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The Satanic Panic Is Incredibly Weird
You've never heard of the most expensive criminal case of all time
[content warning: extensive discussion of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, psychiatric abuse, and abuse by police officers]
Try to guess what the most expensive criminal case of all time was.
Unless you have very particular interests or spend time around me, you were wrong. It’s the McMartin preschool trial: a seven-year-long trial of several members of the McMartin family, who ran a preschool, for committing hundreds of acts of sexual abuse because they were Satanists.
My source for this fact, as well as the rest of the post, is the excellent We Believe The Children: A Moral Panic In The Eighties, which I highly recommend to the interested reader.
The McMartin trial was expensive because the defense attorney realized it was a moral panic and tried to drag out the trial as long as possible so that the moral panic would be over by the time the jury had made a conviction. This is in some ways a kind of morally dubious defense strategy (for one thing, he kind of kidnapped the jury for three years1). But on the other hand he did get his client off, unlike the literally dozens of people who spent years if not decades in jail for allegedly being Satanists who raped and murdered children.
The accusations were bizarre. Middle-class and upper-middle-class children were allegedly sexually trafficked, forced to perform in porn, made to take drugs, forced to kill a baby tiger in a graveyard, forced to watch while a horse was whacked apart with a machete, made to boil and eat a baby, thrown out of a boat to be eaten by sharks, etc.2 All of this happened at preschool, a place more typically noted for children learning their colors and ABCs.
As you might have noticed, there is currently no epidemic of Satanists raping and murdering children. In fact, there was no epidemic of Satanists raping children in the 1980s either. As far as anyone can tell, no Satanic cults have ever ritually raped children, much less starting a preschool in order to do so. The evidence that Satanic cults don’t rape children is overwhelming. The accusations are prima facie implausible. No physical evidence was ever found in any Satanic ritual abuse case, in spite of many people searching. And the children themselves were coerced into their accusations.
The panic began when some absurdly unethical therapists induced memories of Satanic ritual abuse in their patients. However, it really started to build when a mother who had schizophrenia accused an employee at the McMartin preschool of raping her child. (He didn’t.) Police and therapists assumed it was true and coerced the children into accusing McMartin employees; the children’s accusations grew wilder, and the police decided they were looking at a cult. And once they “knew” that there was a Satanic cult—well, now people were looking, and they found what they were looking for.
It’s easy to attribute the Satanic panic to a small number of Christian fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists who also think Dungeons and Dragons involves summoning demons. But the Satanic panic was genuinely taken seriously. The FBI trained police officers in detecting Satanic ritual abuse. Major newspapers and news shows ran articles about it without any skepticism. Midway through the McMartin trial, 97% of people in Los Angeles who were polled thought that the main defendant had done it, and only 22% thought that the accusations of Satanic abuse were absurd— and Los Angeles is not exactly a hotbed of religious fundamentalism.
The cultural effects of the Satanic panic are hard to overestimate. Because of the Satanic panic, child porn was completely criminalized in the US. Many day care centers and preschools forbade their teachers from touching their pupils. Laws were passed allowing children to testify on closed-circuit TV or parents and police officers to testify about what children said instead of the children themselves being called to the stand. The edgelord joke “show me on the doll where the bad man touched you” comes from the McMartin trials.
And yet the Satanic panic has sort of been memory-holed. No one ever talks about it. You’d kind of expect it to be a culture-war touchstone: it’s salacious, it’s memorable, and it involves a widespread conspiracy among adults to abuse children in the name of protecting them. You’d think this would be a great accusation to toss at people you don’t like on Twitter. But it isn’t at all.
I think that the Satanic panic has been memory-holed because it’s politically inconvenient for everyone on all sides of the aisle. On one side, social conservatives would probably rather not bring up the time they destroyed a bunch of innocent people’s lives because of blatantly false accusations of child sexual abuse—especially since the current discourse involves a lot of calling people groomers. That’s a bit of a cheap shot, but a lot of socially conservative discourse involves protecting the innocence of children, whether we’re talking about the drug war, opposition to various teen subcultures, or anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment. Bringing up the Satanic panic might cause people to ask awkward questions, like “are we so busy protecting the imaginary ideal of children that exists in our heads that we’re harming the real children who actually exist?”
On the other side, the Satanic panic is also inconvenient for feminists. Many prominent feminists believed in Satanic ritual abuse.3 The positive press coverage of the accusers included an article that ran in Ms. Magazine. Many of the therapists who abused their clients until their clients made false abuse accusations4 thought of themselves as feminists.
In the eighties, feminists, especially radical feminists, were worried about rape and child sexual abuse, and not without reason: relatively recent research had discovered both were endemic. Research had found (which is, I believe, still the scientific consensus) that children almost never spontaneously falsely accuse adults of sexual abuse. Children are more likely to minimize sexual abuse (i.e. saying “he touched me” when it was actually penetrative rape) than to exaggerate. It is normal for children to retract accusations of sexual abuse, because their parents get angry at them for making abuse accusations, and they try to keep their parents from getting mad by saying that actually they made it up.
Feminists concluded from this research, quite sensibly, that we should believe the victims of child sexual abuse. Then they extended this logic to say that, no matter what, there was no way you could cause a child to make a false accusation of abuse, so any tactic was justified to get children to admit to being abused.
Therapists played games with children where they encouraged them to pretend that they had been sexually abused, and then took the children’s imaginings as fact. Therapists asked leading questions, telling children what they were supposed to accuse suspects of. Therapists insulted children, calling them “stupid” and “scaredy cats” for insisting they were not abused. In the McMartin case, one child related that her mother had told her she was molested, so she must have been molested, because her mother wouldn’t lie. In at least one other case, children were physically abused until they “admitted” they had been sexually abused.
The psychiatric abuse of children didn’t just ruin the lives of the people falsely accused. It also traumatized the children, who were gaslit by people in authority, emotionally abused, subjected to invasive medical examinations of their genitals, and forced to lie both to every adult in their lives and under oath.
This is a set of very inconvenient facts for feminists, who would like people to believe victims of rape. It turns out that “just believe victims” can lead to civil liberties violations straight out of the fever dreams of a men’s rights activist. This is not theoretical! It happened within living memory! So of course feminists don’t want to bring it up either.
I don’t really have any deep conclusions here, other than the obvious (“don’t abuse children until they falsely accuse their teachers of raping them,” “if something seems really implausible consider the hypothesis that it actually didn’t happen,” “civil liberties are good”). I just think that this is a really weird thing that happened and it’s a shame that no one knows anything about it because it’s politically inconvenient for most culture war people. Maybe some of my readers will develop some takes about how it proves them right about everything, I don’t know.
If this whetted your interest, consider checking out We Believe the Children or the You’re Wrong About podcast’s excellent deep dive into Michelle Remembers.
The first four years were pretrial investigations.
I am trying to avoid giving too many details of the allegations, because it’s not the main point, but I can’t resist the urge to include that, according to the memoir Michelle Remembers, Satan wrote the following poem: “I can do much to destroy and then / Replace with words like hate and despair / Words as stupid as love and care.”
As a sex-positive feminist, I feel pretty smug that sex-positive feminists doubted the Satanic panic early on.
I use “abuse” quite deliberately here: many such therapists did things, like give their patients well above the usual therapeutic dose of barbiturates, that are clear violations of ethical therapeutic practice.