The 13th Floor

Sex, Drugs, and…Satan!: The Rise and Fall of the 80s Satanic Panic

In 1980, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith released a memoir called MICHELLE REMEMBERS. The book describes Michelle’s recovered memories of supposedĀ Satanic ritual abuse as a child. The first such book to be released on the subject, MICHELLE REMEMBERS alleged that Michelle’s mother was part of a Satanic cult and forced her daughter to take part in these rituals, which included being rubbed with the blood of babies and adults that she watched the cult murder. The abuse ended after a continual, 81-day ritual that summoned the devil. According to Michelle, this same ritual also removed the physical scars of her torture, as well as the memories of the abuse until “the time was right.”


The book has been widely discredited and is now considered a work of fiction. But the fantastic claims (thought by some to be too horrible to make up) and the book’s cover which looked like a VHS horror movie sleeve made it the first step in the Satanic Panic that swept through the United States in the 1980s.

“Satanic Panic” was the catchy name given to the rising fear that Satanic forces were taking over the country. MICHELLE REMEMBERS was the catalyst that set off a string of investigations into ritual sex abuse perpetrated by day care providers across the country. Nearly a dozen high-profile cases popped up across the country during the 1980s and early 1990s, including Kern County, California; Country Walk, Florida; Malden, Massachusetts; and Austin, Texas. This time period also included dozens of accusations of sex abuse by day care providers that had nothing to do with Satanic rituals. Virtually all of the accused either had their cases dropped, were acquitted, or had convictions overturned.

The most prominent of these Satanic sex abuse cases was the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California. Initial accusations were made in 1983; pre-trial investigations ran from 1984 to 1987; and the trial itself ran from 1987 to 1990, making it (at the time) the longest and most expensive criminal trial in United States history. Among the accusations were that children were taken to a maze of underground tunnels for the abuse and for rituals; they were forced to watch and/or participate in bestiality and the ritual slaughter of animals; saw “witches fly;” and the teachers wore robes with no clothes underneath. Seven teachers and administrators at the school were charged with crimes, but only two went to trial. Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted on all charges. Her son, Ray Buckey, was acquitted on 52 of 65 charges; verdicts on the others were deadlocked. A second trial for Buckey produced the same results, and prosecutors declined to bring him to trial a third time.


Satanic ritual abuse of children was the basis for the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Child sexual abuse was finally a problem that was being discussed and studied, rather than just swept under the rug. Investigators were just starting to question children about abuse, and many of the techniques used have long been discredited as being leading or threatening. In addition, the 1980s saw a rise in fundamental Christianity, starting with the formation of the Moral Majority by Jerry Falwell. It is believed that the rumors of Satanic ritual abuse were perpetrated to further religious and political goals. To this day, no forensic evidence has ever been found that would connect Satanic rituals to child abuse – real or made-up.

But when a story this juicy hits the media, they aren’t likely to let go of it, and the “Satanic panic” spread to other, innocuous incarnations. Fantasy games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, were frequently believed to be a recruitment tool for Satanism, witchcraft, and other black arts. These beliefs were perpetrated mainly by anti-occult crusader Patricia Pulling, who started the advocacy group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons after her son, an active D&D player, committed suicide. She blamed the game for his death, believing that while playing the game at school he was placed under a “death curse.” Pulling even filed several wrongful death cases against the game publishers. All were thrown out.


The rise of heavy metal music, with album covers that depicted monsters and demons and a lot of spandex, were also subject to fears of occultists getting their hands on the nation’s innocent children. Tipper Gore (wife of former vice president Al Gore) was one of the co-founders of Parents Music Resource Center, whose main objective was to increase “parental control” over the music that their children listened to. Their issues came from lyrics that were perceived to glamorize sex, violence, and the occult. The group eventually got the recording industry to include parental advisory stickers on “offensive” albums, which was meant purely as a warning, like MPAA ratings. In fact, the PMRC suggested letter grades to warn consumers about what objectionable content might be contained; an “O” indicated occult content. Instead, the stickers had a censoring effect, with no accountability. Many stores (like Wal-Mart) refused to sell music with a parental advisory sticker; others would only sell those albums to adults, or keep the albums behind the counter. In 1985, the PMRC released the “Filthy 15,” a list of the 15 most offensive songs of the time. While heavy metal was often picked on for language, violence, drugs, and sex, two of the Filthy 15 were singled out for overt occult imagery: Mercyful Fate’s “Into the Coven” and Venom’s “Possessed.”


By the early 1990s, “Satanic panic” began to fade away. The most likely reason was simply that the public lost interest, especially after a decade of investigations revealed no proof that Satanic cults were destroying the nation’s youth. The last major case that could be construed as “Satanic panic” was that of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, three teenage boys were accused of raping and murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas as part of a Satanic ritual. The following year, all three young men were convicted of the murders. It is widely believed that the investigation was a witch hunt, focusing on these three young men because they were “weird.” They had minor juvenile records (for offenses such as vandalism and shoplifting); disagreed with the cultural climate that came from living in the Bible Belt; listened to heavy metal music; wore black clothing; and read Stephen King novels. Supporters of the West Memphis Three claim they were railroaded into the convictions due to sloppy police work, mishandling of evidence, and the general desire to put these “outsiders” behind bars. In 2011, the West Memphis Three were released from prison after a complicated and unusual plea deal. But all three men still have the convictions on their records, and Arkansas governor Mike Beebe won’t pardon them he is presented with proof that someone else committed the murders.