Satanic Panic & The Dangers of Cultural Hysteria

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. People went to jail for years based on   little more than a widespread conviction that  the devil’s minions were corrupting—and sometimes   devouring—our children. It was a mass hysteria  that grew to include Oprah, the Smurfs, and  

Even McDonald’s. It’s the story of satanic panic,  and it’s next on this installment of Throwback.   Welcome back to the series where we take a  deep dive into some of the most fascinating   pop culture stories and events you  might remember from your childhood.  

I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this  episode is a bit of a departure from   the fun stories we’ve been telling you about  how your favorite toys and games came to be. 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. 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, the whole  ordeal still managed to ruin a lot of lives.   If there was any biggest cause of satanic panic,  

It may have been a book that came out of the  otherwise eminently rational country of Canada.   That’s right: the same place that gave  us international treasures Michael J.   Fox and Celine Dion also opened the door to a  decade of demonic conspiracies. Here’s how.  

It’s fair to say that 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 to 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 lop 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.   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 on what was probably their worst  PR problem until the arrival of the McPizza.   According to the Reverend John McFarland of  the Kenmore Church of God in Akron, Ohio,  

A parishioner told him that she saw Ray 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.   Starting 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.  

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. Or, I guess, to be technical,  

Members of the smurf-dead. 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.   Even if you’re not familiar with satanic  panic, you’ve probably heard of the idea   that certain songs played backward in  a technique known as backmasking reveal   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.   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’s also been   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. Always one for subtlety,  

Geraldo estimated that over one 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.   After all, there was no proof Ray Kroc  didn’t donate to the Church of Satan.  

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. Our next episode will be about a much more fun   topic, I promise. And if you have an  idea for a future episode of Throwback,  

Pop it in the comments below. I’m  Erin McCarthy. Thanks for watching.

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