CINE-WEEN: Demons of the Mind-Halloween and the Satanic Panic

For someone who has such an abundance of love for horror in all its various forms, it may come as a surprise that I have few to no memories associated with Halloween. Not the film franchise, of course – I have a ton of memories, both great and otherwise, with the Halloween movies. I mean the actual holiday, October 31.

Y’see, overseas readers, Halloween was a virtual non-entity when I was a child. Here Down Under, it wasn’t really a big thing. I knew what it was, of course. You’d see it on TV or read about it in books. For whatever reason, it was viewed as peculiarly “American.” Of course, lots of other things originated from America and no-one really seemed to mind. Yet when talking about Halloween in particular, adults around me would say “American” with the same tone of voice we might use to say “convicted necrophile.”

The absurdity of this became fairly evident to me at a young age. Given the sheer amount of American pop culture we consumed on a daily basis, it seemed bizarre to me that the line was drawn at Halloween. Perhaps you could make an argument against its celebration in Australia due to its origins as a harvest festival? Living in the Southern Hemisphere, we were only a month away from summer by the time Halloween rolled around. But this didn’t hold much water either; after all, we did Easter and Christmas at the same time as the rest of the world. And why not just do it at a different time of the year?

There are other cases to be made, but I think at least some of the explanation lies in Halloween’s intrinsic associations with THE OCCULT. And in turn, I think we need to talk a little bit about the Satanic Panic.

People who aren’t metal or horror fans often ask me why I enjoy these two things so much, often with the unspoken implication that anyone who does is a bit weird. Probably a bunch of you reading have had similar conversations with family, friends, and total strangers who feel entitled to ask a bunch of questions about your personal life.

I usually touch on a handful of different reasons when I give my answer; my long-time interest in special effects and theatrics, the thrill of being scared, an enjoyment of monsters and a firm conviction that you need to have some awareness around your darker side. These facets of enjoyment didn’t spring forth fully-formed. I came to both of them in my teens, and my relationship with them has evolved considerably over time as I have grown as a person.

My parents were not big on horror on the whole. There were exceptions; one of mum’s favourite films is The Wicker Man, and dad introduced me to the Universal Monsters via The Mummy when I was probably 9 or 10. Both of them loved Led Zeppelin, too, and the idea of music being inherently “evil” was rightfully treated with scorn.

Yet while my parents may not have been outrageously strict, they were products of 1980s church culture. Metal wasn’t really on their radar, but horror films were just one of many things to be treated with suspicion – potentially touched by the taint of THE OCCULT. For a certain generation of church kid, this is very familiar territory. There have always been (and likely always will be) a lot of anti-Halloween wowsers, but in the 1980s I think it’s fair to say that a lot of that suspicion was fuelled by wider cultural fears around the Satanic Panic.

Now, the Satanic Panic is a pretty broad term used to cover a variety of phenomena; you can read about a big part of it on Wikipedia here (CW: sexual assault). To summarise, it was a moral panic where lots of people were concerned about Satanism in general, typically in the context of how it might affect kids.

In practical terms, this meant there was lots of conspiratorial thinking, concerns about the possible existence of large-scale, underground, child-abusing Satanic cults. It’s not an exact analogue, but I’d guess the closest thing we have today is the way people freak out about whether their favourite celebrity is a member of the Illuminati or not. Pizzagate probably had some overlap too.

This kicked off in the 1970s and probably burned brightest in the 1980s, fuelled by bestselling books like Michelle Remembers and The Satan Seller – not to mention the arrest of serial killer Richard Ramirez. There were other factors in play; the hippie counterculture had encouraged a turn away from traditional societal norms and established religious belief, and the older generation was having a bit of a freakout. Couple that with the rise of hit films like The Exorcist and The Omen…well, you can start to understand why things played out the way they did.

The conservatism of Ronald Reagan’s presidency also had a bunch of right-wingers thinking they were some kind of moral police, and anything they didn’t like could be lumped in as suspiciously “Satanic.” Popular targets included Dungeons & Dragons, punk rock, the aforementioned heavy metal, Eastern mysticism, tarot cards, Freemasonry, horror movies, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe…the list goes on, probably warranting a couple of books in itself.

Not every parent believed there was an underground Satanic cult running the show, of course – mine certainly didn’t – but they might suddenly get strong feelings about, say, King Diamond records. Talk to any church kid from this era and they’ll give you a laundry list of pretty innocuous things they weren’t allowed to do because their parents were afraid of it.

As an explicit celebration of darker things, Halloween was far from immune, and all sorts of anti-Halloween propaganda was produced in its wake. Indeed, it was the comparatively innocuous nature of Halloween that tended to raise critics’ ire. The more extreme types tended to see it as Satan himself using cultural norms to get a foothold in people’s lives, and definitely not just kids enjoying wearing costumes and eating candy.

