Those of you who are old enough may remember that there was a good deal of concern being expressed about Satanism in the United States in the Eighties, both in the media and through the grapevine. There were a number of accusations of Satanic ritual abuse (abuse during Satanic rituals) and quite a few even went to court. Rumours sprang up accusing various individuals and even whole companies of being Devil worshippers. Rumours also spread about allegedly Satanic content in rock songs, role playing games, and even children's cartoons. During the Eighties, there were a number of people speaking of the Devil.
This phenomenon would later be termed by sociologists and other professionals, "the Satanic panic." It was essentially a moral panic (which occurs when a large number of people express concerns over groups of individuals or alleged groups of individuals whom they view as a threat to the moral fabric of society), not unlike the witch hunts of Renaissance Europe or the Red Scare of the United States in the Fifties. That there was little, if any, evidence that widespread Satanic ritual abuse ever took place in the United States or that there were hidden messages on various rock songs did not prevent numerous individuals from expressing undue concern at the threat of Satanism.
The beginnings of the Satanic panic perhaps have their roots in the Sixties. Prior to the Sixties Devil worshippers were rarely mentioned in Anglo-American pop culture. The 1934 Universal horror movie The Black Cat featured Boris Karloff as an unabashed diabolist. Val Lewton's 1943 horror movie The Seventh Victim also dealt with Satanists, although to avoid controversy they were called Palladists (a term used of an alleged Satanic/Masonic group first mentioned in the 19th century). For the most part, however, portrayals of Devil worship and the Devil or demons in the mass media were rare before the Sixties. This would change during that decade, which saw the portrayal of Satanists in the 1967 novel Rosemary's Baby and the 1968 film based upon it, the 1968 Hammer film The Devil Rides Out, and even the TV show Dark Shadows. Depictions of Satan or Satanism would only increase during the Seventies, with the publication of The Exorcist in 1971 and the release of the film based upon it in 1973, the movie Race with the Devil and other low budget horror movies, The Omen and its sequels, and a number of other books and films. While these movies and books did not necessarily spark the panic, they did provide much of the mythology for the Satanic panic, in much the same way that the Renaissance witch hunts had provided much of the mythology for horror novels and movies of the late twentieth century which dealt with Devil worship. At the same time, the foundation of the Church of Satan by Anton LaVey in 1966 and the publication of his Satanic Bible in 1969 may have caused concern for many, even though the Church of Satan has always denied the existence of the Devil.
The Sixties would provide the beginnings of the Satanic panic in another way as well. The Sixties was a time of profound change. The decade saw the rise of the Sexual Revolution, feminism, gay rights, and an increase in recreational drug use. For many the Sixties would cause concern that our society was on the edge of moral collapse. Perhaps as a backlash to the changes which occurred in the Sixties, Christian Fundamentalism would start to grow in numbers in the United States in the late Seventies into the early Eighties. Christian Fundamentalists also became more active in the political sphere, with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979. According to Jeffrey S. Victor in his 1993 book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, those most likely to believe rumours of Satanic ritual abuse were poor, conservative Protestants from the working class. And it was precisely among poor, rural, conservative Protestants from the working class that Fundamentalism would take hold in the late Seventies and late Eighties. Because of the very nature of their beliefs, which among other things espouse a belief in the existence of Satan as an individual, Fundamentalism may have predisposed poor, rural, conservative Protestants to believe in Satanic ritual abuse more so than other groups.
Other factors also probably played a role in the rise of the Satanic panic. Jeffrey S. Victor attributed much of the Satanic panic to economic decline, unemployment, and concern over what was perceived by some as the decline of the nuclear family. With regards to economic decline as a cause of the Satanic panic, Victor could well be correct. The Eighties in the United States was a time when the economy went into sharp decline. Wages did not keep pace with the cost of living. Unemployment was widespread. The homeless became more common. Farm foreclosures took place at record highs. And the gap between the rich and the poor only grew greater. It is perhaps significant as the economy grew worse in the Eighties, the Satanic panic also increased in its intensity. By mid-decade the unemployment rate reached postwar highs. Significantly, the Satanic panic perhaps reached its peak in 1987, the same year that Black Monday took place in October, when stocks collapsed at an unprecedented level.
