Grappling With the Satanic Panics 30 Years Later

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 9, 2013 — 22 Comments

At RealClearReligion Philip Jenkins notes that 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the McMartin preschool trial, and with it the moral panic over an underground Satanic abuse conspiracy in the United States (and eventually the UK and other countries).

“Over the following months, counselors interviewed hundreds of children, using questions that might have been quite appropriate when treating the genuinely abused, but which should never have been used in a prosecutorial context. In 1984, the case broke in the most lurid terms. Seven teachers were accused of a mind-numbing list of atrocious crimes, including the mass rape and torture of children, and the killing of small animals to instill fear. Other allegations involved the ritualistic use of urine and feces, and bizarre acts involving robes and occult symbols. Seven years of trials and investigations followed.”

The McMartin trial was one of the most expensive in history, lasted seven years, and ultimately garned no convictions; but it started a panic that led to several innocent men and women being thrown in prison, sometimes for decades. Fueling the panic were books like “Michelle Remembers” (published in 1980), and Mike Warnke’s “The Satan Seller” (published in 1973) which created a mythology of this Satanic criminal underground, a mythology that became “true” when allegations started emerging in the 1980s. By 1985 mainstream news programs like 20/20 were profiling the rise of “Satanism” in America, and a growing number of ex-Satanists and alleged abuse victims started making the rounds on the more free-from morning talk programs (including Oprah).

This hysteria lasted for around a decade before official investigations into the phenomenon, lawsuits against therapists, and a shift towards skepticism in the media finally started to defuse the panic. Sadly this shift didn’t happen quickly enough for the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin) who in 1993 (ten years after the McMartin case) had their interest in the occult used against them during a murder trial, as shown in the new documentary “West of Memphis” out now in theaters.

The West Memphis 3 were finally freed, after the case against them slowly started to fall apart, but they lost nearly 20 years of their lives in prison, and in the case of Echols, in solitary confinement on death row. In his RealClearReligion piece Jenkins stresses that this phenomenon isn’t a relic of the past, but something that is still in our collective rear-view mirror: “These aren’t just throwbacks to the dark fantasies of Salem in the 1690s. They were yesterday’s news.” Sadly, some don’t want to let this moment pass, and are working to propagate the old slurs and rumors in the name of religion, ideology, or personal power. The moment we allow ourselves to forget, to let this slip into the memory hole, the easier it will be for the unscrupulous to revive the panic.

For modern Paganism, our communities were shaped by, and surged in growth during, the Satanic Panic era. The reflexive mantra of Pagans not being Satanists was established as a talking point in virtually all media interviews during this time, as were similar assurances that we didn’t engage in blood sacrifice or harm people. For many, the massive influx of teenagers into modern Paganism in the 1990s (myself included) presented a huge potential danger at a time when “covens” and “rituals” to harm children were still being taken seriously. So many built an image that was as benevolent as possible, eccentric “white-lighters” at worst, no danger to your neighbor’s kids. Some books for Pagans even gave tips on how to appear harmless, and advised that sometimes not telling the truth about your faith was for the best.

If you look at the late 1990s and early 2000s, the backlash against these impulses now seem inevitable, and there are still pockets within our community who commit themselves to criticizing “fluffy bunnies” and “white lighters” as in any way representative of their Paganism or Witchcraft. Some defiantly embraced “dark” Paganism as an antidote, or discovered the emerging reconstructionist faiths which presented a more scholarly and serious alternative to the pop-culture moment in the sun Wicca seemed to be enjoying. In many ways our interconnected communities are only now getting to the many serious discussions and debates we should have been having instead of constantly watching our backs worrying what the church (or occult expert at the town hall) was saying about us.

As the Satanic Panics move into ever further into our past, we need to grapple with them as an integral part of our history, which, for better or worse, shaped how we have behaved.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • JasonMankey

    The Satanic Panic hasn’t completely ended yet either. it’s still a powerful force in some Evangelical Circles. I knew a girl completely convinced that Satanists sacrificed babies on Halloween. She was usually rational, but could not be swayed on this point. There’s also good business to be had by people speaking up about their alleged time in Satanic Cults.

    You’ll still see it come up in cable documentaries too, “experts” out in the field talking about alleged Satanic abuses etc.

  • Oddly enough, I actually contacted the author of “Satanic Panic – the Creation of a contemporary legend” recently to see if he was interested in revisiting the topic for my friend’s Palo Mayombe talk show, I read that book many years ago and it made a huge impact on me in terms of understanding. Sadly, the phenomenon is old news from his point of view & he has moved on to other specialized areas of interest.

  • Damon Leff

    In South Africa the moral panic was led by members of the Occult-related Crimes Unit under the leadership of alleged “occult expert” (actually Christian on a mission) Kobus Jonker. The newly reconstituted Occult Crime Units opens another chapter for South African Pagans, Witches, Satanists and Occultists in general as the investigative mandate for these units includes the investigation of both spectral evidence and these religious minorities.

