The late '80s were the golden age of Satanic panic, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the woman known as Lauren Stratford launched that panic to a whole new level.
How Lauren's Story Emerged
The key part of Stratford's saga began in 1987, when she contacted Christian author Johanna Michaelsen claiming to be a California counselor who had recently recovered repressed memories of her involvement in child pornography and violent Satanism. The trauma associated with these memories had so undone her that she could no longer take care of herself, and the sex abuse support group she ran wasn't providing her with the healing she needed. Worse, she was being stalked and menaced by associates of a Satanic porno kingpin named Victor.
Stratford said she had seen Michaelsen on TV a year and a half earlier, talking about devil worship, and immediately knew that Michaelsen was the solution to her problems.
Johanna and Randolph Michaelsen were not the kind of people to turn away a Christian sister in need. Incredibly, they welcomed this troubled woman into their home and nursed her like a child for a month, praying with her and comforting her when she woke screaming from nightmares. Lauren believed she was under attack by the Devil. She could actually hear the growling of demons and the shrieks of dying babies. She felt invisible hands throttling her.
Lauren later wrote, "In Mike Warnke's book The Satan Seller you can read of similar activities. He describes how evil spirits actually do physical harm to people." (1)
The Michaelsens introduced Stratford to reporter Ken Wooden, who had become something of an expert not only on the exploitation of children, but on the hidden world of devil worship (or so he thought). Johanna sought his advice on how to counsel Lauren.
This was not Wooden's first brush with Satanic ritual abuse. In 1985 he provided research for 20/20's report on Satanism (The Devil Worshippers), and that same year was consulted by investigators of a ritual abuse case in El Paso (the Michelle Noble/Gayle Stickler Dove case).
Wooden was primed to accept a tale of Satanic evil, and Stratford's confirmed his worst suspicions about the extent of Satanic subversion in America. Without verifying any of her claims, he encouraged her to write her memoirs. He said going public was the best way to scare off the Satanists. Johanna seconded the idea. Michaelsen's sister Kim and Kim's husband, Hal Lindsey, were also extremely supportive. Michaelsen and Wooden joined Lauren on Hal's Christian TV show to share her full story for the first time. Lindsey addressed a warning directly to the Satanists who wanted to silence Lauren, telling them he possessed documentation of Lauren's allegations. Johanna later admitted Lindsey was "bluffing".
After his work with Lauren Stratford, Wooden stepped up his campaign against ritual abuse. In November 1988 he wrote a letter to the New York Times titled "Light Must Be Shed on Devil Worship". He mailed pointers on how to prosecute ritual abuse cases to 3500 U.S. prosecutors.
Lauren was also strongly encouraged to tell her story by Christian author Stormie Omartion (a fellow survivor of childhood abuse), filmmaker Caryl Matrisciana, and radio host Joyce Landorf Heatherley.
These evangelical Christians (some of international reputation) were deeply concerned about the effects of Satanic ritual abuse and occult crime, on both the spiritual and temporal levels. Their hearts were mostly in the right places, but they could have benefited enormously from a little skepticism and a touch of research. They were endorsing a story that had no basis in fact.
Lauren's Story: Different, yet identical
Recovered memories of Satanic ritual abuse first surfaced in the book Michelle Remembers, published in 1980. Though none of the incidents recalled by Michelle Pazder could be corroborated, and several had definitely not occurred (for instance, the murder and dismemberment of her imaginary friend), this book offered the first hint that large clusters of Satanists were engaged in well-organized, deeply depraved criminal activities as early as the 1950s. Perhaps the book's most unsettling revelation was that these Satanists were not dwelling on the fringes of society; they were middle-class urban professionals who masqueraded as Christians by day and tortured their children in the name of Satan by night.
Within two years of its publication, full-scale Satanic panic had erupted in parts of the U.S., with daycare providers and parents of young children standing trial for unimaginable crimes. In part two of this post, we'll see how this hysteria provided a blueprint for the construction of Stratford's personal Satanic mythology.
