Sent from Satan: Why Doom scared us back in 1993

For many of its players, the original Doom was genuinely, bone-shakingly terrifying.

Content warning: this article contains discussion of the US satanic sexual abuse panics of the 1980s and 90s.

The new Doom is fantastic. Speedy, loud, and flashy like a good motorcycle, it resurrects what we loved about the original while updating it to a modern era -- but it isn’t scary. At all. For a game where you wake up on a satanic altar and battle demons by candlelight in literal Hell, I feel remarkably calm while playing. On the surface, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. When Doom came out in 1993, people were genuinely terrified of it. At my school, we whispered about hidden temples and diabolic messages embedded in the game. My hands used to shake when I put the disc in my PlayStation.

So if the original Doom scared me back then, you’d think that the new version would terrify me -- but it doesn’t. Furthermore, Doom doesn’t seem to frighten the younger generation at all. That could be because they’re accustomed to graphic shooters, but I think it’s actually generational. Doom was so scary in the 1990s because that was a time where occult imagery was uniquely frightening. Though laughable today, worries about demonic cults and the apocalypse were a major part of the popular consciousness in the grunge decade, and carried a sense of threat that isn’t part of today’s discourse.

NOSTRADAMUS PREDICTS!: Apocalypticism in the Late 20th Century

Americans have always had an obsession with Armageddon. Yet even by our alarmist standards, the 1970s--1990s were a high water mark for apocalyptic beliefs, when both religious and secular paranoia combined to warn society about a coming judgment.

It started with The Late Great Planet Earth, a 1970 “nonfiction” book that interpreted current events through the lens of biblical prophecy. According to the authors, the foundation of Israel in 1948 kicked off a series of cataclysms -- from wars to earthquakes -- that had brought about the “era of the Antichrist.” The book predicted that the Soviet Union would invade Israel, leading to a nuclear exchange. It was kooky beyond belief, and also a smash hit, spawning two sequels (one titled Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth), and a 1979 Orson Welles movie.

America ate the message up. The 1970s were a low point for the country. American prestige reeled from Vietnam, Nixon, a gas crisis, and recession. Drugs and loosened social norms fed a sense that national values were in decline. Simultaneously, tensions with the Soviet Union during the early 1980s raised the specter of a nuclear war. Simultaneously, environmentalists began sounding the alarm on climate change and rising sea levels. All at once it seemed like scientists, as well as preachers, were telling us that the end times might be here.

While some of these concerns were secular, America’s changing religious makeup made it impossible to separate these dire warnings by church and state. The 1970s and 1980s were a period when church attendance declined in mainline Protestant denominations, while fundamentalist membership exploded. This conservative reboot swept Ronald Reagan into office and put church-based politics into the foreground, with the president himself using apocalyptic rhetoric to describe the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union.

Though every prediction in The Late Great had failed, it had successfully pushed apocalyptic conspiracies into public discourse by the 1990s -- and the coming millennium galvanized American paranoia like never before.

With the Soviet Union collapsed and the public had nowhere to focus its obsession, end times predictions became more chaotic and hysterical. One theory suggested AIDS or Ebola would wipe out the planet. According to another, access to the internet was secretly corrupting the public (the screen and computer mouse put the “Mark of the Beast” on your forehead and right hand). Six Army intelligence analysts went AWOL from a base in Germany, claiming an Ouija board ordered them to prepare for the Second Coming. And of course, the Y2K bug -- a computing quirk that threatened to shut down computer networks -- was considered such a threat that President Clinton appointed a Y2K czar.

While we now treat Y2K as a laugh line, it was deadly serious at the time -- and almost perfectly designed to work on American anxieties. Here was a very real, threatening possibility of a millennium disaster, literally a countdown timer to civilization collapsing. People stockpiled canned food, batteries, and ammunition in case society fell apart. Psychiatric hospitals in Jerusalem saw a spike in cases of “Jerusalem syndrome” in 1999, with five religious pilgrims each week entering a dissociative episode and declaring themselves the messiah. In 1997, the religious group Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to transport their souls to a passing spacecraft before the world ended. Things were getting out of hand, and there was a real feeling that This Might Be It.

And of course, in this milieu of religious fear, expectation, and paranoia, there was also the fear that Satan and his minions were infiltrating society.

When Oprah Talked About Human Sacrifice: The Satanic Panic

One of the most extreme expressions of this end-of-millennium anxiety was the so-called “Satanic Panic” that swept America in the 1980s and lingered well into the 1990s.

Though most often remembered as a crusade against Metal albums, movies, and Dungeons & Dragons, the Satanic Panic actually came to the forefront via day care centers.

A bit of unpleasant history: it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that law enforcement put much emphasis on prosecuting molestation and child pornography cases. Once they decided to do it though, progress came fast. But among the legitimate cases also came a string of spurious prosecutions against day care workers. In 1983, a mother approached police claiming that the staff at the McMartin Preschool daycare center had sexually abused her child. In addition, she claimed staff had tortured animals in front of her child, clubbed a horse to death, and sacrificed a baby in a satanic ritual and forced children to drink its blood. These ludicrous charges -- the mother also claimed the staff could fly -- didn’t stop the trial from dragging out until 1990 without proving a single act of wrongdoing.

The day care trials turned into a national epidemic. Similar cases cropped up in New Jersey and North Carolina, with parents alleging that caregivers had ritually murdered infants and thrown children to sharks. In both cases juries convicted the workers -- though the convictions were later overturned and charges dropped. A review of the children’s taped “therapy” sessions revealed that therapists had suggested the abuse narratives to them.

