When season four of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things debuted on May 27, fans immediately fell in love with new character Eddie Munson, the intense leader of the Hawkins High School’s Dungeons & Dragons group, the Hellfire Club. Eddie takes all of the ’80s metalhead cliches and dials them all — and the Metallica — up to 11. He’s a nerd, a drug dealer, and a social outcast feared for his appearance and taste in music as much as his for erratic behavior.
But ultimately, Eddie’s someone with a wicked sense of humor and a heart of gold. Despite that, he’s blamed for the murder of head cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham because people think Eddie sacrificed her as a “Satanist.” Much of this season of Stranger Things revolves around half the main cast trying to prove Eddie’s innocence. As they say though, truth is stranger than fiction, and Eddie’s story is sadly very much based in fact.
Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, confirmed in an interview with Netflix that they based the character of Eddie Munson on the real-life case of the West Memphis Three — teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley — who were arrested and convicted of the brutal slayings of three boys in 1993. As Duffer explained:
“Something we really wanted to get into this year was the Satanic Panic. So that brought us back to the Paradise Lost documentary series with the West Memphis Three, and it brought us back to Damien Echols. We really wanted that character who’s a metalhead, he’s into Dungeons & Dragons, he’s ultimately a true nerd at heart. But from an outsider’s point of view, they may go, ‘This is someone that is scary.’ So that’s really where the idea for Eddie came in.”
On May 6, 1993, the horribly mutilated bodies of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found hogtied in a muddy creek leading to a drainage ditch outside the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Officers James Sudbury and Steve Jones of the West Memphis Police Department both felt the case had “cult” overtones and began to focus their investigation exclusively on Echols, Baldwin, and Miskelley.
Despite the fact that Miskelley was both a minor and categorized as borderline intellectual functioning, with an IQ of 72, the police detained and interrogated him for roughly 12 hours, of which only 46 minutes were recorded. After Miskelley confessed, and without any forensic evidence tying the teens to the crime, police arrested Echols and Baldwin. At their trial, Richard Ofshe, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and co-author of Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, testified that Miskelley’s confession was coerced.
Over later years, multiple examples of the WMPD’s incompetence came out — the police waited nearly two hours before phoning for the coroner, and then moved the bodies prior to the coroner’s examination; they failed to drain the creek to potentially secure more evidence; they concluded that the boys had been murdered on-site despite there being little to no blood at the scene; they refused an offer of aid from the better equipped and more experienced state police. Maybe worst of all, the WMPD wasted valuable time and opportunities pursuing the West Memphis Three because they were convinced, based on misinformation and lies, that such a gruesome murder MUST be the work of Satanic cults.
This kind of thinking was part of hysteria on a grand scale. Throughout the U.S. in the 1980’s, many police officers, psychologists, and other people of authority came to believe that satanic cults were lurking in the shadows, abducting children and sacrificing them to the Devil. The thinnest of evidence, including the presence of animal bones, rock music, and supposed “Satanic graffiti,” were accepted as proof of cult involvement. In true Inquisitorial fashion, guilt was presumed and confessions were coerced. The more one denied their involvement, the guiltier they were considered. When alleged victims of Satanic ritual abuse denied any such abuse took place, they were badgered by police or social workers until they produced accusations.
On February 5, 1994, Miskelley was sentenced to life plus 40 years; on March 19, Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison and Echols was given the death penalty. All three served nearly two decades behind bars until new DNA evidence and allegations of juror misconduct opened the possibility for the West Memphis Three to enter plea deals in 2011. Under the deals, they freed in exchange for legally acknowledging that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them. As such, while the West Memphis Three were released, they’ve never been legally declared innocent, and naturally, disturbingly, the real perpetrator or perpetrators have never been brought to justice.
While we can root for Eddie and his friends, the witch hunt led against him by Chrissy’s boyfriend, Jason, is a dark reminder that the real-life Eddie Munsons of the world often don’t have the support they need. The paranoid mindset of the Satanic Panic has seen a resurgence in recent years with the online spread of QAnon, fueled by social media, message boards, and political pundits. Stranger Things is entertaining, but it should also serve as a grim reminder of the danger of moral panics.
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