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“Turmoil in the Toy Box” Revisited

In the seventies and eighties, musicians such as KISS and Alice Cooper were accused by concerned moralists of indoctrinating children with all manner of satanic debauchery. Author Phil Phillips took things a step further in 1986: to Phillips, you did not need to watch a Gene Simmons performance to find this diabolic agenda. You need only watch an episode of Care Bears.

Phillips’ book Turmoil in the Toy Box is an odd mix. Its points about commercialization and media violence are often legitimate; at the other end of the scale we have Phillips’ claims that Satan caused his camera to malfunction while he was photographing toys, and that God personally told him to go on his crusade:

“Out of the blue the Lord said, ‘Phil, do you know what happens when children play with a toy?… Through toys like the one you have in the backseat of your car, Satan is gaining control of the minds of millions of children everywhere.'”

Much of his research into the occult and paganism is suspect: at one point Phillips tells us that pre-Christian Norsemen performed rituals wearing Darth Vader masks. Still, people bought the book, and the covers of later editions proudly proclaimed that over 135,000 copies were in print.

Phillips also appeared in a series of videos alongside Pastor Gary Greenwald. Some of the more remarkable clips are compiled in this video:

The two men were apparently competing to make the most bizarre claims: Phillips’ allegation that Smurfs represent undead corpses was a definite contender, but Greenwald came out on top with an anecdote about Dungeons and Dragons game pieces screaming in pain when thrown into fires.

This claim is reminiscent of the “deliverance ministry” movement, which holds that certain objects are inhabited by demons and should be burnt. Lake Hamilton Bible Camp claims that children with Smurf toys are open to vampire attacks, while Stan and Elizabeth Madrak’s website Demonbuster collects reports such as this:

“On Saturday evening I was watching television when my daughter of 2 came out of her room to tell me that her doll was moving by itself. I assumed that it probably fell off the shelf so to satisfy her I got up and went to her room. When I got there to my surprise she had a stuffed troll doll dancing in the middle of her bedroom floor to a Disney movie playing music . Being raised in church I began pleading the blood of Jesus and commanded that spirit to leave then the doll went limp and fell over on the floor. I took the doll outside my house and burned it.”

Secular commentators are not immune to this sort of thing. Political philosopher John Grey, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, sees the conspiracy theory as a vital aspect of what he terms “political religions”:

“Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed in vast conspiracies against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces.”

Cartoons enter the subject with the concept of “predictive programming.” Many conspiracy theorists hold that atrocities such as terrorist attacks are actually inside jobs orchestrated by governments; some go further and claim that conspirators hide veiled references to their plans in popular media beforehand.

For example, various videos on YouTube point to a 1997 Simpsons episode where Lisa holds up a picture of the World Trade Centre alongside the number 9; this is taken as evidence that Matt Groening knew about 9/11. This theory posits that the world is run by what must be a cabal of Batman villains, deliberately leaving clues to their plots purely so that they can be caught in the end.

Then we have the secular demonology of extra-terrestrials. In her book Strange Creations, self-proclaimed “crackpotologist” Donna Kossy casts a bemused eye over Cosmic Awareness, a group which claims that two species of alien—Greys and Reptoids—are meddling with human affairs. Barney the Dinosaur and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, according to the group, were created by the Reptoids so that children would accept their forthcoming conquest of Earth. (Indeed, both species seem interested in Earthling pop culture: “When asked what his favourite musical group was, one Grey answered, ‘New Kids on the Block’,” relates Kossy.)

This is very much the lunatic fringe, of course. Phil Phillips did not need a crackpotologist to dig up his cottage industry: after Turmoil in the Toy Box came a sequel, videos, and subsequent books by Phillips such as Saturday Morning Mind Control. What was it about Turmoil which allowed it to capture even a small slice of the public imagination?