Stratford's 1988 memoir, Satan's Underground, picked up where Michelle Remembers left off. While Pazder experienced Satanism only in childhood, Stratford had lived most of her life in the subterranean world of porn, devil worship, and drug abuse. She could describe the atrocities of Satanism in far more detail than Michelle Pazder, making her memoir a more potent tool in the fight against the Devil's disciples.
The book was successful for this and a few other key reasons: It was put out by a major Christian publisher (Harvest House), it contained an introduction by Johanna Michaelsen (as well as endorsements from well-known Christians like Mike Warnke and Hal Lindsey), and it offered compelling Christian testimony. Thanks to Lauren's ridiculously broad definition of Satanism, it could even be used to denounce any non-Christian religion: "the worship of anything or anyone other than Christ is ultimately the worship of Satan", she wrote on page 186.
It also had a fatal flaw. While the Pazders made some effort to ground Michelle's recovered memories in reality (including dates and locations where possible), Satan's Underground suffers the same deficit we've seen in most of the other ex-Satanist/witch stories: An almost total absence of verifiable details. And this was not an accident. Ms. Stratford had very good reasons for obscuring her past.
Lauren is only the third person in this series supposedly introduced to Satanism in early childhood (she initally claimed she entered Satanism around the age of 19, then later recovered memories of being ritually abused in childhood). The others claimed they were drawn to it during late adolescence, usually in the liberal atmosphere of college campuses. In this respect, her testimony bleeds into the Satanic ritual abuse stories of the late '80s, with Stratford portraying herself as an innocent overcome by archetypal evil. More than any other ex-Satanist testimony we've seen so far, hers brings to mind the anti-Catholic tales of Gothic horror related by "former nuns" like Maria Monk and Charlotte Keckler, in which priests behave like rutting animals and mothers superior pitch aborted babies into cellar lime pits. Her story is lurid and surreal, yet also carefully crafted to yank the reader's heartstrings.
There are at least two highly significant firsts in Satan's Underground. Stratford was the first former Satanist to claim status as a "breeder", forced to bear children for ritual sacrifice. The concept was introduced by Michelle Remembers. It's no coincidence that within months of the release of Satan's Underground, breeders were popping out of the woodwork to appear on Geraldo and Sally Jesse Raphael.
Stratford was also the first former Satanist to present testimony consisting largely of recovered memories (Michelle Pazder, as mentioned, was never actually a Satanist, and breeder Jacqui Balodis claimed she was a Satanist only because she was born into a devil-worshiping family).
Still later, Stratford became the only ex-Satanist to alter her story in order to pose as a Holocaust survivor.
As you read, note the many similarities among the testimonies of "witch queen" Doreen Irvine, "high priest" Mike Warnke, and Lauren Stratford:
- a childhood full of abuse, exploitation, and deprivation
- an early introduction to Christ that paves the way for salvation later in life
- an absence of time markers
- lack of detail about the beliefs of Satanists (scripture, philosophy, etc.), but extraneous detail about the practices of Satanists (sacrifice, crime, etc.)
- Helplessness. Rather than choosing to live a life of Satanic evil, the protagonist is a vulnerable innocent lured or coerced into sin by more worldly people. Drugs play a huge role.
- supernatural events and paranormal abilities
- complete redemption, healing, and forgiveness through Christ
- expert advice on how to avoid the snares of the occult
Into the Underground
Satan's Underground opens with a fragmented yet graphic account of a young child - Lauren - being raped.
After this scene, readers may feel disoriented, as there are few solid details to ground us in reality: No time, no place, no context. We learn only that Lauren was adopted either privately or on the black market, and that when she was about four years old her adoptive mother began paying for household services by allowing homeless men to rape Lauren. We are given the impression that life was normal for Lauren up to this time; she depended on her mom, was well cared for, and felt safe. After the rapes, life changed. Lauren's mother became physically and verbally abusive towards her daughter and her husband, landing the latter in hospital several times. He left the family when Lauren was four.
