I would like to tell you a weird story about the Satanic Panic that occurred in the 80s. Believe it or not, it relates to some contemporary events.
First, a sensitive content warning: This post briefly discusses rumors of satanism and pedophilia. So please be aware of that as you read.
The 80s Satanic Panic
In the eighties, rumors circulated that there were mass underground networks of Satanists who were kidnapping children, performing satanic ritual abuse on them, and harming them in a variety of other ways.
The media became obsessed with Satanism and child abuse. And for a while, it seemed like every other week, there was a talk show host discussing the issue and interviewing people who had escaped these secret Satanic cults. I specifically remember one such show led by Geraldo Rivera.
I am without my normal scanning capabilities at this moment. So, we’re going old school with the pictures in this post.
What was especially frightening was that around this time, there were a lot of children who began, supposedly, recovering memories of past Satanic abuse.
At that point, the Satanic Panic reached a fever pitch. Parents and community and government leaders were terrified. So, the FBI launched an investigation to uncover the perpetrators of this underground cabal.
You want to know the freaky thing?
The satanic events that catalyzed the Satanic Panic never actually occurred. Certainly, there are Satanists. And there are certainly things like sex trafficking rings. But there was no vast, underground network of Satanists kidnapping folks and conducting rituals like people believed there was in the 80s. In fact, the FBI, many of them who initially believed the stories, did thousands of interviews and could not find any compelling evidence that this vast network existed.
This is really surprising when you consider that many FBI agents, along with local authorities, so strongly believed in the Satanic Panic that they received training in how to detect and capture the perpetrators of this network. You can read more about this here: It’s Time to Revisit the Satanic Panic.
Why Did the Satanic Panic Occur?
It turns out that the Satanic Panic occurred during a time of profound social change that provoked a lot of unrest and fear. During such times, stories of evil cabals can help us make sense of the unsettled feelings we have.
And it can make us feel good and safe to identify a tangible enemy to fight. This can lead people to believe, and pressure other people to believe, claims that are lacking in consistent evidence.
For example, many of the children who testified in the 80s to recovered memories later confessed they were pressured by adults to make the confessions they did. And of course, while not all people profited from the Satanic Panic, many people did make a lot of money writing books, conducting seminars, and going on talks shows to discuss the issue.
And they were very convincing.
For example, I certainly believed in the Satanic Panic at the time it was going on. True story: I decided to write my tenth-grade thesis paper about Satanism in the U.S. The night before I was to begin my research, I got so freaked out just thinking about it, I had to beg my teacher to let me change topics. I ended up writing about flying squirrels instead. Much less scary.
When I got older, I actually met several Satanists. I was surprised to discover that they were mainly focused on ego-centricism, materialism, and Ayn Rand and not at all on secret rituals, devil worship, and kidnapping people.
In retrospect, we realize that the Satanic Panic didn’t involve any real Satanists and likely resulted from a perfect storm of fear, social pressure, and financial incentive. But the Satanic Panic isn’t the only time mass fear about satanism, pedophilia, or abuse has struck the American Public.
Did you ever Hear of the Irish Catholic Hysteria?
In the 1800s, thousands of immigrants fled Ireland to escape the potato famine and near certain starvation. Many of them fled to the United States.
And a lot of people in the U.S. welcomed the Irish with open arms. However, others responded to the Irish immigrants with fear, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. And people started spreading rumors about these newcomers to America. Some people said that the Irish were kidnapping women and hiding them in Catholic convents where Catholic priests raped them and strangled the children born from this crime.
Other people said that the Pope was plotting to invade the United States, backed by an army of Irish immigrants. Irish paranoia seized people. Riots broke out, one of which was the Bible Riot of 1844, in which a mob fueled by Anti-Catholic and Anti-Irish sentiment rampaged through the streets, torching homes and businesses.
Several secret societies formed with the intent of protecting the Protestant U.S. against Catholic invaders. A political party called the “Know Nothing Party” formed, fueled primarily by anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment. Many people in the U.S. seemingly bought into a conspiracy that the Irish were out to get them and destroy the U.S.