If one must choose a starting point for the Satanic panic, it should perhaps be 1980, when the book Michelle Remembers by Dr. Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith was published. It was the first book ever written on Satanic ritual abuse, recounting Smith's treatment at Pazder's practice in Victoria, British Columbia in the late Seventies. During Smith's treatment Pazder used hypnosis to uncover alleged repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse that had occurred to her when she was a child. The abuse allegedly was the work of a "Satanic Cult" in town, of which her mother was a member. The book received a good deal of publicity, and Pazder and Smith went on an extensive publicity tour. The book introduced many of the hallmarks of alleged Satanic abuse, including the recovery of repressed memories through hypnosis. It would also introduce the term "ritual abuse." Much of the book would later be proven to be inaccurate and inconsistent, but it would have an impact nonetheless.
It was not long before other individuals claiming to have repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse under hypnosis in psychotherapy emerged. At the same time the first of the Kern County, California child abuse cases, in which Alvin and Debbie McCuan were falsely accused of sexually abusing children, sparked what has become called the "day care sex abuse hysteria." It would not be long before accusations of abuse made by children towards parents and other caregivers would include elements of Satanic ritual. Indeed, it was in 1983 that accusations of Satanic ritual abuse were made towards the McMartin preschool of Manhattan Beach, California. Investigation and arrests in the case lasted from 1984 to 1987. The trial itself would last from 1987 to 1990. The first trial ended in jury deadlock. A second trial would result in an acquittal and a dismissal. Similar allegations would arise towards daycare centres and other caretakers in the United States and abroad. Among the most notable were the Country Walk Babysitting Service case from Dade County, Florida (which went to trial in 1986, although the first accusations were made in 1983), the Glendale Montessori case in Stuart, Florida, and the Little Rascals Day Care Centre case in Edenton, North Carolina.
In 1988 Geraldo Rivera's special Devil Worship: Exploring Satan's Underground perhaps added fuel to the Satanic panic and the daycare sex abuse hysteria. It would be Geraldo's only primetime special to air on NBC (previously he had been a reporter with ABC News and was then a daytime talk show host). Airing on October 25, only a few days before Halloween, the special dealt not only with alleged Satanic ritual abuse of children, but also with such topics as alleged breeding of babies for sacrifice in Satanic rituals, the drinking of the blood of children at cocktail parties, and other sensationalist topics. Evidence was sorely lacking for any of this in the special, and its intent seemed to be more to shock than to inform. Despite this it was watched by more people at the time than any other television documentary. There are many who believe that Devil Worship: Exploring Satan's Underground escalated the Satanic panic in many parts of the country.
Most studies of the Satanic panic of the Eighties deal only with the accusations of Satanic ritual abuse by adults claiming repressed memories and accusations of current abuse by children. I would argue that it entailed more than that. In fact, the Eighties was a period when people saw the Devil everywhere. There were rumours and concerns on the part of some on Satanic content in rock music, role playing games, and even childrens' cartoons. What is more, urban legends of Satanism with regards to individuals and even companies would be widespread in the Eighties.
In fact, one of the most bizarre aspects of the Satanic panic was accusations that many rock groups used backmasking to insert Satanic messages in their music. Backmasking, also called "backwards masking," is a recording technique in which sounds are recorded backwards on a recording that is meant to be played forwards. Backmasking was first used on a wide scale in the Fifties musical movement called musicque concrete, an avant garde form whereby fragments of recorded sounds are edited together to make music. The first well known instance of backwards masking occurred when John Lennon and George Martin used the technique on The Beatles songs "Tomorrow Never Knows," "I'm Only Sleeping," and "Rain." As early as the late Seventies, there were rumours of backwards masking used to insert a message beginning "Oh here's to my sweet Satan..." on Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." The rumour only grew after Christian DJ Michael Mills made the claim on several radio programmes in 1981. From there rumours of backwards masking gained momentum. In 1982 Paul Couch of the PTL Club hosted a show on which a so called neuroscientist William Yarroll made the claim that rock groups were working with the Church of Satan to place diabolic, subliminal messages on their records. Many began to capitalise on these rumours, such as minister Gary Greenwald who held several lectures on the subject. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) would even repeat such claims about Led Zeppelin. Many Fundamentalists were active on a more local level in spreading accusations that there were Satanic messages backmasked on rock songs. In my area there was a man whose last name was either spelled "Munsey," "Muncey," or "Muncie" who held various lectures on the subject. Among the many songs that were accused of Satanic backmasking were "Do the Dark" by Blondie, "Gonna Raise Hell" by Cheap Trick, "Metal Health" by Quiet Riot, "Fire on High" by the Electric Light Orchestra, and "Snowblind" by Styx.
