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Revisiting the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s

Photo Credit: Reg Innell/ Toronto Star/ Getty Images
Photo Credit: Reg Innell/ Toronto Star/ Getty Images

North America in the 1980s is remembered for many things: iconic music, popular horror movies, and of course, the Satanic Panic. This was a moral panic rooted in the belief that Satanic cults were preying on children and luring them into their dark rituals.

The Satanic Panic was not caused by any one event, but many different things that happened, such as the media beginning to report on cults, testimonies of alleged Satanic survivors, and questionable therapy practices. This led people to believe that Satanic ritual abuse, as it became known, was happening all around them.

Ritual serial killers started the panic

In 1969, Charles Manson and his followers went on a killing spree where they murdered actress Sharon Tate and all her house guests, along with two more people the next day. When the Manson Family murders happened it was one of the first times that ritualistic killing was publicized to the world, and is often considered a main event that set the stage for the Satanic Panic.

Black and white photo of Charles Manson being escorted by seven uniformed officers down a hallway.
Seven deputies escort Charles Manson from the courtroom after he and three followers were found guilty of seven murders in the Tate-LaBianca slayings, 1971. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

However, it wasn’t just the Manson murders that shocked the public. Later in the 1970s there were a number of serial killers who also had ritualistic patterns to their murders: the Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Killer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Strangler, and David Berkowitz. All of these helped sow fear in the public.

Michelle Remembers Satanic rituals

Although ritualistic killings were now on the public’s radar, they hadn’t yet been associated with Satan. It wasn’t until the shocking and horrifying book Michelle Remembers was published in 1980 that Satanic ritual abuse became entrenched in the American mind. It was written by Lawrence Pazder, a Canadian psychiatrist, and his patient-turned-wife Michelle Smith.

During their therapy sessions, Michelle would go into a trance-like state where she would recall what Lawrence thought were repressed memories of abuse at the hands of a Satanic cult in Victoria, Canada. She claimed many horrific things were done to her, all because she was given up by her family to be used in a ritual to call the devil. Eventually, her 600 hours of memories were written into a book, co-authored by Michelle and Lawrence.

McMartin Preschool tried for abuse

Alongside Michelle Remembers, the McMartin Preschool trial solidified the fear of Satanic ritual abuse for many families. In 1983, a parent accused a staff member at the McMartin Preschool in California of abuse. During the police investigation, an unlicensed psychotherapist, Kee MacFarlane, was brought it to interview the children.

Black and white photo of a hand holding a picture of a plate with a pentagram on it.
Photo held over the rubble from the McMartin Preschool showing a plate found in the school with a pentagram on it which parents said could be part of a Satanic ritual, 1990. (Photo Credit: Patrick Downs/ Los Angeles Times/ Getty Images)

Of the 400 children that he interviewed, there were 321 reports of abuse from 41 of them. Among the claims made by the children were that there was a secret tunnel under the building which took them to ritual ceremonies, that the staff had performed human sacrifices, and they could turn into flying witches. On investigation, no tunnel was found under the building.

Dungeons & Dragons & devil worship

Nothing was safe from societal concerns about Satan. Eventually, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was blamed as a gateway to Satanic worship. It was predominantly caused by the deaths of teenagers, mostly due to mental health issues, who happened to play D&D. The death of Irving Lee Pulling is what prompted the first wide-scale campaign against the game.

Black and white photo of Dave Price wearing a suit sitting at a table with Dungeons and Dragons books.
A man sitting at a table with Dungeons & Dragons games and books in the middle of the Satanic Panic, 1983. (Photo Credit: Glen Martin/ The Denver Post/ Getty Images)

Pulling took his own life, but his mother was convinced that his death was caused by D&D. She tried to sue the game publisher and the school principal, who was also involved in the game. She created an organization to start a media campaign against the game as well. Concern became widespread, mainly because adults believed the game could leave children unable to separate fantasy and reality. Anti-D&D groups even espoused that if a child’s character died in the game that they might be driven to suicide.

Allegations discredited

Many of the allegations made throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s were eventually disproven, even the cases that laid the foundation for the entire Satanic Panic. In the case of the McMartin Preschool, the psychotherapist who interviewed the children was found to use coercive interview techniques which led to false allegations. The investigation was dropped after six years because there was no evidence substantiating the children’s claims.

Black and white photo of a pile of rubble from the destroyed McMartin Preschool building with people standing around, and one woman filming.
The McMartin Pre-School after being bulldozed as a handful of parents watched, May 1990. (Photo Credit: Al Seib/ Los Angeles Times/ Getty Images)

Michelle Smith’s testimony in her book was also discredited. There is no evidence of many of the events that took place in the book, including a car crash on the Malahat highway, no absence from school, and no abuse scars despite her claims. Later studies also gave scientists more evidence to understand the creation of false memories created during hypnosis and emotionally demanding therapy sessions which is what Michelle’s “memories” are now believed to be.

Arrests for Satanic crimes

Throughout the Satanic Panic, there was a slew of arrests of people who allegedly committed Satanic ritual abuse or other Satanic-driven crimes. Many of the cases were eventually overturned, but not before serious damage was done to the lives of those convicted, some of whom are still serving out sentences for these crimes. In the US alone, there were over 12,000 alleged accounts of Satanic ritual abuse but not a single case was substantiated.

Colored photo of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin all wearing black clothing in front of an orange and white background.
The West Memphis Three: Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin attending the HBO documentary screening of Paradise Lost 3: PURGATORY, October 10, 2011. (Photo Credit: Stephen Lovekin/ Getty Images for HBO)

The most infamous case during the Satanic Panic involved the West Memphis Three, three teenagers accused of killing three young boys as part of a Satanic ritual. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted based on flimsy physical evidence and rumors swirled that they worshipped Satan. They served 18 years in prison before being released in 2011 when new DNA evidence showed they hadn’t committed the murders.

QAnon and Pizzagate – the new Satanic Panic

Although most of the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse were discredited, the Satanic Panic hasn’t gone away entirely. Concerns about Satanic ritual abuse still appear every once in a while in the US. For example, in 2016, there was the Pizzagate conspiracy. People thought that the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. was a meeting place for certain politicians to perform Satanic ritual abuse.

the front of Comet Ping Pong restaurant
Comet Ping Pong is seen in Washington, DC. A man identified as Edgar Maddison Welch was arrested after coming to the restaurant armed. The incident was linked to a series of fake news stories that have been dubbed ‘Pizzagate’. (Photo Credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This was not a stand-alone event. “Q,” an alleged government employee with clearance to view top secret documents, began posting on dark web forums in 2017, using cryptic language. One of the many “facts” put forward by Q is that America’s elite participate in human blood drinking rituals which are dedicated to Satan.

More from us: Giuseppe “The Clutch Hand” Morello: The Man Behind One of America’s First Crime Families

None of the QAnon claims have been substantiated and yet they have taken root for many people who genuinely believe that they are part of a battle against Satan worshipers, just like those in the 1980s and 1990s who believed that they were looking out for children who they thought were being preyed upon.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.