Roman Mars [00:00:01] Lufthansa is the largest European airline and an industry innovator with a completely new travel experience. It’s Lufthansa Allegris, which sums up your travel in two words: “truly yours.” All four travel classes have been rethought, So the flight is a genuinely personal journey. First class now comes with two options–Suite or Suite Plus–which are private flying experiences for one or two people. The new business class offers seven different seats, offering more comfort, privacy, space, entertainment, and technology. Lufthansa Allegris. Flying becomes personal like never before and makes it truly yours. Stay tuned on when Lufthansa Allegris is coming to a city near you. To learn more, go to lufthansa.com and look for Allegris. Every kid learns differently. So, it’s really important that your children have the educational support that they need to help them keep up and excel. If your child needs homework help, check out IXL, the online learning platform for kids. IXL covers math, language arts, science, and social studies through interactive practice problems from pre-K to 12th grade. As kids practice, they get positive feedback and even awards. With the school year ramping up, now is the best time to get IXL. Our listeners can get an exclusive 20% off IXL membership when they sign up today and ixl.com/invisible. That’s the letters ixl.com/invisible. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:01:28] Due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised.
Roman Mars [00:01:37] In 1994, an independent producer made a short, earnest video featuring an eccentric cast of characters who are focused on a very specific paranoia.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:01:47] In satanic occultism, that which is good is bad, and that which is bad is good. And as you view this learning and educational tape, pay attention to notice the reverse of everything that is normal becoming abnormal.
Harmon Leon [00:02:08] The video was released as a one hour and 15-minute VHS tape.
Roman Mars [00:02:12] That’s producer Harmon Leon.
Harmon Leon [00:02:14] The tape was made to look like a TV news special. It opens with a cheap Jerry Springer era computer graphic of a gold pentagram set against a red brick wall.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:02:26] There are many crimes that are unsolved in our cities, and many of those crimes have ritualistic overtones. And so today, we hope to be able to shed some light on a dark, dark area.
Harmon Leon [00:02:40] There’s an impassioned host sporting a nappy sweater the color of wet cement. His title on screen reads “Cop/Pastor.”
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:02:49] Behind me is the city of San Francisco, a city known for the first satanic church in America. Anton Levay established this church under the freedoms of our country in 1966 and wrote The Satanic Bible.
Roman Mars [00:03:05] The video was called Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults. It was used by police departments as official training for their officers, showing them how to spot satanic crimes and how to put Satanists behind bars.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:03:18] It is only through proper training that the police officer can hope to gain the ability to understand and recognize which are regular offenses and those that belong to cult behaviors. This is a law enforcement problem. Therefore, all law enforcement officers should be familiar with…
Harmon Leon [00:03:35] I first saw this video years ago on YouTube. What got me laughing was how ridiculous it all seems today. The bikini model with a huge pentagram drawn on her stomach, the mullet-sporting so-called “satanic expert” who walks us through a crime scene filled with made up satanic symbols… I’ve watched the video no less than a dozen times, and it only gets more and more absurd with each viewing. But then I started looking a little closer and realized this video was once taken very seriously, especially by police who used it to convince their fellow officers that they were America’s first lines of defense in what we now call The Satanic Panic.
Roman Mars [00:04:22] The Satanic panic was based on conspiracy theories, misinformation, and straight up lies. But back in the 1980s and early ’90s, that wave of paranoia and anxiety that swept across the U.S. felt very real. The fear was that well organized, secret, satanic cults were lurking everywhere, corrupting America’s youth. Even worse, parents lived in terror that Satanists were kidnaping children and murdering them in gruesome occult sacrifices.
Harmon Leon [00:04:50] Everyone seemed to buy it. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and the media.
Jordan Smith [00:04:57] The local media was inclined to believe even the most ridiculous of allegations. And then you look on the national stage, and you have people giving faith for this idea.
Harmon Leon [00:05:07] Jordan Smith is an investigative journalist who’s covered the Satanic panic and how the press made things so much worse.
