Against Satanic Panics > Intro

"Satanism" scares and their debunking
A brief introduction

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2006 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

  1. The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's
  2. Signs of a growing new Satanic panic
  3. The debunking of the SRA scare in the 1980's and early 1990's
  4. Why Satanists and other affected subcultures may need to take more responsibility for debunking the next "Satanism" scare
  5. Key points to be made when debunking "Satanism" scares
  6. What we need to do now

  1. The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's
  2. The 1980's were an era of extraordinary zeal on the part of psychotherapists, child protection agencies, police departments, and prosecutors to take child abuse more seriously than ever before. In the 1970's, as an outgrowth of the feminist movement, a child abuse survivors' movement had emerged and exposed the many ways in which child abuse had not been taken seriously enough in the past. (For an example of the kinds of arguments used by the child abuse survivors' movement, see Incest: whose reality, whose theory by Sandra Butler.) Thanks to political pressure from the child abuse survivors' movement and its allies, everyone resolved to do better. Alas, in their efforts to do better, psychotherapists, social workers, and law enforcement agencies too often resorted to questionable techniques. And a lot of new and inexperienced child protection social workers were hired.

    Meanwhile, there had also emerged a growth industry of self-proclaimed "experts" on Satanism, most of whom were fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant Christians. Before 1980, their claims did not yet feature child sexual abuse. Instead they were more preoccupied with the notion that witchcraft, rock music, and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were all part of a giant conspiracy to lure young people into worshiping the Devil. Crimes attributed to "Satanists" included murder, rape, cat-killing, and cattle mutilations, but, until 1980, not much if any child abuse. The best-known example was the 1972 book The Satan-Seller by Mike Warnke, who claimed to be a repentant former Satanic high priest.

    Some purported "experts," like Mike Warnke, made their money from fundamentalist/evangelical Christian audiences. Later, other "experts" made money as police consultants, giving seminars to police officers on "occult crime." (For a critique of various "cult cops" and their "ritual crime" seminars, see "The Police Model of Satanic Crime" by Robert D. Hicks, in The Satanism Scare by James T. Richardson, Joel Best, and David G. Bromley, 1991. See also Inside the "Satan Scare" Industry - The Devil Makes Them Do It by Debbie Nathan, In These Times - no date given; apparently early 1990's.)

    The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" (SRA) scare began in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers by Dr. Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. This best-selling book detailed the alleged sexual abuse and torture of Michelle, when she was five years old, by an alleged Satanic coven in the Canadian city of Victoria, British Columbia. Supposedly she had repressed all these horrid memories and recovered them in therapy with Dr. Pazder.

    Soon afterward, there was an epidemic of young women "remembering" childhood sexual abuse. Some remembered full-blown SRA, whereas others remembered more ordinary kinds of molestation. The "memories," in many cases, had been "recovered" using dubious techniques like hypnotic regression, administered by psychotherapists who believed in the then-fashionable idea that many common neuroses, emotional problems, and bad habits were most likely caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse by parents. A few patients went so far as to press charges against their elderly parents. More often, the patients just cut off all contact with their parents.

    In 1982, there began a wave of multi-victim, multi-offender (MVMO) child sex abuse allegations, starting with the Bakersfield cases in California. Many alleged MVMO SRA cases involved daycare centers, such as the infamous McMartin Preschool, also in California. In the U.S.A. alone, hundreds of probably-innocent people were sent to prison, based on the testimony of little children who had been coached, coaxed, and asked lots and lots of leading questions by psychotherapists and social workers.

    The scare began in the U.S.A. and then spread to many other countries around the world.

    The SRA scare was thoroughly discredited by the mid-1990's. (For details and documentation on many facets of the scare and its debunking, see my page of links about the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's.)

    Yet some of the accused are still in prison due to lack of money for appeals. And there are many heartbroken parents who are still being shunned by their own children due to probably-false "memories."

    Furthermore, although the SRA scare has been discredited in the eyes of many of the people who matter most (e.g. many police departments, social workers, psychotherapists, journalists, and relevant academic experts), there still are quite a few people in influential positions who still do believe in widespread SRA. There are also, of course, lots of uneducated Christians who still believe in SRA and Satanic conspiracy theories - which still do give rise to quite a bit of religious bigotry plus general cultural paranoia, e.g. about the Harry Potter books, as well as occasional false criminal accusations.

  3. Signs of a growing new Satanic panic
  4. There are signs that a renewed "Satanism" scare may now be developing worldwide.

