Just then a rumor began to spread through rural Jamestown, N.Y.
A lot of nonconformist teenagers - wearing dark clothes and offbeat haircuts - had a party in an old warehouse on Halloween. It had been a satanic Mass!
The local Humane Society started getting calls about ritually slaughtered cats and dogs. A fundamentalist minister wrote letters warning about the surge in local Satanism.
Teens who had attended the Halloween party got threatening phone calls, and young thugs began to prowl the town, beating up those they suspected of Satanism.
Then, around April 1988, the rumors began to escalate. Jamestown police - who had been unable to find any evidence of slaughtered cats and dogs - began fielding dozens of calls warning that the Satanists were planning something awful for Friday, May 13.
And as the date drew closer, the rumors intensified: The Satanists were preparing to kidnap a blue-eyed, blond virgin and sacrifice her on the 13th.
Parents kept their children indoors as the date approached. Young women armed themselves. And then . . .
Nothing. On Saturday morning, all the local virgins were accounted for, and the hysteria was deflated.
But across the nation, satanic panic still surges, fanned by sensationalist news organizations, preachers, zealous police and eager psychologists who contend that countless infants are being slaughtered in secret satanic rituals.
Here are a few of those claims:
* Larry Jones, a police lieutenant in Boise, Idaho, and founder of the Cult Crime Impact Network, says Satanists slaughter 50,000 children each year.
* John Frattarola, author of an article, "America's Best Kept Secret," in Passport magazine, says the number is 5,000.
* Michael Warnke, a controversial Christian evangelist who says he was a satanic "high priest" in college, puts the number at two million "kidnapped and murdered" children each year in the United States.
But FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, the FBI's leading authority on child abuse, sees it differently. After more than a decade spent chasing down rumors of ritual child abuse, Lanning came to the conclusion that "there is little or no corroborative evidence" to support the claims, he wrote in a report last year.
While some Satanists are practicing in the United States, he wrote, there's no reason to believe that such activities are widespread. "The public should not be frightened into believing babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that Satanists are taking over America's day-care centers or institutions," wrote Lanning, head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.
Lanning wrote that he himself had "tended to believe" some of the rumors when he began investigating them.
But in the report, he contended that the national hysteria over Satan was distracting the nation from the real crisis, child abuse, being perpetrated by parents and stepparents and boyfriends.
Ironically, Lanning's reassurances outraged some on the religious right who once applauded his investigations. Lanning, they said, was a secret Satanist out to lull the nation so that Satanism may flourish.
The charge is "absurd," he wrote.
The current panic over alleged baby killings and ceremonial murders seems to have been launched in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith, who was diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality syndrome.
Under hypnosis, Smith told her Toronto-based hypnotherapist (and now husband), Lawrence Pazder, that her parents had been part of a robed satanic cult that kept her locked in a cage with spiders and snakes, ritually sacrificed infants, and once sliced a fetus in half and rubbed it over her body.
Smith, who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, in the early 1950s, further contended that the cult leaders had sewed horns and a tail onto her, and that once she was being tortured by Satan himself but she was rescued by Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Police investigations turned up no graves and no missing babies, and an analysis of Pazder's methods led some observers to conclude that his questioning had steered Smith into "remembering" events that might not be real.
But authentic or not, psychologists, preachers, drug counselors, crime ''experts" and the media have been exploiting the public's fascination with Satanism for profit, fame, or Jesus, says media critic Gerry O'Sullivan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Satanism in America, a 1989 study of the Satan panic.
Though all attempts by police or journalists to verify lurid satanic tales have failed to locate any bodies or even missing-children reports that might corroborate the allegations, that has not stanched the flow of such claims.
Indeed, the Book-of-the-Month Club is offering Lessons in Evil, Lessons
From the Light: A True Story of Satanic Abuse and Spiritual Healing, by psychologist Gail Carr Feldman, as its "true crime" selection for August.
Feldman tells how she hypnotized a patient, Barbara Maddox, who was complaining of sexual problems and rage, and discovered "a horror story beyond their worst nightmares," reads the Book-of-the-Month Club bulletin. Maddox's family had been Satanists, and "Barbara had been marked as the 'Princess of Darkness,' " the bulletin says.
Though she was forced to sleep with corpses and to watch the ritual killings of friends and relatives, Maddox says she was saved by a "soothing presence" she knew as "the light."
"This is a moving testament to the human spirit," says the Book-of-the- Month Club bulletin.
Rural police departments seem to be most credulous about these satanic tales, media critic O'Sullivan notes, and many have been bilked into spending money to learn more about the various "danger signs" of Satanism and witchcraft.
