“[You] in what we call the reality-based community…believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We create our own reality.”
—KARL ROVE, senior advisor to President George W. Bush (2004)
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving…our press secretary gave alternative facts.”
—KELLYANNE CONWAY, counselor to President Donald Trump (2017)
YOU HAVE TO BE OF a certain age to recall the frenzy. Even if you’re old enough to remember, you probably didn’t register the extremity of what happened. But during the 1980s and ’90s, Americans suddenly imagined that children—by the tens or hundreds of thousands—were being abducted and tortured and kidnapped and murdered every year.
These panics took several overlapping, mutually reinforcing forms. There was an element of overreaction, of mass hysteria that imagined actual but rare crimes to be epidemic. In a subjectivity of a new American kind, individuals were encouraged to believe they were victims and to elide the boundaries between imagination and memory—and were then believed because they strongly believed. The Christian focus on Satan was reviving. Americans’ reawakened belief in conspiracies—conspiracies among evildoers, conspiracies in the government and elite professions to cover up the secret evil—provided fertile ground too. And prominent figures in those very institutions—the news media, the psychotherapeutic industry, law enforcement, churches—abetted the hysteria in ways they wouldn’t have done before full-on Fantasyland was emerging.
Let me pull apart each element on each front of this particular perfect storm.
In the early 1980s, following the disappearances and murders of Etan Patz in New York City, Adam Walsh in South Florida, and two dozen children in Atlanta, a national missing-children panic ignited. Congress passed a federal Missing Children’s Act, and milk cartons were plastered with photographs of missing children. News media pegged the number of abductions at between 20,000 and 50,000 a year, with estimates up to the hundreds of thousands.
I had just become a writer for the national affairs section of Time, and one day I did some simple arithmetic concerning the missing-children problem. If the low-end figure was true, if twenty thousand American children really were abducted by strangers each year, it meant that in New York City alone a dozen children would be disappearing every week. I found it improbable. I called half a dozen urban police departments around the country and asked each one how many cases it had had in the previous year of children taken by strangers. One here, none there, a couple in the next place. By extrapolation, it seemed clear that the correct national number was possibly in the hundreds, certainly not in the thousands, let alone tens of thousands. My editor at Time, however, declined to let me go forward with such a wildly skeptical story. A couple of years later some DenverPost reporters established that the vast majority of missing children were actually runaways or involved in parental custody disputes, and that the standard statistics were indeed exaggerated by orders of magnitude. They won a Pulitzer Prize. And indeed, a decade later the FBI estimated that the number of true kidnapping victims was no more than three hundred a year, most of whom were not murdered. The standard high-end figure of fifty thousand a year had been invented by Adam Walsh’s father, who later admitted it was just his “guesstimate.” The missing-children panic crested, but the myth became a permanent basis for a new American mode of anxious, frightened, overprotective parenting.
AROUND THE SAME time, the culture recognized that the sexual abuse of children by adults close to them was more common than anyone had imagined—that it had been terribly underreported and underprosecuted. The exposure of sexual abuse and its prevalence—by victims, law enforcement, and the press—was important and heroic. There was, however, a panicked and extreme national overreaction as well, as the flurry of media coverage of legitimate revelations helped provoke a literal witch hunt. Instead of uncovering, for instance, the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, a story that wouldn’t break until the 2000s, in the 1980s and ’90s we focused instead on a terrifying but imaginary crime spree by demonic anti-Christians.
The psychiatry and especially the clinical psychology professions were essential enablers. For most of a century, psychotherapy was dominated by Sigmund Freud and his ideas. When he started, Freud had believed that many psychological problems were attributable to childhood sexual abuse, especially by patients’ fathers—his so-called “seduction theory.” But he soon decided that among his patients’ memories of childhood sexual encounters, “the share of fantasy in it is far greater than I had thought in the beginning.” This revised understanding, that children are prone to having sexual fantasies involving their parents, became an axiom of psychopathology. On the other hand, serious psychiatry and psychology abandoned the larger, collateral Freudian idea—that people in general automatically “repress” memories of sexual abuse and other traumas.
