Children of the Beast: The 1980s ‘Satanic Panic’

Exhibit / October 19, 2017

MCKENNA: Of course it had to be the 1980s. We humans are prone to our periodic outbreaks of mass insanity—and there were no lack of those over the 20th century—but perhaps only the ’80s could have brought together the most garish fringes of popular culture and a growing fear of the horrors dimly visible beneath the increasingly preppy surface of western society. The hooves of the paranormal and its older sibling, the supernatural, had been stomping through in the zeitgeist with growing vigour since the ’50s, as the UFO fever which gripped large parts of the world at the end of the ’70s shows, but it took that peculiar combination of affluence and burgeoning existential disconnect—the 1980s’ stock in trade—to provide both the catalyst for the so-called Satanic panic and the lens through which it could be viewed: a stew of half-digested fantasy, half-forgotten religion, and an accelerational materialist world where people understood their kids (and themselves) less and less, and their kids often didn’t seem to give a shit about it. We got it too, but later than you—what the hell was it?

ROBERTS: Well, in some sense, it goes all the way back to the European Inquisitions of the 15th century, when the Black Mass was made up by Catholics to justify the fleecing, expulsion, and/or extermination of Jews, Muslims, women, protestants—anyone deemed a “heretic” by the Catholic Monarchy. Protestants in Colonial America adopted the same tactics during the Salem witch trials: witch-hunts are an American tradition, after all. The rise of Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity during the post-war era was a reaction against the secular excess and affluence you describe, as well as the seemingly omnipotent science that split the atom and won the war. In the 1960s, as the younger generation began to reject Christianity entirely and embrace the various tools of “Satan’s workshop“—sex, drugs, rock, occultism—fundamentalists launched a counteroffensive that lasted throughout the 1970s, often using the same grassroots tactics employed by counterculture writers and artists who sought to avoid corporatism. The year Reagan was elected, 1980—he had been given a significant push by Evangelicals—a book called Michelle Remembers was published, a now-refuted chronicle of the alleged abuse of 5-year-old Michelle Smith by a satanic cult. That book, a bestseller, was the pivot point.

GRASSO: Yes, Michelle Remembers looms large as the ignition point for the entire 1980s trend in claims of Satanic ritual abuse. The idea that the US in the 1980s was riddled with perpetrators of child sexual abuse is, sadly, neither an outrageous or unbelievable claim (especially given current revelations about men in power and their tendency towards sexual abuse and assault). But when that claim is stretched to include a complex international conspiracy of Satan-worshipers with gory rituals straight out of a 19th century Symbolist novel, then we have to take a cold hard look at the sociology of the panic.

Why Satan? Well, surely that Evangelical resurgence Kelly talks about above was a big part of it. But there were plenty of Satanic panics in areas of the US (and the world) without a large Evangelical presence. I’d posit that Satanism in the West is the ultimate representation of an evil “Other,” an over-the-top theatrical evil, which can only be explained in terms of the starkly moral or even the spiritual. (Kelly mentions the medieval blood libel about Jews which occupies a similar space psychologically.) This was an era (the 1980s) when social atomization and distrust was beginning to infect the formerly largely communitarian American social fabric. Distrust of one’s neighbors, teachers, or day care center workers would find its fullest flower in believing them to be Satanists. That distrust could be attributed to any number of broad social causes: technological advances that isolated people from their neighbors, economic anxiety, the aftermath of the racial turbulence of the ’60s (the accusations of Satanic ritual abuse were largely a white suburban phenomenon), or even the explosion of New Religious Movements in the 1970s driving a wedge into the predominantly Christian spiritual fabric of America. (Some of those very same New Religious Movements, ironically, were themselves alleged to have practiced widespread sexual abuse and intimidation of witnesses, just as Satanic ritual abuse proponents claimed about their suspects.)

MCKENNA: Do you two think that it might also have been some kind of spontaneously generated mechanism by which the culture as a whole attempted to find some explanation and apportion blame for what was becoming increasingly obvious—that sexual abuse was, unfortunately, far more widespread, and usually part of the domestic environment, than had previously been realised or admitted?

