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Washed Up, Sold Out, and Spreading Hysteria


Peter Huston

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.1, January / February 1995

Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke By Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott. Cornerstone Press, Chicago, III. 1993. 476 pp. Paper, $12.95.

If you would like to spread some hysteria, one method is to firmly convince members of a small subculture that something they strongly fear is actually happening.

If you choose a subculture that interacts with mainstream society; then the hysteria will often ultimately spread outside the bounds of its members. Members of the subculture will believe the story, and they in turn will tell others of their fear. People from outside this subculture who would not normally believe the story will note the sincerity and firm belief in the voices and mannerisms of their friends from within it and begin to reconsider their position. After all, those telling the tales have nothing to gain and are firm believers, so it must be true. Or so goes the logic.

In time, you will find many people, some with impressive credentials, believing the stories. They will be quoted and their credentials cited. Others will remain skeptical, but may begin to question whether their skepticism is appropriate. Ultimately, many of them will say, “With all of these stories, coming from all of these people, some of them must be true, even if many (or even most) are obviously absurd.” After all (goes the logic), with all this smoke, there must be fire. Or, in the case of satanic-cult hysteria, “With all this horse manure piled so high and so deep, there must be a devilish little pony under there somewhere.”

Born-again, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians undoubtedly make up a subculture, by virtually any definition of the term. They have their own mass-market entertainment industry. They have “Christian” rock, “Christian” aerobics albums, “Christian” books on dinosaurs and evolution, and “Christian” comedians. They have schools and colleges with their own “Christian” curriculum that leaves out such facts as the widespread prevalence of other religions, the multicultural nature of the incredibly adaptive and flexible human race, evolution (human and otherwise), and the age of the universe. In short, many of them seek to live their lives so that they can minimize contact with all information sources that contradict their beliefs. If they do this successfully, then they can believe whatever they like and safely forget and ignore the troubling presence of not just secular humanists but also the mainstream churches of America and the world. On the other hand, most fundamentalist Christians do have regular jobs, shop at regular supermarkets, and live in normal neighborhoods, so they do interact with mainstream society on a fairly steady basis.

Within this evangelical subculture, Mike Warnke was a media superstar. Undoubtedly part of his appeal was the way in which he proved to people that if they dedicated themselves to Jesus then they could have a good life, no matter how terrible they might have once been. As proof of this, Mike Wamke offered himself. He confessed to having been not only a drug addict but also a high priest of a satanic cult that practiced human sacrifice and ritualistic rape and child abuse. Warnke proudly stated that, through Jesus, he now had a blissful family life.

Warnke’s alleged conversion from high satanic priest to dedicated Christian entertainer made a fascinating story and attracted considerable attention. Unlike Smith and Pazder’s Michelle Remembers, an earlier, influential, allegedly autobiographical, staunchly pro-Catholic, satanic-cult-hysteria book, The Satan Seller appealed to the evangelical Protestant community

In time, Warnke became known in some circles as an authority on satanic cults, and he appeared in that role on “20-20,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Larry King Live,” “Focus on the Family,” and “The 700 Club.” He was cited as an authority on Satanism and living proof of the existence of cults engaging in satanic ritual abuse in such works as Friesen’s Uncovering the Mystery of MPD [multiple personality disorder], Stratford’s Satins’ Underground, and Ryder’s Breaking the Circle of Satanic Ritual Abuse. These in turn were cited in other works. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Mike Warnke was solely responsible for the current spate of satanic-cult paranoia, he undoubtedly had a great influence. Few who have examined the arguments of believers in such cults can deny that many of them tend to have a worldview strongly grounded in Christian belief- systems and frequendy a conservative fundamentalist orientation.

Warnke’s book consists of his telling stories about the key events in his life and how they convinced him of the importance of adopting a Christian lifestyle. There were only two problems: He was a pretty lame and mediocre comedian, and he was corrupt and untruthful. In such a case, what is one to do? The answer is simple-call in Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein, a pair of born-again Christian investigative journalists.

