Beyoncé, Smurfs, Harry Potter and the modern right-wing Christian panic over Satan

Last week, a priest in Ireland blared a severe warning about a dark practice that was surreptitiously leading people to the “Kingdom of darkness” where "Satan and the fallen angels” waited to prey upon them.

What nefarious activity had so insidiously masked its agency of darkness? Yoga.

"When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to,” warned Father Ronald Calhoun. "People may well be doing yoga harmlessly. But there‘s always a risk and…that’s why we talk about that in terms of the danger of the new age movement and the danger of the occult today.”

Calhoun’s warning was the subtle version of a long-suspected yoga-Satanism industrial complex. "Practicing yoga is Satanic,” claimed the Vatican’s chief exorcist a few years back. “It leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter.”

Spotting links between Satanism and yoga and Harry Potter is both the ridiculous result and the natural continuation of a decades-old practice of spying Satanism’s flag in the most innocuous segments of western culture, an evolving trend that functions as a map to the shifting class and gender anxieties beneath the culture wars.

The Satanic Panic

How’d we get here? You can largely blame the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and '90s, a convergence of class anxieties, sociological shifts, psychological fads, and pop culture trends that produced a society-wide fear of sexual abuse of children at the hands of an underground network of Satanists masquerading as daycare operators.

As families shifted to dual-income households, young children were increasingly left in daycare or under other supervision. The anxiety of surrendering children to others’ control coincided with the publication of the bestseller Michelle Remembers, in which a psychiatrist coerced allegedly submerged memories of sexual abuse at the hands of Satanists from a Canadian patient. The resulting hysteria was quickly amplified by daytime television specials hosted by Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jesse Raphael.

The accusations of Satanic ritual abuse at daycare facilities were mostly fictions, with the children’s memories almost always coaxed out during therapy sessions. Hundreds were charged, even as most prosecutions ended without convictions and studies debunked claims of shadowy Satanic networks. The occasional convictions are still being vacated, some after the wrongly accused spent decades in jail. In possibly the most famous case involving supposed ritual Satanic violence, the three teens who became known as the West Memphis Three were freed in 2011 after 18 years in prison for allegedly murdering two boys in a Satanic ritual, the culmination of the conflagration of fears begun 30 years before.

The Culture Wars

Despite the baselessness of the panic, the formula of Satanists hiding behind innocent facades and their preoccupation with children sunk in. If the habit of spotting hidden Satanic messages in every logo and cartoon never entirely mainstreamed, the fear it inspired did.

The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was an early target. After a teen prodigy attempted suicide under the pressures of school (and his closeted sexuality), his family pushed the theory that the game had driven him to it. In the early days of the Satanic panic, the possibility that a game of demons and spells could scramble young brains was readily accepted, even novelized and turned into a TV special starring Tom Hanks. Soon came a tract called “Dark Dungeons,” a dogmatic comic book in which two girls become entranced by a Dungeons-like game. One girl hangs herself, the victim of the dark forces’ powerful sway; the other is saved by Jesus. The essential contours of the next 20 years of the culture war were formed.

Metal bands provoked these fears with deliberate, often cheeky, encomiums to Satan. A less obvious focal point were children’s television shows, each of which was in turn accused of acting as a gateway to Satanism. Gary Greenwald, a fringe minister, was an outspoken opponent of what he called the “Masters of Deception,” among which he listed the Smurfs, Scooby-Doo, the Thundercats, and more. He-Man was criticized for promoting witchery and for appearing more powerful than Jesus.

The Smurfs in particular were suspected of being undead dark side recruiters. “Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters,” one former Jehovah’s Witness recalled. “They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem, and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Jehovah’s Witness home…Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the Devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one’s mind and body.”

The endless search for Satanic messages also created a side industry of spotting occult symbols and demonic codes hidden in every piece of cultural data, until what began as a goofy Revelations reference by bands like Iron Maiden soon became a serious branding problem for major corporations. Throughout the '80s accusations persisted that 666 could be spotted in Proctor & Gamble’s “man on the moon” logo, eventually culminating in a rumor that the CEO of Proctor & Gamble had announced on the Phil Donahue show that he donated a portion of the company’s proceeds to the Church of Satan. (He never even appeared on the show.) Proctor & Gamble finally relented, scraping the logo from its products.

