Americans love a good moral panic.
And for some reason, Satanism and pedophilia are at the center of a lot of them. Probably the most famous example of this occurred in the 1980s and early ’90s. There was a wave of outlandish allegations made against day care centers in California and elsewhere.
It was widely believed — and I swear I’m not making this up — that there was a string of clandestine occult sex rings in day care centers in which children were being sodomized and forced to drink blood as part of a secret satanic ritual. I know, there’s a lot going on there. But the hysteria around this was real and pervasive, and it eventually produced what remains the longest and most expensive trial in the history of California, known as the McMartin trial.
The “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s is fascinating for many reasons, but it’s not an isolated phenomenon. This strange obsession with Satanism and child sex abuse is a recurring anxiety in American life, seen most recently in the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory.
So what is it about American culture that produces these bizarre panics? And why Satan of all figures?
I talked to Sarah Marshall, co-host of the fantastic podcast You’re Wrong About. Marshall is what you might call a professional debunker, but she’s much more than that. Her show — and her broader work — is all about understanding why we latch onto the stories we latch onto, and what that says about us and our culture.
Marshall and her co-host, Michael Hobbes, did an entire episode on the Satanic Panic, and Marshall is currently writing a book about it. We discuss what the hell happened in the ’80s and ’90s, how the echoes of that can be seen today in QAnon, and what America’s penchant for moral panics reveals about our collective psyche.
You can hear our entire conversation in the week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.
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Seriously, can you sum up what happened in the ’80s and ’90s with the Satanic Panic? How was this even possible?
Let’s talk about the spark that ignites the fire. So in 1980, there is a book called Michelle Remembers, published by a small company that is run by an editor who decided to make a go of it in publishing. It is the blockbuster true story of a woman who, with the help of her therapist, has recovered memories of being ritually abused by a satanic cult, which her mother joined.
The book becomes a bestseller. The woman and the therapist get married. And the book ends up making it into law enforcement and social worker training courses, which are springing up partly in response to the relatively new revelation, as of the late ’70s, that child sexual abuse is really endemic in the United States.
A lot of the data emerging at the time seemed to suggest that if you want to figure out how to deal with this problem, you needed to look at the home and you needed to look at people close to the child. Michelle Remembers suggests that we should look in those places, but we should also look at Satanists, because they could be anywhere and they probably are in your town, because if they’d taken over Victoria, British Columbia, which is where Michelle grew up, then who is safe?
The case in California — the McMartin trial — is the most well-known, but did this spring up in multiple other places as well?
That was the first big case, and that happened in Manhattan Beach, California. McMartin starts making massive headlines in 1983. And then from there, it feels as if the spark that started with the publication of Michelle Remembers has leaped into Southern California, partly because we know that some of the workers who were evaluating these children had been trained specifically with Michelle Remembers, which is a book that also involves miracles worked by the Virgin Mary.
And once it’s in the news, it starts popping up everywhere. The case in Jordan, Minnesota, was one of the earliest largest cases that ended up making news for years. There’s a lot of cases in California. There’s the Paul Ingram case in Olympia, Washington, which was written about by Lawrence Wright in Remembering Satan. And there were cases in Memphis and Arkansas and Miami and New Jersey. It was everywhere.
When I think of the Satanic Panic, I often think of that scene in Outbreak where Donald Sutherland is standing in front of a map of the United States showing what will happen if this virus gets out of the town and all you can see is red dots everywhere. That was the Satanic Panic in America.
What were some of the actual allegations?
The McMartin case was the first to really breach the wall into national news, and it comes about when a little boy’s mother becomes concerned that he has been abused at his day care, McMartin Preschool. And she suspects a man named Ray Buckey, who was a member of the McMartin family. One of the things that her son said was that Ray flew through the air, and the police apparently took this seriously. And when they found a black robe in the closet of one of the women who ran the McMartin preschool, they took it as a black robe for a satanic ceremony, connoting that this woman was a witch. And of course, it was a graduation robe. That idea did not seem to enter people’s minds.
Satanists would apparently love nothing more than to have low-paying jobs as child care workers, who have to do backbreaking work and then can get a bunch of 3- or 4-year-olds to take part in a long complicated ritual, in which you can get nothing wrong or else Satan himself will not come. And one of the aspects of this is supposed to be animal sacrifice.
So from the beginning, you have tons of kids also telling stories about sacrificing animals, because adults go in already believing that if they were abused at day care, then it must be Satanists, and if it’s Satanists, then there’s animal sacrifice. And then it’s a matter of, “Alright, what animals did they sacrifice? It had to be something.”
So there was no real material evidence here? Just the stories from children?
It’s not even fair to call them the stories of children, because what I think we end up with is adults going in with a story and then getting children to confirm it. If you watch the videos of the McMartin children who are being questioned, there’s a lot happening. There’s often a maneuver where they will be given toys and puppets to play with and told to play pretend games, and then asked, “How does this action correspond with what you experienced at the day care? How does this relate to our line of questioning?”
And children are imaginative, and children want to make adults happy, and also know that if they’re in a situation where a stranger is pressuring them to confirm a story, they don’t really have power in the situation, and it might make sense to go along with it.
Was there something about that cultural moment that made it fertile soil for this kind of thing? Or was this just a random supernova of stupidity that washed over the country?
Michelle Remembers is a very strange book, and there were a lot of strange books published in 1980 — and almost all of them didn’t inspire moral panics, not even a little one. So I also think that this was a case of a spark falling on very dry and ready tinder.
