How Satanic Panic Worked

What were we so afraid of?
© Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Corbis

If you were alive in the 1980s, you might recall some of the wonders and fears that defined a decade of sweeping social change. We wanted our MTV, but we also faced the perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation. We felt pretty sexy with our leg warmers and monstrous hairstyles, yet paled at the growing threat of AIDS.

You might think we had enough anxiety to occupy our minds without dipping into fantasy. And yet there we were, many of us convinced that a secret, widespread cult of devil worshippers plotted to molest and torture our children.


Welcome to the world of satanic panic, a perceived reality of the 1980s and early '90s that situated the average American's life as a sort of ground zero in the war between traditional values and demonic perversion. Not only were helpless children and impressionable teens at risk, but each of us faced the possibility of ritual satanic abuse in our past — blasphemous, sexual rites so perverse that only a gifted therapist could possible exhume them from the soil of our repressed memories.

Satanic panic spread through word of mouth and the feeding frenzy of popular media, as well as through the professional criminological and therapeutic literature of the time. By the end of the '80s, the fear was international, spreading into the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and South Africa [source: Jenkins].

But of course there's no such thing as demons. And while some people self-identify as Satanists, the sort of Satanist described in the literature of satanic panic has never existed in any period of human history.

To invoke the language of sociology, it was all a moral panic — a viral, widespread unrest sparked by our collective fears about society's direction and fueled by a variety of cultural influences, including the media, advocacy organizations, religious groups, politicians, fiction and word of mouth.

Think of satanic panic as a great bonfire. Let's begin by exploring the cultural kindling that fueled the flames.


The Pre-20th-century Roots of Satanic Panic

Here we see an engraving of children initiated into satanic ritual, taken from the 1608 tome "Compendium Maleficarum."
Francesco Maria Gouache/DeAgostini/Getty

If a secretive sect of devil-worshipping, child-molesting cultists never existed, then where did the idea originate?

To fully explore the answer is to take a deep, bloody dive through Western history, a deeper dive than suits the space provided here. But we can touch on some of the key pre-20th-century factors that helped define this notion of satanic cults.


For starters, let's face the realization that each of us resides within a sphere of beliefs and values. We see the world a certain way, and this worldview defines our place within the complexities of human society. We coexist with others who share our worldview and position, but the rest exist as outsiders. We divide our world between varying levels of "us" and "them."

Insiders have a long history of believing anything and everything about "them," even making the outsider a scapegoat when the need arises. As Christian theology generally focuses on a dichotomy of heaven and hell, positioning an outsider on the side of demonic supernatural forces has always been a favored tactic.

And so we've seen the likes of blood libel in the 12th century and beyond, when Christians accused Jews of using blood from kidnapped Christian children in their rituals. The 1475 Simon of Trent blood libel even saw an entire Jewish community tortured and 15 men executed over the death of a 2-year-old in Trento, Italy. Anti-Semitic violence and moral panic spread across Europe in its wake.

Consider also the witchcraft persecutions of the 15th century, in which Europeans tortured and executed innocent Europeans by the tens of thousands in the name of stamping out the threat of witches engaged in physical congress with demons [source: Laden]. As the above woodcut illustrates, there was also an inherent threat to children. Though, in dark irony, children too were tried and executed for witchcraft.

To be clear, Jews and alleged witches did not ritually murder children, but these moral panics and the written accounts that bloomed from them helped to establish the trope of the secretive, child-murdering outsider for future generations.

Such concepts as the Black Mass — a satanic mockery of Christian Mass — and the convergence of witches and demons at a Witches' Sabbat emerged from the twisted imaginations of the persecutors and the torture-derived confessions of the accused. These two concepts, along with existing traditions of ritual magic, became intermingled during the 19th century as French Romantic artists and authors became fascinated with witchcraft and Satanism [source: Jenkins] .

And so by the 1920s, the notion of historic devil-worshipping cults had found root in Western culture. But had such cults died out, or did they persist in some secretive state? We just needed additional cultural kindling to fuel the bonfire of 20th-century moral panic — and the spark of social anxiety to set it all ablaze.


The 20th-century Roots of Satanic Panic

Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey indulges in a little atmospheric magic and ritual for the press on March 22, 1970.
© Bettmann/Corbis

No matter how dubious the accounts and unbelievable the supernatural details, the historical reality of blood libels and witch trials are irrefutable. The accounts and the myriad perverse descriptions and engravings exist to this day. But clearly this isn't enough. What additional cultural kindling is required to stack the wood high enough for a true inferno of moral panic?

First, let us consider the role of fiction in setting the stage. Historian Phillip Jenkins singles out Herbert Gorman's 1927 novel "The Place Called Dagon" as a key influence on the satanic panic to come. Largely forgotten today, this tale of Salem-derived devil cultists was radical and influential at the time. While pure fiction, it drew on the previous century's fascinations with witchcraft to establish satanic cultists within contemporary America. The book enthralled readers and influenced such highly influential writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Dennis Wheatley.