    First, there have already been some 1980's-style SRA accusations in recent years, although not nearly as many as back in the 1980's. Those charged with child sexual abuse in the context of alleged SRA include at least one modern Pagan, Ian Campbell, who was arrested on the Island of Lewis in Scotland in 2003. The charges against him and others were dropped for lack of evidence, but he was still guilty in the eyes of many of his neighbors, resulting in vandalism against his property.

    Also within the past several years, Roman Catholic priests have become another likely target of SRA accusations. For many years, Catholic priests had been unfairly protected from child sex abuse charges by the Church and by local authorities. But now the pendulum has swung the other way for Catholic priests in particular, thanks not only to the successes of the abuse survivors' movement, but also to scaremongering by traditionalist Catholics about an alleged conspiracy of "Satanic pedophiles" who have supposedly infiltrated the Catholic hierarchy. Even some official Catholic spokespeople (such as Jeffrey Grob, Associate Vicar for Canonical Services in the archdiocese of Chicago) now endorse the idea that some Catholic priests secretly perform violent “Satanic rituals.”

    As of February 2005, the Pontifical Academy Regina Apostolorum, part of a Vatican university run by the Legion of Christ, is now teaching a twice-yearly course on "Satanism and exorcism." Its idea of "Satanism" seems to be based largely on the criminal antics of deranged members of a metal band called the "Beasts of Satan," who are not representative of real-life Satanists. Media sensationalism about the "Beasts of Satan" murder case seems to have given rise to quite a panic about Satanism in Italy. (For details and documentation, see Italy's recent Satanic panic - and its impact on the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, and see Exorcism, the Vatican, and the recent Italian Satanic panic on my page about Exorcism, "spiritual warfare," and anti-occultism.)

    Here in the U.S.A., long-discredited SRA scaremongers such as Ted Gunderson are now receiving air time again. (Unfortunately, my friends who saw these TV shows didn't take notes. This sort of thing does need to be documented, though. If you see a show like this and you care about this issue, I would appreciate it very much if you could take notes on as many "who, what, when, where" details as possible, including name of show, date, network, and names of all people interviewed.) And at least one new scaremonger, Dawn Perlmutter, is not only appearing on network TV but is being taken seriously by at least some people in law enforcement and has even managed to get a book of hers published by a major scientific textbook publisher!

    Moreover, general worldwide religious trends make a resurgence of anti-"Satanism" witchhunts very likely. Over the past several decades, the most conservative, traditionalist, and charismatic forms of Christianity have grown dramatically, at the expense of more liberal and moderate forms. There has also been an explosion in the demand for Christian exorcisms. All of this adds up to more and more obsession with demons, hence more and more fear of anyone who is thought to be dealing with demons or influenced by demons. (For details and documentation, see my page of links on The growing number of Christians of kinds which inherently fear demons, Satanists, witches, occultists, and Pagans.)

    It is unlikely that we'll see a full-blown resurgence of the 1980's-style SRA scare, complete with lots of cases involving reliance on "recovered memories" and the testimony of small children who have been asked lots of sexually suggestive leading questions. There have already been some 1980's-style SRA cases occurring again now. (See my pages about The island of Lewis in Scotland and The Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula, Louisiana.) But there probably won't be nearly as many such cases of this kind as there were back in the 1980's. Most law enforcement agencies and psychotherapy clinics do have somewhat longer memories - especially of successful lawsuits against them - than the mass media and the general public.

    So, a renewed witchhunt against "Satanism" will most likely mutate into new forms.

    Insofar as future Satanic panics involve false criminal accusations, I would expect to see more cases like the West Memphis Three (in which a teenage metalhead was assumed to be guilty of a bizarre triple murder, apparently just on account of being a metalhead and an all-around oddball), rather than like the McMartin Preschool case. There still seem to be lots of folks in the Bible Belt who assume that any kid who wears black is a Satanist and that Satanists are prone to all manner of violent crime.

    I would expect future Satanic panics to feature not only false criminal accusations, but also, and perhaps even more so, various encroachments on the rights of religious minorities, plus a lot of attempts to censor popular children's literature, rock music, etc.

    Whatever its form, a renewed "Satanism" scare will likely harm lots of innocent people, including not just law-abiding Satanists, but also people of other nonmainstream religions that have been confused with Satanism, especially Pagans and occultists, plus people in other nonmainstream subcultures such as the metal scene and the goth scene.

