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

By Jacob Shelton
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.