Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Three days before Ronald Reagan was elected president, an alleged autobiography was published in Canada under the title Michelle Remembers. Cowritten by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband Lawrence Pazder, Michelle Remembers was a harrowing tale of a child who was born into a family of Satanists and ritually abused over the course of her childhood. The book recounted a number of black masses involving ritual murder, mutilation, and rape, climaxing in an eighty-one-day ritual attended by hundreds, and featured a cameo appearance by Satan himself, along with other A-listers like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Michael the Archangel. In the final act, these figures conveniently helped Michelle repress all her memories of the events, until they came out through hypnosis during therapy sessions with Pazder.
Neither the book nor its authors made any attempt to provide any evidence for any of its claims, but that didn’t stop it from selling millions of copies, or its authors becoming staples on TV talk shows. Oprah Winfrey had Smith on her program (along with Laurel Rose Wilson, the author of a similar memoir), and Geraldo Riviera did an entire special on the prevalence of abusive satanic cults in America—and worldwide. By the end of Reagan’s tenure, we had all become convinced that an international cabal of Satanists held the world in an iron grip, abducting and murdering hundreds, if not thousands, of children for their dark rituals.
Of course, the whole thing was absurd on its face.The problem with that, of course, is the same problem that exists with all conspiracy theories: when a lack of evidence is itself considered evidence, you can claim literally anything you want to be true.
In the first place, Satanists, as they’re usually depicted in horror movies, are vanishingly rare. If you believe in the Satan of the Bible, you have to be pretty embarrassingly stupid to actually worship him, since the Bible is clear that Satan and all his followers are destined for an eternity of torment. I’m sure somebody like that exists, but an international cabal? Probably not. The Church of Satan is a real thing—it was founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey—but both LaVey and those who have followed him have been very clear that they neither believed in nor taught the existence of Satan or any other supernatural being, instead using the devil as sort of an all-purpose symbol for resisting authority and sticking it to the man (no word on whether they paid royalties to the estate of John Milton for the idea). But none of these facts went particularly far in preventing literally thousands of people from spontaneously recovering memories similar to Michelle’s.
Over the course of the eighties and early nineties, thousands of accusations of satanic ritual abuse surfaced, driven mainly by adults who “recovered” memories of it in hypnotherapy sessions. While “repressed” memories can be real in the sense that the human brain tends to retain traumatic memories in a fragmented way, hypnotherapy has a tendency to fill in the gaps with whatever the therapist suggests—and, of course, the dynamics of the patient/therapist relationship heavily incentivize patients to say the most sensational things they can think of (since sensational findings can lead to professional success, which means the most sensational patients get the most attention—it’s probably no coincidence that Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder eventually married). Later surveys found that the majority of allegations of satanic ritual abuse—similarly to other equally sensational claims, like dissociative identity or “multiple personality” disorder—had been uncovered by just a handful of therapists. Further, many of these patients had been held together in the same wards and given ample opportunity to socialize with each other. In other words, there was a system in place where everyone was rewarded for making up and/or believing wild stories.
Basically, it was sort of just an elaborate roleplaying game—ironically, since it was, in part, fueled by an irrational fear that roleplaying games (along with other deliberately creepy things, like heavy metal music and slasher films) were secretly an initiation ritual for satanic cults. Unlike regular roleplaying games, though, the satanic panic actually hurt a lot of real people. In probably its most sensational moment, the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was accused of being a front for a satanic child abuse ring. Children were, allegedly, funneled through tunnels beneath it and taken to an underground lair where they would be raped and forced to watch the sacrifice of animals. The tunnels, of course, never existed, and in 2005, one of the witnesses for the McMartin trials wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times saying that none of his allegations had been true, and he had only said what he thought his parents and the prosecutors wanted to hear. (That so many people wanted to believe stories of horrific abuse is… something to think about, for sure.) When one prosecutor showed an alleged victim a series of photographs and asked him to identify his abuser, he picked out Chuck Norris. The jokes, as they say, write themselves.
In the end, the McMartin trials all ended with acquittals or hung juries due to the complete lack of evidence, but by that point Ray Buckey, one of the acquitted defendants, had spent five years in prison. Similar investigations into other allegations of satanic ritual abuse turned up bupkis as well: for a global society that was engaging in mountains of human and animal sacrifice, there was a striking lack of evidence like bones and blood; nor were there any former Satanists who came forward to confess, or any paper or phone trail of the communications between the various covens.
Those who were determined to believe that murderous, abusive satanic cults were real responded that the reason for the lack of evidence was that Satan’s minions were just that tricky, and they covered their tracks perfectly. The problem with that, of course, is the same problem that exists with all conspiracy theories: when a lack of evidence is itself considered evidence, you can claim literally anything you want to be true.
Maybe the application to our present moment is obvious here. Despite my earlier joke, it’s not really a mystery why people yearn to believe bizarre and dramatic tales of evil: the actual truth about evil is that it’s mundane, pervasive, and unfixable, at least to us mortals. The latter half of the twentieth century was the first time in modern history that serious inquiry into the phenomenon of child abuse was undertaken by academics and social workers, and for a lot of people, the sudden realization of how many kids were living in fear and misery was shocking. The truth—that some kids’ parents, relatives, and teachers were broken people and/or sociopaths—was just one more disappointment on the big stack of disappointments life serves up to all of us, but the alternative—that there was a global conspiracy of Satan worshipers and all we had to do to end it was blow the lid off the whole thing—was, comparatively… oddly comforting.They’re not secret conspiracies, or huge anomalies, or anything else; they’re just the death throes of fallenness—fallenness that was already defeated 2,000 years ago on the Cross.
The same, of course, goes for the various conspiracy theories that are currently blowing up social media. Plagues are, from a historical perspective, not all that rare. Pathogens jump from animals to people, thousands of people die. We’ve beaten that sort of thing back a bit in the modern era with improved hygiene and other changes, but until very recently, it happened like clockwork. It’s just a thing, and there’s nothing most of us can do about it—unless Bill Gates engineered the whole thing so that he could trick us into getting vaccines with RFID chips (and never mind that there is no vaccine, and probably won’t be for at least a year—that’s all part of his nefarious genius, you see)—then we just have to unmask the villain and smash our Kinects, or… something.
The thing is, though, Scripture never portrays evil and disaster as anything other than normal, at least for our present moment. Jesus himself has this to say:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Matt. 24:7–8)
They’re not secret conspiracies, or huge anomalies, or anything else; they’re just the death throes of fallenness—fallenness that was already defeated 2,000 years ago on the Cross. There’s no conspiracy to unmask, no dramatic fight to be won—it’s already been unmasked; it’s already been won. All that’s left to be done is to serve our neighbors faithfully, in the time we’re given on earth.
It’s not as exciting as unmasking secret satanic covens. But at least it doesn’t lead to being associated with Geraldo.