By the 1980s, Freudian psychotherapy was being eclipsed by other forms of treatment, therapies like those developed at the Esalen Institute and psychotropic prescription drugs. But Freud was still Freud. As a consequence of three big cultural changes wrought in the 1960s and ’70s—sex now discussed openly, women demanding equality, fantasies taken seriously—his theories were ready to be selectively revised and revived. The new take was that Freud had been correct in the first place: fathers routinely did abuse their daughters sexually, and victims’ memories of that abuse wererepressed—and could be dredged up by therapists.
Among the most respectable promoters of this idea was Jeffrey Masson, a slick, Sammy Glick–ish young historian of psychoanalysis who worked for the Freud Archives at the Library of Congress. In the early 1980s, his book The Assault on Truth declared that “nobody had lied to Freud” when they’d described sexual abuse; rather, the original therapist had simply refused to believe his patients. The lies “came from Freud and the whole psychoanalytic movement,” who suppressed the ugly social reality. In other words, Masson, a member of the elite, was exposing a century-long conspiracy and cover-up by the elite. His resulting rejection by his peers naturally made him seem like even more of a brave truth-teller to those who believed.
Scientists of the mind had long since abandoned the concept of repressed memories, but laypeople were primed to believe. The 1960s and ’70s had taught them to obsess over sex, to credit conspiracy theories, and to believe that anyone who feels like a victim is a victim. Cinema also trained us to believe in repressed memories: a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor has noted that “the flashback, in which a whole childhood trauma is suddenly recalled,” is a fictional device that makes the fictional idea of repressed memory seem real. In the 1980s the notion of repressed memories came back big in the popular imagination, along with the new phrase recovered memories. We all supposedly had the power to unlock hidden truths about our pasts, and a hidden key had been revealed. A large and growing profession of caregivers had emerged for the unhappy and mentally ill—clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and counselors, many of whom had limited training in or commitment to science. The number of clinical psychologists in America more than tripled during the 1970s and ’80s—and many became repressed-memory therapists, recovered-memory therapists, and trauma-search therapists. They were devoted not only to believing and confirming the truth of any remarkable story any patient told them but sometimes to helping patients dream up and believe fictional memories.
One of the most influential recovered-memory books, first published in the 1980s, was written by a poet with one of her students who had been a childhood victim of sexual abuse. The message of The Courage to Heal was that if you felt bad about yourself and your life but couldn’t figure out why, it was probably because you were molested or raped and had repressed those crippling memories. The book included a checklist of seventy-four possible symptoms of forgotten sexual abuse, including “You feel that there’s something wrong with you deep down inside; that if people really knew you, they would leave,” “You have no sense of your own interests, talents or goals,” and “You have trouble feeling motivated.” Even if a patient in whom suspicions of forgotten memories have been aroused “sometimes doubts it,” the authors advised counselors and therapists that they “must believe that your client was abused…to stay steady in the belief that she was abused.” Because what they believe is always true. The book sold a million copies.
Hypnosis became the prime tool for unearthing supposed memories of events that had been repressed—memories not just of possible real sexual abuse but also of alien abductions, “past lives,” and other fictions. As with acupuncture, science has no real idea how or why hypnosis can help mitigate problems such as chronic pain and tobacco addiction and phobias, but it sometimes works. Fine. Hypnosis’s increasing respectability became a problem, however, when therapists convinced themselves and patients that repressed memories from childhood could be recovered by inducing a trance state—“regression hypnosis,” which almost certainly isn’t a real thing. But so what! “A memory retrieved under hypnotic age regression in therapy,” a respected psychology professor declared in Handbook of Hypnosis for Professionals (1981), “may be quite useful to the therapeutic process even if it is distorted, inaccurate, or a total fantasy as opposed to a real memory” (emphasis added). From there it was a slippery slope to believing that fantasies were memories of real events.
In fact, the hypnotic state is a neurological sibling of fantasy states. Nearly all people who can be hypnotized most easily are those who have what psychology calls a “fantasy-prone personality”—for instance, people who think they possess paranormal powers, or who as (lonely) children tended to believe completely in their imaginary friends. So suppose you’re an adult inclined to fantastical thoughts who starts imagining that some fantasy is real; under hypnosis, you’re asked to provide details; the psychologist and you thereby become convinced it’s real. A series of experiments at Harvard starting in the 1990s tested people who believed they recalled past lives or alien abductions to find how their minds worked when those “memories” weren’t involved. Not surprisingly, the abductees “exhibited pronounced false memory effects” all the time, and the past-lives people had both “significantly higher false recall” and “scored higher on measures of magical ideation.” In other words, they were fantasizers by nature.
