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.
In 1983, allegations of monstrous abuse at a family-run child-care center in California were made. A woman named Judy Johnson, whose young son attended the McMartin Preschool, went to the police reporting that the boy had been sodomized by her estranged husband and a teacher named Ray Buckey, who was a member of the McMartin family, which owned and operated the school. Johnson also made bizarre claims that teachers had sex with animals and that Buckey flew through the air. Although police questioned Buckey, he wasn't prosecuted because of a lack of evidence, but investigators contacted other parents with children enrolled at the school indicating that their kids might have been abused.
That inquiry led to hundreds of children being interviewed by the Children's Institute International, a clinic specializing in abuse therapy. CII employed techniques that are now considered highly ineffective and controversial, which involved asking the children to pretend, and also used leading questions. The questioning was highly suggestive in nature, but the children's stories were treated as accurate, regardless of the outlandish nature of many of them. Despite criticisms by some members of the professional psychological community of the coercive nature of the interviews, and the high probability that they would result in false accusations, several members of the McMartin family and the teaching staff were charged with hundreds of counts of child abuse.
Many of the interviews with the children included tales of seeing witches fly, nonexistent secret tunnels beneath the school, children being flushed down toilets to be abused in hidden chambers, and other preposterous allegations of Satanic abuse, but that didn't stop the case from going to trial. Although some of the charges were quickly dropped because of weak evidence, some of the defendants endured a seven-year legal battle, including Ray Buckey, who had spent five years in jail before having the charges against him dismissed. Judy Johnson, the original accuser, was revealed to have been suffering from severe mental problems, but in the environment created by the Satanic ritual abuse panic, her accusations had been treated as fact by many authorities, destroying the lives of several people and starting a trial that cost $15 million to prosecute.
Sadly, the McMartin case was only one of many similar instances where the employees of child-care centers were accused of Satanic ritual abuses and investigated.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Peddling fear has often proven profitable, and many "experts" and religious extremists came out of the woodwork pushing bizarre stories of Satanic ritual abuse as a national or worldwide scourge. To explain how so little actual evidence of murderous occult crime was ever found, some would invent ridiculous stories such as the Satanists traveling with "portable crematoriums" to dispose of their sacrificed victims' bodies — an impossible claim since cremation involves temperatures reaching 1800 degrees, and the technology for a portable version didn't and still doesn't exist.
"Experts" who should have known better seemed to have largely ignored the patently unbelievable claims that were often made about Satanic ritual abuse, and with talk show hosts like Oprah and Geraldo Rivera hosting episodes about Satanic crime, too many people just assumed it was a legitimate problem, despite the fact that no evidence ever supported that idea. In many cases, the same people writing books making ridiculous claims about Satanic ritual abuse were also seen as experts, and then enjoyed lucrative careers educating law enforcement agencies and speaking at churches. Some police agencies created occult crime divisions, and would investigate any minor evidence of occult activity as if it were the potential scene of a human sacrifice, and not a handful of local teenagers rebelling by spray-painting a pentagram on a wall somewhere. The panic gained momentum and continued to ruin the lives of those falsely accused for more than a decade.
Houston Press reporter Craig Malisow wrote about the recent dismissal of charges against the Kellers, an Austin-area couple who ran a day care in the early '90s just as most of the Satanic ritual abuse scare was starting to run out of steam, and was being abandoned by the majority of law enforcement and psychology communities as it had become too obvious that it wasn't real.
Still, that didn't keep the Kellers from going to prison after being accused of ridiculous abuses. The problem is there will always be people who believe, or want to believe, that diabolical groups of Satanists or other scapegoats are out to murder the innocent, and it behooves us all to remember that outrageous claims require real evidence before innocent people have their lives destroyed by zealots or over-eager law enforcement agencies.