Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about “Satanic Panic” — the societal fear of the occult that troubled the US and other parts of the world throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s — is that it ever ended.
One of the most famous, prolonged mass media scares in history, Satanic Panic was characterized at its peak by fearful media depictions of godless teenagers and the deviant music and media they consumed. This, in turn, led to a number of high-profile criminal cases that were heavily influenced by all the social hysteria. Most people associate the Satanic Panic with so-called “satanic ritual abuse,” a rash of false allegations made against day care centers in the ’80s, and with the case of the West Memphis Three in the ’90s, in which three teenagers whose wrongful conviction on homicide charges was based on little more than suspicion over their goth lifestyles.
At their core, satanic ritual abuse claims relied on overzealous law enforcement, unsubstantiated statements from children, and, above all, coercive and suggestive interrogation by therapists and prosecutors. Some of the defendants are still serving life sentences for crimes they probably didn’t commit — and which likely didn’t happen in the first place. As for the West Memphis Three, they were eventually released in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison, and their case stands as one of the worst examples of what happens when police rush to judgment without evidence in a case.
But even if the police are less likely to rush to judgment these days over rumors of satanic worship and occult influences, many members of the public have no such qualms. Witness the recent controversy around Lil Nas X and his latest music video “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” — in which he cavorts erotically with various iterations of Satan — and the way he was able to scandalize countless Christians by releasing limited-edition blood-infused Nikes dubbed “Satan shoes.”
Was the subsequent outrage from those who accused Lil Nas X of being a corrupting influence just a case of a failure to read art metaphorically? Perhaps. But a look at this bizarre period in US history offers another possible explanation: Satanic Panic never truly went away. It’s alive and well today, and its legacy threads through American culture and politics, in everything from social media moralizing to QAnon.
The rise of occultism, satanism, and evangelical fear began in the 1970s
A number of factors contributed to the increased interest in, and fear of, the occult during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Manson cult’s operation in the late ’60s culminated in a string of murders in the summer of 1969 that shocked the nation and put organized ritualistic killing on the brain.
That same year, organist-turned-occultist Anton LaVey published his philosophical treatise The Satanic Bible, which plagiarized several sources and mostly regurgitated earlier philosophies of self-actualization and self-empowerment from writers like H.L. Mencken and Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, it became the seminal work of modern satanism and the key text for the Church of Satan, a group LaVey had officially founded in 1966.
Accompanying the rise of satanism as a recognized practice was the 1971 publication of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist and its blockbuster 1973 film adaptation. With its claims of being based on a true story, The Exorcist profoundly impacted America’s collective psyche regarding the existence of demons, and single-handedly transformed the popular Ouija board from a fun, harmless parlor game into a malevolent device capable of inducing spirit possession, demonic infestation, or other paranormal activity.
Then came the 1972 publication of Satan Seller. A fabricated memoir, ultimately discredited after 20 years, by self-proclaimed Christian evangelist Mike Warnke, Satan Seller recounted a childhood and young adulthood that Warnke claimed were spent in intense satanic worship. Warnke wrote that he served as a satanic high priest and was engaged in, among other things, ritualistic sex orgies. (Remember that, it’ll be important later.)
The publication of LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, also in 1972, reinforced the idea that dark occult rituals had become a routine part of life for many Americans. And though it had no connections to satanism or traditional occult religion, the 1978 Jonestown massacre would give the world another indelible example of what violence in a cult looked like.
The ’70s saw the rise of other self-proclaimed former satanists who insisted that the world was being run by ritualistic satanic witch cults: John Todd, Hershel Smith, and David Hanson. Including Warnke, all four men grew up in Southern California and seemed to emerge from the still-smoldering ashes of the Manson cult to declare that the world was full of dark occult symbols and far-reaching satanic conspiracies. All of them claimed to have conversion experiences that made their stories appealing to Christians.
And all of them were linked to the emerging fundamentalist Christian right. Todd was supported by Christian tract maker Jack Chick, who used his fabricated claims as the basis for numerous comic-style pamphlets protesting against satanism. Warnke spent over a decade posing as an “expert” in satanism for the fundamental evangelical Christian community, passing off much of his made-up childhood as a template for how “real” satanism worked.
