Conviction of Things Not Seen: The Uniquely American Myth of Satanic Cults

How quack psychology helped pundits invent the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and '90s.
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How quack psychology helped pundits invent the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and '90s.
michelle remembers satanic panic

Was Michelle Smith brutalized by Satan's minions? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jim Jones and David Koresh are among the small handful of men who remain even more infamous than the cults they led. Not every middle-aged American will remember the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ, but most know who Jones was. The Branch Davidians might not be a familiar name, even to those who remember the siege that claimed the lives of 76 of Koresh’s adherents—but his name, and that of Waco, Texas, survive in infamy. (The fate of Jones’ doomed commune is so widely known that the figure of speech “drinking the Kool-Aid,” a phrase describing the liquid poisoning of more than 900 people, has become a fixture in everyday discourse—a casual and rather sickening disavowal of the scale of the tragedy that unfolded at Jonestown.)

Satanism lacks a Jones or Koresh. Satanism has no Jonestown, no Waco, no Kool-Aid, no casual point of reference. This is because Satanic cults, as imagined in popular culture, do not exist. Still, some places across the country—West Memphis, Arkansas; Manhattan Beach, California; Edenton, North Carolina; Austin, Texas—belong to a brotherhood of cities united not by the stunned, silent grief of a tragedy like Waco’s, but by the shame of having left innocent families’ lives in ruin in the fervent pursuit of an imaginary evil.

After leaving a cult, apostates have to essentially re-learn how to think for themselves; to come back to reality and slowly re-build a broken sense of self. In a sense, America must undergo its own de-programming when it comes to Satanism and the occult.

Before she died at age 82 in 2003, Margaret Singer, arguably the world’s preeminent expert on cult psychology and brainwashing, estimated that there might be as many as 5,000 new religious movements—the term such groups prefer in favor of the widely maligned “cult”—operating in the United States alone. Not one of them is or was Satanic in nature, at least not in the most common understanding of the term. However, the myths surrounding Satanism in America are no less harmful in the absence of devious yet charismatic leaders or scenes of appalling tragedy. The “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and early '90s was arguably even more frightening than a typical cult precisely because of this lack of a central figure or place; anybody could have been involved, and nobody was above suspicion. The greatest danger, however, was the paranoia about Satanic cults abducting, sexually abusing, and murdering American children; this paranoia made it much harder to prosecute genuine cases of child abuse at a time when such cases were already viewed with skepticism.

The period of nationwide moral hysteria that came to be known as the Satanic Panic began in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers, a biographical account of the repressed memories of the childhood ritual abuse purportedly suffered by Canadian psychiatric patient Michelle Smith. Written by Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, whom she later married, Michelle Remembers detailed the abuse that Smith alleged she experienced at the hands of her mother and other members of a Satanic cult during the mid-1950s in her native British Columbia. Pazder, who was originally treating Smith for depression following a miscarriage, helped Smith surface these memories by means of regression hypnosis, a highly controversial psychotherapeutic technique whose validity has been widely called into question by members of the mental health community.

This is what happens when hypervigilance and moral panic take precedence over accepted scientific methodologies and hard evidence.

The book, which earned Pazder and Smith more than $340,000 in hardcover and paperback rights alone, became a phenomenon. Tabloids publicized the new book widely, after which Pazder and Smith embarked on a lengthy book tour across the U.S. As Michelle Remembers gained in popularity, the media rarely questioned the truthfulness of Smith’s account of her supposedly abusive upbringing and the atrocities she endured. Smith claimed she had been imprisoned in cages among live snakes, forced to watch as members of her mother’s cult slaughtered kittens in front of her, and even endured 81 consecutive days of consistent physical abuse as the cultists engaged in a prolonged ritual to summon Satan himself. In 1989, almost 10 years after the publication of Michelle Remembers, Oprah Winfrey featured Smith as a guest on her show alongside Laurel Rose Willson, author of the equally fictitious Satanic ritual abuse survival memoir Satan’s Underground, which was published under the pseudonym Lauren Stratford. Both women’s experiences were presented by Winfrey as incontrovertible fact, and not once did she question the authenticity of any claim in either book.