Though we aren't given many clues as to when or where these events occurred, Lauren seemed to be in her mid to late forties in her TV appearances of the late '80s, indicating the abuse began in the '40s.
A reference to the rainy season suggests Lauren's mother may have lived in the Pacific Northwest, while subtle clues indicate her father relocated to California.
"On the surface," Lauren writes, "I could not have had a more perfect home." Both adoptive parents were upper-class professionals. They attended church regularly, which provided Lauren with the foundation for her faith. But Lauren's life consisted mostly of abuse and chores. She had no siblings, no toys, no friends, and no free time. Negative associations related to her birth and heritage were drummed into her, with her mother forcing her to stand before mirrors and repeat that she was a bastard, a "no good", a "bad blood". Though Mother occasionally showed guilt and Christian devotion, she attempted to separate Lauren from God by telling her "Jesus don't want no dirty, filthy little kid." The language is hardly what you would expect from an educated, upper-class woman, indicating that Mother had a working-class background, if not a split personality. She would launch into unprovoked rages, screaming hysterically as she hurled things around the house.
The abuse escalated when Lauren was ten. After she threatened to run away, Mother handed her over to two men who photographed her naked with farm animals. Several months later, Lauren found a child porn magazine in Mother's room that contained these photos. The same two child pornographers soon began photographing and filming Lauren and other children being raped by homeless men.
Lauren balked at reporting her mother to the authorities, fearing she would be murdered before they could intervene. As a teenager she confided in two pastors, a school counselor, and police officers, but all of them advised her to tolerate the abuse until she was old enough to leave home.
Then, at fifteen, she ran away and was placed in the custody of her father in another state. Mother harangued him with phone calls until he grudgingly agreed to let child pornographers continue exploiting Lauren. She was regularly taken from her dad's home to an office in an upscale business district, injected with a stupefying drug, and abused in front of the camera. She became addicted to the pills the boss, Tony, gave to her.
We never learn how Mother, a socially isolated, middle-class woman with no apparent substance abuse problems, was introduced to the world of extreme child pornography, nor why Lauren's father would tolerate the situation.
Lauren continued to appear in hardcore porn after enrolling in college. She explains she continued because of low self-esteem, drug addiction, and fears of sexual blackmail. Not even cradling the wasted body of a 15-year-old prostitute as she died of a drug overdose could send Lauren packing. She didn't realize there was an even more sinister power behind it all.
This section of the book attempts to link child abuse to mainstream porn, citing the hysterical misinformation of Dr. Judith Reisman and the fact that "10% of all men who serve on school boards read Playboy". Once the taste for mainstream porn wears off, Stratford tells us, "the flames are fanned into an ever-increasing abnormal, uncontrollable craving for perversions that end in abuse, torture, animalistic behavior... and sex with children." (69) This was a popular view among Christian conservatives in the '80s, but even then it contradicted everything known about sexual orientation. In this undated clip, Judith Reisman discusses the foundation of the '80s anti-porn movement: Dr. James Dobson's interview of Ted Bundy. The anti-porn crowd actually believed that if Bundy had never been exposed to girlie mags in the '60s, he wouldn't have developed into a sadistic sociopath (frankly, I've always wondered if Bundy was messing with Dobson's head for one last sick thrill).
One day the pornographers shoved 19-year-old Lauren into a van, blindfolded her, and drove her out of the city to a gorgeous ranch, the legendary "House of Victor". Victor was in charge of the porn operation, and Lauren came to suspect he ran a national child porn empire that had been keeping close tabs on her since childhood.
Victor was a slimeball out of central casting, with slicked-back hair and slabs of gold jewelry. He complimented Lauren's porn performances and bragged about providing "first-class service for high society here at my estate", a not-so-subtle hint that powerful forces are involved in Satan's underground. He offered Lauren the opportunity to become "his woman" if she serviced his clients adequately. Lauren hated the industry, was repulsed by Victor, and didn't want the assignment. But she believed if she refused, she would be hunted down and killed. So she let herself be taken to Victor's ranch on a regular basis and abused in a cottage outfitted as a sex club, with fetish and torture rooms. His clients included doctors, lawyers, CEOS, judges, politicians, entertainers, clergy, and cops (after taking cocaine, these guys talked a lot).
