This isn't something I normally post about, but I want to talk to you about something that's been on my mind. I want to talk to you about a moral crusade with a particular fixation on child sexual abuse—a movement known for its emphasis on visceral disgust, its hand-wringing concerns about the corrupting influence of entertainment media, and its maelstrom of false accusations.
In other words, I want to talk to you about the Satanic Panic.
For me as an American born in the 1990s, the 1970-80s is one of those eras that's just outside my life experience but still recent enough that it wasn't really covered in history class. Some of y'all are my age or younger, so I suspect that might apply to some of you too.
As an adult I've had to learn about the Satanic Panic in bits and pieces, mostly through second-hand sources. Most recently, I've listened to a lot of relevant episodes of the podcast You're Wrong About, and it's been illuminating—but I don't want to just make this a simple episode rec post. That would be several hours worth of audio to listen to, without any official transcripts, and I can't reasonably expect most people to go for that. At the same time, I think a familiarity with this subject is important for anyone interested in discussions about sexual violence, critical media analysis, censorship, and moral panics, and I hope this post will show you why.
Note what I've put together here is just a few examples of a much larger phenomenon. People have made whole careers out of studying this stuff, and this post should be understood as merely a starting point for demonstrating why it's worth learning about. In the sections below, I provide some summaries for a couple of books (The Satan Seller and Michelle Remembers), the McMartin Preschool case, and the advocacy of groups like the PMRC and BADD—with the caveat that what you're reading here is far from comprehensive.
Content Warnings: child abuse & sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse (false allegations and real), the death of infants and miscarriage of a pregnancy (false and real), desecration of corpses (false), harm to animals (false), substance abuse (false), religious intolerance, unethical behavior by a therapist, murder, suicide, intimate partner/spousal abuse, false memories, potential self-doubt triggers, and extensive gross-out imagery.
The Satan Seller (1972)
The Satan Seller is a discredited 1972 book about Mike Warnke's alleged experiences as a former Satanist priest. Among evangelical Christians, Mike Warnke successfully positioned himself as an expert in identifying and combating Satanists, drawing on the events alleged in The Satan Seller as a basis of expertise. This section will summarize some of the main plot points and aspects of how the Satanists are characterized in the book, involving various anecdotes that invoke visceral disgust.
In the book, Mike's descent into Satanism is presented as the culmination of various corrupting influences and bad decisions. The book chronicles how, after the death of his mother, he was taken in by his Catholic aunts who introduce him to Catholicism (which is depicted here as very sensual and ominous), how he snuck out as a young teen to "mess around" with his girlfriend, and how his college experience was saturated with substance abuse. As a college student, he goes from constant heavy drinking to experimenting with weed, which leads him using a bunch of other drugs, which in turn leads to a lot of casual sex and falling in with the Satanists. The "Satan seller" here is Mike Warnke himself, who claims to have preached in the name of Satan and actively sought to convert others to Satanism. In his account, he mainly targets college students and the "flower children" (hippies), whom he portrays as "empty vessels" easily drawn into his Satanist cult (p. 88-9).
Note despite how that summary might sound, the book portrays his role in all this as remarkably passive. Mike just sort of goes along with whatever unfolds around him. I figure this quote from page 32 is representative:
"I have a surprise in store for you." He looked at me. "That is, if you want to go along with it."
"I've gone along with everything else," I shrugged.
Mike Warnke portrays the Satanists as violent and evil, yes, but also bizarrely gross. For instance, the Satanists use "holy water" that has pee in it (p. 41). Mike makes reference to killing dogs and draining their blood for ritual purposes (p. 104-5). Other times, the Satanists eat communion bread that's been stepped on and drink from a cup of human blood (p. 86). In one anecdote, Mike tells of ritually sacrificing a cat, then goading one of his followers into letting him chop off a finger with an axe (p. 101). Sexuality is another pervasive motif, but it's mostly consensual until, toward the end of his stint as a Satanist, Mike suddenly escalates into arranging a young woman's kidnapping and rape (p. 110). [Comment prompt: pause here and guess how that detail is going to come back into the story. I'll give you a hint. It's the most cringeworthy thing I could possibly imagine.]
