The events leading up to the tragedy at Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert have been documented meticulously. We have detailed records of authorities in Houston expressing concern about the size of the crowd and the lack of proper security. The police chief called Scott ahead of time to say he was worried about the show. Unfortunately, those worries went unheeded and at least eight people died.
But conspiracy theories don’t care about any of that. They operate independently of well-reported facts. They bloom on a diet of insinuation, symbolism and secret knowledge and that’s exactly what’s happened here, as a growing number of social media users — particularly on Tiktok — have become convinced that what happened as Astroworld was part of a Satanic plot.
“Anyone else notice that the stage is an inverted cross leading to a portal to Hell?” asked one TikTok video. That video got a million views in 24 hours. Similar posts have picked up a considerable amount of steam on certain corners of social media.
Over the weekend, Scott posted a somber statement online. “My prayers go out to the families and all those impacted by what happened at Astroworld Festival. Houston PD has my total support as it continues to look into the tragic loss of life,” Scott tweeted, adding that he was “absolutely devastated by what took place last night.” This statement didn’t quell any of the fast spreading conspiracies.
This Satanic Panic will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, when fretting about creeping Satanism became big business for the Christian Industrial Complex. In 1980, a woman named Michelle Smith wrote a book with her husband, psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, which she claimed was an autobiography about her years of child abuse stemming from Satanic rituals. Michelle Remembers was a huge hit and Pazder became a high profile police consultant on what he called “Satanic Ritual Abuse” cases. The book inspired a series of knockoffs like The Satan Seller, in which Christian comedian Mike Warnke detailed his rise to power within a Satanic cult. This led to a good deal of alarmism with moral crusaders who saw the shadow of Satan everywhere from Dungeons and Dragons to Harry Potter to Pokémon.
But it all fell apart. Michelle Remembers was discredited after subsequent attempts to verify Smith’s claims could find no corroborating evidence. Cornerstone Magazine would disprove Warnke’s claims in 1991, and he would later hedge his allegations in an interview with Christianity Today.
The actual extent of Satanism in the U.S. is very limited. The most public expression are institutions like the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple. These groups doesn’t actually believe in Satan, but use a diabolic aesthetic as an elaborate troll device to satire and critique mainstream faiths. You can watch the incisive Hail, Satan? documentary for more information about this “faith.”
Literal “Satanism” — as in, worship of the biblical notion of “the devil” — is smaller, unorganized and fueled by young men who are often in the thrall of other radical ideologies like Neo-Nazism. Studies show that people who do fall into this group tend to drift out of it in their 30s, long before they have the opportunity to get involved in a shadowy cabal of world leaders.
But the spooky allure of a Satanic takeover has proved irresistible, and while interest in the Satanic Panic has waxed and waned, it hasn’t vanished altogether. The conspiracy that political and media leaders are members of a Satanic cult who govern global affairs in secret is a core tenant of QAnon, one that roughly 18 percent of Americans believe.
Now, the Astroworld tragedy is fueling a movement among a Tiktok crowd who are too young to remember the burst balloon of their grandparents’ experience with the same Satanic Panic. Multiple viral posts find diabolical symbolism in Scott’s concert imagery, marketing and onstage behavior. We investigated some of those claims earlier this week.
What’s interesting about all this is that, in some ways, the people who believe these conspiracies aren’t entirely off. Scott and his team ignored a lot of red flags ahead of the concert, whether out of apathy or greed. That’s bad. There should be accountability for that.
Similarly, many political and media figures are indeed embroiled in ugly activities, from the horrible saga of Jeffrey Epstein and numerous high profile people attached to him to the ongoing investigation into the activity of Rep. Matt Gaetz, there is no doubt that power affords wealthy people the means to succumb to humanity’s darkest impulses with impunity.
But these cases, and others like them, have been well covered in mainstream media outlets. Human malice and wickedness is responsible for a great deal of evil and suffering in our world, and while it’s true that the Bible talks about Satan tempting us into evil, the idea of a powerful cult devoted to his literal worship is substituting a fanciful super villain for the real, difficult work of confronting normal, everyday sin at work in the world. There’s no need to invent a shadowy cult religion. Humanity does just fine doing bad things all on its own.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.