In the 1980s and 1990s, what would later be referred to as the Satanic Panic, took hold of North America, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom and Europe, South Africa and Australia. During this time, some people genuinely believed that the Devil was alive and well and “in their neighbourhood” working his evil plans.
There were two main groups of people who seemed to bear the brunt of these fears and eventual allegations. Seemingly anyone who worked at day care centres or nurseries were under automatic suspicion, and perhaps bizarrely, several heavy metal artists were seen as spreading the word of the devil through their music and actively encouraging suicide and death. So much so they had to defend themselves and their art in courts of law.
There were numerous wrongly accused during the last twenty years of the twentieth century, with many of the cases being based on nothing more than hearsay and theory, with little, if any hard evidence to back them up. While it doesn’t appear that these cases were pursued with any malice, the nightmare of being wrongly accused was a definite lasting reality for many people, and is perhaps a warning of sorts, that just a little fear spread among many people is a potent mix – one that quickly reverts us from a civilized, objective society, to a “hunt ‘em down” mob straight out of the dark ages.
Taking The Devil To The Courts
On January 12th, 1986, a lawsuit was filed by the parents of John McCollum against former Black Sabbath frontman and heavy metal artist, Ozzy Osbourne. It stated that John, who had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, was under the influence of satanic messages in Osbourne’s music. They contested that he had killed himself after having listened to the song “Suicide Solution”. The prosecution tried to claim that there were satanic backwards messages in the song that said “Get the gun! Shoot!”
The case was ultimately dismissed due to a distinct lack of evidence, but Ozzy Osbourne became the face of evil in the eyes of many hard-line Christian Americans. For a time during the 1980s, his concerts were regularly the site of protests by such religious groups who were worried he was “spreading the word of the devil!”
Ozzy himself stated that although there was a “vocal effect” on the mix during that part of the song, they had not inserted backwards or satanic messages. He quipped years later in the home DVD release Don’t Blame Me, “What performer wants his audience dead?”
Incidentally, the song Suicide Solution, although perhaps unfortunately titled in relation to this particular case, is actually a song about alcohol abuse and addiction as opposed to promoting suicide.
In 1990, after the attempted double suicide of twenty year old James Vance and nineteen year old Ray Belknap in Reno, Nevada in December 1985, British heavy metal band Judas Priest, found themselves in court implicated in using satanic subliminal messages in their music that “convinced” the pair to shoot themselves. The lawsuit was brought by the parents of Vance.
While Belknap died instantly of the gunshot, Vance survived. He was however left severely disfigured, and three years after the incident he took his own life by overdosing on painkillers.
According to the prosecution’s argument, subliminal messaging containing the phrase “do it!” was inserted into the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.” This, they claimed, was the trigger for Vance and Belknap’s actions. The trial lasted three weeks before it was dismissed.
You can check out some news footage from the Judas Priest trial below.
Judas Priest frontman, Rob Halford, and the band’s manager, Bill Curbishly, offered similar comments to the media that Ozzy had following the trial, in that if they were to put subliminal messages in their music, it would be to encourage their fans to “buy more of our records” as opposed to encouraging their suicide.
Another case made the headlines in 1996 when the parents of Elyse Pahler – who had been brutally raped and murdered in an alleged satanic sacrifice – sued thrash metal band Slayer, claiming the lyrics to their song, “Postmortem” had been the inspiration behind the murder. Even the marketing of the band by its record label was attacked by the prosecution.
The case was dismissed from court twice, aside from a lack of evidence, but for infringement free speech. You can check out a short video on the case below.
Your Children Are Not Safe!
If there is an environment far removed from anything to do with heavy metal music, you would imagine that a day care centre or school nursery would be one of them. However alongside well financed heavy metal stars – albeit innocent of any wrong doing – who could afford to defend themselves against such rash accusations, many owners and staff at day care centres began to be viewed with equal suspicion and presumed guilt. And some high profile cases even saw innocent people incarcerated.
California had several such cases involving satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s. Many of those found guilty would eventually have their convictions overturned and quashed in what were proven to be severe travesties of justice.
One of the first of these high profile cases was that of two couples, Scott and Brenda Kniffen, and Alvin and Debbie McCuan, who were charged and convicted for their alleged involvement in a child satanic sex abuse ring.
The investigation started in 1980 when the McCuan’s daughter, Becky, accused her grandfather of abusing her. An examination by a doctor appeared to confirm this. An investigation was launched and the following year the findings were that not only Becky, but her sister, Dawn, had indeed been abused by their grandfather. This is where things seemed to snowball.
The girl’s step-grandmother, Mary Ann Barbour – who had a history of mental illness – began making accusations that Becky and Dawn’s own parents were also abusing them. Upon being interviewed by investigators, both girls agreed that their father had also abused them, and they were removed from the family home immediately. Debbie McCuan was cleared of any involvement in the alleged abuse, but the children were placed in the care of Barbour.
