Imagine a cultural phenomenon, arising out of nowhere, which has the ability to unite conservative evangelical Protestants with feminists, police investigators, psychologists, conspiracy theorists, social workers, victim advocates, psychic mediums, anti-pornography crusaders, talk-show hosts, aspiring politicians, and the tabloid media.
Now imagine this cultural phenomenon has just conspired to throw you in prison on the charge that you’ve been ritualistically murdering babies who were conceived and born specifically for the purpose of being sacrificed to the devil. Such was the cultural climate in the United States during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
Climate of Fear
American society’s backlash against the upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s would provide the perfect atmosphere for such hysteria to play out. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, American society was in the opening throes of what would come to be called the Culture War. The Moral Majority was founded in 1978 with the explicit purpose of pushing both politics and culture to the right and to make Jerry Falwell’s version of evangelical Christianity a de facto state religion. They had the mailing lists, the volunteers, and the growing cultural narrative of a fallen America that drove much of the public dialogue throughout the years of the panic.
A growing victims’ movement threw fuel on the fire, as social workers, mental-health professionals, and the usual charlatans with little formal training, and even less common sense, positioned themselves as “experts” on child welfare and abuse prevention. Child-welfare budgets doubled during the 1980s, and then they doubled again in the ’90s, as mandated reporting, determined lobbying, and certain high-profile kidnappings (such as that of Adam Walsh) contributed to a sense that children weren’t safe anywhere in America. In other words, everybody involved in this mess had a direct incentive to inflate the narrative, and nobody felt any motivation to pop what had become a very profitable bubble.
The great Satanic panic began in the dumbest way possible, with the 1980 publication of Michelle Remembers, a trashy pulp novella that purported to be the firsthand account of a childhood spent in the clutches of devil-worshiping child molesters. The plot doesn’t bear going into, but the author, Michelle Smith, claimed to have been abused by a cadre of Satanists straight out of Rosemary’s Baby and to have been possessed by demons as a child.
Her husband and co-author, Lawrence Pazder, met Smith in 1973, when she came to him for psychiatric help with her depression. After three years of treatment, which included hypnosis, Pazder and Smith had developed the outline of her story including the supernatural elements. According to Pazder’s divorce papers, he and Smith were romantically involved from at least 1977, while Smith was still Pazder’s patient.
In a sane world, Michelle Remembers would have taken its place alongside Sin in Space as a lurid fantasy that aimed at little more than titillation for repressed suburbanites. But this isn’t a sane world. Michelle Remembers was taken seriously by far too many people who should have known better, starting with mental health professionals and spreading to religious leaders. Pazder himself would eventually testify on the very real reality of totally real demon possession, which is totally real, you guys, for a gathering of cardinals in Rome. With that kind of horsepower driving the narrative, the most elementary skepticism didn’t stand a chance.
Listen and Believe
And what a narrative it was! The most notorious case to come out of the panic was that of the Little Rascals preschool in southern California. Seven of the school’s employees, mostly of the McMartin-Buckey family, were accused of sexually abusing the children at the school after police took the report of one 2-year-old’s mother, Judy Johnson. Johnson had certain credibility issues, mostly revolving around her being goddamn crazy, which prosecutors knew in advance of the trial.
Johnson, and many, many other parents after her, spun lurid stories about sodomy, child pornography, flying witches, hot air balloon rides that ended in rape, and degrading games such as “Naked Movie Star” that were alleged to have been played at the school. When shown pictures of randomly chosen adults, one child identified Chuck Norris as an abuser.
The case got big fast, as often happens when unhinged lunatics are lying to credulous idiots with an agenda to push. After a year of “investigation,” seven defendants were charged with 321 counts of child abuse growing out of the statements of 48 children. The District Attorney’s office brought in the aforementioned Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder as consultants to get the parents’ stories straight.
Exculpatory evidence—such as one child’s testimony of abuse at the hands of Ray Buckey, despite the fact that the two never met—were denied to the defense. George Freeman, a semi-professional perjurer, who was awaiting trial for giving false statements in several other cases, was brought to the stand to tell the jury about Ray Buckey’s jailhouse “confession” in exchange for leniency in his own legal cases.
The trial was turning into a circus. Almost literally a circus, considering that one accuser claimed Buckey had used live lions to threaten the children’s lives. The two defense attorneys on the case, Danny Davis and Dean Gits, petitioned for a change of venue, pointing to a poll which showed that over 97 percent of area residents believed the charges against their clients. The request was denied.
The actual jurors weren’t any better. At one point, a member of the jury passed a note to the judge asking for instructions on finding the emergency exits, as Nostradamus had predicted an earthquake for that day.
Eventually, the prosecution’s case started falling apart. Prosecutor Glenn Stevens left the case and went public with accusations of fraud and unethical practices by the DA’s office. Medical examiners, who were being paid by the prosecution, interpreted lens flares and reflections of light as “scar tissue” on pictures of children’s genitals and were immediately refuted by independent physicians.
Kee MacFarlane, a social worker who had no training in child psychology whatsoever, and whose “experience” consisted almost entirely of working as a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women, took the stand and was shown during cross-examination to have extracted the children’s statements using a combination of fatigue and leading questions, even encouraging children to make-believe as an aid to “remembering” their abuse.