Lauren knew that children as young as ten were at the ranch, and that some were being killed for snuff films, yet still wouldn't go to the police. Keep in mind that she was living at her father's house and attending college throughout this time. Her excuses are getting thin and contradictory.
At some point within the next year, Victor grew dissatisfied with regular debauchery and turned to Satanism. In a later book, Stripped Naked, Lauren describes recovered memories of being abused and mentally manipulated by Satanists in her childhood, so it's quite bizarre that Victor stumbled onto the same ideas all on his own.
He became a high priest and set up a ritual chamber in the basement of the ranch house. Lauren, as his woman, was forced to attend ceremonies at which black-robed strangers summoned spirits, drank urine- and blood-laced wine, cursed their enemies, and engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism. She was raped by several men atop the altar, and consecrated to the Devil. Victor filmed some of this activity and sold the footage to doctors, lawyers, and high-level politicians.
Watching demonic entities materialize at rituals, Lauren concluded that demons can physically harm people if cultists demand it. This added another layer of threat to her supposedly walled-in existence.
It is at this point that Lauren, for the first time, directly addresses skeptics. She writes that it must be difficult for us to believe infant sacrifices are a regular occurrence in today's America, and we're probably wondering where all these children are obtained. She would have the same questions had she not witnessed such sacrifices, she assures us. After describing several particularly cruel and gruesome sacrifices, she gets to the point: "If you do not believe, you have played right into their hands, and they have accomplished their purpose." (96)
In other words: You're with us, or you're with the Satanists.
In chapter six, Lauren further attempts to explain her compliance by likening herself to a POW who has been brainwashed. To bolster the argument, she again brings in Judith Reisman, who personally told Lauren that brainwashing had psychologically paralyzed her from a young age.
Lauren mentions this because she's about to describe her own participation in an infant sacrifice.
Because she refused to voluntarily make a sacrifice to Satan as Victor demanded, he employed a man named John to break her will. John locked her in the basement, deprived her of food and sleep, and trapped her in a box with dozens of snakes (a scene nearly identical to one in Michelle Remembers). This torture regime seems to centre around the misconception that occultists require their victims' consent in order for their magic to work.
Finally, John told Lauren that for every week she held out, a baby would be sacrificed in her name. She held out for at least three more weeks. Not until John caged her in a barrel with the corpses of three infants did she relent.
The entirety of chapter seven is devoted to the sacrifice, held on Halloween ("one of the most important dates on the Satanic calendar - THE CELEBRATION OF DEATH!"). It was performed in a Christian church. To overcome her extreme reluctance to stab the cloth-shrouded baby, Lauren imagined she was attacking all the people who had ever abused her.
Afterwards, the cultists trooped to a cemetery nestled in a ravine, dug a shallow grave beneath a tree, and placed the still-shrouded infant in it. Lest you think Lauren is finally giving us some verifiable details, however, she adds that bodies of sacrificial victims were always disinterred and cremated; burials were of ritual significance only.
The Satanic sect Lauren describes bears very little resemblance to Warnke's Brotherhood, John Todd's Satanic Illuminati, or any of the other imaginary cults we've seen so far. Lauren's Satanists don't seem as interested in world domination as they are in torturing children, placing curses on enemies, and enriching themselves. They are the antithesis of everything Christian. While Jesus loves the little children, the Satanists eat the little children. While Christians gather in sun-filled churches, Satanists congregate in basements and cemeteries in the dead of night. While Christians pray to God for healing and peace, Satanists summon demons to cause anguish and pain. Again, this aligns Satan's Underground more with ritual abuse stories than with other ex-Satanist testimonies. Stratford doesn't mention Victor's cult having any scripture, organized rituals, or specific beliefs.