So hypnosis is not a reliable tool for getting people to remember events they’ve forgotten. But the underlying idea—that we all have repressed memories that when retrieved can explain ourselves to ourselves—hardened into popular certainty despite fierce scientific consensus that it isn’t true. Ulric Neisser is one of the founders of cognitive psychology. “False memories and confabulations are not rare at all,” he said in the 1990s, as those fictional memories were being solicited wholesale. “They are still more likely to occur…where memories can be shaped and reshaped to meet the strong interpersonal demands of a therapy session. And once a memory has been thus reconfigured, it is very, very hard to change.” The neurobiologist James McGaugh, another pioneer in the field, has in his half-century of research seen not “a single instance in which a memory was completely repressed and popped up again. There’s absolutely no proof that it can happen. Zero. None. Niente. Nada. All my research says that strong emotional experiences leave emotionally strong memories. Being sexually molested would certainly qualify.” And Richard McNally, a psychologist with his own research lab at Harvard, says these popular beliefs amount to “the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.” Indeed, his lab found the very opposite to be true—that instead of “possessing a superior ability to forget trauma-related material, the most distressed survivors exhibited difficulty banishing this material from awareness.”
But science be damned; the clinicians and patients and other people desperate to believe had formed a movement, and they did not stop believing. Indeed, as ever, the repudiation by a rationalist elite reinforced belief, making it angrier and more righteous.
IN 1984, NOT long before he appeared on the cover of Time and ran for president, Pat Robertson published a book called Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions. Several of the questions were about Satan and his fallen angels currently posing as humans. “It is possible,” Robertson wrote, “that a demon prince is in charge of New York, Detroit, St. Louis, or any other city.”*1 Oh, America! I try to find some way to enjoy every crackling ember of your unhinged liberty, to channel Walt Whitman, to contain multitudes, to be pleas’d with the earnest words of the sweating preacher, impress’d seriously at the camp-meeting, to revel in the motley moonstruck hurly-burly of our exceptional, exceptionally strange nation. But beginning in the 1980s, the rising chorus of panicky Christian crazy talk had not just the rhyming whiff of Salem in 1692 but something like its actual horrible effect.
Legitimate concern over the sexual abuse of children spun off a new, almost entirely fictional subgenre. The idea that satanic cults were systematically and commonly subjecting American children to nightmarish abuse—by the thousands, by the tens or hundreds of thousands—was more or less invented by a young woman just across Puget Sound from Seattle. In her twenties, Michelle Proby, her life a mess, was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. By means of hypnosis, he helped her “remember” that her late mother had been part of a satanic cult that had forced five-year-old Michelle to participate in its rituals: the Satanists had caged her with snakes, killed kittens in front of her, and physically abused her for months. All of which could have happened, theoretically—unlike her memory of Satan’s “burning tail wrapped around her neck,” and Jesus and the Virgin Mary personally erasing the physical scars of her abuse.
Michelle and Dr. Pazder divorced their spouses, married each other, and co-wrote her memoir Michelle Remembers, released with fanfare in 1980. “Potentially the biggest nonfiction book I’ve ever published,” said its editor, who’d recently published Jaws, “the true story of a little girl given by her parents to the Satanic church.” People and other national media ran uncritical stories. It became a bestseller. Did New York editors and publishers and news producers actually believe? Did P. T. Barnum actually believe the fabrications he presented alongside his pure fictions and bona-fide artifacts?
When many of Michelle Pazder’s supposed memories were specifically debunked, a reporter asked her husband if in his view the factual truth was irrelevant. “Yes, that’s right,” Dr. Pazder agreed. “It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say, ‘That’s what I remember.’ We still leave the question open. For her it was very real.” Other people “are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.” True, false, whatever—it felt real.
After Michelle Remembers, Americans started “remembering” their own forced involvement in horrific satanic rituals. The details of their stories—drugs, sexual abuse with devices, torture, animal mutilation, human sacrifice, cannibalism—tended to bear an uncanny resemblance to the template established by Dr. and Mrs. Pazder. Rather than being a one-off artifact, Michelle Remembers was the prototype for a genre, for more books that inspired more copycat fabulists to undergo hypnosis and declare themselves victims of satanic cults that raped children and bred and killed babies.
