Hello listeners, and welcome to the Mad Scientist Podcast! This week we’ll be talking about a topic that we’re always asked about, but which is seriously so complicated and huge that it could be a whole series of podcasts on its own. I am of course talking about Satanic Panics, or more particularly the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandals that terrified parents and children, and lined the pockets of journalists looking to play up the scandal, in the mid 80’s to 90’s. This episode will be something of a primer on the subject, giving the general background before we delve into further details on more specific cases in upcoming episodes. We like to say that the Satanic Panic was an odd relic of the 1980’s and 90’s and that this sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen in the more rationale modern world. We also liked to say that witch crazes and false prosecutions based on the he said-she said evidence of false memory, childhood susceptibility to coercion, and forced confession would never happen either. Has the drive towards mass panic really gone away, or has the conspiracy world simply morphed these ideas and instincts into a larger whole, one which takes a lack of evidence as evidence of wrongdoing, and which finds encroaching Satanism in their everyday lives? Could a mass panic happen again, this time fueled further with the power of the Internet and allure of informational safe spaces that cloud our judgment of the other side and demonize those who disagree with us as the “other”, or perhaps more scarily, did the Satanic Panic ever really die down? Or has it continued to smolder in the deepest, darkest parts of the Internet? Is Hillary Clinton secretly keeping child sex slaves in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC? We won’t find out, and that’s the biggest proof of all, in this weeks episode!
“Debates about moral integrity of society are neither unique nor specific to periods of moral panic, rathe they are more visible during the phenomenon.”
For those listeners and podcast hosts with silky smooth voices too young to clearly remember the Satanic Panic, this was a cultural event in the United States and eventually the entire English Speaking world, starting out in 1980, gaining steam with books, documentaries, scientific papers, repeated lawsuits, criminal trials, exposes, and convictions, and only slowed down in the late 90’s. The general theory was that hidden amongst the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, in the towns and cities of America, existed groups of people whose main goal was the capture, conversion, and sexual exploitation of children. But these people were not simply the run of the mill predator so horrifically commonplace in the world of the 1970’s and 80’s, although to say that this brand of predation has gone away is a great inaccuracy and injustice. These people were utilizing Satanism, indoctrinating children into this lifestyle and forcing them to recant their faith in Jesus Christ, performing deranged sexual magic, blasphemies, zoophillia, scatophilia, creating and distributing child pornography, and eventually selling the children into sexual slavery, murdering them, or sending them out into the world as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to them. The locus for these crimes was reporting of sexual abuse at preschools and daycare centers, with children seeming to suggest that horrible things had been done to them, and that this was an organized and ongoing effort, with Satanic or ritualistic style overtones. There were organizations dedicated to finding the source of these abuses, lecturers and psychologists who specialized in the treatment of victims, finding of suspected cases, and the eventual prosecution of the individuals involved, and just an overwhelming sense amongst some that not only was this a very real phenomenon but that it was likely happening all around them. There was just one problem with this story. None of it was ever really proven, with no evidence of satanic style cults, ritualistic abuse, or even illegal activities of any kind ongoing at the vast majority of places where these panics become the most focused. From a mix of leading interview questions and coercive techniques on the children involved, hypnotherapy to recall repressed memories of adults who were supposedly abused as children, a number of social and cultural events leading up to this period of time, and sensationalist media coverage these cases would explode. And, thanks to overzealous prosecution and public outcry a number of these accusations would blossom into long, costly trials that damaged the vast majority of those involved.
Like I said in the introduction, this period of time is so detailed and frankly fascinating that we could do an entire series on individual aspects of the Satanic Panic, and if this episode is received warmly then perhaps we will do just that. But before we get into the case of the Kellers, we need to talk about the cultural situation in which these events occurred. The 70’s were a very interesting time in American history at least, both because of the beginnings of mass media, the absolutely brutal images received from Vietnam, and the leftovers of the psychedelic drug use and free love of the 60s. I’ve seen some characterize this as a period of cynicism, and in many ways the 70s are where the conspiracy theory culture of the modern day was really born, and an era where our worst opinions of government and corporations were in many ways proven to be correct. We had Watergate, the continuation of racial tensions even after the civil rights movement, the creation of seedy red light districts with extremely high crime in the cities, the beginnings of what would become a major drug epidemic, and the rise of Disco. We would also find out that in many of our communities existed monsters, men driven by dark sexual urges and violent fantasies to commit crimes so shocking that we still talk about them as monsters.
