When I was in grade school, some older kids told me not to go on the trails behind Crosby Elementary School, because that’s where “the Satanists” met up. Some 30+ years have passed since I took that warning at all seriously (consciously, at least), but it was only in the last year that I ever explored those trails.
Like many cultural trends, “Satanic Panic” (as Jeffrey Victor called it in his classic 1993 study) hit the Berkshires later, and with a bit less intensity, than many other U.S. communities. While authorities in some towns in the 1980s were cooking up discredited SRA (Satanic Ritual Abuse) witchhunts in daycares, Berkshire prosecutors were still busy with a more traditional homophobic daycare witchunt, in Pittsfield. As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1989 that themes of local “satanic” activity started to really occupy official attention, and headlines.
In March, media outlets reported on a Mill River breweak-in with unusual aspects; a couple’s home was burglarized while they were away for the weekend, by a Stottsville, NY woman who had once lived there. While little was taken, significant damage was done, and remnants of strange activity there, including crucifixes and “books on witchcraft” left strewn around.
“Apparently some kind of ritual had taken place,” said John Murphy, a State Trooper at the Lee barracks. The suspect, who had been identified by an ID card left behind, was found guilty of 2 charges later that year, and received one year probation.
A few months later, the discovery of what was thought to be evidence of outdoor Satanic ritual activity in the woods in nearby Salisbury, Connecticut attracted a great deal of attention.
By the following month, some public servants in local districts and law enforcement began voicing concerns about increasing signs of “devil worship” among the local youth. A list of incidents was offered up, including:
- A rabbit Pittsfield police found hung in the woods
- A drunk teen who showed up at detox with a copy of the Satanic Bible in his belongings
- 6 teen boys cut another teen with a knife while intoxicated, after “playing several occult games.”
- Small “Devil Lives” graffiti scrawled above PO Box 666 in the Housatonic post office.
- Teachers noticing “an increasing number of students dressed in black, wearing occult symbols, bearing crude tattoos or self inflicted scars with satanic symbols.”
This was in the early days of Tipper Gore’s music censorship crusades, and blame for some of this perceived threat was inevitably placed on heavy metal bands. Images of W.A.S.P. seemed to be a particular obsession for the Berkshire Eagle, though regional ‘experts’ also implicated AC/DC, Motley Crue, Megadeath, Ozzie, Dokken, Blue Oyster Cult, Dio (these last two were still remembered from the riotous “Black and Blue” concert in New Lebanon where two local teens died a decade before).
Some locals voiced a more moderate perspective on the matter. “Ron White, owner of Great Barrington’s White Knight Records, said the satanic themes embraced by many heavy metal groups are simply a gimmick to help generally untalented groups sell records,” the Eagle reported.
Similarly, Berk. Mental Health Center’s south Berkshire center director Jeffrey Liebowitz said the “dabbling” he was aware of was mostly superficial, “an obnoxious form of adolescent-itis.”
A follow up letter from a Great Barrington pastor, though, urged against too much secular dismissal of the real power of the Adversary. And local police departments continued to send officers to workshops, with occasional community meetings held.
In 1992, a crowd of 250 gathered in North Adams to hear a lecture from Rev. Paul Desmarais, an occult “expert” from Rhode Island.
Desmarais repeated some of the unfounded rumors common to the era: of widespread ritual rapes, child abductions, and serial abuse by secret covens.
While it appears that this occult apprehension was rather compartmentalized to pockets of the Berkshires, never reaching the level of mainstream obsession it did in some communities, for me it was very much a lived reality. At the small evangelical private school I attended in the Berkshires during this period, the threat from Satanic and occult groups was a pillar of the curriculum. Guest speakers and lurid scare videos about devil worshippers and the terrors of “New Age” movements were a common part of my state-accredited parochial school education. Of course, those kinds of mystique-building scare tactics don’t work any better for sectarian indoctrination than they do for drug education, so when I finally got my excited adolescent hands on one of those forbidden records from the Knights In Satan’s Service (with its promise of diabolical subliminal messages) … I was gravely disappointed.
The narrative of menacing Satanic covens operating in our own communities did strike various emotional chords with portions of the public with lasting effect, though, and two issues were particularly entwined in that- teen suicide and the accumulated “Stranger Danger” themes of abducted children. The former had seen a significant spike in the late 70s, then mostly plateaued throughout the 80s, before a sharp decline in the 90s. Every exotic external explanation was investigated thoroughly, while the day-to-day dynamics of families and society were largely ignored. It must be the music, the drugs, occult comic books or explicit video games… orperhaps secret covens of satanists.
Child abduction, which had just exploded as a regular concern in national consciousness, remains a terrifying proposition, despite steadily declining each decade. Exotic narratives of dangerous strangers and cult abduction, while popular, turned the conversation away from the uncomfortable statistical reality that the majority of kidnappings are perpetrated by a noncustodial parent, and a majority of child abuse is committed by a family member or familiar family friend. To me, this is one of the most prevalent folkloric patterns, the externalization and Other-ing of internal threats; the narrative arc that carries us from denial to concern… to the slow dawning horror that the call is coming from inside the house.
The themes that bolstered the satanic panic of the 80s and early 90s never went away, of course. It is close cousins with the urban legend clown panics that famously swept the world in 2016 (making a scheduled appearance in the Berkshires in early Oct ’16). It is also intimately tied to the modern Qanon philosophy, which has recycled many of the same archaic motifs about child abuse and abduction that anti-Satanic fever previously recycled from anti-semitic conspiracy theories of earlier centuries. Judging by internet traffic and opinion polls, belief in occult human trafficking and clandestine ritual abuse may be higher than it has ever been.
These are legends we are likely to be living with, in some form, for a long time.