It’s no picnic being a member of a minority religious community in the United States.
More than most countries, the US extends an enormous amount of privilege to Christians (especially White Evangelical ones). On the best of days, this ensures a level of political and legal insulation for Christians that is perpetually denied to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of the eclectic and scattered communities of witches, pagans, heathens, and other freethinkers. This despite repeated malfeasance on the part of majority faiths and structures of hierarchy; this, despite the fact that the fear that attaches itself to “the other” in America so often blinds people to the wolves in their midst.
On the worst of days, you crack open a rancid little surprise like Satanic Panic, the 2019 horror-comedy Fangoria production written by Grady Hendrix and Ted Geoghegan (and directed by Geoghegan as well). It breaks my black little heart to report that, yes, I mean that Grady Hendrix, the talented horror novelist (and author of Horrorstör, the book that launched my very first post here at Madness Heart Press, as a matter of fact). Indeed, for all of Satanic Panic’s many faults – and we’ll get to them in a moment – the quality of the prose here is not one of them. It’s a movie rife with moments that are funny and insightful, especially when skewering the foibles of the super-wealthy, which in the film range from an overabundance of superficial cheer to a hilariously terrible understanding of handgun safety.
Nor, frankly, does it appear to have been shallowly researched, necessarily. At one point, a character prays to “Baphomet, the three-headed God of the Templars.” Now, if this caused your ears to perk up a bit, you’ve probably spent time trolling the same dark conspiracy cesspools on the Internet that I have (and, if this is the case, my condolences on your rosy outlook on the state of human affairs, which no doubt died the same hideous death that mine did). It’s a very specific – and, frankly, quite slanderous – misinterpretation of the Templars that is common currency among OMG-World-Government, New-World-Order types, alt-right freaks, and flat-earth psychopaths. It and many other signifiers of “the dark occult” in Satanic Panic are not so much fresh inventions, or lazy, often-used clichés as they are very weird, very underground, and very specific misinterpretations of same.
Let’s start with the film’s basic premise, shall we? A sinister cabal of Satanists have sacrificed their immortal souls to the Powers of Hell in exchange for worldly power, wealth, beauty, and success. Sound familiar? If it does, it may be because such cabals are a recurring part of Christian mythology dating back to at least the third century AD, if not before. Horrible stories of sinister conspiracies – involving child sacrifice, child-eating, incest, and the like – were actually told about Christians before they were told by them, as is documented in Dr. Candida Moss’ excellent history The Myth of Persecution. Such wild stories crested in Southern Germany in the 17th century, and then again in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s in a series of moral panics and false accusations that came to be known as “the Satanic Panic.” Despite “cult cops” harassing every teen with a copy of The Satanic Bible, despite the vanishingly-rare incidence of events like the Ricky Kasso affair, no such conspiracy of Satanists was ever uncovered. Ever. Not one shred of evidence, not one verifiable whisper of a Satanic cabal of any kind – let alone one that preys on children. Can the Catholic Church make such a claim? How about the uber-Christian organization the Boy Scouts of America?
It would be one thing if Satanic Panic’s title were a reference to a quaint and bygone moral panic, one in which America had learned its lesson about religious bigotry, hysteria, and believing in supernatural conspiracies of otherworldly power, but we are a nation currently being torn apart by poisonous conspiracy theories in which Satanic cabals drink the blood of children and commune with the Devil. These freaks aren’t just gibbering at one another on message boards anymore; they are shooting up pizza parlors, committing kidnappings, and running for Congress. They are QAnon – and they are growing. Bullshit Satanic-conspiracy movies like Satanic Panic are more grist for the mill for people who have already demonstrated an extremely dangerous propensity to mix up fantasy and reality.
Let me put my cards on the table, if they weren’t there already: I am a Satanist. Not the campy, red-robe-wearing, Devil-worshipping kind (that kind, frankly, is pretty thin on the ground). No, I’m a real Satanist, and we are a real religion. We have – believe it or not, respect them or not – sincerely held religious beliefs, easily found online. None of them involve human or animal sacrifice. The “other” Satanic church, the Church of Satan, is similarly real, and similarly has an easily-Googled set of beliefs. None of those beliefs or practices include human or animal sacrifice either, strangely enough. Now, I am not naïve enough to think that the very words “Satan” and “Satanist” are not inevitably going to summon sinister connotations. As is well-described in books like Speak of the Devil and The Invention of Satanism, the development of the religion of Satanism has always involved a playful give-and-take with pop culture mainstays like horror movies and heavy metal.
To some extent, the Devil should make appearances in horror movies. However, as I pointed out in ‘Lip Gloss and the Inverted Cross,’ my review of the first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, not all portrayals of Satanism are created equal. In the case of Sabrina, the show went out of its way to misrepresent and antagonize the Satanic Temple (my own religion). In the case of Satanic Panic, it’s even worse. The film seems designed to play on the same horseshit conspiracy theory “Satanism” that currently fuels the weird, incandescent gutter-flame of the QAnon cult. In fact, this may be one of the most Q-compatible films that I’ve ever seen. This is particularly galling given that by his own account Hendrix is aware of – and, to his credit, quite disparaging of – these theories and their increasing permeation of our political reality.
I expected better from Grady Hendrix. What I got amounted to a slanderous 80-minute caricature. No minority religion enjoys being repeatedly bashed in the face with stereotypes that have already led to violence. Satanic Panic was a film that saw me (or, rather, a cartoonish version of me), and hated me. I genuinely hated it back.