The “Satanic Panic” that swept over the media through late 1970s into the early 1990s commonly refers to the belief that satanic cults were responsible for a smorgasbord of serious crimes including the ritualistic sexual abuse of children, distribution of child pornography, murder, kidnapping, grave robbery, vandalism, and the torture of animals. Those of us old enough to remember this time can recall that not a week went by that an unsolved murder or kidnapping had a potential link to occult activity and satanic murder cults were lurking in even the most wholesome of suburban neighborhoods, eager for fresh sacrifices or to recruit new members.
Religious organizations took the media frenzy swirling around the idea of satanic cults and ran with it, claiming that everything from rock music to games like dungeons and dragons were tools used to capture the hearts and minds of impressionable young people and recruit them into dangerous secret societies ruled by devil worship. The whole idea of satanic cults hanging around parks, performing magic rituals, and sacrificing animals or people seems completely preposterous today, but at the time it was a threat to be taken seriously.
Although there has been cases of murderers claiming some affiliation to satanic beliefs (See: Richard Ramirez) and formal religious orders like the Church of Satan do exist, there is absolutely no evidence supporting the existence of these evil cults or that organized sects of satanists participate in the ritualistic murder or abuse of people or animals. While some of the geeky loner kids may have faced persecution due to their preoccupation with certain music groups or for their enjoyment of role playing games, some have faced serious criminal charges due to this unfounded satanic hysteria.
Kern County Child Abuse Cases
Much like the Salem Witch Trials, innocent people were arrested and accused of being involved in satanic cults after the release of the now debunked novel Michelle Remembers. Reports began to spring up of people suddenly recalling satanic ritual abuse that occurred to them during childhood and others claimed that they were currently being victimized by these cults. A number of these cases were reported within California’s Kern County.
The Kern County child abuse cases were remarkable in that they started a trend across the United States in reports of sexual abuse within daycare facilities, as well as the involvement of the perpetrators in bizarre satanic rituals. The first reported ritual sex abuse case within Kern County was made by two young girls claiming that their parents, Alvin and Debbie McCuan, as well as Scott and Brenda Kniffen, were involved in a child sex ring and had been abusing them along with the Kniffen’s children. Dozens more cases surfaced in the wake of the McCuan/Kniffen trials, complete with claims of bizarre satanic sexual rituals involving the children. 60 children testified that they had been abused within the satanic pedophilic sex ring, and over 30 adults were sent to prison for their alleged involvement. Most of those connected to the alleged sex ring were able to overturn their convictions, however, two died while in prison without an opportunity to clear their name.
It later came to light that the children had been heavily coached on to what to say during court proceedings and that their stories were largely, if not completely, fabricated. It was also discovered that months before the child sex abuse accusations began running rampant in Kern County, several social workers had attended a seminar that discussed the connection between child abuse and satanic rituals, using Michelle Remembers as source material. A documentary called The Witch Hunt was released in 2007, focusing primarily on a Kern County child abuse case involving a man named John Stoll. Stoll was accused and later acquitted of the molestation of his son and several other young boys.
The incident that occurred at McMartin Preschool is another high-profile case during the height of satanic panic and the daycare abuse hysteria. Judy Johnson, a woman with a history of heavy drinking and diagnosed schizophrenia, accused a faculty member of the McMartin Preschool of sexually molesting her son. Although the suspect was released due to lack of evidence, a memo from the police was circulated to other parents of children enrolled within the school, informing them of the accusations made by Johnson and encouraging parents to question their children about the potential of sexual assault.
Over 100 children claimed that they had been touched inappropriately, penetrated, or forced to play a game called “Naked Moviestar.” The entire staff of the McMartin Preschool was accused of forcing the children to participate in bizarre rituals where they sacrificed animals in corridors located under the school, though these secret corridors were never located. The children were interviewed on camera about their horrific stories of satanic sexual abuse, some of which was used as evidence within the trial against the McMartins and other preschool staff. The trial turned into the longest and most costly in U.S. History, yet no evidence against the McMartins nor the preschool staff could be substantiated. Some jurors on the case did not doubt that something had occurred at the school, but the stories had become so incredible that it was difficult to tell what was truth and what was spawned from the active imaginations of the children.
