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Woman Flees Town Amid ‘Devil Worship’ Hysteria

October 4, 1988

IRVINE, Ky. (AP) _ Rumors that a woman was taking pictures of prospective devil-worship victims got so out of hand that an artist-in-residence said she fled for fear of her own safety.

″I’ve never seen such hysteria over nothing,″ said Janice Braverman, a Cincinnati photographer. She suggested she became the rumor’s target because she was a stranger in town, and frantic parents and a school principal failed to determine the truth.

″When I was fleeing town with my wet negatives, my mind went back to the Salem witch trials, and I just couldn’t believe that that kind of hysteria could happen today, and I could understand how it could happen then,″ Ms. Braverman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press late Monday.

″I’m not a threatening-looking person. I’m 5 feet tall,″ said Ms. Braverman, 36. ″I wasn’t wearing black. I don’t have jaggy eyebrows or long fingernails.″

Ms. Braverman arrived in Irvine in eastern Kentucky in mid-September to start a one-year photography project under a $10,000 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Rumors that devil worshipers were searching for blond, blue-eyed victims for sacrifices reached the town from surrounding counties about the same time.

Ms. Braverman says that when she visited Estill County High School to discuss the photo program with principal Russell Bowen, she ran into four girls in a restroom skipping class.

She told them about the project and they seemed interested.

″These were the kinds of kids I wanted to reach,″ Ms. Braverman said in an interview with The Kentucky Post, a Covington newspaper. ″The ones who might not do well in school and get discouraged - they drop out or skip classes.″

She photographed them mugging for the camera in front of the mirrors and showed them how to take pictures.

By the weekend, rumors were circulating that a woman was taking pictures of blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, potential victims for devil worshipers.

Ms. Braverman went to Bowen’s office the following Monday, Sept. 12, with Estill County Arts Project director Betty Holbrook, who helped arrange the photography project.

Bowen came out of his office yelling and screaming, Mrs. Holbrook said.

″Janice tried to ask him what was the problem, could he tell her what was wrong. He absolutely refused to talk to her,″ Mrs. Holbrook said. ″He threatened to have us arrested and thrown off the school grounds.″

Mrs. Holbrook said the principal chased them from the building, shaking his fist and screaming: ″Get out. Get out.″

Superintendent William Alexander later told them that two parents talked to Bowen about the pictures taken in the restroom and that Bowen somehow linked Ms. Braverman to the rumors, Mrs. Holbrook said.

Asked by the newspaper if he discussed the matter with Ms. Braverman, Bowen said: ″Did I talk with her? I don’t have to talk with anyone. To you or anyone else.″ He then hung up.

″He could have calmed things down,″ Ms. Braverman said. ″Instead he fanned the fears.″

″I thought I could give those students something, get them excited about something,″ she said. ″Now I’m waking up from nightmares. I don’t know if I ever want to teach again. You can turn around and find yourself accused of something for no reason at all.″

Alexander declined comment Monday. ″As far as I’m concerned, the issue here is closed ... and that’s where I’d prefer to leave it,″ he said.

Alexander said no action would be taken against any school officials.

The widespread rumors apparently began after authorities in Breathitt County arrested six people in late July stemming from a grave robbery that Jackson police said appeared to be related to devil worship.

Rumors that Satan worshipers would massacre students in Caldwell County schools sparked what a police official called a ″mass panic″ Sept. 16, when about half of the district’s 2,400 students left school.

In West Virginia, officials in Sissonville blamed teen-agers with overactive imaginations for rumors last week that a satanic cult was searching for a blond, blue-eyed child for human sacrifice.

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