Since the book is billed as the account of a former Satanist, and since Mike claims to have casually gone along with so many things, you may be wondering what exactly sparked his decision to leave. Well... he didn't. Ever the passive protagonist, he says that the Satanists betrayed and expelled him from the group. It's only after his expulsion that he meets a bunch of Christians he finds suddenly compelling, including—I'm not kidding—the young woman whose rape he's responsible for. When she sees him on campus, she approaches him and stuns him with immediate forgiveness (p. 121). By the end of the book, Mike Warnke has (re)converted to Christianity, and he closes out by talking about his efforts to combat Satanism, some hand-wringing about libraries stocking books on witchcraft, and his advice on "how to fight occultism."
The big exposé on Mike Warnke was published by Cornerstone magazine in 1992. It thoroughly documents and debunks his lies, even the lies about the style of his clothes and the length of his hair. Not limited to just religious and sartorial lies, Mike's chronic deception also extended to serially two-timing his girlfriends/wives, toward whom he was emotionally, financially, and physically abusive. Presenting himself as a crusader against Satanism, Mike made a killing as a traveling spokesman, telling stories about "victims of the occult" like little "Jeffy," who had supposedly become cognitively disabled due to Satanic abuse. Mike claimed he was raising money to "help all the Jeffys of the world." In actuality, it was all just a grift.
Michelle Remembers (1980)
Unlike The Satan Seller, which is just a shameless pack of lies, the case of Michelle Remembers is more... complicated.
Michelle Remembers is a discredited 1980 book about a series of therapy sessions between Michelle Smith and Dr. Lawrence Pazder, in which Michelle "remembers" past childhood experiences of "ritual abuse." There's a lot you could say about this book, but I'll stick to giving you a basic summary of events, how the therapy depicted is unprofessional and unethical, and some of the recurring motifs in the scenes that Michelle describes.
According to the book, a young Canadian woman named Michelle had been in therapy for four years for various troubles and traumas. She had an abusive father, she lost her mother at a young age, and then as an adult, she was hospitalized for a miscarriage. After four years, her therapist figured they'd already worked through "all the issues" and should be all done now, so he was "surprised" when Michelle tells him that she still feels emotionally troubled (p. 9-10).
So picture this: you've got a young woman who is emotionally distressed, and you've got a therapist who figures that based on what he knows about her life, there's no adequate reason for her to still be this distressed. Yet, evidently, she is. So in order to explain this discrepancy, the therapist decides that they must have missed something in her personal history.
In an effort to figure out the source of her unease, Michelle goes into some kind of trance state(?) that the book calls "her depths," during which she starts relaying vague, murky fragments of thoughts, feelings, and images. Her therapist decides that what she's describing is a memory from when she was a child (p. 19-20). From there, the two of them form a feedback loop in which Michelle provides a vague description, her therapist provides an interpretation, and she elaborates in response to his directive prompting. Partway through the book, the therapist decides that the people she's described in her trance-visions must be members of "the Church of Satan," which he says is "older than the Christian Church" (p. 117). [Comment prompt: how old is "the Church of Satan"? If you don't know, take a guess, then go look it up.]
The way that Dr. Lawrence Pazder conducts himself during this book is wildly unethical. The therapy sessions end up incorporating a lot of physical touch, and the therapy sessions grow very long and frequent, to the point that they "had taken a toll in [Michelle's] private life, her friendships, even her marriage" (p. 190). In their interactions, Michelle and Dr. Pazder are shown becoming very enmeshed in each other's lives. He lends her his jacket (p. 66), she brings him her favorite houseplants (p. 72), she calls him while he's on vacation in another country (p. 71), he reads her a poem about special friendship, and they describe themselves as one soul in two bodies (p. 139-140). He's her therapist, and yet they're acting as if they're dating.
Unfortunately that is not the extent of his breach of ethics. Distressed by the "remembering," there comes a point where Michelle says she wants to stop. She's quoted in the book as saying, "I'm not going to do it anymore. I wish I didn't even have a tongue. If I could tear out my tongue I'd never have to talk again" (p. 173). In response, the therapist decides that her refusal is a product of Satanist mind-control techniques, and he commands her to continue (p. 174). This is at this point nonconsensual therapy, and it's presented in the book as completely acceptable.