Jordan Smith [00:05:15] I think it’s… I mean, it’s disappointing is the nicest way to say it. I mean, these are people that are theoretically supposed to be calling out bullshit when they see it but are not.
Roman Mars [00:05:27] Definitely not. The media mostly just fanned the flames. There were dozens of documentaries and TV news specials produced on Satanism. Talk show celebrities made exposes stoking unfounded fears about demonic cults.
Liam Bartlett [00:05:41] To describe this story as horrifying would be an understatement. It deals with satanic cults, human sacrifices…
Geraldo Rivera [00:05:52] Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.
Oprah Winfrey [00:05:53] You know, there are thousands of men and women who are secretly worshiping the devil. The devil! On Thursday, we discuss Satanism.
Geraldo Rivera [00:06:00] To some, it’s a religion. To others, it’s the practice of evil in the devil’s name. It exists, and it’s flourishing.
Harmon Leon [00:06:08] These supposed deep dives into the dangers of devil worshiping cults were wildly successful in terms of ratings. Americans couldn’t get enough of the wall-to-wall Satanic panic coverage.
Jordan Smith [00:06:21] The thing that I will never understand is why somebody would believe this stuff because it’s just so clearly unhinged and irrational and illogical. Once the narrative got kicked off, it was just sort of an unstoppable juggernaut.
Roman Mars [00:06:37] But the Satanic panic would have never become as big and ugly as it did without the misguided and ignorant actions of law enforcement. Gullible cops believed they were on the front lines of an all-out war against a plague of demonic crime.
Harmon Leon [00:06:52] Law enforcement did not shy away from this role. Since the early 1980s when the panic began, police departments have been grooming cops whose job was to learn everything about demonic crimes. Most of those cops would proclaim themselves satanic experts. They would teach classes on occult crimes to their fellow officers.
Ken Lanning [00:07:16] There were several police departments that would have an officer who would be the designated satanic crime expert and so on. They had studied the phenomenon and declared themselves to be experts, and they were on the lecture circuit.
Harmon Leon [00:07:30] Ken Lanning is a former FBI agent, who was once the nation’s leading law enforcement authority on satanic crimes.
Ken Lanning [00:07:38] I became an informal clearinghouse for these cases. “Satanic ritual abuse? Call Ken Lanning at the FBI.” And so, I just started to deal with hundreds of these cases.
Harmon Leon [00:07:50] Today, Ken is very critical of the so-called “experts”–those cops who relied on a jumble of newspaper clippings, police reports, and sensational documentaries to teach their fellow officers.
Roman Mars [00:08:04] Police were particularly fond of Geraldo Rivera’s NBC special on Satanism, which earned huge ratings when it ran on TV in 1988.
Geraldo Rivera [00:08:13] It’s teenagers who are most likely to fall under the spell of this jumble of dark, violent emotions called Satanism–and in some cases, to be driven into committing terrible deeds.
Ken Lanning [00:08:25] When Geraldo’s special came out, because a lot of cops are looking for audiovisual material and shortcuts, they would make a copy of it on the VCR, pop it in the tape, and now you’re playing a Geraldo’s two-hour special that was shown on television as if it’s a documented training film for law enforcement.
Harmon Leon [00:08:44] And then in 1994, that law enforcement audience got exactly the kind of video it was looking for: a training tape about satanic cults that was tailor-made for cops.
Roman Mars [00:08:57] The idea for the video came from a small-time filmmaker named Devin DeHaven. Back in the early 1990s, DeHaven was a young producer based in San Diego, just trying to break into the film industry.
Cary Bertoncini [00:09:08] He had incredible energy. He’s really ambitious. He could get so much done in 24 hours.
Harmon Leon [00:09:14] This is Cary Bertoncini. He worked closely with DeHaven back in the ’90s. Although DeHaven wouldn’t talk to me for this story, Cary shared pretty freely his memories of how driven DeHaven was. He was constantly juggling numerous projects–from directing small music videos to shooting boring corporate films. His dream was always to become a big producer.
