Grappling With the Satanic Panics 30 Years Later

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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.