Hustle in the Hedgerow
Satanic Panic Strikes After Gory Florida Murders
There’s only thin evidence that a triple-homicide with slit throats was related to witchcraft, but police and the media are acting like the devil has landed.
Three throats were slit in Pensacola, Florida, under a full moon. Was it witchcraft?
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan thinks so, and the press conference he gave, calmly and methodically, has now made the rounds on the Internet, where the response has been anything but calm. Witchcraft!
When you look at the evidence has been released, however—bearing in mind that there may be more that the ongoing investigation has not yet made public—it seems quite scant. What is evident is the resemblance to the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, during which dozens of cases of “Satanism” were investigated, countless sensational news programs were created—and yet hardly any Satanic crimes actually took place.
What the sheriff’s department has made known is this: Three people, 77-year-old Voncile Smith and her two adult children—one of whom worked for the Department of Homeland Security—were savagely murdered in Smith’s home on Friday. The DHS worker, 47-year-old Richard Thomas Smith, was shot in the head. But the other two victims were beaten to death with a hammer, and then had their throats cut.
Moreover, the sheriff’s department says, the three bodies were arranged in a specific way—and the killing took place around the time of the “blue moon.” And the person of interest in the killing apparently has ties to Wicca.
In sum, “initial research has led us to believe it was a ritualistic killing,” Morgan said. “The method of the murder—blunt force trauma, slit throats, positioning of bodies—and our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that. The time of the death on Tuesday also coincides with what’s referred to as a blue moon, which occurs every three years.”
Well, wait a minute. First, the blue moon was Friday, not Tuesday. If this were a ritualistic murder, the specific time would matter. There’s no “around the time of” in nature-based religions.
Second, this pattern actually has nothing to do with contemporary paganism. Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, whose research at American University focuses on the phenomenon, told the BBC that “if [the sheriff’s department] had done even a modicum of research it would be clear this had nothing to do with paganism.”
In fact, ritual murder is fundamentally incompatible with Wicca (which Morgan mentioned specifically). In fact, the leader of Pensacola’s actual Wiccan coven, one E.J. OakLore, told the New York Daily News that “The Wiccan faith forbids murder as strongly as or more strongly than the Christian faith. The fundamentals of our religion forbid the harming of any person, being or living thing, creature in any way shape or form.”
Nor has ritual murder actually been documented as a practice of self-identified Satanists. The most sinister act Florida’s Satanists have done lately is install a hilarious Satanic holiday display in the state capitol.
So all that’s left is forced entry, the method of killing, and the arrangement of bodies.
And, of course, innuendo. Morgan noted that the Smiths were a “very reclusive” family; neighbors said they had never met them. But who knows the reason for that? If not meeting your neighbors were a sign of witchcraft, most of Manhattan would be casting spells.
And then there’s the person of interest, with his ties to Wicca—which, for all we know, may be just be a few Google searches. Again, there may be much more we don’t know, but this surely isn’t much.
What this case does resemble, though, is the hysteria around “Satanism” in the 1980s and ’90s, an episode now known as “Satanic Panic.”
Gen-Xers may not remember this phenomenon, and Millennials weren’t alive for it. But for 20 years, American law enforcement was bizarrely obsessed with cults and Satanism. Check out this video from 1994, which purports to describe “Satanic occultism” for police officers.
There were several extremely high-profile cases during this period. First, in Southern California, the directors of the McMartin Pre-School were charged with 52 counts of child molestation, all based on alleged Satanic rituals. They were found not guilty, but only after being convicted in the media and creating mass hysteria.
And then there were the “West Memphis Three,” three teenagers convicted of murdering three young boys in Arkansas on May 5, 1993. One of them—developmentally disabled, and with the cognitive ability of a 10-year-old—confessed, implicated the two others, and said it was a Satanic rite. Subsequent DNA evidence exonerated the West Memphis Three and implicated one victim’s stepfather. They were released in 2011.
Not surprisingly, the Satanic dragnet caught far more than actual Satanists. Santeria, which practices animal sacrifice, was effectively banned from many cities. New Religious Movements (“cults”) became seen as omnipresent threats to impressionable youth. (I remember being forced to attend several anti-cult “warning” sessions at school.) Even Dungeons & Dragons was grounds for suspicion.
But most of all, the Satanic Panic was about rock ’n’ roll, and the countercultures of which it was a part.
Peter Bebergal, whose new book Season of the Witch explores Satanic and occult imagery in rock music, told The Daily Beast that in the 1970s, “From comic books to music to movies-of-the-week, Satan was everywhere.” Album covers, The Exorcist, Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin, heavy metal—“there seemed to be a pop culture obsession with all things witchcraft and demonic.”
But whatever Satanic themes were present in pop culture, they were hugely exaggerated by Christian conservatives.
“Certain Evangelicals had already seen the devil lurking as far back as Elvis’s gyrating hips, but in the 1970s,” Bebergal said, “we were at the beginning of a cultural war, and the devil was used to represent youthful and artistic rebellion, as well as symbol for what was seen as the decadence and corruption of youthful minds.”
Part (culturally) real and part fantastic, the Satanic Panic reached fever pitch in the 1980s. Tipper Gore wanted to label records with “O” for Occult, for instance, but the Panic’s real hold was on law enforcement.
“There was the hysteria about satanic ritual abuse,” Bebergal said, “shifting our fear of ‘communists everywhere’ to a cabal of secret Satan worshippers, any of whom could be your child’s teachers, the friendly postman, or your next door neighbor… Be sure to watch out for that long-haired kid with the Venom t-shirt who plays D&D.”
Another fascinating element of the Satanic Panic was that it was also, in part, a Sex Panic. Its rise coincided with the increased interest in, and prosecution of, child-sex offenses, a class of crime that, if anything, was under-prosecuted prior to the 1970s. (Most sex crimes take place in the home, making them “private” in nature.) Day-care workers were disproportionate targets of Satanism accusations, the McMillans included. Books containing “remembered”’ episodes of Satanic ritual abuse—Michelle Remembers was the most popular—began to proliferate.
It’s not hard to see this aspect of the Satanic Panic, too, as a conservative response to cultural change: sexual liberation, rock music, and shifts in public morality.
Which, come to think of it, is exactly what social conservatives are saying today, perhaps exchanging hip-hop for rock music.
It’s too early to know the full extent of the evidence in this particular case. But it’s not too soon to notice that we’ve been down this road before. Who knows—maybe this really is a “ritualistic killing,” but it sure looks like another Satanic Panic.