Turmoil was written during a definite changing point in children’s media: He-Man, its main target, was the first cartoon series created to promote a toyline. Heavy merchandising of children’s entertainment was not entirely new; Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders relates how in 1955—shortly after Disney’s Davy Crockett series premiered—American children and their parents spent $300,000,000 on faux coonskin caps and other Crockett-related items. But Davy Crockett is a public domain character, and a reassuringly traditional one. Phillips examined a different landscape, where every pop culture figure is closely guarded by a corporation.

The book also contains a revealing passage in which Phillips identifies the root cause of all the turmoil: the sixties counterculture.

“Many of these writers and creators [of cartoons] came out of the 60’s generation and the drug era, during which they were involved in Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Some are still involved in these practices. Many live in Hollywood… the very nature of Hollywood leads to a hedonistic way of living, which often involves ‘meditation’, drugs and Eastern religious influences. In line with their lifestyles, most of these cartoon writers and toy designers are not church-going people.”

Perhaps the appeal of Turmoil in the Toy Box was that, beneath its waffle about Beelzebub, it touched upon some deeper anxieties surrounding modern culture.

  • Inkan1969

    It might be easy to laugh at kooks like Phillips. But people like him have been very destructive to animation and to children’s programming. People like Phillips form groups like Action for Children’s Television, and force cartoons to be non threatening. We’re also stuck with the E/I requirement because of such groups.

    • Rufus

      I disagree. “Wackos” have virtually nothing to do with it. We’re “stuck” with such limits on televised cartoons because the media is commonly employed as an unpaid baby sitter. When you want to broadcast for profit to the widest possible audience, you are also required to set standards that offend few.

      • William Bradford

        Rufus definitely hit the nail on the head there. I think it wouldn’t be too naive to say guys like these wackos aren’t around anymore, but really even in the time period these guys were at large, Mary Whitehouse would hear this and probably go “Really?”

  • William Bradford

    Everyone point and laugh at the silly twits

  • Oh man…people never tire with generating and spreading conspiracies do they?

  • Jonah Sidhom

    “Yoda is always seen with serpents around him”
    Wait… Since when?

    • Chris

      Some of the Dagobah scenes in ESB show some snakes moving around, and the original action figure came with one. That’s about it…

      • Jonah Sidhom

        Ah, I never noticed the snakes in ESB. That action figure is the only time I’ve ever associated snakes with Yoda.

  • Lionel Bee

    Awesome write up.

  • George Comerci

    Wow….that was ridiculous.

  • SarahJesness

    That story about the troll doll is just wonderfully insane!
    I wonder what cartoons and stuff people are complaining about today. Do the Avatar cartoons promote HEATHEN Eastern beliefs? Does Friendship is Magic foster belief in the Occult? Oh, and the things one could say about Adventure Time…

    • Mapache

      Well, Adventure time has a lot of straight up satanic imagery. A sword
      made of the blood of a demon, destroing sacred lamb statues, invoking
      evil creatures through simbols in the wall, hell itself. Is not hidden.

      • SarahJesness

        Don’t forget the apocalypse stuff.
        Your comment reminds me of something Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls creator) said on his Twitter. It was something like “I hate it when people accuse me of hiding occult symbols in my show. I put them in plain view!”.

        • Barrett

          I love Gravity Falls because its core is all about playing with the whole X-Files-inspired “bigger conspiracy with smaller offshoots” concept, but in a comedic and kid-appropriate way. It is engrossing because you want to find the answers to these mysteries right along with Dipper and Mabel. Throwing in all of the symbol imagery and even somewhat-hidden but still findable clues like backwards-talk and ciphers makes it “interactive” in a way that most “digitally enhanced” interactive TV gimmicks wish they could achieve. It’s been slowly building a big fanbase (I suspect slowly because the episodes seemed to trickle out over the span of a year.)

          I believe Alex Hirsch is simultaneously making fun of and giving a knowing nod to the whole Illuminati/Masonic/NWO conspiracy world, while simultaneously making a heartfelt and funny kids show. NOT something I would have expected to ever show up on Disney Channel given all the tween tripe they have been airing the past decade!

