The Culture of Satanic Panic

I’m not sure what it was that brought the name into my head. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was one of my synapses misfiring. For some reason, Dr. Rebecca Brown, M.D. popped into my head a couple of weeks ago. Brown (who is no longer a doctor – something I will explain later in this post) wrote two books, He Came to Set the Captives Free and Prepare For War. My mother insisted when I was in jr. high school that I read both of them. The two books told the story of Brown and an “associate”, Elaine (whose full name was never given in the books), and their self-described journey through Satanism. The books were extremely graphic; they bordered on being outright pornography. As an eighth-grader in Houston at a private Christian school, I was young and impressionable. Mom wanted me to understand “what’s really out there.” She heartily disliked my desire to learn martial arts and had begun to stop letting me watch movies like The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. According to Brown, the martial arts were wholly Satanic and would bring a demonic curse onto your child if you allowed them to study any of the various fighting styles.

As I waded through the now nearly-endless parade of articles written debunking Brown’s claims, I came across a story I hadn’t read about in years: the West Memphis Three. It isn’t often that I side with the accused in a crime these days. I have become convinced, though, that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are all innocent.

In early May of 1993, my family watched the news from our Houston living room as a massive story played out in Arkansas. In the tiny truck-stop town of West Memphis, three eight-year-old boys – Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers – went missing one night only to be discovered dead in the woods the next day. The boys were found nude, hogtied and had severe head trauma. Their clothing had been wrapped around sticks and stuck in the mud, although two of the boys’ underwear was never found. A police juvenile parole officer named Steve Jones made the initial discovery.

Police investigative techniques were terrible. The small town WMPD was not trained to deal with such a horrific crime. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Having been to crime scenes, I can tell you that any police officer, EMS worker or coroner whose training is worth a damn knows when they spot a dead body. You typically smell it first – even outdoors. Police officers in West Memphis, though, charged right into the shallow creek where the boys lay and dragged them out. Even in 1993 most police officers knew that even when children are involved, you have to keep your wits about you and recognize what the situation is before you go charging in. They didn’t, however, and if any footprints had been there they were lost in the kerfuffle.

A camera wasn’t available until a full half hour after the scene was discovered. The coroner wasn’t called until two hours afterward. During all of this, Jones – the parole officer – piped up and said, “it looks like Damien Echols finally killed someone.” No evidence, no nothing, he just spit the words out effortlessly. Echols was one of his low-level troublemakers, a young man given to wearing his hair long, his clothing black, and listening to bands like Metallica – and Jones was convinced because of his appearance and his deliberately shocking statements (“sure, I’m a Satanist!”) that Echols was pure evil. Rumors swirled in the largely poor- to middle-class town gripped with the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and 90’s that Echols and Baldwin were members of a Satanic cult.

The coroner’s investigation wasn’t any better than the police investigation. Both agencies refused offers of help from the Arkansas State Police. At the scene of the crime, reporters finally got a statement from John Mark Byers, the adoptive stepfather of one of the victims. Police had failed to shield him from the scene and the details. Police then failed to tell him that talking to the press was a big no-no. Byers immediately went to reporters and told them some of the facts at the scene, things that only the perpetrator would have known. Within 24 hours half of America knew those facts.

Damien Echols was polygraphed just two days after the grisly discovery in the Robin Hood Hills woods. Any and every teenager that could have possibly been associated with Echols in any way was polygraphed. Police claimed that Echols was deceptive yet could not produce a written record. One detective was described as verbally abusive to interviewees who gave answers that didn’t implicate Echols. Then, not quite a month after the murders, police dragged Jessie Misskelley in for questioning. For more than 12 hours he was questioned by police and somehow only the final 46 minutes of the interrogation was recorded. He told police exactly what they wanted to hear: that best friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin had decided to ambush the three boys and kill them for a Satanic ritual. The problem with the confession was that the beginning of the recording catches what had already been going on for 12 hours – Misskelley didn’t know a damn thing about the crimes. He gave the wrong time, the wrong location, and inconsistent statements regarding what had been done to the boys. Detectives had to correct him multiple times before he spit out a story that was consistent enough to start making arrests.

None of this mattered. Police built their “case” on the shoddiest investigative work I have ever read about in my life, and prosecutors, knowing the sensibilities of the people in the area, took the case to trial with nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life behind bars, and Echols was sentenced to death. Later it was discovered that judge David Burnett exhibited behavior which implied he’d already decided that all three boys were guilty. Kent Arnold, foreman of the Baldwin/Echols trial jury, had inside knowledge of Misskelley’s confession and entered it into the deliberation discussions after the confession had been ruled legally inadmissable – by then Misskelley had recanted and refused to testify against the other two.

Today, judge Davis sits on the Arkansas Appellate Court and in a clear conflict of interests ruled that the three could not have new trials, even in light of new evidence – which included DNA. The convictions of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley were secured with no evidence at all. Prosecutors didn’t even have circumstantial evidence! I believe that the outcome of this case, including the behavior of officers involved and the convictions from local juries, was heavily tainted by emotional reactions based entirely in a phenomenon we now call Satanic Panic.

