For some of us, the fact that so many Mormons (and now, members of Congress!) are caught up in outlandish conspiracy theories is another heavy brick on our collapsing shelf. How can these friends and neighbors, people who are supposedly our peers in discipleship, believe crackpot theories? And that thought leads to the next obvious question–if they are gullible enough to believe these things, how does that reflect on Mormonism as a belief system? The answer . . .
One of the podcasts I enjoy is called You’re Wrong About. One of the two podcasters is writing a book about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, something I remember hearing all about as a teen. If you didn’t live through the 80s, I’ll recap. There was a huge moral panic in the country that Satan worshippers were in our midst, committing ritualistic killings, and also running pedophile rings in day care centers. In fact, when I got to Utah to attend BYU, I was warned that there were Satan worshippers that did ceremonies and sacrifices near the Capitol building in Salt Lake. Don’t go there after dark, they said. It could be anybody, they whispered.
The thing about the Satanic Panic is that it was widespread, it happened when the country was becoming more conservative in reaction to the “free love” 70s and rising equality of the sexes, and it was also built on a foundation of conservative hysteria. There are several reasons that this conspiracy theory got legs:
Although kids have been sexually abused since the dawn of time, prior to this time, kids were considered unreliable witnesses. You may be familiar with the phrase, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Kids were generally not listened to, and their testimony of events was at best dismissively laughed at by wiser adults who steered them in more socially acceptable directions. I know for those raised in the helicopter / co-sleeping parenting era, this will sound like madness, but go back and watch an episode of Father Knows Best. It’s called that for a reason, and it isn’t because the kids had any say in how things were run. In the 1980s, for the first time in a long time, children were beginning to be listened to, with legal and criminal consequences, and unfortunately, authority figures were unaware how much they influenced the testimony children gave. Children were highly suggestible, and they sought the approval of the authority figures who were trying to ascertain what had happened. Children involved in giving testimony found that adults got more excited the more outlandish their stories were. They were very unreliable witnesses, but when they said they saw Satan worshippers eating poop and making them drink blood, by golly, those adults took note!
There was a perception that the nuclear family was the backbone of society, and that any threat to it was dangerous. What could be more threatening than moms returning to work (leaving their kids with indifferent day care centers) or the absolutely horrifying idea of dads, who are there to protect their children, committing sexual abuse against their precious little ones? Enter, the Satanic Panic which neatly killed two birds with one stone. Rather than facing the fact that some kids were victims of patriarchal incest  or that day care might provide valuable social interaction to children, or that women might also have ambitions, hopes and dreams outside the home, or that women shouldn’t be financially dependent on husbands that might terrorize and beat them, the Satanic Panic instead took all the heat off fathers and placed it back on working women and the day care centers that made it possible for them to work, where the “real” evil was, the one that threatened the patriarchy anyway.
If you scratch away at the claims of those who said they had unearthed or witnessed ritual Satanic sex orgies, you invariably found . . . Evangelical Christians.
“To right-wing Christian fundamentalists steeped in lore about devils and stewing with hostility toward public child care, it was hard not to embrace the notion of Satan infiltrating day-care centers.“Debbie Nathan, author of Satan’s Silence
The Satanic Panic resulted in many individuals being sentenced to decades-long prison terms, some of whom are literally still imprisoned. You can read more about it here. It is also the backstory behind an excellent novel I read two years ago by Gillian Flynn called Dark Places.
The story of the Satanic Panic sounds a lot like two other American “Satanic Panics”: the Salem Witch Trials, and QAnon. About six months ago, I met up with some women from my last ward for a socially distant lunch. As we were getting ready to leave, one of them said in her best gossipy voice, “Oh my gosh, have you guys seen this Wayfair story?!” I hadn’t, so I immediately Googled it while she continued, explaining that people were purchasing cabinets on Wayfair, but it was really child sex trafficking. Like you ordered a cabinet named Alysha, but it was really a child named Alysha, and that’s why the cabinets were $10,000. I found absolutely nothing about this story credible, and I immediately said so. “That’s ridiculous. If you are trafficking children, you can’t advertise them to the general public. If a child is delivered when you were expecting expensive cabinets, the jig is up.” Then I showed that the first ten hits I had from Google explained why it was just a bizarre conspiracy theory, not based in truth.
This rumor was similar to Pizzagate, the 2016 conspiracy theory that Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, were trafficking children out of the basement of a Pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. This panic came to a head when 28-year old North Carolinian Edgar Maddison stormed the restaurant and fired three rounds into the restaurant, demanding access to the basement to free the children. Since the restaurant had no basement, he pulled open doors and cabinets, hoping to disprove the owner’s claims, but ultimately, he was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. This conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking was resurrected in 2020 by QAnon during the run-up to the election as a way to galvanize alt-right voters by convincing them that Democrats were involved in a pedophile ring (and apparently starting forest fires with Jewish space lasers). Whether it’s QAnon, the Satanic Panic, or the Salem Witch Trials, it always seems to be the same thing, over and over. Save the innocent children from our Satan-serving enemies, and anything goes when it comes to fighting this imaginary threat because IT’S A WAR! ON SATAN!
