HaK Viewers Guide: Netflix’s The Keepers

By C.W.S.

Caution: Descriptions of child sexual abuse

By now you’ve probably heard that Netflix is set to release a new true crime docuseries that is being compared to Making A Murderer. The subject is a still-unsolved murder that took place in Baltimore in 1969, the victim a 26-year-old Catholic nun named Catherine Cesnik. The show also covers the influence that the Catholic Church may have had in covering up Sister Cathy’s murder, because the person (or persons) responsible were their own.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Catholic Church, as an institution, has been free of scandal and corruption, free of cover-up. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the institution has a clear history of purposefully hiding the truth of what some of their higher ranking male members are doing behind closed doors. The Keepers appears to shed light not only on a single murder, but also on a history of sexual abuse of students at the all-girls Archbishop Kenough High School as well as the violent cover-up that came later.

Background on the case

Sister Cathy was a well-liked English and Drama teacher at Archbishop Kenough High School, a popular private school for lower-income families in Baltimore with an annual tuition of $200 (about $1200 today). After a Roman-Catholic upbringing, she set out to become a nun in 1960 when she entered Convent School of Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore. Seven years later, after several years of teaching, Sister Cathy took her vows.

She had requested, and was granted, the option to live off campus with another nun, Sister Helen Russell. Her flat was a popular place for students to spend evenings talking and playing music. Sister Cathy had a very friendly relationship to her students, and by all accounts influenced them positively and with great care.

Sister Catherine Cesnik

Sister Catherine Cesnik

On November 7th, 1969, Sister Cathy left the flat to run some errands. It was the last time she was seen alive. When she did not arrive home by 11:00pm, Sister Helen contacted Father Gerry Koob and Father Peter McKeon, and when they arrived at the flat at 1:00am, they decided to call the police.

The next morning, after a long night of questioning, the three would take a walk and discover Sister Cathy’s car parked near the apartment building, not in its usual place.

Two hunters would find Sister Cathy’s frozen body two months later on January 3rd, 1970. Autopsy results showed that she had been choked and hit over the head with a blunt object.

Suspicion was immediately cast upon Father Koob, who had had an intimate relationship to Sister Cathy. He claimed their relationship was not romantic, but a love letter was discovered by investigators that Sister Cathy had written to him. Nonetheless, Father Koob had an alibi for the night of Sister Cathy’s disappearance.

The case was handed over to county police after Sister Cathy’s body was discovered outside the limits of the city's jurisdiction. The detective that handled the case for the first three months, Nick Giangrasso, had this to say 47 years later: “The Catholic Church had a lot of input into the police department. A lot of power.” The case went cold for 22 years.

1992 Allegations of sexual abuse

A former student of Archbishop Kenough High School, Jean Wehner, attended during the time of Sister Cathy's murder. She came forward in 1992 with a civil lawsuit claiming that she had been sexually abused by the high school chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell, who was in his late 20s. She also claimed that to keep her quiet, Maskell showed her Sister Cathy’s remains before they were found by police.

She told police that she tried to wipe maggots from Sister Cathy’s face. “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” Maskell reportedly told her. The detail about the maggots initially made police suspicious of Jean’s story, as they assumed the freezing weather would have prevented maggots from appearing on the body. However, it would turn into corroborated witness testimony when the private autopsy results were found to note their existence on her remains.

“He terrified me to the point that I would never open my mouth,” Jean told Huffington Post. At her attorneys’ appeal, several other women came forward with similar claims of abuse. Teresa Lancaster, another former student, would join the lawsuit against Maskell. The claims also involved co-conspiracy by other powerful community members: Father Neil Magnus (who died in 1988), the director of Religious Studies (who died in 2006), and local gynecologist Dr. Christian Richter (who died in 2006, and who admitted that Markell would often be present in the room during exams). In addition, several of the women claimed that the men targeted more vulnerable girls and forced them to have sex with strangers, often uniformed police officers.

Father Joseph Maskell

Father Joseph Maskell

The Huffington Post wrote an in-depth article on the allegations in 2015. The descriptions of sexual abuse and rape by Maskell and others are incredibly disturbing, as are the means by which he silenced the victims. Jean recalled being terrified in his presence, but being unable to show it: “He pushed my face into a mirror and he said, ‘You look at who the whore is in the room. Don’t ever act like you’re afraid,’” she recalled.

The lawsuits alleged that the girls did not feel safe coming forward because Maskell routinely threatened them with a gun, with murder of themselves and their loved ones, and with punishments like being thrown out of school for drug possession. It was Sister Cathy that may have been the only one to try to stop the abuse which was becoming a full-blown pedophilia ring. Sister Cathy caught on to what was happening, and Jean says that she would make excuses for her when Maskell would try to call her to his office, where the abuse of her and many others often took place.

The suit was thrown out in 1994, due to a law stating that sex abuse suits had to be filed within three years of the date of the alleged abuse. Nonetheless, police opened an investigation into Maskell, who promptly fled the country, landing in Ireland where he died in 2001.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore was eventually forced to settled claims with at least 12 women who claimed abuse by Maskell.

The creation of The Keepers

In 2013, two former students of of Archbishop Kenough High School who attended the school at the same time as Jean and Teresa, found themselves with free time after their retirement. Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub were not subjected to the alleged abuse but they have long been haunted by questions around what happened to their favorite high school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik, as well as what was really happening to girls at their high school. The two women spent a year researching the case and following up with abuse claims. The documentary, directed by Ryan White, follows this experience.

Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins

Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins

The series presents the theory that Sister Cathy was murdered by Maskell for speaking up, or for threatening to speak up, about the abuse. It also looks into the police and church conspiracy surrounding the case, as well as the claims made by what appears to be nearly 100 former students. 

Director Ryan White had this to say about his experience working on the docuseries: "A major theme of this series is justice and injustice, and I believe, as an outsider having witnessed it now, that so many of the institutions and people that are tasked with protecting citizens or protecting children failed these people—and have failed them repeatedly over the last 45 years. And, in many cases, they've buried that truth. So what this grassroots movement has done is to allow some sense of justice—not literal justice or our typical definition of what justice means—but has allowed a kind of community justice for these people who know this has happened to them."

The true crime genre, when done right, can be a tool against oppressive institutions with unchecked power. The institutions that abuse their power in order to take advantage of the less-powerful: in this case women and underage persons. Documentary work like this can shed light not only on specific cases, but on wayward political and religious structures that are designed to protect themselves at all costs, including taking a life that threatens to expose their heinous crimes. It also sheds light on the mysterious way that corrupt structures of power sometimes seem to be in cahoots. It takes courage to challenge these powerful institutions—and it appears that those behind The Keepers, and the victims it hopes to represent, have a lot of it.

All seven episodes of The Keepers will be available on Netflix May 19.

Making Sense of Heaven’s Gate: 20 Years Later

By C.W.S.

