Dec 10, 2021

How Today's Conspiracy Theories Echo The Satanic Panic

How Today's Conspiracy Theories Echo The Satanic Panic
Heather Greene

Religion Unplugged
December 9, 2021

(ANALYSIS) In 1983, the owners and employees of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were accused of ritual child abuse and molestation, leading to one of the longest running criminal trials in U.S. history. This landmark case marked the beginning of a widespread moral panic that lasted well over a decade, permeating pop culture and upending personal lives.

Today that social phenomenon is infamously known as the “satanic panic.”

Why does this matter nearly 40 years later? Well, history may be repeating itself.

A crowd crush at rapper Travis Scott’s annual Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas, led to 10 deaths and hundreds of reported injuries. As news of the mass casualties spread, conspiracy theories sprang up online speculating that satanism was responsible. One reddit user explained:

“People went into that festival with great & upbeat energy and left feeling like they had just been in hell. … The entire set (triangle shaped) looked satanic, demonic … I've been to many raves even featuring Travis Scott, and this was something else.”

The Rev. Michael Maginot, a priest at St. Stephens, Martyr Roman Catholic Church in Merrilville, Indiana, emphasized this point on Fox News, saying Scott’s stage looked like “the gates of hell.” To enter the event, attendees had to walk through the singer’s mouth. “For the demon,” Maginot said, “the mouth is the prime part (of) one’s body that it would like to take over to communicate.”

The show’s design was far from the first to use demonic imagery. Most recently, in early 2021, Lil Nas X released a video for his song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” that depicted the singer falling from heaven and descending into hell.

However, the conspiracy theories surrounding the Astroworld tragedy go beyond critiquing artistic symbolism, suggesting that Scott himself knowingly performed a satanic ritual. According to these far-fetched narratives, the tragic deaths were a blood sacrifice to the devil.

As reported by multiple news outlets, the wild assumptions are false, and the deaths were caused by too many people in a small space, resulting in asphyxiations. “We were like sardines,” an attendee told The Houston Chronicle. Scott himself released a Twitter statement saying that he was “devastated by what happened” and was working with police.

However, fear does not always run on facts. Nonsensical connections are made to feed confirmation bias, and a new narrative is born. Then, when enough people believe, society winds up in a moral panic.

This is how the satanic panic began.
The Satanic Panic

The McMartin legal case was not the actual cause of the panic; a single event cannot do that. The sociopolitical scene in 1980s America provided fertile ground for the growth of moral outrage. The political pendulum had swung from the progressive era of the 1970s to a politically conservative period known as the Reagan Era. Along with the political shift, the newly revived fundamentalist and evangelical Christian movements emerged. It was in 1977 that James Dobson founded Focus on the Family and Jerri Falwell found The Moral Majority.

However, those social changes were just the tip of iceberg. Author Richard Beck also cited as contributing factors increased homophobia due to AIDS, a backlash against working women, a growing fear of crime and a palpable concern for child neglect.

Beck wrote, “The word ‘epidemic’ became an important feature of the political and rhetorical landscape of the 1980s. Whether the epidemics were real, as in the case of Aids, or imagined, as in the case of ‘crack babies,’ the rhetoric portrayed American Society as menaced on all sides by conspiracies and dire threats.”

But why was the threat of Satanism most prominent? Moral panic can target anything. The simple answer: the availability of material.

Alternative religious practices, including modern Witchcraft and Anton Le Vey’s Satanism, emerged alongside other 1960s progressive movements. By 1970, occult material was widely available, and New Age practices such as astrology had become trendy. Occult language had also found its way, for the first time, into mainstream films, specifically “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “The Omen” (1976).

Additionally, the new Christian movements increasingly focused on satanic threats. Evangelist Brian Warnke was frequently cited as being at the forefront of this narrative. A 1973 Crystal Lake Herald article reported that Warnke, who was allegedly once a high priest to “1500 devil worshippers in southern California,” was traveling the country warning of the dangers of satanism.

In 1980, Canadian psychologist Lawrence Pazdar and his patient Michelle Smith published the book “Michelle Remembers,” detailing Smith’s alleged satanic abuse.The book, which is now discredited, was the first of its kind and quickly became a best seller. Pazdar was routinely celebrated as an expert on ritual abuse.

Satanic rhetoric was ever present in both religious circles and mainstream society.
The Spread

When McMartin preschool parent Judy Johnson first went to the police, she accused the owners of molesting her child. The accusations later morphed into horrific stories of animal sacrifice and ritual abuse. Over time, other children gave similar testimonies through legal interrogations and controversial regression therapy.

Abuse accusations then spread across the nation. In 1985, there were 77 cases claiming satanic child abuse in Bakersfield County, California, alone, according to one news report. That same summer, Los Angeles County had three satanic ritual cases awaiting trial.

Feeding the hype was a host of public personalities and media outlets, from Oprah Winfrey to “20/20” to local papers. In 1988, Geraldo Rivera hosted a two-hour special titled “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground,” in which Rivera warned parents, “Satanism is not a harmless fad, passing phase in some of these kids’ lives.”

