A Brief History of Satanic Panic

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CSA Images/iStock via Getty Images Plus / CSA Images/iStock via Getty Images Plus

When you think about activities commonly seen at a preschool, things like naps, games, and Play-Doh sculptures probably come to mind. One thing that definitely would not is boiling and eating babies—at least, not unless you grew up in the 1980s, when reports of daycare centers engaging in satanic rituals were widely circulated and readily believed.

Satanic panic was a phenomenon that swept North America, and at the height of the craze, you basically couldn’t open up the newspaper or turn on the news without hearing about subliminal messages hidden in rock music, pagan symbols in cartoons, or criminal trials involving teachers engaging in human sacrifice. People went to jail for years based on little more than a widespread rumor that the devil’s minions were corrupting—and sometimes devouring—children. The mass hysteria grew to include Oprah, the Smurfs, and even McDonald’s.

As outlandish as all of this seems now, it was a very real concern back then thanks to a mixture of urban legends, unqualified experts, and an overzealous media. And while no babies were actually eaten, satanic panic still managed to ruin a lot of lives.

The Devil Made Them Do It

Satan was kind of a big deal in the 1970s. Novelist William Peter Blatty scored a huge hit in 1971 with The Exorcist, a story of demonic possession that Blatty claimed was loosely inspired by a real exorcism performed by the Catholic Church. The book was followed by a film adaptation in 1973 that continued those claims and was so shocking that there were reports of people fainting during screenings. Films like The Omen and The Amityville Horror followed, placing the focus squarely on paranormal events that used religious iconography to make their stories more believable.

Thanks to figures like Charles Manson, ritualized evil didn’t seem that far-fetched. And with the general public having some idea of the occult, it wasn’t hard for them to believe in a story involving satanism and abuse. That set the stage for the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, where a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder detailed what he claimed was the true story of patient Michelle Smith, an adult who underwent over 600 hours of hypnosis to recall long-repressed memories of being involved in a satanic cult as a child. With shocking stories of abuse, sacrifice, and demonic rituals, Michelle Remembers caused a stir and was widely seen as a legitimate chronicle of a horrific underground movement.

But there was a problem. While Pazder insisted Michelle Smith’s memories were genuine, they didn’t stand up under closer scrutiny. She said rituals took place in a cemetery in Victoria, Canada, in the 1950s. But no residents ever reported anything strange happening there. She also said priests in this cult had to cut off a finger, but no one in Victoria remembered anyone walking around missing a digit.

Even though reporters expressed some doubts about Pazder’s book, it went on to become a huge success and may have made subsequent reports of satanic activity more plausible in the eyes of the public. And there would be a lot of those reports in the years to come.

Haunted Hamburgers

One of the most common myths during the height of satanic panic was the idea that family-friendly corporations were secretly in league with the devil. These urban legends actually predate Michelle Remembers in some cases, and the earliest victim may have been Ronald McDonald. In October 1978, McDonald’s felt compelled to publicly announce that franchise founder Ray Kroc was not a financial supporter of the Church of Satan.

The story started when McDonald’s got a letter from a woman in Ohio asking why Kroc donated 20 percent of the company’s profits to a satanic cause. McDonald’s dismissed the question as silly until more letters started coming in along the same lines. Before long, bags of letters demanding to know why the Golden Arches were part of a demonic cabal were arriving, and the company was forced to comment.

According to the Reverend John McFarland of the Kenmore Church of God in Akron, Ohio, a parishioner told him that she saw Kroc admit to being a supporter of the Church of Satan on The Phil Donahue Show. McFarland was shocked. He hadn’t seen the show for himself, but he took her at her word and published details in the church’s newsletter, Moments of Sunshine. Pretty soon, the story was in other church newsletters. Like a game of telephone, it spiraled out of control, with some believing that Kroc gave the Church of Satan 50 percent of the company’s profits.

Because people were opposed to the idea of buying Happy Meals if part of the proceeds went to the Church of Satan, McDonald’s sent executives out to churches with sworn statements from television executives insisting Kroc never said those things. He actually was on The Phil Donahue Show in May 1977, and the episode was repeated in June 1978, but at no point did he express a desire to financially support devil worship. McFarland published a retraction in his newsletter, but that didn’t get nearly as much attention as the original rumor. 

Another major company to suffer from hearsay was Procter & Gamble, the famous household products corporation. Take a look at their old logo and you’ll see 13 stars. Beginning in 1980, word began to spread that the stars were secretly the mark of the devil. So many people believed this that Procter & Gamble actually set up a toll-free number for consumers to call and hear a recording reassuring them that their laundry soap was not being used to support Satan. The stars were actually chosen back in 1882 to represent the country’s original 13 colonies. Thanks to the rumor, however, Procter & Gamble soon got rid of the century-old logo.

The Dungeon Master

Throughout the 1980s, a number of children’s characters were accused of being in league with the devil, or at least with what some called heathen gods. ThunderCats was purportedly intended to promote Eastern mysticism; the He-Man and Snake Mountain playset supposedly invoked demonic imagery because kids could use a microphone to deepen their voices and pretend to be evil; the Smurfs were blue and had black lips. That could be construed as being corpse-like, making the Smurfs members of the undead. Not even Rainbow Brite was safe—according to some interpretations, the beauty mark on her cheek was actually a pentagram.

But no toy or game took more of a beating than Dungeons and Dragons. First released in 1974, the tabletop game put players in the roles of heroes and sorcerers using magic spells to face off against various monsters. For those who believed popular culture was steeped in satanic messaging, this was all the proof they needed. The controversy grew even stronger in 1979, when a 16-year-old Michigan State University college student named James Egbert disappeared. Friends told authorities he was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, which somehow led to investigators becoming convinced he had gotten lost in the underground steam tunnels near the college after getting too immersed in a gaming session.

