In the 1980s, allegations of ritual abuse at a preschool in Southern California led to the longest, most expensive trial in U.S. history. The McMartin Preschool case — which resulted in zero convictions — became emblematic of a much more widespread phenomenon known as Satanic Panic.
"In Satanic occultism, that which is good is bad. And that which is bad is good. As you view this learning and educational tape, pay attention to notice the reverse of everything that is normal becoming abnormal."
Thus begins The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults, available for viewing on YouTube under the tag "Occult Hilarity." It's impossible to know if this 1994 oddity was ever used as an actual police training tool (hopefully not), but it's presented matter-of-factly. It features input from "experts" like blatantly homophobic "former Satanic priest turned Christian" Eric Pryor (a fascinating guy in his own right), who interprets graffiti and sets up altars, presumably for the benefit of the wide-eyed police officers who suspected their communities were being overrun by a Satanic menace.
The video offers a glimpse at the context that spawned not just the McMartin trial, which ran from 1987 to 1990, but also at the widespread fear that a battle of good versus evil was raging just below the surface of American culture. Heavy metal songs (and the subliminal and backwards messages supposedly contained therein) and album art, horror movies, and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons all offered easy, obvious targets. (As seen in the classic TV movie Mazes and Monsters.)
Talk shows, the era's number-one source for dubious investigations of hot-button topics, also helped fan Satanic Panic's flames. (Check out the Oprah clip below; the technical quality isn't good, but the content — in which a calm and clear-eyed representative of an alternative religion calls out an audience member who makes vague claims of having, uh, murdered a guy as part of a Satanic ritual — is very telling.)
"It was something we didn't realize at the time, but now, it looks like a low-scale version of the McCarthy-era paranoia around communism," Peter Bebergal, author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, tells io9."The devil worshippers could be anywhere. They could be your next-door neighbor. They could be your child's caregiver."
The neurosis went even deeper. Like, conspiracy-theory deeper, a gift of crazy that's kept on giving. Bebergal has a few theories as to Satanic Panic's titanic rise:
"A lot of it was having a spiritual vacuum, created by the fact that the 1960s promise of this cosmic, spiritual consciousness didn't really pan out. Then you had this 1970s uptick of paranormal investigations, ESP, an interest in UFOs, really climaxing with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the aliens never actually landed, you know?
I think it led to a cynicism that led to kind of a cultural paranoia: there is no meaning. There was already an uptick in fundamentalist Christianity. The Reagan Right had begun to dominate politics. And it was the beginning of a cultural war; that's when the Parents Music Resource Center started to put labels on album covers to warn against profanity or even references to the occult. It was a perfectly ripe stew for [Satanic Panic.] In a way, believing that Satan is running the world is still [offering] a kind of order to things, in a world that can feel very disorderly."
In the wake of all this paranoia came a slew of high-profile cases involving day-care workers, which were a perfect storm of paranoia about Satanism, cutting-edge psychotherapy that claimed to recover the children's repressed memories, and a gathering awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse. It's important to remember that the 1980s didn't just see unfounded dread about Satanists. Prior to the late 1970s, law enforcement did very little to prosecute sexual abuse of children. But in the 1980s, the Department of Justice stepped up its fight against child pornography, with measurable success, and laws revolving around the reporting of child abuse were revamped, with an eye toward protecting innocent victims.
So these allegations of ritual abuse in day-care centers came from the combination of legitimate awareness of a previously hidden problem, and completely unfounded hysteria. As Georgetown Professor John Myers explained to PBS's Frontline:
Child sexual abuse (CSA) was never completely ignored by the American legal, medical, and child protection systems. Nevertheless, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, CSA was largely a hidden phenomenon. At the time the day-care cases arose, society was just beginning to acknowledge and come to terms with sexual abuse of children. Thus, the day care cases did not come to the surface all by themselves. Rather, the day care cases were part of the broader societal awakening to CSA. The day care cases captured our attention for several reasons. First, the children were very young and vulnerable. Second, some of the allegations were bizarre and fantastic. Third, some of the alleged offenses were unspeakably horrible. Fourth, with so many American children in day care, many parents could relate to these cases. Finally, the interviewing in some of the large day care cases was clearly defective.
A lot of the interest in patients claiming to have recovered buried memories of Satanic ritual abuse began with a 1980 book entitled Michelle Remembers, written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazer and his patient (and later, wife) Michelle Smith, says Pamela Freyd, PhD, the executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a nonprofit (met with some varying opinions in the scientific community) that mostly works with parents who have been accused of childhood abuse by their now-adult children. (Freyd and her husband have firsthand experience with this.)
Pazer and Smith's book Michelle Remembers recounted how Smith's therapy dislodged sensational "memories" of being abused as a small child by a Satanic cult, spawning a best-seller that was initially accepted as fact. And though it was later discredited, "that book played a role in the McMartin case, and the topic seemed to be everywhere because of the extensive coverage of that case," Freyd tells io9.
Although the McMartin case — in which a preschool director and her son faced 52 counts of molesting their students — was not the only one of its kind, it was by far the most high-profile.
A January 1990 New York Times article recounted the controversial case, noting that the not-guilty verdicts were "the final leg of a legal marathon that drew national attention, not only for its extraordinary length and complexity, but also for the difficult questions it raised about the prosecution of child molestation cases, the reliability of children's testimony and whether the news media stirred emotions when the charges surfaced."
The children, the jury believed, were unreliable witnesses. The Satanically-inflected details that emerged were so shocking (children were "frightened into silence with bloody animal mutilations;" forced to watch "a rabbit sacrificed on a church altar," "a parakeet squeezed to death," and a pony killed before their eyes) they were found to be unbelievable.
Looking back, the McMartin case seems like a clear-cut case of mass hysteria. But even after it was closed, fears about Satanic ritual abuse refused to completely die. In 1993, a year before The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults found its way to VHS, the long saga of the West Memphis Three began, in which a trio of young men were accused of murdering a trio of young boys as part of a cult ritual.
"[The police] had this whole thing about how the teenagers were into the occult," author Bebergal remembers. "But in the court documents, they would always make note that they listened to heavy metal. That was a key point. The music that they listened to, it was believed, would make them more susceptible to whatever Satanic conspiracy. It was a way of noting that the kids were troubled."
McMartin image via New York Times.
West Memphis Three image via CBS News.