    • Hezekiah Bennetts

      I actually had a guest preacher come to my church and tell us that ‘Avatar was evil, because it manipulated the elements, which only God can do.’ My parents banned me from watching it. Not that we had cable, but… Anyhoo, thank God (Irony!) for Netflix.

  • Animator606432

    Phil Phillip is so crazy that even with in his own theories there are holes. During that special he even points to Scooby Doo as an example of “the occult” in cartoons.

  • Jason Cezar Duncan

    Funny to see how far back this noise goes. There’s tons of these videos on Youtube where people take anything they can find and use what ever they can pull out of their ass to say it’s some sign of something satanic or conspiracy the government is going to kill them. Yes, typical of the internet, but that’s not what bothers me. It’s the masses of comments from people who seem to genuinely believe the bull and the things they denounce tend to be things of positive nature, in this case, cartoons and animation, but they go for music and scientific advancements like vaccinations as well. It’s cynicism and craziness at their finest. Of coarse the bulk of these people also tend to be religious (big surprise). To be honest, it’s almost like they’re the evil conspiracies they speak of. FUCK REASON! JESUS! GOD! BLESS!

  • Bobby Sags

    oh man can you imagine being his kid… that poor poor girl

  • Paul M

    I saw a book in the late 90’s similar to Saturday Morning Mind Control , but it was a scholarly work without the Bible thumper hysteria. Can’t remember the title, but it made a pretty good case that cartoon makers were encoding messages in cartoons. Why is this surprising? As far as I can tell, any creative work has a message – why should cartoons be any different?

    This poor dumb jerk would absolutely flip his noodle over Adventure Time, even though the show infuses its portrayal of ‘real’ magick with positive AND negative, light AND darkness – as all great storytelling should.

    • SarahJesness

      People like this don’t care about storytelling. They just want works in the media to promote their values and their values alone. They won’t say Adventure Time is bad because they think it’s a bad show. They say it’s bad because it features magic, sometimes in a positive light, and thus encouraging the kids to do witchcraft. I’m sure they could come up with a TON of other stuff. Lesbian relationships have been vaguely implied, (well, that’s all up to viewer interpretation but if they don’t like something, they’ll twist anything into evidence against it) Marceline the Vampire Queen is pretty much the daughter of the devil (the Nightosophere is Hell and you know it!) but she’s a good guy, the main character owns a sword made of demon blood, Jake has children out of wedlock, and I’m sure they could say something about all of the interspecies relationships.

  • Taco

    A lack of broad ranging conversations that cross our continental and religious ethos is largely what is responsible for much of this misguided & isolated thought. Shared human knowledge, experience and goals is the only thing that will prevent any future ideological war. The type of people who perpetuate this alarmist though arn’t simply religious fruit-loops who want to be decisive and anti-humanist, but sadly we live in a world where perpetuating such thoughts in book form, or as sermons etc… becomes lucrative for the orator. And everyone needs to earn a buck & feel what they are saying is important.

  • cg

    just because you don’t agree doesn’t make it false

    • VBartilucci

      No, it being false, laughably so, makes it false. This is right up there with backwards masking and Jack Chick Tracts.

      The knee-jerk reaction to attack what is new and popular has been around almost forever – it’s popular to believe that Dr. Wertham was the first big success in convincing parents that it was That Thing Over There which is causing your kids from being perfect little darlings. But it goes way back before that – indeed, sunday comic strips in the paper were considered evil and step one to the downfall of society.

      • Barrett

        I don’t remember ever hearing historical accounts of people villianizing sunday comic strips, but boy oh boy did they go after single-issue comic books! The early 50s seemed rife with all kinds of hysteria, I guess America didn’t know how to handle its growing prosperity and influence in the world, everything was “commie this” and “youth-corrupting degeneracy that.”

    • mronin

      and just because you agree doesn´t make it true.

  • Mapache

    In the end, satanic images are religious symbols. Religious symbols will always be part of epic stories. It is amusing to see all the catholic elements in Neon Genesis Evangelion used the same way Captain Marvel uses the greek gods.

    Those are just aesthetic desitions.

  • Scott Shaw!

