A Return of the Satanic Panic?

For individuals interested in American culture or religion, the late 1970s, 80s, and early 90s are a period of time remembered as the “Satanic Panic”. The Satanic Panic was a period of time in which Americans became convinced that dangerous devil worshiping cults were abusing children and murdering people in dark rituals. Police officers and courts contributed to the panic, as they bought into rumors propounded by conservative Christian groups concerning the dangers of “Satanic Cults” [1], and daytime television programs warned parents of a massive, widespread Satanic conspiracy endangering the well-being of their children [2]. Stemming from the “cult scare” of the 1960s and 70s [3], blossoming to a widespread paranoia about devil worship in the 1980s [4], and finally debunked by numerous investigations in the early 1990s (especially by FBI agent Kenneth Lanning’s 1992 report on Satanic Ritual Abuse, or SRA), the Satanic Panic left in its wake numerous people falsely accused of crimes, lives ruined, and murders unresolved. The unfortunate episode in American religious history inspired The X-Files (and other horror movies and television programs).

The Satanic Panic also led to the persecution of a number of minority religions, including Wicca, Santeria, Vodoun, and others, by a literal 20th century witchhunt. A recent triple homicide in Pensacola, Florida, and its subsequent description as a “Wiccan ritual” by police officers, has led members of the neopagan community to worry about the return of the Satanic panic. A neighbor of the murdered family expressed to local reporters that, “It’s frightening to think about. Especially when you have small children […] to find out that it was this weird, satanic cult, witchcraft whatever, is just really unsettling.” The reporters repeated the neighbor’s message without criticism, signaling to a wider populace that “Satanic” “witchcraft” poses a legitimate threat to their children. The national media repeated the same message, again without criticism.

The persistence of the Satanic Panic past the early 90s has been a recent research interest of mine. I became interested in the issue in graduate school when I learned of a 2013 murder that the media had labelled “Satanic”. Miranda Barbour, who had recently married Ellyette Barbour, had met Troy Laferrara through a personal ad posted to Craig’s List. Miranda and Ellyette murdered Leferrara, left his body in an alley, and left to party at a strip club. When a reporter visited Miranda in prison, she described himself as a member of a Satanic cult, operating in numerous states, who had killed more than 20, but less than 100, people. In all likelihood, the story was a complete fabrication. Nonetheless, in the ensuing months, the media constructed a folklore surrounding Miranda and her supposed occult beliefs, constructing a theology, rituals, and other elements of a legendary religion. The case, and the media’s construction of a “Satanic” crime, became the focus of a working paper that I will be presenting on a panel at a conference in October.

In the past few years, there have been a variety of other cases resembling events from the Satanic panic. Ostension is the carrying out of a ritual originally appearing in legendary or folkloric categories [5]. One example of ostension is the popular “Bloody Mary” ritual in which teens chant in front of a mirror in the attempt to summon a spirit. Most instances of ostension are harmless, and the construction of makeshift rituals or the visitation of supposedly haunted locations, remains a common childhood past time in many communities. However, when preexisting legends or folktales involve violent rituals, teens may be encouraged to carry out acts of violence. During the Satanic Panic, teens who heard stories of devil worship from their Christian churches or daytime television were sometimes inspired to construct makeshift rituals. Paradoxically, the development of the Satanic Panic itself — and a widespread paranoia about violent occult ritualism — led to makeshift violent rituals.

Recently, two teens in Waukesha, Wisconsin, attempted to murder a classmate in order to summon the fictional character Slender Man, a supernatural entity they believed to inhabit the local woods. In several other recent cases, a numbers of homicide suspects who apparently cannibalized their victims, and who possess deeply frightening and anti-social appearances, have been characterized by the tabloid press as “Satanic” [6]. I don’t know whether these cases were instances of legitimate ostension, or if, as I strongly suspect and as was common during the 1980s, the cases were labelled “Satanic” because the suspects adorned themselves and their belongings with occult symbolism. In one case, the suspect’s Facebook profile is publicly visible, and is adorned with artwork from the band Slayer. Slayer uses Satanic symbolism on their album covers, but that someone who listens to Slayer happened to murder another person is not evidence that the murder was, somehow, Satanic ritualism.

In light of these recent cases, I asked a colleague whether or not we are seeing a return of the Satanic Panic. His response was that the panic had never actually ended. I share his assessment, but note that the panic has changed in significant ways over time. How, exactly, popular, social, and digital media, as well as the evolving American religious landscape, has affected — and will affect — the panic remains a fascinating area of research. As the recent event in Pensacola reminds us, the engagement of academics with the popular media is vital for preventing the demonization of minority religions.


[1] Police officers often received information on supposed “Satanic cults” from conservative Christian organizations. Training videos, released to law enforcement agencies during the 1980s and 1990s, are available on YouTube. Note that the video contains numerous references to minority religions, including Caribbean syncretisms, labeling them “Satanic”. Also notice the awkward, exploitive use of a bikini model to “demonstrate” the details of a “Satanic” crime.

[2] Geraldo Rivera provided the most famous.

[3] See, for example, Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing), pp 8-13.

[4] For various academic works on the Satanic Panic, see (1991) The Satanism Scare, Richardson, J., Best, J., & Bromley, D. (Ed), (New York: Walter De Gruyter); Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing); Frankfurter, D. (2006) Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[5] See Bill Ellis’s (1989) “Death by Folklore”, in Western Folklore, Vol 48, No 3.

[6] See, for examples, see various articles by the Daily Mail and the Mirror.

Leave a Reply