The allegations however still kept on coming, and began to become more bizarre. Barbour stated that the McCuan’s were involved in a child abuse ring, and once again both Becky and Dawn confirmed this to investigators. Not only that but they implicated their parent’s friends, Scott and Brenda Kniffen as being involved in the abuse ring, and of having abused their own sons.
Both the Kniffen boys repeatedly stated that they had not been abused by their parents, but they were still arrested and charged with child abuse. According to later reports, the Kniffen boys were told by police that they would be allowed to return home if they stated they had been abused, which they eventually did. Along with the McCuans, the Kniffens were taken to trial, found guilty and ultimately jailed in May 1984.
Both couples launched numerous appeals on the grounds of insufficient evidence, misconduct by investigators and police, as well as the claim that the children had been pressured into making the accusations, both by Barbour and investigators. All were denied.
In 1992, the two Kniffen boys stated that they had indeed been pressured into making the accusations and that no abuse had taken place. It would still take another four years, as well as intervention from the California Court of Appeal, until all four of the wrongly accused parents were released and their convictions quashed.
The Kniffen’s would eventually sue Kern County, and were awarded $275,000 as part of a settlement agreement.
Check out the short clip below that features producer Sean Penn speaking about the film “Witch Hunt” that looks at the Kniffen case and how theirs appeared to be just one of many that resulted in wrongful convictions.
Francis and Dan Keller – Victims of a “Modern Witch Hunt”
In 1991 Francis and Dan Keller were sentenced to a total of forty-eight years in prison for abusing children at their day care centre as part of satanic rituals.
The Kellers were accused of, drowning and dismembering babies in front of the children at the day care centre, killing dogs and cats in front of the children, transporting children to Mexico where they were abused by Mexican soldiers, putting the children into pools of water that contained sharks, putting blood into the children’s Kool-aid, and even exhuming bodies and forcing the children to carry the bones back to the day care centre grounds.
They were finally released in 2014 with their convictions quashed after serving twenty-one years in jail for crimes that they simply did not commit. Their lawyer, Keith Hampton, described their ordeal as a “modern day literal witch hunt!”
They were essentially convicted off the back of testimony from three children who Hampton argued, seemingly correctly, had had the idea of the abuse claims “floated” into their minds by their parents.
There was plenty of support for the Kellers at the time, with many of the parents, even those whose own children had been implicated as being victims, speaking out in support of them in both the media and at the trial.
The Spread Of The Satanic Panic To The UK
In 1990 on the Langley council estate in Rochdale, near Manchester, a total of sixteen children were taken from their parent’s care amid accusations that they had been forced into satanic sexual rituals and abuse. The action came without any warning, and all sixteen children were placed immediately into care.
An investigation followed, and every one of the parents was found to be completely innocent. Some of the children however were not returned to their homes immediately, something that would ultimately prompt legal action against the council. Despite their innocence, it would however be another fifteen years before the true story of the Langley incident came to light.
In 2006, thanks in part to legal action taken by the BBC on their behalf, the children and their families were finally able to speak publicly of their ordeal, following the removal of a “gagging order” that had been placed on each of them by Rochdale Council.
When the children who were wrongly removed from their parents did finally speak, most of them stated that they were not told why they were being placed into care so not allowing them to dispute the allegations, and that the experience had created lasting issues that they now carried into adulthood.
Less than a year later, early one sunny morning in April 1991 on the Scottish island of Orkney, nine children were removed from their homes under concerns that they were victims of ritual satanic abuse that was apparently “rife” on the island. In some cases they were literally snatched from their beds, taken to the mainland and placed into care.
The five boys and four girls, aged between eight to fifteen years old, were separated from each other, and questioned extensively about the allegations. All of the children maintained that nothing untoward had taken place.
The questioning, which in retrospect was labelled as being more akin to an interrogation, went on for five weeks before the case was dismissed from court. The judge stated that the case was “fundamentally flawed” and that the questioning of the children had been conducted in such a way as to force them to admit that they had been abused by a satanic cult on the island.
A further inquiry by Lord Clyde also criticized the actions of social workers who he described as being “over-zealous” in their investigations.
When the nine children arrived back on the island at Kirkwall airport, a crowd in excess of one hundred awaited them to welcome them home. The incident is still regarded as one of the darkest periods in Orkney’s recent history.
Dr Helen Martini, whose husband was working as a GP on the island at the time, told the media on the twentieth anniversary of the incident in 2011, that the social workers involved in the case were heavily influenced by the “fashionable” theory from the US regarding satanic cults carrying out ritual abuse. Although she believes there was no malice involved, she did state that there was “an awful amount of stupidity” and a “total lack of common sense!”
Check out the short documentary below that looks at the Satanic Panic and the conspiracies surrounding it.
Perhaps the most tragic thing – aside from those wrongly convicted or accused – is that the waters for those trying to root out genuine abusers become increasingly clouded with vendetta-like accusations and ill-thought out theories.
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