The growing fascination with the occult also coincided with a number of extremely well-publicized serial killer cases that took place in the ’70s: the Zodiac killer and the Alphabet Killer, both of whom used ritualistic patterns in their killings, neither of whom were ever caught; Ted Bundy; John Wayne Gacy; the Hillside Stranglers; and David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, who sparked a mass panic during the summer of 1977 in New York City.
Many of these well-publicized serial killers maintained an image of having the upper hand in some way: The Zodiac Killer and Berkowitz wrote taunting letters to the press and police; Bundy escaped from prison and immediately resumed his horrifying killing sprees; Gacy hid his evil under the most banal of disguises, a friendly clown who performed for children. As the brazen anarchy associated with these kinds of high-profile killings grew, so did public fear.
In a 2005 book about that fateful New York summer, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, author Jonathan Mahler writes of the impact that Son of Sam had on the media: “The frenzied [media] coverage fanned the growing sense of fear; the growing sense of fear fanned the frenzied coverage.” Mahler’s observation about the media fueling this mass panic would ring true well into the next decade, when heightened religious fears and the concept of stranger danger coalesced into a new breed of mass hysteria.
The 1980s were defined by stranger danger and a growing fear of your own neighborhood
Although the Reagan era was a time of economic growth and financial prosperity, it was also a time of unease centered on population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the double-income family model, which necessitated a sharp increase in the need for day care services. As a result, anxiety about protecting the nuclear family from the unknown dangers of this new era was high: The ’80s saw the spread of AIDS misinformation, kidnap victims’ faces appearing on milk cartons, the mass panic surrounding the 1982 Tylenol murders, trick-or-treat scares (the nation’s lone Halloween candy killer, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, received a highly publicized execution in 1984), and the first wave of reports of scary killer clowns attempting to prey on children.
Each of these moments of social unrest signaled Americans’ growing alarm over “stranger danger” and the fear that evil could always be lurking right around the corner.
Through it all, Christian fundamentalism and a literal belief in angels and devils were on the rise. Fundamentalist preachers like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, founded in 1979, gained prominence across the country, passing along a literal fire-and-brimstone style of Christianity. Anti-occult crusaders like Pat Pulling, who believed her son’s death by suicide was the result of a Dungeons and Dragons curse, crusaded against role-playing games as dangerous and demonic, backed by occult fearmongering from Chick and his Chick Tracts.
The evangelical movement wasn’t alone in its growing occult obsession and fearmongering. The media, too, played an outsize role in stoking the public’s fear and fueling misconceptions surrounding occult practices. In 1988, Geraldo Rivera’s lurid documentary Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground became the highest-rated televised documentary to air up to that point. A 1991 20/20 episode famously (and for many viewers terrifyingly) aired an official Roman Catholic exorcism. Evangelical documentaries like Hell’s Bells attempted to tie rock music to the occult, while “Christian fantasy” like that of bestselling author Frank Peretti transformed real-world social issues into matters of angelic and demonic warfare.
With so much parallel emphasis on fearing strangers in your neighborhood and Satan in your home, a collision of the two was practically inevitable.
How the imagined threat of satanic ritual abuse became established
In 1980, a since-discredited memoir called Michelle Remembers became a scandalous bestseller based on its purported detailing of a childhood spent undergoing a wealth of shocking occult sexual abuse. Its co-authors were controversial psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his wife Michelle Smith, a former patient whom Pazder claimed to have regressed into childhood through hypnosis. Pazder purportedly helped Smith uncover memories of past abuse at the hands of members of the Church of Satan, which Pazder insisted was older than LaVey’s group by several centuries.
Almost from the moment of Michelle Remembers’ publication, its claims and allegations were repeatedly and thoroughly debunked. However, thanks to widespread and credulous media attention, Pazder and Smith were able to double down on their story, and Pazder became seen as an expert in the arena of what would come to be called satanic ritual abuse (SRA).
