The sociological phenomenon known as the ‘satanic panic’ hit the country town of Warragul in the early 1990’s, where for a brief time the locals had become alarmed at the rise in satanic ritual activity amongst the towns youth. Rumours circulated amongst our Church congregation that organised groups of demon-filled young people were systematically targeting local high schools in order to gain disciples. Sinister images were evoked by my Sunday school teacher of profane drug and sex fuelled rituals occurring in the rural wastelands throughout the West Gippsland region, with the small town of Nar Nar Goon thought to be a particular centre of unholy activity. It was reported that local dairy farmers had been finding animals either missing or slaughtered on their expansive properties. Old farm sheds were said to have been hijacked by these satanically inspired hordes and used as places for animal sacrifice and other forms of devil worship. Pentagrams were routinely spray painted on the walls only to be found days later by confused and frightened farmers.
All of this was known to our Church leaders because one of the congregations members own son’s had become caught up in this infernal underworld. Beryl’s sixteen year old son Jeff was familiar to those of us who had been part of the Church for some years, as he would occasionally attend a service for special events such as Easter or Christmas celebrations. He was known as a slightly odd but otherwise pleasant lad who was content to keep to himself. Recent character changes in Jeff’s personality, however, had caused Beryl to seek prayer and spiritual guidance from the Church community. Apparently Jeff had become even further withdrawn into himself, aggressive at home and would sometimes disappear for days on end. When he was home, Jeff would sometimes appear ‘spaced out,’ which Beryl attributed to drug use. Upon further exploring, Beryl uncovered a satanic altar hidden in Jeff’s wardrobe. She had read a book on satanism and youth which had a checklist of things to be on the look out for, and the presence of black candles, animal skulls and pentagrams in the bedroom were considered definite proof of a child’s co-opting by Satanists.
The manic fear extended beyond the Church itself. I remember that it one of my year 7 religious education classes the teacher saw fit to show us a fear-mongering VHS titled ‘Exposing the Satanic Web.‘ As evidence of the sensationalism and hysteria of the era, the film is an amusing testament to the individual and collective psyche’s ability to scare itself into an illusory panic. It is the same mass-paranoia and demon obsession that fuelled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century. Nevertheless, for impressionable twelve and thirteen year old minds the film frightened us. It was the kind of fear that is bred from sensationalism, in which the end goal is to create a perverted sense of enjoyment and entertainment. For my own part I found the whole thing morbidly exciting. I was revulsed but by the idea of animal sacrifice, but was also distinctly intrigued with the mysterious imagery and pageantry of the whole satanic enterprise. I was also an instant fan of the heavy metal music that played throughout the various documentaries we were forced to watch. From memory, one of the bands featured was Los Angeles rockers W.A.S.P. I was later to find out that W.A.S.P. had caused no small degree of controversy in Christian circles for allegedly using the acronym for ‘We are Satan’s People’ (some also suggested it was ‘We Are Sexual Perverts’) as their band name. Whatever. they looked and sounded cool.
I must have started displaying some subtle warning signs of an impending satanic conversion because my Sunday School teacher- a large and vivacious woman named Victoria-had singled me out for special spiritual intervention. She kept me back after the scripture lesson one morning and expressed her concern that I was ‘dabbling in the dark side,’ and that if I kept heading in this direction I would end up possessed or even dead. In order to combat the fiery arrows of Satanic attack I needed to pray for strength and read the Bible every day. In addiction, Victoria gave me a selection of comic book tracts by the fundamentalist evangelist Jack T. Chick.
