In 1978, John Carpenter created a horror film that would arguably change the genre, certainly led the way in slasher films, and all on a $325,000 budget, with a 21 day shoot and no big star names to speak of. A spray-painted Captain Kirk mask provided the faceless horror of Michael Meyers, the killer who stalked teen girls. It was a B movie hit. What was originally named “The Babysitter Murders,” however, eventually took on the title Halloween – and launched a multi-million dollar franchise that stretches over 40 years. The first Halloween movie plays on the horror of the ordinary, that you don’t need vampires and creepy castles and ghost stories to frighten an audience, that the investment in a sweet teen girl being hunted by a soulless psycho in a small Ohio town would be enough to scare the pants of viewers. Carpenter was extremely right on that front. What followed in the Halloween franchise, however, embellished not just the monstrous Michael Meyers, but also that fateful night itself — Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain. The second film was released in 1981; the third in 1982; four and five were ‘88 and ‘89, respectively. The 1980s were particularly ripe for a horror storyline centered around Halloween – celebrated by a community of neo-pagans, and demonized by the New Christian Right for its pagan roots. In the US, this was a period of anxiety about Satanic cults, nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons in dank basements, and the dark stranger handing out razor-bladed candy to naive and unsuspecting trick or treaters. These anxieties were capitalized on by clever filmmakers, and the tone of the Halloween franchise shifted from the horror of the ordinary to the supernatural, the pagan, and even the importers of Halloween–the Irish!
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.
Other Episodes of Interest:
- Photos of the Dead: Victorian Postmortem Photography
- Death, Mud and Guns: Military Revolution and the Birth of Modern Bureaucracy
- The Lost Cause: Texas, Historical Memory and Slavery
Transcript of Halloween II-VI & Samhain
Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD
Produced and recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate
Averill: In 1978, John Carpenter created a horror film that would arguably change the genre, certainly led the way in slasher films, and all on a $325,000 budget, with a 21 day shoot and no big star names to speak of. A spray-painted Captain Kirk mask provided the faceless horror of Michael Meyers, the killer who stalked teen girls. It was a B movie hit. What was originally named “The Babysitter Murders,” however, eventually took on the title Halloween – and launched a multi-million dollar franchise that stretches over 40 years. The first Halloween movie plays on the horror of the ordinary, that you don’t need vampires and creepy castles and ghost stories to frighten an audience, that the investment in a sweet teen girl being hunted by a soulless psycho in a small Ohio town would be enough to scare the pants of viewers. Carpenter was extremely right on that front. What followed in the Halloween franchise, however, embellished not just the monstrous Michael Meyers, but also that fateful night itself — Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain. The second film was released in 1981; the third in 1982; four and five were ‘88 and ‘89, respectively. The 1980s were particularly ripe for a horror storyline centered around Halloween – celebrated by a community of neo-pagans, and demonized by the New Christian Right for its pagan roots. In the US, this was a period of anxiety about Satanic cults, nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons in dank basements, and the dark stranger handing out razor-bladed candy to naive and unsuspecting trick or treaters. These anxieties were capitalized on by clever filmmakers, and the tone of the Halloween franchise shifted from the horror of the ordinary to the supernatural, the pagan, and even the importers of Halloween–the Irish!
I’m Averill Earls
And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Elizabeth: That unmistakable fast-paced organ music, ominous and almost comical. Flickering jack-o-lanterns. Expressionless masks topped by a tuft of brownish red hair. The bloody sacrifice of beautiful young people (mostly teen girls), even babies. Jamie Lee Curtis, from a sweet-looking 18-year-old to a stern alcoholic school principal and mother of the greasily sexy Josh Hartnett.
