Crime

Satanic Ritual Abuse in the 1980s : A Modern-Day Witch Hunt



The 1980s was a decade when crusaders of various types attempted to attack the things they felt were eroding the moral fabric of the nation. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed in 1985 by the wives of several Washington politicians, with the goal of controlling rock music that they felt posed a threat to children. A year later, an enormous study by the U.S. Attorney General on pornography titled The Meese Report was published, with predictably scathing conclusions. Neither the PMRC nor The Meese Report managed to stop the supposed social blights they intended to, since rock music continued on with the only concession being a voluntary warning label on some albums, and pornography certainly didn't lose any ground.

It is doubtful that either of those crusades caused anyone more than some irritation. But there was one moral panic during the 1980s which left many real victims in its wake, and that was the Satanic Panic. Several developments had arisen by the beginning of the decade that led to the widespread belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse by some authorities. A growing segment of society with conservative Christian religious beliefs had become increasingly organized, with groups like Jerry Fallwell's Moral Majority becoming politically powerful, and the increasing frequency of social workers and child protective agencies to consider post traumatic stress and outlandish repressed memories as indicators of actual abuse.

The 1980s were also an era of reaction against social changes that had transpired in the previous decades, with a distrust in what many considered a dangerous rise of cults and alternative religions. The late 1960s and '70s had seen a number of frightening cults make the news, and the idea that people could be brainwashed and lost to a destructive group like Jim Jones's Peoples Temple weighed heavily on many minds. Along with the dangerous cults, which interestingly enough, often had their roots in Christianity, there were alternative religions that, while posing no threat to society, scared the mostly-Christian status quo in America. Wicca and The Church of Satan had rumbled into the public eye, and while those groups weren't dangerous to the public, they scared the Hell out of evangelical Christians who feared the Devil was objectively real, something the actual witches and Satanists rejected.

These different factors had come together to make odd allies of evangelical Christians and many therapists and law enforcement groups, which created a particularly toxic brew. Empowering organized religious groups who believed that evil occultists were really trying to rape and murder the innocent, while some psychologists and therapists also backed those claims, it was only a matter of time before the law stepped in and innocent people were targeted in a modern day witch hunt.


The idea of repressed memories of Satanic abuse fueled the moral panic, and in 1980, a book that many consider a major contributor to the hysteria was published. Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, "remembered" through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It's one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle's recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book's influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.


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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.