    It may also harm many other, more mainstream people too. In the SRA scare of the 1980's and early 1990's, the vast majority of the falsely accused were ordinary mainstream folks. But I think it's more likely that future Satanic panics will pick on people who are unusual in one way or another, to a greater extent than the 1980's panics did.

  5. The debunking of the SRA scare in the 1980's and early 1990's
  6. Except for Michael Aquino - who was one of the very few actual Satanists among those accused in the SRA scare - Satanists played no more than a very minor role in debunking the scare. (The charges against Aquino were dropped due to lack of evidence.)

    The only religiously nonmainstream subculture that did play a major role in debunking the SRA scare was the organized atheist/humanist/skeptical community. In 1989, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, published the book Satanism in America: How the Devil Got Much More than His Due. Within the next few years, periodicals such as Free Inquiry and The Humanist published articles about the scare. In 1991, Prometheus Books, a textbook publisher with close ties to the Council for Secular Humanism, published In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult by Robert D. Hicks.

    As for the modern Pagan community, a few Pagans such as Brad Hicks and Don Frew were among the earliest debunkers during the 1980's, but they got very little support from other Pagans. On the contrary, according to Brad Hicks, quite a few Pagans outright opposed their efforts until the tide finally turned in the early 1990's.

    Probably the main thing that helped end the SRA scare was the sheer enormous quantity of unprovable and in many cases blatantly false criminal accusations, causing great annoyance to many a police department. In 1989, the FBI published the first edition of the Lanning Report.

    Some of the childcare center MVMO cases attracted the attention of a few sharp-thinking investigative reporters who saw through the media hype and recognized how flimsy these cases were. The first major newspaper articles skeptical of the scare were written in the late 1980's by Debbie Nathan; her first article on this topic was "Are These Women Child Molesters? - The Making of a Modern Witch Trial", published in the Village Voice on September 29, 1987 (reprinted later in her book Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border). Debbie Nathan, a feminist and human-rights activist, has written many thought-provoking articles challenging other kinds of sex-related hysteria as well. Interestingly, just as some feminists played a key role in starting the scare in the first place, other feminists played a key role in ending it.

    On the psychotherapy front, what probably helped the most was some clients who came to believe that their "recovered memories" were false, and who then sued their therapists for malpractice. For example, recovered-memory retractor Laura Pasley sued her therapists in December 1991. Then, once it became more widely known that therapy-induced false memories were a widespread problem, some accused parents were able to sue their children's therapists too. No doubt many therapists became a lot more careful after that. Of course, neither the retractors nor the parents could have won any lawsuits had there not already been plenty of debate, among psychologist and psychotherapists, about the validity of "recovered memories."

    Luckily for the rest of us, psychotherapy clients are disproportionately young women from upper middle class backgrounds. Therefore, many of the accused parents were upper middle class and could easily afford to fight back. Since there were lots and lots of them, the SRA scare was quelled easily once the aggrieved parents got together and formed such organizations as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (founded in 1992).

    Starting in 1990, even a few evangelical Christians made significant contributions to the debunking of the SRA scare. In 1990, the evangelical Christian magazine Cornerstone published Satan's Sideshow: The True Lauren Stratford Story by Bob & Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott, about Satan's Underground, one of the best-known evangelical Christian accounts of SRA. In 1992, Cornerstone published Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke by Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein, exposing one of the first and best-known Christian professional "ex-Satanists" whose tall tales, published in the early 1970's, had preceded the SRA scare proper. Still more pioneering debunking was done by Gretchen and Bob Passantino and John Baskette in various writings in the Satanism and SRA section of their Answers In Action site. (But see my comments about some questionable allegations of their own regarding Satanism, on my Theistic Satanism site.)

    The term "Satanic panic" was coined by debunker Jeffrey Victor, a Unitarian-Universalist and author of the book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (published by Open Court in 1993).

  7. Why Satanists and other affected subcultures may need to take more responsibility for debunking the next "Satanism" scare
  8. For the most part, future "Satanism" scares will most likely take some form other than the long-discredited 1980's-style SRA allegations.

    Future "Satanism" scares probably will not harm quite as many ordinary mainstream people as the 1980-1995 panic did, in which case they probably will not attract nearly as many mainstream debunkers. If the falsely accused are mainly people of minority religions and subcultures, then fewer mainstream journalists will be likely to care. Hopefully we'll still manage to get some mainstream journalists and scholars interested  -  at least in the Catholic clergy angle, if nothing else  -  but probably not as many as were interested back in the early 1990's.

