Satanic Panic (thing)
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To see a dear friend torn, wounded, and the blood streaming down his face and body, will much affect the heart. But much more when those wounds we see, and that streaming blood we behold, accuseth us as the vile actors. To see such a one gashed and gored, though it were done by some other hand, will affect our hearts, if they be not harder than the stones, and more flinty than the rocks. But much more when our consciences tell us that we, our cruel hands, have made those wounds, and the bloody instruments by which our dearest friend was gored, were of our own forging.
The developed world experienced a witchhunt in the 1980s and 1990s, which started and centred in Canada and the United States. While less severe than past witch-manias, it still produced horrendous results: people were tried and in many cases imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. In most cases, the crimes never even happened. In some cases, it seems apparent that innocents remain in jail for a real crime whose perpetrator(s) remain at large. Lives and reputations were ruined. Millions of dollars were spent chasing phantoms. By the early twenty-first century, the hysteria had passed, and a significant percentage of the people who lived while these events were occurring have absolutely no idea that they ever took place.
The notion of organized Satanic cults-- groups who believe in and worship the Christian devil-- has long existed, remaining long after most Christians have accepted that past witch hunts persecuted innocent individuals. The modern Satanists are nevertheless supposed to share with the legendary witches the same nefarious intentions and a profound hatred of Christianity. Like the imagined covens of ages passed, they meet in secrecy, at night, and perform blasphemous rituals. The older belief in diabolical witchcraft forms the model for modern beliefs about ritually-abusive satanists.
Of course, Satan-worshippers exist-- usually short-lived, tiny cells of demonic wannabees seeking occult power and the ultimate rebel pose. Only rarely have any serious crimes been traced to these pathetic dabblers.
The late Anton Szandor LaVey also founded an anti-Christian Church of Satan, but these Satanists do not literally worship (or even believe in) any supernatural deity. The difference between Satanism and Satan worship (at least, between the imagined cults of Christian urban legend and LaVey's blend of horror-movie theatrics and anti-religious teachings) are profound. Once the notion of such an organized cult exists, however, it becomes easy for believers to point to the Church of Satan, neo-Pagans, isolated wannabe Satanists, and particularly baffling crimes as manifestations of the Satanic Underground. For years, some Christians did just that, but their ideas held little currency among the mainstream. Occasionally, a horror movie or gothic novel such as Rosemary's Baby would make use of these ideas. Religious cartoonist Jack Chick has long promoted the belief in an ongoing Satanic Conspiracy in his amusing Jack T. Chick Tracts; more ponderous fundamentalist and evangelical literature did likewise. Mike Warnke had minor success with The Satan Seller in the early 1970s; the lurid book told of his former position in the cult, and his eventual deliverance by Jesus Christ. Some people were impressed. Most readers, however, failed to even notice the book or, if they did, could not fail to notice the contradictions within and the impossible timeline of Warnke's tale.
The publication of Michelle Remembers in 1977 specifically linked Satanism to child sexual abuse, a truly horrible crime which had long been a taboo subject, and was finally, in the 1970s, beginning to receive the hearing it deserved. Unfortunately, Michelle Remembers, an impossible tale of cult abuse, arrived at precisely the time to take advantage of this hearing-- and to muddy, hopelessly, the investigation of the many actual cases of child molestation. Because of the seriousness of the subject, however, many who might have ignored claims of Satanic Cults became interested in the subject.
A second book also contributed to the Panic. The Courage to Heal, a well-intentioned but profoundly flawed look at the very real problem of child sexual abuse, mainstreamed the notion that any claim by any proclaimed survivor of abuse must be believed, without question. It also stated that such abuse is often forgotten, that many people are unaware of past abuse, and that many common mental disturbances, such as depression, can be traced to forgotten incidents of molestation. Claims such as these brought some feminists into the picture. The standing posture taken was that any criticism of repressed memory and abuse claims, however grounded, was part of a backlash against gains made by women. That roughly half of those falsely accused of abuse in Satanic Panic-related cases were women seemed of little importance.
The 1980s saw a rise in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian political activism, and an attendant concern over changing mores. More people were leaving children at Daycare Centers. More people were talking about family violence. And long-standing institutions, such as reform schools, faced scandals over past sexual abuse. These social currents all had their influence on the mainstreaming of a previously fringe belief in vast, well-connected, intergenerational Satanic Cults whose ultimate aims were global control (indeed, some would-be authorities claimed the cult was already running several countries), but whose workaday practices largely consisted of child rape, cannibalism, and cheesy rituals. Many of the stories repeat slander that has, throughout history, been directed at outsider groups; the early Christians, heretical groups within Christianity, Jews, and supposed witches have all, at one time or another, been accused falsely of the very same things.
Politically-motivated therapists and police officers led the demand for prosecution whenever such claims were made. In the McMartin Preschool Trial and similar cases, the therapists actually created the abuse narrative which the children repeated in court. Talk Shows, of course, jumped on the bandwagon, and gave voice to supposed survivors, leaving the checking of facts to viewers.
As in witch-hunts of the past, trials took place with little regard for evidence or even logic. Individual nodes address these cases. A few of the general problems with the picture developed by believers and promulgators of the Panic, however, should be noted here:
-One study revealed that the majority of ritual abuse cases were reported by less than 2% of therapists, while more than 70% of therapists never had such a case. Very few therapists, then, discovered the patients who supposedly had been abused, often using now-discredited methods and assumptions. Hypnosis, for example, makes a person more prone to fantasy, not less.
Of course, horrible cases of abuse do occur. Perhaps a belief in evil cults makes this easier to accept. We can blame it all on the obvious monsters, rather than accept the everyday and unpredictable nature of evil.
And the belief in this evil organization had evil results. In the Kern County Ritual Abuse Case, those convicted spent fourteen years in jail for crimes whose now-grown "victims" claim were fabrications created by over-zealous investigators and therapists. An obviously innocent Paul Ingram served jail time and remains guilty under the law, while the problematic (to put it mildly) convictions of the West Memphis Three have been upheld. Since three actual (if non-occult-related) murders took place in West Memphis, their innocence would also mean that a brutal killer remains free.
In 1692, Salem Village, Massachusetts experienced a notorious witch-hunt. It took only one year before the residents of Salem began to realize that the evil they feared existed only within themselves. In 1693, popular sentiment rose against the trials. Reverend Samuel Parris, the man who helped lead this perverse crusade, admitted he had believed too easily in the accusations, and put too much faith in spectral evidence (Boyer and Nissenbaum 72-73).1 Years have passed since the principal trials of the twentieth-century Satanic Panic. The Panic's strongest adherents cling to their beliefs, while the majority of North Americans have forgotten or remain unaware that this ever happened.
The following nodes or future nodes relate to the Satanic Panic/Satan Scare. I have included a few relating to the historical witchhunts, for the purposes of comparison.
Please /message me if you find other relevant writings.Satan
Salem Witch Trials
Church of Satan
The Satan Seller
Jack T. Chick Tracts
Satanic Ritual Abuse
McMartin Preschool Trial
Kern County Ritual Abuse Case
Laurel Rose Willson / Lauren Stratford / Laura Grabowski
Saskatchewan Ritual Abuse Cases
False Memory Syndrome
1992 FBI Report on Satanic Ritual Abuse
West Memphis Three
1. In all fairness, the debate over Salem continued for centuries-- the last few exonerated "witches" were not officially pardoned until the twenty-first century-- but it remained a public debate, and played a key role in ending witch-persecution in New England. Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Hunt.
David Alexander. "Giving the Devil More than His Due." The Humanist, March/April 1990.