself. Not once does he accept any responsibility, and it was clear to me within the first few minutes of the interview that he was a manipulative sociopath without the slightest remorse for his actions. He understood that his only chance of getting out of prison was to claim the devil made him do it and publicly embrace the version of Christianity that had produced the societal anxiety about ritual abuse in the first place. I’m not sure what’s worse, listening to Sellers coldly describe and disown his calculated, violent actions, or watching Brothers suck up to him as the “saved” poster boy of a demonic affliction that never existed.**

Sellers starts out by describing the rise of Satanism in America—previously, it had been known to exist only “in Africa, or in some other country where there was no civilization”—and tells us that “at every school you’ve got kids who are interested in the occult,” whether they’re only “dabbling” (listening to metal and watching horror movies) or “really interested” (buying copies of The Satanic Bible, reading the Necronomicon—the latter of which is not a real book).

In the first cut scene, the narrator gives us a list of “signs that your child may be a target of Satanic recruitment”:

They come from middle to upper class homes

They have with low self-esteem

They are highly intelligent

They are loners

They come from broken homes

They are latch-key kids

They have a deep need for belonging

They are impressionable

They may be victims of sexual abuse

They are alienated from the church

They are very creative and curious

They are rebellious and looking for power

They are overachievers or underachievers

Aside from sexual abuse, these criteria describe just about every kid I ever spent time with growing up.

Dungeons & Dragons plays an important role in both Sellers’ fabricated conversion to Satanism and the Satanic Panic narrative. D&D had its first spell of national coverage when it was blamed—wrongly, always wrongly—for the disappearance of the unfortunate James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Fundamentalist Christian groups, sensing a powerful alternative to their authoritarian prescriptions, immediately attacked the game as an occult practice, but the real crusade against D&D and its makers didn’t get going until Patricia Pulling started Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) in 1983. Pulling blamed D&D for her son Irving’s 1982 suicide, and for the next decade she was often consulted by police departments, school boards, and the media on teen involvement in Satanism. She also served as an expert witness for the prosecution on the alleged involvement of D&D in several murder cases. (You can see Pulling in the 1985 60 Minutes segment on D&D, in which Gary Gygax destroys her and host Ed Bradley’s desperate attempts to connect the role-playing game to violent and anti-social behavior.) ***

Brothers repeatedly presses Sellers to condemn Dungeons & Dragons in the interview, and Sellers cooperates, describing the dangers of imaginative freedom:

That character that’s in front of him is absolute. It doesn’t change. It’s a friend to him. And when he becomes that character, he knows exactly who he is, he knows exactly what he can do and what he can’t do… and the fantasy world that he lives in has no morals, no limits, you know, no values except for his own…

You let a teenager loose in that world, and sometimes they don’t want to come back.

In other words, the player is role-playing in a not-specifically-Christian universe in which he or she decides what is right and wrong and what choices to make, and to a fundamentalist Christian, that universe is always going to be evil. The cut scene that follows calls D&D “the most effective introduction to the occult in the history of man.” It teaches

demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex, perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satan worship, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination, and other occultic themes.

That’s a direct quote.

The next cut scene warns of “Signs of Satanism in Your Community,” some of which include “occult graffiti, mysterious murders, demand for occult-related jewelry, shoplifting in candle shops (my favorite), grave robbings, animal mutilations, and unusual tattoos.” The on-screen text is accompanied by video footage of supposedly “at-risk” teenagers committing sins such as smoking, hugging, kissing, dancing, wearing sunglasses and leather jackets, laughing heartily, and so on.

At the end of the video Brothers blesses Sellers, shakes his hand, and says, “One of these days we’re going to shake hands outside of this place without these [handcuffs] on.” The viewer is encouraged to purchase a copy of Satanism in America: What They Don’t Want You to Know, a “new publication” that will “give you the facts on occult and satanic activities that threaten you and your family… to give you the knowledge to protect your loved ones from those that would harm them.” Please send your $10.00 check to Freedom Village.


