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America's Satanic Panic Returns — This Time Through QAnon

Originally published on May 19, 2021 6:43 am

The first time sociologist Mary de Young heard about QAnon, she thought: "Here we go again."

De Young spent her career studying moral panics — specifically, what became known as the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, when false accusations of the abuse of children in satanic rituals spread across the United States.

Decades later, echoes of that same fear had emerged in QAnon. The seemingly novel conspiracy theory has grown in far-right political circles since November 2017. Adherents of QAnon believe that a shadowy cabal kidnaps children, tortures them and uses their blood in satanic rituals. The alleged perpetrators in the QAnon conspiracy theory are Democratic politicians — not preschool teachers, as had been the case in the 1980s — but the accusations are eerily similar.

"Every moral panic has to have a folk devil," says de Young, the author of The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic. "It has to have a person — or more likely a group of people, whether real individuals or fantasized individuals — who are the devils in the middle of all of this."

One of the earliest bellwethers of the Satanic Panic came in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers, a memoir co-written by Canadian psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith. The book graphically details abuse that Smith claimed to have suffered as a child at the hands of a satanic cult — abuse that she had allegedly forgotten but eventually recovered through her work with Pazder.

The book was a bestseller, and Pazder became the leading academic voice warning about the dangers of "ritual abuse." He also began to consult with prosecutors in criminal trials, including the case that would spread fears of satanic abuse even farther around the country: the McMartin Pre-School trial.

Left: May 27, 1990 — A plate bearing a pentagram that was found at the McMartin Pre-School. Parents said it could be part of a satanic ritual. Right: April 19, 1989 — Room B at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Patrick Downs/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Lacy Atkins/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"I thought it was the case of our times," says Danny Davis, attorney for defendant Ray Buckey. Buckey, a teacher at Virginia McMartin's preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was accused of abusing one of his students in 1983. By the following spring, the accusations had grown to include hundreds of children, and rumors swirled that the students had been abused in satanic rituals at cemeteries and in tunnels underneath the school.

"Whatever it was that happened was social contagion, and it's that simple," says Davis.

Davis decided to study historical examples of witch hunts and allegations of satanic behavior in order to prepare his defense. "I saw clearly there's a process on a timeline that starts with some sort of scandal or change in the society that develops a very forceful, agreed-upon accusation against a target or scapegoat. And the scapegoat is then quickly destroyed," he says.

The McMartin Pre-School case became one of the longest and most expensive criminal cases ever tried in the United States. It ended when Buckey was acquitted of dozens of charges in 1990.

Attempts to find tunnels underneath the preschool failed, and since the trials, several of the students who accused Buckey of abuse have admitted their stories were fabricated.

Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son, Ray Buckey, listen to the opening statements in their trial for allegedly sexually abusing children at the preschool they operated. They were eventually acquitted years later.
Bettmann/contributor/Getty Images

But the lack of physical evidence in cases like the McMartin Pre-School trial didn't stop allegations of satanic ritual abuse from spreading during the 1980s. National broadcasts like 20/20 ran long specials featuring children claiming to have been abused by satanists. Academic conferences discussed recovered memory and satanic abuse, and psychologists like Pazder began to train law enforcement to recognize warning signs in their communities.

"This was a snail mail approach to spreading a moral panic," says de Young.

By contrast, the early rise of QAnon was entirely digital. In November 2017, an anonymous user named "Q Clearance Patriot" posted for the first time on the message board 4chan. An NBC News investigation later found that three other users initially promoted and spread those early posts, beginning the transformation of QAnon from an obscure online forum to an influential conspiracy theory taking root in far-right American politics.

As QAnon spread, so did the belief among its adherents that a Satan-worshipping cabal of elite politicians was ritually abusing children — and, specifically, draining them of a chemical compound called adrenochrome, which they believe is then ingested as a drug.

"These are the same kind of tropes that crop up again and again and again," says Eleanor Janega, a historian at the London School of Economics who has studied moral and religious panics over satanism throughout history. "This idea that there's this kind of shadowy realm of the people who control the world secretly and they're all getting together to plot out and really delight in this kind of torture and sacrifice."

There are, however, clear differences between QAnon and the Satanic Panic of the '80s, the biggest being the political nature of QAnon conspiracy theories, which target Democratic politicians and hold up former President Donald Trump as a savior.

But Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote a book about the Satanic Panic, says there are still commonalities between the believers in each movement — even putting fears of satanism aside.

"They see themselves as heroic," says Wright. "And how can you be heroic in today's world? Well, you protect the children — you protect the children against this cabal that is out to turn them into sex slaves. How could there be anything more important than that?"

A woman wears a shirt promoting a QAnon conspiracy theory while waiting in line to attend a campaign rally with then-President Donald Trump on Oct. 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Arizona.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It's unclear how much support QAnon will continue to receive with Trump out of the White House — polling is mixed about the degree of favorability the conspiracy theory enjoys among the American electorate. But de Young believes that moral panics eventually fizzle as hard evidence of their claims fails to materialize.

"The best available weapon we have is to counter the information with facts, is to keep pressing for more information, because it's in the area of facts that moral panics tend to collapse," de Young says. "They just get ridiculous, except for maybe a very small number of true believers who can tolerate an enormous amount of dissonance."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When QAnon believers insist that Satanists are abusing children in secret rituals, their ideas may seem bizarre, confusing and dark, but they're not original. This mythology echoes stories we've heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

OPRAH WINFREY: My next guest was used also in worshipping the devil, participated in human sacrifice rituals and cannibalism.

GERALDO RIVERA: Nationwide network of Satanic criminals exists.

CARL KASELL, BYLINE: Child molesting is a crime that most parents worry about at one time or another.

SHAPIRO: That was Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and from NPR's Morning Edition, the late Carl Kasell, all reporting in the 1980s on a wave of moral panic about satanic ritual abuse. Mary de Young is a retired sociology professor from Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

MARY DE YOUNG: My primary area of research was in moral panics, particularly the day care moral panic of the 1980s.

SHAPIRO: So as a person who's spent your life researching this, what was your first reaction to hearing about QAnon?

DE YOUNG: Here we go again.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Really?

DE YOUNG: Yeah, it was.

SHAPIRO: Right out of the gate, huh?

DE YOUNG: Right out of the gate.

SHAPIRO: Understanding what happened in the 1980s with that satanic panic can help us understand what's happening right now with QAnon. So let's go back in time almost 40 years to that Morning Edition report from 1984. Reporter Frank Browning described horrific allegations at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANK BROWNING: Prosecutors say teachers at McMartin school threatened the children with death and crushed live animals before them as warnings of what would happen if they talked.

SHAPIRO: That was the prosecutor's claim. The defense attorney was this guy.

DANNY DAVIS: I'm Danny Davis. I'm a criminal defense attorney of some 45 years in Beverly Hills, Calif.

SHAPIRO: Forty-five years and - what? - about six of those were spent on one high-profile trial?

DAVIS: Yeah, the McMartin case - somewhat like '84 to '91.

SHAPIRO: When it ended, newspapers describe the McMartin case as the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history.

DAVIS: I thought it was a case of our times.

SHAPIRO: Prosecutors charged seven employees of the McMartin day care center with more than a hundred counts of child molestation and conspiracy. After a trial that stretched on for years and cost $15 million, no one was convicted. The only real evidence was testimony from children who we now know answered leading questions from therapists. Here's the graphic description that one anonymous preschooler gave on the ABC program "20/20" in 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He showed us pictures of bodies that were burned alive, and they said, this is what's going to happen to you and the rest of your family if you tell.

SHAPIRO: Kids testified that they were forced to dig up coffins and drink blood. They told their parents that rituals took place in tunnels under the McMartin preschool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And she said, this is where the tunnel was. There was no tunnel there. I didn't see any tunnel. I didn't see a break in the wall. I didn't see anything. But she said, this is where we went through the tunnel.

SHAPIRO: The FBI went looking for those tunnels. There were none. There were no animal corpses, no visible injuries on the kids, nothing to indicate that any of the children's claims were true. The preschoolers said one employee named Ray Buckey could fly. Danny Davis represented Buckey. Early on, Davis identified this as a case of what's called social contagion. He started researching earlier moral panics like this one.

DAVIS: And I saw clearly there's a process on a timeline that starts with some sort of scandal or change in a small society that develops a very forceful, agreed-upon accusation against a target or scapegoat.

SHAPIRO: The phrase social contagion implies that the idea catches on and grows, which is exactly what's happening with QAnon and what happened in the satanic panic of the 1980s. In 1988, Geraldo Rivera's program "Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground" got the highest ratings ever to date for a TV documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEVIL WORSHIP: EXPOSING SATAN'S UNDERGROUND")

RIVERA: The other face of adult satanism is violent and fiendish, centered on sexual ritual and torture, frequently descending into the vilest crime of all - sexual abuse of children.

SHAPIRO: Since these stories got strong TV ratings, reporters did more of them. News reports that put a local angle on the story aired all over the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In fact, in Massachusetts alone, currently, the Office for Children have started investigations and no less than 33 day care centers since September - startling.

SHAPIRO: The news stories and the criminal investigations amplified each other in a feedback loop. And that's one way the social contagion spread, even before the internet or social media platforms were around to help the stories go viral. In 1985, ABC News reported that police in every state in the U.S. were investigating claims of satanic ritual abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Nationwide, we found that minor cases of satanic activity light up the map. Not a single state is unaffected, but even more frightening is the number of reported murders and suicides with satanic clues. All of them were in...

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Bookstores had satanic ritual abuse sections, you know? And my book was in the SRA section. It was so big.

SHAPIRO: New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright wrote the book "Remembering Satan." It's about a case in Washington state from 1988 that shows how false memories and moral panic consumed a community and sent a man to prison for nearly 20 years over an imagined crime. Wright says one reason these fictions were so appealing was that they gave people a sense of purpose. They had a mission - to defend the innocent.

WRIGHT: They see themselves as heroic. And how can you be heroic in today's world? Well, you protect the children. You protect the children against this cabal that is out to turn them into sex slaves. Wow. How could there be anything more important than that?

SHAPIRO: In the 1980s, that mission was not just a fringe belief like QAnon today. It pulled in authority figures from prosecutors to therapists. Wright first heard about the phenomenon from therapists he trusted in Austin, Texas.

WRIGHT: They said that they were getting all these young women, mainly, who were having recovered memories about satanic abuse. And they told me that Satanists were responsible for 50 murders a year in Austin. Well, we've never had 50 murders in Austin.

SHAPIRO: The therapists told you that.

WRIGHT: Yeah, and I love these people. They're wonderful, intelligent, compassionate people. And then the police picked it up. And I went to a workshop given by this cop who was going around the country, talking to other policemen about satanic abuse. And he said that the Satanists were responsible for 50,000 murders a year in the United States - again, far higher than our actual murder rate. And these were cops.

SHAPIRO: There were law enforcement training videos, like this one, teaching police officers how to spot the signs of satanic ritual abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now, Satanists would reverse this star - or pentacle, as it's called - and have two points up. Those represent the horns of Baphomet and/or the horns of Satan. But now...

ELEANOR JANEGA: I think one of the reasons this has a real sticking point is that it's such a common trope. Like, it comes up over and over and over again.

SHAPIRO: These ideas were not original in the 1980s. Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian who specializes in apocalyptic thought. And she reaches all the way back to the 1100s to find similar themes in the blood libel conspiracies of Europe that claimed Jews were drinking children's blood in bizarre religious practices. Janega says it's no coincidence that two of the names that pop up often in QAnon mythology are Soros and Rothschild - both Jewish.

JANEGA: And so we're kind of prepped to hear it in a way. You know, even if you didn't necessarily ever sit down and learn about the idea of blood libel, it's something that's kind of there, floating around in the background of our culture. So when we hear ideas like, oh, yeah, there's a ring of people torturing children, we go, oh, yeah, that's something that's definitely been around for a long time. This is probably true.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah, I've heard of that. Yeah, that rings a bell.

JANEGA: Exactly. So it's sort of like, oh, yeah, definitely - definitely pedophile-like child torturing. Yeah, 100%.

SHAPIRO: Janega says part of what makes these narratives catch on is the hybrid of reality and fiction. Like today, QAnon supporters use the long-established hashtag #SaveTheChildren to promote their false ideas. And in the 1980s, police, therapists and journalists zeroed in on the real threat of child abuse to promote their bogus claims of satanic ritual abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We believe the children because once upon a time, we were the children.

JANEGA: There is this idea that there's always some kind of nefarious other that's going to come and torture your children, and it's all going to be awful, you know, the moment you let your guard down. And that's specifically tied to a kind of supernatural desire to do harm to the innocent.

SHAPIRO: Of course, with QAnon, there's more than just a moral panic going on. There's also a partisan political angle and a former president who's amplifying QAnon supporters in pursuit of his own political goals. But people who study these moments of moral panic have looked at what these time periods have in common, and they often find conspiracy theories taking hold in moments of cultural upheaval.

DE YOUNG: It has to be an absolutely exquisite matter of timing, I think, for moral panic to launch.

SHAPIRO: That's Mary de Young again, the retired sociology professor and author of the book "The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic." She says in the 1980s, the culture was shifting in ways that frightened people.

DE YOUNG: The family was changing. More women were working. The availability of good, quality, affordable day care was pretty limited across the United States. So here we end up taking this really innocuous, little social institution - the day care center - and putting it right in the middle of a brewing social conflict about the nature of the family.

SHAPIRO: Today, people are frightened by other changes in society, whether that's immigration, technology or a pandemic that's killed millions of people around the world.

DE YOUNG: There are contextual factors. They can be ideological. They can be social. They certainly can be a mixture of all of those kinds of factors.

SHAPIRO: I'm thinking about, like, in cheesy B-horror movies, there's always the retired scholar who actually...

DE YOUNG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Knows how to fight this kind of a monster. And you're that retired scholar now. So how do we fight this kind of a monster?

DE YOUNG: (Laughter) You know, I wish I knew that. I really do. I've spent a long time studying world panics, but I must say that my confidence in how we deal with these effectively has not increased over the decades.

SHAPIRO: She says the best available weapon is to counter bad information with facts because as moral panics grow, her research shows they also become more ridiculous, far-fetched and absurd until, she says, they eventually tend to collapse under their own weight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.