Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
How it All Began
In late spring, the days are supposed be longer and brighter. The winter thaw has long past and summer is around the corner. However, on June 10, 1692, there was a foreboding chill in the air.
Brigit Bishop, a social outcast by Puritan standards met her fate at the end of a rope in a colonial Massachusetts village. She had been accused of “being in the league with the devil” and was given the ultimate punishment by her god-fearing neighbors.
She wouldn’t be the last. In a period spanning all of summer and parts of autumn of that year, The Salem Witch Trials would lead to 20 executions and numerous accusations. It disrupted lives, destroyed reputations, and left a town pointing fingers at each other with distrust and disdain.
It would also set the precedents for things to come. A hidden war between perceived good and evil was being waged in the shadows of an emerging country’s psyche. People – in particular, some fundamentalist Christians -- were seeing the work of the devil in nearly every aspect of life, and were ready to wage war against it.
Battle between Satanism and Christianity is not what it seems. While there are churches in the country dedicated to worshiping the devil, few if any have been involved in open hostilities with Christians. Instead, many of these battles were waged by overzealous people who were reacting to things that went against their own moral beliefs.
Also, as was the case with Salem Witch Trials, the belief that the devil was behind something was generated by superstition, rumors, outright lies, or ulterior motives of the accusers. And, its results –while not lethal – destroyed lives and reputations.
... the "panic" didn't get going until people like Bob Larson, an evangelical preacher, made spurious claims that Satanism was rampant in the entertainment industry.
The latter half of the 20th century saw a flurry of hysteria involving Satanism. These were contentious times, in which the Cold War between the United States and USSR threatened nuclear annihilation. Also, it was a time of tremendous social, economic, and moral changes for the United States and abroad.
As a result of these changes, the influence of Christianity had faltered. This didn’t sit well with many devout believers. Some of the more conservative fundamentalists started to believe that Satan and his agents of followers were responsible for these changes.
In addition, there were many within this particular community who saw signs of the “Rapture”. Whether it had to do with moral declines, the re-emergence of Israel as a state, or the coming of the new millennium, many saw it as a sign of the coming of the Antichrist and the End Times of life on Earth. So, it comes as no surprise that during these heady days that the era of Satanic Panic began.
According to Rationalwiki.Org., Satanic Panic started in the 1970s and gained traction during the 1980s and 90s among the country’s evangelical Christians. Many within this sect “believed that there was a vast network of Satanists controlling several aspects of secular society.”
Books such as the 1972 publication of The Satan Seller (Mike Warneke), and the 1980 publication Michelle Remembers (Michelle Smith) helped to create this belief. Also speaking engagements at various churches in the 1970s by John Todd fueled this speculation.
Of the latter, Todd claimed to have been born into a family of witches. He was supposedly trained to become a “high council of Druids” before converting to Christianity. His speeches were influential enough to inspire noted Christian comic book artist Jack Chick (creator of the Chick tracts, small and free booklets that were distributed in almost every public area). Also, Todd became the go-to guy for those in the media and law enforcement who wanted to learn more about this secret “coven”.
Due to its availability, the Chick Tracts brought the Satanic Panic to a mass audience. But the "panic" didn't get going until people like Bob Larson, an evangelical preacher, made spurious claims that Satanism was rampant in the entertainment industry. He accused creators of popular music and games in the 1980s were secretly being used to recruit kids to the cause of Satan, or to commit heinous crimes.
Example of Back Masking (possibly a parody)
The accusations were as follows:
- Many popular rock albums had subliminal back-masking messages. Supposedly, the only way anyone could hear these messages was when they played their records backward. One example given was that the popular Led Zeppelin song, “Stairway to Heaven” contained the message “My Sweet Satan.”
- The popular fantasy roll-playing game, Dungeon and Dragon was really an “occult recruiting tool”.
- Heavy Metal music glamorized Satanism and was also a recruiting tool.
- A group of Satanists were poisoning children with Halloween candy.
- Satanists were secretly sacrificing pets and humans, or conducting ritual abuse against children.
Also, during this time, mass media helped to inflame the panic. It was not uncommon to see TV personalities such as Oprah Winfrey or Geraldo Rivera do uncritical segments dealing with this issue. In fact, Rivera’s 1988 TV special on the subject (in which there were accusations of Satanic Activity occurring in nearly every part of society) had some of the highest viewership in NBC’s history.
Police Start the Battle against Satan
With this frenzied interest, law enforcement began to take these accusations seriously; in particular, anything having to do with Satanic Ritual Abuse. SRA, as it is known, is the belief that Satanists are systematically – in rituals – abusing children. In many respects, SRA came to the public’s knowledge through the memoir Michelle Remembers. Michelle Smith (with the help of her therapist, co-author, and future husband, Lawrence Pazder. M.D) wrote about being a victim of this particular crime.