Cary Bertoncini [00:09:38] He had some real goals in sight. I mean, one of the things that he was really good at recognizing was that if you can get somebody to pay you to have a camera in your hands, that time becomes really valuable.
Roman Mars [00:09:50] For one of his projects, DeHaven made a half hour documentary aimed at teaching parents about the dangers of Satanism. Then he started developing another video on the same subject. But instead of a demonic occultism warning that felt like a PSA, this new project would focus specifically on cops.
Harmon Leon [00:10:08] There was already a built-in market for something like this. As the go-to experts on satanic crimes, cops were the stars of the moment. They were the ones educating the public about the alleged ritual abuse crisis in which they also got to play the heroes. But there weren’t any videos made specifically to teach police how to spot satanic crimes.
Roman Mars [00:10:31] DeHaven’s video would satisfy that need. To get the tape made and in the hands of law enforcement, DeHaven called up the guy he often rented his video equipment from.
Lenny Magill [00:10:41] Hello. I’m Lenny Magill. And as I stand before you, I have on or about my person concealed 11 different handguns.
Harmon Leon [00:10:49] I would describe Lenny Magill as the Joe Exotic of guns. Back in the early ’90s, instead of selling firearms, Lenny made his money producing his own brand of very niche VHS tapes.
Lenny Magill [00:11:04] I formed a business called Gun Video, and it was actually a good business. You know, we basically did a whole series of videotapes on firearms.
Harmon Leon [00:11:14] Lenny made instructional videotapes on all aspects of gun use, and he sold those tapes through his mail order catalog. That catalog and Lenny’s gun videos were very popular among law enforcement. That’s the exact audience Devin DeHaven hoped to reach.
Roman Mars [00:11:35] He needed Lenny’s help to shoot and market his new video project. So, they struck a deal. Lenny would be the executive producer of Devin’s new satanic video, and he’d get a cut of the sales. In exchange, Devin got to use Lenny’s cameras for free. And he got Lenny to agree to sell the tape in his catalog.
Lenny Magill [00:11:52] It was one of those things where it was like, “Okay. Well, sounds interesting. Go ahead. Do it. I don’t care. As long as I have a deal on the backside, I’ll be happy to do it. And I’ll share the profits with you.” And that actually worked out as a pretty good model.
Harmon Leon [00:12:04] Devin and his small crew wrote and shot the video over several months, mostly in San Francisco and San Diego. They pulled together several supposed experts, including that mullet sporting ex high priest.
Roman Mars [00:12:20] One hardened detective shows just how supposedly elaborate and pervasive these demonic cults were, pointing to a calendar of sacrificial holidays and a glossary of satanic terms. All of this is backed by a homemade synth soundtrack.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:12:35] The numbers six, six, six. According to the Bible, these numbers–six, six, six–are the mark of the beast. The pentagram. This inverted star points downward towards hell and Satan. It is a popular symbol but has no meaning other than a satanic one. And there may be many different versions.
Roman Mars [00:12:55] The video speaks straight to the police with the message that satanic ritual abuse is real, it is pervasive and horrific, and it’s hurting the most vulnerable people. According to the tape, cops are the ones to save us, and the tape promises to show them how.
Harmon Leon [00:13:13] Devin finished editing the video in 1994. And then he made a very smart marketing move. Just to make sure he got the attention of police, he slapped a sticker on each VHS case that read “Officer Training Purposes Only. Unauthorized viewers may be subject to prosecution under penalty of law.”
Roman Mars [00:13:37] It was a completely unenforceable and bogus warning. But it was meant to sell the idea that this was not just your average documentary, even though anyone could purchase the tape through Lenny McGill’s gun video catalog, that sticker gave the tape the air of official police business.
Harmon Leon [00:13:53] As agreed, Lenny Magill listed the tape in his gun video catalog. It wasn’t as big a hit as Lenny’s other titles like “Rock ‘n’ Roll 3: Sexy Girls, Sexy Guns.” But for police who were running sessions about satanism at conferences around the U.S., the 75-minute VHS tape was a godsend.