As with The Satan Seller, the cultists described in Michelle Remembers perform acts that are both morally evil and viscerally disgusting. This includes smearing blood themselves and other people, making the child Michelle eat bugs (p. 120) and drink urine (p. 98), ritually sacrificing kittens (p. 105), and keeping Michelle in a cage full of snakes, without access to a bathroom, such that she's forced to relieve herself in a corner of the cage (p. 141).
Primarily, though, the recurring motifs of the book are that of maternity and death. In one scene, Michelle physically attacks a "lump" that later turns out to be a person, and her actions lead to that person's death (p. 36-40). The cultists take Michelle to a graveyard, where they make her eat the dead person's ashes (p. 88-91). In another scene, the cultists bring in the corpse of a dead baby and put it between Michelle's legs (p. 125). From there dead babies become a recurring feature in their rituals. The head cultist cuts a dead baby apart, and the group tries to make Michelle eat the pieces (p. 146-7). Another one they nail to a cross (p. 159). For the Black Mass, they create a whole pile of dead babies (p. 247). Even Satan himself, who speaks in rhyme, participates in the theme. Here's an excerpt from page 227:
There is no mother who'll always care.
There's only me to burn and scare.
There is no mother who walks on the earth.
There is no mother that gives birth.
Toward the end of the "remembering," Michelle is visited and protected by a figure in blue she calls "Ma Mère," who has "sad eyes" because "they hurt her baby" (p. 218). [Comment prompt: three guesses who this is.]
In addition to the maternity and dead baby theme, there's also the thread of medical trauma. Michelle refers to her captors as acting "methodical, coldly efficient" (p. 24). In one scene, she wakes up "muddled by pain killers" and is examined by people wearing the color white; a little later she finds tubes in her arm and is told she's not allowed to pull them out (p. 60-61). Michelle refers to various figures as "nurses" and one particular figure as "the doctor" (p. 158). In one trance-vision, she describes being subjected to an enema (p. 81). Another has Michelle waking up from a surgery, surrounded by blood (p. 160).
During these sessions, Michelle is quoted as repeatedly, desperately asking for reassurance. She characterizes her captors as "putting ugly in me," making her guilty, making her bad. She keeps telling her therapist things like "Don't you hate me?" (p. 28), asks if God will hate her (p. 208), and expresses that she feels unforgivably sinful and dirty. The book attests of her captors that "All their actions seemed calculated to break Michelle's innocence" (p. 116). In one scene, the cultist doctor performs surgery on her to give her horns and a tail (p. 160).
So these are the recurring elements in Michelle's "remembering" sessions: maternity, death, medical trauma, and intense feelings of horror and personal guilt. Her therapist is very forthcoming with the reassurance and praise she craves, but only when she's revealing new "memories" of horrific abuse, and when she tries to stop going down that path, he coerces her back onto it.
This book is a foundational text of the Satanic Panic. After its publication, Lawrence Pazder was able to successfully present himself as an expert on "ritual abuse" or "ritualized abuse of children," which he defined as "repeated physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual assaults combined with a systematic use of symbols and secret ceremonies designed to turn a child against itself, family, society, and God." Lawrence Pazder peddled this idea in speaking gigs, at professional conferences, and on television programs like 20/20. As the foremost expert on the concept he made up, he went on to serve as a consultant on the McMartin Preschool case.
The McMartin Preschool Case (1983-1990)
The McMartin Preschool case refers to false allegations of ritual abuse against people associated with McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Police took the allegations seriously, parents pressed charges, and the criminal trials unfolded over several years. It is one of the landmark cases of the Satanic Panic.
The initial allegations began in 1983 with the personal suspicions of Judy Johnson. Her young son had painful bowel movements, and she interpreted this as a sign that he had been sexually abused by his teacher. After she reported those suspicions to the police, the police arrested the teacher Ray Buckey and distributed a form letter to all the parents whose children were attending McMartin, announcing the arrest and that their children may have been sexually abused. You can find the text of that letter here. Upon receiving a letter like this, approximately how calm would you feel?
In the subsequent investigation, Children's Institute International interviewed hundreds of young children who had attended McMartin. These interviews coaxed and pressured the children into saying negative things about their teachers, and so the children began to offer up accusations.
