Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism (1989)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.

Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism hits all the markers of a Christian scare film: warnings about dark forces aiming to get you and above all your children, testimony from less then reliable “experts,” sermons about the dangers of rock music and heavy metal, and unsubstantiated claims about murderous conspiracies. At first glance, it is nothing to take seriously. However, it has broader social significance as it reflects a dangerous 1980s moral panic, one reflected in the modern rise of QAnon.

This hour-long film is part of the Pagan Invasion series of alarmist Christian documentaries released during the late 1980s. Pagan Invasion argued that the growth of alternate religious groups such as the Wiccans posed a threat to the souls of Christians. One film in the series, Halloween: Trick or Treat, reviewed by the Cinema Snob, contended that participation in Halloween festivities leaves children vulnerable to influence by Satanists and that the holiday was an occasion for animal and human sacrifices, backing its points with dubious evidence and even less reliable commentary.

The devil worship documentary follows much the same pattern as the Halloween entry in the series. It opens with a montage of news stories about murderers such as the Nightstalker, Richard Ramirez, who claimed satanic inspiration for their killings. The film’s host, Caryl Matrisciana, goes on to allege that Satanism is on the rise in 1980s America and that children are danger of being killed, molested, or even worse converted by the Satanic hordes. The film then attempts to document her claims.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this documentary is the highly questionable quality of the “experts” it interviews. The most noteworthy of these witnesses is one William Schnoebelen, a man who alleges that he was once granted supernatural powers by a deal with the devil and that he was a member of the Illuminati. Schoebelen also claims that the Earth is flat and that he was a “90th degree Freemason,” never mind the fact that Masonry only has 33 degrees. In spite of these outlandish claims, the filmmakers bring him on to warn parents about how their children’s cartoons will indoctrinate them into practicing witchcraft, complete with a freeze frame of Skeletor. (Schnoebelen is backed up in this by another interviewee, Rev. Kevin Johnson, who portrays the He-Man cartoon as a particularly dangerous purveyor of Satanism, even treating the related action figures as idols. This was apparently not an uncommon belief within 80s fundamentalist circles, as another Christian scare film, Deception of a Generation, also warned of the dangers of Masters of the Universe, and Scooby-Doo to boot.)

The other “experts” who appear in this film are all in a similar vein. For instance, Maureen Davies, credited as an occult researcher is a member of the British evangelical group Reachout Trust, which is known for attacking New Age groups as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the Sub-Culture Alternatives Freedom Foundation (SAFF), a New Age advocacy group in the UK, Davies and her associates promoted false allegation of child abuse during the 1980s and 1990s. One of her associates, Audrey Harper, a supposed former Satanist, is interviewed in the documentary (identified only as Audrey). Harper claims to have participated in Satanic infant sacrifices, but as the SAFF points out, her local police force found no evidence such as sacrifice had ever taken place. Another interviewee, David Wilshire, was at that time a Conservative MP in the British Parliament. He warns viewers of the dangers of “full-blown Satanism,” though perhaps he would have been better off warning of the dangers of government corruption, as his career ended in 2009 with an expenses scandal that he compared to the Holocaust.

Possibly the most amusing interview of all is from Mark, the alleged high priest of the Satanic Cult Temple of Olympus and lead singer of the heavy metal band the Devoted Men. Mark appears dressed in Greek style robes and implies that his songs’ lyrics are transmitted to him by demons. Interestingly, although the documentary claims that the band is one of the more popular musical groups in London, very little reference to it can be found on the Internet. They also trot out two former high priestesses of the group who claim that the Temple is a front for perverted sex rituals. Why they never went to the police about these rituals is never explained.

However, Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism becomes much less amusing when one considers the real-life tragedy caused by the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. During this mass hysteria, people became convincing that Satanists were conspiring to molest and abuse their children. Media figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera fanned the flames of this moral panic by doing sensationalistic reports. In reality, many of these allegations were based on extremely questionable recovered memories, often the results of pressure from psychiatrists and law enforcement officials. As a result, people ended up in prison on false charges, as in the case of the McMartin Trial.

Particularly unsettling is the participation of law enforcement officials in this documentary. One of the experts interviewed is Randy Emon, a police officer who went on to become the Supervising Deputy Coroner Investigator for San Bernadino County. He alleges that there are families of “generational” Satanists where children are trained from birth to worship Satan and endure all manner of abuse in his name. He also argues that 80s metal bands such as Venom, Slayer, and Merciful Faith “will blatantly teach these kids various occultic practices.” Emon claims in his interview that powerful politicians are covering up Satanic practices such as animal sacrifices because they fear it will damage their communities’ reputations. To be clear, I have no reason to believe Emon was involved in any compromised cases, but just to hear a law enforcement official embrace such outlandish claims is unsettling.

One could just dismiss this as a grotesque phenomenon of the 1980s, but it reflects at once a much older and a much newer trend. As a recent article by Daniel Loxton in Skeptic Magazine points out, the Satanic Panic mirrors many of the allegations put out by the QAnon conspiracy theory, followers of which participated in the recent attack on the Capitol building, while simultaneously echoing centuries-old anti-Semitic smears against Jewish people, particularly the blood libel. Credulity and a lack of critical thinking were, and still are, a danger.

Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism is available on YouTube here.

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