The scariest moment from Stranger Things 4 Volume One had nothing to do with Vecna nor a Demogorgon. It did not take place in the Upside Down or involve even a drop of blood. It was during a small town meeting, when a frightened, angry high school student convinced his fellow citizens to hunt down a group of teenagers. In that horrifying moment Satanic panic truly came to Hawkins, Indiana. Just as it really did to the United States in the 1980s. But that scene, when a hateful mob blamed all its problems on a small band of powerless outcasts, resonated with such force because it felt so timely. Unfortunately the truth is that moment always will. Because our base instinct of “othering” strangers during times of trouble is timeless.
Stranger Things 3‘s final moments teased its coming Satanic panic with a news report. At the time we covered exactly what that event was. As well as (quite accurately) how it might play out on the Netflix series. But we couldn’t have predicted the real terror we’d feel watching it take place. Jason’s inflammatory speech to his equally petrified townsfolk was genuinely hard to watch. One person, with neither authority nor proof, convinced hundreds to track down a group of kids in a flash. All because those kids like to play a “strange” game.
That really did happen in the ’80s and ’90s. Fear about D&D—born of ignorance and exploited by pastors, politicians, and the media—contributed to the growing frenzy over a belief Satanic cults. And it threatened the very fabric of America itself. That irrational worry was not academic, either. The Hellfire Club’s Eddie is a fictional character running from the authorities. But this Stranger Things character is essentially based on very real kids who suffered that exact persecution during the height of Satanic panic. The West Memphis Three were three teenage boys convicted for heinous murders they did not commit. Those kids were easy for many to blame. They loved the “wrong” music. They wore the “wrong” clothes. And they read the “wrong” books. To many Americans they were pawns of the Devil.
Satanic panic, a phenomenon akin to mass hysteria, is a type of moral panic. That term was first coined in 1972, and arose from the cultural causes that originally led to the frenzy. And yet its broad strokes apply to the world of 2022 same as it did the world of 1986. Here’s how Oxford Reference defines moral panic:
A mass movement based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behaviour or group of people is dangerously deviant and poses a threat to society’s values and interests. Moral panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues. The phenomenon was first described in 1972 in relation to the ‘Mods & Rockers’ groups of the 1960s. Since then moral panics have occurred in relation to ‘ritual satanic abuse’, that was perceived to be widespread in the 1980s, and paedophilia, which led to vigilante action against innocent people.
It’s impossible to read that and not think about how powerful institutions and people do those exact same things right now. And they almost always do so to the most vulnerable individuals and groups. Some politicians label the LGBTQ+ community as “groomers” to advance heinous agendas. Qanon, which has moved from the fringes of society to take root in the mainstream, whips its followers into an incoherent mania by claiming a secret cabal of powerful people engage in a worldwide child trafficking ring. That’s how a pizza restaurant ended up with an armed assailant showing up at its door looking for “victims” who don’t exist. And those who create these panics—whether on secular, religious, or both grounds—do so under the guise that they, and they alone, are moral leaders fighting the literal Devil.
For the Devil and his worshippers hope to destroy everything “we” hold sacred. These “others” want to harm the “good” people.
But moral panic isn’t limited just to fears over pedophilia. Turn on certain news channels and you’ll received a deluge of “reasons” why immigrants are foreign invaders out to get us. Every problem in your life? They aren’t the result of your own choices. Nor are they the fault of systems put in place and propped up by those who actually wield power. The people who have the most to gain by making you afraid promise that everything bad is the fault of outsiders. Worse, those outsiders want to kill you. And once you believe that, whether because you’ve been deceived or want to believe it, what else will you do but decide you must hurt “those” people first? Especially when your neighbors, friends, and family all feel the same way too?
The ubiquity of 24-hour news channels, combined with the influence of social media, has surely led to the proliferation of moral panic. It’s easier and faster than ever to create an angry mob with lies and scary images. It’s also easier than ever to keep those people in a frenzy for longer than logic would otherwise allow. But to only blame the media for this phenomenon is to ignore human history. The Salem Witch Trials were not the result of cable news. The Third Reich did not turn ordinary people into harmful followers via social media. And we wouldn’t remember Joe McCarthy’s name if the government did not first promote the Red Scare for its own benefit.
Mankind has a long, sad history of letting itself believe those with the least amount of power are the root of all our problems. When we’re afraid, it’s easy to see monsters in the shadows. It’s certainly easier than looking in the mirror or enacting meaningful changes to the institutions responsible. But since you can’t fight shadows it’s even easier to decide a religious group, teenagers whose culture we don’t understand, people with a different sexual identity, or immigrants that don’t look like us are the actual “monsters” lurking out there.
In Stranger Things 4, Jason’s ability to rouse a crowd of otherwise normal people into hunting down children because of rising Satanic panic wasn’t scary because it doesn’t seem possible. It’s terrifying because we know that has happened. We know it will happen. And we know we are letting it happen right now as we watch Stranger Things 4. And if you don’t believe that’s true ask any trans person how they felt seeing the Hellfire Club othered by their neighbors. Ask an Asian American what it’s been like to live in their own country during COVID. Turn on certain news channels and see how the most vulnerable, helpless people are cited as our greatest threat.
Stranger Things has given us monsters we couldn’t imagine. But to truly scare us all they had to do was show us how awful we can all become when we let fear turn us against one another. And all of us can see ourselves in that moment. Some of us know we could easily join that mob. Others know what it’s like to be Eddie and his friends. And the rest of us fear ending up in the middle, unsure or too scared to protect the innocent. There’s a reason mobs form. It’s a lot easier to go with the crowd than standalone against it.
But that’s exactly why Stranger Things 4‘s most brutal scene was maybe its most important. It’s better to realize who we can become by watching that ugly transformation happen on a TV show rather than one day finding ourselves a part of the mob. Moral panic in all its ugly forms feeds on fear and anger. It makes us forget not only reason and logic but compassion and empathy. It makes us lose our humanity and leads us down a dark path. And that path is filled with things much scarier than what you’ll find in the Upside Down.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.