The memoirs, as well as other similar claims, were so compelling that law enforcement agencies throughout the country sought the advice of experts in this field (including Smith and Pazder). As a result, many formed tactics in dealing with SRA.
And, throughout the 80s and 90s, the police were busy, busting supposed groups of Satanists. Some of them became well known such the Mc Martin Preschool Molestation Case and the West Memphis 3, .
So who were the Satanists?
In this battle, the identity of the supposed Satanists seems to reflect someone who seemingly didn’t fit society’s standard. Many of the accused in the Salem Witch Trials were independent women, elderly mid-wives, or tavern owners.
In the case of the West Memphis 3, in which three teens were accused of ritualistically murdering three young boys in an Arkansas town, the suspects were social outcasts (two of them were hard rock fans and dressed in dark Goth fashion; the other was reported to have diminished mental abilities).
In the era of the Satanic Panic, the characteristics changed. Those who were considered Satanists were:
- Wiccans or neopagans
- Goths (or those dressed in black, in some cases).
- Those who act “strange” in public.
- Those into New Age.
- The United Nations
- The Illuminati
The list can go on. Almost any form of transgression or alternative thinking was being viewed by some accusers as heresy or signs of satanism.
Aside from the supposed crimes, there were revelations about the people who started or fueled this scare
The Devil (it turns out) is not in the Details
Was the hype real? Did law enforcement and the accusers break up a large syndicate of Satanists? The answer is simple: no.
In fact, the evidences were flimsy, at best. In the case against the West Memphis 3, evidence of Satanic rituals fell apart when it was discovered that the expert witness in the case received his credential through the mail, via a diploma mill. The allegation of ritual abuse in the Mc Martin case could not be supported (also, it should be noted that some of children that made the original accusations had recanted their stories).
The deception didn’t stop there. Aside from the supposed crimes, there were revelations about the people who started or fueled this scare. Warnke’s The Satan Seller was exposed as fraudulent in 1992. Michelle Remembers was also exposed as a fraud. Eventually, John Todd – the man who claimed to have been born in a family of witches – was discovered to be a storefront preacher and follower of the “Jesus Only” movement during the time he claimed to be a Satanist.
Other aspects of the panic crumbled under close scrutiny. According to The Skeptics Dictionary on the subject of SRA, a four-year study conducted by UC Davis psychology professors Gail S. Goodman and Phillip R. Shaver – along with Jianjiam Qin of UC Davis and Bette I. Bottoms of University of Illinois at Chicago – revealed that allegations of Satanic ritual abuse “to be without merit.” Others studies, including one from the FBI, confirmed these findings
State of the War between Christian and Satanists
The Salem Witch Trials ended when it spread beyond the village’s borders, and sensible minds in the colonial government intervened. Also, it stopped when it was discovered that the chief accusers had fabricated the stories of witchcraft.
In many respects, this is how many incidents during the Satanic Panic of the 20th century ended. The war between Christians turned out be an aberration rather than reality.
There have been cases of self-proclaimed Satanists who have maimed or killed others. One such case was the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez – who use to flash a pentagram on his hand and blurted out “hail Satan” before he was sentenced in court. But, he’s the exception to the rule (and many Satanists and Wiccans will state: he had little understanding of Satanism).
In all due respect, the victims of the war were not children or accused people of 17th century Salem. It was the truth. And that will be the legacy of this war.
The threat and dangers of Satanism?
History of the Salem Witch Trials
© 2014 Dean Traylor
Chante van Biljon from Bloemfontein on April 04, 2020:
Thanks for your article. It's true, those who think Satanism is all around us and even those who perform horrific acts in the name of Satan have little idea of what Satanism really is.
Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on September 18, 2016:
I thought long and hard about accepting the post above. For one thing, it's WAY OFF THE MARK from what the article was about. Also, comment veered into a bizarre rant that became straight-up racist. Having an African-American son, my blood boiled upon reading the arcane description of some racial apocalypses that commentator described. I was equally baffled to where he thought my views were the same as his. NO WAY IN HELL! I decided to accept this because it sounds like the same type of rhetoric I heard during the Satanic Panic of the late 70s and 80s. Also, I came to realize that people like this do exist and they shouldn't be hiding. They need to be exposed. I doubt this person will cause harm to others. But, you never know....you just never know. Also, in no way do I believe this comment reflects Christian ethics. There are many great people who espouse the Christian doctrine of loving your fellow human being. The comments definitely didn't reflect that.
Leslie A. Shields from Georgia on August 22, 2014:
Well, that which was a lie, certainly was a lie, but, that which is true certainly is true. Satanism is alive and thriving in this country... under the cover of darkness and respectability. And, there is a reason to be aware but never scared of the Satanic agenda.