How the Satanic Panic Led Straight to QAnon

How the Satanic Panic Led Straight to QAnon October 28, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we began our discussion about QAnon, that series of overwrought conspiracy theories that many evangelicals have embraced. After a couple of years of ignoring the whole thing, evangelical leaders have finally noticed just how many of their flocks have begun chasing after QAnon. And of course the flocks have done that. Thanks to the Satanic Panic years ago, they were primed and ready for just such a time as this. 

QAnon from the Satanic Panic, of course
(James Fitzgerald.) I like the overall composition, but the candles-on-the-carpet thing gives me serious anxiety.

A Refresher Course About the Satanic Panic.

Like all moral panics do, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s began at a time when evangelicals fretted about losing their dominance over American culture. When dominant authoritarian groups feel secure in their dominance, they don’t start or engage in moral panics. After all, panics by their nature are unpredictable. They can get out of hand and then go haywire — and violent — all too quickly.

(Plus, it seems to me that they’re a massive waste of resources for everyone, and leave behind a legacy of force, hysteria, and cruelty. A tightly-directed offensive based on facts seems way more effective as well as cost-effective. #JustGamerThings)

No, instead such groups start moral panics only when they feel challenged.

And evangelicals felt plenty challenged in the 1980s. 

The Forces Breeding the Satanic Panic.

Vox offered up a good timeline of the Satanic Panic a few years ago, and it’s worth visiting to get a close look at the forces that challenged evangelical dominance. Here’s a rough outline of what I remember from the time.

  • Women’s rights came to prominence, along with no-fault divorce. The court decision of Roe v. Wade didn’t even ping evangelicals’ radar at first, but as time went on the moral panic absorbed abortion.
  • Working women, especially white wives and mothers working outside the home: a huge cultural change, and not one evangelicals particularly liked.
  • LGBT rights, too, started gaining traction. From the start, evangelicals vociferously opposed this movement.
  • With the advent of easily-available and really-effective birth control, notably the Pill (oral contraceptives), people could have sex more freely. This development, too, upset evangelicals.
  • All through the 1970s and into the 1980s, New Age and occult religions and spiritual practices became more and more popular. Naturally, evangelicals freaked out about that development.
  • Various real-world scares were going on at the time, perhap spurred on by cable television’s accessibility and nationwide reach. From the 1982 Tylenol murders to serial killings to waves of panic about children’s safety in various venues and settings, even normies felt frazzled.
  • The hilariously inept interpretation of the Bible now called Biblical literalism started to gain a foothold in major evangelical groups. No matter what gaffes this belief led them into, big-name leaders began trumpeting it as their ultimate authority. Naturally, they used their borrowed authority to its fullest extent.

At the time, evangelicals must have felt like demons snarled at them from every single side of the cultural battlefield. I know for sure that my evangelical tribe certainly did.

Evangelicals’ Reaction.

It didn’t take long for evangelical con artists to notice how wrought-up and upset their tribemates were by these cultural developments.

It took even less time for those con artists to begin capitalizing on their observations.

Around the middle-to-end of the 1970s, various liars-for-Jesus arose who claimed that they’d been involved in sinister demonic plots run by enemies of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. It didn’t matter how outrageous their stories were. Nobody ever fact-checked anything claimed or held these liars accountable for their stories. I never once heard of any of these liars being exposed and condemned — not until many years later, and even then only sorta.

Unfortunately, Christians believed their lying tribemates completely. They didn’t care how many people tried to debunk their heroes. All those dissenters were literally just part of the demonic plot — so who could trust them?

As a result, more and more liars-for-Jesus crawled out of the woodwork to peddle similar tales for money, attention, and power.

Creating a Mythology.

Generally, these liars told the same kinds of stories. They adhered to a three-act morality tale structure. Evangelicals flocked to hear these stories. They left feeling euphoric, titillated, and giddy with delight.

The market for these liars’ testimonies soon became glutted. To get attention in that crowded market, a liar-for-Jesus had to ramp things up. And they did.

