Tag Archives: hysteria

Throwback Thursday: The Comic Book Panic

LadiesHomeJournalNovember1953Cover

Every decade or so, we seem to have a cultural panic about something teens are into. These days, it’s violent video games, but that was far from the first target. Before that, it was heavy metal and role-playing games. The pattern repeats at least back to the 1950s, when the freakout of the times was over comic books and their alleged link to juvenile delinquency. This freakout went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It also got to the point where magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal were describing the perils of comic books, an idea we mostly laugh at today. The article claims, for example, that the books’ detailed descriptions of crime teach kids how to become criminals. Like many anti-media pieces, it lists in great detail (and without context) the violent deeds described in the stories, as if a roundup is enough to explain the problems inherent in reading these books. It also, typically, cites an increase in “juvenile delinquency” and describes a number of youth-committed crimes in depth, with vague references to comic books (one young criminal’s older brother blames them, for example; I’m sure he’s an authority on the subject).

And, like every other teen pastime, so many kids were reading comics that there’s no real way to say the books — more than any other factor — inspired youths to commit crimes or even just act out. Sure, all of the crimes described in the magazine article can be found in comics, but so can plenty of other things that adults wouldn’t and didn’t find objectionable. Did those aspects of comics inspire teen behavior, too, or just the bad bits? Or maybe kids, like adults, like to see, hear, and read thrilling fiction because it’s just that — fiction.

One reason I like to look back on these moral panics is to show how we feel about them with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. Has any wave of youth violence ever been credibly linked to media? The answer, again and again, is no. So why do we keep blaming their interests?

Dorkly Comic: “Parental Guidance” & games

I don’t normally post cartoons like this without comment, but this so perfectly echoes the message of my blog, I couldn’t resist. Comic by Julia LePetit and Andrew Bridgman of Dorkly.

From the Satanic Panic to 12 years in Texas prison

You’ve heard about the West Memphis 3? Meet the San Antonio 4.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera have served 12 or more years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. So what were the women convicted of doing?

Satanic ritual abuse.

Yes, that again.

In, 1994, in the midst of the Satanic Panic, Ramirez’s nieces, 7 and 9, stayed with her for a week. Later, there were allegations that the girls were raped at gunpoint, by all four women, during that week. A doctor who examined the girls after they made their claims “thought she saw Satan’s hand in the unspeakable crimes described by the two young girls,” according to the San Antonio Current:

They described their aunt, Elizabeth Ramirez, with red wild eyes grabbing the girls and forcing them into her bedroom. … Kellogg, a widely respected child abuse expert and local pediatrician, examined the girls, deciding “this could be Satanic-related,” according to her exam notes. Based on her research and experience in the field, Kellogg later testified, “If there is a female perpetrator and there’s more than one perpetrator involved, there is a concern for [Satanic abuse].”

The prosecutors went even further, suggesting Satanic overtones even though they were forbidden from bringing up the subject directly in the courtroom:

“[T]he evidence is going to show that young woman over there held a nine-year-old girl up as a sacrificial lamb to her friends. … We’re going to ask you to believe a nine-year-old little girl who was sacrificed on the altar of lust.”

From there, prosecutors moved on to suggesting that some or all of the women might be lesbians. (Which is just about as relevant as Satanism accusations — which is to say, not at all relevant.)

So where did these ideas come from? It seems, as is often the case with such situations, that they came from the prosecutors themselves, which may explain why their stories made no sense:

the jury heard a maze of contradictions from the supposed victims. On and off the witness stand, their accounts changed, sometimes in dramatic fashion. The assaults happened at night, then in the morning, then in the afternoon while “Full House” was on TV. They were assaulted in the living room, or in the bedroom, either together or separate. Mayhugh wasn’t there. Or was she? Their father picked them up from the apartment following the assault. Then it was Ramirez and Mayhugh who drove them home. Ramirez pointed a gun at the girls as they spoke to their father on the phone, threatening them to keep quiet. Then, Ramirez and Vasquez each had guns. Then, only Vasquez had a gun.

This wasn’t the first time the girls had made such a claim. Earlier, they had told adults that they were assaulted by a “mysterious 10-year-old boy.” They made similar claims while their mother and father battled for custody, and again when their mother remarried. Although we should be careful to listen to children who say they were abused, it’s unlikely that this happened to them four times in their young lives. (Ramirez claims that the girls’ father had an unrequited passion for her; and when she rejected him, she believes he urged the girls to make the accusations against her.)

Oh, and one of their “victims” has since recanted.

There wasn’t much hard evidence against the San Antonio Four. Even examinations of their hymens weren’t conclusive — and then the doctor who photographed them said she couldn’t produce photos as courtroom evidence. All four of the accused have passed polygraph tests.

But they were convicted anyway. Three were sentenced to 15 years. Ramirez, the alleged ringleader, got 37.5 years in prison.

To bring light to their case, there’s a documentary in the works. Will it help spring them from prison? Will it remind the public the very real cost of fear and hysteria? How many more people remain in jail, convicted in the 1980s and 1990s of crimes they didn’t commit?

How not to get hysterical about a pentagram


Pentagrams and walls seem to go hand in hand — like bored teens and vandalism. Photo by Flickr user The Trousered Ape.

As the weather turns warmer, kids in suburban and rural areas go outside. They’re bored. They’re looking for something to do. They’re angry, or at least irritated. Maybe they have a magic marker in their back pocket. They’re walking through town, maybe past a church, and an idea strikes them.

Churches in Santa Rosa, California, and Prairie Grove, Arkansas, have suffered recent vandalism — one more seriously than the other. In Santa Rosa, The Church of the Incarnation was tagged with a few pentagrams and other designs. In Prairie Grove, the Illinois Chapel Baptist Church has been vandalized repeatedly over the years, culminating with arson late last month.

Two different cases, in two different parts of the country, reported in two very different ways. Let’s look, shall we?

From Arkansas Matters:

A church is set ablaze in Prairie Grove and officials find satanic symbols spray-painted on the building.

From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

The Church of the Incarnation on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa was tagged with possible Satanic graffiti on Wednesday afternoon, and police said they may have a suspect.

Hmm. One seems more cautious than another. Let’s look again.

Prairie Grove:

“Devil worshiping signs, you know, and stuff, this is nothing but the Devil … People that does this stuff, they are lost … They haven’t the slightest what hell is really about.”

But everyone we spoke with said, there is one thing still standing strong, and that is their faith.

“The Devil can’t beat us down, not as long as we hold faith in Him … I know the good Lord is with us,” said Burnett.

Santa Rosa:

[Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Mike] Lazzarini said the suspect also tagged St Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as other buildings and signs.

“It’s not church specific,” he said.

A pentagram is a five-pointed star connected with lines considered by some to have magical connotations, and to have satanic meaning when inverted with two points up.

Lawrence said while the pentagrams are potentially upsetting to members of the church, “it’s not enough to make us feel threatened.”

You could chalk up the sensationalism of the Arkansas article to the fact that the crime is more serious, but there have been plenty of times when graffiti like Santa Rosa’s has been reported in a tone more like Prairie Grove’s. In fact, more alarmist reporting tends to be the norm. The Press Democrat reporters offer something refreshing: a report of the crime that doesn’t hysterically imply that the Devil controlled the vandal’s hand — or did the dirty deed himself.

The fact remains, most such vandalism is made by bored, aimless people — kids especially — and not Satanists with an anti-Church agenda. Reporters should write their articles this way, unless they know for certain who the suspect is, and what his/her motives are.

And yet, it’s still plenty interesting to read. Factual reporting that doesn’t descend into fear-mongering. When’s the last time you saw that in a story like this?