The snowballing accusations were gratuitous and absurd. They included claims of children being flushed down toilets, being taken down into secret underground tunnels, being forced to watch the mutilation of animals, and seeing their teacher fly. The obvious impossibility of these claims was not enough to discredit them. Adults who took the accusations seriously adopted the slogan "Believe the Children," though they did not apply this mantra consistently, as they did not believe children when they said these things didn't happen.
Following the pretrial investigation, prosecutors took Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor, and Babette Spitler to court. The charges against them totaled up to 321 counts of child abuse involving 48 children. It took until 1990 for all charges to be dropped, and by the time it was all over, Ray Buckey had already spent five years in jail. The case has been called the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.
What's worse, the McMartin Preschool case was far from the last of its kind. In 1986 and '87, three people associated with the Fells Acres day care center were convicted of child sexual abuse. In 1988, a teacher employed at Wee Care Nursery School was convicted of 115 counts of child sexual abuse. In 1992, the proprietors of an Oak Hill day care center were imprisoned for sexual assault as a result of accusations that involved stealing a baby gorilla from Zilker Park, despite Zilker Park not being home to any gorillas. In 1997 and '98, a group of openly-gay Latina women now known as the San Antonio four were convicted of child rape; the courts didn't clear their names until 2016. All of these cases and many others involved outlandish claims, the premise of ritual abuse, and interview techniques that have been criticized for leading and coercing children into giving adults the answers they want to hear.
Rock Music and Dungeons & Dragons
Besides false allegations of ritual abuse, another hallmark of the Satanic Panic was the growing alarm over supposedly-Satanic entertainment media, such as certain popular music (especially rock and heavy metal) and the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. Parents worried that Satanic influences in such interests were corrupting the youth, encouraging rebellion, and even steering impressionable teens toward suicide.
In 1985, parental concern over inappropriate song lyrics sparked the formation of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), which pressured the music industry to adopt its proposed rating system. This rating system would have not only included warnings for drugs, alcohol, violence, and sex, but also a specific rating for "occult references." Although this version of the rating system was not adopted, the advocacy of the PMRC is part of why the Recording Industry Association of America introduced the general-purpose "parental advisory" label you see today.
The proposed "O" for "occult" rating was just one manifestation of growing parental fears about rock and heavy metal. Bands such as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and AC/DC were subject to criticism from those who believed they were responsible for the violent crimes of their fans, such as the teenaged Ricky Kasso, who murdered his friend while intoxicated, and Richard Ramirez, a California serial killer.
This fear of Satanic music coincided with the growing controversy surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. D&D happened to be a hobby shared by young people like James Dallas Egbert (who committed suicide), Irving Lee Pulling (who committed suicide), and Ronald G. Adcox and Darren Lee Molitor (who were charged with murder). These incidental connections were spun into the belief that D&D itself was corrupting teens and luring them into the occult. Irving Pulling's mother, Patricia Pulling, went on to form Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), an advocacy group opposed to D&D and roleplaying games more generally. For an illustration of BADD's advocacy, you can look at this pamphlet which prominently features the quote "The more I play D&D, the more I want to get away from this world." These parental fears about depictions of magic, understood as inherently occult and anti-Christian, are necessary context for understanding why even into the early 2000s, some of the most frequently targeted books for book bans were Harry Potter.
Discussing the bizarre claims involved in this phenomenon raises the question of how all this even happened. What made the narratives, accusations, and emotional appeals involved so rhetorically effective? What allowed people to get swept up in all this? It's a complicated question—and people have written whole books on this subject—so I'm not aiming to cover everything here. Still, I want to acknowledge a few obvious factors, then suggest how Santanic Panic may have provided an outlet for something otherwise inexpressible.
As a brief review: the Satanic Panic involved a heavy emphasis on visceral disgust and violence against children, particularly in the context of day care centers and preschools. Some parts of Satanic Panic rhetoric (like Mike Warnke's book) focused on hippies and drugs, whereas other parts (like the PMRC and BADD) focused on entertainment media popular with adolescents.
There's a lot of relevant factors you could point to here as historical context. Consider the increasing employment of women in the workforce, the FDA approval of the first oral contraceptive (i.e. birth control) in 1960, the draft-card burning and student protests against the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the copwatching patrols of the Black Panther Party, the emerging Gay Liberation movement, an explosion of hippie mysticism and interest in astrology, the beginnings of the "war on drugs," the coining of the terms "sexual harassment" and "date rape" in the 1970s, the growing familiarity with "recovered memories" as presented in the film adaptation of Sybil (1976), and the release of horror movies like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). A lot of different things could go on this list. Suffice to say the stage was set for some kind of reactionary backlash.