In the years that followed the publication of Michelle Remembers, people all over the country began to come forward with stories of their own latent memories of childhood abuse at the hands of Satanic cultists, or allegations of pedophilia and devil worship against members of their own communities. Law enforcement agencies nationwide began holding seminars intended to help officers recognize the signs of Satanic ritual abuse. The now-famous Pazder, who had become a leading authority on the matter, attended hundreds of such seminars throughout the 1980s. Appearing on ABC News’ 20/20 in May 1985, Pazder claimed:

These people cover their tracks very well. When they dispose of a body, they use that body as well. They will cremate that body, they will use the ashes that will become part of what they will continue to present to that particular group. And they will disperse that. They’re not going to do some simple murder and leave a body in a stream for you to pick up the pieces of.

In the vast majority of reported cases of Satanic ritual abuse, it was the testimony of the allegedly abused children themselves that damned dozens of innocent people to lengthy prison sentences and a lifetime of social exile. However, subsequent review of these cases revealed that much of this testimony was obtained through coercion and suggestive interviewing techniques by overzealous social workers, and that these statements were rarely questioned by investigating officers. Despite the utter lack of evidence to corroborate claims of Satanic cult activity, new cases continued to be reported—and believed—nationwide, yet officials were no closer to uncovering any vast organized conspiracy by intergenerational Satanic cults.

Many people still cannot—or will not—accept that Satanic cults, and the unspeakable evils they supposedly perpetrate, are nothing more than the product of America’s overactive imagination and cultural insecurities.

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In 1992, the Department of Justice published a monograph for investigators written by Kenneth Lanning, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, that debunked claims of systemic ritualistic occult abuse in America.

“My role in the FBI Behavioral Science Unit was as a case consultant,” Lanning says. “Eventually I consulted on hundreds of cases, including some from outside the United States—far more cases than I could ever have personally investigated," he says. "In my FBI position, I also became a kind of informal clearinghouse for most of the cases from their beginnings in the early 1980s until the growing skepticism took hold in the early 1990s. Before most professionals had seen their first case, I had consulted on and analyzed dozens of them.”

Lanning’s report critically examined the often-fluid definitions of Satanism that were used interchangeably by many law enforcement agencies, as well as debunking supposed indicators of Satanic crime highlighted during police training seminars such as symbolism in heavy metal music and fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Lanning also offered several alternative explanations for similarities among the disparate eyewitness accounts, including pathological distortions commonly observed in cases of Munchausen syndrome. It was the first time anyone had objectively challenged the commonalities in cases of ritual abuse that police forces across the country were taking as irrefutable evidence of Satanic cult activity.

"Generally, the response [to the report] was positive," Lanning says. "Several law enforcement supervisors thanked me for bringing objectivity to the issue. Of course, nothing I wrote would reach or convince everyone of my point of view. I received several letters from some questioning aspects of what I had written or said. One officer wanted me investigated by Congress. Perhaps most upset were those law enforcement officers who were making money and getting status as experts in this area."

In addition to questioning the criminal significance of occult symbolism, Lanning’s report also warned of the danger of reducing the complex issue of child abuse into a pat, simplistic narrative—a tendency that marred many cases of Satanic ritual abuse and raised the important question of why so many people accepted wild allegations about Satanic cults in the absence of any hard evidence.

"Although I did not realize it at first, I came to learn that the last of my key questions was actually the most significant. If something wasn't happening, why do so many intelligent, well-educated professionals believe it is?" Lanning says. "Regardless of intelligence and education, and often despite common sense and evidence to the contrary, adults tend to believe what they want or need to believe; the greater the need, the greater the tendency. There was a need to believe. In my opinion, this concept, more than any 'moral panic,' was the foundation of Satanic ritual abuse allegations—the need to believe the children even without corroboration. If you do not believe everything a victim alleges, what do you believe?"

This need for belief complicated matters considerably for investigators handling already sensitive cases. As the burden of proof became irrelevant in cases of Satanic ritual child abuse allegations, Lanning noticed a gradual shift in the dynamics of victimology. Although impossible to prove, it is plausible that at least some of what children were claiming had been done to them was true. The difficulty, according to Lanning, was separating the truth from the fantasy.

“The focus on the Satanic or bizarre elements did not prevent investigators from doing their job; it just made it difficult to prove what actually happened,” Lanning says. “Most people would agree that just because a victim tells you one detail that turns out to be true, this does not mean that every detail is true. But many people–and the criminal justice system–seem to believe that if you can disprove one part of a victim's story, then the entire story is false. I believe people should be considered innocent unless proven guilty, but I also believe that a certain number of these cases involved a seed of truth that got buried.”

The Satanic Temple is not a cult or sect, nor do its members worship a literal devil, eschewing the supernaturalism common to many other religions and instead basing their beliefs on the principles of individual freedom and the pursuit of knowledge.