As you are probably aware, no Irish or Catholic army took over the U.S. And no convent rape plot was discovered. These were all rumors based, not on evidence, but on people’s fear and paranoia that it “might be true”.
And there’s more . . .
Have You Ever Heard of the Salem Witch Trials?
In the Spring of 1692, a group of girls in Salem, Massachusetts claimed “to be possessed by the devil”. And after that, hysteria over witchcraft and demon possession broke out in Massachusetts. As the hysteria spread, nineteen women were accused of witchcraft and hanged. And by the end of 1692, 150 men, women, and children had been accused witchcraft, some sentenced to death for their crime.
Guess what? At the end of 1692, people in Salem began to realize that the Salem Witch Trials were based in hysteria rather than fact. And leaders in Salem eventually rescinded the verdicts against these innocent men, women, and children. But not before they had suffered public condemnation, shame, loss of rights, and even, in some cases, death over these false accusations.
Believe it or not, there’s more . . .
Have You Ever Heard of the Milan Poisoning Scare?
In the 1600s Italy, people rumors spread that evil people were lurking around spreading the plague through witchcraft and sorcery. This situation grew worse when the ruler of Milan Italy, message received a message from the ruler of Spain that four, mysterious Frenchmen were coming to spread plague.
People totally freaked out. They began reporting sightings of mysterious people putting poison in church walls. Suddenly, everyone accused everyone of poisoning and Satanism. They accused an old man wiping park bench of spreading poison, and they beat him to death.
They arrested and tortured a pharmacist for having strange jars in his possession. To stop the pain of torture, the pharmacist eventually (falsely) confessed to the crimes of which he was accused. And harangued by his tormentors, he also relinquished the names of several others supposedly involved in his evil poison cabal.
The authorities also arrested and tortured these people. This only worsened the hysteria. People began coming forward and accusing themselves of meeting with the devil and concocting poisoning plots.
Of course, all these confessions were false. Soon, people recognized the confessions for what they were: mass panic.
By the way, these are just a few historical examples of mass panic and hysteria that have broken out throughout history. You can read about more here: 12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks.
Now let’s be clear, once again, that networks of evil do occur in the world. For instance, sex trafficking is, indeed, a big problem in the United States and around the world. And there are indeed people who worship Satan, which is always a bad idea, although most satanists don’t look or behave in the way the media portrays them looking or behaving.
So, the point of sharing all these stories it not to deny evil exists. Rather, the point is that some accusations pertaining to evil networks of people do, indeed, correspond real events. But others are rooted in mass panic, mass hysteria, or in other motives, which I will discuss at the end of the post.
The question then, of course, is how can we tell the difference between real evil events and those imagined by mass panic? And equally important, how can we avoid being pulled into such instances of mass hysteria ourselves?
First: Be aware that instances of mass panic and hysteria regarding witchcraft, satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse are recurring historical events.
History suggest that such mass panics happen every 40 to a 100 years. And they often occur when societies undergo significant change or turmoil. This means that you will very likely witness one or two (possibly three) such panics break out in society during your lifetime.
And when one breaks out, it will feel real to you or other people. It won’t feel like a false panic or hysteria.
Simply being aware of this recurring cyclical pattern can help you avoid “catching” a panic.
Second: Be aware of the psychological pull of mass panic and hysteria. Realize it can affect anyone, including you.
Most of us believe that we have control of our rational faculties. We believe we wouldn’t get pulled into mass panic or hysteria. However, all human beings experience feelings of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety over social change. And all of us experience trauma to a varying degree in our lives, which can catalyze extremely strong emotions.
Such experiences are a normal part of the human condition and certainly not bad in themselves. However, such feelings are also usually at the root of most incidences of mass panic and hysteria.
Consider a related example. You can probably remember times when you felt so angry or so afraid that you temporarily felt out of control. For instance, maybe in your anger, you uttered words that you would normally never say. Or maybe you were so afraid that you temporarily lost control of your bodily functions and peed your pants or started crying uncontrollably. Such experiences remind us that in moments of extreme emotion, especially negative ones, we don’t have total control of our minds and bodies.