I mean, totally-used-to-be-nice-hedge-witches were dime a dozen. You could throw a haddock and hit twenty totally-used-to-be-fortunetellers. Every evangelical church counted among its members a few totally-used-to-be-possessed-sinners.

So these liars soon blossomed into real live Satanic high priests and levitating witches casting real spells on people.

Luckily for them, evangelicals never questioned anything they heard from their leaders and tribemates.

Nothing’s changed on that front, either.

The World As Described by Satanic Panickers.

Bit by bit, these hucksters added to the bare bones of the currently-fashionable testimony.

Very soon, evangelical liars-for-Jesus began borrowing from each other. They interwove their lies with those told by their colleagues. In a very real sense, they crafted a shared universe.

In this universe, demons abounded everywhere! People encountered them and talked to them — and entered into contracts with them. With demonic help, people learned to cast spells, fly, and even hurt others. They even had unapproved sex! Ooh la la!

Ah, but demons demanded payment for all this fun. Their tutelage and friendship was expensive: blood and souls. In fact, they wanted spiritually and physically pure blood and souls. That meant children, sometimes pets. So liars-for-Jesus began to spin stories of hurting and killing children and animals to please their dread overlords.

But hurting children and animals doesn’t go unnoticed in the real world, not on that level. Someone notices. So why didn’t anyone ever notice our totally-used-to-be-Satanists’ activity? Ah, see, that’s the interesting bit: because the demons had already gotten to law enforcement! Yes, yes, and demons had also infiltrated all these other spheres of life too! Even teachers might be in cahoots with Satan!

All that stuff kids liked? Demons designed it as part of their recruitment strategy.

In this manner, these conniving liars created the overarching conspiracy theory that became the Satanic Panic.

Fear Factor.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some lying twits hit the big time with media detailing what they insisted were true and honest stories of Satanic ritual abuse of children.

Michelle Remembers involved a young woman whose therapist had totally unearthed hidden memories of her earlier years of abuse. It sounded like she was building off of Mike Warnke’s early-1970s smash hit The Satan Seller, which described his time as a Satanic high priest before converting to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

This addition of child abuse to the accepted canon took this hack writer and the woman claiming this past to the heights of popularity.

In 1988, a similar liar-for-Jesus, Lauren Stratford, published Satan’s Underground. Stratford’s book built upon all of the themes already established, adding gruesome child-abuse and pornography details to really get evangelicals heated up. In her book, she even claimed she’d had three babies who were all murdered in Satanic rituals.

Unsurprisingly, all of the major players in the Satanic Panic endorsed and recommended Stratford’s book — including Mike Warnke himself. If this had happened in 2020, he’d likely have sued her for plagiarism instead, considering she’s the Fifty Shades of Gray to his Twilight.

Taking Things Way Too Far.

It’s all fun and games until someone decides to take the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game too far, right?

Well, that’s exactly what happened here. Very early into the Satanic Panic, in the early 1980s, a grieving mother turned her teen son’s tragic death by suicide into a moral crusade against the roleplaying game he’d enjoyed, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Pat Pulling’s very little group, “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” (BADD), soon achieved nationwide prominence. Pulling herself became a national figure. She did media interviews galore, provided testimony in various court cases, and in all ways sought to educate parents in the Satanic evils of D&D.

In her leadership capacity, she told audiences stuff like “8 percent of the Richmond [VA]-area population is involved with Satanic worship at some level,” which –if true — would have amounted to 56,000 people. Nobody ever seems to have fact-checked anything she blathered, just as nobody did for evangelicals in churches saying the same things.

Alongside her, various evangelicals tried to get law enforcement officers (LEO) on board with the Satanic Panic — and persecuting anybody who seemed vaguely sympathetic to gaming, drugs, rebellion, or occult stuff. Kerr Cuhulain, a pagan LEO in Canada, wrote about these often on the now-defunct WitchVox site.

