How the Satanic Panic Ruined Lives and Shaped America: A History of the 1980s Moral Panic

How the Satanic Panic Ruined Lives and Shaped America: A History of the 1980s Moral Panic

The Satanic Panic: A Dark Chapter in American History

The Satanic Panic was a moral panic that swept across the United States and other parts of the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It involved widespread allegations of Satanic ritual abuse (SRA), a term that refers to physical and sexual abuse of people, especially children, in the context of occult or Satanic rituals. The panic was fueled by sensational media coverage, sensational books, dubious testimonies, and questionable investigative techniques. It resulted in false accusations, ruined reputations, broken families, and wrongful convictions. It also revealed the power of fear, hysteria, and conspiracy theories in shaping public opinion and influencing social institutions.

The Origins of the Panic

The panic can be traced back to 1980, when a book called Michelle Remembers was published. The book was co-written by a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and later wife) Michelle Smith. It claimed to be a true account of Smith’s repressed memories of being abused by a Satanic cult when she was a child. The book used a controversial method called recovered-memory therapy, which involved hypnosis and suggestion to elicit supposedly forgotten traumatic events. The book described horrific scenes of torture, sacrifice, cannibalism, and murder by a group of Satanists who wanted to unleash the Antichrist.
The book became a bestseller and received widespread attention from the media and the public. It also sparked interest among religious fundamentalists, police investigators, child advocates, therapists, and clients in psychotherapy. Many people believed that SRA was a real and widespread phenomenon that needed to be exposed and stopped. Some people also claimed to have recovered their own memories of SRA or to have witnessed it firsthand.

The McMartin Preschool Case

One of the most notorious cases of the Satanic Panic was the McMartin preschool case. It began in 1983, when a woman named Judy Johnson accused an employee at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of molesting her son. She also claimed that her son had witnessed Satanic rituals at the preschool involving animal sacrifices, blood drinking, and flying witches. Johnson later turned out to be mentally unstable and died of alcoholism before the trial.
However, her allegations triggered a massive investigation by the police and the district attorney’s office. They interviewed hundreds of children who attended the preschool using suggestive and coercive methods that led them to make false or exaggerated statements. They also searched for physical evidence of SRA such as tunnels, bones, or pentagrams at the preschool site but found none.
The case resulted in seven years of legal proceedings that cost millions of dollars and involved multiple charges against seven defendants who worked at the preschool. The trial was marked by sensational media coverage, unreliable testimonies, dubious experts, and public hysteria. In 1990, after three years of jury deliberations, the case ended with no convictions for any of the accused. Some of them had spent years in jail awaiting trial.

The Aftermath of the Panic

The McMartin preschool case was not an isolated incident. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were hundreds of similar cases across the country and around the world involving allegations of SRA. Some of them resulted in lengthy sentences for innocent people who were later exonerated or released on appeal. Some examples are:

  • The Kern County child abuse cases in California (1982-1986), which involved 36 defendants who were accused of abusing 60 children in Satanic rituals. Twenty-six of them were convicted and sentenced to a total of more than 1,600 years in prison. All of them were later cleared by appeals courts or pardoned by governors.
  • The Fells Acres Day Care Center case in Massachusetts (1984-1995), which involved three defendants who were accused of abusing 19 children in Satanic rituals. Two of them were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. They were later freed after their convictions were overturned by appeals courts.
  • The Little Rascals Day Care Center case in North Carolina (1989-1997), which involved seven defendants who were accused of abusing 90 children in Satanic rituals. Five of them were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. They were later freed after their convictions were overturned by appeals courts.

The Satanic Panic gradually subsided in the late 1990s as more evidence emerged that SRA was largely a myth or a hoax.

The Impact and Legacy of the Panic

The Satanic Panic had a lasting impact on the lives of many people who were falsely accused, convicted, or traumatized by the hysteria. Some of them spent decades in prison before being exonerated or released. Some of them faced social stigma, financial ruin, or psychological damage. Some of them never received justice or compensation for their ordeal.

The panic also had a broader impact on the culture and society of the time. It influenced the music industry, the entertainment industry, the legal system, the mental health field, and the religious landscape. It exposed the flaws and biases of some institutions and professionals who were supposed to protect and serve the public. It also revealed the vulnerability and gullibility of some segments of the population who were willing to believe in sensational and unfounded claims.

The panic eventually faded away as more evidence and research debunked the myth of SRA and exposed the errors and misconduct of some investigators, therapists, and media outlets. However, some aspects of the panic still linger in the public consciousness and influence some contemporary issues and movements. For example:

  • The panic contributed to the rise of conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals of powerful and evil people who abuse children and perform occult rituals. One recent example is QAnon, which claims that a global network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles led by prominent Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, and other elites is plotting against Donald Trump and his supporters.
  • The panic reinforced some stereotypes and prejudices against certain groups or subcultures that were associated with Satanism or occultism, such as heavy metal fans, goths, pagans, witches, or LGBTQ+ people. Some of these groups still face discrimination or harassment from some segments of society who view them as immoral or dangerous.
  • The panic raised some ethical and legal questions about how to handle allegations of child abuse, how to interview children who may have been abused, how to use hypnosis or other techniques to recover memories, how to evaluate expert testimony or evidence in court, and how to balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the victims.
  • The Satanic Panic was a dark chapter in American history that showed how fear, hysteria, and misinformation can lead to tragic consequences. It also showed how critical thinking, skepticism, and evidence can help overcome such challenges. It is a lesson that is still relevant today as we face new forms of moral panic and social anxiety in a complex and changing world.


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