Critical Enquiry

Satanic Panic: an Incident from the Witchcraft Panics of the 1980s

The day started well enough. Thomas Eagan and several friends, all in their mid 20s, had driven to Wompatuck State Park, a largely forested location in southeastern Massachusetts, to work on a graphic design project that Eagan was producing as part of degree studies in art at Boston's Northeastern University. Eagan, a martial arts enthusiast with a passion for medieval re-creation groups, had settled on a project involving the creation of a promotional brochure for a fictional Medieval theme park. He had hired a 41-year old professional photographer to photograph himself and his friends, dressed in medieval costumes, at an abandoned World War II ammunition bunker located in the park. The bunker was to serve as the group's "castle" for purposes of staging the photographs.

Eagan's group posing in a promotional photo for a fictional "medieval theme park"

The bunker located within the park's boundaries was well known as an unofficial (and probably illegal, being on state property) hangout and "clubhouse" of sorts for various groups. Its interior was decorated with chalk and charcoal drawings based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy authors. It also featured graffiti drawn by generations of teens who had made use of the bunker over the years. Rude tables had been made from glass block and other items. Candles were used for lighting. Sleeping bags were stored in the structure, and a small cooking area had been set up. In the past, certain groups had destroyed property left there by others. As a result, one group procured a padlock and bolted the door shut. No one in authority was known to have complained about this, or apparently had even noticed the presence of the lock on the main door.

A staged fight outside the bunker in Wompatuck State Park

Eagan's friends were fellow medieval enthusiasts, and several were members of an international non-profit educational group known as the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which stages large-scale medieval fairs and re-enactments. The group brought a large selection of stage and real weapons, including axes, swords, and daggers, as well as medieval style clothing and other props for use during the photo shoot.

Eagan (left) and his group re-enacting a knighting ceremony

Having completed their work, the group then made its way through the woods to the road where their cars were parked. The prop weapons and other materials had been placed in a large shopping cart, which several members of the group slowly maneuvered down the trail.

Suddenly several police officers appeared, with Sgt. John Comeau, an officer with the Department of Enviromental Resources, at their head. They ordered the group to stop, and according to Eagan's written account "demanded the key to the bunker, as well as receipts for all the property, threatening to throw us all in jail if we did not unlock the bunker." Eagan was unaware of the lock on the bunker, but his friend David Haze had a key. He and Eagan were escorted back to unlock the bunker, and Eagan alleged that officers accompanying him engaged in verbal harassment while making vague accusatory statements such as "we know what you're into." The officers then confiscated all weapons carried by the group, including camping axes and a set of bolt cutters found in one vehicle. According to Eagan, he asked one officer (known to them only as "Jerry") to sign a receipt for the property. He directed Eagan "to Comeau, who directed me to the other officers, who all covered their badges, shook their heads, and turned away, saying they weren't going to sign for anything." The officers took Polaroid photos of each of the twelve members of the group and obtained identification from each, then released them without placing anyone under arrest.

Eagan felt his and his friends' rights had been violated during the incident, and wrote a letter soon afterward to a local judge who was placed in charge of the case. He alleged that officers had frisked only female members of the group, and that the hired photographer was excluded from harassment based on his age.

Within days, headline articles appeared in local newspapers. Both the Hingham Mariner and Scituate Mariner ran a front-page article entitled "Police discover animal sacrifice cult" on May 12. The article, written by staff member Jane Lane, wrote that "Hingham and Cohasset police assisted in a raid this weekend on a 'medieval witch cult' believed to have sacrificed animals in Wompatuck State Park." The article noted that while no arrests had been made, police were calling the group "bizarre" and alleged they had "apparently caught household pets, and sacrificed them on a homemade altar inside an abandoned bunker." The "altar" was said to be covered in blood stains. In interviews I conducted soon after this event, Eagan and others in the group independently stated that the "blood" was actually dried candle wax and the "altar" was a rude table inside the bunker. Eagan admitted that one animal skull had been placed on a table in the bunker, but that it had been found in a different location and brought there. No "animal sacrifices" had ever taken place.

12 May Scituate Mariner Article

This startling story quickly spread to nearby towns. Scituate and other papers continued running articles with titles such as "Police examine evidence of satanic cult" (Patriot Ledger, 14 May) in which photos of so-called "Satanic" writings were prominently displayed. One example included a stylized, well executed drawing above the bunker door that read "This Way to the Asylum." It is unclear how this was determined to be Satanic in nature. Local animal control officers were interviewed, some of whom expressed concern at an "unusual" number of pet disappearances starting five to six months earlier (which would place such disappearances in December or January, when pets often become meals to hungry local predators). The Ledger article stated that "Satan's pentagram, a five-sided star in a circle, was prominently displayed along with drawings of a human skull, a black eagle, or perhaps a mythical phoenix [...] rising from a fire."

In the officers' report, they also mention having seen "cult signs" in cars owned by Eagan and his friends. These, according to later accounts by both police and Eagan's group, included a Grateful Dead sticker and a "trinket" hanging from a rear-view mirror.

Interestingly, even police noted that attendance at a so-called "Satanic" church was not a crime. Their case against Eagan and his friends seems to have been based solely on weapons possession (ownership of double edged blades over 2" in length being a felony in Massachusetts), use of state property without permission, and allegations of sacrificing animals. A caption included in the Scituate Mariner article of 12 May includes a comment that "police believe these weapons [...] were used to torture stolen household pets." No bloodstain analysis or other evidence is cited in support of these claims.

