The history of Satanic Panic in the US — and why it's not over yet (link)
Some of the victims of mass hysteria over satanic ritual abuse are still serving sentences.
The latter half of 2016 has witnessed an interesting convergence of several elements associated with one of the most famous, prolonged mass media scares in history: the “Satanic Panic” that troubled the US throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
Most people, if they know of the Satanic Panic, know of it due to satanic ritual abuse, a rash of false allegations made against daycare centers in the ’80s. But there are lots of threads that contribute to Satanic Panic, and they can be seen running through a handful of recent social and cultural events: the wave of clown scares throughout the country; the new TV series based on The Exorcist; the weekend release of Ouija 2: Origin of Evil; and the October 23 death of fire-and-brimstone evangelical tract writer Jack Chick. All of these events feel lifted straight from this darker era of American culture, when fear of demons and strangers practicing dark occult things seemed to lurk in the heart of every neighborhood.
At its core, satanic ritual abuse claims relied on overzealous law enforcement, unsubstantiated statements from children, and above all, coercive and suggestive interrogation by therapists and prosecutors. Some of the defendants are still serving life sentences for crimes they probably didn’t commit—and most likely didn’t even happen in the first place.
Do all these revived elements of Satanic Panic mean we’re seeing a resurgence of the trend? Not exactly; it could all be chalked up to coincidence. But a look at the rise of this bizarre period in US history offers another possible explanation: Satanic Panic never truly went away to begin with.
The 1970s: the Rise of occultism, Satanism, and evangelical fear
A number of factors contributed to the increased interest in, and fear of, the occult during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Manson cult’s operation in the late ‘60s culminated in a string of mass murders in the summer of 1969 that shocked the nation and put organized ritualistic killing on the brain.
That same year, organist turned occultist Anton LaVey published his philosophical treatise The Satanic Bible, which plagiarized several sources and mostly regurgitated earlier philosophies of self-actualization and self-empowerment from writers like H.L. Mencken and Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, it became the seminal work of modern Satanism and the key text for the Church of Satan, a group LaVey had officially founded in 1966.
Accompanying the rise of Satanism as a recognized practice was the 1971 publication of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist and its blockbuster 1973 film adaptation. With its claims of being based on a true story, The Exorcist profoundly impacted America’s collective psyche regarding the existence of demons, and single-handedly transformed the popular Ouija board from a fun, harmless parlor game into a malevolent device capable of inducing spirit possession, demonic infestation, or other paranormal activity.
Then came the 1972 publication of Satan Seller. A fabricated memoir, ultimately discredited after 20 years, by self-proclaimed Christian evangelist Mike Warnke, Satan Seller recounted a childhood and young adulthood Warnke claimed was spent in intense satanic worship. The memoir claimed that he served as a satanic high priest and was engaged, among other things, in ritualistic sex orgies. (Remember that, it’ll be important later.)
The publication of LaVey’s Satanic Rituals that same year reinforced the idea that dark occult rituals had become a routine part of life for many Americans. And though it had no connections to Satanism or traditional occult religion, near the end of the decade, the Jonestown massacre gave the world another indelible example of what violence in a cult looked like.
The ’70s saw the rise of other self-proclaimed former Satanists who insisted that the world was being run by ritualistic satanic witch cults: John Todd, Hershel Smith, and David Hanson. Including Warnke, all four men grew up in Southern California and seemed to rise from the still-smoldering ashes of the Manson cult to declare that the was world full of dark occult symbols and far-reaching satanic conspiracies. All of them claimed to have conversion experiences that made their stories appealing to Christians.
And all of them were linked to the emerging fundamentalist Christian right. Todd was supported by Christian tract maker Jack Chick, who used his fabricated claims as the basis for numerous comic-style pamphlets advocating against Satanism. Warnke spent over a decade posing as an “expert” in Satanism for the fundamental evangelical Christian community, passing off much of his made-up childhood as a template for how “real” Satanism worked.
The growing fascination with the occult also coincided with the rise of a number of extremely well-publicized serial killing cases that took place in the ’70s: the Zodiac killer and the Alphabet Killer, both of whom utilized ritualistic patterns in their killings, neither of whom were ever caught; Ted Bundy; John Wayne Gacy; the Hillside Stranglers; and David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, who sparked a mass panic during the summer of 1977 in New York City.
Many of these well-publicized serial killers maintained an image of having the upper hand in some way: The Zodiac Killer and Berkowitz wrote taunting letters to the press and police; Bundy escaped from prison and immediately resumed his terrifying killing sprees; John Wayne Gacy hid his evil under the most banal of disguises, a friendly clown who performed for children. As the brazen anarchy associated with these kinds of high-profile killings grew, so did public fear.
In a 2005 book about that fateful New York summer, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, author Jonathan Mahler writes of the impact that Son of Sam had on the media: "The frenzied [media] coverage fanned the growing sense of fear; the growing sense of fear fanned the frenzied coverage." Mahler’s observation about the media fueling this mass panic would ring true well into the next decade, when heightened religious fears and stranger danger coalesced into a new breed of mass hysteria.
The 1980s: Stranger Danger and a growing fear of your own neighborhood
Although it was a time of economic growth and financial prosperity, the Reagan Era was also a time of unease centered on population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the double-income family model, which necessitated a sharp rise in the need for daycare services. As a result, anxiety about protecting the nuclear family from the unknown dangers of this new era was high: The ’80s saw the rise of AIDS scares, kidnap victims’ faces appearing on milk cartons, the mass panic surrounding the 1982 Tylenol murders, trick-or-treat scares (the nation’s lone Halloween candy killer, Ronald Clark O’Brien, received a highly publicized execution in 1984), and the first wave of reports of scary killer clowns attempting to prey on children.
Each of these outbreaks of social unrest signaled Americans’ growing alarm over “stranger danger” and the fear that a terrifying, unknown evil could be lurking right around the corner.article continues...