Two of the big social forces I can think of that made this ready and wanting to happen were the “discovery” of child sexual abuse, which had happened pretty recently, and the fact that women and mothers were entering the workplace and there were all kinds of feelings and anxieties about that. The nuclear family opening up to the world felt new and worrying to people.
There’s a certain degree of autonomy that comes when women become wage earners that troubles the whole concept of patriarchy. So I think finding a way to amplify women’s already existing guilt and fear about leaving their children to be cared for by strangers — certainly, I’m not going to say that was done cynically by everyone, but I think a few people knew what they were doing, or at least believed sincerely that women shouldn’t be out of the home. And that when they leave the home, this is what happens.
I think that was a feeling present there. I also think that every generation that has children wants to do better than their parents did. And this began in the early ’80s. And that’s the moment when boomers are really starting to have kids.
Is QAnon just an extension of the ’80s panic, or is what we’re seeing today so different that it has to be seen as another species of panic?
You know how in the Friday the 13th movies, Jason is a big guy who lumbers around and kills teenagers, and then he gets killed and resurrected several times? And the teens at the camp in every movie always think that they are the first people that this has ever happened to. But as the viewer, you’re like, “There’s Jason again, there he goes.” I think QAnon is like Friday the 13th Part VI, where he’s electrocuted and walks out of the grave and starts killing again.
Now we’re in the Danny Glover “I’m getting too old for this” stage of the Satanic Panic and we’re just wondering how this keeps happening. But yeah, it is 100 percent the Satanic Panic. And I think it’s really interesting and telling that QAnon went mainstream last summer. It began as a sanctuary fan fiction that explained how Trump is actually doing a good job, and then it got more and more ornate and upsetting because you just have to believe more and more ornate theories to think Trump is somehow doing a good job, or did a good job.
Some of these theories went mainstream partly because we had the whole Wayfair story, the idea that this furniture company is trafficking children in cabinets. And also with these viral memes on various platforms saying that your child is far more likely to be abducted and human trafficked than they are to catch Covid or to die of Covid. Or this idea that masks are actually a way to make kids more traffickable, because apparently people are insecure about recognizing their own children.
QAnon seems more pervasive or mainstream than the ’80s Satanic Panic, but maybe that’s just a product of the digital era. Or maybe it just seems more consequential because thousands of concerned day care parents didn’t storm the Capitol in 1984.
Yeah, but I wonder what would’ve happened if the president back then had essentially told them to do that. It’s hard to discount the impact of having a president who validates your most outrageous fears and anxieties and conspiracy theories. I mean, the funny thing about Trump is that you had to platform these conspiracy theories in order to say the news every day.
So this was about the time when I stopped listening to NPR, which used to be constantly on in the background of my life, because I’m a triggered lib, and because it felt like listening to Alex Jones or something. I mean, Reagan’s relationship to the Satanic Panic was much less intimate than what we had between Trump and QAnon. The internet is definitely a huge part of this, but I tend to think that having Trump in office was even bigger.
Is there something uniquely American about these mass pathologies? What does all this say about our national psyche?
We had satanic panics in other places, too. This whole thing originates in Canada, and I know it’s shown up in the UK and in New Zealand, and I’m sure lots of other countries I’m not thinking of, or don’t know about yet, but I have only experienced being an American.
I do think we’re very weird. We were founded partly by people who thought that Satan and demons were part of everyday life and were constantly trying to tempt them. And that character has just been with us since the Puritans came.
So it seems as if Satan is maybe part of our national DNA in a way that, as we entered into the latter half of the 20th century, the time of science, the time of the Space Race, this was also the time when evangelicals came into the White House, when Reagan let them in through the back door. And this was the time when we started to see real power, real money, and evangelical voting blocs. And that coming as a response to this era of science and progress and technological innovation seems relevant.
Also the fact that a largely Christian nation will always think about Satan. I know a lot of people who define America that way are concerned that Satan is stealing the country out from under them. But if we’re talking about Satan, that means that we’re a Christian country still, for better or worse.
Do you think we’re getting less equipped to resist these sorts of panics? I worry our brains just aren’t wired to defend against the rhetorical and psychological pull of these stories, and in the age of memes and official-looking stats, we seem pretty ... fucked.
I’m not going to disagree with you, because that seems minimizing. I’m scared as hell. And I think if you’d asked me this same question two years ago, I’d be like, “Well, no, I don’t know.” And now I’m like, “You know what? I am amazed.” I am fully, endlessly, every day amazed. As amazed as I was when I first saw Cats, the movie. I am amazed that rather than do what for many of us is logistically the easier thing and try to not kill each other, we have decided to actively try to kill each other because some mean guy told us to — and because it’s insulting to put some cloth over your face, even if you live in the upper Midwest, and we’d be doing that anyway because it’s winter and it makes your skin hurt.
It’s hard to feel hope for America because the fact that we are living in a death cult is quite apparent. I don’t feel myself to belong to the death cult and I don’t subscribe to the beliefs, but I’m living inside the compound. And I got to say, the only thing that gives me hope is teenagers on TikTok.
I think that each successive generation has gotten savvier about the media. And millennials are very savvy about the kinds of media scandals and the baseless attempts to malign women and people of color that absolutely flew in the ’90s and they received almost no pushback, partly because technologically it wasn’t possible.
People of my generation know what it’s like to be pandered to. We can’t be tricked by editing the way people in our parents’ generation can be. And I think by that metric, zoomers are the generation who are raised with a level of media savviness that I can’t possibly aspire to. I’m not saying they’re going to save us, because they shouldn’t have to. I want them to have fun and do gap years and do whatever they want. But teens on TikTok give me hope, I’ll say that.