The evidence from these trials came solely from “repressed memories” the children recovered through “therapy.” This technique was popularized by the sensationalist book Michelle Remembers, written by a psychiatrist about his patient (whom he later married) “recovering” memories of her family abusing her as part of a secret satanic coven. The claims and methods amounted to unsupportable junk science.

The daycare abuses were perfect fodder for local news and daytime TV -- a sensationalist story that played on universal fear. With record numbers of women going to work in the 1980s, the large-scale use of day care was a new phenomenon, and there was real anxiety surrounding the question Who’s Watching Your Children?

"And how does the army feel about you being head of the Temple of Set?"

In 1989, Oprah Winfrey taped a show about satanic abuse and ritual sacrifice. One segment involved a woman claiming that as a young woman, her Jewish family killed babies and drank their blood (I’ve chosen not to link the clip, since it’s only hosted by anti-Semitic YouTube channels). Sally Jesse Rafael and Geraldo Rivera both did shows about clandestine Satanist cabals hiding out in small towns. Show runners wheeled out representatives from the Church of Satan as “proof” such people existed. Police branded animal mutilations and unusual murders as “cult activity” based on ludicrous training videos produced by the religious right. Meanwhile, a circle of Black Metal musicians in Norway -- drunk on proving how anti-establishment they were -- decided to torch fifty churches under the banner of Satanism. The media narrative was that a centuries-old Satanist conspiracy was coming out of the shadows.

If you don’t remember the ‘90s, you might be surprised people believed that -- but you have to remember the time. News spread via print publications and television rather than websites, meaning that people primarily shared news via word-of-mouth. Unless someone clipped an article out for you, checking the source meant heading to the library rather than clipping a link. This meant massive potential for miscommunication and exaggeration, and a slow system for fact-checking. In addition, the public was unused to the distortion and trickery of reality television, leaving them vulnerable to dubious “paranormal journalism” shows like Sightings that blurred the line between fact and fiction. This was a decade where Weekly World News not only formed an accepted part of the media landscape, but was successful. In short, we were more gullible -- so when newspapers and TV shows reported hints of a nation-wide Satanist conspiracy, people believed.

And of course, people especially believed that these occultists were influencing children via music, books, and video games.

Doom and the Metal Connection

Right on cue -- amid the crush of the Satanic Panic, millennialist apocalypticism, and conspiracy -- Doom released in 1993. To say it was calculated to offend gives the game too little credit: Romero and Carmack aimed its theming right between the eyes of a society terrified of what it had to offer.

The major issues were obviously the ultraviolence, demons, and use of occult imagery. In an era of hypersensitivity toward anything demonic, a cover overflowing with clamoring demons wouldn’t pass muster. For concerned parents that made it past the box, there was the pentagram teleportation pads, Baphomet graffiti, hellish enemies, a Big F***ing Gun, and that pounding industrial Metal soundtrack. The Metal, strangely, was probably the biggest problem.

Metal had a major influence on Doom. From the macho action to straight-from-a-Metal-album-cover monsters, you could see the resemblance even with the game on mute. But as well as forming the game’s unique identity, these design elements also welded it to a music genre that bore the brunt of media and religious scrutiny during the Satanic Panic. Though gamers tend to remember anti-game hysteria more vividly, the media and religious groups spilled much more ink over the “evil” influence that Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson exerted on youth. Christian publications claimed that Metal records and cassette tapes contained subliminal messages, and unfairly laid a string of teen homicides and suicides at the genre’s feet. Predictably, this actually played well for the bands involved, granting name recognition and an ant-authority cool that fed their success. After all, teens inherently want anything that’s forbidden and unpalatable to their parents.

Likewise, Doom developed a reputation. Church magazines warned against it by name, and one researcher dubbed it a “mass murder simulator,” claiming it gave teens military-style training. Doom was forbidden. Doom was transgressive. It might, we thought, be a little dangerous.

And that made us want Doom even more.

But this mixture of parental warnings and supernatural TV also had an odd effect: we coveted Doom, but were afraid of it. The pre-internet days were the heyday of playground rumors (remember: no internet fact-checking) and Doom was a magnet for urban legends. One held that you could find a secret demonic temple that asked you to sell your soul (nope). Another claimed you could find your own head on a spike (it was developer John Romero’s). Finally, one said there was a Doom level hidden in Word 95 (wrong--it was in Excel 95).

Then there were the playground spook stories claiming the game was “bad luck.” An older brother’s friend’s cousin downloaded it and broke his arm the same day, or saw a giant demon face when he booted it up -- that sort of thing. Half those stories probably came from an older sibling that wanted us to steer clear of their PC.

Playing Doom felt dangerous. Your hands shook a little feeding in the disc. Starting a new game felt like chanting “Bloody Mary” into your monitor. Sure, the stories were fake (they were fake, right?) but the satanic threat seemed all too real when you played with the lights out. We feared the game because our parents, our churches, and television had taught us to fear it.

Let me tell you what happened to my Final Doom disc: it was 1999, and news networks were reporting that Eric Harris had planned the Columbine shootings in a custom-designed Doom map. The reports were false, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that Final Doom was my favorite game, one I’d saved allowance for and played for dozens of hours. To get it, I’d called every shop in town to find the best deal. Yet my love for it now felt disconcerting. Faced with a choice, I did what you do to evil, mind-controlling artifacts: I smashed it to break its hold on me.

I was that afraid of it.

American society’s less superstitious these days. In a recent Pew survey, only 58% of Americans professed a belief in hell. Weekly church attendance charts somewhere from 22-36% depending on the survey. The occult is a punchline these days. We chuckle when real-life Satanists facetiously sue to put Baphomet next to the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

And when we play Doom, we don’t feel like we’re channeling the abyss. The game didn’t get less terrifying -- demons just don’t scare us like they used to.

Not when we have this Big F***ing Gun.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp