In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the United States was gripped with fear that evil was lurking just below the surface of everyday life. Belief was rampant that Satanic cults were spread across the country and that were undermining the fabric of society by performing terrible rituals, such as brainwashing, kidnapping, and murder. Even worse, it was thought that the cults were secretly composed of people who were functioning members of society and seemingly normal people. Similar to McCarthyism, everyone became a suspect.
Childcare facilities and babysitters were not immune to the panic, and suddenly parents were afraid to leave their children with caregivers who had been trusted for years. Allegations of ritual abuse at the McMartin Preschool in Southern California led to the longest, most expensive trial in U.S. history. In the case, a preschool director and her son faced 52 counts of molesting their students. The children made claims such as being “frightened into silence with bloody animal mutilations;” forced to watch “a rabbit sacrificed on a church altar,” “a parakeet squeezed to death,” and a pony killed before their eyes. Ultimately, after 4 years the case ended with zero convictions, as the children’s claims were found to be unbelievable. But while this was the highest profile case, it wasn’t the only one. Normal, innocent people spent time in prison because of these allegations.
In 1990, a children’s book called Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy did not help to quell the panic. It was published as “a child’s book about Satanic ritual abuse.” Books like this helped to fuel the fear of parents with leaving their kids in the care of anyone else.
The likely start of the panic can be traced back to a 1980s book called Michelle Remembers, written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazer and his patient (and later, wife) Michelle Smith. In the book, Pazer uses his self-created technique to uncover “buried memories”. Smith’s therapy dislodged sensational “memories” of being abused as a small child by a Satanic cult. People experiencing troubles started to go Pazer, who used his now popular method to help them “remember” childhood abuse at the hands of their parents. Suddenly, people everywhere were “remembering” satanic related abuse. Years later, the technique was found to create false memories and was essentially discredited. During the 80’s however, it was widely used and was referenced several times during the McMartin Preschool case.
The Satanic Panic was pervasive throughout 80’s culture. Movies and music, especially heavy metal songs, were said to contain messages about Satanic rituals. It was common to hear that a record played backwards would reveal a hidden message. TV shows were not immune; the clip below is from Oprah. In it, an audience member stands up and makes claims about his cult collectively murdering a guy. The guest representative of a Satanic religion is a bit dubious of the claims.
In 1992, the hysteria continued with the Memphis Three, in which trio of young men were accused of murdering a trio of young boys as part of a cult ritual. During their trial, much of the argument surrounded the boys taste in music, which was heavy metal. It was stated that this music would make them more susceptible to Satanism and that this made them more likely to participate in Satanism and commit the murderers. They were convicted, but were released in 2011 with time served after new DNA evidence surfaced.
The following year, law enforcement was still taking the threat so seriously that this training video was made, detailing the best way to deal with satanic cults. It features testimony from Satanic priest turned Christian Eric Pryor, who became famous for publicly opposing televangelist Larry Lea’s attempt to “pray the perversion and witchcraft out” of San Francisco.
The truth is that there has never been evidence found that supports that satanic cults that conduct ritual killing have ever existed in mankind, and in the case of the Satanic Panic, eventually rationality returned and the hysteria faded away. People could trust that their friends and neighbors most likely weren’t harboring kidnapped children in their basement or donning hooded robes and performing rituals in the night. Most likely. But if you happen to hear chanting late at night and strange shadows in the windows across the street, it might be better to just turn over and go back to sleep.