A national panic was under way.
It immediately acquired a collateral go-to psychiatric diagnosis—which had the effect of making satanic cults seem more plausible, affirming the panic. At the time, some big-time American psychiatrists were successfully promoting multiple personality disorder as a diagnosis. The basic theory is that extreme childhood trauma causes people to repress the traumatic memories by developing “alters,” characters they perform later in life as adults. Such cases were always exceedingly rare. But in 1980, psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for the first time included multiple personality disorder as a full-fledged diagnosis.
Why the sudden extreme professional interest in this rare and controversial diagnosis? Another piece of pop culture, another powerfully influential artifact of the fantasy-industrial complex. In 1973 the book Sybil had been published, about a woman who said she’d been abused as a child and had sixteen different personalities. After selling six million copies in the United States, it became a four-hour Emmy-winning NBC Big Event movie that was one of the most watched shows of the year. During the previous centuries in the entire world, there had been perhaps two hundred reported cases of multiple personality disorder; during the 1970s, the decade of Sybil, there were around four hundred, mainly among American women, especially highly hypnotizable women. Twenty years later psychiatrists promoting the diagnosis estimated that at least two hundred thousand Americans had the disorder, or maybe more than a million.
In the next fully revised edition of the DSM, American psychiatry officially renamed the phenomenon “dissociative identity disorder.” Despite the more scientific-sounding name, many experts in psychology and psychiatry continued to consider it bogus. Given that the multiple personalities usually appeared only in the course of therapy, didn’t that suggest that therapists might be helping patients dream up the “alters”? And if childhood trauma produced the disorder, why were multiple personality cases in children almost nonexistent? It was another perfect modern American communion: from iffy case study to TV dramatization to experts-turned-activists pseudoscientifically helping unhappy people “recall” trauma, to the respectable press agreeing it was an alarming epidemic reality.*2
After Dr. Pazder appeared at a conference of the American Psychological Association and discussed “ritual abuse,” that became the standard phrase for what satanists do. Among the psychiatrists and psychologists pushing the multiple personality epidemic was an influential faction who had their eureka moment: they decided they knew the source of multiple personality disorder in a quarter of cases—satanic ritual abuse. Cause and effect went topsy-turvy. It wasn’t that some of their mentally ill patients had developed delusions about satanists but rather that the patients’ actual victimization by actual satanic cults had generated tens of thousands of multiple personality disorders.
The psychiatrist Dr. Bennett “Buddy” Braun was one of the leading figures of the new field, and he couldn’t have been more blue-chip. By the mid-1980s, he’d published twenty articles on multiple personality disorder, and he was on staff at one of the most prestigious hospitals in Chicago, Rush–Presbyterian–St. Luke’s, where he set up a unit dedicated to treating “multiples.” The annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation, which Braun cofounded, featured sessions on satanism. Satanism was, in Dr. Braun’s words, “a national-international-type organization that’s got a structure somewhat similar to the Communist cell structure,” and its coded messages were secretly embedded throughout American culture. More M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s from prestigious universities and hospitals signed on, and their conferences multiplied.
In 1986 Dr. Braun took on a new patient, a depressed twenty-nine-year-old named Patricia Burgus. She’d been treated for several years in Iowa by a psychiatric social worker who used role-playing techniques, instructing Burgus to speak in a child’s voice and assigning names to each of her moods, such as Super Slow and Religious One. The social worker gave her an article about multiple personality disorder. “It was the first thing I’d ever seen in print on MPD,” Burgus told a reporter for Chicago magazine years later. “This article was a sign from God.” When she was referred to Dr. Braun by the National Institute of Mental Health, she believed she had twenty different personalities; after six years under his intensive treatment, two of those as a patient confined to his hospital, often hypnotized every day for hours and regularly dosed with powerful hypnotic drugs, she believed she had three hundred personalities.
Burgus read Michelle Remembers—and began “remembering” that her own parents had inducted her into a centuries-old satanic cult; that she’d been raped by panthers, tigers, and gorillas; that as a child, she’d had sex with President Kennedy; and that she’d taught her own two toddler sons, whom she decided she had sexually abused, to perform human sacrifices. One day during treatment, Burgus told the Chicago reporter, Dr. Braun “asked me if I’d ever cannibalized people. I said, ‘Yes.’ Well, he hit the door frame and said, ‘Bingo.’ ” As a “high priestess” in the cult, she thought she recalled, she had “tortured, raped, murdered, and cannibalized 2,000 children a year while her husband was at work.” Her children were also committed to Dr. Braun’s psych ward for three years.
