San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute library’s Writer’s Lunch series recently hosted a discussion perfect for the season: Writing Suspense, Fear, and Spookiness. In the wide-ranging discussion
Participants mentioned some notable books related to the season, one of which was Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. It’s about the cultural hysteria of nearly 40 years ago, when many pop culture media were believed to be promulgating satanic notions. The twenty essays it contains illustrate how easily and how far off the beam we got. (Remember the flaps about Dungeons & Dragons?)
My only excuse for missing this cultural trend entirely is that my daughter was born in 1981, and I was otherwise occupied. For that reason, I was surprised when I encountered it in literature—in an excellent book by National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, titled Ill Will. Crazy as satanic messaging may seem. it’s not so very different than thinking a cannibalistic pedophilia ring is operating in the lower regions of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. In that suggestible mindset were the seeds of QAnon.
In Ill Will, a man convicted of murdering four family members—parents of his adoptive brother and two cousins—is exonerated thirty years later by DNA evidence. His trial “came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults.” He proclaimed his innocence, yet, despite the lack of physical evidence, “the jury believed the outlandish accusations.” When he’s released, some serious familial reckoning is due.
As fantasy, science fiction, and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Satanism, hauntings, werewolves. As long as you believe living-and-breathing people are behind a phenomenon, even if you don’t know for sure who it is, the mystery at least seems knowable. The moment different forces could be at work, well . . . No surprise, Lovecraft was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who launched so many literary forms in his short life.