Two years after the publication of Lanning’s report, the federal government began to seek out those seeds of truth, hoping to determine just how widespread the problem of Satanic ritual abuse really was. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect commissioned a study to assess the claims being made by clinicians across the country. The project's principal investigator was Dr. Gail Goodman, a psychologist at the University of California–Davis specializing in memory development, particularly on questions of children’s reliability as witnesses in the criminal justice system.

“I was conducting scientific research on children's testimony, and the children were often very accurate, especially if five years old and above,” Goodman says. “The courts had started to open more to let children testify. Obviously we didn't want innocent people to suffer from false allegations, if that what was happening. Moreover, these allegations were re-igniting doubts about child victims of sexual abuse generally.”

Goodman and her team reviewed the responses of 6,910 mental health professionals across the U.S., including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. While roughly one-third of respondents indicated they had encountered either occult or religious-based abuse cases—a crucial distinction that was often overshadowed by the lurid tales of human sacrifice and ritual murder—most had only handled one or two. Conversely, a tiny group of respondents (approximately 1.4 percent of Goodman’s cohort) stated they had reviewed hundreds of cases of Satanic ritual abuse or religious-based abuse.

“We did find evidence for individuals or small groups who did bad things to children using Satanic themes,” Goodman says. “We are conducting a new longitudinal study of child abuse victims now that they are adults. It's heartbreaking to hear about some of their experiences, many of which we had documents on from their child protection records years ago. If you were religious and thought all things bad as by definition ‘Satanic,’ some of these acts might qualify, but they don't involve cults of non-humans in league with a devil.”

Greaves and his fellow Satanists have campaigned vigorously to defend the rights and liberties of some of the country’s most marginalized groups.

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The breathless Geraldo specials on suburban cannibalism and the ominous 20/20 reports on backmasking in Led Zeppelin records captivated American audiences for years, but eventually even the media grew weary and turned its eyes elsewhere. Sensationalist reports of Satanic ritual abuse were gradually replaced by harrowing footage of the Rwandan genocide, courtroom broadcasts of the O.J. Simpson trial, and news reports of Ted Kaczynski’s arrest. There was certainly no shortage of fresh horrors with which to tantalize and terrify audiences in the absence of imaginary Satanic cults. To most people, the Satanic Panic had finally come to an end. In reality, however, it merely went underground—a fact that Lucien Greaves, founder of the Satanic Temple, knows better than most.

The Satanic Temple is a non-theistic religious organization that Greaves founded in 2012. Contrary to common misconceptions, the Satanic Temple is not a cult or sect, nor do its members worship a literal devil, eschewing the supernaturalism common to many other religions and instead basing their beliefs on the principles of individual freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. The Satanic Temple’s seven core tenets, including the inviolability of one’s body, acting with respect for the liberties of others, and the principle that personal beliefs should be based on sound scientific knowledge of the world, stand decidedly at odds with many traditional religious organizations.

The Temple’s many opponents, including much of America’s mainstream Christian establishment, have made dozens of hysterical claims against the organization since it was founded. Some have said the Satanic Temple is intent on the very destruction of Christianity itself in America, while others have branded the Temple’s members “intellectual terrorists.” The reality, however, is that the Satanic Temple has become one of the fastest-growing politically active religious organizations in the U.S., and Greaves and his fellow Satanists have campaigned vigorously to defend the rights and liberties of some of the country’s most marginalized groups.

Before Greaves founded the Satanic Temple, he wrote about and kept a close eye on the careers of many of the mental health practitioners who were involved with the Satanic Panic for many years. According to Greaves, these psychotherapists have continued the pseudoscientific approaches of the 1980s, perpetuating dangerous, paranoid ideas that have no place in the mental-health field—including the controversial regression hypnosis treatment and highly suggestive therapy that Goodman and her team reported in their research. Yet Greaves says such therapists are hardly on the fringes of the mental-health community, and that several major mental-health organizations, including the International Society for the Study of Dissociation and Trauma and the American Psychiatric Association either actively support these retrograde practices or do little, if anything, to discourage them.

“The ISSTD is really the last, largest refuge for professionals who still buy into bullshit claims of Satanic ritual abuse and occultic conspiracies,” Greaves says. “The ISSTD presents itself as merely this professional organization for people involved with dissociative disorders, but you don’t have to look very far beneath the surface to find that it’s full of all the old claimants of Satanic ritual abuse.”