The backmasking and subliminal message rumours would even result in a lawsuit brought by the families of two Nevada youths who committed suicide against Judas Priest in 1990. The families claimed that the boys were led to take their own lives by a subliminal message on "Better By You, Better Than Me" from their album Stained Class. The judge dismissed the case on the grounds that there was no real evidence that Judas Priest placed subliminal messages on their records. In his statement, he pointed out that scientific research does not show that subliminal messages could even cause acts of such a grave nature. Lead Singer Rob Halford pointed out the ludicrousness of it all, stating that it would be counterproductive for Judas Priest to kill off their fan base through subliminal messages to commit suicide.
Of course, while rock groups in the Eighties were plagued by rumours of Satanic subliminal messages in their music, accusations of Satanism had been made against many rock groups (especially heavy metal bands) from the early days. From their very first album in 1970, Black Sabbath had to deal with accusations that they were Satanic. And a rumour current in the Seventies was that members of Led Zeppelin (except for John Pual Jones) had sold their souls to the Devil for their success. A rumour that sprung up about KISS, either in the late Seventies or early Eighties, was that the band's name stood for Knights In Service of Satan. The rumour persisted despite denials on the part of the band and plenty of evidence to the contrary. It was widely believed that The Eagles' "Hotel California" was about the Church of Satan. Of course, it perhaps did not help that in the Eighties some artists, such as Venom, Slayer, and King Diamond actively cultivated a Satanist image. In fact, King Diamond even expressed admiration for Anton LaVey, not the sort of thing that would endear him to Fundamentalists. Later he would reveal that he followed no religion, but that was in 2006 long after the Eighties Satanic Panic had passed.
Of course, it is probably not surprising that accusations of Satanic content was made towards rock groups. After all, as early as the Fifties it was called "the Devil's music," but then during the Satanic panic accusations of Satanism were even made towards things that would not be considered Satanic by the average American. The prime example of this may be Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and fantasy role playing games (RPGs) in general. Of course, the reasons why Fundamentalists would accuse Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy RPGs of Satanism is simple. To many Fundamentalists magic is more or less witchcraft and in their view witchcraft by its very nature is diabolism. It is the same reason accusations of Satanic content in the Harry Potter books have been made. At any rate, the fact that these accusations towards the fantasy RPGs were made during the Satanic panic perhaps made it much worse than the Harry Potter controversy ever was.
If one must pinpoint the time when the accusations of Satanism towards Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy RPGs began to gain steam, it is perhaps with the suicide of Patricia Pulling's son Irving in 1982. Irving Pulling had been an avid D&D player, and his mother thought his suicide was directly linked to the game. She would even sue TSR Inc., then the owners of Dungeons and Dragons for wrongful death. The lawsuit was dismissed. It was then that she launched a crusade against Dungeons and Dragons, founding BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). She would accuse the game of using everything from assassination, barbarism, blasphemy, cannibalism, demonology, demon summoning, desecration, divination, gambling, homosexuality, insanity, necromancy, prostitution, sadism, satanic type rituals, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, suicide, and other teachings. BADD would achieve a great deal of success with Fundamentalist groups. She even wrote a book expressing her opinions, The Devil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan. Pulling would be followed by other similar critics, such as the notorious Jack T. Chick. Infamous for publishing Fundamentalist tracts since 1960, he naturally tackled the subject of role playing games in one of them.