So those lives were ravaged. Meanwhile Dr. Braun testified widely as an expert witness in trials involving alleged satanic crimes. Episodes of Oprah featured both Michelle Pazder and the Pentecostal Christian author of the memoir Satan’s Underground, a story that had all the main Michelle Remembers elements—orgies, rape, babies bred for sacrifice, satanic ritual murders, being saved by Jesus.*3
Dr. Pazder also had a new career as a go-to expert on recovered memories of the national satanic abuse conspiracy. In 1985 he was a talking head in an extraordinary report on ABC News’s 20/20, which had the largest audience of any prime-time American news program. “Tonight,” the co-host said solemnly, “the startling, sobering results of a 20/20 investigation. Satanism, devil worship, being practiced all across the country…perverse, hideous acts that defy belief. Suicides, murders, and the ritualistic slaughter of children….Yet so far the police have been helpless….There is no question that something is going on out there.” Then the reporter, ABC News’s former White House correspondent, spoke: “Cannibalism. It’s difficult to believe, but in every case we examined, children described it.” Defy belief and difficult to believe: yes, but for the better part of half an hour, ABC News instructed America to believe. “That’s terrifying,” the show’s other co-host, Barbara Walters, said at the end and asked the reporter why police weren’t rounding up all the satanists. Cover-up, he suggested. “Police are very reluctant to investigate these crimes as satanic crimes, Barbara, because communities…don’t want their reputations stigmatized as being the home of the devil”—the home of the devil, as if the devil exists. Even a decade earlier ABC News wouldn’t have stooped so shamefully low. In fact, three years earlier, the distinguished ABC News veteran Av Westin had published a high-minded critique of his industry’s new profit-driven decadence, scolding network news executives about their “responsibility to be fair…and accurate.” Westin was executive producer of 20/20 when it aired the “Devil Worshippers” exposé.
The rest of TV joined in, whipping up and riding the hysteria. Geraldo Rivera hosted national specials on the satanic crime epidemic two years in a row. They were prime-time festivals of even more outrageous exaggeration and falsehood. “Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country,” Rivera said on the first program. “The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network” dead set on a mission of “satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town.” His next one was on NBC. “Whether Satan exists,” Rivera said at the outset, “is a matter of belief,” as opposed to the supposed facts he was about to present: “the practice of evil in the devil’s name…exists, and it’s flourishing” in “a nationwide network of satanic criminals,” some of them “born into satanic cults,” who may be “desperate to flee but dread the penalty of grotesque death.” That program was seen by a third of the Americans watching TV the night it aired, the largest audience in history for a two-hour NBC documentary.
Insane people have committed criminal acts they believed Satan wanted them to commit, and children are sometimes victimized in Grand Guignol fashion by sadists and lunatics. But this satanic crime spree and profusion of secret death cults did not exist. It was a mass delusion. Why did it happen at that moment? The precipitous rise in violent crime that began in the 1960s had not yet peaked. The supply of clinical psychologists, caregivers desperate to find the secret source of their clients’ unhappiness, tripled from the mid-1970s to 1990. The national fantasy-industrial complex was giving people the perversity they wanted—TV news programs stoking fears as never before, Satan-themed bands like Mötley Crüe—and plenty of people now openly fancied themselves as Wiccans and devil worshippers.
Also, a large fraction of Americans believed that the devil was real and that all these witches and warlocks and satanists and Warner-Elektra-Atlantic recording artists were probably taking orders from him. For lots of people in the American Christian universe, bubbling with belief in Satan and supernatural experiences, the existence of a satanic megacult was hard evidence for the validity of the prophecies of Revelation. One Satan-obsessed Calvary Chapel in Los Angeles County took on ritual abuse as its special national battle. The author of The Late Great Planet Earth gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the panic and called Satan’s Underground “absolutely incredible and true.”
The supposed nationwide web of cunning Mansonesque groups and a satanic crime epidemic was being taken very seriously, and the hysteria spread. It was a remarkable episode of cascading Fantasyland synergy.