The case is often cited to show the unreliability of a child’s testimony and how easily children can be coached, even inadvertently, into making false claims. Since the trial, some of the alleged victims involved in the case have come forward to admit that their stories were elaborate lies, while others maintain that they were molested at the school.
West Memphis Three
In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were reported missing in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. After an extensive search the boys’ bodies were found floating in a creek the following day. All three boys were naked and had their hands and feet bound together with their shoelaces, additionally one boy had his penis severely mutilated. The cause of death was determined to be multiple stab wounds in conjunction with drowning. Investigators interrogated several potential suspects in the case, but ultimately targeted three somewhat troubled teenagers.
The two officers in charge of the case decided that the murders had seemed occult in nature and named Damien Echols as a suspect in the case, primarily due to his interest in the occult and prior history of odd behavior attributed to his diagnosed mental illness. Two other teenagers – Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin – were also implicated in the crime due to their connection with Echols. Although Baldwin and Echols were no strangers to the law, having been charged with petty theft and vandalism, there was no indication other than rumors and circumstantial evidence that they were murderers.
Misskelley wasn’t well acquainted with either Baldwin or Echols. He was considered “barely functioning” with an IQ of only 71, but was known for his temper and often found himself involved in fistfights. In spite of his low IQ and the fact that he was a minor without parental permission to be questioned at the time of the interrogation, police intimidated Misskelley into confessing to the murders.
Misskelley wouldn’t be the only one coerced by the West Memphis police. A woman by the name of Vicki Hutcheson was taken into the police station for a polygraph test in an unrelated case. Hutcheson’s young son was a playmate of the three boys that had been murdered. He told police that the boys had been murdered by “satanists that spoke Spanish” and that they were murdered in “the playhouse.” Although his story was wildly inconsistent with what was discovered at the crime scene, the boy was unable to point out any of the three suspects in a photo lineup, and no “playhouse” was known to exist near the location, police allowed portions of boy’s statement to be leaked to the media in order to perpetuate the idea that the murders were the work of a satanic cult.
Police had Misskelley take Echols to Hutcheson’s home. Hutcheson was instructed to record their conversations and to try to get Echols to confess to the murders. Echols did not reveal anything incriminating and most of the tapes were completely inaudible. Hutcheson insisted otherwise and that Echols had taken her to a secret Wiccan meeting where he openly bragged about the murders. Hutcheson later recanted her statement, claiming that she made it up in order to avoid conviction for a pending theft charge against her and to collect reward money for catching the killers.
The three teenagers were tried and convicted of the murders, even with the severe mishandling of crime scene evidence and poor witness testimony. There were several attempts at appeals made throughout the years for all three cases, including the use of DNA evidence collected that did not match Echols, Misskelley, or Baldwin’s. Later evidence alluded that one of the boy’s stepfathers may have been responsible for the murder of the three second-graders and even some of the parents of the murdered children doubted the guilt of the teenagers. Henry Rollins, lead singer of the punk band Black Flag, released a benefit album for the boys in 2002 to assist in funding the defense team for the wrongly convicted trio. A number of publications, documentaries, and even a Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon titled The Devils Knot also supported the innocence of three convicted murderers.
In 2011 a court would finally allow Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin a plea deal. The deal would allow the three to walk free, but ordered for them to remain on a 10 year suspended sentence. Even a minor infraction would mean that they would return to jail. By accepting the deal the three had to plead guilty to the crimes, but are still able to appeal their case and present new evidence when it arises. Baldwin was initially reluctant to the deal, but felt it was necessary to get Echols off of death row.