*In his satanism special, Rivera interviews a spokesman for several McMartin preschool parents who are gathered in someone’s living room. The woman to the right of the spokesman appears to be Michelle Smith (47:51), although I can’t confirm this.

**Sellers was executed by lethal injection in 1999. He did not acknowledge or apologize for his crimes.

***See the AP article “Dungeons, Dragons: Fundamentalists Attack Game as Road to Occult” from February 27, 1982. The writer of a letter to the editor in the December 12, 1980 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard calls D&D a “new fantasy game… based on the ability to promote demons to wipe out the opponent through information and formulas that could only be written by someone well versed with the occult.” She also calls the game an “introduction to the occult.” A December 1981 Milwaukee Sentinel article talks about the school board of Mukwonago High School approving Dungeons & Dragons as an official after school activity. 465 area residents submitted a petition to reverse the decision, calling the game “an active instrument in the practice of witchcraft.”

TV Guide Ads for TV Movies: Satan’s Triangle (1975)

ST 1975

Every genre movie of the ’70s starring Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot) is a classic, including this one. If you don’t believe me, read Kindertrauma’s glowing review. Unkle Lancifer calls it “the main inspiration and catalyst for this site (and perhaps my love of horror)!” As of now, you can watch it here.

Satan’s Triangle is the first movie based on and explicitly referencing the Bermuda Triangle, following Charles Berlitz’s lurid 1974 bestseller on the subject. Another TV movie, Beyond the Bermuda Triangle, starring Fred MacMurray and Donna Mills, would follow later that year.

The Bermuda Depths (1978) is another popular TV movie on the same theme (thanks for the reminder, Christopher S.).

(Image via eBay)

The Bermuda Triangle by Isao Tomita (RCA, 1978)

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Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle is essential electronica from one of the genre’s pioneers. Moog music hit the mainstream when Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach (Columbia, 1968), a note-by-note rendition of various compositions by the beloved composer, landed on the Billboard top 10. Tomita, heavily influenced by Carlos, here mixes classical phrases and original music to contribute his own quirky version of the Triangle myth, at one point quoting the famous contact music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Like Bigfoot and all manner of strange beasts, ancient aliens, and lost worlds, interest in the Bermuda Triangle had been building for more than a decade. The area’s supposed supernatural origins became entrenched in the popular imagination thanks mainly to three books: Invisible Horizons (1965) by Vincent Gaddis (who coined the phrase “Bermuda Triangle” in an earlier Argosy article), Limbo of the Lost (1969) by John Wallace Spencer, and The Bermuda Triangle (1974) by Charles Berlitz. (A “documentary” based on Berlitz’s “non-fiction” book was released in 1979.)

The cover art for the American release of Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle is by Don Punchatz (1936-2009), who made a name for himself with cover art for new editions of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy published by Avon Books in 1966. He had a distinguished career in a golden age of commercial illustration—Ray Bradbury called his work “endlessly stunning”—and is probably best known for his cover and logo art on id’s Doom (1993), one of the more iconic pieces of video game art in creation.

Music from ‘In Search of…’ by the ‘In Search of’ Orchestra (AVI Records, 1977)

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As far as I can tell, none of the cuts on the album made it onto the show, at least not in the version heard here. That’s why it’s billed as “music themes from and inspired by the series,” I guess, instead of a proper soundtrack. Lauren Rinder and W. Michael Lewis were prominently associated with the disco scene, which is obvious upon first listen. Even the instantly recognizable main theme is much more upbeat and funky than what you remember.

Very little of the spooky incidental music is here, unfortunately, although it’s a fun listen throughout, and an interesting fringe relic (filed under both the Disco and Occult/Supernatural categories!). According to Nimoy, Rinder and Lewis “added their unique talents to the mysteries we were exploring,” and they are credited with all music used on the first season. Good enough.

Man, Myth & Magic Commercial, 1974

“Look for part one on the newsstands, and knock wood there’s a copy left.” Simple, spooky, brilliant.