Hertenstein and Trott, working for Cornerstone magazine, an evangelical publication, conducted a thorough investigation into Warnke’s claims. In Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke, they recount the investigation and the findings. Trott and Hertenstein tracked down and interviewed more than one hundred of Warnke’s acquaintances from throughout his life. Among the discoveries was that Warnke’s lies were not even very good ones. For example, by his own admission, he had been involved in drugs in college. He told how drug use led him on a self destructive path culminating in involvement in the occult. This in turn led him to Satanism, and ultimately to becoming high priest of the group. Following the period of occult involvement, Warnke joined the Navy and served in Vietnam with the Marine Corp as a medical corpsman. While in the service he was converted and “saved” by two Christians who were sure that even Mike Warnke, former drug addict and satanic high priest, was not too far gone for Jesus’ love to turn him around.

The writers uncovered that Warnke had entered college, a secular junior college, September 13, 1965. He entered the Navy on June 2, 1966. During his one semester prior to dropping out, there was hardly enough time for the many adventures Warnke claimed happened. during his drug-addicted drug-dealer/Satanic-cultist turned-high-priest period. These included being shot three times, riding a motorcycle to Mexico to make drug deals for a gangster, imprisoning sex slaves in his apartment, participating in CIA-financed LSD experiments at the college, and kidnapping a variety of victims for his cult’s evil rituals and orchestrating the abduction of others. He described walking around campus dressed in black with pasty white skin, innumerable scabs on his face, waist-length hair, and six-inch-long fingernails, painted black and sharpened for fighting. As ludicrous as this thrill-a-minute college semester sounds, it became even more absurd as Trott and Hertenstein began pinning down the dates even further, based on Warnke’s descriptions of various diabolic ceremonies held under the light of a full moon. The dates fell apart completely.

Fellow students and college faculty found furrther problems with the story. It was, after all, set in the early sixties, not the late sixties. There were no drugs at the junior college at the time, no CIA-funded LSD experiments, and no people with waist-length hair, much less the rest of the bizarre description Warnke provided. This pattern of gross falsehood continued. His period in Vietnam, described as a “year in Hell,” was six months long, and most of his war stories had happened to other people or never occurred at all. Other stories could not be corroborated. For example, the two dedicated Christians who had “saved” Warnke had, he claimed, “died in Vietnam.” His blissful family life following the war consisted of a series of four marriages, each ending in divorce, with much womanizing on the side. The donation plate passed around after each show supposedly went to a center for aiding satanic-cult-abuse victims. Neither the center nor the victims existed. And as for his Christianity, Trott and Hertenstein uncovered that, in a completely unexpected episode of bizarreness, Warnke had secretly been ordained as an independent bishop in an obscure Eastern Orthodox sect, which he practiced on the side. It should be mentioned that this version of Christianity would be quite distasteful to most of the people who purchased or enjoyed his materials.

Warnke’s lies remained undiscovered for many years for several reasons. First, he told people what they wanted to hear. Second, those who did uncover signs of corruption, either did not know where to go to inform his public or else did not wish to go public because of their personal financial interest or their approval of the way Warnke would successfully gain converts (to a religion he didn't practice).

I found Selling Satan fascinating. It is more than the story of one individual; it also deals with his effect on others. Warnke, evil as he is, is an intriguing character. Hertenstein and Trott also provide a very interesting picture of the “Christian music industry.” Their book should be read by all those concerned with satanic-cult hysteria. It is targeted for an audience that needs to hear this message and finds the writings of most skeptics distasteful, or even blasphemous.

As for the rest of us, Cornerstone’s investigative pieces into such claims have been cited favorably by such authors as Robert Hicks and Jeffrey Victor, both of whom have contributed articles on this subject to the Skeptical Inquirer. Many skeptics often find such evangelical Christianity objectionable. Personally, I did not find this to be true as I read Selling Satan. In fact, it increased my respect for those who profess such beliefs. Trott and Hertenstein have made a valuable contribution to understanding the phenomenon of satanic-cult fears. I look forward to seeing the results of their next project.

Peter Huston

Peter Huston was very active in organized skepticism in the 1990s contributing many articles and reviews to the Skeptical Inquirer and other publications, as well as serving as an officer of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York during that period. He is the author of four books. Two of these, Scams from the Great Beyond and More Scams from the Great Beyond, dealt with skeptical subjects using humor. His other books are Tongs, Gangs, and Triads—Chinese Crime Groups in North America, and Excess Emotional Baggage—An Amazing, Semi-true, post-industrial, pulp-fiction, adventure tale of Schenectady, a novel. He has a master's degree in East Asian Studies from Cornell and a second masters from the University at Albany in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. His Cornell Master's thesis focused on the Peking Man paleontological digs and the history of Western science in China.