    There is something about both of these strung-too-tight suits that leads me to suspect that they’ve got their own personal demons that have nothing to do with toys or cartoons. In the thirty years that have passed, has either of them been the star of coverage on CHEATERS or TMZ?

  • Luke Flowers

    My parents had this “Turmoil in the Toybox” book on their shelves growing up (i bet it is still there, i should go grab it)!! Is it ironic that I am now an avid toy collector of said toys because I was not allowed to have them when I was younger and loved playing with them at friends house and connecting them to the great movies/cartoons of the 80’s that I now love? As a parent now myself, I can certainly understand my parents getting caught up in the occult scare, (I grew up in a Christian home and am a follower still today) and wanting to protect my brother’s and our little minds. But as a creative, and now illustrator/animator myself, I just couldn’t help but be drawn to all the brilliant creativity of my childhood. I think it was all those saturday morning cartoons, comic books and wacky toys that inspired me to want to be an artist! I certainly try to protect my kids from certain stuff that I don’t feel is age appropriate or in line with our families values, but to go to this sort of extreme scrutiny of an era’s toys was over the top. I also went to a Christian school through elementary and middle school and remember all this hype and hysteria being shoved at us. To me it was so frustrating because i loved the stuff, and didn’t see the evil “mind control” in it. (says the guy whose home studio is covered in said toys … yes, I realize I could use some therapy), but I love surrounding myself with inspiration. And that is exactly what my childhood felt like. Highly inspired.

  • Roberto Severino

    Love some conspiratainment by the loons. Everything to these people is a conspiracy now, even cartoons. It’s all a racket to pump up certain products and to manipulate people based on their fears.

  • Eric

    “This theory posits that the world is run by what must be a cabal of Batman villains, deliberately leaving clues to their plots purely so that they can be caught in the end.”
    The most common explanation I have heard is that it is some kind of ritual. Something they do to either absolve themselves of guilt somehow because they “warned” people first or that the spell they are doing won’t work unless people are aware of it somehow, even subconsciously. Another explanation is that some entity or spirits or extraterrestrials, something that can see the future, are trying to communicate with us using the creators of entertainment like television, movies and comic books as “prophets” though they are possibly unaware of it.

  • James Fox

    These people are equally as head desk worthy as the nutbags in the Westboro Baptist Church

    Since when does My Little Pony, Smurfs, Care Bears or even Voltron have anything “satanic”/”occultist”?

    • SarahJesness

      Rule of thumb is that anything that features magic can be accused of promoting the occult.

      • James Fox

        What is the “rule of thumb”?

        • mick

          rule of thumb is an old phrase which actually relates to the beating of your wife with nothing ‘thicker than your thumb’ … in has now become short hand for ‘applicable parameters’

  • ddrazen

    As a closet Care Bears fan in the 80s and a Christian since the 60s, I knew I had to give the Phil Phillips thesis a look when I heard about it.

    For starters it was pretty much a one-man show. Though earlier versions of “Turmoil in the Toy Box” were credited to a Joan H. Robie, the fine print in these versions stated that the book was ghost-written by Phil Phillips.

    Second, it’s a classic example of applied superficial thought. The Care Bears were linked to the nascent New Age movement because their tummy symbols were located on, well, on their tummies, and that had something to do with the whole chakra thing. While Phillips was trying to make a point about influence, he frequently wandered off the path into incoherency.

    As for “He-Man and Masters of the Universe,” I think he was just (easily) offended at cartoon characters appropriating a title that he thought should designate God and not an animated steroid case. But that’s about as deep as his theology appeared to go.

    I think the economic determinist interpretation (cartoons as commercials) is beside the point, especially if you took the Phillips thesis at face value — giving it a fundamentalist interpretation, if you will. He may or may not have been dead serious about this stuff, but a lot of his base certainly took him up on it.

    Yet even now when there’s more than plenty of subject matter to keep the hysteria going — relaunches of Care Bears and My Little Pony, “Gravity Falls” and “Adventure Time,” not to mention scores of anime — the market no longer seems to be there. It may have just belonged to its time the way Fred Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” belonged to the early 1950s. It was timely but not eternal.

