As we look at all the radicalism recently displayed by America’s far-right militias and conspiracy theorists, the outrageousness of their beliefs is often noted but seldom considered in depth. The QAnon specter of a Satan-worshipping pedophile ring operating within the deepest recesses of the US government is a wild charge, to be sure, and there is something surreal about conventional journalists routinely reporting the accusation with straight faces. Yet understanding just why so many people have come to accept this particular story – rather than some equally far-fetched variation about UFOs, Adolf Hitler, JFK, or Atlantis – may help us restore to political discourse some semblance of reality.
In my 2016 book Here’s To My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies, and Pop Culture 1966-1980, I argued that the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s, in which numerous caregivers and preschools were said to be fronts for diabolical cults and an international network of Satanists were alleged to be placing coded messages in rock albums and corporate logos, derived in part from the mass-marketed entertainment of the previous twenty years. Consider: successful books and movies including Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining had featured children embodied or endangered (sometimes sexually) by dark supernatural forces; far-out organizations like Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan had been promoted as exclusive sects of liberated hedonists; big-name musical acts Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and Kiss won a largely adolescent fandom with recurring motifs of mysticism and mayhem; teen pastimes of Dungeons & Dragons and Ouija boards turned witchcraft, sorcery, and hidden powers into mainstream recreation. Added to all this were the same period’s revolutionary changes to sexual morality in private behavior and mass media. As once-whispered topics of sexual assault and molestation also began to be aired openly, little wonder that such an unholy combination of publicity, commerce, clinical vogue and resentful religiosity combined for a wave of legal and therapeutic hysteria that titillated millions of bystanders and destroyed the lives of many innocent victims.
Today that volatile mix – putting two and two together to come up with 666 – has been made even more dangerous by the limitless conjecture and supposition afforded by the internet and social networking. Throw in the sleazy Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s; plummeting levels of trust in government and other institutions in the aftermaths of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession; the regular spectacle of elected officials, celebrities, and the super-rich cozily schmoozing in Hollywood, the Ivy League, or Davos Switzerland; the continued attention courted by harmless but happily provocative “Satanic” groups; and the serious criminal cases against Jeffrey Epstein, Peter Nygard, the NXVIM organization and various parishes of the Catholic Church, all involving sexual exploitation of minors by the wealthy and the secretive – it’s not such a leap to dream up those Satan-worshipping pedophile rings within the Democratic party or the deep state, especially if you’re a laid-off service worker from Nowhere Oklahoma. Paranoid superstition, yeah. Embittered ignorance, absolutely. But sick mythology conjured entirely out of vindictive imagination? That’s pushing it.
Again, the dark web’s rumors of vast cover-ups and sex-trafficking pizza joints are demented delusions whose main adherents have been left socially disenfranchised by broad shifts in economics, culture, and technology, and they have been cynically cultivated by business and political leaders who hope to gain from public credulity. But rather than merely marvel that such fantasies have even been contrived, we’d do well to reflect on the very real sources, and the all too persuasive internal consistencies, which underlie them.
I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I have long wondered how much our entertainment media impacts our thinking, and have to extend that now to our social media and news media as well.
I think humans are wired to believe what we tell each other — a basic survival instinct — and thus information about potential Bad Stuff gets prioritized. After all, what if there really is a thing that might kill me or mine hiding behind that door? Add in the entertainment (and advertising) aspect of our culture, which dishes out anything that’ll get more attention, and we have an avalanche that could take humanity down and out.
If only the human brain was capable of rational thought…
Thanks for continuing to read over many years now. As Jimmy Page said in a much different context, “Hope we can always live up to your expectations.”