Averill: Slasher films like Halloween are generally characterized by unknown figures, sometimes unmasked at the end, the murder of impure teens (those who sacrifice their virginity) in ever more grisly ways, and only the girl who saved herself for marriage makes it out more or less unscathed. In Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie Stroude, the good babysitter who has to slip out of the vicious grip of an escaped asylum patient, Michael Meyers. She is pure, so she does live to be the leading damsel in the sequel. She is aided by Meyers’s apparently ineffectual psychiatrist, who combats Meyers in five of the first six films of the Halloween franchise.
Elizabeth: The sequel, aptly named Halloween II, however, leaned into a 1980s panic over Satanic cults, poisoned candy, and awkward and creepy D&D teens – all rolled together, the monsters, magic, and candy corn combination in the annual celebration of Halloween conjured more fear than a psycho with a big knife. In Halloween II, the greatest danger was not just this speechless monolith of Michael Meyers — it’s the festival, the holiday, the night of Halloween itself. In the second movie, the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain – from which Halloween is, more or less, derived – Samhain is invoked. Samhain, in its pagan origins and mysterious practices, seems to channel all those delightful 1980s moral and cultural panics. This is hammered home in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which deviates entirely from the original Michael Meyers plot, and emphasizes instead the holiday of horror.
Averill: In Halloween II, which takes place immediately after the events of the first film, Dr. Sam Loomis, Meyers’ crazy psychiatrist, examines an elementary school classroom with the town sheriff. Michael Meyers has evidently been to the school. There are blood stains on desks, and a kitchen knife sticks out of a child’s drawing of their family – the point of it sticks in the little girl figure in the picture, and Loomis remarks that the knife is driven into the “Sister.” On the chalkboard, scrawled in blood, is “Samhain.” “Samhain,” Loomis says – and he pronounces it Sam-Hane, “it means the lord of the dead, the end of summer. The festival of samhain.”
Elizabeth: Because so little is actually known about Samhain, there are a number of theories about its purpose and practices. So what Loomis is referring to here is Saman, the Gaelic god of the dead. There is no actual evidence to suggest that the festival was dedicated to a god. It is not even clear if there is such a god in Celtic mythology. But that idea was proposed in the 1800s, and repopularized by films like Halloween, and Christian anti-Halloween protesters.
Averill: When Loomis explains Samhain, he draws on superstition, rumor, and misinformation about the ancient Celtic festival: “In order to appease the gods, Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals were – burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, Druids believed they could observe the future.” Loomis finishes his psuedohistory lesson, though, by reflecting on the human element of this evil. “Samhain isn’t evil spirits, it isn’t goblins or ghosts… it’s the darkness inside ourselves.”
Elizabeth: Today neo-pagans celebrate Samhain with a great deal of flair. People paint their bodies red and dance wildly (undoubtedly intoxicatedly) around bonfires, and have a good old time. You already know what Halloween looks today. What Samhain might’ve been 3000 years ago, though, is less clear. All sources agree that it was effectively the Celtic New Year, representing the shift from light to dark, and falls between the summer and winter solstices, extremely significant markers in the Gaelic traditions.
Averill: Nicholas Rogers notes that Samhain was, more than anything else, a borderline festival. He writes that:
In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural. In Celtic lore, winter was the dark time of the year when “nature is asleep, summer has returned to the underworld, and the earth is desolate and inhospitable.”23 In Cornwall and Brittany, November was known as the dark or black month, the first of winter; in Scotland, it was called “aw Dudlachd” or “gloom.” Samhain was a time of divine couplings and dark omens, a time when malignant birds emerged from the caves of Crogham to prey upon mankind, led by one monstrous three- headed vulture whose foul breath withered the crops. (33)
Elizabeth: There are few references to Samhain in written texts, and most are closer to the present than they are to the height of Druidic influence and power in the British isles. In the tenth-century Gaelic text Tochmarc Entire, the heroine Emer mentions Samhain as the first of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar, “when the summer goes to its rest.” Irish ballads–many of which were written down in the Christian era of Ireland–describe it as the night the fog lifts and the fair folk rise from the Fairy Forts. For some, this is when forces of darkness and decay spill out of the sidh – the ancient burial mounds that can be found all over Europe.