Index to Occult Sciences (A New Library of the Supernatural) (Doubleday, 1977)

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The first popular, mass market encyclopedia of the occult was Man, Myth & Magic, a 112-issue weekly magazine published in the UK starting in 1970. A 24-volume hardcover set collecting the magazines soon followed. The series, edited by Richard Cavendish and a board of respected academics, was extremely successful—hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on advertising—and the magazine debuted in the U.S. in 1974.

A New Library of the Supernatural was one of many copycats. The 20 volumes in the series were published by Aldus Books (Doubleday in the US) between 1975 and 1977 and follow the same template as Man, Myth & Magic: lucid, generally responsible, heavily illustrated accounts of the en vogue arcana and personalities of the day. Who might have aroused the most curiosity? Look no further than the cover note on my copy, originally from Ligonier Public Library in Indiana:


Page 39 has the insert of Anton LaVey removed. We regret this situation. Thank you!

LaVey, of course, founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and was widely reported to be devilishly charming.

The occult in popular culture is yet another major interest of mine, and I plan to start—eventually—another blog dedicated to serious exploration of the subject.

Greg Irons Art: `Strange Happenings’ Handbill, 1967

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So very interesting. Steve Ditko created the Dr. Strange character in the early ’60s, and Stan Lee introduced the “Master of Black Magic” in Strange Tales #110 (1963). The Ditko/Lee creation was a reflection of the uncanny times, a generation’s embrace of all things mystical and occult. Here Irons simultaneously appropriates the Marvel “property” (there is no mention of the company or the character name) while emulating Ditko’s style and the spirit of his and Lee’s Sorcerer Supreme. Irons did at least three posters for Space Age.

California Hall is a San Francisco landmark and makes an appearance in Dirty Harry (1971) in the scene where Callahan talks down a suicide jumper.

‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ from The Dragon #12 (February, 1978)

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“The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons” is a fascinating and important supplement to Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (1976), which was itself a supplement to the original D&D set of 1974. The column was penned by two genre legends: Rob Kuntz, co-author of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and the first edition Deities & Demigods (1980), and J. Eric Holmes, author of the first D&D Basic Set (1977). H.P. Lovecraft was, of course, listed as an “immediate influence” upon AD&D in Gygax’s famous Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). Despite having little to do with the heroic fantasy genre as we know it, Lovecraft’s oeuvre is consistently identified with it, and has been just as influential on the development of fantasy role-playing as Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft’s long-distance friend.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the Cthulhu Mythos is fueled by occult lore and traditions: ancient magic, arcane knowledge and sacred mysteries, astral planes, psychic gateways, monsters of the deep, etc. As silly as the ’80s “satanic panic” was, the D&D universe (or multiverse) is alive with the same occult elements—employed as fictions, obviously, not facts. Second, Lovecraft, following Poe, used a journalistic approach when writing his weird fiction, sort of like a police procedural applied to supernatural phenomena. His world and its denizens are so convincing and internally consistent, in fact—so real—that actual cults have grown up around his writings and the anti-humanist, anti-rationalist philosophy they encompass. (See, for example, K.R. Bolton’s “The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Occultism.”)

Like Tolkien, Lovecraft experienced a dramatic resurgence in the 1960s, when alternative spirituality and the quest for altered consciousness reached a new high (so to speak). The Moral Majority resented, among other things, the spiritual independence won by young people by the end of the Summer of Love decade, and they feared that D&D and other products of the imagination would corrupt—i.e. render freethinking—a new generation of youngsters. The difference between literate hippies and early geeks is that the former wanted to replace the “technocratic” real world with a new one based on love, freedom (in politics and consciousness), and a return to nature, whereas the latter simply wanted to create and play in a sandbox of alternative realities.

