Satanic panic and other dangerous beliefs

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.


  1. Jörg says

    In the late 1980s, German Evangelicals were quite horrified that there was a series called “Teufels Großmutter” (“Devil’s granny”) on public TV in the afternoons when kids would watch, despite the contents being benign.

  2. mnb0 says

    “Also the fact that a largely Christian nation will always think about Satan.”
    This is another example of an American not capable of looking over the borders of his country.
    The Netherlands have been a largely christian nation for more than a millennium. Still no single satanic panic had ever been recorded. And trust me, there have been some hardcore christian hell and doom preachers. They never had any need for Satan to inflict fear on their audiences -- YHWH was fearsome enough. At the other hand the country has had some paedophilia panics -- two decades after the decline of christianity set in. The most infamous one was the so called Bolderkar affair.

    In the more tha two decades I’ve been living in Suriname -- also a largely christian nation -- I’ve never seen any satanic panic either. So whatever the explanation, christianity is not a sufficient condition.

    I found the Exorcist boring; the girl turning her head 360 degrees somehwat funny, but those few seconds are not nearly enough to get a grip on me. Of course I’ve never even been baptized; I lost my interest in christianity when I was 12 or 13.

  3. Bruce says

    We have to fight Satanic animal sacrifices, using good clean holy Judeo-Christian magic animal sacrifices. Quick, go get us some turtle-doves, goats, sheep, and cows to barbecue; we have to make a smoke that is pleasing to our Lord.
    By the way, if random Satanists can fly through the air, can this also be done by Popes, and by mega-church pastors? If Trump is more blessed than any mega-pastor, why didn’t the ultimate MAGA-pastor fly himself from the White House to Andrews Base without a helicopter? Can the good guys not match the tricks that Pharaoh’s magicians showed Moses?

  4. K says

    The McMartin daycare case was also a backlash against educated women going out and working and competing successfully with men. Conservative Christians--who also love to be terrified of Satan--used this case as a bludgeon to beat working women over the head to get them back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant the way they insisted their god required.

  5. TGAP Dad says

    I’d argue that the satanic panics have been in this country (the U.S.) since it was settled by Europeans. In Europe it predates our Salem witch trials by some centuries. They have one common thread connecting them: christianity.

  6. lanir says

    @Lassi Hippeläinen #2:

    Satan was formerly an angel. Angels did not get free will. If you follow that logic you end up with the idea that Satan is little more than a shadow puppet the Christian god is firmly in control of. More like an animated prop than a person.

    Most of the Christians I grew up around thought of Satan as just a face put on an abstract idea. There never had to be a literal personification of evil. Certainly not one you’d meet in a bar. Or while traveling to Georgia. Or while flying about the room. Or while abusing children or murdering animals. These ideas would seem almost as batty and disturbing to them as they would to me or anyone else here.

    A lot of this idea of a literal Satan making evil things happen strikes me as the sort of weird nonsense you get when a bunch of not very clever people get together and convince themselves they’re more clever than anyone else because they’ve discovered some key to how the universe works. One that no one else can understand. It probably doesn’t start off too weird. Just a silly story that’s obviously not true. But it aligns with the bizarro belief structure so the next person expands on it. And it just snowballs from there until people are flying around rooms when you’re not looking at them and a supernatural incarnation of evil throughout the universe has nothing better to do this weekend than to focus on recruiting you, you personally, for their little club of evil people.

  7. Katydid says

    There was a video that went viral a few years back that featured a woman absolutely losing her mind about “sly-chicks” and screaming that she was a “god warrior” and a “prayer warrior” and was going to…I dunno, cast spells on someone in the name of her god.

    She was obviously so terrified and irrational that I tracked down what she was carrying on about. Turns out it was one of those “swap” shows from the early late 1990s / early2000s where two families traded wives for a week, then at the end of the show, the couples met and awarded prizes to the other couple.

    So what was she carrying on about? She was from a whackadoo fundagelical sect and her host family were Unitarian Universalists. The sane family was planning a barbecue and inviting their friends, and the whackadoo one felt threatened and went off the deep end in the clip that went viral.

    That fear seems to be baked in to the fundagelical mind.

  8. beholder says

    The U.S. is full of Christians who think they’re saved by faith, not deeds. They are convinced they did all the ritual spell-casting to get into heaven correctly, except there is an adversary casting counter-spells on them to turn them [not-Christian/Satanic/gay/etc], so they always have to be vigilant against an onslaught of nonsense, or evidence, or an evidence-based worldview. It gets hard to tell those apart when your fear is that Satan is trying to trick you at all times.

  9. K says

    @Beholder, this is what puzzles me. Why worship a god who’s so weak and defenseless that he can’t stop his devoted followers from being tricked by…his own creation who rebelled against him? This is not the M.O. of an omnipotent, omniscient deity. No wonder so many of them are fear-biters.

  10. beholder says

    Two flavors that are deadlier together. I’m not discounting the possibility, sometime in the future of American empire, for our foreign policy galaxy brains to invade another country because: “We don’t know the details, but we know it was Satan!”

    I have no clue why they think that way either. Obviously there is a thrilling component to having secret knowledge of everlasting life, and possibly a thrill that they outwitted God (who, based on a skimming of Old Testament, is easy to outwit in several silly ways). Unfortunately, the New Testament turned sin into a thought-crime, so I can’t help but conclude that having that worldview must be terribly frightening and depressing.

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