Ken Lanning [00:14:15] A lot of times the instructor would be given discretion as to what he might use or show during the training. And a lot of times, videos are good. And a lot of times, if it were something that you could use to give you a break in your presentation or something that kept the class interested, you might use it.
Harmon Leon [00:14:33] Weaving all the weird and dangerous myths of the Satanic panic into a single video, Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults was widely circulated.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:14:43] Maybe you think your community is immune to these satanic crimes. Well, it’s not. I challenge you to investigate each crime just a little bit deeper. Let’s stop this heinous crime that’s going on in the name of the devil. Let’s stop it before it takes another victim.
Roman Mars [00:15:06] But this tape had a lot of the same problems as all the other fear mongering media of that era. First of all, it trains police to be on the lookout for so-called “dabblers.” These were people who did things that were supposedly satanic-ish, like listening to heavy metal music, playing Dungeons and Dragons, or just being queer. Another problem with the video was that it featured someone claiming that they were abused by Satanists as a kid. These kinds of repressed memory testimonies were widely discredited by the mid 1990s. Psychotherapists were criticized for coercing children into saying whatever they thought the adults wanted to hear.
Harmon Leon [00:15:42] But the biggest issue with Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults is how much it was probably just made up.
Cary Bertoncini [00:15:48] You know, for me, I was a little bit uncomfortable with the level of dramatic presentation.
Roman Mars [00:15:55] This is Cary Bertoncini again. Devin DeHaven hired Cary to be his production manager on the project. Cary admits that the tape was shot less like a fact-based training video and more like a film where Devin took a lot of creative license.
Cary Bertoncini [00:16:08] You definitely get a very creepy mood from that video, and I think that’s what he was angling for. I think he wanted people to feel a little bit creeped out–a little bit scared. It seems like it’s creating fear where there really isn’t a whole lot to be afraid of.
Harmon Leon [00:16:26] Cary believes some of the so-called proof of demonic rituals in the video, like the satanic graffiti spray-painted everywhere, was staged by one of the experts in the video.
Cary Bertoncini [00:16:38] It looked like it was done on purpose for us because it was pretty consistent in its presentation.
Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults [00:16:45] But now, right over here–I can see on a tree here–there’s an inverted cross. Now, this is satanic. This is a very generic symbol. Let me see. Well, it’s actually fairly fresh, too. Obviously, they probably had a party or a ritual here within the past night or two. Usually what they’ll do is…
Roman Mars [00:17:06] Looking back, Cary says a lot of Devin’s production choices seem to follow this pattern of make-believe.
Cary Bertoncini [00:17:12] I think he may have embellished some of it. You know, a lot of what gets labeled as satanic activity is really just some kids goofing around. But, you know, that’s not a very interesting video to say that.
Roman Mars [00:17:30] But the thing is, back in the 1990s, cops didn’t see any of this as just goofing around. The Satanic panic stirred up a zealotry among police officers who became radicalized against satanism, particularly some Christian cops who literally believed they were doing God’s work by hunting demons.
Ken Lanning [00:17:49] Some of the cops were true believers. They believe in all of this, and they think they are doing a good thing to make society aware of it and to save abused children and expose what’s going on.
Harmon Leon [00:18:02] Since his days as the FBI’s number one satanism expert, Ken Lanning has become super critical of how police bought into the myths and conspiracies of the Satanic panic.
Ken Lanning [00:18:14] I would like to tell you that law enforcement officers are always neutral and objective fact finders–they’ve got their minds on straight–but I’ve found that police officers are just as likely or can be just as easily influenced by the emotion of something like satanic crime.
Roman Mars [00:18:30] As Ken Lanning looked closer at all the cases of supposed demonic abuse that had piled up on his desk during the 1980s and ’90s, things just weren’t adding up. There was often nothing to corroborate an investigator’s claim that a crime was, quote unquote, “satanic.” And when Lanning would ask for proof, he’d get all kinds of ridiculous excuses.