I visited the Museum of Death last week when I passing through Los Angeles, not really knowing what to expect. I walked the mini-mart clad road until I got to the ivy covered building with a huge 2-D skull marking the entrance. The staff looked like punk kids grown up, and they chatted with me about what I was about to see. I told them I wrote about true crime, and they assured me that I was in the right place.

When I reached the room where they had displayed everything related to the Heaven’s Gate cult, my mouth fell open—I’m not kidding. This cult has always interested me beyond all others, due to their strange philosophies that mimicked the new age mania that I was accustomed to hearing about from my father. And this display was something else. In the 1997 crime scene photographs that would come to represent this cult, the bodies were all covered in purple shrouds, and everyone was wearing the same black track suits with the same patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” Most memorably, the group all wore the same Nike Decade shoes, shown peeking out from under the shrouds. This type of Nike has since become a collectors’ item, due to the discontinuation of the shoe after the iconic photos were plastered all over every new station for days. The museum had an original bunk bed, from that very night, as well as a dummy in an original track-suit and Nikes, covered in an original purple shroud.

Crime scene photo of a Heaven's Gate member

Crime scene photo of a Heaven's Gate member

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, in which members of the cult poisoned themselves with apple sauce laced with barbiturates and large quantities of vodka. In March of 1997, the news broke that 39 people were found dead.

Beside the museum’s bunk bed display with the dummy covered in its purple shroud, its black Nike Decades perfectly clean, the museum had a TV set playing an endless reel of Marshall Applewhite’s recruitment videos. On the small table holding the TV were the original VHS tapes that he created in the 90s, hours upon hours of alien-like Applewhite, bald and shiny, in a shirt I imagine a sci-fi Priest might wear, in front of a magician-purple curtain. He’s talking right to you, staring deeply into your eyes while he explains that his beliefs may seem outlandish, but that he alone is telling you the truth. He is calm, smiling, confident, slow and thoughtful. You get pulled into his tone, it’s a little mesmerizing.

Marshall Applewhite. As a young man, he held a masters’ degree in music and also attempted to become a professional singer. He taught at several universities and was a strong Christian. He was closeted for many years before a brief stint as an openly gay man in Houston, following the discovery of his affair with a male student in which he was fired from his position at the University of Alabama. Applewhite struggled to reconcile his sexuality and Christian beliefs and went back into the closet and moved to New Mexico to open a delicatessen. Soon after, he became one of the most famous cult leaders of all time.

Marshall Applewhite in a recruitment video

Marshall Applewhite in a recruitment video

In attempting to get a grip on the philosophy of Heaven's Gate, I can understand why people might have been initially attracted to Applewhite's ideas. Like almost all belief structures, they start out with thoughts that I can get behind: a rejection of the rigidity of organized religion, the idea that the soul will live on after death, even the extremely attractive idea that I myself might be someone special, a highly evolved being that is headed for more evolution. What's not to like? But then slowly, in classic cult fashion, everything morphs into something so contrary to reality that it becomes laughable. That's when they start losing me, when they start losing almost everyone. But there are a few people who stay, and that's when it becomes dangerous.

Heaven's Gate started with the meeting of two eccentric minds, as is often the case. In a classic example of Folie à deux, the French term that means literally The madness of two, Applewhite and a woman named Bonnie Nettles sat for hours in a psychiatric hospital in 1972, discussing at length their spiritual interests. Nettles was a nurse at the clinic where Applewhite had been hospitalized after the death of his father. This platonic love affair would go on to spawn an entire ramshackle, and yet intensely measured, new age religion. They talked about bible passages and about the life of Saint Francis, and read works by, of course, Helena Blavatsky, the mysterious root to many occult disasters.

It was this simple moment of connection, sitting on a bed for hours at the hospital, just talking about ideas. Then came a simple but powerful statement made by Nettles to Applewhite, as apparently foretold to her by alien beings: You have a divine assignment, which would later transform, as it often does, into You are God.

A divine assignment. It can be a meaningful concept of personal growth vital to the contributions you want to make in the world, the good things you want to do. Or it can be something else, something that grows inside the ego and turns politicians into dictators, spiritualists into dangerous cult leaders.

And so Applewhite and Nettles, who had renamed themselves Bo and Peep, embarked on a 6-month road trip around the United States. Interestingly enough, I have also been on a six-month long road trip around the United States. I say that because its like, hey, I’m following, I get it, I can still understand what’s going on here. You have to get out on the road, see the country, understand people from all over, find what is meaningful to you by cutting down on your possessions (like Saint Francis). You want to understand the spiritual value of being free. It’s part of the divine assignment. I hope to have a more developed sense of self at the end of my road trip; Applewhite and Nettles hoped to show the world that they were of a higher mind and power, that they were the new saviors.

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles 

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles 

For the next 20 years, Applewhite, who was also a huge fan of science fiction works by writers like Robert Heinlein, would develop a complicated, Christian-based, UFO-centered religion, with Nettles at his side until her death in 1985. Nettles and Applewhite had presented a pamphlet that spoke about Jesus’ reincarnation into a Texan, setting up Applewhite as that very Texan. Both believed that they were the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the two witnesses spoke about in the Book of Revelations, come back to prophesize. The religion centered around a philosophy that each person needed to reach the "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," which I attempted to reason as a concept similar to enlightenment, to heaven. Applewhite and his followers believed that the body was an impermanent shell that needed to be discarded.

This isn’t too different from most major religions: the soul resides within the body and will continue on after death. Applewhite and Nettles attempted to share their views and recruit followers, and it usually went well until this little addendum: once their earthly bodies were shed, the UFO Two, as they were sometimes called, believed that they would be resurrected and transported, in plain view of witnesses, to an alien spaceship. Needless to say, this is where they lost people. This is where they lost me too.

Just like every cult, things start to get darker and weirder the longer folks are willing to entertain the ideas coming down from the top. The slowly-growing group believed, like many other religions, that the earth had a limited run and would soon be “recycled,” which also meant a total loss of all human life. The only way to survive this apocalyptic event was to leave the “vehicle” of the body behind. To prepare for this, the group abstained from all pleasures. There was a three-month period where they stopped eating, doing a master cleanse in which they drank only a mixture of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. In the “Evolutionary Level Above Human,” beings would live in a state of constant bliss, genderless and without sex drive, hunger, death or fear. There would be nothing left to want. The beings would feed on pure sunlight.  

What the website claims a person looks like after reaching The Evolutionary Level Above Human

What the website claims a person looks like after reaching The Evolutionary Level Above Human

To them, God was an alien, the most highly-evolved being. Two-thousand years ago other evolved beings came to earth and one took over the mind of Jesus, the same alien that now resided in the mind of Applewhite. In addition, there were also a race of evil aliens, known as “Luciferians,” which attempted to convince the people of earth that they were the true gods. Their goal was to keep humans from evolving into the The Evolutionary Level Above Human, like the Luciferians themselves had chosen to do.

