Last month I reviewed Satanic Panic, a collection of essays examining the decade-long freakout over supposed Satanic influences across American media. It’s a fantastic introduction to the social mores of the period, and sheds light on a lot of the country’s Puritannical tendencies, and how they’ve continued on. Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women and co-editor of the collection, has agreed to answer some questions about how the book came to be:
Short Bio: Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, the founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and Owner/Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical Publications. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver (1999-2005) and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She has written for Filmmaker, Rue Morgue and Fangoria magazines, has contributed to The Scarecrow Movie Guide (Sasquatch Books, 2004) and Destroy All Movies!! A Complete Guide to Punk on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), and is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). She is the co-editor (with Paul Corupe) of Spectacular Optical Book One: KID POWER! and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s.
This Nerding Life: The “Satanic Panic”, to me, is almost entertaining as far as moral panics go, as for the most part every single claim by the most fanatic has either been proven wrong, or just become obsolete. Was there a particular movie, band, etc. that got singled out for being Satanic that you find funny in retrospect?
Kier-La Janisse: Well the Filthy Fifteen list that the PMRC came up with is pretty funny – it’s such a random mix of musical artists (Sheena Easton is on the list!) and even though its focus isn’t occultism (only 2 songs are rated “O” for Occult) it was definitely tied into the Satanic Panic and politicized a lot of metal bands probably for the first time. And Ozzy, I mean as far as I know he’s a Christian! The poor guy was singled out constantly and he just looks confused the whole time. Of course there was a lot of funny stuff coming out of the Christian camp- VHS scare tapes, Chick comics – but more than anything I look at the era now with sadness. While people tend to remember the goofier aspects of the Satanic Panic, it was all quite grim. I mean, that Judas Priest doc Dream Deceivers about the James Vance case, that is just horribly sad and tragic. It’s sad for the kids who felt that lost at the time, but also sad for the bands who had to go on trial because they were accused of causing the suicides of their fans.
TNL: What sort of submission process did you lay out for authors when putting together this book? Was there a lot of material that couldn’t fit into the collection?
KLJ: About half the people we solicited material from based on their expertise/interests, and the other half were selected from the open call. The call asked for proposals for essays or interviews, with a thesis statement, working title, opening paragraph and proposed bibliography. And a CV of course. Obviously we were trying to get a rounded picture of the era, so we wanted chapters on many different types of pop-culture and how they were affected, and how they affected the real cases in return. It was also important to us that people weren’t just bashing Christians because they thought it was funny. We did end up toning down some language like that. We wanted Christian writers involved too. So we have Satanists, atheists, Christians and agnostics all writing for it. Not that we asked people about their religions but some of them offered up this information. The book turned out bigger than originally planned, so we actually made room for everything rather than cutting stuff out. Of course that’s not to say the book is comprehensive – for example the McMartin case is examined through the HBO film Indictment, but there are dozens of similar cases that weren’t mentioned, that would have been if the book were encyclopedic. So as thorough as the book is, there is still much more to write about.
TNL: Can you think of any modern-day concerns that we will look back upon with the same knowing eye as we do the Satanic Panic? Or was there something about that time period that made it ripe for such a moral outcry? Would today’s interconnectivity be helpful or hurtful when it comes to modern day Panics?
KLJ: The war on terror obviously is the modern day counterpart. Even for the most liberal people I think it’s hard not to be affected by all the fear-mongering about Middle Eastern cultures that we are inundated with. The beginning of the Satanic Panic wasn’t that much different in theory from the fears about rock ‘n’ roll or comic books in the 1950s, but the amount of kids being hurt or hurting themselves during the period are what make it stand out. But if you look at statistics, teen suicide rates had actually gone down in the ’80s compared to the ’70s, it’s just that the media was reporting them more. So it did create this hyper awareness and fear in parents that is totally understandable.
I think the interconnectivity today can help things spread faster but also won’t let them gestate and fester in enclosed communities as easily. So people get outraged really easily but they’ve forgotten and moved onto something else two days later.
TNL: Near the end of the book, essayists weigh in with moral panics about Satanism around the world, like Canada, England and Australia. Apart from Quebec, did you find this particular witch-hunt to be centred in the English-speaking world, or were there similar backlashes in other countries and languages? This is the part that I’d love to see more research on, perhaps in a Return of Satanic Panic sequel?
KLJ: Yes, the Satanic Panic as we know it is an English speaking territory phenomena, including South Africa where it also spread to in the ’90s. Even in the Quebec chapter you’ll notice it took on a slightly different form in terms of a fear of cults rather than Satanism outright. We hoped for more international submissions of course, but we didn’t get any convincing proposals that actually connected to what was happening in the US at that time. But it’s possible those examples are out there.
TNL: Satanic Panic is the second book in Spectacular Optical‘s slate of pop-culture essay collections. What inspired you to go the small-press route with these books?
KLJ: Well, Spectacular Optical isn’t a small publisher I pitched on the book as an outside party, it is my publishing company that I own. I created the company to publish these kinds of books through which I can showcase other writers I admire. If I write my own solo books, I’ll still pitch them to other publishers so that it’s not a conflict of interest, but the print arm of Spectacular Optical exists to support (and pay) freelance writers.
Thanks again to Kier-La for taking the time to talk with me. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s can be found at Spectacular Optical‘s website, and wherever good books are sold.