While I am an atheist, I can understand the appeal that the idea of a god has for some people, since I was a believer myself at one time. But even during my most religious phase, I never gave much thought to the devil or Satan, as he was sometimes called. It just seemed such a silly idea and the various depictions one saw of a red-faced guy with wings and horns seemed ridiculous. He also seemed superfluous. Since god was omnipotent and it was he who consigned you to hell to suffer interminable torments for one’s transgressions, what was the point of Satan, other than to serve as some kind of doorman to the gates of hell?
I dismissed Satan as a metaphor, a mere embodiment of evil. But for some people, Satan seems to be real enough to panic over and we see periodic eruptions of what this panic can cause, usually in conjunction with pedophilia, resulting in some serious miscarriages of justice. Those who are older will recall the events in the 1980s, with people being accused of Satan worship and engaging in all manner of appalling activities involving children in day care centers. The bizarre stories hat gained wide currency then were similar to what we see today with the QAnon cult.
Sean Illing talked with Sarah Marshall who is writing a book on the topic, to explore the question: “[W]hat is it about American culture that produces these bizarre panics? And why Satan of all figures?”
The McMartin case was the first to really breach the wall into national news, and it comes about when a little boy’s mother becomes concerned that he has been abused at his day care, McMartin Preschool. And she suspects a man named Ray Buckey, who was a member of the McMartin family. One of the things that her son said was that Ray flew through the air, and the police apparently took this seriously. And when they found a black robe in the closet of one of the women who ran the McMartin preschool, they took it as a black robe for a satanic ceremony, connoting that this woman was a witch. And of course, it was a graduation robe. That idea did not seem to enter people’s minds.
Satanists would apparently love nothing more than to have low-paying jobs as child care workers, who have to do backbreaking work and then can get a bunch of 3- or 4-year-olds to take part in a long complicated ritual, in which you can get nothing wrong or else Satan himself will not come. And one of the aspects of this is supposed to be animal sacrifice.
So from the beginning, you have tons of kids also telling stories about sacrificing animals, because adults go in already believing that if they were abused at day care, then it must be Satanists, and if it’s Satanists, then there’s animal sacrifice. And then it’s a matter of, “Alright, what animals did they sacrifice? It had to be something.”
Marshal says that while Satanic panics did not originate in the US, for a variety of reasons it has found very fertile soil here that enables it to flourish.
We had satanic panics in other places, too. This whole thing originates in Canada, and I know it’s shown up in the UK and in New Zealand, and I’m sure lots of other countries I’m not thinking of, or don’t know about yet, but I have only experienced being an American.
I do think we’re very weird. We were founded partly by people who thought that Satan and demons were part of everyday life and were constantly trying to tempt them. And that character has just been with us since the Puritans came.
Also the fact that a largely Christian nation will always think about Satan. I know a lot of people who define America that way are concerned that Satan is stealing the country out from under them.
These are not harmless beliefs. Beliefs in the reality of Satan can lead to beliefs that some people, especially children, are possessed by demons and that can lead to them being killed. I have never understood the popularity of many books and films like The Exorcist with themes of children possessed by evil spirits. They seem to me to breed dangerous ideas.