Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hell in a Handbasket.

I don't remember exactly when I first heard the term 'Satanic Panic' but I believe that it wasn't until I was in my twenties. The irony of this, of course, is that I easily could have fallen victim to it myself long before then.

I grew up a really dorky kid. This wasn't much of an issue until I got to high school, which of course is when dorky kids find that their friends have all decided they're cooler than you. This actually happened twice, in two different schools, so by the time I hit ninth grade, and my third high school, I was pretty well over trying to fit in. Black clothes, torn fishnets, black lipstick, boots... I'd figured out that if you're going to be outcast you may as well create an obvious target of yourself so nobody has to try too hard and so find anything that might actually bother you. Also, you know. I look good in black.

Me, circa 1996-2000.
I was fifteen when I first got interested in the occult as an actual practice. My mom bought me some tarot cards, and succumbed to my pleas to be taken to the only metaphysical bookstore in town. I promptly bought Bucky's Big Blue, and my sister and I got to creating an altar out of cardboard and athames out of letter openers. We bought candles from the dollar store and did spells on the patio until a freaked-out neighbour complained.

See, that's the thing: I spend my adolescence in the Bible Belt. I had been raised in no particular faith, and so suddenly being in a place where the biology teacher had to stress that evolution was just a theory and the second question most people asked after your name was "what church do you go to?" was alien to me. The omnipresence of this startlingly oppressive brand of Christianity served to make any alternative all the more appealing.

My mother asked my sister and I to please do our spells inside. We did. She would never forbid our practice or curb our interest - I like to joke that I converted her - but she understood more than we did that we could get into trouble.

I started buying witchcraft books in 1996. Two years before, the West Memphis Three had been wrongfully convicted of the murder of three boys in Arkansas. The trial was plagued by accusations of Satanic motivations, the so-called ringleader Damien Echols's interest in Wicca and heavy metal were held up as evidence of his moral corruption. Before that, the infamous McMartin Preschool trial ran from 1987 to 1990. In 1992 Frances and Dan Keller, a couple who ran a daycare, were convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a child based on fantastic tales of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

I was just a fifteen year old girl, so I was certainly not in any danger of being accused of molesting kids or killing babies (probably) but the fact remained that my interests made a portion of the population frightened and concerned. I was introduced to the laughable yet disturbing imagination of Jack Chick in high school when people would give me his little comic tracts depicting people using Ouija boards and being sent to hell (alongside Catholics and Jews - I found the former especially confusing) and legions of underground Satanists. A few of the girls in my class would repeatedly invite me to their youth group meetings, clearly hoping to get bonus Jesus points for saving the heathen.

I have been thinking about this since reading an article on the Wild Hunt on the subject; the article considers how this environment shaped the pagan community. For me, personally, I do remember at the beginning of my practice being careful to stress things like the Threefold Law and the nature loving aspect of Wicca. (At this point in time, Wicca 101 was the most accessible entryway to the occult, and when you were female in the Bible Belt? It was a blessing.) Later on, as I entered my twenties, I definitely swung more the other way and criticized people who would only focus on the positive.

At some point I came across the term 'Satanic Panic' and considered it to be history before my time - the preschool trials would have occurred when I was a child, after all. The horror films I watched proved that yeah, people in the 70s had a real hard on for the Devil, and apparently the 80s took that and ran with it while on a coke binge. Only further research exposed me to things like the case of the West Memphis Three, and that's when I said "holy shit." Because that wasn't that long ago. It also made me realise that people who said shit about me, or the one goth dude in my class, or my sister and her friends in the wake of Columbine (which occurred my graduating year) were deadly serious. The neighbour who didn't want us playing witchy on the patio was seriously afraid of Satan showing up. They actually believed we were dangerous. And that's something that scares me now.


Your clothes don't make you a murderer. Your interest in the occult doesn't make you a child molester. Being a witch should not, in this day and age, open you up to anything besides some teasing because your robe looks stupid.

And yet I hear rumblings from the States about people treating Voudoun practitioners like evil monsters, of people equating the worship of Saint Death to cult driven sacrifice. The Catholic Church is back on the demons-exist bandwagon, while the charismatic fire-and-brimstone variety has hot teen girl exorcists. And, just as in those shitty Jack Chick publications of yore, the gateway to anarchy and evil are fantasy books and movies, witchcraft, Ouija boards, yoga, and rock and roll.

What was the Faulkner quote? "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Fucking creepy.

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