The Satanic Panic from the ‘80s to Today
In 1980, a Canadian book was published that details a child’s uncovered memories of being a prisoner of a Satanic Cult in the 1950s. The book, co-written by psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith, is an account of repressed memories claimed to be unearthed by Pazder’s hypnosis techniques.
Michelle’s memories found under hypnosis detailed her being groomed in preparation to partake in a ritual to call the devil — right in Victoria, British Columbia.
Michelle Remembers was a catalyst for a panic that swept through North America. Commonly known as the “Satanic Panic,” this moral panic consisted of a string of abuse accusations detailing child abuse, Satanists and abductions. The main focus of these accusations was child sexual abuse, and the population of accused largely consisted of teachers and daycare employees.
Pazder’s influence on the panic spread farther than just one book. He became seen as a supreme expert on the subject of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and was even made consultant on a few legal cases.
The most publicized case from the Satanic Panic era, the McMartin Preschool trial, began with one accusation swelling to hundreds. One parent accused a staff member, Ray Buckey, of molesting her son. Following this initial allegation, the police sent a letter to two hundred families asking for, “Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child”.
Interviews of children were conducted by social worker Kee MacFarlane from the nonprofit organization Children’s Institute International. Leading tactics were used in the interviews to coax answers out of children, including sock puppets, leading questions and the pressure on children that their classmates had already revealed: “yucky secrets.”
Ms. Macfarlane defended her tactics in an interview, stating the children “thought they might die or their parents might die. When we realized that’s what kept them silent, we began to feel we were not going to get to any of that information until they got over that fear. One way is to say we talked to a lot of their friends and they told of yucky secrets. I felt that it gave a message there may be something yucky they could tell. We found it relieved them. It took the onus off being the first one.”
The allegations of abuse rose from one student to over 350 by the spring of 1984. Accusations spiraled with claims of adults in tunnels beneath the school, child pornography, ritual animal abuse, and Ray Buckey “flying.”
After a case that lasted seven years and one of the most expensive trials in history, the McMartin Preschool Trial ended in mistral. Lack of evidence and possibly coercive interviewing tactics had marred the case.
While heavily publicized, the McMartin Trial does not stand alone. It is indicative of an era where accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse were happening often. A pattern began to emerge for each incident.
First, children making claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse would be interviewed with leading questions. As time passed, more intensity and pressure would apply to the interviews. Children would then amp up their stories, citing more elaborate schemes of ritual abuse and witchcraft that did not exist in their initial allegations.
In 1992, the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCVAC) published “The Investegator’s Guide to Allegations of ‘Ritual’ Child Abuse.” In this text, the alternative reasons for allegations of Satanic Ritual abuse with no evidence are explored. Law enforcement officer Kenneth V. Lanning explains how law enforcement officials were trained to look out for signs of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and how there are scientific behavioral explanations for people to believe they have seen events that did not actually occur.
Satanic Ritual Abuse was a way to explain the unexplainable, and a way to provide evidence where none existed before. Lanning accounts a case in the Pacific Northwest where the officer claimed that there must have been Satanic Ritual Abuse. The officer explained, “If you knew about the murders or found the bodies, it would not be Satanists.” Lanning then offers “How do you argue with that kind of logic?”
It creates an inarguable paradox. Everything by the Satanists is covert and secret, therefore an accusation with no evidence can be pinned on this answer.
This tactic, however, runs into issues when cases are brought to court. Prosecutors need evidence. In the McMartin trial, the use of manipulative questioning of minors is what provided key evidence in the case. Questioning is a small piece of the puzzle, and Lanning explains that in Satanic Ritual Abuse cases law enforcement are trained to look out for ways to find hidden evidence. Lanning states “The information presented is a mixture of fact, theory, opinion, fantasy, and paranoia, and because some of it can be proven or corroborated (symbols on rock albums, graffiti on walls, desecration of cemeteries, vandalism, etc.), the implication is that it is all true and documented. Material produced by religious organizations, photocopies and slides of newspaper articles, and videotapes of tabloid television programs are used to supplement the training and are presented as “evidence” of the existence and nature of the problem.”
