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How Satanic Panic Worked

The Wages of Satanic Panic

West Memphis, Arkansas' local 'Stonehenge,' an abandoned cotton-gin-turned-teen-hangout tagged with vaguely satanic graffiti.
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.

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)