Ken Lanning [00:18:49] I’d say, “Okay, what’s the evidence?” And then they would explain to you why there wasn’t any evidence. That was the evidence–that there was no evidence.
Roman Mars [00:18:58] Lanning says detectives would often tell them that the evidence of ritual abuse had just vanished. They’d say it was because they were dealing with the dark forces of Satan who had the power to conceal it.
Ken Lanning [00:19:08] So their proof of it was the fact that there was no proof.
Harmon Leon [00:19:13] All the lies, conspiracies, and satanic profiling–it all had real and tragic consequences. During the 1980s and ’90s, nearly 200 people were charged with satanic ritual abuse crimes. Dozens were convicted and served long prison sentences. Some are still behind bars.
Roman Mars [00:19:35] In just one case that helped define the era, four openly gay women in San Antonio, Texas, were convicted of sexually assaulting two children in 1994. The crime was alleged to be, quote unquote, “satanic related.” The women received sentences ranging from 15 to more than 37 years. The case was clearly part of a homophobic witch hunt, and the accusations were completely baseless. All four women were eventually exonerated, but only after spending a decade and a half in prison. By the second half of the 1990s, a million holes had been poked in the Satanic panic conspiracy theories. People stopped believing that daycare centers were fronts for child sacrifice ceremonies–at least for the time being. And no one cared anymore if Satanic messages were hidden in rock music.
Harmon Leon [00:20:24] And so about a year or two after Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults was released, Ken Lanning says the national panic over demonic abuse really began to fade.
Ken Lanning [00:20:35] A lot of people just wanted it to go away. They were embarrassed that they had once believed that was going on, and they just quietly just walked away from it. Then the media turned on it as well. And the media started to do a lot of negative stories about it and point out the absurdity.
Harmon Leon [00:20:53] Geraldo came out and publicly apologized for all his devil worship exposes. As for the police, Lanning says most of them just moved on.
Roman Mars [00:21:03] Police departments around the country quietly stopped using the Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults video. The tape disappeared from police training sessions, along with the phrase “satanic ritual abuse.”
Harmon Leon [00:21:14] Producer Devin DeHaven never made anything quite like this tape ever again. His co-creator, Cary Bertoncini, says, “Devin got exactly what he wanted out of that production.”
Cary Bertoncini [00:21:27] It got his name out there. It got him working in different locations with equipment and a team. So, at his age and at the time, it was a pretty good feather in his cap. And it was mostly about making a video that’s going to help move him forward.
Roman Mars [00:21:46] DeHaven did Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults nearly 30 years ago in hopes of making a name for himself. With this tape as one of his first IMDb credits, he’s gone on to produce and direct nearly 300 different projects–from Def Comedy Jam to the very not-not-satanic Kiss Monster World Tour.
Harmon Leon [00:22:10] Even though I couldn’t get DeHaven to talk to me for this story, he did send me an email in which he said, “Going back to law enforcement thing, that’s so far in the past I don’t even remember those docs.”
Roman Mars [00:22:27] Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults lives on with a newfound audience. The artists collective Everything Is Terrible! has screened excerpts of their found footage festival where viewers would point and laugh at the idea that anyone in their right mind ever took any of this stuff seriously.
Harmon Leon [00:22:43] Nic Maier is the co-founder of Everything is Terrible! And he’s a big fan of the police training tape.
Nic Maier [00:22:49] I just watched it today, and I saw all kinds of things that I had missed the first seven times I had watched it. It’s just stuffed full of goodies. They were using that tape that is so clearly full of just bullshit, and they’re training police officers with this.
Roman Mars [00:23:06] After the Satanic panic, you’d think that we’d be wiser as a culture. But then there’s Pizzagate and QAnon.
Nic Maier [00:23:12] It’s just a constant rebranding of the same bullshit to keep people scared and in prison. And I think until the major structures of our civilization and the priorities of civilization change, it’s going to be the same shit.