    • Those in the government (including law enforcement) and those in the media who stoke the flames of these moral-panics inevitably turn out to be “Christians on a mission”.

  • Gerald Gardner, addressed these same kinds of accusations in his “The Meaning of Witchcraft”, and I think he did so in a way that bears emulating by Pagans in the 21st century. In particular, Gardner called on the late-antique Pagan author Sallustius to demonstrate two fundamental characteristics of Wicca: (1) That Witches deny the existence of “positive evil,” and (2) That the Goddesses and Gods worshipped by Witches “are always good and always do good and never harm.” Although these philosophical/theological positions come from Sallustius, Gardner claimed that the things written by Sallustius “might have been spoken at a Witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed …. [T]he spirit of his teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the Witch cult, is timeless.”

  • I knew a woman who, probably still, is completely convinced that she grew up with parents deeply involved in “the satanic occult”, and last time I spoke with her, she was well on her way to convincing at least one of her then-teenaged step-kids that the most benign occurrences –like the bizarre ramblings of some of the more conspicuous homeless– are “proof positive” that the alleged cult is still after her.

    Interestingly, she has absolutely no memories of being tortured or anything else similar to fiction like MICHELLE REMEMBERS. The only “evidence” she offers is that when she was very young, her parents had these friends whose house the family frequented –but she can’t remember anything specific about this other family. She remembers that apparently her father was involved in coupon fraud. She remembers suddenly her family moved to an off-the-grid cabin in the Rockies for a few months, and then moved back. She also supplies as “proof” that she was ritually abused in a “satanic occult” (seriously, she always said it as “satanic occult”) that while she’s never had memories “recovered” in therapy, she had “a deed feeling of dread” the first time she saw a talk show about SRA, and then suggests that feeling was “clearly deja vú”.

    What really made knowing her interesting, at the time, is I was a card-carrying member of The Church of Satan, at the time –which she and her husband knew, and seemed OK with, though both seemed fine for different reasons. Her husband was a Seventh Day Adventist, and he read LaVey in high school and understood his books to be harmless. She, upon realising I was in LaVey’s group and “not the REAL satanic occult”, decided I was just very naïve. Her husband seldom took her belief in being tortured by “the satanic occult” that seriously, simply because she was going on nothing, but he believed that she believed it, and occasionally pointed out the flaws in her “recants”, apparently hoping she’d eventually see his logic.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    If there is one thing to be learned from the Satanic Panics, it is that they haven’t gone away at all. They are still on going.

  • There is an irony in that Wiccan and Paganism grew remarkably during that same period. My first Pagan festivals were in 1980 through 84. I can remember having to get instructions on how to get to such a festival and the reminders to not talk abut the festival in nearby towns, one time with a Catholic monastery just down the road form our festival site. I still think that I liked those hidden and private festivals far better than our more public festivals now where we must be careful not to do anything that might upset the outsiders. In some ways we have paid a steep price to become more acceptable.

  • KatyD

    As others have noted, “Satanic Panic” remains alive and well in some circles, particularly fundamentalist Christian ones, just looking for an opportunity to rear its ugly head back into the mainstream. But the good news is that many people now recognize it for what it is. Just before Halloween last year, the local CBS affiliate near where I live (KPHO-TV in Phoenix, AZ) aired an interview on its 10 p.m. newscast in which a local “expert on satanic cults” –who just happened to be the pastor of a local fundamentalist megachurch–urged parents not to allow their children to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, lest they be kidnapped by members of “satanic cults”–who, our “expert” claimed, were “the most active this time of year”–and taken to the nearby Superstition Mountains, to be used for “satanic ritual sexual abuse.” In a distinctly 21st century twist, Mr. Satanic Cult Expert also proclaimed that parents should not allow their children to visit or use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, because such sites, he claimed, are “used extensively by satanic cults” to recruit children for their “sexual abuse rituals.” (Pretty clever, really; the guy managed to wrap Satanic Panic, an anti-Halloween rant and an anti-technology-and-media screed into one big package of intolerance and ignorance.)

    I wanted to post a link to the story, but unfortunately when I visited the station’s website, it appears to have been taken down. I’m not actually surprised though; when I visited the story’s page a few days after it aired, the comment section was full of scathing criticism for the station’s management for airing such a biased, ridiculous story. I don’t recall one positive comment in favor; I do recall several references to “satanic panic” and calls for the reporter and news director to be fired. (I wonder if anyone was.)

    Unfortunately, as long as we have fundamentalist Christians and other extremists around who automatically regard anyone and anything that does not conform to their narrow worldview as “evil” and therefore “satanic,” we will probably always have some vestige of “satanic panic” running about. The good news is that, at least now, more people recognize it for the utter malarkey that it is, and are not afraid to call out those who espouse it. So should we all.

