In the 1980s, a puritanical fear of all things evil swept the United States in what is now known as the "Satanic Panic." The sudden fear of the devil was brought on by the culture wars of the early '80s: adults who had lived through the tumultuous '60s and '70s were growing more conservative, finding religion, and trying to find something specific to blame for the atrocities they saw throughout the world. When you marry that with the parallel rise of dark but innocuous forms of entertainment like Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, and horror films, you have the perfect storm for a modern witch hunt.
The era of pearl-clutching mothers putting together devil worship task forces may be forgotten by most of the world, but there were true casualties of the Satanic Panic. People were wrongly convicted of crimes and their reputations ruined, all because they didn’t fit the mold of normal society.
One of largest blights of the Satanic Panic was the so-called “Satanic abuse” that was said to have taken place at daycare centers and preschools across America. When impressionable toddlers suggested that they’d witnessed horrendous acts of demonic violence, their words were taken at face value, and entire families were sent to prison over the ridiculous idea that they were members of child-murdering covens.
The Satanic Panic of the late '80s and early '90s didn’t just set psychology back by two decades, it showed Americans how foolish and dangerous we can be when we’re presented with the unknown.
Michelle Remembers, a hyper-alarmist book written by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder (her hypnotherapist-turned-husband) first propelled unwarranted fears about Satanism and cult activity into the mainstream. Thanks to Pazder's tireless efforts, he helped Michelle "remember" the ritual abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents in the early 50s, including witnessing the mutilation of animals and the sacrifice of infants.
After it was exposed that all of Smith's memories were false, and more than likely implanted by Padzer, he noted that what was important was that Smith believed that the events happened, not that they actually happened.
The McMartin preschool trial was the most famous incident of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s: what began with stories of children being roasted alive and flushed down a toilet by witches ended in a complete overhaul of victim's rights and children's healthcare.
There was no single cause that made the children of one Manhattan Beach, California, daycare center tell outrageous and damning stories to police investigators. A confluence of events came at just the right (or wrong) time, including the creation of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (which gave out federal funding to states who produced results in the form of emotionally and physically abused children) and increased awareness of things like repressed memories. All of this was combined with the rise of explicitly "Satanist" fringe groups, like the Church of Satan, and the anxiety and guilt parents felt leaving their children in a strange place while they went to work.
While the McMartin preschool trial ended with an acquittal, there were other daycare providers who felt the brunt of the Satanic Panic fall squarely on their shoulders. Fran and Dan Keller, a couple who ran a Texas child care center out of their home, were sentenced to 48 years in prison for allegedly dressing as pumpkins and shooting children in the arms and legs, dismembering babies, making children drink blood-laced Kool-Aid, and a litany of other ridiculous claims. None of that happened, of course, but a jury genuinely believed that a couple in their 40s had acted like comic book villains, all in the service of the devil.
Apparently, cops in the 80s and early 90s couldn't be trusted to tell the difference between a normal murder and a ritual sacrifice done in the name of Satan. But thanks to this helpful training video hosted by former police officer and pastor Gordon L. Coulter, cops were able to deduce which "abnormal people" were worshipping Satan in city parks while using "unlimited drugs."
You have to respect the amount of cynicism that it takes to produce a one-hour straight-to-VHS documentary about the rise of ritual Satanism in America meant to frighten housewives right out of their gingham aprons. The fact that so many of these cassettes exist proves that the concept of Satan was big business for the better part of a decade.