Serial killers were an almost unthinkably common occurrence in the 70’s, with some of the biggest names amongst these perpetrators coming to us from this decade, preying on runaways and drug addicts. In fact looking at some statistics put together by Dr. Mike Aamodt at Radford University, the number of serial killers who made their first kill in a particular decade absolutely exploded in the 60s until the 2000s, with 72 in the 50’s, 217 in the 60’s, 605 in the 70’s, 768 in the 80’s, 669 in the 90’s, and decreasing to 317 in the 2000s and 117 in the 2010s. And in many ways the loose control on and protection of children led to the criminals of later decades, with sexual abuse, domestic abuse, childhood drug and alcohol abuse, and children becoming runaways another much more common occurrence than they were in later decades. But of course it isn’t as if these problems didn’t continue into later decades. According to the Duke University Childhood Well Being Index a downward trend in the well being of children, measured as a number of risk factors and crimes committed against children including not finishing high school, mortality rate, poverty rate, violent crime victimization, suicide, and others occurred from 1975 until 1995, with a continued increase in childhood well being since that period. For example, approximately 35 per 1000 teenagers aged 15 to 17 in 1975 had a child, while today that number is at around 12.5. The number of children who were victims of violent crime began in the 70s around 80 per 1,000, peaking in the early 90’s at around 120 per 1,000, and now down to a value of 50 per 1,000. So things weren’t comically grim, I mean people made it through the 70’s relatively unscathed, but it was still a much more dangerous time than being a kid today, although, evidently not as dangerous as it was during the 90s.
Another aspect of the 70’s that began to breed the Satanic Panic were two interesting but interrelated, at least in my estimation, social changes. First, we had the rise of cults in the 60’s and their eventual disastrous ends in the early 70’s. Jonestown, The Manson Family, and many others would have their time in the spotlight during this decade, leading to deaths, destruction, and broken families across the country and in some cases across the world. Interestingly though, alongside cults came a further focus on psychology in the popular mind, with people looking for methods to reprogram or fix their family members who had fallen into a cults sway, as well as attempting to find ways to fight the allure of cults in general. This began an era of self psychology or pop psychology, with people believing that they could read self help books, attend seminars, or even become experts in complicated psychological methods and practices from the comfort of their own homes. This bred both the anti-cult movement, which felt that cult programming and psychological control were means to cause humans to become immoral or even to become influenced by satanic ideas, as well as an era where the regression of memories under hypnosis became a popularly accepted practice before true scientific studies could be performed. We talked about hypnotic regression of memories in the last episode, but its an essential part of the Satanic Panic story as well, since the vast majority of evidence provided to back up these claims were obtained from hypnotic regression. But there is also the related idea of brainwashing, the ability to cause someone to forget a memory or event through psychological tricks. This would very much play into the Satanic Panic, and become a really foundational part of the overall mythos.
And finally, we have the rise of the Evangelical Christian movement in the United States. The US has always gone through periods of religious downturn and revival, and the late 70’s until really today marks a relatively large and politically important movement for Christians in the United States. But this has also been linked with quite a bit of pseudoscience unfortunately, including denial in Climate Change, Conspiracy Thought, and the belief that the devil is a very real and very powerful presence in modern media and politics. And its from this idea, that Satan is real and always watching, always attempting to overtake good morals in the United States, what with his Judas Priests and his gyrating hips and his marijuana, that the Satanic Panic gets its real power. Stupid Sexy Satan!
Anyways, as we began getting into the 80’s the public concern about these social ills was really beginning to become openly talked about. We had the start of the war on drugs, increases in the requirements to report suspected child abuse, a widening of the definition of what constituted sexual assault, domestic abuse, and child endangerment and child abuse, leading to more reports of these cases as well as more police involvement. We also had a somewhat larger emphasis on a group of individuals that have been termed the “less dead”, those parts of society who when they go missing or are reported to have been the victim of violence the vast majority of people sort of ignore or even blame. This includes sex workers, minorities, immigrants, and runaways. And although the phenomenon of the less dead still continues in the mass media for a certainty, there have been improvements in how these cases are handled by police and social workers for example.
But some of the attempts to fix societal ills were….pretty weird. We had attempts to censor music, television, movies, comic books, and even board games such as Dungeon and Dragons. And at the root of these concerns was the idea that they had suggestive, or at times explicit, themes such as sexuality and violence that were turning the kids into violent sex crazed monsters. In some areas these ideas though coagulated into a much more strange belief. At church groups, PTA meetings, and soccer games, parents across the country were talking about the possibility of another influence coming in from mass media. Again, we had church leaders and moral authorities stating that Satan was real, that he was present throughout the media, and that we had to fight his influence.
So the Satanic Panic really began due to a confluence of all of these ideas. There was real evidence that the world was a particularly scary place for children, that sexual assault and violence against children was prevalent, and that there really were monsters out there sometimes, performing horrible acts in the quiet suburbs and big cities alike. At the same time, there really were cults out there, performing various psychological tricks to cause groups of normal citizens to become murderers, or to engage in wild sexual binges. Bridge that together with the idea that brainwashing could be used to hide memories or make someone do things against their normal will, and suddenly its not a far step to suppose that somewhere, out there in the suburbs, may exist a cult like group using these techniques to get whatever they wanted. All it would really take would be an ember to light this tinderbox up, and that ember would make its way into the public consciousness in the form of a book, titled “Michelle Remembers”. The book posited that Michelle Smith, along with her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, had uncovered repressed memories from when she was a child. In these memories she was part of a satanic sex cult, which had caused her to engage in all sorts of depraved acts of sacrilege, sexual sadism, torture, murder, and dismemberment. Now there were no real pieces of evidence for these claims outside of the hypnotic regression therapy sessions, but to people who were already willing to believe that something like this might be happening, and might be the nice, quick solution to so many social ills that seemed so complicated, it really made sense. From this book you had a lot of communities were hypnotists or memory regression specialists would set up shop, performing these regressions heavy handedly and looking in some cases to prove that something was going on in these towns. And you had parents, terrified that this might actually be going on, looking for signs of it in their children and in some cases leading them to answer odd questions about these things. And in some of these cases the kids, hoping to get out of a strange situation or just answering leading questions as most children do, would answer in the positive. Add on top of this a number of less than moral experts on Satanic Panic who claimed that the conspiracy went all the way to the very top of the US government without a single shred of verified scientific evidence, and you’ve got the makings for a really screwed up moral panic.
