The Crazy Real-Life Story Of The Satanic Panic

In the 1980s, it seemed as if the very soul of the United States was in jeopardy. Concerned citizens were alarmed by increasingly explicit song lyrics and a growing affection for the occult. For some, this was a relatively harmless way for teens to set themselves apart. For others, these were signs that the Devil walked amongst us.

Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, America was gripped by the "Satanic Panic." People accused teachers and daycare workers of aligning themselves with a powerful, hidden cabal of devil worshippers. These Satanists, some argued, would abduct children and subject them to extreme acts of "satanic ritual abuse."

It sometimes tore families apart. In the Kern County child abuse cases, per The New York Times, multiple children accused their parents of taking part in Satanic ritual abuse. Two couples were convicted in 1984 and effectively sentenced to life in prison, though they were released by 1996. By the 2000s, some of the now-adult children admitted that they had made up the stories under pressure from interviewers.

These interviews provided the foundation for convictions and social censure, with very little physical evidence to support them. By the 1990s, many had dismissed the Satanic Panic as a kind of mass hysteria. Yet, with some people still imprisoned and others convinced that Satanists are still abusing children, we're still feeling the effects of this worldwide moral panic.

Satanic Panic started with a massive cultural shift

Satanic Panic was preceded by the rise of evangelical Christianity that, in some opinions, cultivated a paranoid fear of supernatural evil. This is exemplified by the "evil empire" speech delivered by President Ronald Reagan on March 8, 1983. According to History, this speech was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals, shortly before Reagan was re-elected to a second term. Though Reagan was talking about the Soviet Union, his use of concepts like good versus evil spoke to a sea change in Americans' relationship to religion, especially as many joined the evangelical Christian movement.

Because of this change, Reagan courted the favor of the Moral Majority, the Western Illinois Historical Review reports. The Moral Majority was a political action group formed in 1979 by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, Sr. It successfully aligned itself with conservative values and the political right, setting the stage for the conservative Republican politics that are still active in the U.S. government. After Reagan's election in 1980, his ties to the Moral Majority continued.

A growing number of Americans were taking part in conservative Christianity that pushed back against the more liberal cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, per Vox. This included the rise of new religious practices like the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by musician and occultist Anton LaVey. Though LaVey's Church of Satan was actually atheism dressed up like a carnival sideshow, from the outside it was terrifying to Bible-believing evangelicals.

Quack psychology made many believe the Devil was real

As the 1980s progressed, it was clear that mental health services were going to be a more prominent part of American life. However, the rise of legitimate psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and other health professionals was mirrored by the rise of quack practitioners as well. Dubious therapies like hypnotic regression also helped to set the stage for a Satanic Panic based on concepts like "recovered memories." According to the British Psychological Society, recovered memories are especially controversial because they are often difficult to prove. Additionally, they may be generated whole-cloth as patients ruminate on their experiences with the help of over-eager therapists. Adding to the confusion was the desire for fame and fortune, which seemed to push many professionals to ignore concerns as they gained renown for fighting back against evil but unseen Satanists.

The proliferation of mandatory reporting laws and strengthened child protection services over the course of the latter 20th century is also tied into the story. Unfortunately, there's no doubt that child abuse was a persistent problem long before the 1980s, The Revealer reports. But, the growing attention towards abuse, paired with rising concerns about the very soul of the nation, primed a powder keg. With so many Americans worried about evil in both its temporal and supernatural forms, it now seems that something explosive was bound to happen.

Michelle Remembers started the fire

Michelle Remembers, published in 1980, was the first work to claim that Satanic practitioners were ritually abusing children. Written by Michelle Smith and psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, the book contained lurid stories of abuse uncovered during Smith's therapy sessions. According to Capital Daily, Pazder began to use hypnotic regression during Smith's sessions.

At first, these were worldly horrors like purportedly witnessing a murder, but, as the sessions continued, the recollections took on a paranormal tinge, with graveyard rituals, consumption of human remains, and the even the Devil himself. At one point, Michelle claims, occultists installed horns and a tail into her own body.

Were Smith and Pazder slowly uncovering her traumatic past, or were they using unproven hypnotic regression to build a story together? Did the deeply religious Pazder use this opportunity to bolster his own faith and career?

Michelle Remembers has now been thoroughly debunked, both because Pazder used unproven methods and because no corroborating evidence was uncovered. For those who believed that well-organized Satanists were wreaking havoc in the world, this was a stark, terrifying confirmation. For others, it was a graphic, compelling story that took hold of their imaginations and made the changing world all the more terrifying. For Smith and Pazder, The Revealer says, it was the ticket to a highly public and lucrative career as speakers and consultants.

The McMartin preschool affair was one of the first Satanic Panic court cases

Though the writers of Michelle Remembers claimed that a well-organized Satanic cult was operating in Canada, it wasn't long before the Satanic Panic hit the U.S. In California, the McMartin preschool case proved to be one of the most expensive and traumatic legal affairs to stem from the panic.

