4 Ways The Satanic Panic Broke America's Brain In The 1980s

The Satanic Panic wasn't just a plot point on Stranger Things.
4 Ways The Satanic Panic Broke America's Brain In The 1980s

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Satanic Panic – the name given to the moral panic that arose in the U.S. amid Satanists taking a greater role in public life – recalled the witch trials of colonial times. Neighbors levied false accusations of Satanic allegiance at those viewed as outsiders, and these lies led to lives being ruined, mere decades ago.

First Off, Satan Is a Content Creator

The religious conservatives and overzealous law enforcement officials who instigated the Satanic Panic suspected that every municipality down to the smallest town likely had a sect of a Satanic cult lying in wait. Their paranoia stemmed from the high-profile cult crimes like the Manson Family murders and the Jonestown mass suicide bringing the subject to the forefront of public consciousness. Agitators scrutinized all parts of American life for the taint of organized devil worship. Metal music was criticized for Satanic imagery and lyrics, and many artists found themselves blamed for the behaviors and beliefs of their fans. 

The Manor Studios

Black Sabbath...Satanic?  We don't see it.

Individuals with disabilities and mental health problems were railroaded for supposed Satanic crimes that they didn’t commit. One of the most infamous tragedies of the Panic occurred when the West Memphis Three – Damien Echols (18), Jessie Misskelley Jr. (17), and Jason Baldwin (16) – were convicted in 1994 for the murder of three boys, a conviction cleared by DNA evidence in 2011 after the men spent 18 years in an Arkansas jail. It’s no coincidence that Echols had a history of institutionalization and Misskelley was reported to have an IQ of 72; accusations of their supposed involvement with Satanism clearly had ableist roots.

The part of the Satanic Panic that I find actually funny, though, was the focus on Dungeons & Dragons as a gateway to demon worship for youth. (As a side note: In my research for this article series, I read a shocking number of academic-sounding explanations of what D&D is, as if anyone choosing to read about Satanism has no clue what 2d20 are). Learning about the group BADD–the acronym for an anti-D&D coalition that stands for “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” – really made me question the organization’s dedication. There is no better way to assure that your cause will be ignored and mocked than including a mild-sounding word like “Bothered” in the name of your group. Rule of thumb: if you are merely bothered by something, please do not bother me about it.

TSR, Inc.

How could THIS bother anyone?

While Christians conservatives had many focuses for their seemingly inexhaustible ire, they often coalesced around the ultimate reason they claimed to persecute so-called Luciferians: Satanic Ritual Abuse.

Repressed Memories, Unrepressed Lies

Satanic Ritual Abuse is exactly what it sounds like. As it’s called by people who swear that it’s real, “SRA” describes an imagined epidemic of groups of devil worshippers sexually abusing children as part of their worship. The fact that no publicly known Satanic group supports ritualized abuse does not stop conspiracy theorists from positing that it happens frequently and pervasively. The uproar over SRA was first initiated with the publication of Dr. Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers.

St. Martin's Press

Joining a proud history of serious academic literature that looks like a slasher movie poster from the 70s.

The veracity of Pazder’s account of his patient Michelle Smith’s childhood abuse at the hands of a Satanic cult was challenged upon release, but that didn’t stop the Satan-fearing public from believing outlandish claims that supposedly stemmed from a hypnosis session between Pazder and Smith. Events described in Michelle Remembers combined elements of The Exorcist, Pazder’s own faith, and things he witnessed during a visit to Africa. In a book where Smith says that she was visited by the Archangel Michael and Virgin Mary, somehow the most outlandish allegation is that the Church of Satan kidnapped, tortured, and abused Smith over 81 days in 1955. While Anton LaVey put an end to these claims with a lawsuit (and the fact that the claims took place a decade before the founding of the church), the book still managed to make most Americans certain that – if Satanists hadn’t already abused their kids – they were planning to do so. Coerced testimony from child victims was all that was necessary to start leveling increasingly crazier accusations.

Additional damage came when Pazder and similar opportunists were treated as experts on SRA and began training police, social workers, and other mental health professionals on the topic. Some of these experts filmed videos offering anti-Satanic training, and luckily these records of a sadder time can be found online today.

In this video, some mulleted herb walks around a park looking for signs of Satanism in things that any stable adult would barely notice. By putting clowns like this in positions of power, America was immersed in enough paranoia and wrong-headedness for a full-blown crisis to pop off.

The Media Made It Worse

While these videos gave law enforcement the tools to make massive mistakes, a TV media all-too-willing to believe whatever someone in a suit told it added fuel to the fire. Their reports further intensified Satanic Panic-related fury. They riled up citizens, who put pressure on cops to bust heads–any heads. Irresponsible journalism was just as responsible as the Christian right for the Satanic Panic, and also just as fictitious. One such report is a 20/20 segment called, “The Devil Worshippers.” For those wondering what the Qanons of today were up to during the Reagan years, here it is.

First and foremost, I enjoy this clip as a supercut of super dope scenes from films that are being discussed as potentially promoting Satanism. I really love the “Hail Satan!” scene from Rosemary’s Baby. As a refresher, here’s a scene in which Maude from Harold & Maude talks about Satan’s “only living son” in rapturous tones:

However, this clip is even more entertaining as an inventory of now-discredited Satanic Panic grifters. In addition to Pazder, we see fraudster Mike Warnke. As someone who has spent the past few weeks reading about the panic, I know that whenever Warnke is profiled, laughs will be had at his expense. Warnke became popular on the Christian speaking circuit when he published The Satan Seller, a book in which he claimed to be a former Satanist involved in ritualistic drug use, orgies, and sacrifices. He recorded several Christian comedy albums, a six-word sentence sadder than, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” His jokes are basically the bad puns and lazy observations Gallagher made between smashing watermelons, except the Warnke equivalent of smashing watermelons is fabricating things about his past. In addition to lying about his involvement with Satanism, he self-aggrandized elements of his military service and was eventually exposed by the Christian press as a domestic abuser and tax fraud.