Given the immense responsibility entrusted to therapists and other mental-health professionals, Greaves believes significantly more must be done to hold those practitioners who advocate and promote theories of Satanic ritual abuse accountable.

“I think most of them, if not all of them, should entirely lose their licenses,” Greaves says. “I think people should be aware of what the ISSTD is, how they put forward debunked notions and debunked diagnoses and how harmful they are, and how instrumental people within that organization were to the undoubtedly horrific moral panic of the '80s and '90s. I would also like to see the American Psychiatric Association take some kind of ownership. We’re in a situation where people who harbor delusions can go to a mental-health professional and actually have those delusions cultivated, if not given to them outright. I think that’s self-evidently damaging and needs to be reformed.”

Greaves alludes to one such case, in which multiple mental-health professionals gave dangerously misleading information to a suggestible, emotionally disturbed client: Gigi Jordan, a Manhattan heiress who sought treatment for her eight-year-old autistic son, Jude Mirra. Believing her son to be the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a Satanic cult, Jordan murdered the boy in a suite at New York’s upscale Peninsula Hotel in 2010; she later told jurors it was a “mercy killing.” Jordan mixed a large quantity of Xanax and Ambien with vodka and orange juice before forcing it down Jude’s throat with a syringe, then swallowed a fistful of painkillers herself. Before losing consciousness, Jordan changed her mind and attempted to resuscitate Jude, but to no avail.

“She was under the belief that Jude was not autistic at all, as claimed by responsible doctors, but that what looked like autism was actually a psychophysiological manifestation of his reaction to sexual abuse trauma because he was also being abused by a Satanic cult,” Greaves says. “She claimed to be able to draw forth this narrative from Jude, who had little to no verbal skills at all, by way of facilitated communication—a debunked method of attempting to communicate with disabled people who have few verbal skills. It’s often a type of muscle-reading procedure where somebody will guide the disabled person’s hands over the keyboard and claim to discern where that person means to type, and then help them type these things out. What’s been found, in study after study, is that the person who’s facilitating the communication is typing out the responses on their own and has nothing to do with what the disabled person is trying to convey or think. This was the case with Jude, who was supposedly typing out these bizarre stories of Satanic ritual abuse and making these types of claims.”

Jordan also sought the expertise of numerous other psychologists whose medical advice Greaves says ultimately contributed to Jude’s death at the hands of his clearly troubled mother—self-styled experts whom Greaves has expressed an interest in exposing as part of the Satanic Temple’s highly visible social and political campaigning.

“Gigi Jordan’s narrative of Satanic ritual abuse certainly couldn’t have been helped at all by her seeking consultations from Ellen Lacter, head of the ISSTD’s Ritual Abuse/Mind Control Special Interest Group,” Greaves says. “If you look at Ellen Lacter’s own website, you’ll find the most bizarre and delusional tales and insinuations about Illuminati conspiracies, Satanic cult crimes. This, to her, isn’t a dead issue from the '80s and '90s. She’s still very much a believer in Satanic ritual abuse and this overarching conspiracy that threatens us all and the moral structure of the entire world.”

Jordan, who never formally reported allegations of her son’s abuse to the police, was ultimately sentenced to 18 years for manslaughter in May. The case raised many important questions about our response to allegations of the sexual abuse of children—and about wider social attitudes toward mental illness.

“Here was a woman who actively sought medical assistance and the help of licensed mental-health counselors, and what she got was delusional characters from the ISSTD, including Bessel van der Kolk, who’s a big advocate of these ideas of physical manifestations of trauma,” Greaves says. “The fact that this asshole has the audacity to offer expert testimony today is amazing. Ultimately, an eight-year-old kid was murdered, and I feel the medical professionals involved in that case are culpable and they’ve never been held accountable.”

Michelle Smith and Laurel Rose Willson—the two women from the Oprah segment—eventually brought their ruin upon themselves by fabricating their accounts of surviving Satanic cults. Some argue that Smith genuinely believed her account, while others claim she was exploited by Pazder. Regardless of whether such claims have any more truth to them than those in Michelle Remembers or Satan’s Underground, both Smith and Willson willingly invited the scrutiny and disgrace that followed the publication of their falsified stories. To some extent, Smith, Pazder, and Willson must also accept some responsibility for advancing ideas—for personal gain—that led to wider hysteria that imprisoned dozens of innocent people, obfuscated legitimate claims of child sexual abuse, and ultimately inspired the murder of Jude Mirra.

