A red overhead screen with scrawled Satanic Panic text over a star. Copyright: 2021 Cassiano Rosario

How the 80s Satanic Panic Nearly Destroyed Pop Culture As We Know It

Remember when, in the 1980s, there was a wave of hysteria surrounding the idea of Satanism in popular culture? Everything from heavy metal music to Dungeons & Dragons to horror movies was accused of promoting Satanic beliefs and corrupting young minds. This moral panic was fueled by sensationalized media coverage, religious zealotry, and a general fear of the unknown -- not unlike a lot of media and fake news today.

One of the most significant targets of this Satanic panic was heavy metal music. Bands like Black Sabbath, Slayer, and Judas Priest were accused of using Satanic imagery and lyrics to corrupt their young fans. Parents, religious groups, and politicians spoke out against the genre, calling for boycotts and even censorship. But in reality, the vast majority of these bands were just using the devil as a marketing tool, much like horror movies use monsters to sell tickets.

The hype today isn't as bad. We have Ghost, Powerwolf, and many other bands which do, in fact, portray satanic or heathen imagery or themes, and yet the sensationalism about it is nonexistent.

Another popular target of the Satanic panic was the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The game was accused of promoting witchcraft, devil worship, and suicide. These allegations were completely unfounded, but they were widely believed, leading to bans and restrictions on the game in some areas.

People actually fabricated and published statistics that supported a higher rate of suicide among D&D players. Yet suicide rates are almost 3 times higher today than in the 80s, especially among religiously persecuted groups like LGBTQ+ youth. Perhaps nonconforming groups like nerds in the 80s and LGBTQ+ youth today have something in common: oppression.

Even innocent pop culture phenomena were not immune to the Satanic panic. Rumors swirled that some popular songs contained secret Satanic messages when played backward. The most famous of these was the accusation that the song "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin contained hidden messages that could only be heard by playing the song in reverse. This was later debunked, but it illustrates the level of paranoia surrounding the issue.

The Satanic panic of the 1980s was a misguided and unnecessary phenomenon that had a lasting impact on popular culture. It led to censorship, self-censorship, and the stigmatization of certain genres and hobbies. In retrospect, it's clear that the fears were largely unfounded and that the pop culture of the 80s was generally innocent and wholesome.

Today, we can look back on this period with a critical eye and learn from our mistakes. We can understand that sensationalized media coverage, religious zealotry, and fear of the unknown can lead to irrational and harmful behavior. It's important to be critical of the information we receive and to question our assumptions about the world around us.

And most importantly, we should embrace diversity and different cultural expressions rather than demonizing them out of fear.

Image Copyright: 2021 Cassiano Rosario
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