  • Many good comments here. But one I have not seen is the idea of “Negative Attention”. Satanism is a direct offshoot of Christianity in that it was invented by Christians to show that their concept of Religion was “Good” as Opposed to “Evil” Some people believe that negative attention is better than No attention at all. Fear is another example of how Christianity can get more “converts”. Christianity is one of the most extreme ‘Bi-Polar’ religions I have ever seen. I much prefer the “Shades of Grey” I see in my own Pagan practices as being healthy and realistic.

    • A closely related issue is the fact that many people actually do pass through a “Satanic” phase as part of their journey away from Christianity–and this is not at all a bad thing.

      You see, Christianity, and monotheism generally, is largely based on “normative inversion”. This is because Christianity arises not so much with a positive message of its own, but as a violent rejection of the ancient polytheistic religious traditions that it sought to replace (and, sadly, to some extent has succeeded in replacing). But this means that simply taking an inversion Christianity is actually a decent first order approximation of what a proper religion should look like (two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right, but if you turn something upside twice it is back where it started).

      • Deborah Bender

        When people from Christian backgrounds go looking for a different religion, they may try out others before settling on one. Satanism, Wicca, Buddhism, and generic Wicca-influenced paganism are fairly widely available and often are the intermediate phase in someone’s religious journey. And nowadays, of course, not settling on one is becoming popular.

    • As an aside, I’m really starting to loathe how people mistake “shades of grey” as an opposite of black-and-white thinking. “Shades of grey” isn’t really any different from the false dichotomy of black-and-white morality, the “shades of grey” model just converts it from a coin flip to a continuum, so everything is still subject to the “black and white” model, only now very few things are on the absolute ends of the spectrum, and the rest is now just “less black” or “less white”, but still implicitly judged by the black-and-white system.

      Spectrum dualism is not the opposite of binary dulaism. Pluralism is. There’s more to the light spectrum than just presence, absence, and shadow; there’s COLOUR!

    • Northern_Light_27

      Satanists aren’t Christians, I’m rather tired if this particular bit of misinformation. Yes, I get that it lets Pagans like you distance themselves from Satanists and think you’re so much better than either, but it’s plain *wrong*.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Ghosti didn’t say Satanists were Christians. The claim was that they are an offshoot of it. Which is technically true.

        • Deborah Bender

          Just as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. The figure of Satan originates in Jewish mythology, in which he is a member of the heavenly court with a role something like a prosecuting attorney.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Technically, in Jewish mythology, there is not a singular Satan figure, but numerous ha-satans who, as you say, are followers of YHWH that take the office of adversarial figures – notably adversaries of men, rather than of YHWH himself. (See Job for the best example of this.)

        • Northern_Light_27

          It’s not the “offshoot” part of the sentence that irked me, it’s the “invented by Christians” part of the sentence which, yes, does seem to say that the people who invented it were Christian at the time.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Well, considering there is little reliable historical evidence to suggest that Satanists-as-Devil-worshippers actually existed (in any serious way), it can be said that the Christians did ‘invent’ Satanism, if only as a tool for scaring others into obedience.

            Of course, that kind of propaganda is very different to the atheistic La Veyans about today, who merely appropriated the name.

  • Luminous_Being

    This is why from a PR standpoint I always urge folks, when asked the question “Do you worship the Devil?” to not give some complicated philosophical answer and just say “No, I don’t.”

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I like to further point out that the Devil is part of Christianity, not Paganism/similar.

  • Veracity

    The whole satanic panic subject is about propaganda and how well it was used by the twisted christians who came up with it. I lived about 100 miles from West Memphis when those children were murdered and I remember watching the news. When the West Memphis 3 were arrested and on trial I remember thinking quite vehemently “I hope they fry the bastards!” I was not an uber-Christian at the time, but I was a mother and TPTB played on parents’ worst nightmares; in part, this triggered the “Never let your kids out of sight” shift that so separates our own upbringing from our children’s.

    It was only a few years later that “Paradise Lost” came out and my interest in the case resurfaced. I bought a book that was supposedly an unbiased look at the evidence and wow, what a propaganda piece THAT was. This was around the time I became a pagan as well, though my spiritual changes had been a long time coming and weren’t related to this. I worked with more than one group to free the West Memphis 3 for years afterwards. I hope one day their names will be cleared officially and beyond doubt.

    But I can speak for some in the area at the time who get criticized for swallowing the occult panic hook line and sinker – you didn’t have to be a fundamentalist or uneducated or close-minded to believe it – the skewed presentation of the justice system and the media left it clear that *this was fact* and supposedly backed by rock-solid evidence including confession to the crimes and to the satanic rituals. We didn’t know that we not only didn’t have all the facts but that the “facts” we had were dictated by those on high. The semantics used demanded utter belief in the complete guilt and total lack of remorse of the accused. Even now when I look back and think “This was absolutely ridiculous” I simultaneously remember how it felt when it happened – the horror, the shock, and above all, the unshakable belief that it was true.