The collective fears that consumed the US in the 1980s and ’90s are still alive and well — all the way through QAnon and beyond
by Mary Goodnight
Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about “Satanic Panic” — the societal fear of the occult that troubled the US and other parts of the world throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s — is that it ever ended.
One of the most famous, prolonged mass media scares in history, Satanic Panic was characterized at its peak by fearful media depictions of godless teenagers and the deviant music and media they consumed. This, in turn, led to a number of high-profile criminal cases that were heavily influenced by all the social hysteria. Most people associate the Satanic Panic with so-called “satanic ritual abuse,” a rash of false allegations made against day care centers in the ’80s, and with the case of the West Memphis Three in the ’90s, in which three teenagers whose wrongful conviction on homicide charges was based on little more than suspicion over their goth lifestyles.
At their core, satanic ritual abuse claims relied on overzealous law enforcement, unsubstantiated statements from children, and, above all, coercive and suggestive interrogation by therapists and prosecutors. Some of the defendants are still serving life sentences for crimes they probably didn’t commit — and which likely didn’t happen in the first place. As for the West Memphis Three, they were eventually released in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison, and their case stands as one of the worst examples of what happens when police rush to judgment without evidence in a case.
But even if the police are less likely to rush to judgment these days over rumors of satanic worship and occult influences, many members of the public have no such qualms. Witness the recent controversy around Lil Nas X and his latest music video “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” — in which he cavorts erotically with various iterations of Satan — and the way he was able to scandalize countless Christians by releasing limited-edition blood-infused Nikes dubbed “Satan shoes.”
Was the subsequent outrage from those who accused Lil Nas X of being a corrupting influence just a case of a failure to read art metaphorically? Perhaps. But a look at this bizarre period in US history offers another possible explanation: Satanic Panic never truly went away. It’s alive and well today, and its legacy threads through American culture and politics, in everything from social media moralizing to QAnon.
The rise of occultism, satanism, and evangelical fear began in the 1970s
The Satanic Bible, published in 1969.
A number of factors contributed to the increased interest in, and fear of, the occult during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Manson cult’s operation in the late ’60s culminated in a string of murders in the summer of 1969 that shocked the nation and put organized ritualistic killing on the brain.
That same year, organist-turned-occultist Anton LaVey published his philosophical treatise The Satanic Bible, which plagiarized several sources and mostly regurgitated earlier philosophies of self-actualization and self-empowerment from writers like H.L. Mencken and Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, it became the seminal work of modern satanism and the key text for the Church of Satan, a group LaVey had officially founded in 1966.
Accompanying the rise of satanism as a recognized practice was the 1971 publication of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist and its blockbuster 1973 film adaptation. With its claims of being based on a true story, The Exorcist profoundly impacted America’s collective psyche regarding the existence of demons, and single-handedly transformed the popular Ouija board from a fun, harmless parlor game into a malevolent device capable of inducing spirit possession, demonic infestation, or other paranormal activity.
Then came the 1972 publication of Satan Seller. A fabricated memoir, ultimately discredited after 20 years, by self-proclaimed Christian evangelist Mike Warnke, Satan Seller recounted a childhood and young adulthood that Warnke claimed were spent in intense satanic worship. Warnke wrote that he served as a satanic high priest and was engaged in, among other things, ritualistic sex orgies. (Remember that, it’ll be important later.)
The publication of LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, also in 1972, reinforced the idea that dark occult rituals had become a routine part of life for many Americans. And though it had no connections to satanism or traditional occult religion, the 1978 Jonestown massacre would give the world another indelible example of what violence in a cult looked like.
The ’70s saw the rise of other self-proclaimed former satanists who insisted that the world was being run by ritualistic satanic witch cults: John Todd, Hershel Smith, and David Hanson. Including Warnke, all four men grew up in Southern California and seemed to emerge from the still-smoldering ashes of the Manson cult to declare that the world was full of dark occult symbols and far-reaching satanic conspiracies. All of them claimed to have conversion experiences that made their stories appealing to Christians.
And all of them were linked to the emerging fundamentalist Christian right. Todd was supported by Christian tract maker Jack Chick, who used his fabricated claims as the basis for numerous comic-style pamphlets protesting against satanism. Warnke spent over a decade posing as an “expert” in satanism for the fundamental evangelical Christian community, passing off much of his made-up childhood as a template for how “real” satanism worked.
The growing fascination with the occult also coincided with a number of extremely well-publicized serial killer cases that took place in the ’70s: the Zodiac killer and the Alphabet Killer, both of whom used ritualistic patterns in their killings, neither of whom were ever caught; Ted Bundy; John Wayne Gacy; the Hillside Stranglers; and David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, who sparked a mass panic during the summer of 1977 in New York City.