When I was a kid the boy who moved in down the street from our house told me about the miracles he had seen firsthand at bible study at his old house. The presence of The Lord was made manifest by, for example, bread that broke of its own accord in full view of the people praying over it (some of whom had their eyes open). I asked his dad about it once; the dad didn’t confirm the specific story, but he did say that “a lot of amazing things happened” in that group, without further elaboration.
A friend of ours from church was an exorcist. He was a nice guy; I had a crush on one of his daughters. I know how this sounds but he’s a very sincere person; he led—still leads, in fact—a “deliverance ministry” that genuinely seemed to help people feel better, I have heard. He works with a group of exorcists who meet semi-annually in Rome; they feel misunderstood. His son, now grown, has a thoughtful podcast about his own conversion to Satanism.
We had some old Jack Chick comics around the house—not the Tijuana Bible-sized tracts but full-sized comic books, drawn by the great Fred Carter and scripted by the nice-seeming but crazy Chick. One featured a murderous cult dressed in black Klan-style robes and hoods who sacrificed a bare-midriffed girl to Satan on page five. At the top of page one, Chick expresses “[m]y deepest appreciation to John Todd, ex-Grand Druid Priest, for the authenticity of the occult information used in this story. Also to those others who came out of witchcraft and have verified this material.”
All this by way of saying that I grew up experiencing a chill around tales of the occult; also a profound desire to read and watch them, which I attributed to the work of the Devil, rather than the natural consequence of going to school and church among folks who believed in something dangerous that I couldn’t see but, sometimes, was sure I could feel.
Though the belief receded and curdled into annoyance with my childhood self for having been taken in, horror movies with demons in them have always evoked a much more intense feeling of panic in me than those featuring serial killers or monsters. In this, I was not alone. I grew up at the height of the “The Satanic Panic,” as it came to be known, a moralistic craze over the dangers of Satanism—a religion that, we all knew, promoted ritual sacrifice, sexual promiscuity, and Glenn Danzig.
The new Conjuring movie, subtitled The Devil Made Me Do It and directed by Michael Chaves, takes place in the parallel universe many of us remember from church in the 1990’s, where we were told—probably not from the pulpit, but certainly by talkative friends of friends—that demons stalked our every move, waiting for us to slip up and invite them into our souls, as poor Arne Johnson does in the film, right before he murders his landlord, Alan Bono.
This story, based as it is to some degree in fact, is more prosaic than faith-based tales like the doorstop-sized fictions of Frank E. Peretti, a Christian horror writer whose viscera-spattered bestseller This Present Darkness and its sequel Piercing the Darkness were beach reading for the faithful during the Satanic Panic. Peretti’s narratives started more or less where William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist left off, escalating culture-war battles on earth into titanic clashes between sword-wielding angels and demons on the spiritual plane. Christian pop megastar Michael W. Smith wrote a song about the first one.
The opening scene of The Devil Made Me Do It nods at the lineage of the Panic. It is stitched together from favorite bits of The Exorcist—the house with the lights coming through the upstairs curtains, the priest in his big black hat getting out of his car, the war to exorcise the demon out of the prostrate child—a little boy in this version. Enter the real-life husband-and-wife ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren, who came to the town of Brookfield, Connecticut to cast a demon from the body of the 11-year-old boy, David Glatzel; that detail, at least, is based on fact.
The Conjuring films are only one of several movie franchises based on the Warrens’ shenanigans, which also gave us The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut. The Warrens were certain that the demon that had possessed David Glatzel had fled into Arne Johnson. Johnson—who went by Cheyenne in real life—had been possessed, they said; People reported that though the bishop of Bridgeport had never authorized an exorcism, the local priest had blessed the Glatzel house, and other rites were performed by the Warrens (“the Ozzie and Harriet of investigators into the supernatural,” according to one account).