Averill: As part of a communal reordering in preparation for winter, big bonfires were lit, and then home fires were lit from the community fire – a common practice in the region. They do the same thing for the Guy Fawkes Day. Some Irish ballads suggest that fires were lit to welcome returning familial spirits into the home. The darkness that Loomis refers to in Halloween 2 is based on speculation that Druid priests sacrificed animals or people at all Celtic festivals. The historical records that reference Druid making blood sacrifices are generally records written by Roman enemies, who had quite a big bone to pick with the Celts; men like Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus wrote about giant wicker statues built by the Druid priests.
Elizabeth: Think the British cult classic The Wicker Man, later remade rather horribly with Nick Cage at the center. Like that movie, a sacrifice – Nick Cage, in the remake – is locked in the wicker cage and burned to death. Strabo describes this ritual – admitting, however, that he had no firsthand sources to confirm that these rumors were fact.
Averill: Romans in particular had plenty of reasons to spread vicious rumors about the Keltoi peoples, as they called the Gaelic/Celtic/northern Europeans. In their wars of conquest, the Romans were constantly clashing with the Druids and their people. So burning men alive in wicker effigies was just the tip of the iceberg. Strabo wrote that “They count it an honorable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly have intercourse, not only with other women, but also with their mothers and sisters” even while admitting that he had no reliable sources for that information.
Elizabeth: Nicholas Rogers discusses the sparsity of information supporting the accusation of human sacrifice in the historical records. A few poems, the Roman accounts, and some Christian stories refer to first-born children being sacrificed or at least handed over to supernatural beings like the Fomorians or the lord of the burial mound at Mag Slécht in County Cavan, but like Stabo admits, these might simply be stories that conflate the pagans inhabitants of the British Isles with the horrific practice of human sacrifice – not unknown in Christian lands in those eras. Archaeological evidence supports the theory that blood sacrifice, both human and animal, was practiced by the Celtics in the Roman and pre-Roman period, and because Druids were the holy men of this world, it is likely that they did the sacrificing. But by the 5th century, when these Roman and Christian writers were describing pagan Ireland, it is impossible to know whether or not human sacrifice was still en vogue. For example, St. Patrick’s 7th century account of Ireland makes no mention of human sacrifice.
Averill: The association of Samhain with the spooks and ghouls of the modern celebration in all likelihood developed much later. In 1890, Sir James Frazer wrote in his multi-part study of various (non-Christian) religious practices The Golden Bough that Samhain was “the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided from them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinfolk.” In all likelihood Frazer was conflating All Souls Day rites, which honors the dead, with the Celtic festival occurring in the same general period of the year.
Elizabeth: That 19th and 20th century scholars made such assumptions about Celtic practices is not all that surprising. Take Lewis Spence’s 1945 The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. He writes: “As might be expected of a strain in whom the mystical preponderates, the Celt believed himself to be surrounded by numbers of viewless beings of varied type and character, some beneficent, others the reverse. His ideas concerning these naturally differed considerably throughout the centuries and according to local circumstances, but it has often been remarked that the Celtic attitude towards the phantom world is distinguished by a certain gruesome relish and appreciation seldom to be met with in other races.”
Averill: Scholars like Frazer and Spence saw in ancient Celtic practices the mystical, superstitious, and magical. Granted, many good Christian Irish at the time accused women of being fairies, or even burned them to death in the kitchen fire – we’ll talk about the murder of Bridget Cleary another time – and, particularly in the West of Ireland, where Gaelic traditions and language remain the strongest to this day, people were leaving milk out to appease the Fair Folk into the 20th century. I’m sure some grandmothers still do that today. This is one of those commons themes in modern Irish literature – Ireland is a liminal space, stuck between the modern physical world and the old spiritual world.