    Future "Satanism" scares might not take the form of an epidemic of false criminal allegations even against people of minority relgiions. The religious right wing might, for example, just use the fear of "Satanic crime" as an excuse to drum up popular support for various limitations on the freedoms of religious minorities and other subcultures. In that case, mainstream journalists will be even less likely to take the initiative in debunking the scare.

    But it's most likely that there will be plenty of false criminal accusations too, especially in Bible Belt backwaters with poorly trained police, where I expect more cases like the West Memphis Three. (For more information about this 1993 case, see my collection of links about The "West Memphis Three" case.) I strongly suspect that there are already many similar cases that have gone unnoticed because, with rare exceptions, eccentric poor people in flyover country don't very often come to the attention of big-name journalists.

    Therefore, we will probably need more people in the affected religions and subcultures to do their share of the work of laying the scare to rest.

    Above all, we'll need more Satanists - of the various new theistic kinds that are making themselves publicly known these days - to explain their belief systems clearly, and to explain why they reject criminal activities in the name of Satan. Too many Satanists have had the attitude that we shouldn't pay any attention to the public's fears other than to have fun with them - or to use the public's fears as a way to attract attention and make money, if one happens to be an artist, musician, or horror writer. There's nothing wrong with having some good laughs (e.g. "so fire up your portable crematoria everyone ... it's lunch time!") but we do need more of us to get serious about publishing our belief systems in a responsible manner, both on websites and offline.

    For us Satanists to explain our beliefs systems will not be enough. By ourselves, we will not be popularly seen as credible. We'll need outside scholars to vouch for us. (Note: If you, dear reader, happen to be a professional scholar of new religions, or a scholar with any other kind of potential interest in doing up-to-date original research on Satanism, please see To scholars of new religions: Suggestions for research on Satanism on my Theistic Satanism website.) But we Satanists must be willing to do our part too.

    We'll also need more Pagans and occultists to do their share of debunking popular fears about Satanism, rather than just hoping to save their own skins by distancing themselves from Satanism.

    Proving to the public that Pagans Are Not Satanists will not be a sufficient means of protecting Pagan Witchcraft from being a target of the scare. After all, according to two millenia of Christian tradition, if you deal with any spiritual power other than the Abrahamic God, you are necessarily assumed to be dealing with demons at least unwittingly. So, in the eyes of nearly all conservative, traditionalist, and charismatic Christian leaders, it really doesn't matter whether you believe in Satan. And, as I mentioned earlier, the number of conservative, traditionalist, and charismatic Christians has been growing these past several decades, at the expense of more liberal and moderate kinds of Christians. Therefore, as long as a popular "Satanism" scare exists, the Pagan community can't help but be affected by it. Fortunately, unlike the idea that the only spiritual powers independent of the Christian God are demons, the idea that society is being menaced by a vast wave of "Satanic crime" is not considered by most conservative Christian leaders to be an essential point of doctrine - even though many Christians still do believe it. Hence it is in the best interests of Pagans to do what they can to discredit the scare itself, not just try to deflect the scare from themselves. (See my page To Pagans and occultists:  Why it behooves Pagans and occultists to oppose a Satanic panic.)

    Ditto for nonreligious subcultures such as goths, or at least the relatively few adults in the goth scene. The goth scene, like the Satanist scene, attracts more than its share of teenagers who are just out to shock the grownups and scare away bullies.

    At least we can probably count on the organized atheist/humanist/skeptical community to do its share of the work of debunking Satanic panics, as it has done in the past.

  9. Key points to be made when debunking "Satanism" scares
  10. In any reasonably comprehensive debunking of "Satanism" scares, all of the following points need to be made and backed with evidence:

    1. Many alleged cases of "Satanic Ritual Abuse" - including the original one, that of Michelle Smith - have been shown to be bogus. Most of the accusations stemmed from the use of questionable techniques by psychotherapists and social workers. (Although future Satanic panics will likely take a form different from the SRA scare, people should be reminded of the history of past unfounded scares, including not only the SRA scare of the 1980's and early 1990's, but also the European witchhunts of the 1600's, the anti-semitic rumors of the Middle Ages, and the anti-Christian rumors of ancient pagan Rome. Furthermore, even today, belief in 1980's-style SRA is still alive and well among the uneducated.)
    2. There is no evidence of a generations-old worldwide Satanic conspiracy. And the most influential and seminal Christian books alleging such a conspiracy, such as The Satan-Seller by Mike Warnke, have been shown to be outright frauds.
    3. The majority of real-life Satanists - and especially the vast majority of the more serious Satanists, i.e. those who remain Satanists for a long time - are law-abiding, or at least not prone to the kinds of crimes portrayed in horror movies and supermarket tabloids. To us Satanists ourselves, this is the most important point. But it needs to be seen as a key point by non-Satanist debunkers too, in order to show that the amount of real-life "Satanic crime" is truly miniscule. After all, if indeed a substantial percentage of Satanists really were performing ritual murders on a regular basis and somehow managing to get away with it, year after year, then the existence of even just 3,000 Satanists (a low estimate of the total number of Satanists in the world) would be quite a serious menace to society, and the scaremongers could validly point to it as justification for their fears.
    4. Among those people who do commit crimes in the name of Satan, most are teenagers committing the same kinds of crimes that juvenile delinquents have committed for generations with or without "Satanism" - which, for many of them, is just their latest way to shock the grownups. The vast majority of them will outgrow it.

