What Is Satanic Panic? Debunked '80s Conspiracy Theory Is Making a Return

The "satanic panic" conspiracy theory was referenced in the latest season of Stranger Things. Though in real life, the satanic panic fears were thoroughly debunked, the claims are unfortunately gaining steam on social media once again.

Anna Biller, the writer and director of films like The Love Witch and Viva, recently took to Twitter to promote the conspiracy theory, as did Robert J. Mariani, editor of online magazine Return.Life. Biller and Mariani focused primarily on the McMartin Preschool case, one of the highest profile examples of the conspiracy theory in the mainstream.

Satanic Panic and Stranger Things

In Stranger Things Season 4, Eddie Munson, played by Joseph Quinn, is at the center of a plot where members of the community accuse him of murder because of his love of metal bands like Metallica. The fictional community also casts aspersions on the kids playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The community's reaction mirrors what was happening in real life during the 1980s, the time the Netflix series is set.

satanic panic mcmartin preschool anna biller debunking
"Satanic panic" was a conspiracy theory in the 1980s that led people to believe a vast network of satanists was abusing children—but the "evidence" provided was shaky at best and often downright absurd. Above, a representation of the devil. iStock/Getty

What Is Satanic Panic?

"Satanic panic" is the name given to a moral scare in the 1980s that devil worshipers were hiding in plain sight throughout American society, secretly indoctrinating children into the occult and ritually abusing them.

The book Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, published in 1980, is often credited with starting the panic, as it was the first modern book that linked satanic rituals to the abuse of children. It's also the book that coined the phrase "ritual abuse."

Michelle Remembers was a best-seller, kicking off a number of similar stories and allegations of satanic ritual abuse. There have been over 12,000 unsubstantiated claims of satanic ritual abuse, and the book was even used by prosecutors in cases against accused satanists, according to journalist Shirley Downing. However, of those cases, there is no evidence of any organized abuse by cults, according to The New York Times.

Despite a lack of evidence, the lurid nature of many of these accusations captivated the media and became a frequent subject of talk shows throughout the 1980s. A special prime-time episode of Geraldo, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, called "Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground," was released the week before Halloween in 1988.

The panic also led people to condemn other occult-adjacent media properties, including the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music.

Finding cultural scapegoats is nothing new, nor are fears of satanic cults. The pattern has repeated itself time and again, with one of the most famous historical cases being the witch hunts of the 1500s and 1600s, when up to 80,000 Europeans were sentenced to death after being accused of witchcraft. Texts like the Malleus Maleficarum written by Heinrich Kramer in 1486 were purported to be a "guide" to spotting witches and others who were supposedly in league with the devil.

Rumors of satanic cults have persisted throughout history—and were later used by modern proponents of the conspiracy theory as evidence—however, academics David Frankfurter and Richard J. McNally point out that there is no credible evidence that devil-worshiping cults actually existed.

In modern times, there are indeed satanist groups such as the Church of Satan, which are mostly atheistic groups that religious scholars like Amina Olander Lap link more with the New Age movement. Though modern-day satanists embrace the label, they do not believe in a literal Satan, nor worship him, academic Joe Abrams writes. "Satan" is treated more as a symbol of liberty and individualism, according to research from Gabriel Cavaglion and Revital Sela-Shayovitz.

Satanic panic researcher Joel Best, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, told Newsweek that American society has "maintained a prolonged concern about child sexualabuse/predators/etc. since the 1980s." He adds that though satanic panic hit the mainstream, it originally "broke out of strictly evangelical circles."

Satanic Panic and "Recovered-Memory Therapy"

Michelle Remembers was presented as Smith's autobiography, and used "recovered-memory therapy" to discuss abuse she claimed to suffer as a child.

Recovered-memory therapy is a technique where a therapist uses hypnosis and other techniques to make patients "remember" memories they had forgotten about, claiming that the subconscious will sometimes bury traumatic memories.

To be clear, it is possible for abuse victims to forget the specific instance of abuse, with studies suggesting that this is the case for at least 10 percent of victims. However, a later study by criminologist Linda Meyer Williams, where she interviewed women with verified histories of sexual abuse, said that while 38 percent of the women didn't remember the incident, 88 percent said they knew they had been abused.

In recovered-memory therapy, however, the subjects did not know that they had been abused until it was revealed to them by a therapist.

