The Lessons of West Memphis

The “West Memphis Three” were released today after DNA evidence threatened to expose the DA’s theory that the murder of three Cub Scouts in Arkansas was carried out by Satan-worshipping teens in some sort of mysterious “devil ritual” as raving moronic nonsense. Despite a total lack of solid evidence, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin were convicted of First Degree Murder 18 years ago. Misskelly and Baldwin got life sentences and Echols was sent to death row. This happened in 1993, when I was in high school and really didn’t need further proof of life’s general suckiness. Even before the HBO documentary Paradise Lost came out, detailing the weird backwoods farce the prosecution put on, I knew it was bullshit. Why? Simple.

Hidden cults of bloodthirsty Satanists are not real, and if you think otherwise, you are probably pretty stupid. No evidence of such a thing in contemporary Western society (or perhaps all of history) has been found, ever. Even at 16, with a head full of Morbid Angel CDs and bad horror movies, I understood this.

This is Serious.

The 1980s were a horrible time, and one of the more bizarre cultural phenomena of that era (and there were many) was that of the “Satanic Panic,” a totally insane moral freak-out which destroyed the lives of many more people than just that of Mr. Echols and his friends. In some sort of weird Neo-Conservative backlash against the New-Age dopiness of the 60s and 70s, popular culture and mass media embraced the idea of vast, hidden cabals of devil worshippers flourishing in America. Proponents of this conspiracy theory even coined the term “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” and talk shows and even real news programs went about informing the public of this terrifying occult threat. This formed the foundation of beliefs that led to the travesty of the West Memphis Three. How did it happen so quickly? My thoughts on this at the time of the West Memphis Three’s conviction were as follows:

  1. Many people are very stupid.
  1. Stupid people like to hassle teenagers and people different than them.
  1. Much of TV panders to the desires of these stupid people.
  1. Stupid people believe everything they see on TV, and it creates what I call a “feedback loop of stupid.”

This was the beginning of my interest in mass communication theory. I feel like it holds up pretty well so many years later. (Insert Fox News joke here.) Kidding aside, those who popularized the idea of SRA are no different than those who spread “blood libel” against religious minorities in the Middle Ages, a major element of anti-Semitic legend. The claims are remarkably similar—and the results are dire. The Satanic Panic ruined a lot of people, most notably the West Memphis Three and all involved with the McMartin Preschool trial, but doubtlessly many more adolescents whose misguided parents believed what they were told about the devil, and in turn saw Satan when they should have seen only a young person.

Nothing can give back these three men the 18 years they lost for a crime they didn’t commit. Nothing can undo the botched police work which allowed the real murderer to go free. And, let’s not forget, the young people of America learned a valuable lesson: The law will not offer you protection, the world will not see you for who you are, and if you are too different or too strange, a fearful majority will do their damnedest to kill you the minute they get even a little bit threatened.

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