The fraudulent author of 1970s misery memoirs and the birth of the Satanic Panic.
At the start of the 21st century, 68% of Americans believed in the Devil – a real, physical Satanic antichrist. Another 12% thought that it was ‘possible’. Think about that for a moment. That’s 80% of the population of the most powerful country in the world who are open to the idea of demonic possession, a concept that you might reasonably think belongs in the dark ages. When you know this, a lot of what might otherwise seem to be absolute madness makes sense, and foremost amongst that madness is the Satanic Panic. If you live in a secular society, then the Satanic Panic – be it the hysteria of the 1980s or the current round of lunacy propelling Pizzagate and so on – seems almost incomprehensible. But when you realise that eight out of every ten people actually believe in a literal Satan, possession and supernatural powers, then, of course, they will have an unquestioning belief and acceptance of the more outré claims of actual demons appearing, ouija boards summoning the dead and vast conspiracies of lizard people draining the life fluid from children. The idea that these ideas are beyond belief is lost on people who believe that Satan is real. For them, such claims are entirely within the boundaries of possibility.
Every movement needs a start. Rick Emerson’s fascinating book Unmask Alice digs deep into one of the pioneering texts of the Satanic Panic, Jay’s Journal, an entirely fictional work from 1978 that was passed off as an authentic teenage diary by a fifty-something Mormon housewife with a bloated ego and fake credentials. The story begins seven years earlier, though, with another moral panic, another – even more sensational – book and the death of the daughter of Art Linkletter, one of the most beloved figures in 1960s Middle American culture.
Diane Linkletter plunged to her death from her sixth-floor apartment in Hollywood in October 1969, an apparent suicide. her father, however, was quick to label the death ‘murder’ – Diane had been using LSD and for Art, this had to be the reason for his daughter’s death. Parents always scramble for a reason when a child takes their own life, desperate to believe that some outside agent has taken control of their mind. We’ll see this again in the Satanic Panic years, when dabbling in the occult was often blamed for teen suicide, with all other factors swept aside.
Art Linkletter became a fervent campaigner against drug use in general and LSD in particular. The tide had rapidly turned against the psychedelic drug, which went from an interesting psychotherapy treatment and aid for the terminally ill to demonised mind-bender after the patent expired and it was made illegal. 1969 was a bad time to be defending acid. Just a few days after Diane’s death, the Tate-La Bianca killings rocked Hollywood and when the culprit turned out to be a scruffy prophet and his family of good girls turned killers – apparently due to Charlie Manson warping their minds with the drug – public opinion was hardened. LSD was a bad trip and nothing good could come from it.
Well, not for most people. But cometh the hour, cometh the opportunist. Beatrice Sparks was a Mormon who had a comfortable life and big ambitions to be a writer. Things just hadn’t worked out for her though – she’d had a few gigs in comic books, magazines and even TV, writing for one of Linkletter’s shows, but not the major break she needed. But Diane’s death, a tragedy for most people, was an opportunity for her. She contacted Linkletter’s people with a book proposal – a diary of a teenage girl who had gone down the rabbit hole of drug abuse, addiction, sexual abuse and degradation. And here was the punch – it was all true! Sparks said that she had obtained the diary of a genuine teenager who had come to a sticky end after a whirlwind journey from LSD to marijuana and heroin and then – get ready for the spoiler – after trips to the psycho ward manages to finally clean up, only for the epilogue to tell us that she had died a few weeks after her final diary entry, aged 17. A bad trip indeed.
Go Ask Alice is full of dramatic – some might say too dramatic – stuff, never more so than in her final trip, which is quite something:
Gramps . . . tried to pick me up, but only the skeleton remained of his hands and arms. The rest had been picked clean by wriggling, writhing, slithering, busily eating worms which seethed on his every part. They were eating and they wouldn’t stop.
His two eye sockets were teeming with white soft-bodied, creep- ing animals which were burrowing in and out of his flesh and which were phosphorescent and swirled into one another.
The worms and parasites started creeping and crawling and run- ning toward the baby’s room and I tried to stomp on them and beat them to death with my hands but they multiplied faster than I could kill them. And they began crawling on my own hands and arms and face and body.