Elizabeth: Ireland, more than elsewhere in the British Isles, embraced the Gaelic past with gusto at the end of the 19th century, in addition to having regular people just casually appeasing fairies and pixies day-to-day. There was a Gaelic revival in the 1890s, around which Irish nationalism coalesced – coupled with Catholicism (and the irony of the two converging ideologies should not be lost), it was central to Irish identity and politics throughout the 20th century. Plus, Ireland is the other country that celebrates Halloween like the Americans – because, of course, most of modern Halloween was imported to the US and Canada from Ireland! So the invocation of Samhain in the Halloween movies draws on a longer history of misinformation, superstition, and pagan practices in Celtic Britain and Ireland.
Averill: The Irish element of the horror of Halloween is expanded upon extensively in the third film of the franchise. Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a curious deviation from the standard Meyers terrorizing Laurie Stroude and family. Meyers doesn’t even appear in the film – which was cause for outrage from many a fan – but what it does is even more interesting. Halloween 3 draws on the clever Samhain thread of the franchse. As explored even more ridiculously in Halloween VI, Samhain and its occult elements are the subplot credited with Meyers’s indestructibility.
Elizabeth: Halloween III’s villian is Conal Cochran – the Irish owner of Silver Shamrocks Novelties – who is plotting to murder/sacrifice millions of children with his evil Halloween masks. A microchip on every mask is powered by the ancient magic of Stonehenge – Cochran somehow stole one of the stones and brought it back to his toy-production facility somewhere in the midwest. On Halloween night, a commercial will activate every magically linked microchip and melt the faces of every child wearing one.
Averill: In classic evil doer style, Cochran tells the hero of Halloween III his motive for murdering children. The hero, kind of counter to the stout and unattractive psychiatrist Loomis of the other films, is a philandering hospital doctor who is investigating the strange death of one of his patients. And since WHY NOT, we’ll just quickly act out this evil plan revelation scene for you. I will play the mad Irish toy maker, and Elizabeth will be the ruggedly handsome douchebag doctor.
Averill: “The veils would be down, you see, and the dead might be looking in. To sit by our fires of turf. Halloween. The festival of SOW-AN. The last great one took place 3000 years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.”
Averill: “It was part of our craft.”
Averill: “Our way of controlling our environment. It’s not so different now. It’s time again. We don’t decide. The planets do. They’re in alignment. It’s time again.”
Elizabeth: So Halloween III makes an overt connection of Halloween to Samhain – the Irish guy, the masks, the mystical power of the Celtic heritage- but this film, released in 1982, is also playing on the Satan/Halloween panic of the 1980s. It’s not particularly subtle either. Near the end of the film, a family of mom, dad, and little boy have come in to “tour the factory.” The little boy puts on his fresh-off-the-factory-line pumpkin mask, and sits down in front of a TV in the room where the family has been instructed to wait. The Shamrock Novelties commercial begins playing, and the little boy – sitting very close to the screen, mind you, because as well all know, if you do that you’ll hurt your eyes – and the mom is looking around the room, at all the Halloween decoration and the door that has locked them in, and she says “I think this whole thing is a big joke,” laughing. Meanwhile, the commercial has triggered the mask, and the test run of Cochran’s evil plan comes to fruition: while this naive mother sits there letting her son sit too close to the TV and indulge in Halloween, he dies in front of her as the mask melts his face and bugs and snakes start pouring out of his head.
Averill: …. Pretty gruesome, bro. But also a slap in the face (or, at least, a satirical slap in the face): this coiffed 1980s mother and doddering, hard-working father are stupid. They let their child partake in this evil ritual (Halloween) that will be the literal death of them (the children). It’s playing on the idea that Halloween is, as Reverend Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, declared in 1982, a “satanic ritual.”
