Monday, July 19, 2021

Am Writing

No blog today. But it's because I'm working on two essays, four poems, and one script (at least). The entire point of the Sister Blog Challenge is to stay writing. And I am writing. It's just not ready to be seen yet. 

Maybe in two weeks it will be. See you then. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Kick off your Sunday shoes

“If Walt Whitman were alive today, what song would he hear America singing? When I turn on television, all I hear is the music of easy sexuality and relaxed morals. I hear rock and roll and the endless chant of pornography.” – Reverend Moore, “Footloose,” Act One 

“You wish to change the law because you want to throw a dance; that is your right. It is my duty to challenge any enterprise which, in my experience, fosters the use of liquor, the abuse of drugs, and most importantly, celebrates spiritual corruption.” –Reverend Moore, “Footloose,” Act Two

Listen. I'm in a production of "Footloose" that opens this week, and it's kind of all I can think about nowadays. (You know how tech week is.) The premise of the show always struck me as so ridiculous as to be unbelievable. A ban on dancing seems absurd for any time period after the early 1600s.  

But the more I learn about American history in the 1980s, the less ridiculous a religious ban on dancing seems. First of all, the show is based on a true story (you can read about it here), but also there were a lot of things going on in American culture during the 1970s and 1980s that could easily lead a Christian preacher to believe that dancing is dangerous.   

I’ve been researching this for weeks, like the nerd I am, so get ready for a dramaturgy dump, my friends. 


In the late 70s and early 80s, evangelical Christians were like "You know what we need MORE of? Combining Church and State." For them, the separation was clearly leading to the "decay of the nation's morality." Groups like The Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council urged evangelicals to get involved in politics and got them pumped up about "traditional family values." Before this, things like abortion, divorce, feminism, LGBTQ rights were all separate issues. It's a great PR move, really, and it carries through to this day. 


For members of the Christian right, Satan wasn’t metaphorical. And know who he was after? THE CHILDREN. In 1972, Evangelical Christian Mike Warnke published “The Satan Seller,” a memoir of a childhood allegedly spent in Satan worship, detailing everything from summoning demons to ritualistic sex orgies, and his subsequent salvation and conversion to Christianity. 

In 1980, another even more explosive “memoir” was published called “Michelle Remembers.” Co-written by Michelle Smith and her therapist Lawrence Pazder (who eventually became her husband), the book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with Michelle while she was under hypnosis. During these interviews, Michelle recounted terrifying childhood experiences after her mother sent her to live with a Satanic cult at age five. She described everything from being forced to consume urine and feces, bathing in the blood of dismembered babies, and being locked in a cage filled with snakes and spiders. She also recalled being sexually assaulted as part of Satanic rituals. The entire experience allegedly culminated in meeting Satan himself, before Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael intervened. These beings removed all physical scars, and hid the memories from Michelle until “the time was right.” 

The best-selling book, along with one or two accusations of sexual assault made against preschool teachers (particularly the McMartin preschool in 1983), launched what we now call “The Satanic Panic.” There was a widespread fear throughout North America that Satanists were secretly running preschools in order to use the children in rituals. Under dubious interview practices, children made statements about being taken to "devil churches," being sexually abused, performing Satanic spells, and being tortured. Worried parents campaigned vehemently for authorities to do something with the slogan “We believe the children.” Federal law enforcement made training videos to help officers recognize the signs of “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” 


In 1973, the horror film “The Exorcist” was released, and the fear of Satan’s power ramped up among those who believed in him literally. Not only was the movie legitimately terrifying to audiences, but the making of it was also terrifying. (At one point, the entire set burned down in an accidental fire, except for the possessed character Regan’s bedroom???) The film was based on a real life exorcism on a 14-year-old boy known only as Roland Doe. Or rather, it's based on the attempted exorcism, because Roland somehow managed to break out of his restraints, pull a metal bedspring out of his mattress, and slash one of the priests with it, and they declared him beyond their help. When the film was played in theatres, there were multiple reports of audience members fainting and vomiting, and at least four cases of people requiring psychiatric care afterwards. Televangelist Billy Graham said “There is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself.” 