  • T.

    I get the feeling that people like this can foster such crazy beliefs because of a lack of knowledge of the behind-the-scenes that REALLY goes on behind media. For instance, with the predictive programming theory, I feel like there is an obvious ignorance that the people who storyboard and animate this stuff are just regular joes, often working collaboratively, on each and every shot of an animation. I wonder if if Phil Phillips ever visited an actual animation studio, or talked to CEOs, artists, and ‘toon creators before making these outlandish accusations?

    • Funkybat

      heard similar things from my more conspiracy-minded friends. I find
      the whole thing entertaining more than anything else. If any entities
      or force were actually orchestrating all of this, it would have to be on
      a godly or demonic level, because it would have to be something done
      imperceptibly within a multitude of individuals’ minds. It’s not like
      there was a meeting with the story artists or layout artists on that
      “Homer Simpson vs. NYC” episode where someone important either suggested
      or insisted on a specific look for that $9 to NY bus ad to make sure it

      I think “auteur” filmmakers like Kubrick could very well be purposely
      incorporating these kinds of symbols into their creations, on a more
      collaborative project like an animated film or TV series, between
      deadlines and the multiple people making art choices every step of the
      way, it would be hard to make sure all these hidden signs are
      incorporated in these often seemingly clever ways.

      example of something more “creator-driven” that obviously DOES have a
      lot of symbols and messages in it is the Disney series “Gravity Falls.”
      However, in that case the creator set out from the beginning to include
      all of those things in an obvious way, to build an in-universe
      “mystery” and to set the mood. There are also frequent “coded messages”
      that use classic cipher decoding schemes, again inviting the audience
      to “solve the mystery.” Contrast that with the “Bart Simpson 9/11
      WTC predictive programming” type theory, where it is something done
      rarely and in a very tangential way, and only means something years
      after the fact. One makes sense, the other is rather circumstantial at

  • VBartilucci

    “He-Man, its main target, was the first cartoon series created to promote a toyline.”

    Incorrect – Hot Wheels, 1969.

    And assuming you just mean in America, cause they’ve been doing it in Japan since the seventies.

  • MaskedManAICN

    Damn, and here I thought Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the funniest guys in the 1980’s!

  • Jason Cezar Duncan

    A thing that’s apparent is these people (the one’s who genuinely believe the stuff) are just not that bright. Don’t understand cause and effect, don’t understand human error, don’t understand how animated cartoons are made or the concept of art, etc, and what you get are these “ministers” or “preachers” who come off as pseudo intellectual and make these half assed claims most of us could quickly logically and/or factually debunk, and sprinkle it all with religious or superstitious parallels to induce fear and other strong emotions in the weak minded (while conveniently tailoring the comments on their website to block any dissenting opinions from their claims nonetheless) . I imagine those “preachers” personally don’t believe any of it themselves and are doing it to gain money and attention from what is essentially a mental health crises. I have no respect or tolerance for anybody smart enough to know better doing such. So if that really be the case for “Pastor” whoever, I just hope you get what’s coming to you.

  • jared


  • jared

    I grew up with this ridiculous book when I was a kid and was a born again Xian. They used to try and scare the crap out of the kids with their fire and brimstone gospel approach very much like they do today. I am no longer a Xian and go against everything their church ever taught, they ruined a part of my childhood and I would NEVER do that to a child. It doesn’t amaze me that the Xian church still promotes “the end of times” and lust for the “end” with such a frenzy. You can see the lust and hunger in such movies like, “Left Behind” which focuses on this and the idea that ONLY Xians will be saved while everyone else will be destroyed because they deserved it! Nothing has changed since I left, the blame for their misfortunes are always placed on everyone but them or the devil himself. The devil, an invisible cartoon character that makes Xians make bad decisions and spares them of freewill or any responsibility. Sounds like another day in the church of the poisoned mind?

  • RayB

    Which Yoda figure has more occult power – the one with the orange snake, or the brown snake variant?