Myrrh Records

Please don't!

At the very least, I was grateful that 20/20 repeatedly acknowledged that the existence of Satanic cults and SRA is unsubstantiated. However, the report cant help but sensationalize the issue and leave the possibility open. It ends with, “Until that one case is proved, the link between crime and Satanic cults will remain speculative.” This refusal to accept reality for the sake of ratings resulted in what was probably the most blatant exploitation of the panic.

When You Think You’ve Reached Your Lowest Point, Remember that You Could Always Be Geraldo Rivera

The height of Satanic Panic fuel came from possibly the least ethical journalist alive: Geraldo Rivera. When I tell you that the special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground – which Rivera produced himself and sold to NBC – is the most reckless, irresponsible thing he ever did, please remember that this is a man forced out of a country by the U.S. military because his blunders were endangering them. He cares about being regarded as an authority but doesn’t care enough to do anything worthy of respect. An audience of 20 million – one third of all TVs watching broadcasts at the time of its 1988 airing – tuned into the 90 minute pre-recorded event, so I guess he got what he wanted out of this trash.

From the beginning, the special is a laughable mix of pretension and fear-mongering. Rivera confidently strolls out from behind a bank of televisions, drawling an introduction into a tightly-clutched microphone. The audience actually looks surprised to see him until you realize that they are part of the geek show we are about to watch. Rivera points a spotlight at anyone willing to talk freely about eating blood or Satan’s majesty. He basically interviews people who are suffering for one reason or another and then tries to string together a narrative from their talk.

He volleys back and forth between all of his guests – including priests, cops, Satanists, and concerned parents – to the point where their conversations are barely comprehensible. He also includes interviews with meatheaded, conservative law enforcement officers, and I really appreciate the opportunity to watch them nonverbally react with disgust every time Rivera attempts to put a hand on their shoulders. Ozzy Osbourne even appears and conducts himself in an uncharacteristically clearheaded fashion for pre-sobriety Ozzy. When he says, “I feel kind of persecuted by everything,” it is the truest part of the entire special.


You would react this way too if you had to undergo the burden of pretending Geraldo is a respectable person.

The segment is riddled with pictures of corpses washed out enough that Rivera can get away with airing them on network TV. He repeatedly begs parents to not let children watch his special. At one point in the latter half, he muses, “I think sometimes that ironically on television when you give a disclaimer it has exactly the opposite to the intended effect and more people tune in than tune out.” If you’re already an hour into a Geraldo special about Satanism where we’ve seen several dead bodies and your children (let alone you) are still watching it, the ship has sailed on avoiding content “too upsetting for young children.”

Rivera’s regard for children’s welfare might just have been an excuse to enter into more salacious, ratings-augmenting claims about SRA. Among his interviews are the McMartin Preschool parents. The McMartin case is an example of how the Satanic Panic was heavily tied into cultural anxieties of the time. The 1980s saw women enter the workforce as expanded opportunities and an increase in divorces made working women more common. Since the typical caretakers for a family’s children were suddenly unable to prove that service, daycares became more necessary for Americans. The types of Americans who would be worried about Satanists – white, Christian, conservative – were usually the types of Americans who would see this dependency on outside childcare as destabilizing the nuclear family.

This overlap caused a maelstrom of legal woe for a mother and son who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach. After one parent’s complaint about Satanic abuse at the school, police sent a letter to 200 families whose children attended it, seeking other instances of abuse. This call for craziness led to stories of daycare workers flying, consorting with witches and goat men, and digging tunnels beneath the school to aid in Satanic rituals. The latter point was so strongly believed that parents actually rented a backhoe to explore the grounds themselves. When the McMartins and 5 of their staff were accused of 321 counts of abuse against 41 children, it initiated what is still the longest and most expensive trial in California history, running from 1987 to 1990. It also yielded zero convictions because charges were largely based on testimony that parents and investigators compelled from children.

So you might understand why giving the McMartin Preschool parents a platform to speak just as the trial was beginning would only make matters worse. The parent picked as the spokesperson for the group refers to Manhattan Beach as “the child molestation capitol of the world,” citing that one third of the children in the school system had been sexually abused. (Weird flex, bro). The parents seem to labor under the delusion that not treating a crime as a Satanic ritual without evidence is a bad thing. It is horrifying to think that Americans’ misunderstanding and fear of Satanism was weaponized to such a degree in the era of the Satanic Panic.

The scariest part of this video, though, is going to YouTube and reading the comments. If you want to be real bummed out about the future of this country, go check those out. They’re basically full of QAnon types who see themselves as “keyboard warriors” fighting against SRA. It is disheartening to see people continuing to argue that – in many accusations of SRA – the absence of evidence is itself evidence of a vast conspiracy.

If Americans spent the better part of a decade focused on a distorted and sensationalized understanding of Satanic practice, how are Satanists in the U.S. truly practicing their religion? Which ceremonies do they use to worship Satan? Tune in tomorrow for an exploration of Satanic rituals.

You can check out the rest of this series here:

6 Ways Satan Influenced The Course Of American History

Modern American Satanism: The Church of Satan Vs. The Satanic Temple

The Cracked Guide To Satanic Rituals

4 Ways America's Satanic Panic Never Really Ended

Top image: Raland/Shutterstock


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