Remembering “Satanic Panic” in America (1980s)
One of the curses and blessings of getting old is remembering things other people don’t remember—either because they have forgotten or because they weren’t alive or because they just weren’t paying attention. I’m talking about important things, things that mattered, things that made a difference, a lasting impact.
One of the strangest social, cultural, religious phenomena of my lifetime swept through North America (the U.S. and Canada) in the 1980s. It probably began quietly before the 1980s and it had effects after the 1980s. But the 1980s saw the main rise and fall of it. Sociologists have labeled it “Satanic Panic.”
If you are at all interested in this phenomenon, watch the Youtube documentary “Hell to Pay: Revisiting the Martensville Satanic Sex Scandal (2003) – the Fifth Estate.” It’s just one of many similar documentaries. There are others about the McMartin Preschool trial. In both cases, children gave extremely detailed and convincing testimonies of literally unbelievable abuses at the hands of alleged Satanists—including day care workers, teachers, parents, neighbors, even police officers. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were arrested and prosecuted on the basis of these testimonies which turned out most often to be imagined, even suggested by social workers and child protection advocates and psychologists.
One lasting effect of these trials has been greater caution about interviewing children who are possible victims of abuse. Those who interview them no longer suggest scenarios to them. Some interviewers in the 1980s did just that—suggested Satanic ritual abuse to children, leading them to invent stories that they probably believed to be true that could not possibly be true.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
During the 1980s I was teaching religion and theology at two Christian institutions—a university and a college (in sequence). During the 1970s I co-taught a course at a major secular university—as part of my Ph.D. studies—entitled Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult. It was an elective course in the Department of Religious Studies. During that course I had a close brush with really hardcore Wiccans. I came to realize the difference between Wicca and Satanism but I also came to believe they have something in common—belief in and practice of supernatural magick. (The “k” on the end of “magic” is meant to distinguish it from sleight of hand magic or performance magic.)
My elective course taught at the Christian university and the Christian college was entitled “America’s Cults and New Religions.” I advertised it to students as “Unsafe Sects.” I invited many representatives of cults and new religions into my class to speak for themselves. I drew the line at Satanists. I never invited a Satanist into my class. But I did invite Wiccans to speak.
Because of my course I became something of a noted speaker “about town” in a major Upper Midwest metropolitan area. I also became something of an expert on certain little-known and little-understand new religions such as one that moved its headquarters from California to that metropolitan area. I got to know the president of that religion through two long face-to-face interviews. I wrote a chapter about it for an edited volume about new and alternative religious movements published by SUNY Press. I read papers at professional society meetings. One was “Rudolf Steiner, Esoteric Christianity, and the New Age Movement.” Almost every month I was speaking on cults and new religions at some church or to some fraternal society or club.
This was a time of tremendous interest in “cults” because of Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple and similar mass suicide events. Americans developed a lively interest in cults. The very meaning of “cult” changed. It became very difficult to use the word “cult.” But almost everyone agreed that Satanic groups constituted cults—whether they were abusive and violent or not. Beginning in the early 1980s, many Americans became obsessed with Satanic cults—believing them to be almost ubiquitous. I had students from all over North America and many of them claimed that their city was the “capital” of Satanism in America. Books poured forth—both secular and religious—about Satanism in America. Some of them were based on serious research and some of them were purely fictional and some were a mixture of both. But it was hard to tell because other than a few Satanic churches such as the one in San Francisco it was very difficult to actually find Satanists. Yet, Satanic “relics” were seemingly everywhere—especially in bookstores. Almost every major city in America (and I assume Canada) had at least one “Occult Bookstore.” Some of them had corners devoted to magick that at least bordered on Satanism (e.g., theurgy). The Satanic Bible and the Necronomicon were selling like hot cakes—mostly to high school students.
And then there were the numerous “Christian” books about Satan and Satanism that poured forth and fed the obsession with evil, the “black arts,” “black magick,” Witchcraft, and Satanism.
But here is what all this is leading up to. I had two absolutely befuddling experiences with people who claimed to have grown up in Satanic cults. They were serious people whose stories were beyond belief. But what to make of them? I still don’t know.