And so it stands to question what the public standards of evidence are in these Satanic Ritual Abuse cases. It is a collective belief that those who commit crimes should be punished, and those who do not, should not serve the consequences for actions they did not commit. Yet things get messy when the public has a collective visceral reaction of rage and panic over an accusation. Evidence is more than just collected, it is searched for and deeply desired. If these truly heinous acts are taking place in small-town America, they need to be stopped as quickly as possible. Therefore, evidence is gleaned from any possible source, including interviews with young children.
The panic stretched beyond the bounds of child witnesses. Rock music, drugs and all forms of pop culture that defied Evangelical standards were looped in with the Satanists. If children were being abused by cults, teenagers were being lured into indoctrination through popular culture.
A notorious case is that of teenager Ricky Kasso, “The Acid King”. Kasso murdered Gary Lauwers in Long Island, New York in the summer of 1984. During the attack, Kasso pressured Gary repeatedly with the line “Say you love Satan!” and Gary responded with “I love my mother.” Kasso then told his peers that he had murdered Gary as a sacrifice to Satan.
He was arrested wearing an AC/DC shirt, which further inflated the idea that heavy metal music was Satanic and dangerous.
The Satanic Panic is often looked at as the past. Its frightening moral hold over society’s logic is associated with the ‘80s and ‘90s. But that ideology, as Lanning describes as how “Faith, not logic and reason, governs the religious beliefs of most people” is still prevalent.
Michelle Remembers was discredited, but not after becoming a bestselling hit. The McMartin trial produced no convictions, but not after being highly publicized all over the country.
The frenzy of the Satanic Panic still perpetuates today. Conspiracy theories of ritualistic child abuse circulate in modern media, most notoriously through QAnon.
Mike Rothschild, author and researcher of conspiracies, explains the QAnon conspiracies: “Some of the earliest drops are about what the Clintons do to children, what the deep state does to children, satanic trafficking and sacrifices.”
Notably, conspiracy QAnon today promotes the hashtag “Save the Children” not unlike the popular slogan during the Satanic Panic, “Believe the Children”.
Both are inarguable phrases. How can we not believe children when they detail these awful scenes at their daycares and elementary schools? How can we not save them from these terrible fates? America’s persistent mission to protect the innocence of its youth means that this sort of logic pulls at the moral heartstrings of even the most uninformed outsider.
Mass media and reporting tactics perpetuate the panics. An unknowing news viewer at home that is affronted with the phrase “Save the Children” by their phone or television can hardly disagree with the fact that something should be done. They are then bombarded with “evidence” that leans into their moral and religious predispositions. Fact becomes farther and farther from reach, replaced with accusations that must be “uncovered”.
Modern conspiracy theory “Pizzagate” builds off of the idea that the unseen is the biggest threat. Each time a major news outlet debunks its claims, it only stokes the fire that there is something bigger to uncover.
Many members of society still believe in a menace existing underneath the surface, corrupting America’s youngest and most vulnerable. When no evidence appears for their claims, they find ways to make it themselves.
However, the mass infiltration of middle-class America by Satanists and Democrat-led pedophiles has yet to galvanize substantial and tangible evidence. Many of the accounts follow the same patterns and notes, which leads to the question: are these repeat instances merely mimicking each other? Regardless, hunting for Satanic Ritual Abuse and pressuring young children to make outlandish confessions is harmful in its own right, as pushing for stories about witchcraft and cults underneath daycares can overshadow the stories of child sexual abuse that do need to be investigated and treated with care.
As Kenneth V. Lanning says, “The large number of people telling the same story is, in fact, the biggest reason to doubt these stories. It is simply too difficult for that many people to commit so many horrendous crimes as part of an organized conspiracy.”
Julia Dath is a sophomore Writing major who is glad they didn’t live through the ‘80s. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.