    Regarding the first two points above, and to a lesser extent regarding the last two points as well, see my collection of links on The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's.

    As for the law-abidingness of most Satanists:  It has been recognized for a long time, by every reputable expert on new religions that I know of, that at least the more public and long-established organizations like the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, and John Allee's First Church of Satan want their members to be law-abiding. As I mentioned earlier on this page, we need scholars willing to do up-to-date research both on the newer groups and on some reasonable sampling of independent Satanists. In the meantime, "Satanic crime" debunkers will have to make do with citing older studies plus LaVey's statements in The Satanic Bible plus the official statements of various groups, e.g. the Temple of Set's General Information and Admissions Policies document. (I'll soon add to this site a page of relevant quotes from Satanist groups and leaders and from reputable outside experts, In the meantime, see Some articles on Satanism by academics, reporters, etc. on my Theistic Satanism site, as well as some of the links on my SRA page.)

    As for the number of Satanists, that is, unfortunately, difficult to pin down. An extremely wide range of estimates for various countries (primarily the U.S.A. and the U.K.), and for the world, can be found on None of these estimates are more recent than the mid-1990's. We need scholars to do up-to-date research! (See To scholars of new religions:  Suggestions for research on Satanism on my Theistic Satanism site.)

    In the meantime, a reasonable rough estimate can be made as follows:  First, thanks to the Internet, there are probably a lot more of us now than the 3,000 to 10,000 worldwide that the more reputable experts estimated back in the 1980's and early 1990's. On the other hand, we aren't exactly taking over the world either. There are still a lot fewer of us than there are Pagans, for example - as evidenced by the fact that there are a lot more books published for Pagans than for Satanists. Among both Pagans and Satanists, there are a lot of solitaries, hence a lot of people who participate in online forums as their sole or main means of contact with likeminded people. On Yahoo, as of February 26, 2006, there are 897 groups under the "Satanism" category, whereas there are 13795 groups under the "Paganism" category, which suggests that a high estimate of the ratio of Satanists to modern Pagans would be approximately 1 to 15. (The actual ratio of Satanists to Pagans is probably even smaller, since there are fewer offline Satanist groups; hence, most likely, proportionately more Satanists online.) On the page Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, "Neo-Paganism" is ranked #19, with approximately 1 million adherents worldwide (an admittedly very rough estimate). So, a high estimate of tne number of Satanists would be between 60,000 and 70,000. A more likely estimate would be perhaps 20,000 to 30,000.

    Regarding Satanism's real-life criminal fringe, I'll soon add to this site a page of quotes from reputable experts. In the meantime, please see my page Tabloid prophecy fulfillers:  Satanism's real-life criminal fringe:  How should law-abiding Satanists respond?, and see also some of the links on my SRA page.

  11. What we need to do now
  12. How should we respond to the signs of a growing new scare?

    The most important thing we need to do is to pool information. If any of us are to debunk the scare successfully, we will need to know what we are talking about, and we'll need our information to be up-to-date. We'll also need to know who our enemies are and what they are saying.

    I would especially love to hear from interested scholars and journalists. But, to help us pool information, you don't need to be a scholar or journalist. If you'd like to help out, you could be enormously helpful just by taking careful notes on anything you happen to see in the mass media.

    In the near future, I hope to start a new Yahoo group where we can pool information and discuss ways to fight back. Alas, this will have to wait until I find more moderators for the Yahoo groups I'm already involved in running, including the Theistic Satanism forums and my polyamory forums. In the meantime, if you run into any relevant information, I would appreciate it very much if you could either email me or, if you are already a participant in either Theistic-Satanism-ethics-and-politics or Theistic-Satanists-and-others-3, post it there.

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