The Satanic Panic: America’s Last Great Mass Hysteria
It all started with a book: Michelle Remembers, a lurid misery-porn “memoir” published in 1980 featuring Michelle Smith’s supposedly recovered memories of ritual abuse at the hands of her mother and a coven of Satanists. According to these memories (helpfully uncovered by her “gentle, compassionate psychiatrist,” Dr. Lawrence Pazder), she had been abused by Satanists when she was 5 years old in some creatively sadistic – and cinematically inspired – ways. Michelle claimed she was raped by snakes, forced to defecate on a Bible, saw other children and animals murdered, had a tail and horns surgically grafted onto her skeleton, and engaged in cannibalism … but at the end, the Virgin Mary in the Archangel Michael appeared and saved her, miraculously erasing all physical evidence of the crimes.
Some journalists did express skepticism at the time, but they were drowned out by the overwhelming chorus of journalists and other experts who accepted Michelle’s claims (and Pazder’s Recovered-Memory technique) uncritically. This was at the dawn of the age when therapists first begin to recognize childhood sexual abuse, so the default position had become to believe first, ask questions later. But let’s back up a little.
The widespread belief that Satan was real and working evil in the world did not come out of nowhere. In 1972, the Pope had warned that Satan was indeed real in a speech called “Confronting the Devil’s Power.” In the wider culture, the 1970s had seen a big resurgence in horror novels and movies starring Satan himself. First came Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, a taut little tale about an innocent housewife impregnated with the seed of Satan. It was so popular, the film rights sold before the book was even published. Then, The Exorcist, a baroque novel about a modern case of demon possession, made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1971 and stayed on it for 55 weeks. It sold 4 million copies when it was adapted to film in 1973. Those two books alone spawned dozens of imitations. Satan, demons, and devil worshipers packed the bookshelves for years afterwards. Then in 1976, The Omen terrified movie audiences with the story of Satan’s son wreaking havoc here on earth. So by 1980, the American Zeitgeist had been primed for Satan’s big comeback.
Authorities on the Anti-Christ
But there were other, darker, factors at work in creating the Satanic Panic. In 1980, the newly formed Moral Majority (which, in reality, was neither), led by televangelist Jerry Falwell, begin flexing their muscles, electing divorced Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to the presidency. The Satanic Panic was like mana to the religious right (pardon the pun): it “proved” that the devil was real, and therefore propped up their waning cultural authority.
With its lurid claims of dark rituals and sadistic sexual abuse, the Satanic Panic appealed to another relatively new and powerful phenomenon in the 80s: tabloid TV, the pre-internet version of fake news. Tabloid TV thrived on violence and sensationalism, and it was ubiquitous at a time when the majority of American households had a TV. Between 1985 and 1989, TV hosts Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Larry King aired a total of eight shows about devil worship and witchcraft. But perhaps the most memorable of these was Geraldo’s 1988 special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. It was given a special evening time slot only a few days before Halloween, and was the highest-rated two-hour special that NBC ever aired. Of course it was just the kind of level-headed, truthful journalism you’d expect from Geraldo Rivera in the 80s, as he flitted from clergy members to alleged victims to cops, all with a befuddled Ozzy Osbourne looking down from a TV screen.
This feedback loop between the moralizing right and the tabloid media created, and was in turn created by, a number of self-styled experts who made careers for themselves as consultants and speakers. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, after leaving their respective spouses and marrying each other, became celebrities, going on a cross-country promotional tour and landing on the covers of People magazine and the National Enquirer. Others, such as Bob Larson, Gordon Colter, and numerous others, made their fame the pre-internet way: distributing Xeroxed pamphlets and cheaply-made VHS tapes, hosting AM radio shows, and traveling around the country speaking to church groups, parent-teacher associations, and even law enforcement. Many of these experts claimed to have once been high-ranking witches and Satanic priests, who later became saved. Their message was the same: dire warnings about the dangers of apparently numerous Satanic cults roaming the country, abducting and killing children, using Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music to recruit more followers.
The Devil’s in the Daycare
In the 1970s and 80s, more and more mothers were working outside the home and leaving their kids in daycare. Already a source of anxiety for working moms, the Moral Majority and their supporters saw this as, at best, a sad symptom of the breakdown of the traditional family; at worst, an unforgivable act of selfishness that destroyed children’s spirits, all so some ball-crushing feminist could muscle in on men’s territory. With the rise of the Satanic Panic, the Moral Majority appeared vindicated: now daycares were seen as potential slaughterhouses full of child-abusing pedophiles. Women who dared use them – whether by choice or necessity – were de facto guilty of the most heinous kind of neglect for their children’s welfare.
The first victims of this wave of the Satanic Panic were the owners of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1983. One parent, Judy Johnson, an alcoholic with a history of mental illness who was going through an ugly divorce, claimed that her son had been sodomized by a teacher there. Investigators, seeking more evidence, sent letters to 200 parents accusing the McMartin family of a number of sexual abuses. Needless to say, the parents went into a panic, and the McMartin family’s guilt was cemented in the public’s minds.
The children were sent to Kee MacFarlane, who was not a licensed psychologist, to be interviewed. MacFarlane used some controversial (and later discredited) methods to get the children to reveal “yucky secrets.” Transcripts and tapes later showed that her questions led the children to tell her what she wanted to hear, and she would not accept their answers when they told her that the teachers had done nothing wrong.
It was the longest and most expensive trial in American history. After three years, the McMartins were eventually acquitted, but not until their business and lives had been destroyed. In the meantime, over 100 more preschools and daycares across the country were accused of similar abuses.
Satan, Laughing, Spreads His Wings
But the Satanic Panic would not be confined to ruining the lives of innocent childcare workers. The religious right saw the devil everywhere, especially in the games and music enjoyed by bookish loners.