They were in my nose and my mouth and my throat, choking me, strangling me.
If huge chunks of the book made so sense, then no one was noticing, because this was not only a furious read, full of incident and outrage but it also hammered home the message that everyone wanted in 1971. Parents were encouraged to buy it for their teens, teens for their parents. This was hot topic stuff and it sold in its millions. For the author, this was bittersweet. Despite her own claims to the contrary, Beatrice Sparks had written every word of this fictional novel but her name didn’t appear anywhere on it, not even as editor. Instead, the author was ‘anonymous’ – not even Alice – all the better to make it seem like a real, raw teenage confession. For an author more interested in attention than money (she and her husband were already wealthy), this was frustrating, but she bit her tongue – at least for a while. Slowly, though, she outed herself as the ‘editor’ of the book – the woman who this troubled anonymous girl and her equally anonymous parents trusted enough to take the intimate diary and bring it to publication. It was this self-outing that would lead to her other massive seller.
Alden Barrett was a 16-year-old with a ‘troubled’ history – he’d dabbled in drugs and alcohol, questioned the truth of religion, the value of the Vietnam War (which he expected to be drafted into within a couple of years) and the worth of blind patriotism. He grew out his hair to collar length and listened to rock music. And he did all this in a small Mormon community where such things were a lot more outrageous than they might have been elsewhere. His life, according to Emerson’s research, seems to have been a mix of half-hearted rebellion and desperate attempts to straighten up and fly right. His parents can best be described as ‘unhelpful’ – meaning well within the confines of a restrictive religion, their attempts to bring him into line would look suspiciously like abuse to people now. Alden got himself a girlfriend, went through a symbolic marriage with her and then was banned from seeing her by her equally stiff parents. On the day of her 18th birthday, they quarrelled and the sensitive boy finally broke. He shot himself in the head with his father’s gun.
Alden too had kept a diary and in a moment of understanding, his mother realised that it was often a cry for help. If it could be shared, maybe it would help other troubled teens and their parents. But how? Then she read about the woman behind Go Ask Alice. She contacted Beatrice Sparks and told her the story of her son.
Alden’s mother took Go Ask Alice on face value – and Sparks did nothing to correct her belief that this was a real diary, edited by a qualified psychologist, one that was helping young people – and that ‘Dr’ Sparks could do the same with Alden’s writing. Sparks, we should point out, had no medical qualifications whatsoever. In fact, she didn’t have a PhD in anything, despite her claims to the contrary. There was no clinical practice, no line of troubled teens that she’d helped. But she talked a good talk and no one had ever thought to question her. This was the first moment of exploitation – pretending to a grieving mother that your work of fiction was the real thing. It would get worse.
Sparks took Alden’s diaries – which his mother wanted no money for – and promised to let her know when the book was ready for publication, giving her advance notice to correct any mistakes. That was the last that the Barrett family would hear from her for several years. The next his mother knew of the project was in 1979, when someone pointed her towards a new book: Jay’s Journal.
Subtitled “The Haunting Diary of a 16-Year-Old in the World of Witchcraft – and this time with Sparks’ name very prominent on the cover – the book follows ‘Jay’ from pep pills and marijuana to ouija boards to witchcraft and black magic (the two things, of course, seen as interchangeable), blood-drinking teen orgies and animal mutilation before winding up with demonic possession and suicide. A handful of the diary entries are Alden’s, unedited. Most are not. There were 190 new, fictional entries to Alden’s diary, written by Sparks and turning the desperate frustrations of a teenage boy trying to balance the religious restrictions of his society and his own anti-war, anti-religion ideas into a tale of monstrous Satanic excess. It was a slap in the face for Alden’s mother and his memory, a slice of lurid occult porn written with the sort of lip-smacking prurience that only a God-fearing Christian could possibly muster. For instance, Alden’s touchingly wholesome diary entry about first meeting his girlfriend Teresa (renamed ‘Tina’ in the book) is full of hope and joy and the desire for things to finally get better, but is rapidly followed by Sparks’ invented fantasy:
“I hit her and kicked her and mauled her, sex was not enough, I wanted to hurt her! After what seemed hours the drug wore off. The people came back into place in the circle. Panting and groaning, I was led back to mine. Tina crawled over and gathering blood from her cuts on her fingers she placed it in my mouth. ‘Master, Master, Master,’ she whispered over and over. I was too groggy to do anything more than swallow.”