Oh, and one more thing: the 1980s is when the news broke about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1984, Catholic priest Gilbert Gauthe was indicted on 34 counts of sexual crimes against children. He would not be the last.
I bring this up because when we construct explanations for what happened, there are multiple angles to consider. Obviously you have the Mike Warnkes of the world, so to speak—the liars and the grifters, the evangelical patriarchs out to bolster their own dogma. But pointing solely to the outright manipulators and conservative politics would paint an incomplete picture.
Some of the people involved strike me as people who were just hurting and looking for an explanation. Consider Michelle Smith, the traumatized therapy patient who just wanted to be comforted, and Patricia Pulling, a grieving mother looking for something to blame for the death of her child. Though drawing on the trappings of Christianity, their actions cannot be understood without accounting for that preexisting grief, anxiety, and desire for absolution.
For others listening to their words, their stories may speak to a legitimate feeling that the world is a harsh and dangerous place. The epigraph in Michelle Remembers expressly addresses the book "to all who have the heart to hear the cries of children and the courage to stand up for them"—a call not just for vigilance, but for courage and compassion. And calls like those were enormously successful at resonating with people enough to override all reason.
One of the things that made this rhetoric emotionally compelling and convincing, I wager, was the genuine prevalence of sexual violence against women and children. Both globally and in the U.S. specifically, sexual violence has been very common. During the '70s and '80s, activists were pushing for the violence of rape to be taken more seriously (it's during this time that the term "rape culture" was coined), and they actually succeed in several legal reforms, such as eliminating the spousal exemption in some states. Then as now, of course, anti-rape advocacy has been subject to suspicion. It's an issue conventionally thought of as a feminist issue, and feminists have been commonly painted as too extreme. Among conservatives, it's unseemly to be seen as one. So imagine, if you will, the particular emotional cocktail of being personally attuned to the threat of sexual violence while eternally biting your tongue about it—constantly living with that vigilance, that identification with vulnerability and a sense of lurking danger, held back, hemmed in, by an ironclad obligation not to rock the boat.
Then imagine, all of the sudden, those feelings get an outlet that opens the floodgates.
I can't say for sure that explains anything, but it's hard for me to imagine that wasn't part of it.
In this post I have tried to extend empathy for instigators in the Satanic Panic, and in the words of Dylan Marron, empathy is not an endorsement. The thousands of false accusations stirred up in the Satanic Panic resulted in wrongful arrests and convictions, drastically upending the lives of those who got caught in the crosshairs and putting them through hell. That alone would be reprehensible. I also would not be the first to point out that coercing the children into false testimony—and in some cases, convincing some of them that they actually had been abused—is reprehensible, too.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Times published a statement by one of the children (by then an adult) involved in the McMartin Preschool case. Here is an excerpt about his experience:
It was an ordeal. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm not going to get out of here unless I tell them what they want to hear." [...] Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn't like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. It was really obvious what they wanted. [...]
But the lying really bothered me. One particular night stands out in my mind. I was maybe 10 years old and I tried to tell my mom that nothing had happened. I lay on the bed crying hysterically—I wanted to get it off my chest, to tell her the truth. My mother kept asking me to please tell her what was the matter. I said she would never believe me. She persisted: "I promise I'll believe you! I love you so much! Tell me what's bothering you!" This went on for a long time: I told her she wouldn't believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, "Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school."
She didn't believe me.
We had a highly dysfunctional family. We argued and fought all the time. My mother has always blamed anything negative on the idea that we went to that preschool and were molested. To this day, she believes these things went on. Because if they didn't, how can she explain all the family's problems? To this day, I can't open up with her about my personal problems. She's always asking me why I never do. That one night skewed our relationship.
His statement concludes with these words:
I would love to look at the defendants from the McMartin Pre-School and tell them, "I'm sorry."
According to the author with the LA Times, they attempted to put him in touch with some of the falsely-accused, but they all said no—because the children are not the ones who owe them an apology.