In addition, perhaps you have witnessed a situation in which a crowd of people panicked and a stampede ensued, trampling innocent people to death. In such instances, crowds temporarily lose their minds in mass panic and hysteria.
This is not too surprising. Research suggests that emotions, whether positive or negative, can be contagious. For example, did you know that there have not only been instances of mass hysteria throughout history, but there have also been instances of mass dancing and laughing? You can read more about these instances here: Mass Hysteria: An Epidemic of the Mind.
Such instances remind us that not only do our own powerful emotions influence us, other people’s powerful emotions influence us as well. Therefore, it’s important to realize that if fear and paranoia suddenly strike people around us, we could, in essence, “catch” the same fear and paranoia.
And we would get caught up in mass panic and hysteria.
Nobody likes to be told that they suffer from hysteria. However, if we realize that hysteria and panic are an instances of extreme emotion that temporarily shut down our reasoning, we recognize that anyone, and any group, can suffer from such conditions.
Third: Be wary of believing accusations involving satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse before you carefully and objectively research those accusations.
Let me be clear, once again, that evil certainly exists. And it is wise to take seriously the claims of any person who says they have personally suffered abuse.
However, as you can understand, rumors about satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse strike at the very heart of issues about which humans feel the most afraid. We feel afraid of the supernatural or inscrutable. We feel afraid of people harming our children. And we feel afraid of people dominating us and taking control of our minds and bodies.
Therefore, it is not surprising that most instances of mass hysteria involve rumors of satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse. Mass hysteria grows out of our deepest fears, and these issues are related to our deepest fears.
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that mass hysteria rarely, if ever, breaks out over mundane things like gossip, selfishness, pride, greed, driving incivility, a reckless use of profanity, cheating on one’s taxes, or a lack of compassion to one’s partner, children, and neighbor.
And this should tell us something, given that such “mundane” evils are at the heart of the most common instances of badness in the world.
Instead, mass hysteria always breaks out over rumors that sound like they are pulled from the cover of a tabloid magazine in your grocery store. That is because hysteria festers in deep, dark places like our deepest, darkest, irrational fears.
Therefore, be especially wary when you hear rumors involving tabloid-like topics. Such rumors may be true. But they also may be irrational even though they feel rational. We should certainly research them carefully before jumping to conclusions.
Four: Be especially skeptical when all the villains in scary rumors are people you don’t like or don’t know very well.
One indication that a rumor is an instance of mass hysteria is that the villains of the rumors are people on the margins of society; people very different from you; or all the people you don’t like.
Historians who study instances of mass panic and hysteria have found that such events often occur when societies undergo significant social change. For instance, the society might experience a rift in which several different groups within a once-unified society develop very different values. Or the society might experience an influx of immigrants, like the Irish immigration during the potato famine.
As you can imagine, in times of social change like the ones mentioned above, people suddenly face values they don’t understand or people they have never encountered before. This provokes feelings of extreme fear and vulnerability. And as we discussed above, such feelings are at the heart of mass hysteria.
So, as previously mentioned, be very wary when you hear rumors about scary things like satanism, pedophilia, and sex satanic ritual abuse. But be especially wary when all the villains in these rumors are people you don’t know or like very well. If all the bad guys are people not like you, fear and panic may very likely fuel these rumors.
We often feel like the good guys are like us, and the bad guys are those other people not like us. But real life is never so black and white. Sometimes the good guys do very bad things. And sometimes the “bad guys” surprise us and turn out to be awesome and not at all like we thought.
And sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, or in our moments of weakness, we do stupid things and turn out to be the bad guys, at least for a while. If you are anything like me, you have sometimes acted like a “bad guy” even though you try really hard to be a good guy.
The Screwtape Letters is a satirical book by C.S. Lewis in which an older demon, Screwtape, gives advice to a younger demon, Wormwood, about how to tempt and deceive people. And Screwtape’s advice is not at all what we might expect. I read this book in high school, and this quote from it has stuck with me through the years. It reminds us that evil usually does not announce itself to us with red eyes and fire-scorching breath. Rather, it often hides itself in plain sight and looks just like us.
