Trigger warning: This article mentions sensitive topics including suicide and child abuse.
It may be hard to believe today, but in the 1980s to 1990s, the Satanic Panic was at its peak in Australia as well as the United States. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of people pulling their hair out in panic because they truly believed that there were clandestine groups of people engaging in Satan worship. And it’s the kind of panic that has historically spiraled out of control into full-on mass hysteria.
In the 1980s to 1990s, tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or DnD, were the prime target of the Satanic Panic. While many today embrace DnD for its capacity to bring people together and connect them through creativity and storytelling, adherents of the Satanic Panic thought nothing would be better than to stigmatise the game. They believed that the exercise of imagination, of imagining yourself as a mythical hero or anti-hero, was bordering on witchcraft, or worse, destructive praise of Satan. It comes as no surprise, then, that a book series actively embracing witchcraft and wizardry in its world-building – namely, the Harry Potter series – would also become a target of the Satanic Panic.
And once more in 2022, when many thought it was well and truly dead, the unstoppable Satanic Panic vampire rose out of its coffin when the fourth season of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix. In the first episode, the character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club’s DnD game, calls out the farcical accusations made against players of the game: “satanic worship, sodomy, suicide, and even… murder!” Other allegations against players of the game went so far as to accuse them of being involved in the ritual abuse of children. These allegations, and Stranger Things’ representation of the 1980s Satanic Panic in all of its absurdity begs a few questions, including…
How on earth did we get to this point? And why did a humble tabletop game like DnD spark such wild accusations?
If we want to understand the modern origins of the Satanic Panic, we can look no further than the now-discredited book Michelle Remembers, published in 1980. Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his psychiatric patient Michelle Smith co-authored the book after engaging in the now-discredited practice of recovered memory therapy. Their book proliferated conspiracy theories – now debunked – claiming that there was an intergenerational, international ‘Church of Satan’ perpetuating ritual abuse against children.
But how do we account for the rapid spread of the Satanic Panic? Dr Joseph Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, notes that many perpetuating the Satanic Panic against DnD were conservative Christians – despite the original creators of DnD being “themselves very devout Christians.” Based on this conservative Christian context, Dr Laycock suggests that the Satanic Panic spread due to a fear of the imagination becoming a strategy of “thumbing your nose at God.” After all, what’s a good DnD game without a Dungeon Master who has the godlike ability to build entire worlds? There’s a second possible reason why the Satanic Panic was such a popular phenomenon beyond DnD and Harry Potter, especially in the United States. As Mary De Young writes, the Satanic Panic represented a broader conservative Christian pushback against many social changes that were happening in Western society, including the increased inclusion of women in the workforce, increased acceptance of homosexuality, and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family structure (Young 2008: 1723).
What was the impact of the Satanic Panic?
The Satanic Panic had real and devastating consequences for those who were wrongly targeted by the hysteria. This included many day care providers, often “middle-aged, working- or middle-class women” (Young 2008: 1719) being convicted of ritual child abuse and imprisoned – only for their convictions to be revoked years later due to a lack of reliable incriminating evidence against them (Young 2007). At the same time, the Satanic Panic overshadowed real victim-survivors’ stories of child abuse. As research fellow Michael David Barbezat explains, the Satanic Panic prevented many, including policy makers, from interrogating the “actual social structures that facilitate abuse.”
The Satanic Panics?
The Satanic Panic is not the first time humanity has messed up by succumbing to hysteria. Hypatia was a renowned Neoplatonic scholar in 4th-5th century CE Alexandria and according to Dr Fenny Smith, the “first woman mathematician of whom we have reasonably secure and detailed knowledge.” Despite Hypatia’s achievements in mathematics and philosophy, an Alexandrian demagogue Cyril spread rumours that Hypatia was a witch and had cursed a Roman prefect called Orestes. These unsubstantiated rumours, as historian Soraya Field Fiorio notes, resulted in Hypatia’s brutal murder by a militia of monks known as the parabalani. Fast forward to the late 17th century Salem witch trials, where many individuals – mainly women – were accused of using witchcraft to cause harm in colonial Massachusetts. These accusations were later discredited when those accused were pardoned in 1693. Fast forward yet again to the anti-communist paranoia or ‘Red Scare’ emerging out of the mid-20th century during the Cold War. As a result of the Red Scare, many lost their jobs, faced imprisonment and social stigmatisation (Berinsky and Lenz 2014: 370) – no matter how unsubstantiated the anti-communist claims against them were.
What significance do these panics have for us today?
This historical cycle of paranoia and unjust oppression of individuals broadens the significance of the Satanic Panic. On the more negative side of things, we see that in times of uncertainty and upheaval, some act impulsively on their social prejudices. But there is an alternative approach for all of us to consider. Specifically, we are reminded of the value of critical thinking, fact-checking and peer-reviewing to combat the destructive social consequences of paranoia.
So the Satanic Panic is more than just a reminder of how absurd humanity can sometimes be: it’s a reminder that we cannot take our democratic institutions for granted. In an age of endless conspiracy theories and misinformation, the risk of losing these institutions all together has become too real. Critical thinking, fact-checking and peer-reviewing in educational institutions – these are just a few ways in which we can attempt to create a more fair and democratic society.
That being said, anyone up for a round of DnD?