On Oct. 24, 1988, nearly 20 million people watched Geraldo Rivera posit a question thatperhaps for obvious reasonsfew other Tv journalists at the time had dared ask: Were secretive devil-worshippers across the country conspiring to breed babies that would subsequently be seized, slaughtered, and sacrificed to Satan?
The answer, in classic Geraldo-imbroglio fashion, boiled down to: Ennnnh, perhaps . It was just one of many unsatisfying “revelations” in Rivera’s breathlessly reported, shamelessly promoted Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground , a sleazily overhyped fear-gumbo that attempted to bring together Charles Manson, Anton LaVey, heavy metal music, Rosemary’s Baby , and a handful of rube-perpetrated slayings, and weave them into … well, something . By the end of the 90 -minute special, it’s really not clear what Geraldo believes is going on within the Satanic underground, or if he even believes it exists at all. The only real astonish is that Rivera was apparently friendly enough with interviewee Ozzy Osbourne to casually call him “Ozz,” as though they were old Bark at the Moon -era golfing buddies.
But for anyone young enough to have missed out on the playground-borne paranoia of the Reagan/ Bush years, or for anyone old enough to have altogether forgotten about it, watching Devil Worship today is a reminder of just how profoundly and dopily the so-called ” satanic panic” had entrenched itself into the collective imagination: By the late’ 80 sa period full oflegit national crises, from AIDS to the narcotic wars to the crumbling stock marketa sizable number of overheated zealots and overly bored suburbanites nonetheless came to believe that the real threat to America was the health risks devil-worshippers living next door, playing Judas Priest records backwards. It was a rumorous, humorless hour, full of misheard lyrics and misinterpreted pentagram doodlings, and it serves as the backdrop for two new retro-set, high-school-focused fictions, both of which are arriving just in time for graduation gift-givingassuming, of course, that your grad-to-be has an oil-black sense of humour and a fondness for Swatch-watch references.
A 666 -Meets- Sixteen Candles Traum-Com
The first, Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism , is a little bit 666, a little bit Sixteen Candles a traum-com that’s as much about the rites of teenage friendship as it is about the rites of Satan-usurping. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, Exorcism introduces Abby, a working-class loner who’s befriended( maybe even rescued) by Gretchen, a too-sheltered rich child who bonds with Abby during a disastrous early-‘ 80 s birthday party. A few years later, the now-teenaged chums find their long-time connection challenged after a one-off acid trip, during which Gretchen disappears into darkened timbers. After several panicky hours, Gretchen eventually crawls back to her friend, naked save for her sneakers, contained within dirt and leaves, but apparently undamaged.
When a corny but well-intentioned Christian group shows up to give a presentation, one of our own member all but corroborates Abby’s worst dreads: Namely, that her best friend has been taken over by Satan.
But over hour, it becomes clear to Abby that something happened to Gretchen during that night, and now her beloved friendonce a do-gooder who wouldn’t even curseis exhibiting all sorts of strange behavior: There are the weird reeks she emits, for starters. And the sudden changes in mood. And the fact that she’s begun barfing up a strange white substance, full of what appears to be bird plumages. When a corny but well-intentioned Christian group shows up at their school to give a public-assembly presentation, one of our own member all but corroborates Abby’s worst dreads: Namely, that her best friend has been taken over by Satan.
Hendrix has lots of fun with the maximally grody moments that ensue, and Exorcism is marked by several scenes of lowbrow body-horror, including a particularly retch-worthy tapeworm-extraction sequence, and the titular procedure, which will please( though maybe not shock) anyone who caught The Exorcism at an eighth-grade slumber party. But the book’s pulpier moments of goop and gore are offset by Hendrix’s perceptive comprehend of even yuckier adolescent social politics: When it comes to high schoolers, the line between standard-issue bedevilment and full-on devlishness is a thin one, and as Gretchen grows more powerfuland more malicious toward Abbyit’s hard to tell how much of her behavior is born of dark forces, and how much of it is due to standard-issue teenage embarrassment and nervousnes. After all, who among us hasn’t at one point suspected that our former bestie was secretly the devil?
Drugs, Parties, and Semi-Satanic Antics
Those kind of slow-to-boil suspicionsthe dread that, at any moment, your closest companion might turn on youruns throughout Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire , a more earthbound( yet far starker) narrative of teen-girl courtship and cruelty, this time established in the early’ 90 s.” They eventually saw the body on a Sunday night, sometime between 60 Minutes and Married with Children ,” notes our narrator, Hannah, in the book’s opening passageway. The corpse in question is that of a largely average high-school jock whose suicide upends a rural Pennsylvania townbut whose death also brings together the unadventurous Hannah with Lacey, a class-cutting, chain-smoking, Kurt Cobain-obsessed alternakid who draws Hannah out of her happily PG existence and into a dizzying spree-turned-spiral of drugs, parties and, eventually, some blood-drenched, semi-Satanic antics. They become obsessed with each othertwo unheavenly beasts all but fused into oneand together, they take on a megabucks-blessed mean-girl named Nikki. It’s a decision that leads to Lacey being accused of Satanic propensities, and that eventually brings all three girls, guided by sinister motivations, to the same timbers where their former classmate turned up dead.
Exorcising a demon is scary enough, but exorcising an entire self-identityparticularly when you cant find where it begins and endsis downright terrifying.
Like Exorcism ‘ s Abby and Gretchen, Fire ‘ s Lacey and Hannah are outsiders whose relationship prospers in a climate of latchkey laissez faire -ness and shenanigans-inspiring boredom. ButWassermanthe author of several successful YA volumes, constructing her adult-audience debut heredoesn’t need supernatural acts to eventually divide these two; the tension is there from the get-go, as it is with all young relationships.” She was making fun of me, or she wasn’t. She was like me, or she wasn’t ,” tells Hannah, spidey senses already tingling, after her first extended hang-out with Lacey. It’s one of several sharp, spot-on lines about the debility of teen friendships that Wasserman utilizes throughout the book, which ultimately discovers Hannah at odds not only with Lacey, but with herselfthe confused and newly dark-hearted Hannah that Lacey helped generate. Exorcising a demon is scary enough, but exorcising an entire self-identityparticularly when you can’t see where it begins and endsis downright terrifying. Both My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Girls on Fire are honeycombed with of-the-era technological and pop-cultural references( boomboxes, Benetton, even that Geraldo special) that will please easily nostalgic Gen Xers and gently baffle younger readers( potential title for a new YA horror hit: Landline !). They also, frustratingly, share an occasionally overboard penchant for TeenSpeak( TM) that Kevin Williamson-perfected method of imbuing adolescent characters with the wittiest, most implausibly astonishing one-liners possible, dismissing the umm s and like s and OK ? s, that give the teen vernacular its own appropriately awkward rhythm. And for all their expert plunder of the mid-pubescent psyche, neither Hendrix nor Wasserman award their adult characters the same nuance or depth; the grown-ups in these volumes are all absentee landlords, oblivious snoots, or middle-aged burnouts. Awarded, when you’re a adolescent, that’s what all adults seem likebut in truth, there are just as many Jack Walshes in the world as there are Dick Vernons, and to pretend otherwise feels like an easy out.
Still, such cartoonish caricatures don’t take away from the uneasy-feeling vibes that occupy My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Girls on Fire . And the authors prove their own black-magic mettle by conjuring up an epoch where ill-informed paranoia( and just plain ding-dongness) turned some of the quietest corners of America into fear factories, full of deep-rooted distrust and misspent fury. Too bad Satan never actually did show up back then. He woulda loved it.