Nor can we forget the various spurious lawsuits against childcare providers — like the infamous one brought against the McMartin day care around 1983. Any aspect of that trial could be part of an exhibit of preposterous religious privilege levied against innocent people.

It was far from the only such case, either. Dozens of innocent people went to prison over Satanic Panic-fueled charges. At least one such victim of the Panickers, Frank Fuster, still rots in prison.

Somehow, Jesus never told any of his followers that none of this stuff was true at all.

Coming to Their Senses.

Eventually, the Satanic Panic petered out. Christianity Today reports that in 1990, Lauren Stratford’s publisher withdrew her book. In the story, they don’t condemn the Satanic Panic’s overall elements, but they just felt Stratford had a burden of proof to clear that she hadn’t — and apparently couldn’t — meet.

Similarly, Cornerstone magazine exposed the lies of Mike Warnke himself in 1992 (archive). You might notice that link comes from a Christian site. Indeed, the people exposing Mike Warnke were, themselves, firm Christians. They didn’t deny the overall elements of the Satanic Panic. Instead, they focused on Mike Warnke’s dishonesty.

Secular authorities even got in on the act, investigating and then utterly debunking every aspect of the Satanic Panic by the mid-1990s.

That’s the overall tenor of all of the eventual debunks and disavowals of Satanic Panic liars. By the time the hysteria over demon-worshipers abusing kids had begun to subside, Christians began to concede that sometimes, their peers could and did lie.

But they couldn’t bear to admit that none of the Satanic Panic had been based in reality at all.

They cringed away from disavowing all of the elements contained within the Satanic Panic. Instead, they insisted that the bare bones of the panic were totally based on reality — just that a few bad apples had taken advantage of the tribe’s trust.

But Not Completely.

By the mid-1990s, evangelical leaders leaped ahead to the next big ice floe of conspiracy theories along with their flocks. Importantly, none of them ever actually said:

Hey, y’all, that whole Satanic Panic thing? It was nothing but lies, top to bottom! Whoops! Who knew? In fact, all of our Satanic Panic testimonies were just lies told by malingerers. No demons were ever involved in any part of American life. No huge clusters of Satanists still plot together in dark forests to kidnap and enslave your children. Sorry! We just got a little carried away, I guess. Oh well! Our bad, so sad!

Nope! Instead, evangelicals as a whole just swept the whole Satanic Panic under the rug.

There, it festered and pulsed in the darkness, gathering strength to burst forth again.

It never died.

That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie.

Deep in their hearts, evangelicals still believed that demons were everywhere, that those demons sought their children, that they couldn’t trust anybody outside of their tribalistic bubble, and most of all that all non-Christian pursuits (like roleplaying games, dancing, rock music, unapproved sex, and anything tinged with alternative religions, like yoga) were infested with demons looking for young human prey.

Being authoritarians, evangelicals never got good at discernment. They judge everything by how it fits into or flies against their existing beliefs. Always have. Always will. That’s why it’s way easier to radicalize them than it is to rein them in.

The Satanic Panic fits very well into their existing beliefs — and has since at least the 1970s. That’s how it gained so much traction. But that’s also why they couldn’t disavow it completely: doing that would throw a very unflattering light on all their other false beliefs. Utterly rejecting the Satanic Panic’s claims meant rejecting a lot of other ones they wanted to keep.

And y’all, that is how we got evangelicals tangled up in QAnon now.

You Want QAnon? This Is How You Get QAnon.

Early on, an MIT source tells us, QAnon folded evangelical and Satanic Panic tropes into their overall arc of conspiracies.

