Those who grew up in the 1980s and listened to Heavy Metal, played Dungeons and Dragons, or watched horror movies, are very familiar with the genuine hysteria that led to the so-called “Satanic Panic”. Along with the persecution of many harmless fans, came the added layer of purported cult activity that was ascribed to actual crimes and criminals. The Ricky Kasso case that took place in Long Island, New York was one of the first to capture the nation’s attention, and unsurprisingly, was not reported with the fidelity required to separate fact from fiction.
Jesse P. Pollack first examined the Kasso case in his 2018 true crime book entitled The Acid King and he subsequently went on to create a documentary film based on his book. Pollack’s film is now seeing the light of day (after a nearly two year delay) and we were able to speak to him about turning his book into a film and his thoughts on a case that helped fan the flames of the “Satanic Panic” in the mid 1980s in this exclusive interview.
How did you initially come to this story through your book and how did it transform into the new documentary film?
Jesse P. Pollack: It all started back in 2015 after my first book Death on the Devil’s Teeth was released, which was sort of a proto-typical “Satanic Panic” case, and Simon and Shuster was looking for another book in the same vein with the understanding that the case I selected had a teenage-centric angle.
The Ricky Kasso case wasn’t as well known as other “Satanic Panic” cases like the Judas Priest suicide case, or the Richard Ramirez “Night Stalker” murders, or the McMartin Pre-School one, but it was one of the first and it also involved teenagers.
So I started researching the Ricky Kasso case, and I immediately found David St. Clair’s Say You Love Satan book and figured that the story had already been told. But in researching the book, it was clear that St. Clair’s book and the other media coverage got the case totally wrong, with the exception of a Newsday article and David Breskin’s Rolling Stone story.
So from there, it became about finding the story and David Breskin’s generosity made it all possible. He kept all of the audio tapes that he used in his research, which represented interviews with over fifty people. It was absolutely my greatest coup; being able to have access to what amounted to a time machine with interviews with people that knew many of those involved in the murder, forty-eight to seventy-two hours after Kasso’s arrest, was essential to understanding the truth about the case.
Before the book was released, there were already people interested in adapting the story for television and film, but with an emphasis on the Satanic angle, which didn’t represent the reality of the story. Luckily negotiations broke down and I realized that the only way to maintain control of the narrative was to produce the adaptation myself.
Having already gained the trust of the people who knew Ricky, Jimmy Troiano, and Gary Lauwers from the interviews I conducted for the book, it was easy to get them to talk about it again on camera.
The documentary walks a careful line between criticizing the media and highlighting the power of the media to uncover the truth. How did you strike this balance, while at the same time showing how the media of the day fanned the flames of sensationalism?
Pollack: I had to be careful about criticizing the media, especially in a modern era when there is already so much distrust of the media and people claiming that it is “fake news”. You had better have all of your facts straight when you criticize the media and we didn’t want it to look like we were making them out to be the villain of the story. Unfortunately, some members of the media harassed a number of the people from the town, including Lauwers’ sister. St. Clair was relentless in trying to get her to talk to him for his book, and said that since she wouldn’t cooperate, “no one is going to ever know the truth” about the case.
But as I said before, David Breskin tried to tell the true story in his coverage of the murder, and brought the coverage away from the Satanic cult angle. Unfortunately, the case still generates thousands of hits on the internet, and has developed an unhealthy following for Kasso. One thing we hoped to do with The Acid King was, if some of those people stumbled upon the documentary, was to show them the truth.
Where does the Kasso case fall in the “Satanic Panic” timeline?
Pollack: It falls early in the timeline. For those that see the film who didn’t grow up in that era, it was important to explain how significant it was that when Kasso was arrested he was wearing an AC/DC shirt. Now you can get an AC/DC onesie for your baby at Walmart, but in that era, it terrified people. The original news story went around the world and the image of Kasso in the shirt, with the crazy smile, and the devil horns sign, it had all the right ingredients to create the hysteria. It spawned all of the stories about Devil cults, and bonfires, and animal sacrifices that were not occurring, but people believed it.
The Acid King will be available for streaming on a number of platforms very soon, but do you have any other plans for a physical release?
Pollack: Yes, we will be putting out a special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo version of The Acid King with extended interviews, a photo gallery, commentary, etc. I think everyone will be satisfied with the bigger context provided. This will be the definitive version of the film.
The Acid King is currently streaming on VUDU, DIRECTV, FiOS TV, and Roku. Stay tuned to Conskipper for more information about the special edition blu-ray release and additional streaming outlets where you can view the film.