Despite being used as the basis for a number of "satanic panic" trials, recovered-memory therapy was itself put on trial in 1994. In the case of Ramona v. Isabella, Gary Ramona sued councillor Marche Isabella. Isabella had been seeing Ramona's daughter Holly to treat bulimia and depression.

Isabella told Holly that bulimia was usually the result of incest—which is not true, according to physicians. Following Isabella's treatment, using sodium amytal to recover memories, Holly accused her father of repeatedly raping her between the ages of 5 and 8. The accusation led his wife to divorce him and caused him to lose his job. Ramona sued Isabella, saying the sexual abuse never occurred, and won $500,000 in damages.

Ricky Kasso

One of the earliest cases of satanic panic linked to a crime is with Ricky Kasso, who killed his friend, Gary Lauwers, in Northport, New York. Kasso had a passing interest in the occult, telling friends about Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible. However, in the documentary The Acid King, Kasso's friends dismissed claims he had any deep interest or knowledge of the occult—and speculated it was more about being edgy and offending people in the community.

Reports at the time also labeled his group of friends who called themselves "Knights of the Black Circle" as a satanic cult, though there is no evidence that the Knights actually participated in any occultism. Friends dismissed these claims in The Acid King as well, saying the Knights mostly just sold marijuana.

Prior to the killing of Lauwers, Kasso had been arrested for digging up a colonial-era grave in a local cemetery, which also fed rumors of satanic activity. Kasso's reported true motivation for the killing was that Lauwers had stolen drugs from Kasso while he was passed out at a party. Though Lauwers returned half of the drugs and promised to pay for the other half, Kasso is believed to have held a grudge.

Kasso later bragged about the killing to friends, even showing off Lauwers' body to friends. Kasso died by suicide a few days after his arrest.

The McMartin Preschool Trial

In 1983, Judy Johnson told police her young son had been molested by both her estranged husband and by Ray Buckey, one of the teachers at McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles. Some reports say that Johnson's son confirmed that he had been abused by teachers, others say the young boy denied his mother's claims.

Johnson also made a number of other accusations, claiming that administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray's mother, had "drilled a child under the arms," that other workers had had sex with animals and that "Ray flew in the air."

Though Ray Buckey was not initially prosecuted due to a lack of evidence, police sent a form letter to other parents of McMartin students informing them that police had arrested him. In doing due diligence, police requested parents ask their children if they had seen anything untoward or been victims themselves.

During the investigation, Children's Institute International interviewed several hundred children, though a study later published in the Journal of Applied Psychology described the techniques interviewers used as highly suggestive, and said they encouraged children to pretend or speculate about what happened. Following the interviews, 360 children were said to have been abused, according to The New York Times.

Medical exams were conducted and appeared to show minute scarring of the anus, which the examiner, Astrid Heppenstall Heger, said was caused by penetration. Heger's analysis has been questioned by journalists, however.

In addition to Johnson's initial allegations, a number of other absurd and impossible allegations were made by the children. The children claimed that they'd seen flying witches and were led through tunnels, though no such tunnels were found after several excavations of the site. Other claims included children being flushed down toilets to abusers waiting for them.

Two trials were conducted lasting between 1987 and 1990, and though there were 321 counts of child abuse involving 48 children made against seven defendants, including Peggy McMartin Buckey and Ray Buckey, all charges were dismissed, though Ray Buckey had spent five years in jail by that point.

Johnson was later diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia. She passed away before the end of the preliminary hearing.

satanic panic mcmartin preschool ray buckey mistrial
Ray Buckey holds a copy of the 'Los Angeles Times' next to his lawyer, Danny Davis, after being acquitted on July 27, 1990. Bob Riha Jr./Getty

Biller and Mariani's Tweets

In the last few days, Biller and Mariani made threads about the McMartin case, saying justice had not been done. Biller has since deleted her tweet thread.

"Once I went down a deep Satanic Panic rabbit hole and I learned that the children/toddlers in the McMartin Daycare Center had STDs and genital scarring, there were really tunnels, etc. The perpetrators weren't charged because they couldn't prove which adults abused them," Biller wrote.

In Biller's thread, available via archive.org, she said that she found a message board where one of the McMartin mothers shared more information about the case, saying that parents had hired a team to dig up the school site and found tunnels, just as the children said.

