If you watch the news you'll see no shortage of ridiculous things a lot of Americans believe. A number of people believe that President Barack Obama is actually a Kenyan-born foreigner, despite producing a legitimate U.S. birth certificate. There are large portions of the population who believe modern vaccines will cause children to develop autism, despite the only study that made such a claim being discredited and the author having his medical license revoked. There are Americans who believe they've seen angels, bigfoot, and unidentified flying objects.
Given all of this is it really so surprising that in the 1980s huge swaths of the American people were genuinely convinced there was a global Satanic conspiracy that had infiltrated day cares and schools for the express purpose of molesting and sacrificing children to the devil himself?
(By the by there is a difference between devils and demons, in case you were curious.)
People Believed What?
I'll repeat that because it bears repeating.
Throughout most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s huge swaths of the American public genuinely believed there was a global conspiracy of Satanists which had infiltrated their neighborhoods, day cares, and schools for the sole purpose of corrupting and abusing their children. Now if that sounds patently ridiculous that's because it is, but for reasons that will become clearer (if not more understandable) this panic had a death grip on the American conscience for nearly a decade.
Not only that, but there are still remnants of this panic with us today. If that doesn't scare you wait until you get the details about what actually happened during this period of American history.
How Did This Happen?
The incident that marks the start of this panic were accusations made in Manhattan Beach, California in 1983. A 39 year-old woman accused teacher Raymond Buckey, a man who worked at the reputable McMartin Preschool, of having molested her two and a half year-old son. While this might seem like a regular crime to be investigated by the authorities the mother didn't let the accusations stop there. By the time accusations were finished being made the story was that hundreds of children had been molested, and that Satanists were responsible for doing it. These same Satanists, who apparently used occult symbols and wore black robes, were also responsible for animal sacrifice, and the physical and psychological torture of children.
Yes the woman making these claims suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Despite that telling fact police decided to inform the parents of all the McMartin students that their children may have been molested. The children were interviewed by psychologists, and even though none of them had actually been molested the children wanted to tell the grown-ups what they wanted to hear (this incident is one of the reasons that interviewing children is now held to such stringent standards by the authorities). As such seven teachers were accused of lurid, exotic, terrible, and on occasion outright impossible crimes.
The trials went on for seven years.
Stirring The Pot
Once the initial incident happened it set the national stage for copycat accusers. Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) was the term created for this crime that had never actually been confirmed, and it soon became a social weapon used for personal gain. SRA would come up in divorce proceedings, or in instances where someone wanted to take custody of children away from parents. It was talked about endlessly on shows by people like Geraldo Rivera, and it was also latched onto by the burgeoning evangelical segment of the population. Everyone was selling the story that the Satanists were everywhere, and you could barely turn around without a news bulletin, recently-authored book, or movie claiming to be based on true events that promised with a straight face that Satanists were out to get you.
This was made worse by a practice that is now deemed illegal in many instances; recovered-memory therapy.
This practice is so ridiculous that it's become a trope; someone perfectly normal undergoes hypnosis and "remembers" they were raised by a Satanic cult that abused them, and in some cases which forced them to have children before taking those children as a sacrifice to the Dark Lord. It sounds like the perfect scoop of laughable ice cream to go with this big slice of hysteria pie, but it was very commonly practiced during this time. Baby Boomers, particularly women, would undergo this therapy and suddenly "remember" being part of this imaginary Satanic conspiracy going back to the 1950s!
The whole conspiracy got so big that evangelicals and talk show hosts could, with a straight face, claim that heavy metal albums played backwards told kids to worship Satan. They said that violent cartoons were paving the road to hell, and that roleplaying games like the very popular Dungeons and Dragons were seducing young people into occult societies and preparing them for roles as Satanic priests. While we might acknowledge these statements as unfounded tripe, we haven't been able to shake these ideas from our collective consciousness just yet. That's how strong this panic was.
What Stopped It?
The Satanic Panic, like all beasts born out of ignorance and fear, was killed by facts.
In the early-to-mid 1990s the FBI launched a thorough and complete investigation into SRA allegations, and found that none of them had happened. There was no evidence of a conspiracy, Satanic or otherwise, to abuse children in any way. None of the resurfaced memories that had been found in therapy proved to be true, and the therapists were sued into poverty for abusing their patients with the practice. In short America's fever broke, and it wondered what it had been raving about for the past few years.
The Satanic Panic left scars, though. Hundreds of people, including the teachers in the initial incident, lost their jobs, their children, and in many cases their freedom for years. People are still in prison for "crimes" that were supposedly related to Satanic cult activity, and are only just now being exonerated.
If you think this kind of hysteria is behind us just watch the public's reaction the next time there's a school shooting. It was the video games. It was the rock and roll. It was the roleplaying games, the comic books, and the cartoons. It was the devil.