However far-fetched this story might sound, after Bono’s murder—the first in the history of Brookfield—Arne Johnson’s lawyer was happy to play along. “Think about it,” Martin Minella told a skeptical Washington Post reporter who wrote about the case in 1983. “What kind of name is Bono? Italian, right. So what does Bono mean in Italian? It means good. And evil likes to destroy good.” He told People he would subpoena the priests involved (and presumably, ask to speak to their manager about the slipshod service).
The true story is more farce than horror, but the old Son of Sam bait-and-switch can be counted on to fill the cheap seats; it also offers a convenient way out for those who’d prefer not to discuss how or why they did heinous, unforgivable things. David Berkowitz was by all accounts a spoiled bully with a penchant for starting fires, but when he told police his neighbor’s dog, Harvey, was possessed by an ancient demon, the New York Post couldn’t get enough of it.
Johnson may have been deluded, or just bad, and his parents may have believed him, or they may have been desperate not to see their child go to prison. But without a doubt, there was a pervasive fear of Satan circulating in the 1980’s and 90’s, informed at least in part by lurid tales of the Manson family and a suspicion that hippie culture had introduced not just sexual perversion but Old Testament evil into American life. A lot of churches were eager to promote these tales, and though in this case the justice system wasn’t swayed, there were others in which it had less say.
In 1988, a woman named Karla Franko led a session at a retreat for the Pentecostal Church of the Living Water in Washington, where she said she had supernatural knowledge that someone in the room had been molested. Several girls came forward; one was Ericka Ingram, daughter of the local sheriff. In Franko’s own version, as recounted by Lawrence Wright in his two-part New Yorker investigation, Remembering Satan, Ericka had asked for prayer but wouldn’t say what about. Franko said she felt that same supernatural intuition. According to Wright,
“You have been abused as a child, sexually abused,” Franko announced. Ericka, she says, sat quietly weeping, unable to respond. Franko got another divine prompting, which told her, “It’s by her father, and it’s been happening for years.” When Franko said this aloud, Ericka began to sob hysterically. Franko prayed for the Lord to heal her.
Ericka’s sister Julie joined her in her confession, and together they elaborated on the story of their abuse until it included rape by all of her dad’s poker buddies, who were also in a satanic cult that sacrificed some two dozen babies and sometimes, still-living aborted fetuses, on a site in the woods where police dutifully dug for corpses and found only an elk bone. Nevertheless, Paul Ingram, who claimed he had no memory of the rapes or murders, confessed to the crimes on the grounds that he had raised his daughters not to lie, and believed their story. He was released from prison in 2003.
It was the most prominent of a series of cases that came to characterize a phenomenon its proponents called “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA). It was widespread enough that it feels disorienting to see a pop culture homage to the period, like The Devil Made Me Do It, that doesn’t even mention it. “A 1991 survey of members of the American Psychological Association found that thirty per cent of the respondents had treated at least one client who claimed to have suffered from satanic-ritual abuse,” Wright writes, “and ninety-three per cent of those who completed a second survey believed their clients’ claims to be true.”
John Todd, the man who gave born-again cartoonist Jack Chick the inside scoop on the doings of the Grand Druids, was a fraud, and his tales of satanic perversion and ritual sacrifice were lies. He was a sex criminal—and not a reformed one. In 1987, he lured a woman to his apartment with a job ad and sexually assaulted her; when he was arrested, two children who attended his karate dojo in Forest Acres, South Carolina came forward to say that he had assaulted them as well. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and he died in a state mental health facility in 2007.
David Glatzel, the little boy Arne Johnson claimed to have freed from a demon by selflessly inviting it into himself where it murdered Alan Bono, sued freelance exorcist Lorraine Warren and author Gerald Brittle in 2006 for defamation. The Devil in Connecticut, Brittle’s book about Glatzel’s family, which relied on Warren’s stories, was being re-released, and Glatzel asserted that he had never told anyone he was possessed by an evil spirit. The case was dismissed, but Brittle took the book out of print after the skirmish. First published in 1983, it had already been made into an NBC TV movie called The Demon Murder Case, starring Kevin Bacon, Andy Griffith, and Cloris Leachman. A new edition was published this year.