Membership was made up of typical truth-seeking Christian hippies, but also included at one time a republican running for office in Colorado. What bound them all together was a dislike of the institution of religion, and a desire to seek spirituality in a freer way. When they joined, it was determined that members were no longer human; they were extraterrestrials preparing to leave the planet. Their slate was wiped clean: all possessions sold, relationships severed. They were no longer the humans they were, they were aliens that needed to evolve and vacate the earth to avoid certain death. Everyone wore the same clothing, had their hair cut short, ate the exact same meals. Everything had to be the same.

Applewhite’s repression of his sexuality would influence his cult’s views of sexuality in extreme ways. A big part of the cult’s philosophy was that they needed to be purged of impurity, and that they needed to avoid all earthly attachments. This meant that sex was forbidden. Applewhite, seeking freedom from homosexual urges, was voluntarily castrated with eight other male members in Mexico. It was reported that they were smiling and excited for the procedure.

When Applewhite saw the images captured by amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek of what he called a “Saturn-like object” that was following behind the comet. Many conspiracy theorists and eccentric spiritualist believed the object to be a UFO, even though Alan Hale himself said that it was a star following the comet. Ignoring the scientific community, Applewhite ran with the UFO claim and made the bold announcement that the spaceship was indeed coming to pick them up. No time to waste, Applewhite (known as "Do" by this time) made a farewell video in which every member was introduced and the suffix –Ody was added to each person’s name to signify that they were “Children of the Next Level.” Over a period of three days, all but three of the members would be dead. Wayne Cook and Charlie Humphreys survived that night, but committed suicide a short time later to be reunited with the group. Rio DiAngelo was chosen by the group to live on so that he could continue to spread their divine wisdoms with the earth. In 2007, DiAngelo published an article in LA Weekly, defending his continued belief in Heaven’s Gate as the second coming of Christ. He maintains the Heaven’s Gate website to this day, in it’s original 90s web design, with Applewhite’s writings, which, though outrageous, are also pretty good. Applewhite was as brilliant as he was delusional. Most cult leaders are.

Photo of apparent UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet, taken by Chuck Shramek 

Photo of apparent UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet, taken by Chuck Shramek 

To Applewhite, heaven was not a place on earth. Heaven was not a place in the sky—or at least, not the sky that is within earth’s atmosphere. Heaven was a place where all the trouble we experience as humans, the desires, the needs, the pain of longing, are finally alleviated. No doubt that Applewhite’s fear of his own sexuality contributed to his idea of heaven: genderless, without sex, without even the desire for human connection. Just warm sunlight, all he will ever need.

You can still request materials from the Heaven’s Gate website.

Thanks to The Museum of Death in LA for inspiring this article. Check them out sometime! It’s not for the faint of heart.


Murdered on Lovers’ Lane

By C.W.S.

Warning: Some descriptions of physical and sexual violence

Is there anywhere more casually vulnerable in American popular culture than a parking spot on a dark road meant for making out? Lovers’ Lane, Make Out Point, urban legends have told us since the mid-1950s that these spots are where your boyfriend goes to check on a suspicious sound, and then you find him hanging from trees just above your car, his feet barely grazing the roof. Or a breaking story comes on the radio of an escaped madman with a hook for a hand, and you hear a scraping sound and leave just in time, only to find a bloody hook on the door handle once you arrive safely at home.

Murder legends aside, lovers’ lane is already a symbol of vulnerability, and in a wide range of ways. Teenagers are vulnerable to police officers and to angry parents, of course, out past curfew in their station wagon. But they are also engaging in more serious intimacies, often for the first time. What’s more vulnerable than that? Not to mention the feeling of the wilderness around the car, the dark woods, the ledge overlooking the city, the gravel of an abandoned lot, far away from other people, in the dark, with someone who undoubtedly makes you at least a little nervous. Then of course, there is American culture screaming at you both to do it and not do it, pushing you out to the fringes of the society. The mixture of pressure and condemnation, it’s a lot of a teenager.

This is, of course, one of the reasons urban legends tend to center lovers’ lanes as a nefarious location. Urban legends give narrative to our subconscious fears, and the fear of sexuality among teenagers is high on that list. But this isn’t just the stuff of stories. Lovers’ lanes have actually been host to a number of real murders, some as high profile as the Zodiac and Son of Sam. There are enough unsolved lover’s lane murders that Listverse was able to create a list of ten.

The earliest example of lovers’ lane as the target of a serial killers comes with the unsolved murders of the 3X Killer who struck in Queens, New York City in 1930. A man described as “shabbily dressed” and about 40 years old, attacked two different couples in secluded locations, killing the man and then ordering the woman out of the car, sexually assaulting her, and then letting her go near a bus stop with a letter for the press. These letters were of a manic delusional order that claimed that he had killed the first man because he possessed secret documents, and that the killer himself was an agent of an international secret order. He was never caught, and in 1937 another double murder was possibly connected to him, but this time the victims were both found dead and with red lipstick circled on their foreheads.

Then in 1946, a string of double-murders terrified a small town in Texas. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as they had come to be known by the media, caused a hysteria so intense that gun stories sold out of weapons and ammunition, and the streets were completely empty by nightfall. Eight people were killed over the course of less than three months, all couples that hard parked at local lover’s lanes, all assumed to be by the same masked man, who would come to be known as the Texarkana Phantom. The killer’s M.O. was so obvious, that more reckless teenagers turned vigilantes even sought to bait the murderer themselves by parking together and waiting with a weapon.

Scene from The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Scene from The Town that Dreaded Sundown

The first two victims were Jimmy Hollis, 25, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19. It was around midnight on February 22 that a man approached the couple as they were parked on the local lover’s lane. He shined a bright flashlight into the face of Jimmy and told him "I don't want to kill you fellow, so do what I say." He ordered them out of the car and then ordered Jimmy to take down his pants, which he did, and was then hit over the head with a hard object, cracking his skull. He attempted to steal money from Jimmy’s wallet and from Mary, and then hit her over the head as well. He then told her to run, and while she did she could hear him continue to beat Jimmy. Her high heels gave her so much trouble running that the man was able to catch back up and then brutally sexual assault her with the barrel of the gun. Both victims survived the attack and gave descriptions of a man, Jimmy said a white man and Mary said a light-skinned black man, who appeared to be under 30 years old. Mary saw something that Jimmy had been unable to see due to the binding flashlight: the man was wearing a white mask with eye and mouth holes cut from the fabric.

The next attack came almost a month later. Richard L. Griffin, 29, and his considerably younger date, Polly Ann Moore, 17, were parked on Rich Road, another lovers' lane in the area. A passing driver noticed the car and thought the couple had fallen asleep, but upon inspection saw that they had been shot and killed, with Richard’s pockets turned inside out. Both had been shot in the back of the head and were fully dressed.