What happened in Britain, where the SRA phenomenon only appeared towards the end of the ’80s, makes for interesting parallels: we’d begun the decade with the arrest of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe—the Yorkshire Ripper—whose reign of almost supernatural horror had spread fear across the country since the mid-’70s. In 1982 (the year Britain entered the Falklands war), the “Video Nasty” panic began. Fears that the boom in home video and an unregulated home VHS rental market were traumatising children and contributing to a perceived breakdown in law and order were being stoked by the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association—led by Mary Whitehouse, an evangelical Christian activist battling what she saw as the moral decay of permissive modern society. Evangelicals were still a marginal reality in the UK back then, but they were there and they were active, and shared with much of the general populace a belief that the country was on the slippery slope of dissolution .We can probably agree that it’s at least reasonable to worry about the effects of violent imagery on children, but the video nasty phenomena, stirred up by the tabloids, led to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which was enforced with draconian vigour. And in the background there was constant fear about the mainland bombing campaign of the IRA, which, along with the other paramilitary organisations involved in the Troubles, had itself been targeted by a secret British military intelligence campaign that attempted to associate them in the public imagination with the Black Mass and Devil worship.  All through the ’80s there seemed to be a feeling that childhood was at risk from within and without—films, video games, comics, heavy metal, though somehow never from the real world—and the mood of growing hysteria was fuelled through the middle of the decade by what seemed to be increasing numbers of missing children: it was as though the relative social unity World War II had imposed and which had limped along until the election of Thatcher was being replaced by a widespread belief that the world was dangerous, perverse—and evil.

In 1987—the year the arrests of married serial killers Fred and Rosemary West and the Hungerford massacre, where 16 people were shot dead, provoked further shock at the horrors which could lurk under the surfaces of seemingly normal lives. Allegations of Satanic ritual abuse made what I think were their first British appearance in two very widely reported cases in Nottingham and Cleveland, where large numbers of children were removed from their families on the basis of a later-discredited abuse test. Two years later, respected investigative reporter Roger Cook produced the highly tendentious 1989 TV special The Devil’s Work, which implied connections between Satanic ritual abuse and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an occult bookshop in Leeds which had been targeted by Evangelicals (as well as right-wing skinheads, if I remember) and was later firebombed.

ROBERTS: Laws were shockingly lax on both child molestation and rape in the US until the 1970s, and certainly there were horrific cases at the time that demanded some sort of scapegoat. But the conflation of child abuse with satanic ritual abuse comes from the McMartin preschool controversy, which lasted from 1983 to 1990 and was all over the TV, newspapers, magazines, and tabloids. The trial itself was at the time the longest and most expensive ($15 million) in US history, and it started with one allegation by a woman who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and died as a result of alcoholism. The school itself was in a white, affluent suburb of Southern California—where more women were working and trusting their children to day cares—and when the police sent out a notice to all the parents of McMartin students indicating that they were “conducting a criminal investigation involving child molestation,” the rich folks went crazy. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, the psychiatrist who “recovered” her “repressed” memories of abuse and then married her, acted as consultants for the prosecution. There were no convictions, but it didn’t matter. The visceral power of the figure of Satan and Satanists—Rosemary’s Baby had exploited both to great effect in 1968—was not lost on musicians, filmmakers, and writers, who could and did make quick cash on the hysteria. It was also exploited in more sinister fashion by remorseless criminals seeking exemption, religious and civic demagogues, incompetent psychiatrists and law enforcement, and fear-mongering media.

When I was about 9, in 1981, my best friend and I discovered D&D—one of us got his folks to buy us the Basic Set with that wicked Erol Otus cover. This was before any of the nonsense started, and we split our time between Intellivision, riding bikes, playing with Star Wars action figures, and trying to figure out what “rolling for initiative” meant. By the following year, my friend’s mom, an Evangelical Christian, refused to let him play or even keep the books, and we were forced into Bible study at his house every morning that summer (my parents had to work, and I had no choice). One incident we haven’t mentioned yet is the disappearance of college student James Dallas Egbert III in 1979, which a private investigator blamed on Egbert’s interest in fantasy role-playing games. Rona Jaffe’s novel Mazes and Monsters (1981) exploited this false claim (Egbert was mentally ill and killed himself in 1980), as did the prime time TV adaptation.