Startling stuff from a couple who, in real life, never did anything but kiss.
‘Jay’ and his Devil-worshipping cabal are into killing kittens and mutilating cattle (and you thought it was extraterrestrials doing that!) and blood-drinking. Eventually, he is driven to suicide and his friends die in mysterious, probably witchcraft-related ‘accidents’. Ooh-er. It’s like a prototype of every heavy metal Satanic scare story that emerged in the 1980s. More outrageously, it’s a version of Alden’s life fed through the masturbatory occult fantasies of a religious fanatic. Worse still, it left enough clues to Jay’s real identity for the 5000 people who lived in Alden’s home town to quickly work out exactly who the book was about and to allow his truth and her fiction to quickly blur. What was meant as a well-meaning warning to kids and parents became a lip-smacking slice of occult porn that rapidly overtook the more prosaic reality.
The reviews, once again, were gushing and all seemed to express a desperation to believe at all costs. Once again, Sparks had somehow stumbled into the zeitgeist and her concocted story was too juicy for most critics to question. Even as word of who the book was supposedly based on leaked out, no one bothered to actually investigate what had really happened. Things were shifting – falling apart, as Jon Ronson said in his podcast series that feels like a companion piece for this book – and the Satanic Panic was starting. Jay’s Journal is rarely mentioned these days as a leading text of the mass hysteria – it’s not up there with Michelle Remembers or The Satan Seller – but it was just as important.
The book was the trigger for a mass panic over Dungeons and Dragons in Utah, with good religious families sending hate mail and relentlessly organising against the game being available at an after-school club. As we’ve said about anti-porn campaigners, these people – the modern witchfinders – are relentless, their unwavering self-belief and their absolute moral certainty powering them for as long as it takes to get their way. In the era of Satanic Panic, superstition overwhelmed reason because the superstitious (mostly) believed unquestioningly and felt themselves to be on a holy crusade to save the soul of the nation. How do you fight that? By saying that the music, the games and the ideas that are being attacked are harmless? That by further isolating the sort of kids that are attracted to these forms of entertainment – the outcasts, the nerds – you do more harm than any RPG could ever do? That alienating kids is what causes them to commit suicide? That Satan isn’t real anyway? Well, good luck with that.
By the early 1980s, Jay’s Journal was being regularly quoted as proof of the dangers of occultism, coming straight from the horse’s mouth – and those dangers included D&D and other activities that are not even mentioned in the book but were nevertheless now ‘officially’ proven as a Satanic gateway drug. It was all so simple: D&D led to occultism and occultism led to teen suicide. Because how else do you explain the rise in young men taking their own lives at the start of the 1980s? Well, I guess you could look into issues of mental health, family collapse or even – God forbid – the rise of religious fanaticism guilt-tripping kids who were already outsiders in the first place. For parents, desperate for answers, the occult was easy to blame and divested them of any responsibility – the Devil made him do it and how could we possibly fight against that? Parents shoulder a lot of internalised blame for teenage suicide and much of that is unfair – but for those parents whose behaviour perhaps did play a part in their son’s decision to end it all, Satan was a very handy way for avoiding looking inward and questioning their own actions and attitudes. Patricia Pulling, whose son Irving killed himself at the age of sixteen, could perhaps have written a helpful guide for other teens who were intelligent kids that felt alienated and misunderstood, but instead contributed to Satanic Panic literature with her book The Devil’s Web (just one of many), where – without anything resembling evidence – she blamed it all on the occult. As a bonus, there was money to be made from becoming an ‘expert’ on Satanism, an expertise that required even fewer qualifications than Sparks had. Books, TV appearances, lectures and seminars for gullible police officers were there for the taking for self-proclaimed experts in occult crime.