Harmon Leon [00:23:33] It’s impossible to trace exactly how much Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults was responsible for all the myths that ruined people’s lives during the Satanic panic. But as an artifact of that era, it shows how conspiracies can easily balloon into the official story and how easy it is to slap on a sticker with an official sounding warning that seems to give these conspiracies the power and authority of law.
Roman Mars [00:24:12] After the break, a different story about finding the devil in a remote stretch of highway. It’s official. Fall is here. With busy routines and spare time filled with seasonal activities, your home may be sitting empty and vulnerable. That’s why SimpliSafe home security developed 24/7 Live Guard protection–a revolutionary home monitoring innovation made possible by SimpliSafe’s new Smart Alarm Wireless Indoor Camera. Now if an intruder breaks into your home, SimpliSafe’s monitoring agents can see, speak to, mentally mess with, and deter intruders in real time. The new Smart Alarm Wireless Indoor Camera is the only indoor security camera that can trigger the alarm and instantly deter intruders with a built-in siren. It has a physical privacy shutter to provide protection when you need it and privacy when you want it. Available with a Fast Protect monitoring plan, 24/7 Live Guard Protection and the new Smart Alarm Indoor Camera work together seamlessly as part of the SimpliSafe system to keep your home safe from break-ins, fires, floods, and more. For a limited time, get 20% off your new system when you sign up for Fast Protect Monitoring, visit simplisafe.com/invisible. That’s simplisafe.com/invisible. There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. If you need to design visuals for your brand, you know how important it is to stay on brand. Brands need to use their logos, colors, and fonts in order to stay consistent. It’s what makes them stand out. The online design platform Canva makes it easy for everyone to stay on brand. With Canva, you can keep your brand’s fonts, logos, colors, and graphics right where you design presentations, websites, videos, and more. Drag and drop your logo into a website design or click to get your social colors on brand. Create brand templates to give anyone on your team a design head start. You can save time resizing social posts with Canva Magic Resize. If your company decides to rebrand, replace your logo and other brand imagery across all your designs in just a few clicks. If you’re a designer, Canva will save you time on the repetitive tasks. And if you don’t have a design resource at your fingertips, just design it yourself. With Canva, you don’t need to be a designer to design visuals that stand out and stay on brand. Start designing today at canva.com. The home for every brand. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. With member areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content like videos, online courses, or newsletters. This Summer, why not share your adventures with your followers in a newsletter? Or maybe make some fun video compilations of all your summer escapades? Now you can create Pro-level videos effortlessly in the Squarespace Video Studio app. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share too. Plus, use Squarespace Insights to grow your business. Learn where your site visits and sales are coming from and analyze which channels are most effective. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain.Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Their curated assortment of mid-century, modern, coastal, industrial, and Scandinavian designs make furniture shopping simple. Article’s team of designers are all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. They’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time and looks good doing it. Article’s knowledgeable Customer Care team is there when you need them to make sure your experience is smooth and stress free. I think my favorite piece of furniture in my house is the Geome sideboard. Maslow picked it out. Remember, Maslow? And I keep my vinyl records and CDs in it. It just is awesome. I love the way it looks. Article is offering 99% Invisible listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit article.com/99 and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Sometimes associations with the devil appear in the smallest details–ones you have to look carefully in old road atlases to find. Reporter Austin Cope has the story.
Austin Cope [00:29:09] There’s a highway near where I grew up, about half an hour’s drive from the New Mexico border. It runs through some of the more remote parts of the U.S.–northern New Mexico, southern Utah, and my own hometown of Cortez in southwestern Colorado. Along the route, smooth tanned sandstone cliffs and jagged brown rock formations rise up over the high desert. Hot sun and giant thunderclouds fill the sky in summer. Cold winds and dust storms blow over it in the winter and spring. The highway was called US Route 666. Some locals call it “triple six” or “the highway to hell.” Most people I knew talked about it like a novelty. We had the Devil’s Highway running through our town.