Elizabeth: The creators of the Halloween movies capitalized on these kinds of widespread anxieties about All Hallow’s Eve. In the opening 10 minutes of Halloween II, for example, a mother leads her costumed child into the emergency room, a razor blade sticking out of his bloody mouth. This brief scene plays on the real and imagined menace that always haunts trick or treaters. Candy apples might conceal razorblades, chocolate bars might be stuffed with pins or needles, taffy might even be laced with poison – the 1980s marked the crest of a Halloween candy and stranger danger panic that had been ebbing and flowing since the mid-century.
Averill: Halloween as a night of ‘trick or treating’ really established in the US and Canada around the 1920s. It was a mixture of confectionery collection and mild vandalism pranks for the most part. By the 1930s, civic organizations, schools, and religious groups tried to offer children and teens alternatives to carousing the streets on Halloween night. Dances, costume contests, bobbing for apples, and various other organized activities presented young people with ample opportunities, and took the burden of Halloween mayhem management off the plates of the local and city police.
Elizabeth: Just as a side note, Halloween was also an opportunity for racial tensions in many cities and towns to come to a head. We could talk about the exclusion of and/or swift murder of black characters in 1970s, 80s and 90s slashers flicks – we could talk about the exclusion and stereotyping and sidelining of black characters in Hollywood in general – forever. Mostly this aside is to recognize that there have been plenty of unpleasant elements in the ‘celebration’ of Halloween – both real, like when masqueraders in 1931 Nashville North Carolina took over the downtown, barring access to what they called “colored folk,” and beat one black man nearly to death, and imagined, like Satanic cults capturing little white babies and sacrificing them in order to resurrect the demon Michael Meyers.
Averill: Around the 1950s, organized efforts to redirect youthful and destructive energy at dances and parties was paired with the treating tradition. Many thought that, if they could just lure those rascally boys to the house for a treat, they might gain some goodwill and avoid vandalism on Halloween night. Postwar North America was totally ready for trick or treating. It was a new consumerist society, and various confection makers had a range of treats ready to be doled out on Halloween night. Nuts, cookies, candies were purchased and distributed by the handful, alongside homemade treats like the dreaded, cavity-pulled candy apple. Like old Cochran’s mass-produced evil masks, costumes also became a staple of the holiday, and the practice shifted from putting together your costume with grandma’s dusty old attic dresses to buying ready-made costumes in department stores.
Elizabeth: This was also the period when some sought to turn Halloween into a “friendly beggars” night, with initiatives like UNICEF collection replacing or riding alongside little trick-or-treaters. In a lot of ways, the holiday was evolving through the manipulation of adults who wanted to take back the night from pranksters and punks. But lurking in Halloween’s shadows were those other spectors of danger: the stranger giving your child candy. The 1950s was also a period of child murder and child rape panic, where the motto of “stranger danger” was hammered into little boys and girls, lest they be snatched and killed. Fearful both of the black population that was integrating with their children, white families were fleeing to the suburbs – theoretically safe (aka, free of black people) but not without the on-going danger of the unseen menace. You couldn’t always tell a homosexual from a “normal” person, after all; you never knew which of your neighbors might be a child rapist and potential murderer.
Averill: And within a decade of trick-or-treating popularizing, rumors of tampered-with treats spread like wildfire. One dentist reportedly gave teens laxatives instead of candies in the late 1950s. More stories of poisonings circulated the US and Canada in the 1960s and 70s, until the first death was report. A 5-year-old named Kevin Toston died of what appeared to be a heroin overdose. The media played this up as part of the Halloween sadists who wanted to hurt innocent children; in all likelihood, he found the heroin at his uncle’s house. Notably, though, Kevin’s untimely death was one of only two confirmed Halloween-candy linked deaths. There were a handful more injuries reported over the decades; but for the most part, this was a lot of media-fueled hype.
Elizabeth: In 1975, Newsweek ran a story warning parents to take care on Halloween. “If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home with something more than just an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died, and hundreds have narrowly escape injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.”
