October 12, 2017 – As I’ve chronicled on a prior version of this blog, satanic panic is de rigeur in recent horror cinema. From the possession and exorcism genre revived by The Exorcism of Emily Rose to retro satanic cult thrillers like House of the Devil. From the franchising of Ed & Lorraine Warren’s infamous devil-busting “true stories” to the conflation of witchcraft with devil-worship (Lords of Salem, The VVitch). From flirtations with affirming the 1980s moral panic of Satanic Ritual Abuse (HBO’s True Detective) to challenging it (Regression).
My suspicion is that current filmmakers are as fascinated as I am with it, some of them having studied its history and some of them having lived it. But I also suspect it’s failing to strike any basic nerve or chord with today’s audiences, except perhaps in the more insane conspiracy theory circles out there.
So I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight six made for TV movies made straight out of the Satanic Panic era! I chose these primarily because they earnestly traffic in the lurid prurient headlines of the times with zero irony and Lifetime TV Production panache. Some have very high profile actors involved, which makes them simultaneously awful and delightful.
They’re monuments to a time when the majority of Americans believed satanic cults skulked around daycare centers, role playing games would drive you criminally insane, Smurfs were out for your soul, and ‘not guilty by virtue of demonic possession’ was a viable legal defense strategy.
Trigger warning? Be warned that I’m going to viciously mock these features that involve heavy themes, such as child abuse. The Satanic Panic has harmed many lives (some to this day) and its not my intent to minimize what the falsely accused or victims of bad therapy have gone through. If anything I hope to highlight how incredibly absurd these movies’ point of view is.
Do You Know the Muffin Man (1989) – Ugh. This one is truly low. Just the title alone should make you want to take five showers. As a fictionalized account of the McMartin trial, it was made with the soft pearl clutching gauze of a very special movie of the week that hopes to start national discussions and ‘combat the growing problem of child abuse.’ But what this meretricious garbage TV movie did in fact was shamelessly exploit and magnify the satanic ritual abuse daycare hysteria that had people believing in secret tunnels that weren’t there, animal and baby sacrifices (with no physical evidence), and bullying children into confessions with very creepy anatomically correct dolls. Notable also for prompting a protest letter from Michael Aquino, founder of the satanic Temple of Set. Starring Mork & Mindy‘s Pam Dawber, Stephen Dorff, John Shea and jump-the-shark Family Ties baby Brian Bonsall (looking creepier than Damien from The Omen as he recites a black magic spell taught to him by his abusers.)
Mazes and Monsters (1982) – America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks had to start somewhere, and in between cross-dressing gigs on Bosom Buddies he took the lead role in this puzzling, unintentionally hilarious 100 minute warning against the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons. As college student Robbie Wheeling, Hanks descends into madness and homicide because .. he rolled a dice and pretended to be a wizard. It’s for sure a watchable artifact of the 1980’s, but click here for the very sad history behind this fictionalization, and here for Dungeons & Dragons’ place in the Great American Satanic Panic. Actress Wendy Crewson plays the love interest. where were these cute preppy girls
Witch Hunt (1999) – This Australian crime drama came out after the height of satanic panic, but worthy of inclusion for its basis on a “true story” which I am having a tough time tracking down for facts and for its impact on Australian society. Now, the film stars classy sex symbol Jacqueline Bisset, and the plot concerns a missing young girl whose grandmother (Bisset) is “involved in witchcraft.” Well that’s all I need to know before sitting my ass down to watch the whole goddamn thing. But even with this deliciously lurid plot and the presence of Bisset, Witch Hunt still manages to be one of the dullest, most sleep inducing things you could ever watch. Would it have killed them to have at least one bloody pentagram scrawled somewhere?
The Haunted (1991) – Now, we enter into Ed & Lorraine Warren territory! Or did you think they weren’t a thing before The Conjuring? Those two wacky demon-busting cons were patrons, architects and enablers of the satanic panic. And this one, based on their infamous Smurl Haunting case (Wikipedia has done a good job of document the debunking of this one), is laughable with adult filters and not completely without horror movie frights. There’s plenty of occult shaming, conservative wardrobes and prim Manichaenism in this one, as a family is perpetually harassed by a demon. Also, it features a highly unfortunate sequence with a male protagonist raped by an evil demon. And with due apologies, because I don’t find rape laughable – this sequence was fucking funny.
The Demon Murder Case (1983) – More Warrens in what is a dear and beloved childhood memory. I’ve written about this before, a made for TV film with Kevin Bacon, Andy Griffith and Eddie Albert (!) based on the Brookfield Connecticut ‘Devil Made Me Do It’ case. I grew up in an adjacent town when this happened and though it is complete BS and needs to be examined critically, it also provided me with local lore and spooky atmosphere. The exorcism scene is very laughable. And yes, in the real-life case, demonic possession was the defense’s argument. Also consider that two of the family members, including the allegedly possessed child, have said that none of it was true and that The Warrens’ interference has caused them hardship.
Midnight’s Child (1992) – This one perhaps doesn’t belong here, but it was made in the tail end of Satanic Panic and it involves devil-worshiping child care. Olivia D’Abo stars as a Satanic Swedish au pair. Again, if that alone doesn’t compel you to park your butt and watch the whole damn thing, my blog is probably useless to you. It also stars a very young and cute Elizabeth Moss, currently dazzling audiences in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. A tale that’s mostly Lifetime-lurid, rather ridiculous, but fun as hell.
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Hey Chiller! Welcome back (again)! You have been missed!
I do think we have lost a lot of Horror momentum in general because we are in the process of forsaking so much traditional religion and have not yet replaced it in our imaginations with anything more potent that a Oiuja board…You might not have to believe in the devil for possession and exorcism to be a scary concept, but you have to SUSPECT it is possible…Guess we will have to wait and see how this all plays out….
Insightful as always KC! Great to hear from you. Have been really enjoying your blog!