Roman Mars [00:29:49] The link between 666 and the devil comes from the Bible. A passage in Chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation reads, “Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
Austin Cope [00:30:05] This association has led some people to feel really nervous about the number–enough people that they invented a needlessly complicated name for a fear of 666. It’s called hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia
Roman Mars [00:30:17] But the origin of how the highway became known as 666 is slightly less eventful than the Book of Revelation. It got its number through an aberration of the early days of the U.S. numbered highway system. That’s the set of guidelines that dictated how highways were arranged over the country as they were being built.
Austin Cope [00:30:34] Route 666 was connected to the more famous east-west highway, Route 66. That stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. Its number was finalized in the 1920s, and engineers planned to have several smaller routes branching off of it known as “spurs.” They assigned a three-digit number to each spur–all of them ending in 66. So, Highway 166 would start in Kansas, 266 in Oklahoma, 366 in Texas, and so on from east to west. Highway 666 was the sixth designated spur along the way. For the isolated parts of the country these highways went through–like where I grew up–these routes ended up becoming major thoroughfares.
Shannon Pinto [00:31:11] I also grew up next to the highway. I went to school in Gallup and lived in Tohatchi, New Mexico, and along that for about 30 miles along Highway 666, and it did have a lot of stigma to it as far as when we talk about the religious numbers.
Austin Cope [00:31:31] New Mexico State Senator Shannon Pinto represents one of the districts the highway runs through. She also represents some of the overlapping boundaries of the Navajo Nation. She’s Navajo, and most of her family lives in the area.
Shannon Pinto [00:31:42] There was no way you couldn’t get to where you needed to without driving the highway, you know? You couldn’t try to hold to your beliefs if you were religious about the 666 number. “Well, I’m not going to drive that highway.”
Austin Cope [00:31:58] As Pinto was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, it was hard to ignore the connection between the highway cutting through that area and the number of the beast. Lots of hard rock music had started to become popular among people on the reservation.
Shannon Pinto [00:32:09] There was Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Megadeth… Skid Row came out. There was a lot of metal bands during that time.
Iron Maiden [00:32:23] 666, the number of the beast!
Roman Mars [00:32:30] In 1994, the bad vibes kept coming when Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers came out. It had an ultraviolent plot that followed a couple of serial killers. Part of the film was shot in Gallup and directly references the local highway.
Wayne Gale [00:32:43] Tonight, I’m standing on Highway 666, running through towns like Cortez, Shiprock, Sheep Springs, and ending in Gallup, New Mexico. To some, a beautiful stretch of the American landscape. But to Mickey and Mallory Knox, who are still at large, it is literally a candy lane of murder and mayhem.
Austin Cope [00:33:05] Pinto says that it wasn’t just uber violent movies and death metal that freaked locals out. The highway had a reputation for being dangerous in real life, too. Collisions were common. She remembers someone from the tribal Office of Environmental Health coming into her middle school to talk about DWIs.
Shannon Pinto [00:33:21] And she showed us these maps of all these fatal collisions along Highway 666. It was a pretty high number, just even for the population per capita within the area.
Roman Mars [00:33:35] Between 1979 and 2000, New Mexico’s Transportation Department counted over 6,500 crashes between Gallup and the Colorado border. The Albuquerque Journal tallied 22 pedestrians killed between 1985 and 1992 within an eight-mile stretch. One state trooper even recalled a drunk driving suspect telling him, “Triple six is evil. Everyone dies on that highway.”
Austin Cope [00:33:59] And Pinto says there was violence in the region. She told me about a young Navajo girl who disappeared near the highway in the mid ’80s. That case wasn’t the first or the last. Gallup still has one of the highest rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the U.S. There were also issues related to drugs and alcohol that stem from the towns along the reservation’s borders and along the highway. For a lot of people in the area, it was hard to tell if the road’s pop culture perception influences real life danger or vice versa.
Shannon Pinto [00:34:26] I think when there was an accident, you wondered. You wondered if there was something a little more to it.
