Understanding the current Satanic Panic resurgence
Serious operations failure or the work of the devil? Astroworld is the latest in a string of events being blamed on an evil force.
In the aftermath of the Astroworld tragedy in early November, footage taken amidst the violent chaos became evidence of many beliefs surrounding youth culture, music festivals and the cult of Travis Scott.
A video of someone dancing on an ambulance roof as it tried to pass through the crowd, for example, suggested to some that the audience itself was at fault for the deaths of ten attendees. Other acts of apparent disregard became visual metaphors for the callousness of an entire generation to others. The director of one of the security firms involved agreed with this narrative, suggesting it was sad "that all those kids inside died […] because this generation has no value in other people's lives."
The latter theory fits into a long history — from the Hillsborough disaster to the Wall-Mart stampede — of institutions who might be thought culpable for such tragedies looking to place the blame elsewhere. But alongside this predictable deflection, a different narrative began to emerge.
For some people, it wasn't enough that the festival was so poorly planned as to be reckless; instead, the deaths had to fit into part of a wider, diabolical scheme. According to this theory, Astroworld was a demonic ritual and the people who died there were victims of a planned sacrifice. The "evidence" includes the fact that the set design featured the words "SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE", reports of a mysterious figure spotted walking across the top of the stage, the pyrotechnic display (because fire evokes hell), and the fact that, allegedly, Travis began to play a song called "Soul Snatcher" just as people started dying. Rumours have also spread that Travis deliberately deployed a fear frequency, a musical tone designed to whip up the crowd into a frenzy, and that members of the audience had been injected with hallucinogenic drugs.
"It helps in this case that most people simply cannot imagine being in a crowd crush," says Annie Kelly, a researcher into conspiracy theories and the far right, as well as being the UK correspondent for podcast QAnon Anonymous and the creator of Vaccine: The Human Story, a podcast about the history of the smallpox vaccine. "Having no control over your body whatsoever is both an alien and frightening thought for many of us — and even with videos and pictures of these events, most people can't actually conceive of the people they're looking at as being 'stuck' in place."
"Drowning or suffocating people often look disoriented and make actions that come across as strange or alien," Annie continues. "I think this is why, when looking at first documentation, a lot of people came to the conclusion they were in a trance or had been drugged." It didn't help matters that these injection rumours were initially corroborated by a Houston police chief, who later walked back his statement on the basis that there was no evidence. But by this point, the theory had already been given a sheen of institutional legitimacy that no retraction could entirely undo.
It might seem as though these satanic conspiracy theories emerged out of nowhere after Astroworld, but these narratives have been bubbling over for some time. Consider the recent backlash to Lil Nas X's music video for "MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)". You'd be hard-pressed to argue that the video contains no satanic imagery (Nas X literally gives the devil a lap dance), but lots of people interpreted it as something more sinister than a popstar being playfully subversive. QAnon telegram channels were ablaze with allegations that Nas X was a fully-fledged satanic worshipper working in league with dark forces. This certainly helped to set the stage for the latest panic that we're seeing now — the tragic nature of what happened at Astroworld has lent it an additional intensity, but the seeds had been planted long before.
“You'd be hard-pressed to argue that Lil Nas X’S video contains no satanic imagery, but lots of people interpreted it as something more sinister than a popstar being playfully subversive.”
The 70s and 80s were the high water mark for Satanic Panic in the US. Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible, published in 1969, codified satanism as a semi-religious movement with which people actively identified. These LaVey-style satanists weren't particularly scary, though: their ideology was a kind of try-hard, libertarian atheism animated by the rejection of organised religion, and they didn't believe in the literal existence of Satan (which seems kind of pointless).
Throughout the 1970s, themes of devil worship suffused popular culture. It was a decade that saw the release of hugely influential occult horror films such as The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, alongside the rise of the heavy metal genre: bands like Black Sabbath and Venom incorporated satanic imagery into their work and incurred an enormous backlash in the process. But it wasn't until the 80s that the Satanic Panic really shifted into gear. The infamous case of the McMartin preschool in California saw this frenzy at its apex, as allegations of ritual abuse at daycare centres spread throughout the US and became a national news media fixation. The allegations were lurid and wildly implausible, and in many cases, police officers effectively bullied and harassed young children into making them.
To give an illustrative example: one group of children claimed that their teacher had rowed them out into the middle of a lake and then chucked them into shark-infested waters. And this particular allegation was not an outlier in terms of craziness. Many of these cases went to court, and most of them were eventually dismissed, but not before the people involved had their lives utterly ruined. By the end of the decade, there developed a widespread consensus that none of the alleged ritual abuse ever took place. While it was ostensibly motivated by concern for children, the Satanic Panic worked to obscure the reality of child abuse as something which almost always takes place within the family realm, whether by parents or close family friends.