American law enforcement, accused of ignoring these organized packs of monstrous predators—police have been helpless, police are reluctant to investigate these crimes—naturally responded to the pressure. The FBI Academy’s specialist on children’s sexual victimization wrote a report during the panic:
The information presented is a mixture of fact, theory, opinion, fantasy, and paranoia, and because some of it can be proven or corroborated (symbols on rock albums, graffiti on walls, desecration of cemeteries, vandalism, etc.), the implication is that it is all true and documented. Material produced by religious organizations…and videotapes of tabloid television programs are used to supplement the training and are presented as “evidence” of the existence and nature of the problem.
This special agent was like the good reverend in The Crucible, who comes to Salem looking for the devil but then realizes the panic is a fraud and tries to right the terrible wrong in which he’d been complicit. At the FBI Academy, he had organized the first national satanic abuse seminar; scores more followed. Training curricula warned about signs of cult abuse such as “candles” and “jewelry.” A feminist astrologers’ organization seemed suspicious. If a toddler showed a lot of interest in urine and feces, he or she might be under the spell of ritual abusers—that from a standard checklist of dozens of “symptoms characterizing satanic ritual abuse” created by a San Fernando Valley clinical psychologist associated with Dr. Braun and distributed to U.S. police and social workers. The “symptoms” also included “Preoccupation with passing gas,” “Fear of ghosts and monsters,” and “References to television characters as real people.”
The national spiritual warfare ministry organized by the Calvary Chapel was behind a lot of the conferences. But many or most had secular auspices, such as the one concerning “C/S/DM”—Cults, Sects and Deviant Movements—at the University of North Florida’s Institute of Police Technology and Management. At a homicide investigation seminar in Las Vegas, the chief clinical psychologist for the Utah State Prison told police that between forty and sixty thousand ritual homicides occurred in the United States each year. In fact, the total annual number of homicides in the United States at the time was around twenty thousand.
But who were cops to gainsay the certified experts, especially therapists treating miserable victims on the front lines? When the American Psychological Association surveyed its members, 93 percent said they believed the people claiming satanic ritual abuse were telling the truth. If the mental health professionals and journalists and police had become convinced it was real, so inevitably did prosecutors. In two national studies at the time, one by the American Bar Association and another by a team from the University of California at Davis, a quarter of prosecutors surveyed said they had handled cases of ritual abuse. From the early 1980s through the early 1990s, around two hundred Americans were indicted and prosecuted in dozens of states as satanic ritual abusers. More than eighty were convicted, some of them sentenced to long prison sentences for imaginary crimes.
The first big outbreak was in and around Bakersfield, a place known for extreme Christianity and for political and cultural conservatism. A new hard-line county prosecutor was elected in 1983 and promptly created a ritual abuse task force. County social workers, including the one assigned to debrief the allegedly abused children whom the county had removed from their homes, had attended one of the law enforcement seminars about satanic crimes with Michelle Remembers on its syllabus—and soon the children were repeating the familiar story: blood-drinking, cannibalism, rape by chanting people in robes, babies bred for sacrifice. Local law enforcement guessed that thirty babies had been sacrificially slaughtered. No babies had been reported missing, no bodies were found, and all the prosecution witnesses to all the alleged crimes were children—including one who’d denied being sexually abused by his parents until his thirty-fifth investigative interview, and another who became an accuser only after being hypnotized during two months in police custody. Dozens of people were charged, of whom twenty-eight went to prison, some for more than twenty years. Another dozen people gave up their children in plea bargains.
The most infamous case of Satanic Panic began at the same time two hours south in a well-to-do L.A. County beach town. The mother of a boy attending the McMartin Preschool decided that his male teacher, the grandson of the school’s owner, had been anally raping her son. She told the police and wrote a letter to the district attorney claiming the preschool’s owner had taken the boy to an armory that had a “ritual-type atmosphere” with a “goatman,” and to a church where she “drilled a child under the arms,” and her grandson, the rapist, “flew in the air.” Two years later the accusing mother was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia (and a year after that died of alcohol poisoning), but by then the bandwagon was rolling. A reporter at ABC’s owned-and-operated L.A. station had broken and pushed the story during a ratings “sweeps” month in 1984. The district attorney had hired a team of therapists from one of the premier nonprofit L.A. child abuse agencies to interview several hundred children who’d attended the school. (Dr. Pazder was enlisted as part of this hunt as well.)