The money has gone for short videotapes that cost as much as $350, as well as for $75 seminars that dispense rumors, unsubstantiated anecdotes and
unverified statistics - such as Geraldo Rivera's "one million Satanists" claim - as fact. Indeed, some police seminars present the unfounded claims of satanic baby-murder made on TV talk shows as "proof" that the crisis is real.
"It's evangelism posing as criminology," says O'Sullivan,
Some police departments become so wary of Satanism that they end up looking foolish, says O'Sullivan, who recalls the time that police in Arizona discovered mysterious rows of rubber tires stretching for hundreds of yards across a mountaintop.
Police "experts" told reporters that the box-like pattern was ''definitely occult," because it could not be discerned except from the air. Not until the coach at a nearby college explained that the tires were part of an exercise-obstacle course did that particular rumor subside.
Yet despite the false accusations and suspicious obstacle courses, psychologist Richard Whelan of Deptford cautions that crimes are committed in the name of Satan.
"It's not rampant, but these things are out there," says Whelan, who counsels public and parochial schools in South Jersey about teenage Satanism. He pulls from a folder a photocopy of a sheet of paper found in a field in South Jersey several years ago. Written in an adolescent hand, it features a scraggly star made of intersecting triangles with "Fred" and "Jason" - apparently references to the villains of two popular movies - and these words:
"EHT GNOS--Hmmmmmmm. Satan is our savyour, HMMMMMMM, He is our only lord. Hmmmmmmm. Satan is my master- HMMMMMMMMMM. Speak: Satan is my lord. He is my only master. I will kill for Satan Satan is Me. I am SATAN. Nema."
Young people who feel emotionally abandoned are "easy prey for deviant groups," Whelan says, and an obsession with Satanism and violence can be a sign of emotional difficulty that can lead to some strange encounters. He tells of the two teenage boys in Passaic County, N.J., who turned up at a hospital screaming that the devil was running around inside them.
Police and hospital officials learned that the boys had been to a party where they were served liquor apparently laced with a hallucinogen. Their adult host then made a small incision above their right hips and announced that he was "putting Satan inside" them. He sprinkled the cuts with belladonna, causing them to burn. The boys fled to the hospital.
Whelan never learned what that ritual was about, but much apparent Satanism is often "pseudo-Satanism," he says: a pretext to lure youngsters into sex, or pornography, or distributing drugs. Parents alarmed by the sight of pentagrams or other occult symbols doodled on a son or daughter's algebra notebook need not conclude that they have raised a budding ax murderer, says Whelan.
Nevertheless, he says, parents who discover Satanist books or symbols should sit down with the youngster to learn his or her interest in these ideas. "Most of the kids I talk to don't even know what it means, or else they are just trying to get a rise out of their parents," he says. "It usually lasts for a few weeks."
Satanic conspiracy theories "are very seductive for people who desire simple and easy explanations for complex social problems," says Jeffrey S. Victor, professor of sociology at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, N.Y.
Real crimes and anti-social behaviors are sometimes committed in the name of Satan, says Victor, author of a new book, Satanic Panic, a thoroughly skeptical account of the modern Satan mania.
"But is authentic 'Satanism' really the motivation here, or is it just a ruse, or an after-the-fact justification for certain behavior?" Victor says.
"It might even be amusing, except that a reality is being created by all the rumor and panic," he adds. "A lot of innocent people are being accused of devil worship and incest and all sorts of other crimes. There are parents having heart attacks and committing suicide" as a result of false accusations.
Pamela Freyd, executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia, reports that 18 percent of her foundation's clients are accused of sexually abusing their children in satanic ceremonies.
These "memories" are often elicited, says Freyd, by psychotherapists who convince female patients that their depression, or fatigue, or overweight, or anxiety are signs that they were sexually abused as children.
The patients may recall no such abuse, yet some therapists have been known to dismiss the denials and guide the patients into "recalling" events from very early childhood with questions like, "Well, if you had been abused, what might have happened?"
And as the patients begin to deliver up seemingly suppressed memories, Freyd says that some therapists have been known to press even further with questions such as: "Were the people wearing robes? Can you see your father? Your mother? Did any of them have horns?"
Such leading questions directed at unstable or eager-to-please patients can elicit horrifying stories of torture even though no such abuse occurred, says Freyd. She read from a letter she said she had received from a woman whose sister had been convinced by a psychotherapist that her father and grandfather had killed and dismembered a playmate in front of her when she was a child.
" 'These 'memories' have escalated now to the point where my sister is alleging that our grandfather kept children's skulls in a gym bag which he would periodically throw from the Staten Island Ferry,' " read the letter.
Such stories are "tearing families apart," says Freyd. "I think it's gotten out of hand."