Satanic Panic: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost

May 9, 2003 (Updated May 12, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fascinating, and terrifying, look at rural American 'justice'.

Cons:Brings up some pertinent information and never explores it.

The Bottom Line: An amazing, and terrifying, documentary.


It’s been almost a decade since the bodies of three second grade boys were discovered in the woods in West Memphis Arkansas. The crime made national headlines because of the savagery of the murders and the crime’s apparent links to satanic rituals and human sacrifice.

Within one month of the bodies being discovered, three teenaged boys were arrested for the crimes: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The lead investigator assured the media that the case was a slam-dunk, and the public (in a place where good dental hygiene seems to be completely non-existent) took them at their word.

But, was the case an open-and-closed affair like the authorities would have us believe? Were these three young men Satan-worshipping demons from hell, or just outsiders who happened to have an interest in Wicca and heavy metal music? Did they commit these horrible crimes? And if they didn’t who did? These are all questions that filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky attempt to answer in their riveting 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

With seemingly unprecedented access to both the prosecution and the defense (which allows them entry into strategy meetings, access to crime scene photos, and footage of the bodies actually being removed from the stream), Berlinger and Sinofsky delve deeply into the case—and in the process paint a picture almost too surreal and horrifying to be believed.

The crimes, and the alleged motivations themselves are gruesome enough, but what is truly disturbing is the ‘Satanic Panic’ that the duo capture from the community. Here, in modern day America, is a community who ardently believes that the devil himself (working through his minions) was responsible for the death of three little boys. It’s an eerie parallel to Salem during the witchcraft trials, where religious fervor, innuendo, and false accusations spread like wildfire and condemned many people unjustly.

‘Satanic Panic’, as it has been termed in the popular media, has been around since before the witch trials. It’s most recent resurgence (prior to the Robin Hills case) was during the 1980s when irresponsible members of the media and government cited vast satanic conspiracies occurring across the country. Devil worship, child murder, ritual sacrifice, and more were all reported with a deadly earnestness and a breathy sensationalism that worked otherwise good people into a religious frenzy. Soon, countless ‘occult experts’ were on shows like Geraldo warning parents that an interest in Ozzy Osbourne was the first step on the road to hell (and, just how ironic is it now that Ozzy is pitchman for Pepsi and star of a widely watched reality TV show? The Satanists have entered the mainstream…). The end result of this oversaturation of Satanic fear was obvious to anyone with half a brain—more sensationalistic reports of Satanism. There were numerous cases in the '80s where children came forward and reported being forced to participate in ‘satanic rituals’. Only now, years later, have we discovered that many of those ‘confessions’ were coerced at best and outright fabricated at worst by children wanting to please their questioners. Simply put, there were no vast satanic conspiracies in America—just as there aren’t any snuff film rings operating out there either.

Unfortunately, no one told the people of West Memphis any of this. Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin (who’ve become more commonly known as ‘The West Memphis 3) must be Satanists because they wear black clothes, listen to Metallica, and know who Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey are. Perhaps the most ironic thing is that I’m not even sure that Misskelley and Baldwin know any of that…they’re primarily guilty by association with the enigmatic Echols. If these things are prerequisites for Satanism, then I’m screwed—I’ve got a closet full of black clothes, a library with books by both Crowley and LaVey (as well as one of the largest collections of books by and about The Marquis de Sade that I’ve ever run across) and I’ve heard some heavy metal in my day (although, I’m a hip-hop guy personally—but that carries its own social stigma). Let’s not even discuss my horror film and mondo documentary collection…

As the film progresses, it becomes almost brutally apparent that there was a rush to judgment in the case. The police have bungled the investigation since the first moments (videotaped footage of the crime scene shows numerous people trampling about and touching things that shouldn’t be disturbed, other leads were never followed up, and forensic evidence was barely examined—and some of what was taken mysteriously ‘disappeared’) and the WM3 make convenient scapegoats.

Of course, this isn’t to say that they’re not without fault for the travesty of justice that happened in their case. The defense lawyers occasionally make good points (the discrediting of the prosecutions ‘occult expert’—a man who got his degree from a mail order school where he never had to take a class—is particularly good, as is the cross examination of two girls who reportedly heard Echols confess to the crimes at a softball game), but then drop the ball at others.

The worst decision seems to be allowing Echols to testify. Echols seems like a bright guy (particularly for West Memphis standards, which probably isn’t saying a whole lot), but he’s also young and idealistic. In many instances, Echols seems almost happy to discuss Wicca and the occult for the prosecution, never realizing that while there’s a distinction between white and black magic to him, there isn’t to the conservative Christian majority. Time and again, he lets the prosecution twist his words, and seems uninterested in correcting them.

Granted, it’s not fair to lay the blame at the feet of Echols—who should have been prepped by his attorneys, and who also should be innocent until proven guilty.

The defense, with the help of the filmmakers, even comes up with a more plausible culprit—the stepfather of one of the boys—who they get on the stand but refuse to come right out and ask if he did it.

The ‘proof’ presented to the court is amazingly shallow. The centerpiece is what is almost assuredly a coerced confession from Misskelley Jr. The young man is mentally challenged (he has an IQ of 72) and was interrogated for 12 hours without an attorney. His ‘confession’ contains numerous factual errors in relation to the crimes, but this never stops the police from linking him to the case—and subtly re-questioning him until they get the answers they want. For his part, Misskelley seems as though he would cop to anything just to get out of the interrogation—his main concern is getting home to have sex with his girlfriend.

Berlinger and Sinofsky do a fine job crafting the film, but I still can’t shake the feeling that something’s missing. Some elements, like the supposed alibis of the WM3, are mentioned but never explored. Because of this, the film feels at least somewhat incomplete in spots.

Ultimately, though, Paradise Lost is a success. Berlinger and Sinofsky set out to raise questions about the guilt of these three young men, and they achieve their goal. In the process, they paint a terrifying picture of America gone wrong—a land where the separation of church and state isn’t nearly as pronounced as it’s supposed to be, and where the people are so desperate to believe in evil that they’ll create it in the form of Satan while a real flesh and blood murderer almost assuredly still walks amongst them.

If you're interested reading more about the case, or following the most recent news relating to it, you can check out the following website:

http://www.wm3.org/


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