These panics all share the following themes:
- Heroic Evangelicals / religious fanatics who are “chosen”
- Protecting innocent children
- Real, physical Satanic danger
And when you look just a little bit closer, you see the unseen hand of these forces:
- Patriarchy protecting patriarchy
- Opportunists profiting from the panic
- The justification of lies and violence by the first two groups
- Casualties among the marginalized in society
It bolsters people’s faith in the unseen when they (as a community) all agree to start seeing it everywhere. These types of panics rally people around their own heroism, literally fighting the forces of evil, and allow them to overlook the fact that they are 100% doing wrong and immoral things. In the case of Salem, Evangelical Puritans were committing genocide, enslaving natives, beating wives, hiding sexual secrets (in the domestic sphere), and so on. In our modern era, we have a huge wealth gap, and conservatives (particularly Evangelical Christians) have an outsize representation in our voting and government, thanks to the electoral college, the urbanization of the US, and how the Senate is comprised. These conservative groups also have a poor track record on race, LGBT, and women.
Panics also provide an easy vehicle to target those you want to oust from the community by connecting them to these “unseen” dark forces that you & your network have suddenly starting seeing everywhere.  In Salem, most who were targeted were already on the fringes of society: friendless widows, cantankerous Cory Giles, slaves, natives, and others who lacked community support and patriarchal protection. It’s one reason so many women are targeted as witches. Throughout history, women, particularly once they are no longer fertile, are disposable to a patriarchal society. There’s a reason most “witches” are depicted as old crones. They are the most useless, valueless humans in a patriarchal society. If they have no male protection, they are viewed with particular suspicion, literally outside of the power structure.
Opportunists in the community very quickly see the cash cow and power grab potential of these types of panics. It becomes a big business. Cotton Mather literally would have been a nobody if not for this garbage. He wasn’t very good at the things he was supposed to be good at. This was his “niche,” and it’s pretty hard to disprove someone’s expertise in an area where they are just making crap up. In the wake of the Salem trials, two of the girls who had “identified” witches in Salem took their act on the road, identifying witches in neighboring communities for money until the state’s judiciary finally put a stop to it.
When I was 15, I attended a big Youth Conference that included guest speaker Lynn Bryson. He did his level best to terrify all of us by explaining that our albums contained Satanic messages that could be heard if you played them backwards (I’m not sure how back-masking was supposed to turn us into Satanists, since we listened to the music played normally, but that was implied). He also explained that Satan was real, and that he was listening to everything we said and did and we were attracting him if we listened to hard rock, like Pokemon to incense. My friend Julie and I laughed through the whole presentation because she was wearing a Led Zeppelin hat, and he spent at least fifteen minutes breaking down why Stairway to Heaven was diabolical. At the end of the presentation, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, came the sales pitch; he was coincidentally selling his own Satan-repellent music in the lobby as we left. Even at 15, I saw that coming a mile off. I made mental note of my peers that clustered around his table trying to buy his “Church-approved” terrible music. Anyone that gullible was probably not someone I wanted to be friends with.
Still, the rest of that Youth Conference, our entire Young Women (and one of our leaders) spent the next several days freaking each other out with creepy pronouncements that there was “badness” we could sense all around us. We even got our YW leader to try to contact the dead, as she said she could sense spirits. Obviously, as with the Salem trials, there’s nothing quite so appealing to teenage girls living in a rural religious existence as pretending to be able to sense evils around them. For years, we would tease each other by seizing up, staring ahead blankly, intoning, “There is badness.” As one of my friends put it menacingly, tired of being frightened at every snapping twig on one camp-out in the woods, “You’re gonna see some badness all right if you don’t quit it!”
- Do you think Mormons are equally susceptible to these Satanic panics or is it something that leaks into Mormonism from Evangelicals?
- What percent of your Mormon friends believe these types of things?
- Do you have recollections of these types of panics within your years in the Church?
 Or as Miracle of Forgiveness would have it, promiscuous, seductresses who committed the sin next to murder.
Cory Giles may have had the best “last words” of all time, but he was a crotchety curmudgeon with a temper who had beaten a mentally challenged servant to death, which despite their mostly terrible beliefs, his Puritan neighbors didn’t think was cool.
 I mean, aside from playing “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards to hear the voice say “It’s time to smoke marijuana.” Obviously.
**For another great article about Mormons and belief in witches, read this by our own Dave B.