By the 1930s, the satanic cult had found a home in pulp fiction and grew from there. The theme became increasingly prevalent in the horror films of the 1960s, reaching more minds through the likes of the 1968 horror film "The Devil Rides Out" and the mainstream sensation of "Rosemary's Baby" the same year. From there, occult and satanic themes crept into the rock music of the 1970s and the heavy metal music to follow. It was all cool, provocative and counterculture; it also advanced the trope of the satanic cult.

But this is just the fictional kindling preceding the satanic panic. Let's now consider some of the real-life occurrences that helped pile the pyre high.

Also fueled by 19th-century occult fascinations, Aleister Crowley's Black Masses in London found traction in the media of the 1910s. Americans read about this strange, intimidating hedonist and his ritualized practices. In 1966, Anton LaVey created even more media buzz by founding the Church of Satan in San Francisco. The church's philosophy was largely one of individualism and atheism, but it also wrapped itself in the provocative theatrics of satanic rite: black robes, pentagrams, candles and nudity.

And then there were the satanic elements of real-life crime, absorbed from fiction and myth by both investigators and perpetrators. As early as the 1930s, the consideration of sacrificial cult motives worked its way into official police infestations [source: Jenkins]. The 1969 Manson Family murders provoked early suggestions of satanic motive in the media, and Richard Ramirez, a serial killer convicted in 1989, openly invoked the name of Satan in his crimes and subsequent trial. The satanic killer had become a reality.

These are just some of the elements that helped build the pyre for the coming panic. All that was needed to kick things into overdrive was an urgent threat to the children — and to ourselves.


Satanic Ritual Abuse

In this 1990 photo we see Atlanta's Faye Yager, who launched an underground network to protect victims of child abuse and devil worship.
© Sophie Elbaz/Sygma/Corbis

Witchcraft theorists and interrogators of the 15th century obtained their testimony through intimidation and torture — and as such the confessions of their victims matched and even exceeded their expectations for supernatural evil and debauchery.

So how did such testimony arise in the late 20th century without the aid of thumb screws and breaking wheels? Why through the interrogation of impressionable, young children of course.


By the late 1970s, child abuse was already a trending topic in American media coverage. Reports of kidnapping, child murder and child pornography outraged and sickened the public — and rightfully so. In 1978, the death of children at the Jonestown religious commune in Guyana blurred the lines between real-life fringe religious movements and fictional satanic cults.

Then, in 1984, allegations of sexual abuse at California's McMartin preschool and the lengthy trial to follow firmly established the notion of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) in contemporary America. The trial ended six years later in acquittal and dismissal, but the fantastic allegations created a media feeding frenzy. Prosecutors charged that a ring of teachers had sexually abused hundreds of children in rituals that involved robes, masks, pentagrams and altars.

Numerous cases sprang up across the United States, all following the pattern set by the McMartin case. Often, the incident would begin with a single, plausible accusation of realistic abuse. Then, the subsequent investigation would lead to therapist-derived accounts of wider abuse, each fueled by leading questions and the impressionable child's eagerness to provide suitably shocking details [source: Jenkins].

By the mid-1990s, hundreds of day care workers and parents had been accused of and, in many cases, convicted of SRA [source: Frankfurter]. Make no mistake: Satanic ritual abuse had become an actual diagnostic and criminological category.

But satanic panic entailed a perceived threat not only to the children of the present, but also to the children of the past. After all, such a well-connected cult of secretive Satanists had surely been targeting children for quite some time. Perhaps even your childhood contained an incident of satanic ritual abuse. All you needed to do was reclaim the buried memory of the encounter.

This is where the reclaimed memories movement of the 1980s enters our understanding of the panic. Proponents theorized that traumatic memories — especially childhood sex abuse — can become buried in the subconscious. While essentially forgotten, these bits of emotional shrapnel still could negatively impact your life. The only answer was to allow a therapist to dig them out with recovered-memory therapy (RMT).

The issue is a sticky one to say the least. For starters, most childhood sex abuse victims at least partially remember what happened to them. In the rare event that such an incident or incidents are forgotten, the victim can certainly remember it later — but they can just as likely construct a convincing pseudomemory, or false memory [source: APA].

Remember, memories are not set in stone. If anything, the medium is soft clay: highly susceptible to manipulation by ourselves and others each time we draw them from storage. In fact, Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter recognizes no fewer than seven different factors that can inhibit accurate recall, including the power of suggestion. Fantasy, social conditions and cultural influences can all color the recollection. Once created, a pseudomemory can be as difficult to banish as a real one.

The 1980 book "Michelle Remembers" helped to cement the notion of buried SRA memories in the public mindset. Written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and later wife) Michelle Smith, the book detailed Smith's therapy-aided recall of long-term torture and abuse by a satanic cult in 1950s Vancouver. While eventually discredited, the book provided a basic template for a host of SRA survivor memoirs and was quite a media sensation at the time.

