Teachers accused of devil-worship and unspeakable acts on children. A nation under threat of darkness. Hiding in plain sight. This was the playing field of the 80s and the Satanic panic craze. As horror fans, I’m sure you’re all familiar with this chain of events, both in documentaries, movies, and books. Over 12,000 cases of “Satanic ritual abuse” were reported throughout the United States, none of which were substantiated. People went to jail for almost 20 years. Even if their cases were expunged, that’s a huge chunk of your life gone.
I often describe how I learn things as cultural osmosis—movie references, or offhanded comments recalling events—that lead me to put together the pieces of a puzzle. I’m talking about when I was a teenager and Wikipedia wasn’t around. I thought, how could that Satanic Panic stuff even happen? It sounds ridiculous. This is the heart of Clay Mcleod Chapman’s book, Whisper Down the Lane. I read a newer version of the novel, which includes an interview with the author and Elijah Wood as well as a reading group guide. (For a review of the original release, check out Collin’s article!)
Down to the basics, we have two stories: Sean, 5-years-old, is in the middle of a huge Satanic Panic trial involving his art teacher, Mr. Woodhouse. We also follow Richard, who happens to be a middle-aged art teacher with a connection to Sean and who is quickly losing his grip on reality. We switch between these viewpoints, as well as interviews with Sean as a counsellor who tries to parse out what horrible rituals were committed in the classrooms of suburban America.
Chapman clearly put in the research (and the books he read are listed in the back) so honestly, it’s like reading this one book has opened the door to reading many more to understand how these kinds of events could happen. I think he’s done a fantastic job at the inner panic (ha!) that Richard feels as he thinks about his childhood, and the way children act and respond to adults. Over the last few years, I’ve watched a handful of in-depth interrogation analysis videos, which explore police techniques used to get the information they need and how things like body language factor in. Chapman does this and more, and I found these to be both my favourite parts of the book, and the most disturbing.
Especially one item the child psychologist/counsellor uses with Sean: Mr. Yucky. Tell Mr. Yucky all the yucky things and he will get rid of them! He’ll make you clean. Even that name makes me cringe. To a kid, having anything “bad” exposed by an adult is deeply shameful, and using this to “get rid of the bad things” is nefarious and so, so easy to manipulate a child into saying what you want them to. Growing up as a kid with undiagnosed autism and anxiety issues, I was terrified of getting in trouble, even if I did nothing to warrant punishment. My parents were not strict either, it was just an overpowering feeling of needing to do things right or else.
Thankfully things have changed since the 1980s and criminal interviewers are trained to actually listen to kids, using specific protocols to ensure it’s done in a safe and professional way. Another part that Chapman taps into is the desire as a child to please your parents and the people in your life. As long as they react strongly, does it really matter what you tell them? At least that’s what it feels like when you’re a 5-year-old. If you get rewarded when you tell your mother about the bad man and what he did, you’ll want to keep talking. Kids can get pretty good at lying. You don’t understand how the snowball effect works at that age (or what that even is.) I feel so bad for these kids, fictional and real, who went through stuff like this.
It feels especially pertinent now, as we’re almost going through a resurgence of Satanic imagery (and the backlash towards it) in both horror and mainstream media. Lil Nas X’s music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” has the singer literally pole-dancing down to hell and giving Satan a lap dance. People were outraged. Films like Midsommar explore cults with violence and sexual rituals, hiding behind a facade of smiles. Theories of politicians being in league with cults have returned, and the prevalence of crying “fake news” is undeniable. It’s more important than ever to take the time to look into what you’re reading online and check sources.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it does go in directions I didn’t expect. When I started Whisper Down The Lane I expected some supernatural twist, instead, I got a deeply troubling look into how, even with the best intentions, people can end up causing more damage than justice. I appreciate that I can still be surprised by authors, and it shows that Chapman knows his stuff!. This is my second book from his catalogue, after The Remaking. Highly recommend that one as well, as it uses both folklore and horror film meta as plot points. Whisper Down The Lane shows not only a commitment to the horror genre but the events that make up the history of horror culture. All around lovely book!