A preschool where sadistic teachers built a secret abuse ring, prompting parents nationwide to worry classrooms were ripe with abuse and grooming. Music performances that overtly prayed to the devil. Political leaders secretly plotting in an evil Satanist cabal to consolidate their hold over us.
While these may seem like accusations foisted om the internet over the past few months—as this country is gripped by a fear that a demonic influence is washing across the continent—all of these accusations are at least 40 years old.
Welcome to America’s new, digital Satanic Panic. It’s the same as the old one, honed to a razor-sharpness thanks to the speed and reach of the internet.
The echoes to the 1980s are undeniable—from the dubious premise to the lack of tangible proof undergirding it all.
Today, it’s a song called “Unholy” performed on a stage full of red-clad dancers; a falsely elected leader making demonic proclamations of enemies in front of an frightening backdrop; a fashion line using children to secretly defile innocent minds.
It’s led to a nation that needs to be “defeated, [not] saved” as Blaze TV commentator Steve Deace claimed on Twitter.
The idea of blaming events or people’s behavior on Satan is a very old one. It can take the form of religious revivals, popular conservative social movements, and “concerned parents” driving moral panics. These cyclical Satan panics are fixtures of American history, from the apocalyptic “Great Awakening” of the 1740s to preachers blaming 9/11 on the devil and seeing “Satan’s face” in the smoldering wreckage.
It can be found at the leading edge of today’s right-wing conspiracy movement and its obsession with “pedophile rings” and “grooming.”
The conditions that led to America’s most infamous Satanic Panic in the 1980s are mirrored in society today. A tumultuous economy, fear of rising crime, a newfound evangelicalism, and a charismatic leader promising a return to tradition.
The Satanic Panic of the 1980s included multiple innocent people spending time in prison for “ritual abuse” crimes that were never proven to have taken place, and countless children dragged through grueling interrogations demanding details on alleged abuse. And while it’s become a catchphrase for any kind of religiously conservative moral panic, its consequences at the time were devastating for many who did nothing wrong.
“People seem to be in never-ending need of a single villain or group of villains upon whom they can project their fears, guilt, uncertainty, and anxieties,” Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves told the Daily Dot. “As polarized political partisans grow more and more to embrace outraged autocrats, they imagine themselves fighting against the totalitarian efforts of imagined villains.”
The nontheistic organization advocates for the separation of church and state and against authoritarian laws, and has drawn the ire of both conservative commentators and Christians who misunderstand its purpose—leading to vandalism, death threats, and even a recent bomb scare.
In particular, the Satanic Temple studies the original Satanic Panic: the hysteria centered around the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, subsequent allegations of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” said to be carried out in preschools, and vast sex abuse cults at the very highest levels of American politics and finance.
The timing was perfect for a devil-driven moral panic, according to experts and journalists who studied the phenomenon. America was just starting an evangelical revival led by Ronald Reagan’s return to purported conservative values after the chaos and hedonism of the 1960s and 1970s, as the economy was also mired in a deep recession. At the same time, more women were joining the workforce, leading to the rise of the “latchkey kid” phenomenon and children needing full-time daycare. The institution of the nuclear family seemed to be under threat
It’s the same conditions as today, with an economy that never fully rebounded from both the Great Recession and the COVID pandemic and a famous celebrity political leader pushing for a return to traditional American values. All while fears about LGBTQ parents destroying traditional families flood the internet.
When Michelle Remembers came out and made lurid claims about secret Satanic sex abuse cults snapping up children in daycares and alone at home, it became a bestseller. Combined with the general unease of evangelicals about women in the workforce leaving their kids in the hands of strangers, the conditions were set for a moral panic.
The book was, essentially, an early form of the Libs of TikTok account.
But things moved slower in the era of chain letters and crank faxes. While the claims about a “Satanic” fashion line or rap performance can become national news in hours, it took three years for the claims in Michelle Remembers to drive a cultural panic.
But it finally did, starting with the baseless accusations of Satanic ritual abuse against the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California in 1983.
A parent accused the school’s staff of horrific sexual abuses motivated by the devil, leading to numerous arrests, a trial that dragged on for three years, and received relentless nationwide TV coverage. Ultimately, everyone involved with the McMartin trial was acquitted or released after their charges were dropped (other arrests for “ritual abuse” at schools around the country ended in the same way), and the vast majority of the “evidence” was discredited or found to have been unduly influenced by investigators.