Jack T. Chick’s tracts are notorious for their bigotry, which was a product of Chick’s own brand of dogmatic and miliatristic theology. Since his conversion experience whilst listening to a radio broadcast of Charles E. Fuller’s Old Time Revival Hour, Chick’s theological development was marked by rigidity and judgement. Chick was dismissive of huge swathes of both liberal and orthodox theological belief, and suggested that salvation could be received through the narrow confines of his own legalistic interpretation of the Gospel. Amongst Chick’s more controversial views were his suggestion that Roman Catholics, Freemasons and Muslims were manifestations of the demonic. He also held to the view that any translation of the Bible occurring after the publication of the King James Version in 1611 was inherently heretical. Common beliefs of the Independent Baptist movement were also subscribed to by Chick, albeit with an extremity and harshness that bordered on outright hate. Chick condemned homosexuality, abortion, popular music, astrology and drugs, to name just a few. The man himself was something of an enigma, and not a great deal is known about his personal biography other than some brief overviews provided online. The best way to learn something of Chick’s personality is through his tracts, which are entertaining and repulsive in equal measure.
Because I was displaying tendencies toward becoming a satanic metalhead, Victoria gave me a copy of a Chick tract titled ‘The Angels.’ The basic story is of a Christian rock group called The Green Angels, who are unhappy with the lukewarm reception they are receiving on the Church circuit. A satanic entity embodied in the form of a secular band manager approaches The Green Angels after a recent concert. He states that he can make them world famous and provide them with all the booze, women and money they could ever want. Allured by the temptation, the band signs a contract in their own blood at which point their souls belong to the devil. The band enjoy a brief time of rock and roll excess before the destruction kicks in; overdoses and AIDS plague the band, resulting in
two premature deaths. Only one of the band members finds salvation via a tract given to him backstage by a concerned fan. Once he repents of his former life he commences a ministry testifying to the satanic dangers of pop music. The tract both intrigued and frightened me, and I must concede that Chick had a real knack for capturing his reader’s imagination through utilising a mixture of aggressive theology, striking graphics and an array of sinister characters and imagery that was appealing in its sense of danger. Even though I considered Chick to be another Christian fundamentalist nut job, I have always loved his comics for their unabashed forthrightness and sense of danger.
I remembered this time on my life during the Christmas holidays just past. For reasons of nostalgia I took a day trip with my wife to my hometown of Warragul, and on the way passed through the small town of Nar Nar Goon. The place looked much as I remember it in 1993, and appears to have avoided the plague of housing developments springing up throughout the West Gippsland region. As I recollected the stories about the supposed witches and satanic gatherings taking place on the farms surrounding the town, I was reminded of the reality and necessity of ‘darkness’ as an integral element of Christian faith. The light of the world- which John’s Gospel identifies as being Christ himself- only makes sense because of the corresponding darkness which was defeated on the cross. The light of Christ is grasped only when set against the dark forces that shape and govern our world- a cosmic reality also attested to by John. Light exists because darkness exists, and vice versa. I am of course not advocating some kind of morbid obsession with darkness, but I do feel that we need to think differently about the the place of darkness in the world and in our individual lives. We all have the capacity to act on this darkness, which touches the every human heart to a greater or lesser extent. When I remember back to the so-called ‘satanic panic’ era of my childhood, it seems to me that the mistake being made by the Christians around me was that the darkness being expressed through juvenile satanic rituals- however comic and anachronistic they may seem to us today- was something we must intrinsically fear and intellectually avoid. Our young minds were told that all thoughts of the devil would inevitably lead to satanism, and that any fascination with or interest in the darker side of human life was sinful. This dualistic approach to spirituality- although ultimately correct (for the light is not the darkness)- nevertheless emphasised fear rather than fearlessness. The darkness was something we were implored to automatically run from. Reflecting or thinking about its place in the Christian faith was strictly off-limits. This was a tragedy, as it prevented us from fully understanding the depth of our faith and the complex spiritual dynamics at play in the world. The Christian faith is predicated on the battle between light and darkness. The demonic is a present reality in our world, and a theological and spiritual willingness to confront it- both corporately and invididually- is necessary for our faith to deepen. That darkness exists in concrete reality should be attested to and engaged without fear and suppression, for it has ultimately been defeated.