If accusations that D&D was Satanic might seem strange to many today, stranger today would be thought the accusations that even movies and TV shows that many consider innocent were somehow Satanic. Perhaps the strangest accusation of diabolic content in pop culture artefacts of them all were the classic Walt Disney animated features. Fundamentalists would point to the demon Chernabog in Fantasia and the magic prevalent in his movies in everything from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty (of course, magic is the work of the Devil in their view). This would lead to rumours that Walt Disney himself was a Satanist. The ludicrousness of this is that Disney was not only a Protestant, but very conservative in his views. Once, when two of his cartoonists produced a pornographic cartoon for his birthday, he fired them both promptly on the spot. Of course, perhaps even stranger was the accusation that there was Satanic content in the animated carton The Smurfs (based on Belgian cartoonist Peyo's long running Les Schtroumpfs). Of course, this was largely due to the frequent use of magic in the cartoon (Papa Smurf often whipping up a magical solution in a crisis).
A later victim of the Satanic panic was designer Liz Clairborne. Starting around 1990, an urban legend began circulating that Clairborne had confessed to being a Satanist and was donating 30% of her company's profits to the Church of Satan on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The upshot of this is that Liz Clairborne has never appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, nor did she ever make any other such confession on any other talk show.
As the Eighties passed, the Satanic panic would begin to lose steam. Among the first victims of the panic were the rumours that backmasking was being used to place Satanic messages on rock songs. The reason for this was simply that anyone with a phonograph could put the accusations to shame simply by playing records backwards on the machine. I remember after Reverend Munsey (or Muncey, or Muncie...) made another visit to our area, my brother and I got a hold of some of the tapes of his lectures he sold and then listened to them. We then went to our extensive vinyl collection (which contained most of the songs he accused of having subliminal messages) and played them backwards. Often, what we heard weren't Satanic messages, but gibberish. In other instances where there was an actual hidden message, it wasn't what he was claiming was being said at all (and not Satanic in the least bit)! Of course, in instances of alleged subliminal messages on rock songs beyond backmasking, all it took was a good set of recording equipment to disprove any such claims of Satanic messages. The 1990 dismissal of the lawsuit against Judas Priest seems to have been the final nail in the coffin of the whole backmasking/subliminal message controversy, which had been on the wane since around 1984-1985 anyhow.
As to the accusations that D&D and other role playing games were somehow Satanic, that too would be put to the test. Many would point out the extreme inaccuracies in Pulling's portrayals of D&D and other RPGs in her writings and particularly her book, The Devil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan. In fact, speaking as someone who spent much of his youth playing D&D (and I can tell you that I did not turn into a serial killer, a rapist, or a Satanist--in fact, I am a well adjusted guy who owns his own home), I can testify that practically everything she had to say was utter hogwash. Indeed, there have been many who have pointed out that Patricia Pulling's assumption that her son Irving's suicide was linked to D&D was not the case. Irving Pulling was a troubled young man who had been suffering from depression for many months prior to his suicide. He had trouble fitting in at school and, if reports are to be believed, was off his medication when he killed himself. There were probably many factors which led to Irving Pulling's death, of which D&D was most likely not one of them. In fact, the American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, and Canada's Health and Welfare would all independently conclude there was no link between role playing and suicide.
Ironically, Geraldo's special Devil Worship: Exploring Satan's Underground in 1988 may have been part of the beginning of the end of the Satanic panic. While it was responsible in part for increasing allegations of Satanic ritual abuse among many, it was also raked over the coals by TV critics, commentators, and a good number of people for its utter lack of evidence for its claims and its sensationalist nature. It seems to me that this was not lost on the average person. I remember, with the exception of a few Fundamentalists, the common view of the man on the street seems to be that it was one of the worst pieces of garbage to ever air on television, offering no real proof of some vast Satanic conspiracy or that child sacrifices were taking place on a wide scale.
As to the heart of the Satanic panic, the claims by adults to have recovered memories of ritual abuse as children and the accusations of children that they had suffered ritual abuse, media coverage of such would grow increasingly negative in 1987. One factor in this change of heart on the part of the media is the fact that the existence of repressed memory is not accepted by the mainstream psychological community at large. In fact, so called recovered memory therapy is not even listed in the DSM-IV or used in mainstream psychotherapy. There is even a theory that hypnosis can produce what is known as false memories, either because a psychotherapist underestimates the suggestibility of his or her patient or, worse yet, the therapist asks leading questions creating such false memories.