Probably the most prominent accuser of all, Sgt. Comeau was featured in a Boston Herald article on 15 May, in which he is shown holding a "chalice" (i.e. a goblet) and other items found in the bunker. The sub-title "Devil-worship 'church' found" indicates the degree to which the incident had been embellished in the press. It is also indicative of law enforcement officials' attitude toward fringe behavior. In a hand-written note made in the margins of his copy of this article, Eagan has highlighted a claim that a "life-sized white painted crucifix" was found in the bunker. This, he claims, was "planted evidence" that was not in the bunker on the day he and his friends were at the park. If this claim is accurate, was the cross placed there by a police officer, by a member of the press, or by a local resident anxious to arouse even higher levels of suspicion? We will never know.

Herald 15 May Comeau

In perhaps the most telling statement of all, Det. Brian Cogill from one of the participating police departments commented that "they were dressed up like witches."

The Satanism "Epidemic" of the 1980s

Eagan and his friends were victims of the Satanism scare of the 1980s, which was denoted by the emergence of numerous, frequently hysterical stories concerning "churches" dedicated to worship of the Judeo-Christian devil. This period was characterized by an perceived rise in the practice of Satanism -- loosely defined to fit a variety of behaviors, including participation in Wiccan ritual, heavy metal rock music, and the "Dungeons & Dragons" role-playing game. This fear interacted with a largely media-driven frenzy over allegations of "Satanic ritual abuse" in schools, day-care centers, and kindergartens as well as the "recovered memory" phenomenon. In the latter, psychotherapists used hypnosis and other techniques to help patients find and acknowledge "repressed" memories of childhood traumas -- a poorly thought out practice which often produced spurious accusations against innocent individuals.

The origins of this hysteria are unclear, but probably had its roots in mounting fears over the Cold War, changes in American society (i.e. the rising popularity of non-Christian religions), worries over the evolving structure of the family unit, and rapidly developing technologies such as computing and telecommunications. The rise of the American religious fundamentalist movement also played a significant role, since members of this movement frequently exhibit fear of a "conspiracy" to replace their form of religion with another. Fears of a Satanic conspiracy, especially one directed at converting and corrupting children, were particularly horrifying to this group.

After nearly a decade of such stories, as well as the rise and fall of the "Believe the Children" movement (which falsely presumed children would never lie about or fabricate incidents of sexual or other abuse) a backlash in the psychological community and further research revealed that many practitioners were leading patients into "recovering" memories that never existed. Before the use of hypnotism to "recover" memories waned, families were ruined and numerous innocent individuals were jailed based on nothing more than so-called "recovered" memories and allegations of Satanic practices. The comparison with the use of "spectral evidence" during the prosecution of alleged witches during the Salem witch trials is obvious.

During this period, police officers often attended seminars created to help raise awareness of so-called "cult signs" in order to surveil and apprehend members of such groups. While some of these classes were probably helpful in identifying truly deviant or dangerous behaviors in a few individuals, they also resulted in police officers perceiving signs of cults in everything from rock music to neo-Pagan worship. This training appears to have reinforced stereotypes about fringe behavior, lumping together disaffected head-banging teens and Dungeons and Dragons players with true sociopaths and the few actual "Satanists" who actually existed. Police often acted in a manner reminiscent of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General of England who had broad powers to accuse perceived witches and "try" their crimes in 17th century England.

This training and its effects became evident during interviews I conducted with Det. Gerald ("Jerry") McInnis, Det. Brian Cogill, and Sgt. John Comeau in the early 1990s. McInnis specifically cited a training course he attended at Massasoit College as a factor in the incident. During the interview, he stated that police were told state forests were "prime areas" in which Satanists were sacrificing and torturing pets. Local departments had been on the lookout for such behavior at Wompatuck State Park, which teens were known to frequent, as a result.

Additionally, other officers noted that local residents driving through the park had reported "cult signs" (later found to be heavy metal band logos) on cars parked along the road. Most recently, the wife of a local resident reported "a girl with a witch costume on" walking along the road. This was one of Eagan's (male) friends, who happened to be tall and thin, with long hair, and wearing a long dark cloak. This sighting precipitated the police's action on May 7, and police arriving at the scene expected to find "witches" since they had been told someone fitting the commonly held description (cloak, medieval style clothing) was in the area. This, along with the training seminars in Satanism and "cult" activity, had mentally "primed" them to see exactly what they expected.

Eagan and his group unwittingly became the focus of accumulated paranoia over lost pets, allegations of Satanism, unauthorized use of the Wompatuck bunker, and other fears. The sight of a dozen people, several still wearing "witch costumes" and dragging a cart filled with weaponry in an area already suspected of "Satanic" activity, created a perfect storm of accusation.

The Result

Several days after the initial reports, Comeau and other police changed their story in light of revelations about Eagan's courses at Northeastern University and additional information about the medieval re-creation group. Now it was alleged that two groups -- one interested only in fantasy stories and medieval culture and another consisting of hard-core Satanists -- were actually using the bunker. Still, stories published in the local press uncritically quoted police officers and others while providing no analysis or actual evidence that Satanic practices were being followed.

In Eagan's case, no charges were ever filed and the items confiscated by police were returned after 11 months of legal proceedings. A local judge determined the police's case to be frivolous. In Eagan's lawyer's opinion, the judge simply wanted a precedent to throw out the case and finally found one. Sgt. Comeau filed an appeal, requesting reinstatement of the case, which was summarily rejected. Eagan and his friends spent roughly $2,000 in legal fees defending themselves from charges that were never filed. They received no apology from the police, and the fact that the case was dismissed without merit was never reported in the local news.

While Eagan was suspicious that local press were given the story intentionally by police, the evidence does not bear this out. According to Det. McInnis, the police (or at least his department in Cohasset) released no information and were contacted directly by reporters. He surmised during our interview that they may have picked up on the activity via police-band radio scanners, though they may have been tipped off by someone else. But as he also noted, "they [i.e. the media] played it up -- people want dirt, weird stuff." In this case, they found it in spades.


Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2010 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.