Satan’s Underground by Laurel Rose Wilson was published five years later, in 1988. A paperback bestseller with a huge evangelical readership, the book was endorsed by pop-prophet Hal Lindsey; Lindsey’s own book about the coming Rapture, The Late Great Planet Earth, also sold in huge numbers, earned the repudiation of every major theologian, and became the subject of a film narrated by Orson Welles. Like Brittle’s dubious true-crime shocker, Wilson’s book isn’t widely remembered now, but it permeated the culture enough that Geraldo Rivera’s special on the subject “went to ratings heaven,” according to the LA Times.
Ericka Ingram read Satan’s Underground in 1988, just before she accused her father of leading a baby-killing satanic rape cult; Wright notes she told the police she’d stopped reading the book because the shock of recognition was too great for her, though she told the acquaintance who’d loaned it to her that she’d read the whole thing.
Satan’s Underground was withdrawn by its publisher in 1990, after an investigative article in Christian magazine Cornerstone revealed that the book was mostly fiction, including the author’s claim to have given birth to a baby sacrificed in a satanic ritual; Wilson, it emerged, had never given birth or adopted a child. The same thing happened to The Satan Seller, the memoir of Mike Warnke, a Christian stand-up who claimed to have escaped Satanism (he had escaped it so completely that he was never involved with it, as it turned out). Wilson, the author of Satan’s Underground, began going by Laura Grabowski, claiming to be a Jewish survivor of Josef Mengele’s experiments at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She befriended Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of the Holocaust memoir Fragments (published 1995, withdrawn 1999) about his own experiences under Mengele; Wilson/Grabowski claimed to recognize him from the camps. Wilkomirski, who was also using a pseudonym to misrepresent himself as a Holocaust survivor, played along until both were exposed. Satanists were said to have abused 12,000 people by their supposed victims, according to that survey of psychiatrists in 1996; not one of these incidents was corroborated.
Meanwhile, the real Catholic Church was still engaged in a decades-long coverup of systemic sexual abuse of young boys by priests. Evangelical churches now face a similar reckoning over recent crimes, and anecdotally, I can tell you that during this same period of hand-wringing about Satanism, people were being sexually abused by authority figures in those churches, too.
“Like it or not, horror is part of our media, part of our culture, part of our lives—none of which answers the question of why an entire society should stand around engrossedly reading Dracula while up to their jugulars in blood,” wrote horror writer Alan Moore in 1987 in the introduction to his collected Saga of the Swamp Thing. “Do we immerse ourselves in fictional horror as a way of numbing our emotions to its real-life counterpart? Is it some sort of inoculation…a tiny dose of something frightening with which we hope to ward off a more serious attack in later life? Could it even represent a useful, if not vital, tool with which we enable ourselves to investigate and understand the origins of horror without exposing ourselves to physical or mental harm?”
“The Satanist’s sole aim is chaos!” howls a priest named Father Kastner (invented out of whole cloth for the film) in The Devil Made Me Do It. “His nectar is despair!”
Chaos and despair are regular guests in the Christian church: often cast out, but rarely interrogated. Perhaps we are afraid of what they will tell us about how they were invited in to begin with, and what we have forgotten. By Alan Moore’s reckoning of the “inoculation” of horror, The Devil Made Me Do It is pretty weak stuff, a dose of the same sensationalism that sweetened the lies about the Devil’s work in the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s. Then as now, the story that dark forces threatened our children—abetted by naïve and permissive liberals conspiring against the church, who must be fought with solidarity and unshakable belief—was a seductive one. The truth was and is that the same old anodyne perversions that have plagued women and children under patriarchy for centuries were at work in a church that to this day treats the presence of women and gay people in leadership as evidence of insufficient devotion or even godlessness.
But even that is too simple. The horror is not merely the irony of institutionalized abuse among conservative Christians who are happy to thrill to lies about splatter-film Satanists that almost exactly match their own clergy’s perversions. It is also that we prefer tall tales to true accounts of abuse again, and again, and again.