Despite the wild implausibility and unverifiable foundation of its stories of grisly abuse and sex orgies, Michelle Remembers was presented as a textbook during the ’80s and early ’90s for legal professionals and other authorities. It also spawned numerous copycat memoirs like 1988’s Satan’s Underground, which was also shown to be false and which embellished and mainstreamed the idea of a massive, intergenerational, clandestine cult founded on satanic ritual abuse — one that could be occurring in your very own neighborhood.
At that time, “the devil worshippers could be anywhere,” writer Peter Bebergal told io9 in summing up the zeitgeist. “They could be your next-door neighbor. They could be your child’s caregiver.”
The false narrative of Michelle Remembers would directly impact the nation for over a decade. Its dark occult fantasies helped to spark the rash of wildly dramatic, highly unfounded accusations of satanic ritual abuse that were attached to a string of daycare centers throughout the 1980s. The belief that daycare owners across the country were visiting dark occult acts of child abuse upon their young charges was the most prominent part of a broader daycare sex abuse mass panic, which was itself part of the 1980s’ much broader wave of fear.
This fear would ravage communities, lead to two of the most notorious criminal trials in US history, and ruin multiple lives before it finally subsided — and some of its victims are still serving sentences today.
The repercussions of criminal prosecution for satanic ritual abuse are still being felt today
The earliest of the wave of satanic ritual abuse cases began in Kern County, California, in 1980. In Bakersfield, social workers who had read Michelle Remembers learned of a clandestine local occult sex ring from two children who’d been coerced into fabricating the claims by a relative. Between 1984 and 1986, the investigation into these labyrinthine claims would send at least 26 people to jail in interrelated convictions, despite a complete lack of corroborative physical evidence for any of the claims. Nearly all of those convictions have since been overturned, including that of one man who served 20 years of a 40-year sentence, and those of two parents who were sentenced to 240 years in prison after their own sons were coached to accuse them of abuse.
This template — a spiraling investigation, wild claims, no evidence — would remain consistent for more than a decade throughout the subsequent wave of failed prosecutions of satanic ritual abuse in day cares and schools across the US.
Among them was the disastrous McMartin trial, which became — and remains — the largest, longest, and most expensive trial in California history. In 1983, one parent accused one of the staff members at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of abuse. During the investigation, police allowed an unlicensed psychotherapist named Kee MacFarlane to conduct examinations of 400 children who attended the day care. MacFarlane famously used “anatomically correct” dolls and coercive interview processes, resulting in a staggering 321 counts of child abuse being leveled against seven day care staff members by 41 children. The eyebrow-raising claims included allegations that day care owners had built secret underground tunnels that led to ritual ceremonies, had ritually sacrificed a baby, flushed children down toilets, and could turn into witches and fly.
After six years of investigation and litigation of a five-year trial, the case ultimately essentially evaporated due to a lack of evidence. One by one, all charges against the day care staffers were dropped. The McMartin preschool building was razed in 1990.
By the mid-’80s, a wave of seminars, tutorials, and educational videos for authorities and evangelicals on the subject of recognizing and fighting satanic cults was sweeping the US. Law enforcement in El Paso, Texas “were promptly dispatched to ‘ritual crime’ seminars,” journalist Debbie Nathan recounted in 2003. These were “classes aimed at law enforcement authorities and taught mostly by other cops, therapists, preachers and by born again Christians claiming to be former high priests or escapees from unspeakably sadistic ritual-torture cults.”
In 1992, the Justice Department thoroughly debunked the myth of the satanic ritual abuse cult. But though accusations of satanically motivated child abuse rituals had pretty much died out by the mid-1990s, law enforcement continued to treat Satan as a potential criminal indicator — as we see in this 1994 police training video, The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults.
Today, this video seems laughable, but the humor fades when we consider just how many real people were persecuted due to these brazen stereotypes about devil worship. Indeed, the most damaging misconception about the fallout of Satanic Panic is that it ended in the ’90s. In fact, although most satanic ritual abuse cases eventually resulted in overturned convictions, at least three people are still serving prison sentences for crimes that most likely never happened.