Contrary to what you might expect, this wasn’t just a church thing – in an era where it was harder to fact-check, secular authorities frequently took this stuff very seriously. They’d even issue guides for teachers and other authority figures to identify signs of potential Satanic involvement among young people. If you’re looking to read more, Fab Press’ Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s is well worth a look. We Are the Mutants, where I contribute from time to time, has also written about it on a few occasions. 

To absolutely no-one’s surprise, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan copped a huge amount of flak from the general public. Then-public representatives Zeena and Nikolas Schreck would frequently appear on TV, condemning public fear as unfounded and emphasising that in spite of the name, the Church of Satan did not believe in a literal Satan. Due to their carefully cultivated image and particular personal convictions, they didn’t always come off in a great light – but they almost inevitably looked far less silly than their accusers.

Time, memory, and shifting impressions have left it difficult to say how seriously I took any of this. I was certainly frightened of things I think are pretty innocuous (or at least very silly) these days, though not to the extent where they weighed on my mind a lot. I attended a fairly conservative Christian primary school during the 90s, but my parents didn’t buy into their concerns at anywhere near the same level, so my thought process about a lot of “forbidden” things didn’t tend to go much deeper than: The school pastor says tarot cards are bad? Okay, guess I won’t play with them.

One thing I do remember is that we received Scholastic Book Club order forms every couple of months, and as a class we’d have to work through them and cross out anything that smacked of Halloween, monsters, or the ill-defined “occult.” In a particularly ridiculous instance, this extended to censorship of Witch Hazel from Looney Tunes. It will come as no surprise that the hammer eventually fell on Harry Potter too, though that was well after I’d left.

This will seem comical to plenty of people reading, and so it should. It seemed pretty ridiculous even to many of the students at the time – no-one was trying to sell these kids anything halfway approaching something harmful. I doubt half of the teaching faculty would have had the faintest idea about anything resembling real occult practices, beyond being afraid of going into the local New Age bookstore.

As I sit here writing this piece, an avid metal, horror, and roleplaying fan, I can only conclude that the concerns of many of the adults around me were misplaced at best. Indeed, the whole Satanic Panic turned out to be grossly overblown, conflict often the result of simple communication gaps between parents and kids. Numerous key figures who were driving the whole frenzy were exposed as frauds, or unreliable at best. Better information became available to the general public, and the whole thing was relegated to the fringe. Nowadays, when people discuss it, the Satanic Panic tends to be viewed as a phenomenon of the 1980s, a weird collective cultural freakout that went away as quickly as it appeared. With the benefit of hindsight, we can easily look back at just how silly so much of it was. It’s mostly a source of internet curiosities.

With that said, the effects of the Satanic Panic still hang over me to varying degrees to this day. Having spent a number of years moving in Evangelical circles through the last decade, I’d say its cultural influence is still alive and well, though fortunately nowhere near as prevalent.

Out in the wider world, though, things have changed quite a bit; the Halloween decorations in Australian stores are far more prominent, and I hear anecdotally about friends with kids who take them trick or treating. I don’t think it will ever gain the same prominence that it has in the US, but as a horror fan I enjoy seeing its increased presence. A few years ago I even went round to my parents’ house and found a whole selection of trick or treat baskets that they’d readied for the neighbourhood children – unthinkable when I was a child! 

Being removed from that culture of fear – both in time and distance – represents the lifting of a tremendous psychic weight for me. Though I’m still yet to properly celebrate Halloween, it has become something to look forward to. Now it is a happy occasion, rather than the demon-haunted affair that I imagined it to be for so long. Life throws many strange ironies at us, but this is one worth appreciating. So I must wish you a Happy Halloween, and for my northern hemispherical friends, all the best for the coming winter.

 

 

Tom G. Wolf

Tom G. Wolf is a Sydney-based author who specialises in pulp-style horror and adventure fiction. By day he works as a journalist and copywriter. His work has appeared at We Are the Mutants and Astral Noize. He lives in Sydney with his wife and cat. You can find him on Twitter @lupinebookclub. His horror novella, Lost Tunnels, can be purchased here. https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Tunnels-Tom-G-Wolf-ebook/dp/B07DWC2M78
Tom G. Wolf

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About Tom G. Wolf

Tom G. Wolf is a Sydney-based author who specialises in pulp-style horror and adventure fiction. By day he works as a journalist and copywriter. His work has appeared at We Are the Mutants and Astral Noize. He lives in Sydney with his wife and cat. You can find him on Twitter @lupinebookclub. His horror novella, Lost Tunnels, can be purchased here. https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Tunnels-Tom-G-Wolf-ebook/dp/B07DWC2M78