The Satanic Panic of the ’20s

The Satanic Panic of the ’20s January 27, 2022

• Heather Greene on “How Today’s Conspiracy Theories Echo The Satanic Panic.”

Greene provides a good summary of the history of the Satanic Panic that began in the 1980s, identifying many of its roots in pop culture (including the hoaxes of Mike Warnke and Michelle Remembers). But, like many such histories of that moral panic, her account neglects to mention that millions of white evangelical Americans just so happened to suddenly begin believing that millions of their normal-seeming neighbors were secretly killing babies for Satan at the same time that the Republican Party was rewriting its platform to centralize the criminalization of abortion.

Or, in other words, the Satanic Panic arose at precisely the same time that Republican politics began to be centered on the belief that millions of your normal-seeming neighbors were secretly killing babies for Satan.

The Satanic Panic didn’t just result from millions of white evangelicals buying Mike Warnke’s “Christian comedy” albums. It also came from tens of millions of those same white evangelicals watching movies in which Francis Schaeffer surrounded himself with “dead baby” dolls.

How did people come to believe that Satanists were conducting human sacrifices in secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool and the Comet Pizza? Because Warnke and Dobson and Falwell and Reagan and Christianity Today all told them something like that was happening.

• I’m grateful to Rebecca Jennings for her Vox piece, “Is a new kind of religion forming on the internet?” because it introduced me to Tik-Tok researcher Abbie Richards and her very helpful Conspiracy Chart.

Richards’ infographic is a great visualization of the inexorable trajectory of conspiracy theories. No matter how quirkily harmless the starting point — Avril Lavigne was bodysnatched! — they all trend in one Very Bad direction. Richards emphasizes that destination with her term “The Antisemitic Point of No Return.”

It’s not just that the Satanic baby-killerism of Warnke and the “pro-life” movement is a warmed-over rehash of the ancient blood libel, but that it requires belief in a nefarious secret cabal of string-pulling evildoers and that, throughout Christendom, any such imaginary cabal will always, always, always wind up being identified as “the Jews.”

• Denver International Airport earns a place on that chart due to the numerous conspiracy theories spun about its odd design. (That’s what you get for trying to make an airport look better than, you know, an airport.) The Denver Public Library doesn’t get that kind of attention, even though its archives are full of material about the Satanic Panic.

The Denver area was home-base for Warnke and Bob Larson and other charlatans cashing in on the panic, and police in the area credulously fell for it all:

In the late ’80s Denver Police instituted an “Occult Crimes Unit,” which “uncovered a ‘Satanic gang’ of 12 to 15 people who were suspected of minor burglaries and graffiti that depicted upside-down crosses, skulls, and the number 666.”

…The Rocky Mountain News had no luck when news staff tried to find and interview the offenders, but wrote police alleged they had “plenty of interesting evidence and suspicion” that “human sacrifice and ritual sexual assaults” had taken place.

In 1988, an Aurora Police sergeant warned a group of parents that “the person sitting next to you in church may be a Satanist.”

Library archivist Alex Hernandez ably summarizes the attraction of such nonsense:

“A group of people has alike political values, and part of the way they grow strength is by demonizing the ‘other,’” Hernandez told us. If there is no “other,” he added, “they have to build one. And for some reason, throughout history, it always involves drinking baby’s blood and sacrificing people to some unseen dark powers and global cabals.”

“For some reason,” yes. That would be, again, the “Antisemitic Point of No Return.”

What Hernandez describes there also explains why the Satanic Panic never ended. It was one expression of “demonizing the other” that faded once it was replaced by a more respectable expression of the same idea: the anti-abortion politics of the past 40 years that are based on the same premise that “the person sitting next to you in church may be killing babies for Satan.”

The West Memphis Three case was one of the last spasms of old-school ’80-style Satanic Panic. By 1994 most of the country had moved on. Accusing metalhead teenagers in Arkansas of being part of a global conspiracy of Satan-worshipping baby-killers was old hat. All the respectable, mainstream moral hysterics had already moved on to accusing Arkansas’ former first lady of being part of a global conspiracy of Satan-worshipping baby-killers.

And that, folks, is why Damien Echols is no longer in prison and why Amy Coney Barrett is on the Supreme Court.

• I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide where on Richards’ conspiracy chart we should place this: “Mormon Group Digging for Scriptural City of Zarahemla in Iowa Is a Portrait of Religious Nationalism.”

“A group called the Heartland Research Group,” Hanna Seariac reports, “has taken to the cornfields of Montrose, Iowa in search of Zarahemla, a city frequently mentioned in the Book of Mormon.”

The relationship between archaeology and the Book of Mormon is somewhat fraught, to say the least, but that’s not the focus of Seariac’s article, which is about, she says, “something darker.” The “Heartland” movement within the LDS is a form of religious nationalism that attempts to invest the United States with scriptural primacy as a special nation for God’s special people:

This position is further exacerbated by the Heartland belief that, not only is the United States of America a chosen land, but that the chosen people came to America from Europe. The language of Anglo-Saxon heritage and bloodlines cements the connection between the Heartland movement and white supremacy.

Yep. There’s that point of no return again.

• “Women executed 300 years ago as witches in Scotland set to receive pardons“:

From allegations of cursing the king’s ships, to shape-shifting into animals and birds, or dancing with the devil, a Satanic panic in early modern Scotland meant that thousands of women were accused of witchcraft in the 16th-18th centuries with many executed.

Now, three centuries after the Witchcraft Act was repealed, campaigners are on course to win pardons and official apologies for the estimated 3,837 people – 84% of whom were women – tried as witches, of which two-thirds were executed and burned.

Better late than never, I guess.

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