I was interviewed for a newspaper story about Satanism and I was quoted as saying that “most of it” is just high school kids dabbling in magick based on books they bought at mall bookstores or occult shops. I received a letter from a woman calling herself (she said it was a pseudonym) “Melissa.” In the letter she furiously contradicted me and furnished a fairly detailed account of growing up in a church that pretended to be Christian but was really Satanic. And she said she was ritually abused by some of the members in Satanic rituals. I read it with interest and put it aside. About a month later I wrote a check at a grocery stores and the clerk looked at my name on the check and said “I’m Melissa.” To make a long story short, we met at a restaurant with her therapist. She never did tell me her real name. Nor did her therapist who specialized in treating victims of ritual abuse. Melissa then told me the name of the town where she grew up and described in detail the “upstanding citizens” there who were secretly Satanists and how they gather once monthly in a barn outside the town and worship Satan, sacrifice animals and sometimes even humans and abuse children. Needless to say I was shocked and aghast. She claimed that many citizens of the town were Satanists—including the mayor and the pastor of the town’s largest church. Then she said her parents were Satanists. The story got stranger the longer she talked. Her therapist supported everything she said. When I asked for evidence her therapist chided me and said that Satan hides all the evidence. Then he very condescendingly told me that some of the people who came to New England on the Mayflower were Satanists and that Satanism had always been around in North America since then and that it is a highly secretive but pervasive network of Satan-worshipers and that there are thousands of them. I left that evening meeting confused because I did not believe what I was told but believed that they believed everything they had said to me.
Around that same time a colleague, an employee of the Christian liberal arts college where I taught, came to me privately, in my office, with the door closed, and told me a similar story. He said that he grew up in a Satanist family and that the family belonged to a network of Satanists called “The Power.” He claimed to have witnessed human sacrifices and he described them in great detail. He said that he left the group when he went to college and had not been back to visit his family since then. But, he said, members of the group occasionally “visited him” with subtle warnings about not telling about them. Again, I did not believe his story but I believed that he believed his story. What to make of that? According to him, his family was prosperous, upper middle class, suburban and lived near one of the most widely read Christian novelists who wrote about Satanism. He mentioned the novelist by name and the suburb by name. To say the least I was dumbfounded. I did not want to hear this. It was imposed on me. I never followed up with that man. I don’t know what became of him. He left the college soon after that and I didn’t try to find out where he went.
My point is that I never found any real evidence of the truth of these stories or of the existence of real, organized Satanist groups other than the few “Satanic churches” that made themselves known and claimed most vociferously to be peaceful. For them, they said, “Satan” was simply a symbol of basic human nature. I assumed (together with other scholars) that they were inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche (e.g., the image of the Super-human), or their interpretation of that.
All of that eventually died out. I know that someone will respond to this by claiming the stories I was told were true and telling their own, similar stories. Don’t. I won’t post them here. What I am interested in is what I consider the fact that these people and many like them believed what they told me was true even though I was and still am convinced it was not true.
But stories like theirs circulated around North America in the 1980s and even some zealous prosecutors bought into them and prosecuted large numbers of innocent men and women for “ritual abuse.” In almost every case the accused were acquitted and the prosecutors resigned under pressure. The only “evidence” in most, perhaps all, cases were outlandish tales told by small, very young children—prompted by interviewers who believed in ritual Satanic abuse. The children gave vivid details that could not be true such as evil clowns levitating, flying through the air, etc. When they told the investigators where the abuse happened and the investigators raided the places, no evidence was found. “Satan hides the evidence” is what the defenders of widespread Satanic ritual abuse claimed. Juries didn’t buy it. The whole thing eventually fell apart—but not until many lives were ruined.
What still bothers me to this day is that I am confident the woman and the man who told me their stories—in great and vivid detail—really believed them. And that I did not and do not. What to make of that haunts me to this day. How did they become convinced of those experiences? In neither case did they simply make them up to get attention. Both went out of their way to not get attention. So far as I was able to determine I was the only person at the liberal arts college who “knew” the man’s story. I hinted at it to many colleagues who knew him and none expressed any knowledge of what I was talking about. (This was after the man left the college and I never mentioned his name or any of the details to anyone. But I said enough to elicit some response if any of my colleagues had heard from him what he told me.)
Fortunately, Satanic panic has died down if not gone away entirely. But it was an amazing social phenomenon that lasted at least a decade.
My experience was that most conservative evangelical Christians “bought into it” uncritically, believing every wild-eyed story told in a book or on “Christian television” which was a new thing then. It seemed like the more outlandish and unbelievable the story was, the more conservative Christians believed it. That I didn’t believe all of the stories caused me some difficulties even with some family members and certainly with some students.
I continue to be a skeptic about these matters, these stories, these claims, but I am a skeptic who believes that many people have false memories. They really believe—even if what they believe is simply unbelievable and there is no evidence for it. I also believe that many conservative Christians are simply too gullible about stories about evil supernatural events. I don’t deny the reality of Satan or of demons, but I do doubt most of the stories I have been told about organized Satanic ritual abuse. What I don’t doubt is that the people who say they experienced that really believe they did. What puzzles me is how that is the case.
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