Kennedi Brown has written fiction under a pen name for years now. She plays the ukulele and writes songs no one will ever hear (hopefully).
What Was the Satanic Panic?
The setting: Halloween night, any year in the 21st century. You’ve just turned on your porch light to beckon the hordes of trick-or-treaters to your doorstep for the night, and in the process you decided to step outside to admire the sunset. Your black cat, Phillip, joins you on the porch and begins to nuzzle your leg. Just as you bend down to scratch his ears, you hear your next door neighbor call to you from behind the hedge that separates your properties.
“Hey! You’d better make sure he’s inside before the sun goes down!”
Puzzled, you call back to him for clarification.
“Make sure who’s inside?”
He steps up to the hedge so you can hear him better and glances left and right, as if he’s worried about spies watching him from the shadows.
“Phillip. Haven’t you heard that Satanic cults steal black cats like him off the streets on Halloween Night for their rituals? Everyone in town makes sure their cat’s inside on Halloween. Even if it isn’t a black cat.”
Your neighbor waves at you, turns around, and retreats to the cool glow of his own television-lit living room. You stand on your porch scratching Phillip's neck. Satanic cults kidnapping black cats on Halloween Night? Sacrifices? You were born and raised in this town and never heard of such a thing being a problem here, and you’ve had cats ever since you were a baby. You don’t remember your parents bringing your cat inside on Halloween before.
Fear of Demons in Small Town America
Does this scenario sound unreal to you, or have you had your neighbors, friends, or even family tell you similar things? I grew up in a very small town of less than 5,000 and had never heard of there being a problem with Satanic activity. But the first Halloween in my new house after I had adopted my first cat that was truly mine—a tuxedo cat with white paws and a white chest that I named James Bond—the warnings started pouring in from concerned neighbors on our first Halloween together. If I didn’t make sure he was inside when the sun went down, he would run the risk of being kidnapped for use in Satanic rituals. That was simply a fact everyone knew, and I was the weirdo for not being clued into the way things were.
One would think it would have made the local paper at least once if every October 31st a massive number of black cats went missing. It wasn’t until I had talked to people around town about such a phenomenon several times over the course of several years, as well as read a few articles online, that I realized that rumors in small town America of Satanic rituals taking place in the shadows even in this modern day weren’t as uncommon as I'd thought.
I’ve talked to people in my own backyard who swear that they remember seeing black Cadillacs snatch children off of playgrounds with their own eyes, and it most certainly wasn’t unique to my own backwoods Appalachian town. While the general public's fears have been abated, for many pockets of small town America the nightmare is far from over. Demons, as well as those who call them up from the depths, are still very much alive.
The Buildup to a Nationwide Moral Panic
Moral panics are nothing new to history, and neither are witch hunts both literal and metaphorical. They begin humbly enough and often spin out of control before we realize that we’ve let our fears get the best of us, leaving a huge mess to clean up and no one person or group to blame for the chaos. Just as poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec said in his 1964 book Unkempt Thoughts, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” and there were a lot of snowflakes in this avalanche.
The Rise of Cults
The '60s and '70s saw a sharp spike in the appearance of cult activity. There were people handing out pamphlets at every airport and college campus across the nation. What started off as merely a nuisance for people just trying to endure a layover soon became a nightmare for parents as young people started joining more sinister groups like the Children of God, which you really don’t want to read up on if you don’t want to feel like you’re covered in a thin layer of grease for the next couple of days. Despite accusations of abuse taking place within the church, David Berg and his ilk seemed almost untouchable for years, leaving the families of cult members desperate to get their loved ones back.
The Manson Family murdered actress Sharon Tate, and, on November 18th in Guyana, Reverend Jim Jones forced 909 people at gunpoint to commit mass suicide by cyanide poisoning, 304 of which were children. By the time regression therapy and repressed memories became popular psychological theories, America was already terrified of cults. The stage had been set.
Mike Warnke: Who He Was and How He Accelerated the Satanic Panic
In 1972, supposed former Satanist Mike Warnke published The Satan Seller, a horrifying account of Satanic ritual abuse that shocked the nation. While we might not be able to blame a single snowflake for the avalanche that was the Satanic Panic, I think it can be said that Warnke was at least the guy screaming loud enough to bring all of those snowflakes barreling down the mountainside. The book tells the frightening tale of drug abuse, physical abuse, magic, curses, a plot for world domination, and a whole slew of other things that would be horrifying if true. Fortunately for us, not a word of it is.
The rituals described in the book are outlandish to the point of absurdity. That so many people would believe its contents enough to get innocent people arrested seems far-fetched, but we have to remember that The Satan Seller was published in a very different America than the one we know today.