Although the McMartin trial ended in 1990 with an acquittal for both Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Raymond, the moral panic was in full swing at that point. People lost jobs and even freedoms, as was the case for the famed West Memphis Three, a trio of teen boys who were convicted of murder and linked to satanic practice. In 2011, the men, who always maintained their innocence, were released from prison.

“It’s a cancerous police state,” said California resident Jackie Nokes, according to a 1985 Knight-Ridder report.

At the same time, cancel culture, to use a contemporary term, was in full force. Popular kids’ franchises such as the Cabbage Patch Kids, the Smurfs and Pokémon were labeled demonic. Heavy metal bands, including Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osborne, invited the stigma by purposefully engaging with satanic imagery.

In a 1982 letter to editor of the News-Leader of Springfield, Missouri, concerned parent E. Dennis Felton explained that Dungeons and Dragons, a common target of the panic, contained magic circles, pentagrams and thaumaturgic triangles, which are “all items used in black magic and witchcraft.”

“Now really as a parent do you want your children to learn the use of these items?” Felton asked.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the panic began to taper off. In 1992, longtime FBI investigator Kenneth Lanning penned a document denouncing the widespread presence of satanic ritual abuse. He said that at first, he believed the accounts.

“But the number of alleged cases began to grow and grow,” Lanning wrote. “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults, and there is little or no corroborative evidence.” The document was conclusive.

In 1995, Geraldo apologized, saying, “I am convinced that I was terribly wrong … and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result.”

The panic was over, and while the satanic-based fears continued to thrive in the most extreme religious subcultures, mainstream society moved on.
A Moral Panic Reborn

Correlations are now being drawn between the 1980s satanic panic and today’s climate. Just as in the 1980s, ultra-conservative politics have re-emerged in reaction to progressive movements. Growing alongside that trend is the birth of a new brand of extremist Christian nationalism, a political ideology that “advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture,” according to sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead.

Similar to the 1980s, the media environment is fueling the spread. However, in today’s media world, with its 24-hour news cycles, user-driven social interaction and easily manipulatable content, personal immersion within a conspiracy-laden environment is all-encompassing.

False news and wild theories spread faster than ever before, confirming whatever bias someone might already have with little room for discernment.

While we may not be in a full-fledged satanic panic as was the case in the 1980s, similar rhetoric is present today, as seen with the Astroworld story.

Contemporary satanic-based fears are not aimed, however, at alleged ritual child abuse, clandestine neighborhood covens or teen indoctrination. The focus today is politically driven, demonstrating a fear of leadership and systems rather than friends and neighbors.

Today’s concerns often align with the contemporary conspiratorial narrative linked to QAnon — an internet-birthed ideology that proposes, among other things, that a satanic-based cabal of pedophiles controls the federal government. According to a 2021 PRRI study, 15% of Americans believe this theory — that’s 49 million Americans.

Satanic rhetoric is also intertwined with the pandemic. In November, Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson suggested in a tweet that the COVID-19 vaccines contain “tracking devices linked to the devil.”

As far fetched as it may seem, Robinson’s debunked theory may be more widespread than her own limited audience — or at least, its generating some buzz

According to a recent RNS report, Bible Gateway’s most-searched word for 2021 was “sorcery” or “sorceries,” as connected to the Greek word “pharmakeia,” meaning the “employment of drugs for any purpose; sorcery, magic, enchantment.” Both terms have been found in debates about the vaccine.

The accusations go both ways. Marcus Lamb, founder of the Christian network Daystar, told his followers that the pandemic itself was Satan-driven but still advocated against the vaccine. Faith, in his belief, was the answer. Lamb died of COVID-19 on Nov. 23.

Moral panics do end, as history has shown, when respected authority figures — whether judges or FBI agents — speak out against reckless outrage. In today’s climate — where truth is found in a meme, reason is “doing your research” and authority figures are not universally trusted — this savior may be elusive.

In 1996, as the satanic panic ended, Hollywood released the first cinematic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s famed play “The Crucible.” Written in 1952, “The Crucible” tells the story of the first moral panic on these shores: the Salem witch trials. It was no accident that a story about the trials written during the Red Scare first hit the silver screen during satanic panic.

Miller has often denied that his play was an allegory for the communist scare. In 1996, he told a New York Times reporter that the play was about “a paranoid situation” and not about any specific events. In that way, his play is a warning.

Miller said, “The enemy was within and within stays within, and we can’t get out of within.”

Heather Greene is a freelance journalist, editor and author of “Lights, Camera, Witchcraft: A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television.” She is the former managing editor at Llewellyn Worldwide. Her writing has appeared in Religion News Service, Circle Magazine, The Washington Post and more. She has a master’s degree in film studies from Emory University and is a member of the Religion Newswriters Association and Covenant of the Goddess. Heather has been writing and presenting on the cross sections between belief, pop culture and alternative spirituality for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @Miraselena01.

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