'Satanic Panic!' A Brief History Of How And Why The Whole Thing Started

By | October 21, 2019

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A detail of the cover art of Iron Maiden's 'The Number of the Beast' (1982) by Derek Riggs. Source: Amazon.com

The "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s is one of those episodes of mass hysteria that leaves you wondering: How did this happen? Because even after it's explained, the Satanic Panic still doesn't make any damn sense.

We like to think that as a society we can’t be swayed to mania. That we have our own thoughts and beliefs that can’t be altered by a story or an over saturation of erroneous and intriguing facts. Sure, there was the Red Scare, when McCarthyism took hold across the country and turned every neighbor into a secret communist. There was also the Salem witch trials, but that happened so long ago that it barely registers as something that Americans would do in the 20th century, right?

One of the most well known and prolonged mass hysterias of the 20th century gripped the U.S. in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The “Satanic Panic” was a troubling melange of false allegations of ritual abuse, the insistence by fundamentalist Christians that devil worshippers and satanists were implanted in the entertainment industry, and that playing a board game could turn your children into sex-hungry, cannabilistic demon lovers.

In spite of the economic prosperity of the Reagan Era, Americans were terrified of their families falling apart. The idea that the nuclear family could dissipate at any moment was a major fear across the country, but rather than focus on the actual cause of this changing way of life, people turned to the supernatural. Everywhere people looked in the 1980s they saw the Devil.

 The Rise Of Satanism in America

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source: reddit

The Satanic Panic of the 1980s didn’t just happen one day, there were a series of sensational headlines, ritual murders, and strange holdovers from the hippie days that lit the fuse of this demonic craze. The Manson murders in 1969 firmly planted the idea of ritualistic murder in the minds of everyday Americans. It doesn’t matter that Manson was out of his mind, hopped up on goof balls, and not a Satanist, the idea was there.

It’s likely that a publishing sensation of the same year acted as connective tissue between the Manson murders and Satanism. The Satanic Bible, cobbled together by Anton LaVey from various sources (Aleister Crowley, Ayn Rand, etc.) served as the main teaching tool of the Church of Satan. While LaVay didn’t take the Satan in his personal brand of Satanism all that seriously, the rest of the world did. To fundamentalist Christians and frightened parents everywhere, LaVey may as well have been the Devil himself. 

The slayings committed by Manson and the carnival inspired Satanism of LaVey were propped up by a series of fictional works that followed throughout the 1970s - although they were treated like gospel. William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of The Exorcist did as much to convince middle America that the Devil was real as LaVey, and it gave a face to teenage demonic possession. Where cinephiles and horror fans found a shared interest, those in fear for their soul saw a warning sight. In 1972 the fabricated memoir, Satan Seller, by Mike Warnke was released; in it the Evangelical comedian claimed that he was once a high priest in the Church of Satan and that he carried out ritualistic murder while taking part in orgies and casting magic spells.

Warnke was debunked by the Christian publication Cornerstone in the early ‘90s, but after 20 years his fiction had become fact to many Christians who worried that their children were being swayed by Satan. His false narrative created a template in the minds of Christians and concerned citizens for the innerworkings of Satanism.