Austin Cope [00:34:36] She says that a lot of people in the Navajo Nation took issue with the name of Route 666. The road went directly through tribal land, and many of its safety issues had gone unaddressed for years to her. This made the route’s numbering seem even more disrespectful.
Roman Mars [00:34:52] It was a discomfort that went beyond hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.
Shannon Pinto [00:34:57] I think there was something with those numbers that didn’t sit well just with the area. There’s those that will hang on to it and feel like, you know, that it’s going to play into your perception of the rest of the world that they’re after you–after the Navajo people–to suppress and say, “Okay, you know, who was really in charge of putting that name on there? Did they do that to us purposely, or was it really something that was oversight?” And they thought, “Oh, over time they’ll live with it.”
Austin Cope [00:35:32] In her view, it seemed in line with so many other things that have been imposed on the Navajo people over the years. Not only was the design of the highway bad, but for Pinto, it felt like the federal government’s disregard of the number of symbology lined up with its carelessness towards the violence in the region, as well as the crime and economic concerns.
Roman Mars [00:35:49] Those issues would take years to fix, but the highway’s number was something that could be dealt with relatively quickly and easily.
Austin Cope [00:35:57] Shannon Pinto’s grandfather, John Pinto, was also a state senator. He represented that same district from the 1970s until he died in 2019. The highway’s numbering wasn’t his main priority during his years in the New Mexico senate. He spent more of his time advocating for funding for safety improvements on the route. But in 2003, he co-sponsored a measure to change the name from 666. It stated that nearby residents on the Navajo Nation lived under a, quote, “cloud of opprobrium” created by the number’s associations and that the highway’s reputation was making people avoid the area. The measure recommended state transportation officials change the number as soon as possible.
Roman Mars [00:36:31] The measure passed both chambers in mid 2003. Tribal and state transportation departments decided to change the numbers 666 to the more discreet 491. A few months later, the body governing U.S. highway numbers made it official.
Shannon Pinto [00:36:46] I think people were relieved that it finally occurred. The name has changed. You know, you’re done with it.
Austin Cope [00:36:55] Highway workers were already getting some help with the exorcism. The 666 signs had been popular targets for theft over the years. But sign stealing increased substantially after the change was announced. Less than two months after the remembering, the Associated Press reported that all the 666 signs in New Mexico and Colorado had been taken, leaving nothing except “sheared metal stubs.”
Roman Mars [00:37:18] Since the name change, there have been significantly fewer collisions and deaths along the route. But it had less to do with re numbering and more to do with design.
Austin Cope [00:37:27] The biggest improvement was getting almost 100 miles of the route changed from two lanes to four since its lack of medians was considered a major factor for accidents. It was a project John Pinto had pushed for over the course of his time in the state Senate. He and other legislators started advocating for funding in the early ’80s, but it took over 20 years for the projects to start. Between the 1990s, when it had two lanes, and the 2010s, when its expansion was completed, collisions decreased by almost half.
Roman Mars [00:37:53] There has been a movement over the years to rename the part of the highway that goes through New Mexico after John Pinto to honor his work. A proposal went before the Navajo Tribal Council after he died in 2019, but the naming hasn’t been made official.
Austin Cope [00:38:07] Now, 20 years later, there’s only one sign in Gallup that references the former 666 below the number 491. Otherwise, there’s very little trace of the previous designation. A lot of people might drive the highway without knowing it was ever there. You can still find it printed on some old maps. My parents still have a few in their car. Every so often I’ll pull one of them out and look for the old route. The numbers are tiny and hard to find among the hundreds of other roads in the area. If 666 has to be anywhere, maybe it’s best trapped in an out-of-date map tucked into a side door compartment next to some old pens and a spare pair of sunglasses.
Roman Mars [00:38:53] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Harmon Leon and Austin Cope. Edited by Christopher Johnson and Vivian Le. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Original music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Special thanks this week to Jessica Romoff. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north, in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.