Averill: In the year that Halloween II was released, 1982, the Associated Press reported 175 alleged incidents of candy tampering in over 100 cities. As Nicholas Rogers notes in his book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, candy companies spent over $400,000 that year to try and calm the public, to reassure them that Halloween was as safe as could be. Meanwhile, John Carpenter and his Halloween franchise was playing Devil’s advocate.
Elizabeth: Of course, this was mostly just hocus pocus. Rogers also points to one study that traced 80 reported cases from 1959 to 2000, and found that the majority were hoaxes, with only 10 real cases of children collecting candy that was tampered with before they received it while trick or treating. Still, the 1980s saw the revival of alternative Halloween opportunities in communities across the US and Canada, with dances and school or club organized festivities to keep kids off the streets and out of danger – now the problem wasn’t punks running amok, but the crazy Satanists and sadists waiting behind their door with lye-dusted chewing gum and razor-bladed candy apples.
Averill: So there was a marked decline in Halloween trick-or-treating in response to this panic – a panic that was paired, as we suggested early on in this episode, with concerns about other invisible and visible menaces: the supposed Satanic cults that were murdering children and also tempting adolescent boys to battle monsters and go on dungeons crawls in their parents’ basement. And before we go into the Satan cult and DnD stuff, which I know it really what everyone wants to hear about, I just wanted to include a couple of the interviews that Rogers references in his book – apparently there was a survey done of Niagara Falls, NY residents – which is just up the road from my house, people! – about the decline in trick or treaters. Some of these are adorably creepy, and I wanted to share at least one.
Julia Lucas, in 1972, said: I’m sad to report that I handed candy out to only 75 children this year. Last year we had the pleasure of three hundred of the little ones out for fun. The reason for the decline is probably due to a few warped minds who killed or badly hurt them last year with razor blades and drugs. The tykes remained on their own blocks this year and more mothers came with them to protect them. I feel it is a shame that these tiny people have to miss out on one of the great joys of childhood, that most of us loved so much.
Elizabeth: Rogers goes on to make a pretty smart argument about the Cold War, racial tensions, and white flight in this chapter of his book, which we definitely recommend you go pick up if you want a more in-depth history of Halloween. It’s pretty good – it’s actually what inspired Averill to go and watch all the Halloween movies again, and write this episode.
Averill: Word. So now on to Satanists. This is one element of the Halloween franchise that Rogers doesn’t really address in his history, which otherwise touches pretty thoroughly on the history of the holiday and the films. In Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Meyers, the curse of the title is the Druidic curse – and the film (obviously with a great deal of embellishment) links Samhain with a Satan-worshipping ritual that imbues Michael Meyers the serial killer with eternal life. Which, if I’m being honest, is probably just a plot-hole filling movie to account for Meyers’ definite death in just about every movie. He’s shot, stabbed, falls out of windows, is burned to death, and has his head chopped off. Nevertheless, he persists in trying to murder the Stroudes.
Elizabeth: In Halloween VI is kind of a mess, but also stars a very young and adorable Paul Rudd as Tommy Doyle – fans of the original will know that Tommy was the boy Laurie Stroude was babysitting when Michaels Meyers tried to kill her. Tommy is all grown up, and obsessed with Michael Meyers’s motivations for murdering every Halloween. Tommy somehow gets his hands on a baby who happens to be the only available descendant of Laurie Stroude. Tommy believes that Meyers has the Druidic curse called Thorn – which requires the bearer to sacrifice a relative at Samhain every year. But there is a modern-day Druid called the Man in Black, and he also wants the baby, and Michael Meyers, so he can study and harness the power of Thorn himself. While there’s a struggle for the Baby going on between Tommy and The Man In Black, Michael Meyers goes on a killing spree, taking uncharacteristic revenge on all the doctors and nurses who held him captive back at the psychiatric hospital.
Averill: Spoiler alert: Tommy and the baby escape. And Tommy kind of beats Michael Meyers… but our old pal Loomis may not have slipped away unscathed. Dun dun dunnnnn.
Elizabeth: So Halloween VI came out in 1995 – it has Paul Rudd in it, so of course it did – and it takes the Samhain panic to the next level. Like that razor bladed apple in the introduction of Halloween II, the gifted directors and writers of the Halloween franchise capitalized on yet another element of Halloween-centered panic.
Averill: There are still plenty of evangelical Christians who think Halloween is the devil’s work – right up there with Harry Potter and Dungeons and Dragons. This association crested in the 1980s, when those folks made their voices heard in opposition to the dangers of dealing with devils.
Elizabeth: The specific story line of sacrificing that baby in Halloween VI fits in neatly with the slew of rumors and court cases and sensationalized news stories that circulated around in the 1980s about what sociologists and psychiatrists call “Satanic ritual abuse.” This particular kind of child abuse was “discovered” in the 1980s when a slew of daycare providers were accused – and often convicted – of subjecting the children in their care to Satanic rituals, from blood drinking to cannibalism to human sacrifice. As Mary de Young notes, this launched what is commonly known as a “moral panic” all across the US, with adults going to trial and being convicted on the testimony of 3 and 4-year-old children.
Averill: This all started at the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles, California. In 1983, accusations were made against the members of the McMartin family, who ran the daycare. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were made, but the McMartin case was just the tip of the iceberg. This panic infected all corners of the country. In some cases, the wild stories of bizarre violence and bloody sacrifice belied real instances of abuses in daycares. But for the most part, the narratives children told were fabrications, contributing to a broader hysteria about the sexual abuse of children and the belief that Satanists were running amok in the 1980s and 1990s. We could – and maybe someday will – do an entire episode just on Satantic ritual abuses, because this is a fascinating case study in the ways Americans really freak out about children and unseen, societal norms-breaking groups of people – from homosexuals in the 1950s to the so-called Satanists of the 1980s.
Elizabeth: And there was a real fascination in the 80s and 90s with Satanism – though not necessarily concentrated in day cares, but rather among young counter-culture groups. Think Alice Cooper, Ozzy Ozbourne, KISS (aka, Knights in the Service of Satan), and Marilyn Manson – rock stars who defied the suburban, Christian, heterosexual trope that dominated white society in this period. Their music, their performances, their very stage names challenged normative behavior, and invoked the anti-Christian purposefully and quite profitably. And the broader American public was fascinated and terrified by the invisible Satanism of daycare ritual abuse and cults, and outraged by the willing submission of teenagers to Devil Worship, who communicated their membership in the Satanic by wearing heavy eyeliner, dressed in black, and tuning the world (and parents) out with albums like KISS’s Creatures of the Night and Manson’s AntiChrist Superstar.
Averill: Even the intensely complicated but largely innocuous role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons contributed to the moral panic. For those who are unfamiliar, Dungeons and Dragons is a goal-based game where a Game Master creates or modifies an existing quest scenario, and the leads the other players through a game board of some kind through narrative embellishment, obstacles, and puzzles. The players all adopt roles that they create, which have special powers, equipment, and resistances to attack and the like. You develop your character’s abilities over multiple quests, improving their statistics and equipment and spells – and the more you get into playing your role, the more fun everyone will have. But this, in part, means that parents who poked their head to look in on DnD-ing teens would have heard things like “I cast Firestorm, and watch as the skin of my enemy boils and peels away,” etc. It’s funny to be gruesome and ridiculous. That’s part of the experience.
Elizabeth: But in the 1980s, the old media-fueled rumor mill started drawing links between these arguably counter-culture teens and the Satanist panic that had already infected the US. Individuals like Mike Warnke, an evangelical who claimed that – before he found Jesus – he was the high priest of a Satanic cult – made false claims that a teen boy and DnD player who committed suicide wrote a note saying “I’ll give Satan my mind and power.” Evangelicals like Warnke sold a particular brand of hysteria, and their sales pitch made role playing games like DnD out to be cults.
