The Satanic Panic of the 1920s


• Heather Greene on “How Today’s Conspiracy Theories Echo Satanic Panic.”

Greene provides a good summary of the Satanic Panic’s history that began in the 1980s, identifying many of its roots in pop culture (including Mike Warnke’s pranks and Michelle remembers). But, like many stories of this moral panic, his account fails to mention that millions of evangelical white Americans suddenly began to believe that millions of their seemingly normal neighbors were secretly killing babies for Satan at the same time as the Republicans. . The party was rewriting its platform to centralize the criminalization of abortion.

Or, put another way, the Satanic Panic came at precisely the same time that Republican politics began to center on the belief that millions of your seemingly normal neighbors were secretly killing babies for Satan.

The satanic panic is not just the result of millions of white evangelicals buying Mike Warnke’s “Christian comedy” albums. It also came from tens of millions of those same white evangelicals who watched movies in which Francis Schaeffer surrounded himself with “dead baby” dolls.

How did people come to believe that Satanists were performing human sacrifices in secret tunnels under McMartin Preschool and Comet Pizza? Because Warnke and Dobson and Falwell and Reagan and Christianity today all told them something like this was happening.

• I am grateful to Rebecca Jennings for her Voice room, “Is a new type of religion forming on the Internet?” because he made me discover Abbie Richards, researcher on Tik-Tok and she very helpful Plot chart.

Richards’ infographic is a great visualization of the inexorable trajectory of conspiracy theories. No matter how harmless the starting point – Avril Lavigne got caught in the body! – they all point in a very wrong direction. Richards emphasizes this destination with his term “The anti-Semitic point of no return”.

It is not only that Warnke’s satanic baby-killerism and the “pro-life” movement is a rehashed rehash of the ancient blood libel, but that it necessitates belief in a nefarious secret cabal of malefactors drawing strings and that, throughout Christendom, such an imaginary cabal will always, always, always end up being identified as “the Jews.”

• Denver International Airport earns a spot on this chart due to the many conspiracy theories being floated about its bizarre design. (That’s what you get for trying to make an airport look better than, you know, an airport.) The Denver Public Library doesn’t get that kind of attention, even though his archives are full of documents on the satanic panic.

The Denver area was home base for Warnke and Bob Larson and other quacks profiting from the panic, and the area’s police fell gullible into it all:

In the late 1980s, Denver police instituted an “Occult Crimes Unit”, which “uncovered a ‘Satanic Gang’ of 12 to 15 people suspected of minor burglaries and graffiti of upside-down crosses, skulls and the number 666.”

…The Rocky Mountain News was unlucky when news personnel tried to find and interview the attackers, but wrote to police that they had “a lot of interesting evidence and suspicions” that “human sacrifice and sexual assault rituals” had taken place.

In 1988, an Aurora Police sergeant warned a group of parents that “the person sitting next to you in church may be a Satanist.”

Library archivist Alex Hernandez neatly sums up the appeal of such nonsense:

“A group of people have similar political values, and part of how they reinforce each other is by demonizing ‘the other,'” Hernandez told us. If there is no “other,” he added, “they have to build one. And for some reason throughout history it always involves drinking baby blood and sacrificing people to unseen dark powers and global cabals.

“For some reason”, yes. This would be, once again, the “anti-Semitic point of no return”.

What Hernandez describes there also explains why the Satanic Panic never ended. It was an expression of “demonizing the other” that faded once it was replaced by a more respectable expression of the same idea: the anti-abortion politics of the past 40 years that is based on the same premise that “the person sitting next to you in church may be killing babies for Satan.”

the West Memphis Three The case was one of the last spasms of the old-fashioned satanic panic of the 80s. By 1994, most of the country had moved on. Accusing Arkansas teenage metalheads of being part of a worldwide conspiracy of Satan-worshipping baby-killers was old hat. Every respectable mainstream moral hysteric had previously accused the former first lady of Arkansas of being part of a global conspiracy of Satan-worshipping baby killers.

And that’s why Damien Echols is no longer in prison and why Amy Coney Barrett sits on the Supreme Court.

• I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide where on Richards’ plot chart we should place this:”A Mormon group digging for the Bible town of Zarahemla in Iowa is a portrait of religious nationalism.”

“A group called the Heartland Research Group,” reports Hanna Seariac, “traveled to the cornfields of Montrose, Iowa, in search of Zarahemla, a town frequently mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

The Relationship Between Archeology and the Book of Mormon is a bit loaded, to say the least, but that’s not the subject of Seariac’s article, which, she says, is about “something darker.” The “Heartland” movement within the LDS is a form of religious nationalism that attempts to invest the United States with scriptural primacy as a special nation for God’s special people:

This position is further exacerbated by the Heartland’s belief that not only is the United States of America a chosen land, but that the chosen people came from Europe to America. The language of Anglo-Saxon heritage and bloodlines cements the connection between the Heartland movement and white supremacy.

Yeah. There is still this point of no return.

• “Women executed 300 years ago as witches in Scotland set to be pardoned“:

From allegations of cursing the king’s ships, transforming into animals and birds, or dancing with the devil, a satanic panic in early modern Scotland meant thousands of women were accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 18th centuries centuries and that many have been executed.

Now, three centuries after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, campaigners are on track to secure pardons and official apologies for the approximately 3,837 people – 84% of whom were women – tried as witches, two-thirds of whom were executed and burned.

Better late than never, I guess.


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