As historian Richard Beck writes in his book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s: "The media transmits and amplifies hysteria; it refines the stories told by paranoid fringe groups looking to frighten themselves. But hysteria doesn't take root in society until it can work its way into a community's most important institutions: the government, the justice system, the schools, medicine." This is exactly what happened in the 1980s: allegations of satanic abuse permeated every section of society. Believing in demonic rituals was not the preserve of tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists, but rather a widely accepted establishment position. Richard Beck argues that this hysteria was an expression of repressed anxieties about the disintegration of the nuclear family and the fact that more women were joining the workforce — an abandonment that left their children in the hands of sinister forces.
It's worth noting that some of these anxieties weren't entirely unfounded. Serial killer Richard Ramirez, better known as the ‘Night Stalker’, really did worship Satan, while fellow serial killer David Berkowitz (AKA ‘the Son of Sam') initially claimed that he was acting under instructions from a demon who appeared to him in the form of his neighbour's dog. He later retracted this, but even though it was a hoax, the story helped fix the idea of crazed, devil-worshipping killers in the national consciousness. The Satanic Panic is remembered as a kind of mindless hysteria, which is mostly true, but wouldn’t you get a little jumpy about this stuff?
“Richard Beck argues that in the 80s, this hysteria was an expression of repressed anxieties about the disintegration of the nuclear family and the fact that more women were joining the workforce — an abandonment that left their children in the hands of sinister forces.”
"The Satanic Panic this latest one most resembles is the one concerning rock music, which reached its peak in the 1980s but actually began about a decade earlier," Annie says. "It's interesting that the two musicians that have been caught up in it this time round have been Lil Nas and Travis Scott. It's worth noting that this wasn't just a tabloid scare historically — the malign influence of rock bands was used in legal arguments in US courts during the 60s right through to the 90s. This is where I think (and hope!) the key difference might be — the willingness of institutions to accept these arguments."
Travis Scott and the Astroworld producers almost certainly did not organise a satanic ritual. For all the vitriol directed their way — some of it vicious and no doubt troubling to be on the receiving end of — it's a roundabout way of letting them off the hook for the more prosaic ways that they are culpable. And it is actually reasonable to blame them for what happened. The organisers had failed to create a contingency plan for what to do in the event of a crowd surge, or clarify who had the authority to stop the concert while it was underway. Two of the security contractors hired to overview the event were already the subject of multiple lawsuits related to deaths and injuries which had taken place on their watch. Before the event, a number of event workers raised concerns that they were understaffed and unable to cope with crowd management. Signs of over-crowding were apparent about half an hour before Travis stepped off stage. What happened at Astroworld could have been avoided.
It might be less exciting to believe that something as quotidian as poor event management was responsible for this tragedy, but it's an infinitely more plausible explanation. If you look at it like this, there are lessons to be learned from what happened at Astroworld. The satanic conspiracy theories offer no such insight, beyond 'don't organise demonic rituals', which it seems unlikely anyone was doing in the first place. "It drags the conversation from public safety and proper crowd control measures to the woolly realm of spiritual warfare," Annie says. However sincerely angry people might be about satanic rituals, these conspiracy theories are a distraction, a way of misdirecting people's (not unreasonable) anger and distress.
So how worried should we be about the resurgence of the Satanic Panic? At this stage, it seems unlikely it will infiltrate society at an institutional level, as it did in the 1980s, when the police, justice system and mainstream media became very much involved. But that's not to say it's entirely harmless. "I think a strong public focus on satanism and the demonic is always a bad sign," Annie says. "Despite the claims of many conspiracy theorists that they're targeting satanic ‘elites’, these panics nearly always end with a focus on identifying and punishing ‘deviants’ who are about as far from actual power as you can get. I don't make claims that this will end with as dire consequences as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, which saw many people wrongfully convicted and jailed, but I think it is still very dangerous in terms of how it shapes public consciousness."
There's a degree of symbolic (and indeed literal) truth to the idea that billionaire elites are ruling the world and conspiring against us. Events often take place which are so evil and so sad that they could reasonably be described as ‘satanic’. But it's better to keep this at the level of metaphor, because the alternative is a dead-end that leads only to obfuscation, misattributed blame, and the invention of lurid stories about avoidable tragedies (not to mention QAnon forums).