Vigilante parents dug under a preschool, searching for secret tunnels. The police swapped tips on identifying pagan symbols. A company that sells toothpaste and soap had to deny, repeatedly, that it was acting as an agent of Satan.
Early in the 1980s, baseless conspiracy theories about cults committing mass child abuse spread around the country. Talk shows and news programs fanned fears, and the authorities investigated hundreds of allegations. Even as cases slowly collapsed and skepticism prevailed, defendants went to prison, families were traumatized and millions of dollars were spent on prosecutions.
The phenomenon was so sprawling that, in its aftermath, it took on several names, like the ritual abuse scare or the day care panic. But one name has increasingly stuck: the satanic panic.
You’re Wrong About.” What readers heard, she said, was, “Don’t look in the mirror, the call is not coming from inside the house — the satanists are the problem.”
Some social workers and police officers, searching for an authority to help them face the problem of abuse, even adopted it as a training text, she said.
a book about the panic. “The intermediary steps were people saying there was something weird or elaborate about what happened, and a fair number of those claims came out of the interviews.”
In 1986, prosecutors charged seven employees with more than 100 counts of child molestation and conspiracy. A week later, they dropped the charges against five defendants, citing weak evidence. All the defendants maintained their innocence.
By then, the case was a national spectacle, and prosecutors pursued it despite growing doubts about the original accuser’s story and a variety of fantastical claims from interviews, including a “goatman,” bloody animal sacrifices, a school employee who could fly and acts of violence that left no physical trace. But the trial would not end for years, with no convictions, and prosecutors around the country started dozens of cases like it.
Each authority — the police, prosecutors, psychologists, the media — put pressure on the others to act, said Anna Merlan, the author of a book on the history of conspiracy theories. “It was a very fervid environment,” she said. “Very credible-seeming people were saying: ‘Occult ritual abuse is all around you. We’ve seen it and the signs are visible if you know how to look for it.’”