By Jeff Meade — September 01, 1989 5 min read

Even now, high school principal Raymond Dykens doesn’t refer to the death of senior Steven Newberry as murder. He recalls it, perhaps without thinking, as “the happening,” as if to insulate himself from the brutality of the 1987 crime that shook the town of Carl Junction, Mo., to its Bible-Belt roots. But murder it was, and something even more in the minds of the three classmates convicted in the slaying. It was a sacrifice to Satan.

“It’s still like it couldn’t have happened,” says Dykens. “I’ve sat in the same room with these kids and talked with them. It’s unreal.”

Though relatively few teenagers who are drawn to satanism will commit the ultimate crime, police, educators, and cult experts have seen an increase in adolescent obsession with the devil. In its least objectionable form, teen preoccupation with the occult amounts to little more than a fondness for ripped black T-shirts or the recordings of rock singer Ozzy Osborne. But at the extreme, satanism practiced by teenagers takes on all the trappings of an ancient religion.

Social scientists are not sure whether satanism is simply a grotesque fad or is something far worse, but they voice concern. What does it say about this generation, they ask, when so many of its children embrace an ethos of hate?

“In Satan’s Name We Pray”

In a few scattered cases, hate bubbles over into violence, as in Carl Junction.

Raymond Dykens knew Steven Newberry’s killers as “problem” students, though he never guessed how deeply troubled they truly were.

Some students, on the other hand, had seen all the signs, literally: One of the killers reportedly had signed yearbooks, “In Satan’s name we pray.”

“We thought this kind of thing could only happen in Chicago or L.A., but not here,” Dykens now says, “but it can happen anywhere; I guarantee you that.”

Satanic-inspired violence does indeed happen anywhere, as these examples from the last two years attest:

  • In Vermont, Michele Kimball, 15, died after firing a bullet into her brain. She reportedly left a note confessing her devotion to Satan.
  • In Georgia, three teenagers strangled Theresa Simmons, 15, allegedly as a sacrifice to Satan.
  • In New Jersey, 14-year-old Thomas Sullivan Jr. fatally stabbed his mother. Before turning the blade on himself, he set fire to a pile of satanic books in the living room of the house where his father and brother were sleeping. Both escaped. Although such incidents are terrifying, it is hard to know whether they mean that satanism is more widespread and dangerous among young people than it has been in the past. Because definitions vary and membership in cults is necessarily kept secret, nobody knows how many children are drawn to satanism. And experts warn against jumping to conclusions, such as assuming that an affinity for heavy metal music or an interest in wizards is synonymous with satanism.
  • Some measures, however, seem to show that teenage involvement in satanism is on the rise. For example, the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network reports a dramatic increase in telephone inquiries about satanism—mostly from parents, teachers, and police—within the last two years. “We’ve gone from almost nothing to 200 to 300 calls a month—more than for any other cult,” says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the nonprofit network. Additionally, in a survey of 92 Provo, Utah, social workers who regularly deal with teens, 62 said they had recently treated clients who were involved in satanism.

    When “Dabblers” Become Doers

    Although graphic crimes committed by teens garner headlines, most of what students consider satanism is considerably less extreme. On balance, it seems clear that the attraction to “metal” bands like AC-DC and Slayer, along with the bizarre jewelry and the bad attitude, are forms of adolescent rebellion.

    Still, a few children are drawn in too far. About 20 percent of the nonprofit network’s calls for information about satanism, Kisser says, warranted referrals for psychiatric intervention. “It wasn’t just a parent who found a picture of a pentagram in the child’s bedroom,” she says. “It was parents who noticed increased hostility, and satanic symbols carved into their children’s arms.”

    However, even if a child is “only” dabbling, there could be cause for concern, simply because dabblers occasionally become doers.

    “We divide the kids into three classes,” explains Barbara R. Wheeler, director of the School of Social Work at Utah’s Brigham Young University, who, with colleagues Spence Wood and Richard J. Hatch, has studied the satanic phenomenon. “There are the dabblers, those who wear the black and carry the symbols, but who really don’t know what they’re doing. Then there are those who are moderately involved, and those kids do in fact attend seances, ceremonies, and so on. Most often, they’re observers and they hold themselves out on the fringe. Then there are those who are severely involved, and they do take part in the ceremonies, and the bloodletting, and they read the satanic bible [a book written by satanist Anton Szandor LaVey].”

    In their study, Wheeler, Wood, and Hatch saw patterns of behavior in hard-core satanists. Most are boys, and almost all are loners, intelligent, but also alienated and rebellious. They think often of suicide and death. In most cases, there is clear evidence of alcohol and drug abuse. “Adolescence is a normal time of turmoil,” explains Wheeler. “But there are children who go beyond the norm in terms of unmet needs: the need for excitement, power, and attention, and the need to belong to a family—in this case, the family of Satan.”

    Where Schools Come In

    Such troubled adolescents characteristically require psychiatric help—more help, certainly, than the average teacher can provide.

    In Orange County, Florida, where two teacher seminars on teen satanism have played to packed houses, school authorities are taking an important first step. They are showing teachers how to detect the signs and symptoms of satanic involvement and meeting with success according to Marge LaBarge, administrator of the Orange County School District’s student-assessment program.

    The Orange County program evolved after reports from local schools about satanic dabbling. “The first incident was when some students had left school and gone to the local mall, and tried to talk some other students into some satanic activity,” says LaBarge.

    Relatively rare though they are, there are more extreme examples. An English teacher at an Orlando high school tells this chilling story: “We had a student who stored animal blood in his refrigerator at home. He had sacrificed his neighbor’s pets. He had threatened to kill his younger brother as a sacrifice to Satan. His brother told us, and that’s how we found out about it.”

    The teacher, fearing reprisals, declines to be identified. But, she says, her life has been changed by what she sees as the emergence of a satanic subculture in the schools. “The dimensions of my days have been altered,” she says.

    A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Satanism