GRASSO: We had a local case of day care abuse in Boston as well, and while Fells Acres was not necessarily connected to the outbreak of Satanic ritual abuse, there was, as Kelly mentions, an overall nationwide “trend” of day care abuse that spread, urban legend-like, as rumors through the playgrounds and junior high schools of ’80s America. (Other popular urban legends revolved around poisoned Halloween candy/razorblades in apples, another example of the “poisoning our youth” blood libel; I don’t remember if we attributed these supposed conspiracies to Satanists or run of the mill serial killers back in the day).

I didn’t grow up in an area of the country that had an Evangelical presence, and honestly the Catholic Church of my youth didn’t hammer home the dangers of heavy metal or role-playing games (although I remember at least a few raised eyebrows among my fellow 7th and 8th graders when it was revealed I had started an AD&D group in junior high in the summer of 1988). But I will say that being a fan of either Dungeons & Dragons or heavy metal really set you apart socially in those last few years of the 1980s and the first few of the ’90s: the spectre of Satanism, or at the very least occultism, definitely hung over both pursuits.

Honestly, I think the reputation of metalheads in my junior high was more associated with the Satanic panic than roleplayers. Metal was at that point wrapped up in controversies such as the PMRC hearings, the Ozzy Osbourne “Suicide Solution” case in 1986, and the backmasking controversy around the 1985 suicide attributed to Judas Priest’s “Better By You, Better Than Me,” which culminated in a trial in 1990 where we were treated to the spectacle of Rob Halford testifying that he did not want his fans to kill themselves. By the time the West Memphis Three case came around in 1993, the ideas of suicide, homicide, Satanism, and heavy metal were so linked in the public consciousness that it put three young men in jail for the rest of their lives (including one on Death Row) for a so-called “ritual murder.” The accused were convicted thanks to suppositions about their hobbies, witness coercion, and overall shoddy investigation on the part of police and legal authorities.

MCKENNA: I may be wrong, but I don’t remember it ever becoming linked in the public imagination with heavy metal or D&D or anything specific quite the way it did in the States—maybe we were already too saturated with superstition and the paranormal to have room for any more. In Britain, people seemed more prone to interpret the whole thing as some awful establishment conspiracy: 1983’s bestseller The Brotherhood, an expose of the freemasons by Stephen Knight, and its sort-of follow-up, Martin Short’s 1989 Inside the Brotherhood—as well as the word-of-mouth legends which grew up around Knight’s untimely death at a young age—had seeded the idea of an amoral elite pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The same year Inside the Brotherhood was published, I was hitch-hiking and got a lift with a feverish-looking guy in his 20s who told me how, while taking part in the search for a missing local schoolboy a few years previous, he and the other volunteers had discovered the existence of a Europe-wide ring of child abusers at the highest levels of the institutions and the media, and had given up their jobs and lives to continue their investigation. Despite my own then-interest in conspiracies, at the time, I’d just dismissed it as the hysterical ramblings of someone having a nervous breakdown or something, as did everyone I mentioned it to. It was a strangely prescient encounter, though, both as regards the awful revelations which have continued to emerge about institutional abuse in the UK and for the strange direction that popular culture had begun to take as the trippy, marginal paranoias of the subcultures began to enter the mainstream, and the idea of the family as something axiomatically pure and healthy fell to pieces.

8 thoughts on “Children of the Beast: The 1980s ‘Satanic Panic’

  1. “…witch-hunts are an American tradition, after all.”

    Only as something inherited from Europe, where they unfortunately had taken place long before America was even colonized, let alone a country. There’s a fascinating overview article on the topic at Wikipedia with a decent number of citations:

    “…poisoned Halloween candy/razorblades in apples…I don’t remember if we attributed these supposed conspiracies to Satanists or run of the mill serial killers back in the day.”

    It might have depended on the location; in my part of California, it was attributed to malicious child-haters, rather than Satanists or serial killers.

    “I remember at least a few raised eyebrows among my fellow 7th and 8th graders when it was revealed I had started an AD&D group in junior high in the summer of 1988”

    That’s a better reaction than I got in 1989-1990… I cautiously asked other kids if anybody played it, but the reactions made it clear that it was about on par with disco in terms of being unacceptably passé even among fellow members of the school’s computer & library clubs.

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