Lauren's not-so-daring escape
Lauren's father, a workaholic she seldom saw, died when she was twenty. "There was no reason for me to stay put. I immediately packed up and moved to another city." You read that correctly. Lauren had been free to leave at any time. In fact, there were few repercussions. Victor left her alone, aside from an occasional phone threat to ensure her silence.
Lauren must now produce some other lame excuse for her failure to report the countless rapes, murders, and torture sessions she had witnessed. This comes in the form of a demonic spirit guide, a deceptively kind entity that appeared to her in ghostlike form and called itself Mother. Every time she thought about going to the police or a therapist with her story, Mother stopped her.
Lauren took a series of professional jobs involving the counseling of troubled people (yikes), but her life was far from settled. She moved continuously to evade Victor's phone harassment, if that makes any sense. She suffered a chronic, life-threatening illness as a result of abuse (in her 1993 book Stripped Naked, she claimed to have a rare blood-clotting disorder, which isn't likely to have been caused by abuse). Stress and illness landed her in hospital over forty times in an eight-year period.
For pain management, she began guided imagery sessions with a social worker. She experienced violent abreactions during some of these sessions, and suppressed memories of the abuse she suffered in childhood began to surface. Journaling aided the memory retrieval process. I should note that guided imagery therapy and journaling are mentioned frequently in the recovered memory stories of the '80s, along with abreactions and "body memories".
Her progress was slow and difficult, thanks to the harangues of "Mother" and her unnamed condition, which rendered her unable to work. One bizarre episode of uncontrollable shaking and gibberish-talking landed her in hospital. A doctor told her a pain medication had triggered a memory so traumatic Lauren couldn't express it in English.
In therapy, Lauren recovered memories of having three children (Joey, Carly, and Lindy) during her time with Victor. Carly and Lindy were killed in snuff films, and Joey was burned to death on a Satanic altar. Leaving aside the question of how a woman could forget three pregnancies, how did Lauren bear three children between the ages of nineteen (when she met Victor) and twenty (when she left him)? This is never addressed in Satan's Underground.
We are told that "occult murder authority" Dr. Al Carlisle learned from a Satanic Black Prince that 40,000-60,000 Americans are sacrificed every year. This number was frequently cited by Satanic panic purveyors in the '80s and early '90s, though it was flatly contradicted by missing persons statistics. Its original source has never been identified
Lauren tells us we must face that face that babies, children, and teens are being killed in snuff films and Satanic rituals. "I beg you: Don't let Joey's life be for nothing."
It was at this point in her struggle, around 1985, that Lauren saw Johanna Michealsen on TV. Though she hesitated to contact her for fear Michaelsen would go to the police, her TV appearances gave Lauren the courage to begin speaking out against child abuse and porn and to form a support group for victims of sexual abuse. This group caught the attention of Christian radio host and author Joyce Landorf Heatherley, who invited Lauren to be an anonymous guest on her show several times. Lauren told the listeners that therapy can't heal you, only Jesus can.
She now had the attention, admiration, and unconditional support of numerous women. People were turning to her for guidance. Finally, eighteen months after first seeing her on TV, Lauren had the strength to contact Johanna Michaelsen.
After spending seven hours listening to Lauren's stories, the Michaelsens decided to take her into their home. We aren't told if this was their idea or Lauren's, but we'll see that moving in with strangers was already a well-established pattern for Lauren.
Along with Ken Wooden and and the Lindseys, the Michaelsens nursed her through a three-week spiritual battle similar to Jesus' forty days in the wilderness. Lauren emerged triumphant in Christ and healthier than she had ever been. This part of the book, in contrast to the claustrophobic gloom of the first thirteen chapters, is life-affirming and inspiring.
Chapter fourteen of Satan's Underground consists of expert advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of Satanic deception. If you've read the other stories in this series, every item on Stratford's list will be familiar to you: Don't play Dungeons and Dragons ("where evil is a dominant theme"), don't listen to heavy metal music, avoid Ouiija boards and all forms of divination, etc. Weirdly, though, Stratford also warns us against guided imagery, the very process that allowed her to recover her memories of Satanic abuse in the first place. This is probably because of Johanna Michaelsen's negative experiences with "occult" visualization techniques.