Averill: There is a sense of membership among D&D players – the comraderie of the game was always probably a draw for young people who played. High school was a cruel place for anyone who was “different”; it was (or is) a cruel place generally, but particularly for those who did not “fit in.” And those are generally the kinds of people who were drawn to D&D.
Elizabeth: And the stories of Satanic cults were not limited to evangelical Christians – it was adopted by school counselors, social workers, and law enforcement. When another boy, Irving Pulling, committed suicide in 1982, his mother Patricia Pulling created BADD – Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. She claimed that fantasy role-playing games were a direct path to Satanism. For a full DECADE this movement she started rode the wave of Satanism panic. She became the public face and ‘expert’ on “cult crime,” appearing on talk shows, as an expert witness in court cases, and even advising the police. Fortunately for our friend Tommy Buttaccio, an avid D&Der, the BADD movement fizzled out – in part because Pulling herself died in 1997, but also because the broader Satanist panic died out in the mid-1990s when people more or less came to their senses, and because violent video games were a far more satisfying target for moral outrage.
Averill: Which is not to say that fear of secret Satanists has gone away entirely. As Joseph Laycock notes, as late as 2015 the police department of Natchez, Mississippi, outlined the “warning signs of occult involvement.” One of the first items on the list reads: “Heavy into fantasy games. Note: Fantasy games have no rules or guidelines. They encourage creativity without boundaries. The player loses the boundary between reality and fantasy.” Many Americans still believe that there are Satanic cults lurking out there, and ready to commit horrific crimes.
Elizabeth: And that fascination and fear of the occult, of the fictionally evil, of Satan and his servants on earth, is certainly part of the thrill we get from the more ridiculous subplots of films like Halloween II, III, and the rest of the franchise. The first film was rooted in the horror of the ordinary; Michael Meyers slipping idly through a sleepy midwestern town on Halloween night and murdering teens. He is just a shape, almost a figment of the imagination, and those are the elements of Halloween that make it terrifying.
Averill: The expansion of the franchise, however, played with the fears that permeated 1980s America – and poked a little fun at the hysteria that evangelical Christian leaders, but even secular authorities in town and schools, propagated, about the pagan festival of Samhain as it has evolved in the US, to the dark spectres of candy poisoners, Satanic cults run by the people who are supposed to be caring for our children, and the spread of Devil worship to our frustrating and hormonal teen children. Maybe the film creators made their creative choices purposefully, maybe they didn’t. Whatever the case, the Halloween story as it has developed over the 1980s is a pretty terrific study in what frightens Americans the most.
Elizabeth: We’re going to post two really good books in our Show Notes and Further Reading that deal more fully with the ritual abuses and Dungeons and Dragons. They come on the recommendation of our friend Colin Eager, who is writing about all of these very things in his doctoral dissertation which we cannot wait to read. The first is by Joseph Laycock, called Dangerous Games, and covers the Dungeons and Dragons panic in particular in-depth; and the other is the full book by Mary de Young, called The Ritual Abuse Controversy. We want to recommend these books along with Roger’s Halloween because, as you know, we only have you here for an hour, and we’re pulling together a lot of threads in the interest of telling this Halloween franchise story in the context of the late twentieth century. But there is so much more to all of these stories – and if you’re into it, those books are good places to start.
So thanks for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Subscribing is free and it will mean that you will never miss an episode. Leave us a review while you’re at it.
“Pins and Needles in Halloween Candy: Have pins, needles and razor blades been found in trick-or-treaters’ loot?” Snopes.com
Erin Mullally, “Looking for the roots of Samhain in Ireland’s Boyne Valley,” Archaeology (November/December 2016)
Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Mary de Young, “The Devil Goes to Daycare,” Journal of American Culture (March 1997)
Mary de Young, “Breeders for Satan: Towards a Sociology of Sexual Trauma Tales,” Journal of American Culture (June 1996)