There was a lot of that blame going around in the 1980s, often spread by opportunist, careerist law enforcement officials, pastors and cynical, lazy journalists and hack writers. Alden Barrett’s story was often retold and expanded, the invented occult aspects becoming ever more lurid with each version. The retelling often tied in with a religious suspicion of secular entertainment of any sort (but especially rock music, horror films, gaming or porn), anti-intellectualism, anti-individualism, homophobia, a terror of socialism and a belief that ordinary teenage rebellion must be a sign of demonic possession, as well as the sort of conspiracy theories that religious believers – already suspicious of both atheists and any religious belief that even slightly diverts from their own – are prone to. Fundamentalist Jack Chick and his infamous Chick Tracts railed against Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as much as they warned about the dangers of occultism. Everyone is the enemy and everything is Satanic.
The dangers of – and responses to – occultism were as increasingly vague as they were sensational. Newspapers would talk about the threat from teenage Devil worshippers without actually spelling out just what it was – often, no actual crimes seemed to be committed by these teenage occult dabblers. Despite all the claims of animal and human sacrifice, vast secret conspiracies of baby-eating Satanists and murder and assassination, there seemed to be very little – if any – evidence that any of this was actually taking place. At best, police forces generally uncovered nothing more than acts of vandalism and pot smoking.
Nevertheless, some people spent years – sometimes decades – in prison because of demonstrably false claims of Satanic abuse and murder and the evidence of ‘experts’ with mail-order PhDs. These cases – dozens that we know of, God knows how many that we don’t – went unquestioned for years by a media too thrilled by sensationalism and outrage to bother investigating the truth. No one bothered to contact Alden’s parents, even after he had been outed as the ‘star’ of Jay’s Journal, because why bother? The truth was all there in black and white and the more people you actually ask to corroborate it, the more risk you run of the whole thing falling apart – and what newspaper wants that? Just as concerns over Go Ask Alice were swept aside because the story was just too damn good, so any doubts about Jay and his story were ignored. As the Satanic Panic took full hold, the most outrageous claims – the Devil himself actually turning up at ceremonies and then Jesus and the Virgin Mary turning up to vanquish the Satanists (scenes from Michelle Remembers) – were taken as read by people who desperately wanted to believe and would make rather unpleasant hints – or outright accusations – about anyone who questioned the official story.
Sparks must have felt unstoppable. She could clearly make up any old crap and get away with it – in one interview, she claimed to have seen teenagers making books levitate with their witchy powers – and even the parents of the one existing teen that she had screwed over had made no effort to stop her. More books followed, with Sparks now listed as a PhD, a psychotherapist and a teacher, with made-up quotes from non-existent doctors appearing on the cover. Could she be more shameless? It was as if she was daring someone to investigate (and let’s be blunt: a single phone call could’ve brought her house of cards tumbling down). Publishers, blinded by greed, ignored any doubts and instead went ahead with a series of increasingly unlikely tales, all of which had been given as diaries to ‘Dr B’, as she now styled herself. There way Nancy the 14-year-old AIDS patient, Annie the teenage mother… in 1996 she wrote Almost Lost: The True Story of an Anonymous Teenager’s Life on the Streets, published as a case study of one of her patients – and still no one even bothered to check if she actually even had a clinical practice, let alone how she was obtaining so many sensational (and curiously similar) diaries.
Emerson’s book about this shameless scam bristles throughout with righteous indignation. There’s an argument to be made for authors maintaining some distance and balance when telling a story, but how could you not be outraged at this story of a family being torn apart, seeing their son monstered and his grave desecrated all because some awful woman was desperate for attention and who, like everyone else involved in the whole Satanic Panic roadshow – then and now – seems to take some sort of perverse pleasure in inventing the worst imaginable atrocities and then describing them in lip-smacking detail?
People like to think that the Satanic Panic is a thing of the past. They couldn’t be more wrong. In 2020, three people in Britain were jailed for kidnapping a child to save it from a non-existent Satanic cult. The QAnon world is awash with Satanic conspiracy theories. And both Jay’s Journal and Go Ask Alice are still available – you can even buy them as a double box set edition, published by Simon and Schuster; reviewers on Amazon still, for the most part, treat them as non-fiction. With that in mind, Emerson’s book is an important riposte. It’s also a rattling good read, more dramatic and gripping than either of Sparks’ nastily leering little books and a fascinating study in how mass panics take hold and drive all reason out of the window.
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