The fifteenth chapter details the spread of Satanic violence. Every case Stratford mentions is either a hoax or an instance of Satanic panic: the Pico Rivera and Bakersfield "pedophile rings", Henry Lee Lucas's imaginary Hand of Death cult, the W.I.C.C.A. letter, the allegations of Dr. Walter Grote of West Point (who would appear on Geraldo's Satanism special with Lauren). Given Stratford's involvement in the Bakersfield debacle, which we'll examine in Part II, it's surprising she states the district attorney "dropped the case in a plea bargain." In reality, thirty-six people were convicted.
In the penultimate chapter, Stratford gives advice to parents of ritually abused children. Some of the advice is sound if applied to any form of abuse (report the abuse, seek therapy, maintain your child's normal routine to the greatest extent possible), but her thoughts on ritual abuse are extremely weird and clearly tailored for the Patriot conspiracy crowd. For instance, she warns that in addition to undermining God and family, ritual abusers may destroy a child's patriotism. The abusers might molest children with miniature U.S. flags, or dress up in military uniforms "to increase the child's association of patriotism with ugliness." The former notion later popped up in the absurd stories of "MK-ULTRA survivor" Cathy O'Brien, who claims she recovered memories of atrocious abuse at the hands of U.S. presidents, country music stars, and holographic lizards.
How Satan's Underground Was Used
Most books by former Satanists, like Warnke's The Satan Seller or Irvine's From Witchcraft to Christ, functioned primarily as Christian testimonies that highlighted the dangers of the occult. But Satan's Underground served two additional purposes:
1. It provided "evidence" that Satanic ritual abuse was occurring on a vast scale. Children's Institute International (a primary player in the McMartin daycare debacle) recommended the book as a resource on child abuse. "Cult cop" Larry Jones promoted the book via his Cult Crime Impact Network (CCIN) and at least one issue of its File 18 newsletter. Stratford gave a presentation at CCIN's ritualistic crime seminar in Boise, Idaho on October 25, 1988.
2. To a lesser extent, it was used as anti-pornography propaganda.
The response to Satan's Underground was immediate and widespread. Other Satanic breeders were interviewed on daytime TV shows, and Lauren herself appeared on Oprah with Johanna on the February 17, 1988 broadcast. She also appeared in Geraldo Rivera's 1988 special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground (available on YouTube), and on Christian programs like CBN's Straight Talk and The 700 Club. On these programs, her testimony was used to prop up the contention that Satanists posed a real, ongoing threat to the average American.
On the Geraldo special (which seems to have drawn part of its title from her book), Lauren described the murders of her three children and said the hearts are commonly removed from sacrificed infants. She said she still suffered nightmares in which her son Joey is missing, and she can't find him.
For the next decade, Stratford gave presentations at Christian gatherings and ritual abuse seminars. She networked with Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) survivors and their therapists, becoming friends with Dr. Catherine Gould, a California psychologist who compiled a widely-distributed list of SRA "symptoms" in the '80s.
She published two more books. In the third, Stripped Naked (Firebird Press, 1993), she revealed that her childhood abuse had involved Satanism and sophisticated mind-control programming designed to manipulate her alter personalities (Dissociative Identity Disorder). The Satanists trained some of her alters to commit suicides if Lauren's repressed memories ever began to surface.
Lauren claimed she was stunned and alarmed to learn she had MPD/DID, but in Part II we'll see she had a keen interest in that subject long before she met the Michaelsens.
Despite a devastating 1991 expose in Cornerstone magazine (the same Christian periodical that dismantled Mike Warnke's bogus stories), Stratford's staunchest supporters somehow found ways to reconcile all the contradictions and unanswered questions of her confusing, overlapping accounts. They overlooked clear signs that she may have suffered from a factitious disorder. They politely ignored her refusal to name names.
But eventually, Lauren Stratford's tales became so impossibly bizarre that all but her most deluded supporters were forced to abandon ship.
Part II: Unearthing the Underground