DEVILS NOT: THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE & THE ETERNAL CRISIS
Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt published Devil’s Knot, about the trial of the West Memphis Three, some 18 years ago. Eighteen years is also the sum of time its three key subjects spent in prison on charges of Satanic ritual murder, making 2020 an ideal delta to revisit the book.
If, like every single person in California, you have A LOT of time on your hands right now, Leveritt’s book remains a highly worthwhile explication of the Satanic Panic, as it unfolded for three luckless young men in 1994.
The West Memphis Three–Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols–were a trio of teenagers convicted of the gruesome murders of three eight-year-old boys. The allegation was–say it with me–that the trio committed the killings in the midst of a Satanic ritual.
By the time 1994 rolled around we were far from peak Satanic Panic in America. But this was in West Memphis, Arkansas, population 28,000, a town that professional wrestler Jerry Lawler once described as the kind of place “where livestock is still thought an appropriate wedding gift.”
According to Devil’s Knot, early leads in the graphic triple homicide included investigating one man because in the past he’d performed sex reassignment surgeries and another who “aroused suspicion by failing to attend church.” Guess it wasn’t exactly Twin Peaks out there.
In such a place, “belief that Satanic activities were afoot was well established,” even after much of the panic ebbed in obscure places like Anywhere Else In The Country.
Although some people (and prosecutors, who might qualify as people under some loose rubric) still persist in the guilt of the West Memphis Three today, sources like Devil’s Knot and the Emmy-winning 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills portray the case as a witch hunt, so flimsy that you could poke holes in it via determined exhalation.
But what struck me most about Leveritt’s book was not the trial or the defendants but the town itself, and West Memphis’ relationship with Satanism–or what it imagined to be Satanism. She writes:
“Reverend Rick McKinney warned, ‘Satanism is out there, parents and young people need to be aware. If you go to the library and ask for information on horoscopes they will send you to the occult section.’ The Reverend Thomas Stacy, another baptist, said the situation in West Memphis called for spiritual warfare.
“Yet another Baptist Minister, the Reverend Tommy Cunningham, began a series of sermons on Satanism. He told an overflowing crowd, ‘Satan wants us to believe he is a non-reality. If he convinces us, then his work is carried.'”
Feels like sending three teenagers out to commit a ritual triple murder for no reason might work against that aim, Tommy. But who am I to question the insights of a community seemingly composed exclusively of baptist ministers?
This idea of a people under siege by the devil appears common at the time. In weird PSA videos that still haunt the dim corners of the Internet, hammy preachers and mysteriously unoccupied cops gave similar breathless warnings to hostage viewers.
“The next victim might show up tomorrow on the beat, it could be in your community–it could be a member of your family,” San Francisco pastor and eminent sweater enthusiast Gordon Coulter warned in a 1992 tape only slightly less surreal than the one that kills you in The Ring.
“We have young people in the millions now captivated by something that can make killers out of them,” fundy youth cult pastor Fletcher Brothers claimed in an ’87 production in which presumably not even the camera could keep a straight face.
What I find most interesting about this period is that there is, seemingly, no incentive to defeat the crisis. If you took a pilgrimage to any of these holy relics today, would they tell that a generation ago Americans united to defeat the Satanic conspiracy in their midst?
No, they’d tell you that, in fact, the conspiracy is still going, and their apparently ineffectual contra-efforts need your support more than ever. After all, just look at the people still arguing the prosecution of the West Memphis Three today.
“Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are sadistic, child molesting, Satanic, murdering lairs [sic] guilty as hell of these absolutely Satanic murders,” a blogger shrieked as recently as 2015, railing against “Satanic mainstream culture” and that “Satan likes to reward his workers of iniquity.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Satanism influenced the minds of those found guilty in the murders,” William Ramsey, formerly the author of Aleister Crowley, 9/11 and the New World Order, wrote in a 2014 book, which he really teed up for me by calling it Abomination.
“The list of Satanic killers is too long to provide,” Ramsey assures credulous readers. Boy that’s convenient.
Satan is the forever crisis, the problem that never goes away because he’s designed never to. “Clergy have been firing their heavy guns at the devil for a thousand years, but they are careful never to hit him,” iconoclast 19th century preacher Moses Hull quipped, claiming “one effective blow dealt the devil would stop all their business.”
And we can see today what a pampered position this is. On the news and in our own cities and homes, real, material crises are appearing by the hour. What volume of privilege do you have to feel to invent an imagined spiritual problem too?
These days the West Memphis Three are free from prison. But how much harder would it be to liberate the culture that put them there from the confinement of its own assumptions?