It was in 1992 that I first read He Came to Set the Captives Free. Everyone at my family’s church, Grace Community Church, was raving about the information in it. Brown described a life in which she was called on by God Himself to save the masses from Satanism – all on her own. She supposedly began with Elaine, who reportedly had been one of Satan’s brides and a high priestess of a massive Satanic coven. The story contains claims that Elaine was married to Satan in a Presbyterian church, that she later sipped champagne aboard a luxury jet with him, and he later taught her astral projection so she and the other members of the coven could murder without leaving any evidence. As if that isn’t enough, the book also claimed that Elaine routinely took part in human sacrifice, that the humans being used ranged from newborn to fully adult, and graphically described the orgies supposedly held by the coven. Very little detail was left to the imagination. Elaine also claimed to have been Satan’s personal representative, going so far as to help place other Satanists in various churches and negotiate huge sales of arms between various countries all over the world. Brown herself tells tales of treating an ER patient, a young pastor, who had supposedly been tortured, stabbed and crucified – a story that has never been corroborated.

Is it any wonder, growing up in a church that pushed this astronomical level of nonsense, that I grew up to call Disturbed my favorite band?

Two weeks ago, I started digging to find out the truth about Brown, Elaine, and the stories they told. I remember Brown describing interactions with patients deep in ICU psychosis and her belief that it was caused by demons. I remember reading the gory details of human sacrifices, including crucifixion. I remember reading claims that the movements taught in martial arts were really silent Satanic incantations (which I now find hilarious, having spent half my life in the martial arts, including Shaolin and Krav Maga). I remember reading about the claim that it took eight weeks to exorcise hundreds of demons from Elaine after her conversion to Christianity.

There’s a bigger story to be told. Rebecca Brown changed her name to hide from the infamy that followed her true name – Ruth Irene Bailey. “Satan’s special hospital”, where Dr. Bailey did her internship, was Ball Memorial Hospital. Her claims that bibles were removed and ministers banned? False. It was discovered that she had begun bringing candles to use in exorcisms in the hospital and was asked to leave. Her behavior was so bizarre that she had to change her name. In fact, her medical license was revoked by the Indiana Medical Board in 1984 for stealing prescription medications, intentionally misdiagnosing patients so she could claim they were possessed by demons, and then prescribing illegal amounts of certain drugs. This was a full two years before her first book was published. Brown has kept the “Dr.” and “M.D” titles to add credibility to her wild stories.

Elaine, who Brown always refused to allow to be identified or interviewed, was Edna Elaine Moses. Moses was a deeply mentally disturbed woman whose family was not surprised in the least when writers started sniffing around the authors. According to her immediate family, she was well-known for being an attention-seeker, going so far as to regularly fake having full tonic-clonic seizures while in public. During the time she supposedly traveled the world as Satan’s personal representative to religious leaders, heads of state and rock stars, she was actually working as a Licensed Practical Nurse in Indiana. The two women met at Ball Memorial and quickly moved in together. It is believed due to evidence gathered to revoke Brown’s medical license that the women were drug addicts and possibly lesbians; Brown and Elaine shared a bed from the time they moved in together to the time that they parted ways. Brown was unofficially diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and Elaine had been frequently diagnosed by doctors as being of “mixed personalities” and was of “questionable reliability.”

To this day I question my sanity. As a kid my head was filled with tales of Satanism and evil pervading everyone around me. Everything involved demon possession. Ruth Bailey/Rebecca Brown (who is, by the way, still in the ministry with husband Daniel Yoder, who is a convicted criminal for multiple cases of identity theft) helped hucksters like Mike Warnke sell overhyped stories of Satanic Ritual Abuse to gullible Christians all over the world. I believe that they helped create the atmosphere that allowed three innocent teenagers to be convicted of a crime they were never involved in by convincing hordes of the faithful that Satanism afflicted the larger majority of the population. I very seriously doubt that there was even one single Satanic cult in or even near West Memphis when those three boys were murdered, but the police, Steve Jones, and their sham of an “occult expert” – Dr. Dale Griffis, a former cop who claimed that the boys’ blood and semen would have been collected for use in future rituals, despite the fact that none of the boys had been bled very much and that they were far too young to produce semen, making such a claim impossible – spoon-fed a deeply religious citizenry a drama they wanted to believe in, if for no other reason than to strengthen their own faith.

The claim made by Brown, one oft-repeated by my mom and many of her friends back then, is that Satan wants you to question the story. He supposedly wants you to to think it’s so fantastic that it’s unbelievable. To question whether it’s true is dangerous, they said. While my logical mind realizes this is a falsehood on a grand scale, sometimes I still question whether or not I’m wrong to question such stories. I do know this…during the time that I was reading those books, something felt very wrong. I always had difficulty sleeping because of the nightmares that plagued me. I’m sure most of the people I knew from Grace still believe in that garbage and would likely argue that the fact that I’m a lesbian now is proof of demonic activity and I’m only writing a missive like this to further confuse things.

I think that the culture of Satanic Panic is just another emotional drug that some Christians like to cling to, much the way many of them do to high-energy “worship” that includes speaking in tongues without interpreters and being “slain in the spirit.” There’s no wisdom in it.

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