In 1984, Cuban immigrant Frank Fuster was accused, along with his undocumented wife, of molesting eight children, despite coercive interview sessions and a lack of physical evidence. Fuster was sentenced to six consecutive life terms, or a minimum of 165 years in prison. As of 2021, he has been imprisoned for over 35 years and will not be eligible for parole until 2134. He reportedly has no legal representation.
As appalling as Fuster’s sentence is, he’s not alone. North Carolina inmate Patrick Figured is, at age 72, still serving time for a 1992 conviction due to coerced allegations of ritualistic abuse. And Joseph Allen, age 63, has been serving time in Ohio since 1994 for a highly bizarre case in which he was convicted of ritualistic child abuse along with another woman, even though the two had never even met. She was later exonerated.
The list goes on and on. One Florida school principal spent 21 years in prison after being convicted of false SRA claims; he was released at the age of 80 and ordered to move to another country. In El Paso, two preschool owners each spent 21 years in prison.
In 1984, three members of the Amirault family of Malden, Massachusetts, were convicted of false child molestation charges, following yet another pattern of false memory coercion from children. Two of the defendants spent 10 and 20 years in prison before being paroled in 1999 and 2004, respectively. The third defendant died of cancer in prison before her conviction could be overturned. She was exonerated in 1998 — the year after she died.
In 1997, four lesbian women who became known as the San Antonio Four were targeted and wrongfully convicted for child molestation claims. Their trial played out against a resurgence of Satanic Panic tied to homophobia in a conservative state, and their fight for justice lasted nearly two decades. All four women spent 15 years in prison before having their convictions overturned in 2015 and ultimately expunged in 2018.
But by far the most notorious criminal case of the Satanic Panic era was that of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas, were accused and later convicted of the horrific sexual assault and murders of three young boys. The teens were accused primarily based on hearsay surrounding their goth lifestyles and rumors that they worshipped Satan, despite a lack of any physical evidence. The famed documentary Paradise Lost publicized the case, and the three men were ultimately freed in 2011, after new DNA evidence showed them to have no connection to the killings. They entered Alford pleas, which commuted their sentences to time served: 18 years in prison, each.
The legacy of Satanic Panic is now deeply interwoven with American culture and politics — all the way through QAnon and beyond
Because of the high profiles of such over-the-top cases as the McMartin trial disaster and the West Memphis Three, the public gradually became skeptical of satanic ritual abuse claims. But despite the debunking of myths, Satanic Panic continued to sweep the globe and impact the lives of innocent individuals.
For example, in Britain in the early ’90s, one British man came under suspicion of murder and endured months of psychological entrapment by police, due entirely to his proximity to the crime and his interest in Wicca and other occult hobbies.
And in 2007, the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, led to the infamous trial and conviction of her flatmate, Amanda Knox. During the trial, chief prosecutor Giuliano Mignini suggested without any evidence that since the murder took place the day after Halloween, Knox must have intended “a sexual and sacrificial rite.” He invoked a modern-day witch hunt against Knox, with one lawyer describing her as “Lucifer-like, Satanic, demonic, diabolical, a witch of deception.” Knox spent four years in prison; on appeal, she was acquitted, re-convicted, re-acquitted, and ultimately exonerated in 2015.
The most damaging effects of Satanic Panic were felt within the legal system, but there were broader ramifications, too — and many of them linger today. Fans of Dungeons and Dragons and other allegedly “occult” games were demonized for years. Strange conspiracy theories flourished, including rumors of subliminal messages in rock music, a conspiracy about Procter & Gamble that won the company a $19.25 million settlement, the creepy clown hoax of 2016, and concern over one guy’s weird Airbnb decor.
Many of those conspiracies and strange murmurs of illicit child sex rings are still with us decades later. The 2016 clown hoax traded on longstanding myths about child predators lurking among us and relying on innocent-looking methods of attack. And many right-wing conspiracy theories that have ballooned into serious threats over the past five years contain overt elements of Satanic Panic. Pizzagate, which led to a believer bringing a gun to a Washington, DC, pizza parlor in 2016, held that Democratic politicians were secretly trafficking children for sex, holding them in the basement of the restaurant. (It doesn’t have a basement.)
