During the 1980s, Americans absolutely lost their minds–and not just over legwarmers and acid-washed denim. The so-called Satanic Panic swept the nation with lurid tabloid stories of ritual abuse and repressed memories.
What really happened? And why were so many people convinced that satanic cults were running rampant in the United States?
One of the earliest examples of the Satanic Panic was a 1980 book called Michelle Remembers. Written by a psychiatrist about his patient, Michelle Smith, it details the alleged satanic ritual abuse of a little girl.
Lawrence Pazder started treating Michelle in 1973 for depression. By 1973, he was using hypnosis to help her uncover alleged repressed memories of horrific abuse by her mother and other members of a satanic cult.
Pazder peddled his story to magazines and tabloids, and eventually scored a massive payday for Michelle Remembers. He also married Michelle, which is deeply problematic.
Michelle’s claims were exhaustively debunked, yet the Satanic Panic continued to rage. The main fuel on the flames? Highly colorful reports on daytime talk shows, TV specials, and tabloid reports. Oprah promoted the idea of ritual abuse to her audience, interviewing both Michelle and another alleged survivor in 1989, despite mounting criticism of the entire concept. Sally Jesse Raphael and Geraldo Rivera also hopped on the Satanic Panic train, one-upping each other with exclusive interviews with alleged ritual abuse survivors.
The panic culminated in the McMartin Preschool trial, which remains the longest and most expensive court case in US history.
In 1983, Judy Johnson began accusing teachers and staff at the preschool of committing strange and terrible acts. Her claims centered on her estranged husband, Ray Buckey, insisting that he had abused their son. She also claimed that Ray could fly, so keep that in mind as you continue reading.
The police took her accusations seriously enough to send out a letter to 200 parents of children who attended the school. The letter informed them that their children might have been abused at the school. The details of the letter are, to be honest, too graphic to publish here. Reading it now, it’s easy to see how parents became panicked and convinced that their kids had been abused.
The power of suggestion is a strong one. By the end of the investigation in 1984, the Children’s Institute International therapy clinic had determined that 360 children were abused at the school. Their investigation included what sounds like very invasive (and potentially traumatizing) physical exams, as well as suggestive interviews on impressionable kids.
As the kids were coached through these interviews, their claims became increasingly bizarre. The kids said that they were abused by witches, taken through underground tunnels beneath the school, and car wash orgies. (Yeah, I don’t know either.)
Seven people, including Ray Buckey, were arrested on hundreds of counts of child abuse. Eventually, after a court case that dragged on until 1990, they were all acquitted. As for Johnson, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then discovered dead from alcohol-related health problems in 1986.
First, there was Rosemary’s Baby. Then William Peter Blatty’s iconic horror novel The Exorcist hit shelves in 1971. The 1973 film version only served to cement the epic story of good versus evil in the public imagination. In 1976, The Omen continued the theme of demonic influence on Earth.
This pop culture moment, rooted in Catholic faith and drenched in buckets of fake blood, may well have paved the way for the Satanic Panic. The notion that we were fighting a secret battle against the forces of darkness appealed to something in our national psyche.
Many of the claims of ritual abuse sound a lot like events in those films. It probably didn’t help that The X-Files made one of their finest episodes about the Satanic Panic in 1995.
“Die Hand Die Verletzt” (which means “the hand that wounds” in German) both lampooned and, in a way, supported the idea that secret satanic cults were popping up all over white suburbia.
Finally, we need to talk about Daniel and Frances Keller. The Texas couple were accused of abusing a three-year-old girl at their home daycare. In 1992, they were convicted… and they stayed in prison until 2013.
The Kellers were only freed when an investigative journalist named Jordan Smith began digging into their case. What she discovered was a bizarre record of horrific–and unbelievable–abuse.
The Kellers were accused of feeding children to sharks, serving kids Kool-Aid spiked with blood, sacrificing babies, and making their charges dig up bones at a nearby cemetery.
They spend 21 years in prison on the basis of those accusations. “That was literally a witch hunt,” said Keith Hampton, who served as a pro-bono lawyer for the Kellers. “We say ‘witch hunt’ in this figurative way, but that was a modern-day literal witch hunt. They really were after people who they thought were worshipping at the feet of the Dark Lord.”
As wild as it seems now, people honestly believed that the claims against the Kellers, the staff of the McMartin Preschool, and others were 100% true. The panic echoed the Salem witch trials as well as the McCarthyism of the 1960s. Maybe it’s just human nature to fall for these claims every now and then. After all, there are people in America right now who are convinced that COVID-19 is being spread by 5G towers.