Still, while Smith, Pazder, and Willson purposefully deceived the public, the real victims of the Satanic Panic had little say in the narratives that were constructed around their private lives. The McMartins and Buckeys of Manhattan Beach, California, defendants in the infamous 1983 McMartin preschool trial, were destroyed by the false accusations of Satanic ritual abuse leveled at them by hysterical parents, some of whom Pazder and Smith met during the trial.

Children testifying against the family made dozens of disturbing and darkly inventive allegations, including being led through a series of labyrinthine tunnels beneath the daycare center to secret rooms where they would be photographed naked, and that they witnessed Raymond Buckey flying through the air with witches. In 1986, Peggy McMartin Buckey, her son Raymond and daughter Peggy Ann, and her mother Virginia McMartin were charged with 135 counts of molesting 14 children. Raymond served five years and Peggy served two before the case collapsed from a lack of corroborating evidence, and their sentences were overturned. The case, which ultimately spanned two trials, lasted eight years and cost Los Angeles County more than $15 million, making it the most expensive criminal case in American legal history.

Dan and Frances Keller, who ran a daycare center from their Oak Hill home in Austin, Texas, were sentenced to 48 years in prison in 1992; the charges were that the couple had dismembered infants, abused the children in their care (even using those children to carry the bones of corpses exhumed from a local cemetery), and making the children drink Kool-Aid mixed with human blood. This conviction, for crimes they did not commit, was based wholesale on the fantastical testimony of coerced children and tenuous circumstantial physical evidence presented by a Dr. Michael Muow, an emergency room physician who treated one of the girls the Kellers were alleged to have abused.

Muow later recanted his testimony. The Kellers were finally released in 2013, having served more than 20 years of their sentences.

The Kellers may have been fortunate in having their sentences commuted; Andrew Chandler Jr. is still behind bars. Chandler, a bus driver from Madison County, North Carolina, was convicted in 1987 of five counts of first-degree sexual offense, six counts of taking indecent liberties with a child, and one count of a crime against nature, in the wake of the allegations made against the proprietors of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton. Chandler has served 27 years of his life sentence at the Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institute in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Lawyers at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic of Duke University’s School of Law are contemplating taking on Chandler’s case.*

Not every alleged case of Satanic ritual abuse became as infamous as the McMartin case, but many more lives were blighted by spurious claims of abuse. The numerous cases in Kern County, California, in 1982; the Fells Acres Daycare Center case in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1984; and the trial of Frank Fuster in Country Walk, Florida, in 1985 all shocked and divided close-knit communities, and left the lives and reputations of the accused in ruin. The specifics of these cases vary, but they all serve as sobering examples of what happens when hyper-vigilance and moral panic take precedence over accepted scientific methodologies and hard evidence.

“Americans prefer black-and-white problems with simple answers,” Lanning says. “Society seems to especially have a problem addressing any sexual-victimization case in which the adult offender is not completely ‘bad’ or the child victim is not completely ‘good.’ Part of the appeal of Satanic ritual abuse was that when someone we knew molested a child after our protection efforts had failed, it was easier to escape guilt by blaming it on an evil Satanist who was part of a cunning and highly organized group. However, even without the Satanic element, the sexual victimization of children remains a highly emotional issue, with simplistic stereotypes of offenders as evil predators and victims as innocent angels still prevalent and problematic.”

The specter of Satanic cult hysteria continues to color many cases marked by unusual barbarity and cruelty, little having apparently been learned from the lessons of the 1980s. In some quarters, crude symbolism and token teenage dabblings in the occult are still seen as evidence that legitimate, violent Satanic cults exist. Christian evangelicals still insist on seeking out and fighting a literal enemy in their midst with the same zeal and apparent disregard for the consequences of their crusade today as they did 30 years ago. Perhaps most troubling, many people still cannot—or will not—accept that Satanic cults, and the unspeakable evils they supposedly perpetrate, are nothing more than the product of America’s overactive imagination and cultural insecurities.

After leaving a cult, apostates have to essentially re-learn how to think for themselves; to come back to reality and slowly re-build a broken sense of self. In a sense, America must undergo its own de-programming when it comes to Satanism and the occult. Until we reject simplistic, inadequate narratives and accept that evil can and does exist independently of demons and malevolent institutions, until we challenge pseudoscientific therapeutic techniques and the members of the mental health community who promote them, until we refute demonic paranoia as the well-worn cultural trope it is, the wages of the Satanic Panic will never truly be over.

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.

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*UPDATE — September 9, 2015: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Andrew Chandler Jr.'s employment at the time he was accused.

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