The next double murder took place on a remote dirt road in Texarkana. Sixteen-year-old Paul Martin and fifteen-year-old Betty Jo Booker were killed on a remote road. And then a couple in their thirties were murdered in their home. The killer has never been identified.

These murders spawned the famous 1976 horror movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which claimed to retell events exactly as they happened, with only the names changed. In reality, the film did not follow events very closely, and led to more sensational recollection of these murders. The posters claimed that the killer still stalked the streets of Texarkana, and though neighboring cities protested to get the tagline removed, it remained, sparking a new wave of anxiety for the area.

Lake Herman Road

Lake Herman Road

It was at a lover’s lane in Benicia, CA in December of 1968 where the still-unknown Zodiac killer apparently murdered his first victims. High school classmates David Faraday and Betty Lou Jenson had stopped on Lake Herman Road, a popular spot for “parking” at the time. This was around 10:15 pm, and less than an hour later the couple would be discovered shot to death, lying on the ground beside the car.

In July of 1969, Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Michael Mageau, 19, were shot multiple times while parked in a secluded parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, CA. Darlene did not survive the attack, but Michael did, despite being shot in the head. Darlene was married and engaged in an affair with Michael, and so initially police believed Darlene’s husband to be the murderer. He provided an alibi though, and was not charged.

Though the Zodiac has never been caught, we do have some insight into this motive. He did write to several major media outlets in the Bay Area, including a letter detailing the murders of both couples and a cipher to be printed on the front page. The only decoded cipher the Zodiac sent authorities stated simply at its beginning:


David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam as he named himself in strange, occult letters to police, also attacked several of his victims on lovers’ lanes. His year-long murder spree began in July of 1976 with the shooting of two women who were parked in a parking lot. He would kill six people, injuring seven more in total, often approaching parked cars with couples inside.

The incredible 2014 horror film It Follows sets a kind of lovers’ lane as it’s initial scene of revelation. It is there that the female protagonist, Jay, and her date have sex in his car while parked in dirt lot beside an abandoned parking garage. It is after they have sex that the Jay contracts a sort of “curse” in which she is followed constantly by a malevolent force that takes the form of random people. “It” continues to follow her where ever she goes, a slow walk, but a steady one that never ceases. Critics have been quick to name the metaphor as an STD, as the loss of childhood, as time. Of course it could be any or all of these things. But whatever it is, it is something to fear. And so the legend of lovers’ lane continues in horror films today. But it isn’t right to call it a legend. It is a mixture of fact and folklore, of fears both of both growing up, and of dying before you get the chance to.


The Curse of The Exorcist


By C.W.S.

When the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist premiered in theaters, it was so upsetting to audiences that it caused bouts of fainting and vomiting. There were reports of theaters providing barf bags, and even ambulances standing by outside. But the audiences weren’t the only ones affected by the film; the cast and crew met with many unfortunate circumstances during and after the filming as mysterious events unfolded. Developed from the novel of the same name, The Exorcist was based on the real-life purported possession and exorcism of "Roland Doe," prompting many people to believe the film could be cursed. The film follows the story of 12-year-old Regan and her family as they deal with her increasingly disturbing behavior. Here are the most compelling stories of the film’s tragic—some say demonic—legacy.

During a screening of the film in Rome, a storm surged around the theater as the audience filed inside. Shortly after, a giant, 400-year-old cross on top of a nearby church was struck by lightning, causing it to fall into the plaza below.

Ellen Burstyn as Regan's mother

Ellen Burstyn as Regan's mother

During filming, the set of the MacNeil’s home caught fire and destroyed much of the building. Director William Friedkin suspected a pigeon flew into one of the circuit boxes and started the fire. No matter what the cause, Regan’s room was untouched by the destruction.

Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan’s mother, would only agree to do the film if her line “I believe in the devil” was taken out of the film. Unfortunately, that did not protect her from the alleged curse. During a scene where her possessed daughter threw her from the bed, her harness was pulled too harshly, and she sustained a permanent injury to her back. The scream that came from the pain was so horrifying that it was used in the final cut of the film.

Ellen Burstyn claimed that nine people were killed during the making of the film. Actor Jack MacGowran, who played Burke Dennings, died from a heart attack related to a case of the flu shortly after completing finishing his work on set. Vasiliki Maliaros, whose only role was in The Exorcist, also died during post-production from “natural causes” at age 89. Actor Jason Miller’s toddler son was struck by a motorbike and killed during filming. Other deaths included Linda Blair’s grandfather, a night watchman, a special effects expert, and a cameraman’s newborn baby.

Mercedes McCambridge, the voice actress who played the demon that spoke through Regan, experienced a real-life horror movie of her own. In 1987, her son killed his wife and children, before turning the gun on himself.

Paul Bateson as an extra in The Exorcist  

Paul Bateson as an extra in The Exorcist


An extra in the film, Paul Bateson, was a real life X-ray technician at NYU Medical Center where a scene was filmed, and played the same role as an extra. In 1979, Bateson was found guilty of the murder of a film critic Addison Verrill, whom he stabbed in the heart, and suspected of killing at least six other men and disposing of their bodies in plastic bags found washed up on the Hudson River. Bateson admitted to several killings. He killed one man by crushing his skull with a metal skillet.

Reports from the crew recall seeing objects move about on their own, most notably a telephone used to communicate on set that rose from the receiver and fell multiple times. Due to eerily events and feelings all around, Director William Friedkin asked religious advisor Reverend Thomas Bermingham to come on set and perform a real-life exorcism. Reverend Bermingham at first refused, saying that it would only make anxieties worse. The fire occurred the next day, prompting Bermingham to return to set and give a blessing.

Many religious leaders condemned the making of The Exorcist, citing the dangers associated with demonic content. Perhaps they were right, or perhaps a series of coincidences has created a legend. Either way, The Exorcist lives on as a horror classic—both on and off screen.

The Ridiculous Spectacle of Public Hangings in Old England

By C.W.S.

As people interested in true crime, we often get flack for our interest in such a gruesome topic. But imagine living in England in the 1600s, where criminals were hanged publicly in front of enormous crowds of tens of thousands in the largest social gatherings of the time. Parents would bring their children and a picnic out to the gallows to watch criminals die by hanging, and sweethearts would sit on the shoulders of their boyfriends, just like a rock concert. People would drink too much and end up fighting, rolling around in the mud.

In 17th and 18th century England, there were a whole lot of offenses that could get you hanged. In fact, there were about 200, including crimes that can still carry the death penalty today in some US states, such as murder, and others that we would find ridiculous today, like witchcraft and heresy. Treason, robbery, and counterfeiting money were some of the more serious offenses, but stealing food and picking pockets could also carry death penalty sentences. Toward the end of this century, though, poor folks were starting to notice that poverty had become a death sentence, angry that they could not afford food and then could be hanged for doing what was necessary to survive.