Why People Believed Him
Fact checking for most of us is now just a simple Google search away, and allegations like the ones that swept the nation in the '70s, '80s, and '90s have been banished to your racist uncle’s Facebook feed and those chain letters your grandma sends you six of at a time. But in 1972, people were much more likely to believe something just because they heard it on the news or saw it written in print. People believed in a level of gatekeeping in the media that just didn’t exist, that there were people somewhere making sure you couldn’t just say whatever you wanted on TV or write whatever you want in a book and have it published. We know now that yes, you absolutely can, and yes, people absolutely do.
Not only did people believe what Warnke said, they clamored for more. Public speaking gigs were rolling in, and he started his own ministry worth around $2 million. A 1985 special on 20/20 broadcasted his message to a national audience under the guise of impartial skepticism—two things it wasn’t in any way. Warnke delivered on telling the people more, and as a result his story only grew more unbelievable. He went as far as to claim Charles Manson was present at one of the rituals that took place while the man himself was in prison and couldn’t have possibly been there. Warnke suddenly had doctorates in philosophy and theology that just didn’t exist. Worse (or perhaps better) yet, other Christians had begun to poke holes in his fragile story.
Investigations Into Warnke's Past
Cornerstone magazine, a publication of Jesus People USA, began investigating Warnke’s past as well as the allegations put forth by other figureheads of the anti-occult movement. They learned that Warnke hadn’t lost his faith at all while he was a teenager and was engaged to be married when he was supposedly strung out on drugs and living alone. His then fiancee, Lois Eckenrod, as well as several people who were friends of his at the time all shared the same details that painted a very different picture of his life at than the one he described in The Satan Seller.
They also found that the time frame given for Warnke’s descent into darkness didn’t make any sense chronologically, and that none of the donations to the supposed rehabilitation center for children made victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse were actually going to the organization because it didn’t even exist. Not long after Cornerstone published “Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke” in 1992, the house of cards fell. While Warnke has seemingly recovered the trust of a small portion of the Christian community, his influence in the secular world as a whole is nowhere near what it once was.
I've linked a mirror of Cornerstone's article below in the sources if anyone is interested in reading it for further details on how Warnke, and by extension the entire anti-occult movement, was exposed.
2 Notorious Court Cases in the Satanic Panic
Warnke’s witch hunt wasn’t without its victims, many of whom actually ended up actually prosecuted for criminal activity from which they were eventually exonerated.
McMartin Preschool Trial
In the McMartin preschool trial, employees of a Manhattan Beach preschool were charged with Satanic Ritual Child Abuse in what would eventually become the most expensive and longest running court case in the history of the state of California. There was a staggering lack of evidence, and no one was ever charged with anything. Especially not Chuck Norris, who was identified as one of the perpetrators by one of the child witnesses. Yes, really.
West Memphis Three
In 1993, the bodies of three young boys were found in West Memphis, Arkansas and three local teenage outcasts accused of committing the crime. They were convicted despite a lack of evidence against them other than typical small-town gossip alleging that they were Satanists. They were only freed when DNA evidence cleared them of the crime 18 years later after the panic had ultimately passed.
America Comes to Its Senses
The McMartin trial and the legacy of the West Memphis Three just might have been what caused the general public to come to its senses concerning wild ritual abuse allegations, but not every case was widely publicized. Of the convictions that were made in the late '80s, almost all of them have been overturned, but that doesn’t undo the damage done to the lives of the victims.
Children were coached into making invalid accusations by people with an anti-occult agenda blinded by a desperate need validation of their own beliefs. Money was wasted training law enforcement officials to identify evidence of homicidal satanic cults even though ultimately no evidence that they existed was ever found.
The price America had to pay just to learn that most of the time a counter culture really is just a counter culture was staggering.
Ripples and Aftermath
So what can we learn from the mass hysteria of nearly four decades ago? Hopefully enough to ensure that it doesn’t happen again any time soon, though it’s doubtful that there will never be another witch hunt. What we can do is be critical of the claims we hear people making, and ensure that we have all the facts straight and that our sources are credible. Don’t lose yourself to your emotions, and always consider what someone pushing a claim has to gain from you believing them, regardless of whether it’s donation money, TV ratings, or just another ear willing to listen to gossip.
This has been a very brief summary of the general climate of the Satanic Panic. The actual rabbit hole goes much deeper, so if you’re interested in jumping in feel free to browse the links below. The moral panic of the last half of the 20th century may have settled down, but as anyone who's ever lived in a small southern town and loved Harry Potter, played Dungeons and Dragons, or practiced Paganism can tell you, some people never really stopped selling Satan.
Sources and Further Reading
- D.A. who wrongfully had dozens jailed to retire - SFGate
- The Jonestown Memorial List
- Mike Warnke: The Man Who Sold Satan | Speak of the Devil
- The history of Satanic Panic in the US — and why it's not over yet - Vox
Some of the victims of mass hysteria over satanic ritual abuse are still serving sentences.