May 1985, the news program “20/20” ran a segment on Satan worship that described animal mutilations “clearly used in some kind of bizarre ritual,” rock music “associated with devil worship,” “satanic graffiti” and backward messages in pop songs.

There were a few caveats. The host, Hugh Downs, opened by saying: “Police have been skeptical when investigating these acts, just as we are in reporting them. But there is no question that something is going on out there, and that’s sufficient reason for ‘20/20’ to look into it.”

The program presented cult activity, if not the occult itself, in all but certain terms. “Today we have found Satan is alive and thriving, or at least plenty of people believe he is,” said the correspondent Tom Jarriel. “His followers are extremely secretive but found in all walks of life.” Only near the end of the report did he say that, until evidence was proved, “the link between crime and satanic cults will remain speculative.”

Three years later, NBC commissioned its own special, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, who described gruesome crimes, aired child testimony of abuse and interviewed Ozzy Osbourne. Almost 20 million homes tuned in.

at a news conference. “We haven’t the vaguest idea how it started; all we know is people are believing it. Do you know how hard it is to fight a rumor?”

False rumors had started years earlier, many claiming that its logo, of a bearded man in the moon facing 13 stars, was actually a symbol of the devil. (The logo dated to 1882 and the stars referred to the 13 original colonies.) The company began a two-decade campaign to defend its name, sending representatives to churches, filing lawsuits and pursuing court cases as recently as 2007. It also changed its logo.

ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors, having spent $15 million, dropped the case.

Nearly 200 people were charged with crimes over the course of the satanic panic, and dozens were convicted. Many defendants were eventually freed, sometimes after years. Three Arkansas teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three were freed in 2011, almost 20 years after they were convicted of murders that prosecutors portrayed as a satanic sacrifice. In 2013, a Texas couple were released after 21 years in prison; they were later awarded $3.4 million from a state fund for wrongful convictions.

released an investigative guide that explained his skepticism of satanic abuse claims.Two years later, researchers with the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect found that investigators could not substantiate any of roughly 12,000 accusations of group cult sexual abuse based on satanic ritual.

In a few instances, apologies followed, including from Mr. Rivera and Kyle Zirpolo, one of the former McMartin students who made allegations to the police. “I lied,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “It was an ordeal. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to get out of here unless I tell them what they want to hear.’”

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