Here’s roughly how the overall QAnon conspiracy theory runs:

  • A massive ring of pedophiles operates in secret all around the world.
  • These pedophiles are also Satanists!!! They kidnap children to abuse them and murder them in Satanic rituals!
  • Ignore what actual Satanists say about this notion. They’re just lying to get you all complacent-like. That’s what happens when someone hates Jesus. They lie. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never lie. Unless they do, and then they’re just bad apples.
  • These totally for realsies Satanists have infiltrated every level of government and authority imaginable.
  • That’s why you haven’t heard about them!
  • Democrats are a big part of this pedophile ring, especially big-name Democrats. They hate America (meaning: evangelicals’ alarmingly theocratic vision of America).
  • [Insert tired old anti-Semitic tropes here]
  • Also literal actual demons are involved, including Satan and Moloch.
  • Do your research!
  • Donald Trump is totally going to bring down this whole global ring of child abusers. Any day now.
  • That’s why his opponents hate him so much. They’re part of the conspiracy. You can’t trust anything they say.
  • TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must support Donald Trump and spread the word, fight the good fight, and never give up. This one’s for da children!
  • Forget about all those kids in cages and abused foster kids and general child abuse and enforced homeschooled ignorance, and all that similar stuff evangelicals are completely okay with — because they sure have.

All that seems to have changed from that earlier hysteria is the addition of an idolized hero who’d come in to fix everything. If those earlier Panickers had any such figure in mind, it was Jesus Christ himself. Now, Panickers have Donald Trump to root for.

Evangelicals Got Exactly What They Built.

There’s a reason why QAnon so easily swept through the social media bubbles inhabited by evangelical Christians — from church small groups to Facebook mommy groups.

When evangelicals refused to fully disavow the Satanic Panic almost 30 years ago, evangelical leaders all but invited QAnon into their tribe. Indeed, QAnon uses the same scaffolding and infrastructure of the Satanic Panic, sends the same messages, targets the same gullible and irrational believers, and inspires them to commit the same crimes and injustices.

If QAnon believers weren’t becoming such a scary element of the cultural landscape, it’d be almost funny to see just how much trouble evangelical leaders are having as they struggle to rein in this beast and regain control of their followers.

But as we witness them trying to do that, remember, always: this is the future they wrought. These are the believers they wanted and the broken system they needed for support.

Evangelical leaders have spent the last 40 years teaching evangelicals to believe in conspiracy theories, to eschew real fact-checking, to pity themselves as the most hard-done-by group ever to live and yet also aggressively attack any challengers, to distrust authority figures and media, and to hate their enemies and believe literally anything bad said about them.

And that’s what they’ve gotten. It’s not our fault that those believers turned out to be perfect fodder for QAnon — just as they had earlier proved to be perfect fodder for liars-for-Jesus during the Satanic Panic.

We’ll Remember What They’d Rather Forget.

Modern American evangelicals have always been a reality-free zone. That point’s just gotten a bit more obvious lately with this retreaded Satanic Panic called QAnon.

Chances are that in a few years, they’ll slowly start to realize that their prophet is actually making fun of them and profiting at their expense, just like Donald Trump himself has always done. They’ll slowly pick up on how few of these conspiracies actually turn out to be objectively true. Maybe they’ll even notice what a (worse) laughingstock they’ve become thanks to their slobbering loyalty to QAnon.

When that day comes, and it will, evangelicals will try to leap ahead to the next ice floe in their conspiracy-theory river and retcon their QAnon involvement. They’ll forget all about it if they can — and then burst forth years later with a once more with feeling conspiracy theory that puts QAnon to shame.

Don’t let evangelicals forget about this gaping, festering, pulsing shortcoming in their own collective character. Don’t ever let them sweep any of this from memory like they did the Satanic Panic.

Cuz y’all, I don’t want to see what worse moral hysteria evangelicals create after they forget all about QAnon.

NEXT UP: A break for something funny: how QAnon got personal for Ed Stetzer.


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(The real cosmic irony with QAnon’s conspiracy theory is that given how evangelicals themselves sexualize children, despise consent, and fetishize childlike innocence, it’s way more likely that top-level Republican politicians and evangelical leaders are involved in that kind of abuse ring than people who value consent and actually do want to protect children from abuse. Strangely, every accusation evangelicals make turns out to be a confession.)

[Post updated to correct an error. The group Pat Pulling founded was called “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” (BADD). Thanks for spotting that!]

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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