The questioning of the McMartin children became a literal textbook case of how such interviews should not be conducted. A child had never mentioned nudity or photographs, but an interviewer asked, “Can you remember the naked pictures?” Nope. “Can’t remember that part?” Again, no. “Why don’t you think about that for a while, okay? Your memory might come back to you.” And when another child refused to say the teachers had done anything untoward, the interviewer asked, “Are you going to be stupid, or are you going to be smart and help us here?”
Children were persuaded that they had been flown on planes to other cities to be sexually abused and had watched a horse be beaten to death with a bat, a baby be decapitated in a church, and teachers dressed as witches. An extensive three-year investigation discovered no physical evidence. The prosecution’s public theory of the case was that the school had operated as a child pornography production facility, but a global search by the FBI and Interpol found no films or pictures featuring McMartin children. The evidence consisted of eighteen children’s dubious testimony, on which eight adults were indicted for sexually victimizing forty-eight children, a number later reduced to thirteen. But even the L.A. County district attorney admitted that most of his evidence was “incredibly weak” and eventually dropped charges against all but the original alleged perpetrator and his grandmother. The trial lasted three years, the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, and the two defendants, who between them spent seven years in jail, were found not guilty.
Despite the acquittal in Los Angeles, the hysteria continued raging both there and nationally: mainstream news still gave it credence, police still made arrests, prosecutors still prosecuted, and true believers among psychologists and psychiatrists (and their clients) still believed and proselytized, often with a government imprimatur.
Suspicions were voiced and accusations were cast practically everywhere, and dozens of prosecutions went forward. In a small town in Tidewater North Carolina, children testified that a satanic cult operating a daycare center had ritually abused them—and taken them in hot-air balloons to outer space and on a boat into the Atlantic where newborns were fed to sharks; several people were sentenced to long prison terms and served time before their convictions were overturned or charges dismissed.
In Austin a couple who ran a daycare center were accused by children of the standard horrors (including children airlifted to be raped elsewhere, abused by tigers and gorillas, babies fed to sharks) but with more chainsaws than usual. They were tried for raping a girl. When the prosecutor asked the alleged victim on the witness stand if either defendant ever “touch[ed] you in a way you didn’t like?” she repeatedly answered “No” and “No, it didn’t happen.” The only physical evidence was the testimony of an emergency room physician who’d examined the girl and seen tears in her hymen. “I could’ve been wrong,” that physician told a reporter after the couple were convicted and were serving forty-eight-year prison sentences. “Knowing what I know now…knowing how to do exams” properly, “I think that if I had that case now, I’d probably…decline to testify.”
The Satanic Panic never really took off outside the United States. A historian in Norway found that until Rivera’s 1988 NBC special was covered in the Norwegian press, there had been no public references to satanic ritual abuse. According to The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic,published in 2004 by a U.S. social psychologist specializing in trauma and mental illness, the few international prosecutions in the 1980s and ’90s were generally “closed in a matter of months,” which “made it difficult for the kind of improvised news that romped around in the shadows of the [U.S.] daycare cases…from getting a running start.” The British cases, she writes, had “no chanting orgiastic Satanists…just ghosts, some of them pink, one eyed spirits; there was no cannibalizing of the flesh of dead babies, nor any drinking of their blood”—indeed, “there was no abuse…none of the rape, sodomy and torture that rendered the American master narrative so utterly appealing.” And in no other developed country, of course, are so many citizens evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. America is exceptional.
IN THE 1990S, this national episode of madness finally ended. After a dozen years, after people convicted of satanic abuse had collectively spent hundreds of years incarcerated, the judiciary and respectable opinion reimposed some sanity, child witnesses grew up and recanted, and convictions were overturned. “As I got off the medication and hypnosis,” said Patricia Burgus, the satanic priestess in Chicago with three hundred personalities, “I started doing a little bit of math. Two thousand people a year I was supposed to be eating. If I was doing this for thirty years, where were all the people coming from?”
The professions that had enabled the panic tacked a bit back toward responsibility. “Repeated questioning,” the American Psychiatric Association warned in 1993, “may lead individuals to report ‘memories’ of events that never occurred.” The American Psychological Association formed a Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Child Abuse, but its equivocal findings, years afterward, still insisted that it’s “possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered.”