It began with a call made in August 1983, The New York Times says. Judy Johnson, whose son went to the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, told the police that her son had been abused by a teacher. In a letter, she also said that her son witnessed the teacher, Raymond Buckey, flying through the air. His mother and school administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey supposedly took Johnson's son to an armory where a "goatman" was present in a "ritual-type atmosphere."

During the investigation, police sent a letter to the parents that graphically referred to "possible criminal acts" and named Raymond Buckey, setting off a panic. When interviewed, most children at first denied that anything happened but questionable interview techniques pushed them to confess to lurid happenings.

The court case that followed dragged on for years and cost $15 million dollars. It fizzled into nothing after investigators found no evidence to support the claims. Eventually, Judy Johnson's initial testimony was brought into question, The Revealer reports. After her death, it was revealed that she had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Unproven methods produced questionable testimony

Many of the children interviewed for the McMartin preschool investigation spoke with Kee MacFarlane, per Vox. MacFarlane and her team, none of whom were licensed, spoke to hundreds of children.

According to the Los Angeles Times, MacFarlane employed controversial techniques. One assistant told children that others had already divulged their "yucky secrets" in an effort to defeat the teachers who were "sick in the head." The investigator even directly asked at least one girl if "Mr. Ray" did the touching. When the girl denied this, the investigator repeatedly asked how Mr. Ray "would have" touched someone until the girl pointed to an anatomically correct doll's private parts.

Could young children, who spoke of secret tunnels beneath the school, goatmen, and flying teachers, be trusted when investigators like MacFarlane goaded them on? In at least one exchange, quoted by The New York Times, she told one child, "You're just a scaredy cat. How come you won't tell me?"

These and other dubious techniques spread throughout the Satanic Panic, according to Satan's Silence. Investigators, some of whom helped to imprison accused people for years, relied on unproven techniques like the analysis of childrens' drawings, how they played with toys, and interviews packed full of leading questions. A 2005 Texas case illustrated the flawed methods still in use, Texas Monthly reports. There, investigators asked children leading questions, hounded them for answers, and rewarded interviewees for producing stories that confirmed their suspicions.

Law enforcement officers were sent to Satanic Panic seminars

As the panic grew, police departments began to train officers for what seemed to be a rising tide of Satanism. At least, that's what people like Kee MacFarlane believed. According to Evil Incarnate, MacFarlane, the unlicensed investigator who worked on the McMartin preschool case, told California legislators that "preschools in this country in some instances I think we must realize have become a ruse of larger unthinkable networks of crimes against children."

Police training for the Satanic Panic has come into question. According to Rochester Magazine, training taught police investigators to treat everything from graffitied pentagrams to heavy metal music as evidence of occult activity. As reported by the Chicago Reader, one document from the Chicago Police Department, assembled by a "gang crimes and ritual abuse specialist" in 1989, alleged that even the innocuous peace symbol was really an occultic "Cross of Nero."

While paranoia grew within police departments, practically no evidence uncovered a vast, satanic conspiracy. Yet, people like Lawrence Pazder, who co-wrote Michelle Remembers and helped to set off the panic, remained in high demand as a paid "expert" consultant.

The Satanic Panic nearly killed Damien Echols

As part of the Satanic Panic, people began to grow wary of the imagery and culture of metal music. Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, helped to form the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, Rolling Stone says. The PMRC was founded with the intent to give parents greater control over children's access to music with violent or sexual imagery, including occult themes. It was tied to the same moral fears that gave rise to the Satanic Panic. At the same time, this video from Vox reports, police departments and investigators were told to be especially wary of metal music, which they were told contained hidden occult messages that led teens along a dark, otherworldly path.

The paranoia surrounding the look and sound of metal music very nearly killed Damien Echols. Along with Jessie Miskelley and Jason Baldwin, The New York Times reports, Echols was convicted of the 1993 assault and murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three young men were eventually called the "West Memphis Three." The evidence linking the trio to the murder was scant and largely circumstantial. The convictions were based in part on their goth aesthetic and love of metal music, which investigators linked to occult elements that were supposedly identified at the crime scene, but never confirmed.

Though Echols was initially sentenced to death, all three have now been released from prison. The true killer of the boys has never been identified.

Some Satanic Panic defendants are still imprisoned

While people grew frantic at the prospect of satanic groups abusing children, real people were being convicted on little evidence. Some, like Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, just barely escaped execution. Others were imprisoned for many years, only to be released when people questioned the evidence presented. A few remain in prison today.

As reported by Frontline, Frank and Ileana Fuster were arrested in August 1984. They were charged with committing abuse at their home daycare in Miami, Florida. Janet Reno, then serving as the Dade County state attorney, prosecuted the couple based on child testimony, a single medical test, and Ileana Fuster's confession. Some argued that the children were pushed to confess, much like the minors in the McMartin preschool case. Furthermore, Ileana eventually recanted, maintaining her own innocence while saying she simply wanted the ordeal to be over. She was imprisoned for three years and then deported to Honduras in 1989, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

A 1990 made-for-TV movie, Unspeakable Acts, may have influenced public perception of the case. Frank is still in prison today. Though the evidence presented at the Fuster's investigation and trial was shaky, the truth remains that Frank had prior convictions, per The Washington Post. This points to the distinct possibility that some children, both in the Fuster case and beyond, may be genuine abuse victims whose stories are overshadowed by claims of conspiracies and the supernatural.

Geraldo Rivera fanned the flames of the Satanic Panic

In 1988, Gizmodo reports, talk show host Geraldo Rivera presented a two-hour special that claimed to exposé the Satanic conspiracy gripping the nation. However, his heightened style and the inconsistent evidence produced a mess. The special mashed together concerns about the imagery of heavy metal music, teenage slang, and a surprisingly cogent Ozzy Osbourne.

Geraldo Rivera's intonation that "Satanism is not a harmless fad or a passing phase" rang true for many. It certainly did nothing to quell the panic. Of course, Rivera, despite his flamboyant broadcasting style and alarmist rhetoric, can't shoulder all of the blame for the Satanic Panic. Other media sources, like tabloid newspapers and primetime specials, did plenty to stoke the flames of paranoia, the Journal of American Studies argues. People who were on the fence about the possibility of a satanic abuse conspiracy might be convinced by the "evidence" presented on their televisions or in the tabloid headlines. Those who were already pretty convinced could have seen the same as a confirmation of their beliefs. Satan was real, and his minions were hell-bent on wreaking havoc.

Satanic Panic wasn't just an American phenomenon

Though the U.S. seemed to be the heart of a mysterious network of Satanic abusers, the panic spread outwards into other countries. In 1992, the CBC reports, it struck Martensville, Saskatchewan. A local daycare was targeted after children claimed to have been abused by the people working there. Some claimed to have been taken to a blue shed outside of town, which they called the "Devil Church," and where they were supposedly trapped in cages and made to participate in blood rituals. The accusations went to trial in 1993, but further scrutiny brought police investigation techniques into question. Though some of the accused were convicted, the vast majority of their sentences were overturned after authorities failed to produce any evidence. 

In 1997, Italy experienced its own Satanic Panic with the "Devils of Lower Modena," Vice says. After a local parent referred her child to a psychologist to counter possible abuse, it spun into a widespread and paranoid investigation. Children claimed that they were made to participate in murders, blasphemies, and gory nighttime rituals held in cemeteries. Sixteen children were removed from their families and six people were convicted. As in so many other cases of Satanic Panic, no one ever uncovered proof that satanic ritual abuse or murder had taken place.

The panic lost steam in the 1990s

According to The Oxford Handbook of New Religions, media outlets began to grow skeptical of the moral panic beginning in the late 1980s. In 1992, Pacific Standard reports, the U.S. Department of Justice published a study written by Special Agent Kenneth Lanning that debunked the whole affair. Lanning, who was a consultant on hundreds of Satanic Panic cases, criticized the mutable definitions of Satanism used by law enforcement agencies. He also noted that some of the alarming symbols used by "Satanists" were ultimately innocuous things like heavy metal music and role-playing games.

By 1995, a television film produced by HBO, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, marked the growing disbelief surrounding the specter of satanic ritual abuse. The movie portrayed Ray Buckey, the accused man at the center of the McMartin preschool trial, as a victim of the moral panic. Though reviewers at The New York Times didn't find it to be especially nuanced, it was at least indicative of the changing beliefs that led to the fade of the Satanic Panic.

That doesn't mean the Satanic Panic was entirely over. A training film called the "Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults" was produced in 1994, Mel Magazine says. Cases bearing the marks of the panic are still in the court system. As per The Guardian, the "Devils of Lower Modena" case that supposedly centered on satanic ritual abuse in Italy was still being argued in court as recently as 2019.

The Satanic Panic still hasn't left us

Though many convictions have since been overturned, families, businesses, and entire communities have been scarred by the Panic. Even now, we're left with media that often encourages hysteria and false beliefs that have real, harmful consequences, The Washington Post points out. "Pizzagate," the viral allegation that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, was part of a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton, led to actual violence. In 2016, Edgar Welch entered the pizzeria and fired a rifle, demanding that the owners hand over evidence. His paranoia clearly echoed the damaging spread of the Satanic Panic decades earlier. 

Though it's now largely derided by mental health professionals, belief in ritual abuse committed by a highly organized and efficient underground group of devil worshippers is still out there. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, one therapist practicing in Salt Lake City, Barbara Snow, was put on probation for reportedly planting memories of satanic ritual abuse in her own patients. Snow, who is still a practicing therapist, at one time treated Teal Swan, a controversial spiritual leader. According to Grey Faction, a mental health advocacy group, Swan herself maintained that she had been the victim of Satanists. The investigation on her behalf stalled when Snow came under fire.