Similar rumors dogged Walt Disney and the company that took his name. Disney was suspected of having been indoctrinated into Satanism as a member of the Skull & Bones and functioning as its high-profile emissary ever since. Disneyland was claimed by some to be the site of Satanic rituals—a writ-large version of the daycare scandals that rocked the earlier part of the decade—while the loops of Disney’s patented signature were thought to contain the dreaded three sixes.

Post-Panic Satanism

The tropes of Satanism eventually aged out of the culture, with heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons losing their subversive edge even as the evangelical preachers who denounced them fell to a litany of scandals. As the now-traditional antagonists of the culture wars deflated, the Satanic panic ceded the Zeitgeist.

But that didn’t mean that people stopped spotting Satanism in the crevices of popular culture, with the success of Harry Potter reenlisting anti-Satanic detectives. “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of darkness, the devil,” warned the Vatican’s official exorcist in 2001.

Whereas games and shows were formerly suspected of starting children on the path to Satanism, Harry Potter was accused of containing the Satanism itself. "The spells and things that you are reading in Harry Potter books, those aren't just some things that are made up,” claimed a group of young British exorcists who believed themselves to be fighting an onslaught of Satanism in Europe. “Those are actual spells, those are things that came from witchcraft books.”

(As an indication of how absurd these claims were, both the Vatican and the Christian organizations that echoed it were unknowingly parroting an Onion article from 2000, in which J.K. Rowling explicitly declares the book a Satanic recruiting device. "I think it's absolute rubbish to protest children's books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan," mock-Rowling said. "People should be praising them for that!”)

Meanwhile, Christian organizations loudly denounced Pokémon, which they said influenced children with tales of spirits, empowerment over the spiritual realm and false ideas of evolution. “Pokémon is not the enemy—it is Lucifer and all that exalts itself against Jesus Christ,” proclaimed Pastor Brett Peterson. “Pokémon is a tool the enemy can use to build a false foundation and plant seeds of futility in my child…to indoctrinate my child with eastern mysticism and occultic practices.”

The religious backlash was enough that the Vatican, with its head on its shoulders for this round, had to weigh in, declaring the game to be based on “ties of intense friendship” and reassuring parents it lacked “any harmful moral side effects.”

But the most serious modern charges of Satanism have focused on pop music, which, with its sway over the central flank of popular culture, would form an even more capacious vehicle for Satanism than the leather jacket crowd could have managed in the heyday of the Satanic panic. Pop music was always suspected of being a gateway for Satanism; responding to serious label fears that his video for Thriller was Satanic, Michael Jackson was forced to release a statement affirming that “this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”

But the modern version is layered in sexual and gender anxiety, especially concerning female pop stars whose ability to manipulate their presentation and even identities has led to persistent claims that they’re witches.

Beyoncé has come in for the majority of Satanic claims, especially after her Super Bowl half-time performance, in which many divined occult symbols. (Super Bowl half-time shows have become standard arenas for symbol-spotting.) Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce spooked both Glenn Beck and now-former American Family Association sentinel Bryan Fischer, who accused Beyoncé of literally transforming onstage into a "demonic spirit" fueled by "dark energy.”

"That's multiple personality or that's demon possession or that's psychosis — that's something," said conservative radio host Kevin Swanson of the Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce duality. "These are people who are going to wind up in insane asylums, mental institutes for things like demon possession."

Even Katy Perry, an outspoken Christian, has drawn the attention of radio conservatives. After her “dark horse” Grammy performance, Perry was accused by Beck of engaging in public acts of “full-fledged witchcraft and demonification” and Perry’s own half-time show was protested for being the work of a “Satanic witch.”

"The past few Super Bowl half-time shows have appeared to be elaborate Illuminati rituals hidden in plain sight," one conservative pastor warned before the game. "With Katy Perry headlining this year it's likely that trend will continue.”

Whereas the class-based anxieties of the '80s have given way to gender-based anxieties over pop music, fears of surrendering control over children have refocused on the Internet, with hysteria now forming over shadowy memes like Slender Man. After a preteen girl stabbed her friend in Wisconsin, apparently under the influence of the Internet phenomenon, the head of a Slender Man wiki defended the character. “We are a literature site,” the administrator wrote, “not a crazy satanic cult.”

It’s a line that could have been written 30 years ago.