Until recently, I didn’t think much about the “Satanic panic” phenomenon of the 1980s. That’s somewhat surprising, since the decade-long Satanism scare inspired one of my favorite horror movies of the 2000s, writer-director Ti West’s ’80s-inflected “The House of the Devil.” Now that I’m reading the novel “Dark Places,” by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, satanic panic is on my mind again. According to the 1991 book “The Satanism Scare,” in the ’80s “antisatanism” became a cause célèbre in certain circles due to several “precursor movements” — “fundamentalist Christianity, the anticult movement, the development of ‘satanic churches,’ the new wave of child saving, and the survivor/recovery movement.”
Self-described adherents of Satanism have been making headlines lately. The nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage and the movement to defund Planned Parenthood are galvanizing the religious right. Some conservative commentators are stopping just short of calling Planned Parenthood satanic. All of this makes me wonder if another wave of Satanic panic is on its way. This one, I suspect, won’t be focused on bloody basement rituals. Instead, it’ll be framed to suit the climate of the current culture wars, in which some Americans wield their “sincerely held beliefs” like something in between a weapon and a superpower.
Satanic panic had lost most of its hold on America’s collective consciousness by the early ’90s. At the end of the ’80s, however, the anti-Satanist movement still had plenty of life left in it. In his 2006 book “Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Ritual Abuse in History,” David Frankfurter notes that someone whose therapist or other provider diagnosed him or her as a victim of “Satanic ritual abuse” (SRA) might undergo Christian counseling, some type of exorcism ceremony, and/or involvement in an SRA survivor support group whose members identified as “anti-satanic warriors.” As Flynn points out in “Dark Places,” a number of people who may have been entirely innocent lost their reputations, and years of their lives, due to the witch-hunt atmosphere of the panic. (Flynn references the McMartin preschool trial specifically.)
Perhaps the satanic panic of the ’80s was a product of its time. Still, America has proven disturbingly incapable of learning from the mistakes of actual and figurative witch hunts in its past. Whether or not you want Planned Parenthood to be defunded, the phrase “selling baby parts for profit” is almost certainly lodged in your mind at this point. In an age of highly democratized media, too many people are still susceptible to panics based more on fear than facts. My hope is that, over time, we will all become less gullible and excitable and more thoughtful and truth-seeking.