Many of the corrections of injustice and mea culpas didn’t come until well into this century. Twenty years after she claimed in People that she’d remembered repressed memories of her parents molesting her thirty years earlier, Roseanne Barr admitted that, whoops, sorry, it wasn’t true. She blamed The Courage to Heal (“It said, ‘If you have the feeling that this happened to you, that means it did happen to you’ ”) and psychotropics (“I was prescribed numerous psychiatric drugs”) for the fact that she “totally lost touch with reality” and “didn’t know what the truth was.”
All but one of the two dozen convictions in Bakersfield were reversed. One of the men convicted was released in 2004 after nineteen years in prison; four children who’d testified against him had, as adults, finally recanted. One of the children who’d testified in the McMartin case admitted, at thirty, that those accused “never did anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything, I said a lot of things that didn’t happen. I lied.” The Austin couple convicted of raping a child were in prison for twenty-one years before their convictions were overturned.
History does not repeat, but it rhymes. In Salem in 1692 as in America in the 1980s and ’90s, tales told by children drove the prosecutions and many of the accused copped pleas. In some ways, our late twentieth-century Satanic Panic was worse than the one in the late seventeenth century. Nobody was executed this time, but at least in Salem all the officials prosecuting and punishing their neighbors had the excuse of believing in satanic bewitchings. The Salem witch hunt was brief and local; just months after it began, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony regretted and then ended the prosecutions and punishments. By contrast, our recent satanism hysteria—thanks to mass media and the fantasy-industrial complex—swept the nation and lasted more than a decade. In New England in the 1690s, communal anguish and guilt kicked in immediately, and the awful overreach in Salem became the iconic cautionary tale of mad belief defeating reason—three hundred years later we’re still retelling the familiar story. But ask Americans today about our Satanic Panic of just a generation ago, and you’ll encounter a gaping memory hole: younger people know nothing about it, and almost nobody is aware of its scale and duration and damage.
The people responsible haven’t paid much of a price or, in many cases, apologized. “Innocent people may have been accused at one point or another,” said the Bakersfield district attorney a few years ago after being reelected six times. And sure, he granted, “if those cases came today we would have handled them differently. But what we had at the time, I think we handled them the best we could.” In Illinois, after the Rush–Presbyterian–St. Luke’s Medical Center closed its satanist-obsessed multiple personality unit and the state suspended the medical license of its mastermind, he moved to Montana, where he’s a practicing psychiatrist, board-certified.
There are still regular satanic ritual abuse conferences. Dissociative identity (née multiple personality) disorder is still listed in the DSM, and its promoters in psychology and psychiatry still claim that millions of Americans suffer from it, undiagnosed. Psychologists more strongly committed to data and science formed their own national organization—but the main group, the APA, is five times as large. One of its presidents has complained that the pro-rigor faction has a “fervor about science [that] borders on the irrational.”
After the Salem debacle, Christians mostly stopped discussing witches and demons. The recent episode, however, didn’t temper American Christians’ Satan-mania—and some, as in New England several hundred years ago, insist that the recent hysteria was Satan’s doing, that he supernaturally deluded accusers and authorities into punishing those unfortunately innocent people.
In America, even people whose lives were mangled by this fantasy epidemic stick with magical thinking. Around the time Patricia Burgus was paid a $10.6 million settlement because her psychiatrist had convinced her she was a mass-murdering satanist cannibal who’d raped her children, she took them and her husband to the Vatican. “We wanted to thank God for seeing us through this ordeal,” she explained, “and rededicate our lives to Him.”
*1 Or any other city, but observant demon-hunters will note that the first two he named happen to be the large U.S. cities with the highest proportions of Jews and blacks, respectively.
*2 In her 2011 book Sybil Exposed, the journalist Debbie Nathan unearthed a letter written by the pseudonymous “Sybil” to her psychiatrist during treatment: “I do not really have any multiple personalities. I do not even have a ‘double.’…I have been lying in my pretense of them.”
*3 The author was an evangelical who published Satan’s Underground under the pseudonym Lauren Stratford. After it came out, journalists for a Christian magazine debunked her stories as false. A decade later, the same journalists exposed its author again: she had taken yet another name and launched a new career retailing an entirely different make-believe nightmare girlhood—as a survivor of Josef Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz-Birkenau.