"The case had been debunked on every news outlet because they never found tunnels during the trial, but it seems they didn't try very hard. And then when they did find the tunnels, no news outlet would cover the story," Biller wrote.

This appears to be a reference to E. Gary Stickel's investigation. In 1990, parents hired Stickel, an archaeologist, to determine if the tunnels referred to in the testimony of the children existed. Stickel used ground-penetrating radar and said he found evidence of the tunnels.

Stickel's claims have been repeatedly called into question. Journalist John Earl—who was also critical of Heger's analysis—said that the school had a concrete slab floor. Underneath the slab, there were no materials found that would have held up the tunnels beneath the school. Earl also wrote that, if the tunnels had existed, the concrete floor showed that defendants would have been unable to secretly fill them in before trial. He also dated fill beneath the slab to 1940.

A 2002 report by W. Joseph Wyatt said that any evidence of tunnels were likely garbage pits used by the previous owners of the site, made before the school's construction in 1966. The excavation found material that dated to the 1930s and 1940s—with only three items dated past 1966: a plastic snack bag fragment Wyatt believed was likely dragged in by an animal, and two other items likely left by a plumber.

Biller also compared the supposed McMartin "cover-up" to the "Trump scandal cover-ups" as "too big to prosecute." She also says that some of the "key witnesses... were 'Epsteined,' including the mother of a toddler." This is likely a reference to Johnson's death.

Biller cites the website ritualabuse.us, a site founded by Neil Brick's Stop Mind Control and Ritual Abuse Today (S.M.A.R.T.) organization. Brick says he is a survivor of ritual abuse, and the site catalogues what it sees as the "cover-up" of the McMartin case. It also promotes Michelle Remembers as a useful tool. However, mainstream outlets do not appear to have cited any work by Brick or S.M.A.R.T., according to a cursory Google search.

Mariani, on the other hand, cites The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross E. Cheit. Cheit's work has been criticized in a review for the Journal of Interpersonal Violence for having "omitted or mischaracterized important facts or ignored relevant scientific information." The review also condemns the book for arguing that "most defendants in child ritual abuse cases were guilty or probably guilty," deeming the book "often factually inaccurate."

"Scholars should approach the book with caution," the review says.

QAnon, "Groomers" and Satanic Panic

Though thoroughly debunked, satanic panic unfortunately never really went away. The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory posits a Satan-worshiping cabal of pedophilic elites who torture and kill children to harvest adrenochrome. Other QAnon adherents have accused figures like Hillary Clinton of suffering from a cannibalism-related disease due to the consumption of children.

The main difference between satanic panic and QAnon is that while satanic panic adherents tended to think the bogeymen were seemingly normal people in their everyday lives, QAnon blames high-profile figures, from politicians to actors.

Satanic panic is also echoed in the current right-wing accusations of the LGBTQ community—particularly teachers and drag queens who read to children at libraries—as "groomers." In its standard use, "grooming" refers to the process by which an abuser makes a child more accepting and receptive to future overtures of abuse.

But the bulk of the current accusations are being leveled at LGBTQ teachers who have come out in the classroom and discussed LGBTQ issues in a child-friendly language—or in the case of drag queen story hours, simply dressed in clothes that don't match traditionally male outfits.

Unlike QAnon, the groomer accusations focus on people in the community and, in particular, educators and people working with children. But as with satanic panic, the proof of large-scale grooming—in the true definition—is nowhere to be seen.

Though the themes are similar, Best told Newsweek that though he hasn't done research about QAnon, he says that the conspiracy "seems to be recycling the Satanists prey on children themes from the 80s," and it's unclear whether or not it's a direct descendant of satanic panic, in terms of the accusations coming from the same people or same groups of people.

"I think of these themes as cultural resources—ideas like conspiracies, Satanists, child abduction, child sexual abuse, etc. We all understand these ideas, we carry them around in our personal sacks of cultural stuff, and we can pull them out (or someone can convince us we ought to pull them out) relatively easily," Best said. "Notice that we also have people warning about Communists these days, even though that threat seems to be virtually extinct.

"Q bears a resemblance to fears in the 80s—but I don't think we can know it is a direct descendant," Best says.

Update 7/28, 8 p.m.: This article has been updated to include comments from Joel Best.