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Satanic Panics Can Inspire Major Changes in Society

A Personal Perspective: The devil we think we know: Satanic panics then and now.

Four decades ago, America was in the grip of an attack by the forces of Satan.

In a series of highly publicized court cases, childcare providers were accused of “ritual abuse.” This involved despicable acts of sexual assault, pornographic filmmaking, animal sacrifice, infanticide, grave robbing, and even cannibalism. The problem was serious enough to inspire mainstream press coverage, TV reports, documentaries, and feature films.

Cases of ritual abuse circulated around the country in the 1980s. In Kern County, California, for example, children claimed that caretakers donned black robes and inverted crosses before sacrificing animals and babies, and then forcing them to do abominable acts on camera. Kern County took it seriously enough to create the Ritual Abuse Task Force. The Task Force proceeded to interview hundreds of witnesses, send people to prison, and even acquire a backhoe to dig up the earth in search of tiny buried bodies. None were found.

The most notorious case of the Eighties concerned the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. It all began when a 2-year-old child, according to his mother, reported being sexually abused by a male teacher. Soon the parents started talking among themselves. The allegations began to cascade. Eventually, the narrative expanded to involve an alleged 1,400 child victims.

The McMartin Preschool case became a media cause célèbre and turned out to be the longest trial in American history. It eventually involved thousands of witnesses, numerous caseworkers, dozens of psychiatric authorities, and large child abuse organizations.

By the time the trial ignominiously ended in a dismissal of charges, it had gotten to the point that the preschool was accused of putting children on airplanes and taking them out to points unknown, where Satanists filmed them while performing heinous acts involving wild animals—sharks and lions included. There was even, apparently, a "goatman."

Where did this chaos come from? Was there really a massive spike in Satanic ritual criminality in the 1980s?

According to Richard Beck in We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, the backstory of this panic was a more mundane set of events. The nuclear, patriarchal family seemed to be under attack. More mothers were going to college and working and sending their kids off to daycare, and a full-blown backlash against the feminist gains of the 1970s was in effect. The backlash ended up taking some unexpected twists and turns. Satan became one culprit.

Germane to our own times is the idea that Satan is still out there, inspiring evil. According to the popular conspiracy theory known as QAnon, a highly placed group of Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, are involved in ritual child abuse. They supposedly traffic in minors and escalate to full ritual sacrifice and blood-drinking. Reports The New York Times, at a recent rally, Donald Trump played the tune to a popular QAnon song while members of the audience held aloft a single finger, referencing the QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.”

The central rhetoric of QAnon is eerily like the McMartin panic. In the case of McMartin, concerned parents took to the streets in protests against Satanism, putting signs around children’s bodies with messages like, “Help Me! Stop Child Molesters!” In QAnon protests, one might see children holding up signs saying, “I’m Not For Sale.” And “#Savethekids.”

It is easy to dismiss these conspiratorial episodes as irrational aberrations, perhaps even as evidence of psychological disturbance. Yet belief in Satanic conspiracy easily can, and does, move to the center of our national discourse. A group of devout believers, battling the forces of Satan, can wreak harm to our fragile democratic system.

Following the McMartin trial, for example, California passed the Crime Victim Justice Reform Act. This legislation drastically changed criminal law in the state. It allowed hearsay evidence to be used in court, and, writes Beck, “removed clauses from the state constitution that provided defendants indicted under a grand jury with the right to a preliminary hearing.”

QAnon believers, we know, were actively involved in storming the capital on January 6, 2021.

Today, roughly 20 percent of Americans believe in the QAnon Conspiracy Theory. They, like the McMartin believers, feel they are battling an existential threat to their children and to their nation. Such belief, even though rooted in fallacy, poses a threat to our society. The devil we should watch out for, it seems, is in our fearful minds.


Beck, R. (2015). We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. New York: PublicAffairs.

Feuer, A. "Trump Rally Plays Music Resembling QAnon Song, and Crowds React." New York Times. Sept 18, 2022.

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