Moral Manias #002: Gender and Orientation in the Satanic Panic

As discussed before, the anxieties and delusions driven into the societal mainstream during the era of Satanic Panic were largely reactionary to the contemporary gains made by feminism and queer rights. Michelle Remembers placed the blame of abuse on her mother for leaving her in the care of others–a parallel for the soon to occur daycare abuse allegations made during the era. In fact, one may look beyond Michelle Remembers to other mass media paperbacks of the time to see this reactionary blowback.

As documented thoroughly by Alison Nastasi in her essay “The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks,” publishers began aping on the success of stories like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (as well as so-called “non-fiction” accounts like Michelle Remembers) by releasing their own original stories steeped in the societal fear and fascination of Satanism. The books often focused on female possession victims, painted luridly on the covers in compromising positions. At the forefront of this movement was Russ Martin, an erotica writer who spent 1978-1988 penning novels of “unholy passions” with the Devil. 

Credit to the authors and editors for much of the source material I have cited

Martin’s and similar books were reflective of the growing complexity of gender relations. According to Nastasi, these books “equated fears of feminism with the moral panic that spread through the decade.” Like many erotica novels, they followed a certain script: women are stripped of their agencies and become sex slaves to dark forces. Martin’s books focus on physical and psychological domination of women, women in perpetual victimhood, and eventual outright physical enslavement. Some of the women were queer, yet were stripped of their orientation and identities via these demonic incursions. 

Playboy heralded his work as feminist, since the stories took place from the women’s perspective. 

No comment.

During the Reagan era, many of the former disciples of free-love turned their backs on their previous beliefs and became even more strongly convicted by conservative dogma and Christian morality. However, this new cultural Crusade did not align so well with more secular cultural morality. More women than ever were working outside the home, and–while feminists themselves were divided on the concept–sex positivity was coming forward as a leading movement, including sex positivity for queer cis women. 

The Moral Majority Report and many other religious conservative think-tanks would come out of private Christian universities.

Martin’s books, and books similar to them, were bringing forth a new type of horror to the conservative American household. The devil was truly real, and he was luring American women and children to the dark side. In Nastasi’s words: “Martin’s books brought these fears to light, exposing fantasies about control (or lack thereof) and fear of the changing social tide, encouraging a queasy relationship between the reader and female subjects–one where they are both turned on and punished at the same time.” These stories are a vehicle by which women are told their sexualities are of the devil; in such a worldview, enjoyment and punishment must be one and the same. Martin also makes sure to punish trans women in his narratives, as well; in The Destruction of Susan Browning (one of his more famous works), the trans woman in the story is a seductress, forcing the main character’s husband to leave her and sell his soul to the devil. While Playboy was championing women’s right to contraception and abortion, they were (unsurprisingly) simultaneously publishing these stories.

No type of woman–trans or cis, straight or queer–may win in Martin’s world: they exist only as victims or villainesses. And that was the brush with which women became painted in during the Satanic Panic, both then and now.

In 2009, the world watched in a mix of emotions as Amanda Knox was placed on trial for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Both women studied in Italy, and the Italian courts were dead set on using Amanda’s strange trauma and the date of the murder being All Saint’s Day as evidence that the murder was Satanic ritual abuse. Despite DNA evidence pointing to another person (who was eventually convicted), the trial dragged on, painting Knox and her boyfriend as satanic deviants. There were also plenty of accusations of Amanda being the person who sexually assaulted Meredith, painting the former in the trope of “psychotic bisexual.” She was acquitted, reconvicted, re-acquitted, and fully exonerated by 2015; understandably, she refuses to return to Europe as those who still believe her to be some Satanic deviously queer murderer have a strong presence

From the Netflix documentary regarding the case.

This ties again to the fact that the modern Satanic Panic is largely affecting queer (or perceived to be queer) Americans as opposed to more liberated cishet women alone. In “Why Satanic Panic never really ended” by Aja Romano of Vox Media, they discuss the history of the Satanic Panic and how we are now seeing it tie heavily to queer identity. Even beyond the supposed ending of the phenomenon in the early 90s, the panic persisted on for queer people.

“In 1997, four lesbian women who became known as the San Antonio Four were targeted and wrongfully convicted for child molestation claims. Their trial played out against a resurgence of Satanic Panic tied to homophobia in a conservative state, and their fight for justice lasted nearly two decades. All four women spent 15 years in prison before having their convictions overturned in 2015 and ultimately expunged in 2018.” [Romano, 2021] 

With the recent decisions by the SCOTUS to dismantle privacy laws, it’s no wonder we of the queer community are sitting by in quiet desperation and worry.

Lil Nas X in the video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name), 2021

Recently, the infamous music video for Montero by Lil Nas X, in which the rapper gives a lurid lap dance to Satan, may be seen as edgy fun to one group; however, to those who follow evangelical and QAnon movements, it was proof of queer ties to Satanic cabals that secretly wish to control and chage the bodies of children to “aberrant sexualities and genders.” Even in the arts, where queer people have typically found more freedom throughout history, we are unsafe from these accusations of satanic ritual abuse merely through acts of self-expression.

In an odd tie back to literature, nowhere is the public seeing this more clearly now than the protests against and shuttering of many libraries, particularly smaller libraries in rural areas. The American Library Association has faced more book challenges than in decades, mainly for books that contain elements of social progress, queer existence, or discuss racism. The most-challenged book of 2021 was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, which was challenged, banned or restricted because of LGBTQ content.

Photo credit: NBC15 Madison, WI

The connection of any sexuality outside of Christian patriarchal norms has been a driving force throughout the Satanic Panic, showing up again now in full force. It chants about groomers and throws rocks at drag queen story hours and burns books that contain any deviation from white cishetero hegemony. 

For queer people and even some cishet women who deviate from patriarchal expectation, the danger is inside the house, trying to corner us into a closet where it can finally strike like Michael Myers to Laurie Strode.

Let’s Final Girl this shit once and for all.

In the next installments we will talk about how the Satanic Panic hit the nerd community, specifically cultures surrounding goths, metalheads, horror fans, and D&D players.

Janisse, K.-L., Corupe, P., & Nastasi, A. (2019). The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks. In Satanic panic: Pop-cultural paranoia in the 1980s. essay, FAB Press Ltd. 

Romano, A. (2021, March 31). Why satanic panic never really ended. Vox. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained