Remember the Satanic Panic

By Philip Jenkins

Lecturing recently, I mentioned the American witch-hunts of the 1980s and 1990s. When the audience looked puzzled, I explained that I was referring to the Satanic Panic of those years, the wave of false charges concerning ritual child abuse and devil cults that made regular headlines in the decade after 1984. The explanation helped little.

Even people who had lived through those years, who had been following the media closely, had precisely no recollection. Lost in memory it may be, but the Satanic Panic needs to be remembered, if only to prevent a renewed outbreak of this horrible farrago. And when better than in the 30th anniversary of the affair's beginning?

Receive news alerts

It all started in southern California, in Manhattan Beach, in the Fall of 1983. A woman told police that her son had been sexually abused at a highly reputable preschool run by the McMartin family. Her charges became ever wilder and more implausible, not surprisingly given that she was a paranoid schizophrenic. This dubious background did not prevent local police from warning all McMartin parents that their children might have been abused -- always a great way of preventing public alarm! -- and referring potential victims to a local psychological counseling service.

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.

Plenty of later accounts have revealed just how these charges were created in the lengthy dialogues between the therapists and the utterly baffled children, who wanted to respond helpfully to weird questions about "dirty acts" and "bad touches." Suffice it to say that none of the alleged acts was ever substantiated, and the case produced no convictions. Soon, though, the McMartin case evolved to become the precedent for an imaginary national and even global crime-wave. Similar charges now appeared in multiple cases across the US, and overseas -- in Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Australia. "S.R.A." -- Satanic Ritual Abuse -- became the theme of professional conferences and publications worldwide.

It must have been a scientific reality: it even had its own acronym!

S.R.A. charges became the basis of a florid mythology, in which the nation's pre-schools had been infiltrated by Satanic cultists, who used toddlers in their dark rites. Reputedly, such evildoers were both numerous, and lethal. Cults were allegedly involved in human sacrifices, some associated with such notorious serial killers as David Berkowitz, New York City's Son of Sam. By some estimates, Satanists in the 1980s were responsible for fifty or sixty thousand murders in the US annually -- at a time when the total number of all American homicides was around 25,000 a year.

But how could such vastly powerful cults have established themselves overnight? A deep-rooted history was soon forthcoming, in the form of alleged memories of cult abuse originally depicted in the 1980 book Michelle Remembers. (Probably, the Michelle story helped shape the original McMartin allegations). With startling unanimity, baby boom-aged women in therapy sessions nationwide were reporting McMartin-style abuse dating back to the 1950s and beyond. Some told of bearing babies for cults to sacrifice.

By the early 1990s, "recovered memory" was a flourishing and highly profitable subfield of the therapeutic profession. Patients had a near-guarantee that they would recall hideous acts of violence and molestation at the hands of Satan's henchmen, who usually happened to be their own parents.

And it was all bogus, from start to finish.

Although we can never prove a negative, in no case did allegations lead to criminal convictions, or indeed produce anything vaguely amounting to corroboration. On the other hand, it is ridiculously easy to point to the financial and ideological interests that encouraged otherwise rational people to believe this mythology, and to feed the flames. Among other key activists, we would point to fundamentalist religious groups and anti-cult theorists; "cult cops" seeking a niche in life; anti-child abuse activists; cynical therapists doing very well indeed from the emerging memory industry; and all supported by a prostituted mass media in quest of sensationalism.

So where did it all go? Federal law enforcement deserves much credit for defusing the crisis. FBI experts like Kenneth Lanning resolutely refused to be swept away by the burgeoning panic, and insisted that police agencies apply rigorous standards of definition before committing to literal witch-hunts. Ultimately too, mass media outlets saw sense, and by the mid-1990s were exposing the panic quite as enthusiastically as they had promoted it a few years before. Meanwhile, recovered memory therapists were hit with lawsuits from the patients they had so misled. For whatever reason, the Panic faded as rapidly as it had arisen.

The whole affair demonstrated the truth of Winston Churchill's observation that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Witches' Sabbats and black masses, human sacrifices and ritual murders: these aren't just throwbacks to the dark fantasies of Salem in the 1690s. They were yesterday's news.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and a columnist for RealClearReligion. His latest book is Laying Down the Sword.

Sponsored Links

Philip Jenkins
Author Archive