Another really important part of this story is the way that children were interviewed about the supposed sexual assault. When interviewing a subject, especially a child, its extremely important to not lead them into answers, by attempting to not give them any information that may sway their answer one way or the other. So for instance, when listening to a childs testimony its important to remain neutral, not continuing to question them on points you expect to not be true or give suggestions that “That’s not what really happened”, and at the same time must try to not give them positive reinforcement when they answer with things that you expect or want to be true. It’s also important to not give them more information than they normally would, for example in many cases we could put under the Umbrella of the Satanic Panic they would question children on sexual assault by showing them anatomically correct dolls. Now as far as I can tell the use of anatomically correct dolls when used as a tool to show anatomy, describe events in further detail after they have already been described, and as part of a larger series of discussions of abuse with a child can be useful. However, the way that children simply play with such dolls is not indicative of anything, and their use without careful control can, at least as far as I can tell from the data, lead to at the very least the question of coaching a child into giving the information the interviewer expects.
So lets get to the meat of this story here, the really scary stuff, the part that involves very real people being attacked for a very fake moral panic. One part of the Satanic Panic was its use to investigate and close down Day-Care centers across the country, for claims that these places were hives for pedophiles and evildoers. In the case of Fran and Dan Keller, it would begin with a disturbed child whose parents were going through a very messy divorce, who was acting up at home and at the day care. This would be the first of the cases of supposed abuse that had occurred at the day care center run by the Kellers. Eventually it would blossom into multiple accusers, all of whom claimed that the Kellers had been implanting suggestions into their childs heads to trigger them to perform sexual or satanic actions. I’m going to read a quote here from a story titled The Innocent and the Damned from Texas Monthly, by Gary Cartwright. “Quote on the beginnings of the case”
As the panic spread parents were told to question their child until they told the truth about the abuse, because children were told by their captors to lie to other adults or else they would become hurt. A group called Believe the Children helped these interviews along. This group was created specifically to investigate and promote the idea of Satanic Ritual Abuse after another famous case, the McMartin Preschool trial, a topic we will absolutely cover in greater detail in a future episode. The claims included drinking blood, having videotaped sex with adults and other children, killing and dismembering children and pets, and even being flown to Mexico to have sex with adults in that country, all within the span of a single day at Daycare. Parents believed the Kellers along with a network of others had been using their children to perform these horrendous crimes, create child pornography, and worship Satan. Eventually this would lead to a coerced confession from a local police officer who was suspected, leading to the Kellers fleeing the state in fear. The final total of accusers was 3, enough along with the initial accusers physical evidence of abuse, specifically the medical examination which showed a torn hymen less than 24 hours old, to lead to police involvement and an eventual trial. Other children at the daycare claimed no abuse had occurred, and eventually on the stand one of the main accusers would say that she had been forced to say that abuse had happened. But the claims of the doctor on the case who had first discovered the torn hymen was enough to lead to conviction, with the Kellers being sentenced to 48 years in prison after a 6 day trial. The only physical evidence presented was that from the examination of the initial accuser, who showed what the doctor believed to be physical evidence of abuse.
Three years after the trial, the doctor would find that in fact the evidence he believed indicated abuse was a common feature of young girls, and therefore was not evidence of wrongdoing or sexual assault. On top of that in later years the taped interview of one of the accusers would be used in lectures as specific evidence of what NOT to do in an interview with a child, showing common interviewing mistakes and leading to an unverifiable statement. But it wouldn’t be until 2013, a full 21 years after their initial sentence, that the Kellers were released. This was because of the recanted testimony of the Doctor, as well as a reevaluation of a case that had no remaining physical evidence, a recounted confession, and a witness who on the stand claimed that she had been coerced into giving a false report of abuse. They would eventually be paid 3.4 Million dollars for their time served, but is that the price you would put on 21 years of your life spent in jail? I know I would hope my time was worth a lot more.
This is just one case of the Satanic Panic creating absolute horrors for those unjustly accused. To date there has been no evidence of Satanic Ritual abuse uncovered. Although cases of systemic abuse, child porn rings, and even childhood sexual slavery and human trafficking have been found in recent years. However to use these as evidence for the truth of the Satanic Panic, as some do online, is just ridiculous. The Satanic Panic cases were specific in their links to Satanism and other satanic like ideas that are prevalent in the popular culture.
That brings us to maybe the scariest point here.