The truth wasn’t quite so sensational, but it was tragic. Among other things, Egbert was apparently stressed over having advanced so far in school at such a young age. He was dealing with personal problems and had decided to run away. Sadly, he died by suicide not long after. But the story of his becoming obsessed with the game persisted, and a made-for-television movie called Mazes and Monsters was produced in 1982 that kept the narrative alive. Inspired by the Egbert case, it was one of the first starring roles for an aspiring actor named Tom Hanks.

Parents grew so concerned over Dungeons and Dragons that one even formed a group called BADD, or Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. The controversy hardly dissuaded people from playing the game, though. In 1982, TSR, which manufactured the game and its accessories, sold $16 million in rulebooks. For some, panic meant profit.

Backward Momentum

Even if you’re not familiar with satanic panic, you’ve probably heard of the idea that certain songs played backward—a technique known as backmasking—reveals subliminal messages. Rock music was especially susceptible to those accusations in the 1980s, when bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones were charged with hiding their support of the devil in their records.

The whole concept of satanic messages being audible when music is played backward probably has roots in the work of Aleister Crowley. The infamous early 20th century occultist advised that you could train yourself to think backwards by, among other things, learning to speak backwards and even listening to phonograph records in reverse.

In the case of one band, the possibility of hidden lyrics led to a lawsuit. In December 1985, two friends, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance, ended a night of drinking by agreeing to a suicide pact. Belknap died, while Vance was left with severe injuries. Vance’s parents sued the band Judas Priest for $6.2 million because both young men had been fans of their music and rumors persisted that hidden messages like “do it” and “let’s be dead” were buried in songs like “Better by You, Better Than Me.” The civil case went to court in 1990, with audio experts playing the songs backward and forward at different speeds. Ultimately, a judge ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t prove subliminal messages were deliberately placed on the album and the band wasn’t liable.

In fact, it’s not really possible to write lyrics that can make sense when played both normally and backwards. When words or phrases are apparently discernible when something’s played in reverse, it’s really just the brain trying to make sense of gibberish. That might be why when two evangelists from Ohio insisted in 1986 that the theme song to the 1960s television sitcom Mr. Ed contained demonic messages like “the source is Satan” and “someone heard this song for Satan,” even they admitted it probably wasn’t done by the producers on purpose.

Dark Daycare

As silly as some of these examples are, satanic panic also led to some very serious and life-altering consequences.

In 1983, one mother accused an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of molesting her child, triggering a massive investigation that went back two decades and eventually grew to include seven employees of the preschool and 360 children who said they had been abused.

As the investigation continued, the claims of the children grew increasingly bizarre. Some said a teacher flew through the air. Others claimed they were forced to witness the sacrifice of other children.

At the heart of this sensational story was Children’s Institute International, a child advocacy group that was responsible for interviewing kids about their traumatic experiences. While their approach to interviewing the children was not ostensibly intended to be coercive, many of the kids heard declarative statements like “we know what happened, just tell us,” and felt compelled to repeat or make up stories of abuse, including details of satanic worship. If they refuted allegations, they might be told they were too scared to talk.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2005, one man, now an adult, reflected back on his experience with investigators as a child. He said that he would be asked questions over and over again until he learned to give them the answer they wanted. And because he had siblings in the McMartin school, he wanted them to be safe. To a kid, it felt like doing the right thing.

Many of these interviewing techniques were later discredited. No physical evidence was ever produced to support the kids’ claims, and some later admitted to lying in order to tell authorities what they thought they wanted to hear.

But at the time, the McMartin case was being used as a template. Other places, like Rogers Park Day Care, had employees arrested over accusations that they boiled and ate infants. Social workers involved in the McMartin case were cited as experts in such cases, lending them credibility. At least one police department even had a pamphlet for law enforcement to use when investigating suspected ritualistic criminal activity.

The McMartin case lasted six years, the longest and most expensive trial in the history of California up to that time. One of the “experts” consulted on the case was actually Lawrence Pazder, author of Michelle Remembers. In the end, the defendants were all exonerated, but one, an employee named Ray Buckey, served five years in prison before the charges against him were dismissed.

In a separate case with even more disastrous consequences, Dan and Fran Keller of Texas served nearly 22 years following convictions in a case that included accusations they served blood to children in their daycare, among other horrible acts. They were eventually released and declared innocent.

The fallout doesn’t end there. There was also an untold mental toll on the children who were forced to discuss these gruesome scenes, as well as parents who spent years believing their children had been assaulted. All of it was due to a strong belief that kids were being subjected to horrible atrocities that didn’t actually exist.

Satanic panic persisted through the end of the 1980s, with television personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera devoting air time to the topic. Geraldo estimated that over 1 million Satanists were lurking in communities across the country, perpetuating the fear of the devil being just around the corner. But after the McMartin case was debunked and the Department of Justice stated that there’s never been any evidence of any ritualistic satanic sex abuse cults, the idea seemed to evaporate. Concerned parents went on to worry about other things, like violent video games.

So why did satanic panic endure for as long as it did? Some people believe it was a textbook case of mass hysteria, not unlike the Salem witch trials. Urban legends were able to take on a new strength because children were seemingly in danger. Other times, a lack of evidence meant people could believe what they wanted. And while it might sound odd now, we’re still telling a lot of the same stories today, from killer clowns to strangers lurking in backseats.

This story was adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube.