Hooded figures meeting in the woods. Sinister underground groups preying on family pets and luring children into barbaric rituals. All around America, whispers of a devious danger infiltrating small towns spread across quiet streets. Neighborhoods once considered safe were now tainted by a threat that could be hiding behind a neighbor's friendly smile or teachers welcoming children into their classroom. That threat was Satanism, and it was about to take America by storm.
In the 1980s, Satanic Panic swept across the country, offering a monster to blame in a time of fear and unrest. Frightened parents banded together to protect children from the seductive forces of evil. Incited by panic and a mob mentality, anger often overshadowed the need for evidence, destroying innocent lives in the crusade against the diabolical.
This wasn't the first time collective fear targeted marginalized groups. From the Salem Witch Trials of 1962 to Dungeon & Dragons-related panic reconstructed by Season 4 of Stranger Things, the US has a history of turning scandals into scapegoats.
How did unfounded claims produce mass hysteria that drowned out logic and reason? Let's look at the timeline of the Satanic Panic and examine how America lost its collective mind - and how traces of this panic are still visible today.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) player and child prodigy James Dallas Egbert III sparked panic when he mysteriously disappeared from Michigan State University. Egbert's parents hired William Dear, a private investigator, to help locate their son after finding cryptic messages in his dorm room.
Dear traced Egbert to the steam tunnels below the university and straight to what he believed was a D&D game gone wrong. Without a clear understanding of the game, and working off the knowledge that the tunnels were a popular LARP-ing location for students, Dear told the press: "In some instances, when a person plays the game, you actually leave your body and go out of your mind." As absurd as this comment seems today, it was enough to link D&D to mysterious and sinister forces in many Americans' minds.
The truth behind Egbert's disappearance was related to something far darker than a board game. Even Dear admitted that at 16 years old, Egbert was under a lot of pressure from his parents and was depressed. He used illicit substances, had incidents of self-harm, and ultimately took his own life for reasons unconnected to the game. Egbert was clearly troubled, and a note indicating what to do with his body strongly suggested his descent into the tunnels had more to do with personal struggles than a lapse in his reality.
Unfortunately, Egbert's emotional challenges became the catalyst for the unfounded claims that D&D was dangerous and that it acted as a gateway to both Satanism and the occult. This erroneous belief would gain prominence throughout the 1980s.
- Photo: St. Martin's Press
The 1980s were a turbulent time of change for America. Values were shifting under the weight of the recession, women were joining the workforce, and many families had to outsource the care of their children to strangers. With the rise of religious extremism and a growing general awareness of how common sexual abuse against children was, guilt and fear were at an all-time high.
The ill-timed release of Michelle Remembers - a since-discredited memoir by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder - took a nation's fears and turned them into widespread panic.
Michelle Remembers recounts the childhood abuse Smith endured at the hands of a murderous Satanic cult. Although Smith's claims were later thoroughly debunked, her ordeal prompted parents to become hyper-vigilant and spurred a wave of unfounded accusations of ritualistic abuse.
A pattern of concerned parents and law enforcement coercing children to recall false memories of malicious treatment at the hands of occultists led to a number of daycare owners and teachers being taken into custody for offenses they didn't commit. Many of those falsely accused spent considerable time in prison, and there's a very real likelihood that some are still imprisoned today.
While the allegations against daycare owners were a scapegoat for a population unable to cope with changing times, unchecked mass hysteria led to accusations that shattered lives and ruined communities.
1982: A Young Dungeons & Dragons Fan's Death Sparks A Nationwide Campaign Against The Game
Dungeons & Dragons came under national scrutiny after Irving Lee “Bink” Pullings shot himself in the stomach mere hours after playing the game. His mother, Patricia Pulling, believed her son's tragic actions directly resulted from D&D's use of "demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, demon summoning, and divination." She claimed a curse that fell upon Bink during the game was actually real and forced him to take his own life.
Pullings wasn't the first to accuse D&D of altering a player's real-life personality. Unfortunately, it also wasn't the first time the alleged victim had a history of psychological challenges that could explain their actual motives. The Washington Post reported that Bink "had trouble fitting in," and a classmate supported this claim by saying, “He had a lot of problems, anyway, that weren't associated with the game.”
In losing her son, Pullings also lost perspective and helped manufacture a movement that demonized games rather than raising awareness for mental health. After two failed lawsuits, Pullings created the group Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), in which she used her son's passing to expose false conspiracies surrounding D&D and unrelated killings and suicides. Conservative Christian media outlets gave BADD a national platform to spread Pullings's message, which led to an appearance on 60 Minutes.
Considering that the '80s were a time of neglect regarding mental health, Pullings's platform could have helped a nation come to terms with a growing epidemic, but instead, she chose to champion a campaign focusing on the imagined dangers of roleplaying.
Author Michael Stackpol would eventually challenge and discredit BADD's message in the Pulling Report by exposing numerous errors and misinterpretations, but the damage was already done.
1983: Allegations Of Ritual Satanic Abuse Against McMartin Preschool Take The Nation By Storm
Whispers of mutilated cadavers, children held in cages, and teachers flying on broomsticks - what sound like the beginnings of a horrific fairy tale - were actually the basis for one of the longest and most expensive trials in California history.
Ray Buckey, a teacher at Virginia McMartin preschool, became the face of ritualistic abuse after Judy Johnson asserted that he had inappropriately touched her son. The initial charge was dismissed, but Johnson returned with new allegations that prompted police to send a letter to 200 parents asking for any information about their children experiencing harm at Buckey's hands.
Initially, the children denied any wrongdoing on Buckey's part, but after law enforcement asked coercive questions and indicated that other children admitted to "yucky secrets," 360 out of 400 students divulged vulgar secrets of their own. Each admission was more far-fetched than the last, ranging from a "Naked Movie Star Game" to bizarre rituals held in tunnels underneath the school. The story spiraled, implicating Buckey's mother and several other teachers before enraging the nation.
The allegations against McMartin preschool incited a wave of accusations against other teachers and daycares across the US, leading to over 200 false arrests. After a trial that lasted 30 months, the inciting case was dismissed due to an astounding lack of evidence. Police never located the majority of the locations the children mentioned, including the secret tunnels in which rituals supposedly took place. Other evidence, such as an innocuous black robe found in another teacher's closet, was proven to be nothing more than graduation attire. The entire lawsuit came down to fake confessions from children trying to please their parents and law enforcement.
Ray Buckey was found innocent, but others weren't so lucky. The chaos following McMartin preschool's national spotlight arguably harkened back to the McCarthyism of the 1940s and ’50s, in which citizens feared that anyone around them - friends, neighbors, or even family members - could be part of some clandestine, supposedly sinister movement.