In 1981, Rona Jaffe wrote Mazes and Monsters, a ridiculously fictionalized story based very loosely on the disappearance and, later, suicide of James Dallas Egbert. He was a troubled college student who at one point played Dungeons & Dragons; the book claimed D&D somehow drove Egbert insane, unable to differentiate between the game and reality, causing him to kill himself. A year later, it was made into a cheesy made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks. A year after that, Patricia Pulling blamed D&D for her son’s suicide and formed Bothered About D&D. Using ridiculous, trumped-up scare tactics (including the Mazes and Monsters movie), BADD successfully lobbied to have D&D kicked out of public schools across the country. Some schools went so far as to punish students for even bringing D&D books or dice onto school grounds.
At the same time Mazes and Monsters hit the bookshelves, Christian DJ Michael Mills began touring America, warning Christians about “backmasking,” or backwards subliminal messages hidden in rock music. The following year, Minister Jacob Aranza wrote Backward Masking Unmasked and sparked a number of community organizations and pastors – most notably Gary Greenwald – to come out against the evils of rock music. One such group was the Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Al’s wife Tipper Gore. While the PMRC avoided directly accusing rock music of being a conduit for Satan, they did object to what they saw as “obscene” or “blasphemous” cover art and lyrics, and successfully lobbied Congress to affix parental warning labels on albums. Many stores, including Wal-Mart, refused to carry albums with the parental warning label.
The charges against D&D and rock music were the same: that they would drive the players/listeners crazy and/or somehow manipulate them into worshipping Satan, inevitably killing themselves and/or other people. In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was actually brought to court by the mother of John McCollum, who killed himself under the supposed influence of Ozzy’s music. The charges were dropped. Judas Priest found themselves charged with the same thing four years later, and were found not guilty.
And let’s not forget another group targeted by the religious right: Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, and anyone dabbling in New Age or occult practices. Many of these beliefs had gotten pop-culture chic in the 60s and 70s, and the number of actual practitioners continued to rise in the 80s. But according to pastors, priests, and various “occult experts” of the time, anything remotely associated with these beliefs was deemed Satanic. The pentagram (the symbol of Wicca), altars (used by nearly all Neo-Pagan and indigenous religions), candles (again, used by people of a variety of religions, including Catholicism), and books on any of these topics were “proof” of Satanism.
By the end of the decade, Satanic Ritual Abuse was widely accepted as fact. Law enforcement training materials even claimed upwards of 60,000 people were killed every year by Satanists. Note that this is three times the number of all reported homicides in a year.
Perhaps the most egregious case of innocent people victimized by the Satanic Panic was that of the West Memphis Three. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were accused of the grisly murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Bear in mind, this was three years after Michelle Remembers had been disproven by reporters, and a year after the Department of Justice had debunked Satanic Ritual Abuse.
Nonetheless, the murders were labeled as Satanic, and the three boys – outcasts who wore black and listened to heavy metal music – were immediately suspects. The police got Misskelley, who is mentally challenged, to falsely confess to the murders. The only “evidence” the prosecution had of the boys’ guilt were the fact that they owned heavy metal posters and albums, and Echols owned books on the occult. That was enough to ensure that they were found guilty.
The West Memphis Three spent 18 years in prison – Echols, on death row. Echols spent that entire time in solitary confinement, and now has permanent vision damage because of it. Thanks to the efforts of celebrities like Johnny Depp, they were finally released in 2011, making Echols the first death row inmate in Arkansas ever to be set free.
To this day, the boys’ real murderer is still unknown.
The Devil’s Downfall
As more and more hysterical claims began piling up, and still no evidence to be found, people began to question the allegations that there was a vast network of Satanists abducting, abusing, and killing hundreds of thousands of children. In 1990, a journalist for the The Mail on Sunday investigated the claims in Michelle Remembers and found not one person who could corroborate anything in the book. In fact, many of Michelle’s “memories” were demonstrably false.
The technique Pazder – and others – had used to “help” victims “recover” their memories of abuse was condemned as unethical and leading by psychologists. Starting in the 90s, victims who had accused family members of abuse based on recovered memories began successfully suing their therapists for implanting these false memories. Now, Recovered-Memory Therapy is not listed in DSM-IV and is not endorsed by mainstream ethical and professional mental health associations.
In 1992, Kenneth Lanning, an Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, researched hundreds of cases of alleged Satanic Ritual Abuse. His monograph, published by the Department of Justice, debunked claims of systemic ritualistic occult abuse in America.
As more psychologists, sociologists, and journalists began to question the claims made by dubious occult “experts” and alleged victims, it became clear America had been hoaxed. The Satanic Panic eventually collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness.
But, like any good horror monster, there is the threat that the Satanic Panic might rise again. With the spread of fake news on social media, coupled with the resurgence of the religious right, the conditions are ripe for a resurrection. The Pizzagate incident – which also claimed the existence of an underground child sexual abuse ring, just without the robes and candles – may be the first warning shot. I hope what we learned last time around will be enough to keep this particular monster in its grave for good.
D.R. Bartlette is a Southern author who writes smart, dark fiction. A nerdy weirdo who hung out in libraries for fun, she discovered horror at an inappropriately early age, and her mind has been twisted ever since. She wrote her first short horror story in eighth grade. Since then, she’s written dozens of short stories, articles, and essays from topics ranging from school lunches to the study of human decomposition.
Her first novel, The Devil in Black Creek, is set in 1986, when 12-year-old Cassie discovers an unspeakable secret in the local preacher’s shed.
She lives and writes in her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she still hangs out at the library for fun.