The New Satanic Panic

Back in the 1980s, there was quite a scandal. It seems that child care providers were supposedly abusing children horribly as part of Satanic abuse rings. The supposed acts the children were said to have performed included naked pictures and games with the care center operators, satanic rituals, orgies, and other horrendous acts. (They were also said to have seen witches fly, to have taken part in orgies in carwashes, to have been flushed down toilets into secret rooms, and to have been forced to lick peanut butter off a teacher’s genitals.)

Similar accusations happened around the country, but the most infamous was the case of the McMartin Preschool in California. The scandal kicked off when one child reported to his mother (who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic) that he had been abused. The school sent a form letter to all the parents, telling them to observe their children for signs of abuse. The floodgates opened.

The children were interviewed by a psychologist, who was later found to have been using leading questions and suggestive and coercive techniques to overcome the children’s denials of abuse. Nonetheless, the preschool owners were arrested, leading to a series of trials with no convictions and several hung juries. Outside the courtroom, angry parents congregated with signs that read “Believe the Children.”

In some states, merely being associated with such a case, even as a law officer or a judge was enough to get you accused. The seeds of conspiracy had been planted. Many believed that there were elaborate underground rings of Satanists who abducted and even bred children for abuse, pornography, and cannibalistic rituals. No trace of these Satanic child-traffickers was ever found. Gradually, the country calmed down and realized that they had overreacted. 

In her book The Devil in The Nursery, Margaret Talbot said: “When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare . . . the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop . . . raping and sodomizing children, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors, and the authorities.”

That credulity has returned, however, in the form of QAnon, which Kevin Roose, writing for the New York Times, describes:

QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. QAnon followers believe that this clique includes top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.

QAnon has been described as a “big-budget sequel” to Pizzagate, because it takes the original Pizzagate conspiracy theory — which alleged, falsely, that Mrs. Clinton and her cronies were operating a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant — and adds many more layers of narrative on top of it. But many people believe in both theories, and for many QAnon believers, Pizzagate represented a kind of conspiracy theory on-ramp.

Adding to the clamor is the very real problem of child sex-trafficking, an international criminal conspiracy in which teens and young women are promised jobs such as dancing or (ironically) nannies. When they arrive at their destination, however, they are beaten, broken, and “employed” as prostitutes. Unfortunately, QAnon has muddied the waters by using “Save the Children,” the slogan of a real anti-trafficking organization. Now QAnon materials are more likely to be headlined or hashtagged with “Save Our Children.”

It is perhaps relevant to point out that both of these Satanic panics are aimed at people who are supposedly destroying society. In the 80s, it was working mothers, single parents, and the people who cared for their children that were supposedly at fault. There was a lot of talk going around positing that working  and single mothers were damaging their children by “allowing them to be raised by someone else.” The nuclear family, that foundation of society, was being threatened.

Now the Satanic panic targets liberals – politicians and Hollywood “elites” – who have come to be feared by both right-wing politicians and their right-wing followers. This time it’s not just the nuclear family that’s at stake. It’s the whole future of American democracy.

And it’s not likely that the lack of evidence will convince anyone that the accusations are untrue. There are still McMartin conspiracy theorists that swear there are remnants of hidden tunnels under the now-vacant lot that the school once occupied. The fact the pizza shop of Pizzagate fame had no basement did not stop the rumors that the sex-trafficking was conducted out of the basement.

Given how badly the country is divided now and how people are willing to view their neighbors, leaders, and others as enemies, it is not very likely that this Satanic panic will go away soon. But someday, people will hasten to deny that they ever believed that Tom Hanks was involved in child sex trafficking or that Hillary Clinton drank the blood of babies. Not until lives are ruined, careers are derailed, and friends and families torn apart by being on different sides of the “issue.” 

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