Nonetheless, the crowds would flock to these public executions, and the mood would usually be jovial. With people rushing to get a good spot close to the gallows, these public spectacles were known irreverently as the “hanging fair”, “stretching”, or “collar day.” The events held a carnival-like atmosphere.

Vendors would show up early and set up their food and wares, much like a modern outdoor festival. They would make very good money at the event, selling food, drinks, and souvenirs related to the hanging. They sometimes went as far as to sell pornographic papers as well.

Pamphlets would be distributed at a cost to the crowds which claimed to have printed inside them the dying speeches of those who were being hanged. Known then as the “Last Dying Speech,” the quotes were usually fake, but they sold well nonetheless. These publications, known as broadsides or broadsheets, often had the same woodcut print image of a hanging that was reused at each event, and also gave apparent information about the condemned individual, and sometimes even poems or songs said to have been written by the criminal and found in their cell. Or sometimes it was something else very personal, like a letter written from the condemned person to a family member. Much of what was written was sensationalized, and often entirely fictional.

One such broadside from 1724 read:

This John Sheppard, a youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin…received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter…But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess [a prostitute]…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

A typical broadside

A typical broadside

Stands were often set up to hold more people and make sure they could see the “stage.” These stands were much like the stands of a high school football field, or those that fold out in a school gym. Sometimes homes near the execution sites would rent out their balconies. Seats in the stands and the balconies were very expensive, and the prices were raised based on the infamy of the criminal and of the crime. Sometimes these stands would collapse from the weight causing injuries and deaths, but it never deterred the crowds.

Those who were to be hanged had their hands tied in front of them at the local jail (so that they would be able to pray), and then they were driven in horse drawn carts through town toward the gallows, sitting on the coffins they would soon be buried in. Crowds would line the street to watch the procession. The condemned were allowed a stop at the local church, as well local pubs where the criminals were given drinks before taking their place at the gallows.

Sometimes the crowds would jeer and yell at the hangman, and be empathetic toward those who were about to be hanged, especially for crimes considered too minor for a death sentence. If a criminal was well-known, folks could be seen throwing flowers onto the stage. Other times though, crowds would throw rocks and rotten vegetables. They favored toward those who took their deaths with dignity, and seemed to despise those who showed fear or weakness, those who begged for mercy.

Folks who were about to be hanged were allowed to give a final address to the crowd. This act was supposed to afford the dying a last plea for forgiveness, but often that is not what happened. Sometimes angry at the rampant, institutional abuse of the time, the condemned person would use the opportunity to publicly shame the hangmen, clergymen, and the reigning monarchy. This often whipped the crowds up into riots, with authorities losing control. Other times, the victim did ask for forgiveness, giving long religious monologues (sometimes trying to buy time and pardons). Sometimes the person about to hang had gotten drunk on the way to gallows and addressed the crowds in swaying nonsense.

When it was time for the hanging to take place, it wasn’t a quick process. Since it was a short fall, their necks would often not break, and they would have to strangle to death, which took several minutes. Sometimes the families of the dying would be asked to pull down on the legs of their loved one to help speed the process along.

After they were dead, the crowds would rush the stage to try to get a souvenir from the body. Hangmen were known to flog the body in order to cut off pieces of clothing to hand out. The rope could also be cut up and sold, the cost based on the crime and fame of the hanged. These souvenirs would sometimes be found hanging above the fireplaces of those who were able to grab them.

So, sound like a good time?

Well, I'm very glad we no longer pack picnics to go watch people strangle to death for our own amusement. Nonetheless, there certainly is no harm in striving to be more moralistic when looking toward true crime as a form of entertainment. It’s important. Obviously.

A Brief History of (True) Crime

By C.W.S.

It seems like the true crime genre has shot up out of nowhere, with so many people finally admitting their interest and diving headlong into the obsession with these murders, kidnappings, and unsolved disappearances. To those who don’t understand, true crime is an offensive, low-brow genre for depraved people. After all, why would anyone want to study something so awful? Why would anyone let themselves be interested in something like serial killers? But some of the kindest, gentlest, and smartest folks I know are secretly intrigued, even obsessed with these crimes and their investigation. Mothers and daughters watching Investigation Discovery together, grandmothers even. In my family the interest was passed down. We have three generations going strong, and we all love true crime.

Just like in my own family, this genre has roots. History says that we have been fascinated by murder for a long, long time.  

Rewind to 1550s England. The literacy rate was improving, and so common people were starting to view reading as a form of entertainment. Between 1550 and 1700, British authors began reporting on death-penalty crimes in the form of small, unbound books. These little books told of the most horrible crimes of the time and of their trials. Sometimes they did so in the form of poems or lyrics. 

Pamela Burger, in an essay called The Bloody History of the True Crime Genre, had this to say about these leaflets in the 17th century: “Like the contemporary docudrama, the crime pamphlet was not a uniform genre: The tone of these narratives could range from sensationalist to spiritual to didactic, often within a single pamphlet. Some served as state propaganda. Others were moralizing tales, portraying the criminal as a deviant who ultimately faces divine justice. Still, others offered more sympathetic explorations of criminal lives—particularly those of “fallen women”—though the sympathy was often tempered by moral condemnation.”

From the 17th century on, broadsides became very popular. They were of a similar style to crime pamphlets, but were usually only a single page. They often included woodcut prints that served as artist renderings of the more gruesome parts of the story, as well as descriptions of the crime. They were sold in the streets, and people shared them in pubs and talked about the crimes of their day, sharing their opinions and gossip.

Anyone with the means could create broadsides, and so they were prevalent among the lower classes and represent a very early form of citizen journalism. They were often written anonymously, and in some ways resemble the sensationalism of modern tabloids.

Natalie Zarrelli, writing for Atlas Obscura, described one such broadside:

“A 1624 pamphlet titled The Crying Murder reports of a group of four men and women who disemboweled, murdered, and decapitated a man named ‘Mr. Trat.’ The defendants maintained their innocence, and Mr. Trat was reportedly seen alive. While it’s impossible to know whether the four were innocent or not, the murder inspired creative images for the broadside: the artist illustrated strewn body parts to accompany the sensationalist text.”

Other creative forms also touched the true crime genre. Songwriters created murder ballads, and these were also printed on broadsides and in crime pamphlets. Sometimes taking the perspective of the criminal, these particular songs asked the audience to sympathize with the murderer, and could be considered an early exploration into forensic psychology—trying to understand why people commit brutal crimes. Very similar to what the true crime genre attempts to do today with more sophisticated means.

These broadsides and ballads sometimes held opinions that differed from court verdicts. Like true crime documentaries of today, it offered an artist's response (and the response of the people) to an event rather than just the response of the authorities. Anyone could put their opinions out there, and these broadsides and pamphlets have been compared to the Facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts of the today.