Indeed, questions regarding the accuracy of the book Michelle Remembers arose nearly as soon as it was published. It was in the October 27, 1980 issue of Macleans that reporter Paul Grescoe questioned Michelle Smith's father, who strenuously denied the accusations she had made against her mother, as well as a childhood friend of Smith's mother who said that she was a kind and loving woman. Grescoe also noticed some omissions in the book--it did not mention either of Smith's sisters, nor that Dr. Pazer and Smith had by that point gotten married to each other. While the Macleans article would not have much impact, it was the first shot in what would eventually become a point of controversy regarding the book. In fact, it would be in 1990 that The Mail on Sunday conducted an investigation into the book. In an interview with Smith's father, he indicated that she had lied on at least three points. Interviewing Smith's childhood family physician, he theorised that the book was created by an overactive imagination. Neighbours of the family when Smith was growing up agreed that her mother was not only kind and gracious, but it was not possible that Smith could have been abused without someone finding out. A childhood friend of Smith had similarly good things to say about her mother. The clincher in the article may well have been when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police noted that there never has been even one prosecution in Victoria for Satanism. The 1995 book Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt by Michael R. Snedeker and Debbie Nathan revealed further inconsistencies. In the book Smith had claimed that there had been a car crash, but there were no newspaper reports from that period of such a crash. Teachers, childhood friends, and former neighbours all testified that Smith had never been absent from school for a long period of time, even though the book claims she was abused in an 81 day non-stop ritual with literally hundreds of Satanists taking part. Absolutely no one who knew Smith as a child could back up any of the claims she made of ritual abuse in the book. The debunking of the book Michelle Remembers would be a serious blow to the Satanic panic, being as it was the book that had started it all.
The debunking of the book Michelle Remembers would only be the beginning. In 1992 I remember an article that appeared in Playboy largely debunking the alleged phenomenon of Satanic ritual abuse. That same year the FBI would issue its Investigator's Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse. Among other things, this influential report noted the impossibility of an organised Satanic conspiracy, the utter lack of evidence that babies were being bred for cannibalism by devil worshippers or that 50,000 infants had been murdered in Satanic sacrifices, or that diabolists had seized control of the country's daycare centres and preschools. It also concluded that the vast majority of allegations of Satanic ritual abuse are most likely false. Coming from the top law enforcement agency in the nation, The Investigator's Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse would provide a huge blow to those arguing that Satanic ritual abuse was occurring regularly across the country.
It would be in 1993 that Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend by Jeffery S. Victor would be published. Perhaps the best overview of the Satanic panic, it provided the final blow to a phenomenon that had been losing credibility since 1987. In fact, it is to be noted that since 1992 and 1993, reports of Satanic ritual abuse had drastically decreased. In fact, if we are to say that the Satanic panic began around 1980, we might be able to say it ended in 1992 or 1993.
Today it is easy to look back at many aspects of the Satanic panic of the Eighties and laugh. For many of us today (as it was for many of us then) it seems ridiculous that anyone could have believed rock stars were backwards masking Satanic messages into their records. For many more of us it probably seems even more ridiculous that anyone could believe there were Satanic overtones to classic Disney films, let alone that Walt Disney was a Satanist (he was a Congregationalist, for gods' sakes...) or that there was Satanic content in The Smurfs. But the truth is that the Satanic panic caused a great deal damage as well. Many people's lives were ruined. There were those parents and other caretakers falsely accused of Satanic ritual abuse and even placed under arrest. While most would be acquitted or dismissed, the damage to their lives was done. Indeed, Ray Buckey was cleared of charges against him and his case dismissed in the McMartin Preschool Trial only after he had spent five years in jail. The harm caused by the Satanic panic did not end there. Many families were divided. I remember a case here in Missouri (Springfield, I think) where an adult woman accused her father of abuse--it was dismissed when it was found that despite her claims of repeatedly being raped as a child, she was still a virgin (how a woman could not know this when her maidenhead was still intact, I don't know...). The family later sued the psychotherapist who had implanted the false memories in her mind. As to those who learned their memories of abuse were false, they often find themselves suffering post traumatic stress disorder due to those false memories and guilt over having made accusations based on what was ultimately untrue.
Like the Red Scare of the Fifties, in the end the Satanic panic harmed many. Like so many moral panics before it, ultimately the Satanic panic was anything but moral.