Perhaps you can see the appeal of reclaimed SRA memories. What if the problems you face in your adult life are due to some buried trauma? What if a therapist could extract it from your psyche — drag it out of the darkness and confront it head on? Perhaps you can also imagine a well-meaning therapist's zeal in extracting such a malignant memory, no matter how much of a hand they take in crafting that falsified memory from the cultural script of satanic panic.

And so the headlines ran with accounts of satanic rites and lost memories. Geraldo Rivera's 1988 prime-time special "Exposing Satan's Underground" and other TV exposes paraded a familiar assortment of "expert" therapists, law enforcement veterans and SRA survivors.

The message was clear: The Satanists were out there, intent on ritually abusing and murdering our children in the name of an ancient, evil religion. From the safety of our own sphere of values and beliefs, we could gaze out and blame so much pain on the ultimate — and completely nonexistent — group of outsiders.


The Wages of Satanic Panic

West Memphis, Arkansas' local 'Stonehenge,' an abandoned cotton-gin-turned-teen-hangout tagged with vaguely satanic graffiti.
© Dan Mccomb/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Satanic panic did not result in massacred populations, but its wages were still all too real. While the satanic nature of "recovered" ritual abuse memories were bogus, many people still had to live with their traumatic pseudomemories. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, hundreds of day care workers and parents experienced the trauma of SRA accusation — called out in their families and communities for their alleged involvement in a filicidal devil cult.

And then there were the convictions. Husband and wife Frances and Dan Keller served 21 years of a 48-year sentence for abuses allegedly committed at their Texas day care – allegations that also involved the graveyard sacrifice of baby tigers and a parrot that pecked children "in the pee pee." It was 2013 before they were finally freed for lack of evidence and false medical testimony [sources: McRobbie, Smith].


The West Memphis Three cases are perhaps the most famous to come out of the satanic panic witch hunts. The 1993 murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, spiraled into the conviction of three local teens. The prosecution focused on the alleged ritualistic nature of the killing and 17-year-old suspect Jessie Lloyd Misskelley's statement to police investigators about orgies and animal sacrifice in the woods. In 2011, all three of the accused were released with 10-year suspended sentences, following a long road of public outcry over the investigation and the cultural influences that permeated it.

For the most part, however, the flames of satanic panic died down in the early 1990s. The true experts were the first to stomp down the flames of satanic panic. A 1994 study from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect discredited virtually every shred of SRA's believability. The massive meta-study found only a few reputable cases of lone or paired perpetrators using ritualized tactics against children — and not a single case out of 12,000 incidents provided evidence of satanic, child-abusing cults [source: Jenkins].

Legal cases fell apart. Investigations turned up nothing. The American popular media, despite its role in the spread of satanic panic, at least did its part to put out the flames. Most mainstream news programs began to turn against the SRA script by the late '80s. Between 1990 and 1994, the debunking of SRA became the new hot story.

But is the fire completely out? No, not quite. Like any exhausted fire, the heat remains in isolated subcultures and the outskirts of its international expansion. You'll still find preachers condemning the infernal powers of popular media. To this day, the South African Police Service still employs an Occult Related Crime Unit to combat the country's perceived satanic threat [source: Kemp].

Moral panic isn't going away. It's a part of who we are. All we can do is keep an eye on the fires, remain aware of the cultural kindling and try to keep the flames from blowing out of control.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Satanic Panic Worked

I have to give a special shout out to my collaborator Christian Sager on this one, as we researched the topic together for an episode of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast (which you'll find linked below). It was a fascinating topic to cover as my own childhood, as well as Christian's, spanned the 1980s. While satanic panic never directly impacted my life, I certainly felt its effects in the culture surrounding me.

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More Great Links

  • California Science Center. "Moral Panics. Goosebumps! The Science of Fear." (May 1, 2015)
  • Frankfurter, David. "The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic as Religious-Studies Data." Numen. 2003.
  • Jenkins, Phillip. "Satanism and Ritual Abuse." The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press. July 22, 2008.
  • Kemp, Karl. "The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of South Africa's Anti-Occult Police Unit." Vice. April 14, 2015. (May 1, 2015)
  • Laden, Greg. "How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?" Science Blogs. Dec. 2, 2012 (June 18, 2015)
  • Lesnick, Gavin. "Plea reached in West Memphis murders." Arkansas Online. Aug. 19, 2011. (May 1, 2015)
  • McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. "The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse." Slate. Jan. 7, 2014. (May 1, 2015)
  • Reat, N. Ross. "Insiders and Outsiders in the Study of Religious Tradition." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford University Press. September 1983. (April 25, 2015)
  • Smith, Jordan. "Freedom for the Kellers." The Austin Chronicle. Dec. 6, 2013. (June 18, 2015)