But by that point, the panic had reached every level of government, media, and entertainment.
Rock stars were dragged in front of congressional committees, Geraldo Rivera claimed without evidence that there were “millions” of Satanists in a secretive cabal in the U.S. in a TV special in 1987, groups organized to root out Satan in their kids’ schools and hobbies (the game Dungeons and Dragons was a frequent target), and parent activists appeared almost out of nowhere.
What became known as the Satanic Panic finally burned out in the early 90s. But the evangelical fear of the influence of the devil and his minions never entirely goes away.
And we’re currently seeing a new cycle of accusation, fear, and overreaction. America is in the grips of a new evangelical revival, and concerns about lawlessness echo the fears of crime of the 1980s. Parents are terrified of what social media and COVID measures have done to their kids.
This new Satanic Panic isn’t just fodder for daytime TV, though. It’s everywhere, in virtually every corner of entertainment and politics. It exists on a similar timeline, using similar fears.
Singers Sam Smith and Kim Petras using a mix of demonic tropes when they performed “Unholy” at the Grammys led to a deluge of complaints to the FCC about it being “wrought with evil imagery, and depict[ing] DEVIL WORSHIPING ACOLYTES.” Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show received even more and was also deemed “Satanic” by concerned viewers. One influencer had a particular fit over her safety harness “actually” being a Pentagram.
And when fashion stalwart Balenciaga released a line using photo shoots that “depicted children holding bondage-adjacent teddy-bear bags (leather harnesses, padlocks, fishnet)” and “a $3,000 bag with papers about child-pornography laws strewn across the desk,” as Vogue put it, allegations that the brand was signaling support for Satanic rituals jumped from Twitter to Fox News almost immediately.
The fashion house denied any endorsement of the devil or pedophilia, issued an apology and filed a lawsuit against the production company behind one of the photo shoots.
But allegations of Satanic allegiance aren’t just being leveled at TikTok-friendly pop stars and fashion lines.
When President Joe Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia in September 2022, shortly before the midterm elections, the stark red lighting and content about Trump-aligned Republicans being “a threat to this country” set conservative podcasts and social media alight with allegations that the president was invoking demonic imagery. Biden “looked Satanic tonight” tweeted one popular conservative commentator, while others called him a “Satanic ghoul” and “almost satanic with the blood red lighting.”
As former South Carolina governor turned 2024 Republican contender Nikki Haley put it, “he looked like he was in the depths of hell.”
These claims are easily digested by conservatives. After a half-decade of QAnon conspiracy theories and Trump accusations against his enemies, it’s easy to understand why they are primed to believe Satanic pedophiles are real.
It’s why the groomer slur was so quick to catch on. There is no link between Satanism and pedophilia, but that fear—pushed by QAnon believers first—is driving much of the slurs being used as a cudgel against the LGBTQ community.
But like the Panic of the 1980s over “Satanic ritual abuse,” numerous studies have shown that none of this is happening. There is no evidence that Joe Biden, Sam Smith, or random set decorators working for Balenciaga worship the dark lord. But like in the 1980s, the facts simply don’t matter to those who want to believe that the accusations are true.
Satanic panics exists for the same reason that the vast majority of conspiracy theories and hate-driven hoaxes exist. They revolve around scapegoating those seen as having lifestyles and social mores regarded as abhorrent to the perceived majority. They turn outsiders into enemies, unexplainable events into smaller pieces of a vast plot, and make their believers feel they have secret and special knowledge that separates them from the masses.
Those who see Satan in the gyrations of Rihanna or the lighting in a speech by Biden believe they can divine information that others can’t, and they take that information and wrap it into the worldview they already have. And that worldview often puts them at the center of a vast battle between good and evil, one that doesn’t require understanding or empathizing with the views and actions of others, only destroying them, because they are bad and out to harm you and innocent children.
Despite the differences in speed and technology between the 1980s and now, the motivation ends up being the same: concern for children and decaying morality that curdles into obsession, paranoia, and scapegoating. And in both the 1980s panic and the more recent hysteria, no children are actually saved.