The idea of inserting Lovecraft into D&D sums up the glorious absurdity at the heart of fantasy role-playing: on the one hand, we want to escape to a fictional time and place that is less complicated than the real one, a world in which magic exists; on the other hand, we want our fantasy worlds to be systematically playable, and for that to happen, statistics must be applied to said worlds and the beings inhabiting them. It’s equal parts Romanticism and Enlightenment, art and science. Hence the brilliant entry for `Azathoth, Creator of the Universe’:

If Azathoth is destroyed the entire universe will collapse back to a point at the center of the cosmos with the incidental destruction of all life and intelligence.

Talk about game over. And the creator of the universe only has 300 hit points!

In The Dragon #14 (May, 1978), a letter from reader Gerald Guinn cheekily objected to a number of points made in the “Lovecraftian Mythos” article. J. Eric Holmes cheekily responded in The Dragon #16 (July, 1978). Both letters are below. Holmes’ response, along with the original article, are listed in Lovecraft scholar/biographer S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraft Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography (1981).

A “Cthulhu Mythos” section (see tommorow’s post) expanded from the Dragon article appeared in the first edition of Deities & Demigods, but was famously removed from subsequent editions because TSR didn’t want to acknowledge its debt to Chaosium, which had acquired the rights—or the blessings of Arkham House, anyway, since Lovecraft’s works were and are in the public domain—for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.

For a comprehensive list of Cthulhu Mythos references in early D&D, see this post at Zenopus Archives.

Dragon #14 May 1978 Guinn

Dragon #16 July 1978 Holmes Lovecraft

Usborne Publishing: Supernatural Guides: Vampires, Werewolves & Demons (1979)







UK publisher Usborne released a number of memorable books in the late ’70s, starting with the World of the Unknown series in 1977. The Supernatural Guides followed in 1979 and covered the same territory.

In the most matter-of-fact, dispassionate tone, the authors discuss all manner of gruesome scenarios and happenings. The accompanying illustrations, on the other hand, are incredibly graphic, disturbing, and over-the-top. That irony is what makes the books so brilliant. Take this:

Ghosts became more unpleasant and dangerous the longer they were dead and it was important not to offend them. Sometimes the spirit returned as a ferocious man-eating animal.

What kind of ferocious man-eating animal, you ask? How about an African elephant spirit that will eat your heart and liver?

How does one become a werewolf? Well, he or she  puts “wolfsbane, opium, foxgloves, bat blood and fat of a murdered child into a pot” and boils them. Let me repeat that last ingredient, in case you missed it: the fat of a murdered child.

Usborne also released a World of the Future series around the same time that’s as fascinating, though not as insane. The World of the Unknown books were re-released in the late ’90s with different covers. The interiors are identical to the originals.

(Images via Found Objects and Horrorpedia)

Board Games: Which Witch (1970), Voice of the Mummy (1971), Séance (1972), and Superstition (1977)

Which Witch 1970

Voice of the Mummy 1971

Seance 1972

Superstition 1977

Voice of the Mummy is the only one I’ve played, and it was over 30 years ago. There’s a little plastic record playing under the mummy that directs the players’ moves. Example: “The Screeching Green Pestilence Brings Death. Take Three Jewels if Your Age is an Odd Number.” Read all the messages here. Séance uses the same concept.

The resurgence of the horror genre in the ’70s was paralleled by a fascination for all things supernatural and occult. Both Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin’s fatalistic novel was a bestseller before it was adapted for film) and the musical Hair—promising a coming era of peace and love, the Age of Aquariuscame out in 1967. The hippies, determined to escape an everyday reality that had become toxic to them, also experimented with witchcraft, magic, and paganism.

All of this eventually filtered down to the mainstream and middle class kids. Ouija boards were sold in all the major catalogs. Doctor Strange (“Master of the Mystic Arts”), Ghost Rider, and the Son of Satan were popular superheroes. Everybody saw Anton LaVey or Satan himself in the inside cover of Hotel California (1976). Heavy metal, much of which directly referenced the occult, was charting. Two popular kid’s books with occult themes, Watcher in the Woods (1976) and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), were adapted by Disney—both of them saw heavy rotation at my Lutheran elementary school on “movie day.”

The Moral Majority would soon put an end to the ride.




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