Also in 2016, right-wing conspirators interpreted a dinner party held by performance artist Marina Abramović to be a satanic ritual. Details of the dinner party first emerged through the leaked emails of John Podesta, former campaign chair to Hillary Clinton. Although the theory was absurd, Abramović has faced allegations that she is a practicing satanist ever since; in 2020, outraged conspiracy theorists disrupted and shut down a collaboration she worked on with Microsoft.
The Abramović theory was tied to Pizzagate, in that it was also politicized and also involved the idea that Democratic politicians were secretly engaged in evil acts. Given the polarized US political climate, it’s easy to see how two similarly unfounded ideas — Democrats engaged in ritual satanism and Democrats engaged in child sexual abuse — could become linked in the minds of some members of the public. And in 2017, that’s just what happened.
In October 2017, an anonymous 4chan user going by “Q” began claiming insider knowledge about a vast satanic pedophile ring involving democrats, high-powered celebrities, and world leaders. Q’s conspiracy theory held that President Donald Trump was pretending to be incompetent so that he could more effectively apprehend the pedophiles in government around him — pedophiles who, in addition to practicing satanic rites and sexual abuse, were also trafficking children to harvest their hormones and make serums that would provide them eternal youth.
The Q conspiracy quickly became known as QAnon — the name for both the theory itself and Q’s followers. As QAnon spread, it became a textbook example of Satanic Panic in action; its followers weaponized parents’ fears of harm coming to their children to spread the message across social media. The group used hashtags like the superficially unobjectionable #SaveTheChildren, and disguised itself against takedown attempts by Facebook by masquerading as a straightforward anti-trafficking community.
But just as the original spread of Satanic Panic masked prejudice, hostility to change, and fear of the other beneath all its performative concern for the welfare of children, Qanon, too, hid something much darker. In 2019, the FBI identified QAnon as a domestic terrorist threat, citing numerous acts of violence and militant recruitment efforts being done in the name of QAnon. This pattern came to a head in January 2021, when hundreds of QAnon supporters joined the insurrection at the US Capitol.
There are some clear differences between QAnon and the original era of Satanic Panic: QAnon is a political movement with real political power. And while Satanic Panic was fueled by religious zeal, QAnon is almost a religion unto itself. Still, the tools used to spread both ideas — alarmism, fearmongering, hysteria, and reports of wildly gothic scenes of blood-drinking, children harvested for body parts, and witches — are virtually identical.
Where does all of this leave us?
Writing in Satan’s Silence in 2001, journalist Debbie Nathan noted that the ultimate irony of Satanic Panic is that its purported victims, the children, were silenced during the laborious investigations around the hysteria of the ’80s and ’90s — but not by the defendants who stood accused. Instead, they were silenced by “well-meaning” prosecutors, therapists, and interviewers who refused to listen to their initial assertions and drilled them for juicier answers until they changed their statements.
When medical evidence was produced, according to Nathan, it tended to be in the dubious form of “technologically updated versions of the medieval preoccupation with scrutinizing female genitalia for signs of sin and witchcraft, and of nineteenth-century forensic medical campaigns to detect promiscuity and homosexuality by examining the shapes of lips and penises.”
Through it all, the media fueled a public wave of fear that spurred entire groups of rational, thinking adults to collectively buy in: parents and prosecutors, therapists and investigators, jurors and judges, reporters and readers. The narrative swept everything along in its path — including victims of all ages.
In other words, the abusive mechanisms of Satanic Panic were the same as those of previous periods of mass hysteria, from witch hunts to McCarthyism. In a time of deep social upheaval, it’s all too easy to see those mechanisms falling into place once more, ready to bend toward the next unresistant, easily ostracized stranger, eager to label them “dangerous.”
In other words: Today, it’s a media-fueled scare over the latest demonic influence, be it crazed clowns, nefarious politicians, or an entertainer peddling “Satan shoes.” But as Satanic Panic shows us, that’s not the real fear.
The real fear is that, tomorrow, someone could decide the demonic influence is you.
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