One such ballad was called Frankie and Johnny, and was written about a murder that took place in 1899, in which a woman found her husband having an affair and shot him to death:

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh lordy, how they could love
Swore to be true to each other
Just as true as the stars above
He was her man, but he done her wrong

And then later in the song..

Then Frankie pulled back her kimono
And she pulled out a small .44
And root-e-toot-toot three times she shot
Right through that hardwood door
He was her man, but he done her wrong

Because of the invention of the printing press, crime publications started to circulate more widely. Around this time, authors of high standing also started to contribute to the genre, often critiquing the justice system and means of punishment. Even Charles Dickens wrote an article called A Visit to Newgate. It was written in 1836 and detailed his revulsion at the conditions and experiences of the inmates at the Newgate prison.

First edition of Studies in Murder

First edition of Studies in Murder

In 1829, the same year that London achieved its first organized police department, a French man named Francois Vidocq, a reformed criminal turned criminal investigator, published a book called Memoirs. This text influenced techniques of criminal investigations and popularized this new way of thinking about crime. As people became more comfortable with these scientific advances, ideas of justice changed from divinely ordained to something that used scientific evidence to decide who was guilty and who was innocent.  

In 1924, author Edmund Pearson published a book series with titles such as Studies in Murder and More Studies in Murder. The first book in the series detailed five high-profile American crimes, and did so with more literary flare, making them read like detective novels rather than news stories. One of the stories included was that of Lizzie Borden, considered the “Trial of the Century,” before the OJ Simpson trial took the title. Lizzie Borden allegedly murdered her parents with an ax, but was found innocent during trial, much to the horror of the masses. Her crimes would go on to become a children's schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

...demonstrating that it's not just adults that have a historical fascination with these sinister figures. 

Though they do not represent the true crime genre necessarily, public hangings were an incredible popular event stretching into the mid 1900s. The last public hangings occurred in England until 1955. The crowds of people who came to watch the executions could number 30,000 at places like Newgate, London. Lancaster Castle (a sight of hangings for over 1,000 years) museum manager Colin Penny stated that the hangings later in the era were “very solemn occasions. Newspapers reported men removing their hats when the person to be hanged was led out to the gallows, and visible shudders passing through the crowd when the trapdoor opened." He also noted that not long before, maybe 80 years prior, these events looked quite different, saying they were “almost like a fair. There would be hawkers of various kinds, people selling pies, jugglers."

And it wasn’t just England either. Not so long ago, people were still hanged publicly in United States. The last public hanging was Rainey Bethea in Kentucky in 1936, and it was estimated that 20,000 people came to watch.

Luckily, I believe that most people’s fascination with true crime has evolved beyond a desire to “see people hang.” We see a huge variety of true crime projects in modern times: 30-minute TV shows that tend toward the sensational and the gruesome, documentaries ranging from bad, exaggerated reenactments to careful and serious pursuits in the name of justice. We have investigative podcasts, books, etc, all very different but all united in an attempt (however crude or serious) at understanding why and how these types of crimes occur.

To understand why this genre has always been so popular is an entirely different exploration. If history tells us anything it’s that people have always been fascinated by the darkest parts of the human conditions, and who can blame us? True crime can be an important genre, if it is handled correctly. After all, the only way to stop something from happening is to attempt to understand it.  


The Hatred of Casey Anthony

By C.W.S.

Last night I was watching the season finale of Black Mirror (a little late, I know), titled “Hated in the Nation.” Sorry for the spoilers, but it's important to the point. In this episode, which takes place in a theoretic future, an anonymous online presence has invented the hashtag #DeathTo, and encourages people to tweet about the person they’d most like to see dead. The same man also gained access to millions of ADIs (automatic drone insects), or mechanical honeybees that were created to take over the process of pollination since the serious decline of the natural honeybee (colony collapse disorder, a very real problem). He was able to control them and program them to burrow into the brain of a specific person and kill them. First a famous writer was killed after writing a controversial article. Then a famous hip hop artist who made fun of one of his fans. And then a girl who took a disrespectful selfie in front of a war monument.

But the endgame wasn’t what you might expect. The anonymous killer had a lesson in mind. His real target had not been the people who were tagged with #DeathTo, but the people using the hashtag. He commanded the bees to kill them all.

Caylee Anthony

Caylee Anthony

With Casey Anthony back in the news this week, speaking publicly for the first time since her trial, I have seen an onslaught of hatred being posted toward her online of the most vicious quality. This is certainly understandable, and I am writing this in no way to protect Anthony, or to say she doesn’t deserve it. That’s not for me to decide. A jury found her innocent and public found her guilty, and her brazen attitude toward the death of her child launched her into her position as “The most hated woman in America.” Had that Black Mirror episode been real, you’d better believe that last Tuesday the hashtag would have read #DeathTo Casey Anthony. I have already seen hundreds of online comments calling for her death.

Anthony was charged with the murder of her daughter, Caylee Anthony, who was reported missing by Casey’s mother Cindy Anthony, on July 15, 2008. Caylee’s grandmother told police she had not seen her for 31 days. Cindy and her husband George said they had attempted to see Caylee many times throughout the month, but that their daughter kept giving excuses, including that Caylee was with a nanny named Zenaida "Zanny" Fernandez-Gonzalez. When George and Cindy found a letter affixed to their front door saying that Casey Anthony’s car was in a tow yard, they went to pick it up and noticed that it smelled like a dead body had been inside it, causing them to report Caylee missing to authorities.

Casey Anthony admitted that she had not seen Caylee for weeks. First, she told investigators that Caylee had been kidnapped by Zanny Fernandez-Gonzalez, but Zanny did not in fact know or have any contact with Casey Anthony or the family. Then she lied about working at Universal Studios, going as far as leading police in circles around an office building, until finally admitting that she had been fired several years before.

Caylee’s remains were found wrapped in a garbage bag in December of 2008, in the forest near Casey Anthony’s home. Anthony was indicted by a grand jury in October. The trial began in May 2011, with the prosecution alleging that Anthony used chloroform and duct tape to suffocate Caylee because she was seeking the freedom to continue a party lifestyle without the burden of a child. The defense argued that George Anthony had found Caylee drowned in his pool and then covered it up. Then they claimed that the reason that Casey had not reported her daughter missing was that George told her she would go to prison for child neglect. Then they claimed that Casey Anthony had been sexually abused by George since she was a child, so she was used to hiding her pain and acting like nothing was wrong.

In the biggest public trial since OJ Simpson’s, America looked on daily while the circus-like trial blared on. Ultimately, Casey Anthony would only be found guilty of lying to police. But the innocent verdict did not change the minds of the American public, who believed the evidence was clear. The public said if nothing else, how does a mother not know where her child is for over a month?