These truths should remind us that if the villains of scary rumors are always strangers or people different from us, it is much more likely that fear and panic are the source of our feelings.
Four: Be wary when people investigate rumors to prove they are true, rather than to discern whether there is evidence to support them.
One of the marks of good researchers and thinkers is that they can suspend their judgment about an issue temporarily to determine the truth about it. It is, in fact, quite hard to do this. That is because most of us have issues about which we feel very strongly. Usually such issues relate to our values, our faith, or our most cherished beliefs.
So, for example, let’s say we believe X. And let’s say X relates to our values, our faith, or our cherished beliefs. If that is the case, then it can be hard to suspend our belief temporarily in X to investigate the truth about it. However, it is necessary that we do this with all our most cherished beliefs. If we are not willing to suspend our belief and investigate the matter carefully, we likely believe what we do for the following reasons.
Reason One: Someone (usually someone we love or admire) told us we should believe it.
Reason Two: We really want to believe it, even if though a careful examination of the evidence does not support our belief. (This is usually because of an underlying bias we possess.)
Both these reasons for believing things are common. However, we certainly understand that believing something simply because someone told us to do so or simply because we want to believe it are not, in fact, good reasons for believing it.
This is especially true when it comes to grave rumors pertaining to things like satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse.
Therefore, we should always be wary when people (including ourselves) investigate rumors to prove they are true, rather than to discern whether there is evidence to support them. Researching something to prove it is true is an indication that we want to believe a rumor. And this can cloud our judgement, feed prejudice, and encourage panic and hysteria.
One More Important Note
I write this post because if you read the news, you will find that once again, people are spreading rumors of satanism, pedophilia, and satanic abuse. It appears that history is repeating itself.
Some people spread these rumors because of mass panic and hysteria. Others do it for another reason that I will refer to as Poisoning the Well.
Poisoning the Well is a logical fallacy people use when they accuse their opponents (falsely and without proof) of doing or being something morally reprehensible. For instance, when they accuse their opponents glibly of being things like satanists or pedophiles.
As you can imagine, people don’t want to listen to morally reprehensible people. So, even suggesting that one’s opponent is morally reprehensible, can make people not want to listen to your opponent.
Poisoning the well is a cheap trick, and unfortunately people use it all the time. In addition, Poisoning the Well is a form of Ad Hominem attack, which is a logical fallacy people employ when they attack a person, rather than their argument. You can read more about this here. Ad Hominem: Argument Pitfall #1.
(Also, you can read more about logic and fallacies in my books, which you can find in the book section.)
Note: One major indication you are committing Poisoning the Well is that you quickly dismiss your political and religious opponents by calling them scary and emotionally-laden names. You do this rather than carefully explaining and critiquing their arguments.
My point in sharing all this information is that some people spread rumors about satanic abuse and pedophilia because they are caught up in mass panic. And we all must be aware of this problem.
On the other hand, some people spread rumors of satanic abuse and pedophilia to Poison the Well. Folks who do this behave in a morally egregious way. They spread false rumors of child abuse which distracts from actual child abuse going on in the world.
Please don’t be one of these people, and please hold accountable folks who do this type of thing.
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2 thoughts on “What the 80s Satanic Panic Can Teach Today”
Thank you for another thoughtful post. I appreciate reading your thoughts regularly, and the drawings and watercolors give them something extra. Reading the C.S. Lewis quote made me think of the FBI’s portrayal in a film I just watched about Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton’s assassination, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Do you know if Lewis was active in anti-racism efforts during his time?
Hello There, Stephanie: Thank you for reading and commenting. And I am so pleased you enjoy my writing, drawings, and watercolors. They give me a lot of pleasure to create. So I feel extra happy when others enjoy them, too. That is so cool you watched _Judas the Black Messiah_. That movie was very powerful and difficult for me to watch. But I am glad I did it. I don’t actually know about C.S. Lewis and his anti-racism efforts. I wish I could speak more about this, but I am not able to. I have read a little bit that he included some black characters in his books, like perhaps the Horse and His Boy. But I need to research this more. If I find any information, I will post it here!