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Are we entering a modern-day Satanic Panic?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

by Isabelle Zarrin

Beginning in 1980, the cultural phenomenon known as the Satanic Panic took the United States by storm - a result of the release of a Canadian memoir co-written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his psychiatric patient Michelle Smith. Titled Michelle Remembers, the book reported repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse Smith allegedly endured as a child, memories that were realized through recovered memory therapy (RMT) during the late 1970’s.

RMT was and still continues to be a highly controversial practice, with Verywell Mind reporting that some have theorized that "therapists are 'implanting memories' vulnerable patients by suggesting that they are victims of abuse when no abuse occurred." Smith claimed to have been abused in a Satanic cult at the age of five - after undergoing fourteen months of hypnosis conducted by Pazder to recover the memories. Over 40 years after its publication, Michelle Remembers is widely deemed as unreliable, as the claims proposed in the book were not supported by any evidence when investigated. This, however, was not always the case.

The stories held within the book sent the public into a mass panic, with parents fearing that their children were in danger. According to NBC News, "The belief that devil-worshippers disguised as trusted members of the community [were] stalking neighborhood children to abuse and sacrifice them in secret satanic rituals [was] more prevalent than one might imagine."

More often than not, concerned parents targeted those who lived lifestyles that were unfamiliar to them and unconventional for the time. This included heavy metal artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, those who played the popular fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, and music artists who challenged traditional gender roles, all of whom were heavily accused of promoting devil worship and violence.

In a personal essay from Salon, author Gigi Griffis writes of her experience as a teen growing up in the midst of the Satanic Panic. Griffis explains that, for much of her life, the fear inflicted on her by those who believed in the Satanic Panic caused "everything [to feel] like a threat." As an adult, Griffis understands that "fear is natural…But when the fear is unjustified…It can do real harm," explaining that the fear from the Satanic Panic caused "Terrified parents [to think] their kids were being abused by daycare providers and, despite a complete lack of evidence, the paranoia that had gripped the nation pushed judges and juries to convict."

Though the first round of the Satanic Panic has since passed, Griffis worries that a second wave of fear is coming, stating that, "Now, the so-called villains are drag queens, queer people, history teachers, gender rebels. Ironically, in the crossfire of both panics lie the children - who are learning to be afraid…and run from ideas their parents disagree with…"

Some may recall that, earlier in the year, pop artists Sam Smith and Kim Petras faced criticism for their Grammy performance of their song "Unholy," which the two had just won the award for best pop duo/group for. The pair were the first openly non-binary and transgender artists to win the category, already making them the target of hate from anti-LGBTQ+ individuals. However, the hostility worsened as Smith and Petras were accused of including "Satanic" imagery in their live performance, even gaining comments from Representative Marjorie Taylor Green and Senator Ted Cruz, calling the performance "evil" and "demonic."

Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami, spoke to Billboard, connecting the public's horrific reaction to the performance to the beliefs expressed during the Satanic Panic. Such beliefs, he claimed, "never went away, they just weren’t salient anymore to the national conversation…It feels like it’s coming out of nowhere today, but it’s largely being driven by politicians, pastors, and pundits.” Uscinski further explains that "this has always been the reaction to popular culture - that the ‘new culture’ is always dangerous. Pop culture makes for an easy punching bag…[as] in order for popular culture to be popular, there needs to be some edge to it. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same stuff being repeated.” This alludes to the idea that artists may find the backlash they face for expressing themselves to be, in a way, beneficial to their careers.

A relevant example of this potential benefit can be found in the confusion surrounding the behavior recently exhibited by rapper and singer Doja Cat. Like many celebrities eventually encounter in their career, Doja recently became the subject of baseless conspiracy theories, with some stating that she sold her soul to the devil and has become a Satanist. In response, she decided to lean into the rumors with the music video for her single "Paint The Town Red.”

In the video, Doja is seen in black body paint and devil horns as she sings the lyrics, "She the devil/She a bad little b----, she a rebel.” When fans expressed concern over her actions, Doja stated, “Your fear is not my problem.”

Evidently, the potential of impacting the public on a larger scale as a result of these conspiracies is what motivates Doja and other artists to feed into them. In a similar scandal, rapper Lil Nas X faced criticism in 2021 for the music video of his song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” as it featured a dramatized depiction of hell where his love interest is the devil. The video is likely a commentary on the homophobia coming from non-accepting, often religious individuals who express their belief that members of the LGBTQ+ community will “go to hell” for their so-called sins. In a letter to his younger self shared on Twitter amidst the song's release, Lil Nas X explains that as a queer artist, he hopes his art "…will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist…” as he challenges the hateful ideology continuously thrown his way.

Through these instances, one thing is made extremely clear about the nature of society when met with new ideas: people are scared of things that challenge what they are used to. From the irrational fears born during the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s to chronically online internet users speculating that pop stars are demons, people simply don't know how to react to new concepts. Of course, it is easy now to look back and laugh at the seemingly ridiculous frights that came from fantasy board games and alternative music in the 80’s, but the fear felt by society at the time was real and all-consuming, and we are still undeniably guilty of possessing the same senseless worries. In our present day, we seem to be entering a modern version of the Satanic Panic fueled by prevalent pop culture and media. Realistically, these illogical fears and mass panics will continue to appear in society as a result of misinformation and the public’s overall lack of common sense when met with boundary-breaking concepts. However, learning to be more understanding of unfamiliar ideas can drastically decrease the likelihood of any harm coming to innocent targets, whose only crime is living outside of the box.


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