The Satanic panic of the 1980s bedeviled our conceptions about childcare and family. Today, The Satanic Temple lobbies for children’s rights.
By Malcolm Harris
(Photo: Salem Art Gallery)
As we head into the end of October, parents should be prepared. Everyone knows that Halloween is peak season for occult behavior. Local Satanists will be combing America for unattended children to abuse in their rituals. Without the suffering of innocent babies, their whole devil-worshipping infrastructure falls apart. Good moms and dads must maintain vigilance lest their kids be snatched.
In 2016, this kind of Satanic panic rhetoric sounds totally absurd. Few Americans would jump to believe that devilish cults are operating in a typical suburb, kidnapping and abusing children. Despite what Alex Jones may be hearing, devilish conspiracies no longer hold the powerful cultural allure they once did. But it wasn’t so long ago that many Americans were eager to believe the most outlandish tales of ritual abuse. Some of our contemporary ideas about kids (and Satanists) are still based in morbid fantasy.
Up until the 1800s, standard colonial American cultural mores held that children were basically evil. Adults thought of kids more or less as minions: skittering little beings oriented toward pure mischief. Parents knew to subject sons and daughters to strict discipline and put them to work early so they’d develop into upstanding adults. But as the middle class emerged and families shrank during the Victorian Era, “new ideologies described children as unformed clay to be shaped by love,” writes sociologist Claude Fischer about this turn, “rather than as sinful creatures to be tamed by discipline.” Kids went from being demons to needing to be protected from them.
Ritual abuse was a specific nightmare, dreamed up by a society that considers childcare a maternal rather than a social responsibility.
Put simply, this was a shift from a Puritan to a Victorian culture, though in the years since we’ve often been both at the same time. That’s what allowed tough-on-crime politicians to push for juveniles to be tried as adults in order to “protect the children,” for example. Satan ends up playing more of a role in this process than you might expect. Incorrigible young adults are “demonized” — their right to make childish mistakes can be taken away if they’re more devil than kid. Conservative groups have blamed Satanically influenced media for corrupting young people in general and school shooters in particular. Even Harry Potter has been accused of devilry.
Victorian-style devil outrage reached a fever pitch in the family-values 1980s. In his 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, author Richard Beck tells the story of a series of allegations of ritualized Satanic child abuse in daycare centers around the country. Through painstaking elicitation, police, prosecutors, and investigators managed to get children to testify to all sorts of unthinkable violations. Not just sexual assault: There were allegations of gamified animal torture and vast networks of child porn production and distribution. And, of course, the devil.
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. (Photo: PublicAffairs)
I asked Beck if in all his exhaustive research he had been able to track down a single instance of verified Satanic ritual child abuse. “No,” says. “My editor and I joked that the book would sell better if I could find an actual case, but as far as I could find it never happened.” Since they didn’t occur in reality, the infernal elements had to be products of adult interpretation and suggestion. Yet whole municipalities managed to convince themselves that there were hidden networks of devil worship and child abuse in their own backyards. How did they accomplish such a feat?
Beck traces the collective hysteria to changes in the social structure. Working mothers challenged religious conservative notions of family structure. Daycare centers were the institutional embodiment of the threat to parents; they’re the ones watching your kids when it should be you. From there, it’s a short jump to the devil. “Mothers were under tremendous cultural pressure,” Beck says. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to your children while they’re not in your care? Being sexually abused by a cult of Satanists.” Ritual abuse was a specific nightmare, dreamed up by a society that considers childcare a maternal rather than a social responsibility.
Once communities convinced themselves not only that children had been abused but were, in fact, being abused continually across underground circuits, nothing was too hard to believe. “The gap between thinking everyone was safe and thinking hundreds of children were being victimized is bigger than the gap between hundreds of children victimized and hundreds of children being victimized by a Satanic cult,” Beck says. “The stories coming out of these investigations were so shocking, but anyone who didn’t believe them was said to be in denial.” Many local leaders were also Christian conservatives who thought the devil was very real and active in their municipalities. Very few people wanted to be the ones not to believe the children, so large groups of adults were able to tell themselves that a sinister daycare worker had forced the kids to watch him hack up a horse precisely in order to make their stories unbelievable.
None of the Satanic conspiracies panned out, and the allegations turned out to have been ginned up by overeager investigators acting on confirmation bias. But instead of dispelling fear of stranger danger and leading to a new era of child independence, America settled into an intermediate position: There probably weren’t Satanic abuse cults, but unguarded kids were still in danger from normal perverts. The fear of child sexual abuse outside the home lingered, even though that’s not where it tends to happen. “The panic help produce two big and lasting misconceptions,” Beck says. “The first is that abusers are likely to be outside the family, and the second is that sexual abuse is a bigger threat to kids than non-sexual physical abuse. Based on the statistics we have, neither of those ideas are true.”
For Satanists, the past isn’t even past. “At least after the Salem Witch Trials there was some accountability,” says Lucien Greaves, spokesperson for The Satanic Temple. “One of the judges involved apologized, but we haven’t seen anything like that for the Satanic Panic cases.” TST operates an international project called The Grey Faction, dedicated to exposing and discrediting therapists who propagate Satanist conspiracy theories. “These people are still out there doing the same things — the only difference is after the panic died down they’re less likely to tell their patients to sue, which means the media attention goes away.” The Grey Faction files petitions with medical oversight boards, protests conspiracist conferences, and works to debunk misinformation, all to protect people from harmful pseudoscience.
When it comes to child abuse, today’s Satanists are outspoken advocates for kids. The Protect Children Project (another TST initiative) sends form letters to students who live in states where corporal punishment is still practiced. The letter declares the child’s personal religious objection to being beaten in school, and threatens a lawsuit for good measure. At first I assumed that TST was sending the letters to parents, but Greaves set me straight: “If parents want to let their children get hit, then fuck them.” Far from condoning ritual abuse, the TST are fundamentalists when it comes to an individual’s bodily autonomy.
So this Halloween if your child wants to go play with the Satanists, tell them to have a good time. There is worse company to have.