And when 17-year-old Nicholas Bell killed a 9-year-old girl in his UK neighborhood in 1975, his statement to the police read, in part: "It was not really me that did it, you know. There was something inside me. I want to see a priest. It is ever since I saw that film The Exorcist. I felt something take possession of me. It has been in me ever since." Turning to the attack on the girl he had said: "I don't know why I killed her. It was this spirit inside me." In a later alleged statement he continued: "One night I was alone at home playing with the [ouija] board and while doing so felt something bad was happening."

Satan was everywhere. Movies. Books. Music. Television shows. Advertisements. Magazines. 

By 1988, Satanism had so permeated popular culture that TV Talk Show star Gerardo Rivera aired a special called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” 

Music and dancing were especially dangerous. The 1989 Christian documentary “Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘N’ Roll” linked rock music to sex, violence, suicide, drug use, rebellion, and the occult, and ended with a dramatic call to be saved. In 1989, Mormon church leader Gene R. Cook recounted a story about meeting Mick Jagger on a plane, and asking him what he thinks the influence of his music is on young people. Jagger reportedly replied, “Our music is calculated to drive the kids to sex.”

Here are a few excerpts from the LDS Church’s “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlets—a free publication to help Mormon teenagers live righteous standards. 

From For the Strength of Youth, 1972 edition: 

“Church standards prohibit dancing that is suggestive or sensual in any way…If one concentrates on good posture, many dances can be danced in a manner which will meet LDS standards. Some examples of these dances are the waltz, fox trot, tango, rhumba, cha-cha, samba, swing, and most of the folk dances. When dancing, young people should avoid crouching, slumping over, trying to do a backbend, or having too close a body contact…Members of the Church should be good dancers and not contortionists. Extreme body movements—such as hip and shoulder shaking, body jerking, etc.—should be avoided, and emphasis should be placed more on smooth styling and clever footwork…The kind of music that is played has a definite effect upon the actions of those participating in dance. Moderate and modest music should always be played. When electronic bands or instruments are used, an extremely loud beat is discouraged because it is inconsistent with church standards. Musical lyrics should always be in good taste and sung in a dignified way.” 

From For the Strength of Youth, 1990 edition: 

“Music can help you draw closer to your Heavenly Father. It can be used to educate, edify, inspire, and unite. However, music can be used for wicked purposes. Music can, by its tempo, beat, intensity, and lyrics, dull your spiritual sensitivity. You cannot afford to fill your minds with unworthy music. Music is an important and powerful part of life. You must consider your listening habits thoughtfully and prayerfully. You should be willing to control your listening habits and shun music that is spiritually harmful. Don’t listen to music that contains ideas that contradict the principles of the gospel. Don’t listen to music that promotes Satanism or other evil practices, encourages immorality, uses foul and offensive language, or drives away the Spirit. Use careful judgment and maturity to choose the music you listen to and the level of its volume. Dancing can be enjoyable and provide an opportunity to meet new people and strengthen friendships. However, it too can be misused. When you are dancing, avoid full body contact or intimate positions with your partner. Plan and attend dances where dress, grooming, lighting, dancing styles, lyrics, and music contribute to an atmosphere in which the Spirit of the Lord may be present.” 


There was an enormous surge in serial murders during the 1970s. Why? Who the hell knows. Unresolved PTSD? Intergenerational trauma? Misogynist backlash against second wave feminism? All of the above? Maybe better forensic methods, stronger police communication, and deeper research into psychology just made us more aware of the murders. Maybe the nation was paying more attention because more victims were white women. Whatever the reason, the majority of the most well-known serial killers in American history were committing their crimes during this time period. 

Charles Manson and "Helter Skelter." "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz. Edmund Kemper. John Wayne Gacy. "BTK Killer" Dennis Rader. The "Golden State Killer" and "Easy Area Rapist" Joseph James DeAngelo. The "Hillside Stranglers" Angelo Buono Jr and Kenneth A Bianchi. Ted Bundy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Wayne B Williams and the Atlanta child murders. Richard Ramirez. 

Dennis Rader wasn't apprehended until 2005, and Joseph James DeAngelo was at large until 2018. Berkowitz and Ramirez both cited Satanism as the reasons for their crimes. Bundy was a law student who had converted to Mormonism. (Incidentally, he was arrested a few blocks west of the Harman Theatre, where "Footloose" is being produced.) 

From these cases alone, that means there were AT LEAST 150 seemingly senseless murders/sex crimes during the 15-year period from 1969 to 1985. If you were to average it out, that’s around 1 per month. For 15 years straight. Murders that didn’t have to do with gang violence or drugs, or even robberies much of the time. It was happening in Brooklyn, New York and Witchita, Kansas and Provo, Utah. Nowhere was safe. Kids were warned about "stranger danger" through PSAs and children's books. 


Also to the dismay of Christians, sex was going mainstream during the 70s and 80s. Chippendale’s opened in Los Angeles, then in New York, and then went on tour, performing mostly for middle-aged white women (who apparently were into sex? What?). Pornography films like Blue Movie, Deep Throat, and Mona were being reviewed positively by everyone from Johnny Carson to Roger Ebert. Madonna and Prince and dozens of other singers were writing lyrics that weren’t even thinly veiled references to sex. 

Thousands of gay men were dying of a mysterious new illness that would later be diagnosed as AIDS, an immunodeficiency disease caused by the HIV virus, and spread through bodily fluids. Ronald Reagan and the United States government intentionally ignored the crisis, and by 1995, over 800,000 people had been lost to AIDS. Conservative Christians viewed the crisis as a “gay plague” and that God was punishing homosexuality. 

So yeah. You take the rise of Christianity in politics and a literal belief in Satan, the occult showing up in everything from blockbuster films to rock music, hundreds of people being senselessly murdered and some of the murderers blaming it on Satanism, children saying they’re being ritualistically abused by their preschool teachers, and sex seeping into every facet of American society? You’re damn right I’m going to do everything I can to protect my kids. And if I have to ban dancing to do it, that’s a price I’m willing to pay for their eternal salvation. 

With hindsight, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking is misguided. How the impact is miles away from the intent. But it still continues today. Fox News spent weeks clutching their pearls over Lil Nas X’s song and music video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and did the same thing again with Cardi B/Megan Thee Stallion’s Grammy performance of Up/WAP. (It's worth mentioning that a lot of the criticisms of popular music always have been and still are deeply rooted in white supremacy, but that's a whole 'nother conversation.) Evangelical Christians still dominate conversations about conservative politics. 

And we still are determined to “protect our children.” Instead of putting signs in our windows that say "We Believe the Children," we share things with the hashtag #SaveOurChildren. In 2016, a 28-year-old man walked into a New York pizza parlor and fired 3 shots from an assault rifle, in an effort to rescue the children from a child sex-trafficking ring allegedly run by Democratic elites. Despite there not being a child sex-trafficking ring in the pizza parlor, the belief that powerful people were using children as sex slaves persists through QAnon and InfoWars and Trumpism. 

Here in Utah, Tim Ballard’s non-profit “Operation Underground Railroad” allows investors to join Liam Neeson/Taken-esque “rescue missions” in other countries. Despite a lack of any relevant training, problematic sting operations that create demand for underage sex workers, and a lack of recovery resources for victims, Ballard continues to frame his work as guided by God. 

Mike Warnke’s memoir “The Satan Seller” was completely debunked and revealed as fraud. The same goes for “Michelle Remembers.” The Satanic Panic surrounding daycare centers had more to do with anxiety about mothers entering the workplace than the devil torturing children. Child sex trafficking is absolutely an issue worth solving, but the problem has less to do with innocent white girls being kidnapped from suburbia and more to do with foreign policy and economics and racism and resource equity and drug policies. 

It’s difficult to face the real traumas. Poverty and grief and fear are all so messy. And the solutions are equally complicated and overwhelming. It’s so much easier to blame a metaphorical being whose only motivation is evil. If you're a parent, it feels both impossible and vital that you protect your children from sexual harm and violence and substance abuse. And if you're Christian, the stakes are even higher--those things lead to literal damnation. 

So it's easy to see how the parents who proclaimed “We Believe the Children” during the Daycare Satanic Panic had good intentions. They were trying to care for and protect the innocent young people they were responsible for. But the heartbreaking thing is that they didn’t actually believe the children. In interview after interview after interview about the satanic ritual abuse that supposedly happened in daycare centers, the children said that nothing really happened. Transcripts and recordings of the initial interviews show that the children were coerced into confessions and stories of things that weren’t even possible. 

But parents were so afraid of failing their children that they didn’t listen to them. 

Just like Reverend Moore.