Cindy and George Anthony

Cindy and George Anthony

The media painted Anthony as a party girl that murdered her child in order to free herself of the responsibility of parenthood. They also painted her as a liar, which she certainly was.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman had this to say about the public’s intense reaction: “The main reason that people are reacting so strongly is that the media convicted Casey before the jury decided on the verdict. The public has been whipped up into this frenzy wanting revenge for this poor little adorable child. And because of the desire for revenge, they've been whipped up into a lynch mob. Nobody likes a liar, and Anthony was a habitual liar. And nobody liked the fact that she was partying after Caylee's death.”

I think it’s safe to say that America, in general, hates Casey Anthony. And America hates her with a venom that goes beyond almost everyone else in the public eye. Psychologists believe that one reason that humans feel hatred has to do with the fear of “the other,” of people that are different from us, and thereby unrecognizable, and a threat.

America believes that Casey Anthony did what America hates the most. She harmed a child. She was a mother, and we hold mothers up as tender, loving, caring, dedicated to the well-being of their child above all else. And I believe that most mothers, and hopefully most fathers, do feel this way toward children. So when we see people that want to harm the most innocence, the most vulnerable, we respond with hatred. We simply cannot understand that type of person. We fear them. We fear that fact that they could even exist. And so we say that we will not let this stand, this behavior that is so foreign to us, and if all we can do about it is attack Casey Anthony’s reputation online, we will.

Writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel said in 1986, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

We often hear about the damages of hatred on our society, but indifference is dangerous too. Hatred may have been the catalyst, but it was mass indifference that allowed the Nazis to rise to power. Indifference would allow mothers to kill their children without consequence. So the hatred toward Casey Anthony is a sign that we will not accept the fearful behavior of those who kill their children. But we also have to understand that our celebrities, and yes, this includes celebrity criminals, become symbols to aim our general hatred at, since we feel powerless to stop the things we find unbearable. Casey Anthony is no longer just Casey Anthony. She is the face of the negligent death of an innocent child.

Casey and Caylee Anthony

Casey and Caylee Anthony

Something to remember: hatred has an affect on our own bodies. Just like the episode of Black Mirror, the experience of hatred turns the tables on the person feeling the hatred. Bouts of severe anger caused by hatred can contribute to heart disease in a serious way. Even the stress of a five-minute fit of rage can harm your immune system, taking it up to six hours to repair the damage. It can also contribute to heart attacks and strokes. This is something to keep in mind; hatred harms the hater, which means that the encouragement to hate harms the public at large.

I am a passionate person, and I’m known to get scrappy, especially when I see injustices. I can hate with the best of them. A great injustice was done to Caylee Anthony. I want us only to be mindful of our hatred, so that that hatred doesn’t come back around and start to harm us. So that our hatred is aimed at those that pose a true threat to us, rather than the imagined threat of something like the Jewish people (and all others that didn’t fit Hitler’s ideal human) in the 1940s. Hatred can be positively mobilizing, think of the hatred of the Nazis that led to American intervention in WWII. It can be mobilizing for good, when we rally against injustices together, or it can be bad, as Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel had to experience firsthand.

So how will our hatred mobilize us this time? Throwing hate and death threats into the void of the internet can only do so much, and may in fact cause more harm to the person typing than to Casey Anthony herself. She made it clear on Tuesday that she doesn't care what we say: “I don't give a s--- about what anyone thinks about me, I never will. I'm OK with myself, I sleep pretty good at night.”

Acts of love toward our children provide much more hope for them than the hatred of Casey Anthony. If we can pair our hatred with positive change and we might just have something here, and we might be able to preserve our own health and well-being enough to contribute to the changes we wish to see.

The Curse of The American Bogeyman


By C.W.S.

Warning: This content contains descriptions of sexual abuse and violence toward children

With the long-awaited discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains in rural Minnesota, I can’t help but think of the other kids who disappeared or made headlines in the 1970s and 80s. Vanished or allegedly abused while doing what kids do—delivering the paper, riding a bike, playing video games at the mall, walking home from a bus stop, spending the day at a preschool. Headlines about these children changed the United States in a myriad of ways, both legally and in a very real sense, emotionally. These were the kids on the milk carton, the kids on the news, the faces that represented the growing fear of the randomness of this new and particular cruelty, a fear that would grow out of control, not necessary because the threat was statistically probable, but because fear has a way of multiplying inside of us, of taking us over completely.

Jacob Wetterling

Jacob Wetterling

You wake up in the morning, you’re a child or you’re a parent, and you sit at the breakfast table, reading the cereal box, reading the milk carton. And you see a face; it’s one of the first things you see. Our mornings set the course of our days, and of course, that’s why missing children were put onto milk cartons. We see them in the morning, we think of them all day. And the next morning, their faces are there again. Before these boys, most of this country was not aware of child predators, many didn’t even know the word “pedophile.” But the fear of these child predators would grow and grow, eventually breaking into a nation-wide hysteria. Jacob’s disappearance fell neatly into this timeline.

I’ll be honest. I was one-year-old when Jacob disappeared. I was not around for the days when there wasn’t a grave fear of strangers, of sexual predators, of kidnappers. I grew up in the 90s, when this fear was certainly there, when “stranger danger” was a term you heard on TV commercials and after-school specials at an almost constant rate. But it was a fear not yet completely cemented. I still did things that most kids now would never be allowed to do—I rode my bike to the store, took the bus to the city, walked the streets at night. I cherish these memories: the sense of an expansive childhood freedom that seems to be disappearing completely from the experiences of our youth. Would I condone all the things I got away with? Not totally. The world is scary, of course it is, and we must protect our children at all costs. But don't we want to protect them in more ways than just physically? Mustn't we also care for their emotional health, so that they can grow up to be well-adjusted, so they can relate to the world realistically, rather than with unnecessary anxiety?

Though we kids were freer back in the 90s, there was still a very palpable nervousness surrounding me and all my friends. We had all the stranger danger talks. We all had a secret password with our parents, so that if a strange person tried to pick us up from school, we would know if it was okay to go with them or not. That stranger never came for me.

But that stranger did come for others. That stranger with a plan, a stranger like Danny Heinrich, the man who just confessed last September to sexually assaulting and murdering 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling on October 22, 1989. He watched Jacob, his younger brother Trevor, and his best friend Aaron bike by in the dark on their way to rent a movie from a local store. Heinrich waited for the boys to come back on the same road, and then approached them with an unloaded revolver, telling them to lie face-down in the ditch. He asked the boys their ages. He told Trevor and Aaron to run into the woods and not look back. It was the last time anyone ever saw Jacob Wetterling alive.

Etan Patz

Etan Patz

Etan Patz was one of the very first missing children to be printed on a milk carton. He disappeared on May 25, 1979, on his way to catch the school bus in Manhattan. On the fourth anniversary of his disappearance, Ronald Reagan made May 25 “National Missing Children’s Day.” It wasn’t until 2012 that police were able to charge Pedro Hernandez with murdering Etan after he confessed.

Adam Walsh

Adam Walsh

And then Adam Walsh’s murder in 1981. Adam was the son of John Walsh, who would go on to become the host of America’s Most Wanted, my very favorite show that I watched every Friday as a kid. I knew that John Walsh’s son had been murdered, taken from a Sears in Florida. I knew even about the acute brutality of the murder, only his severed head found. Every Friday John Walsh would point at me through the screen. Every week he would talk about “the bad guys,” and every week I wondered when it would be my turn to meet a man like that.  

The next boy to gain serious national attention was Johnny Gosch. Johnny left his Iowa home just before the sun rose on September 5th, 1982. He picked up the bundle of papers he was to deliver that day, and was never seen again. Many suspect that he was trafficked into a child sex ring, abducted by another trafficked boy, Paul Bonacci, who admitted many years later to helping in the abduction. Johnny is still missing to this day.

Johnny Gosch

Johnny Gosch

Soon after came the national hysteria known as the “Satanic Panic” that piggybacked on the new, widespread fear of child sexual abuse. Perhaps because the thought of abusing a child in such a way is so horrific as to be completely unimaginable to most people in the United States, it needed a clear label to define its seemingly unexplainable evil. Then came reports of Satantic ritual abuse out of one bogus memoir: Michelle Remembers.

Written with her psychiatrist, whom she would later go on to marry, Michelle Remembers was published in 1980 and alleged that Michelle Smith had suffered severe physical and sexual abuse as part of several Satanic rituals carried out by her parents and their Satanic cult. The book coined the term Satanic Ritual Abuse, and also attempted to develop the concept of repressed memory, and come 1983, a full-blown hysteria swept the US, illustrated best by McMartin preschool trial.

It was a woman by the name of Judy Johnson who initially believed her son was being abused at the Manhattan Beach, CA daycare center. Because her son was having painful bowel movements, Johnson reported to police that a teacher at the school had sodomized her son. Then, police did a strange thing. They canvased the school and told parents to ask their children if they had been abused at the daycare. What followed was an onslaught of wild accusations from parents due to the things their children had said. These events included seeing witches fly, traveling in a hot air balloon, having orgies at car washes and in airports, and even children being flushed down the toilet to secret rooms where they were abused. All of this was said to have happened in the time the children were under care at the daycare center. And it went to trial with testimony such as this.


By 1984, Children’s Institute International had interviewed hundreds of children, and claimed to have statements of ritual abuse from 360 children. The whole trial lasted from March 1984 until 1990. All of the accused were acquitted, and it was discovered that Judy Johnson suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia, information that was not given to the jury. She died in 1986 in the middle of the trial due to severe alcoholism.

Psychologists believe that both Michelle Remembers and the accusations made during the McMartin Preschool trial were due to a psychological phenomenon called false memory syndrome, or the idea that memories can be altered and even inserted through outside suggestion and influence. Parents and other trusted adults can create horrifying false memories for children. This is the power of our projected fears.

Bogeyman: a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into good behavior. 

With 1989 Jacob’s disappearance, Jacob’s mother Patty dedicated herself to creating a better world for children. There came an onslaught of new legislation aimed at stopping child sexual abuse. Passed in 1993 and called the “Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act,” these laws are something we have all become very familiar with, but we know it as the Sex Offender Registry.

But here’s the thing. Only about 115 children are taken by strangers in the United States each year. That’s a 0.000002% chance that a child will be abducted by a stranger. Almost all cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members or someone the child knows very well. But, as Patty openly speaks about, sex offender registries have not led to a decrease in sex crimes, and teenagers are appearing on the registry for things like sexting another teenager. For things like public urination. 

Almost all sex crimes against children occur not from strangers, but from family members and people close to them, and yet, do we teach our children to fear their own family, to fear those closest to them? Statistically, these are the bogeymen, and yet we continue to prefer a belief in a random stranger, because, in a sense, it is less painful to believe. 

I remember the fear around poisoned Halloween candy, a fear that was reported on the local news year after year, with examples of properly sealed candy, and examples of candy that could have been tampered with by a local villain, so impossibly evil as to poison kids at random for his own entertainment. This has never happened and yet every year, to this day, this viral urban legend persists. And because of this type of fear, Trick or Treating, one of the best experiences of my childhood, seems to be disappearing completely. 

Danny Heinrich

Danny Heinrich

When I was in elementary school, two girls the grade above me made the local news when they reported a strange man had chased them at the middle school park. The two girls gave descriptions of this man, old and haggard, with a scar down this face. There were police sketches shown on the news, and I was no longer allowed to walk anywhere alone. An almost-instantaneous curfew materialized, not due to police demand, but due to parental reaction.

Is there anything wrong with that reaction? Of course not. But, if you haven’t already guessed, those two girls made up the whole thing so that they wouldn’t get in trouble for coming home late. It was my town’s own miniature hysteria in the mid-90s, and everyone bought it hook, line, and sinker. This is not a bad thing. We should always take accusations from anyone seriously, especially from the children we are supposed to protect. Because “the bad guys” do exist, and too often police and families ignore allegations of abuse. The problem is that “the bad guys” are almost never the people we expect, not devil worshippers that have taken over a preschool to use our children in evil rituals, not maniacs killing kids with poison candy, not these random monsters stalking for child prey,

But Danny Heinrich is real. He is a real man who harmed real children at random. So is the man who took Etan, the man who took Adam. Most likely, the man who took Johnny. This reality, though a harrowing one for a nation to hold, has been overblown into something not only illogical, but potentially harmful. Illustrated perfectly by the McMartin Preschool Trial, our children are incredibly suggestible, absorbing everything around them, most especially, adult fear. 

And what are the long-term consequences of something like the McMartin preschool trial on the psychology of our youth? Can our fears lead us to do the exact thing we hope to stop: the harming of children, not a physical or sexual harm, but an emotional, spiritual harm?

When we let our children be defined by our adult fears, what freedoms do they lose, what chance at believing in a better world? What unnecessary anxiety will they carry? Maybe the bogeyman is just fear itself, fear grown so out of proportion that it manifests itself anyway—in false memories, in bad dreams, in the restrictions we place on our children and on ourselves. Maybe the bogeyman got us in the end anyway, because maybe he was in us all along: our own fear made manifest in the world around us.

Patty Wetterling

Patty Wetterling

Even Patty Wetterling, who experienced the very tragedy that American families dread the most, had this to say: “It’s all the fear. I think fear is really hard for me in this topic because you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to be kidnapped, you know? But the fear of sexual abuse, especially with parents, is huge. And they think that making their kids scared is going to keep them safer which is absolutely not true. It’s probably the opposite.”

For further information about the Jacob Wetterling case, as well as more information around many of topics written about here, may I recommend the incredible podcast that inspired this piece: In the Dark by APM Reports.