Seeing witches fly, being flushed down toilets to secret rooms and travelling through underground tunnels are some of the claims associated with the phenomenon of ‘Satanic ritual abuse’. Premiering at this year’s Adelaide Film Festival, Demonic is a documentary by filmmaker Pia Borg that traces the moral panic from its beginnings in 1980s America before it eventually moved abroad.
What is Satanic ritual abuse?
It’s a difficult question: some use the term ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ to refer to abusive activity they genuinely believe happens, while others use it to refer to what they consider to be a flawed belief.
Macquarie University’s Dr. Timothy Lynch, writer of Satan’s Empire: the panic over ritual abuse in Australia, explains those who believe in ritual abuse claims point to evidence including ‘disclosures’ made by young children (or adults who have undergone forms of memory recovery therapy). “Therapists and activists generally held the belief that people reporting abuse were truthful, or at the very least their claims should be taken seriously,” Lynch says.
“The uniformity of their reports was also considered a sign of veracity, especially in regard to young children… Problems with the claims, such as their inaccuracies about events and impossible content were explained as the result of the trauma that survivors suffered, or even deliberate actions taken by perpetrators to make claims seem incredible.”
Illustration by Gustave Doré (1866) showing the angel Abdiel striking Satan upon his “impious crest”, as described by John Milton in Paradise Lost, Book VI.
The ‘Satanic Panic’ of the ’80s
Accusations of ritual abuse came to the forefront in 1980s America, when the McMartin case in California saw large numbers of children in pre-schools reporting alleged abuse. At the time, it was the longest and most expensive trial in US history.
But after six years, no convictions were handed down. What the case did highlight, though, were the conditions present in society that culminated in a moral panic.
“Studies in the 1970s had concluded that child sexual abuse was occurring at a much higher rate than previously believed and reported to the authorities,” says Lynch. “In response, many therapists and activists began to use techniques they believed would enable children to disclose abuse or to recover memories of abuse that had been previously ‘repressed’ or held by one or more of an adult’s alternative personalities.”
The techniques developed by therapists and activists to encourage reports were criticised for involving repetitive and suggestive questioning to convince children that they had been abused – and that it made their claims, however unusual, more definite and specific. Then, from the mid-to-late 1980s the discourse concerning ritual abuse moved to focus increasingly on adults, especially women, who had ‘recovered memories’ of abuse that had occurred in childhood.
The ritual component of the allegations was likely the result of Michelle Remembers in 1980, co-authored by a Canadian woman (Michelle Smith) who claimed to have grown up in a Satanic coven and a psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, who coined the term ‘ritual abuse’. Exacerbating concerns was more general discourse circulating in ‘anti-cult’ and American fundamentalist Christian groups about the activities of Satanists and followers of other unorthodox religions.
Satanic ritual abuse in Australia
It took a number of years for the phenomenon to make its way to Australia, and when it did, it presented itself in a unique manner.
“I’d argue that ideas about the abuse spread first, and allegations followed as activists began suggesting to young children that this had happened to them and therapists began encouraging patients to recover memories of it,” said Lynch.
American literature, speeches from visiting ‘experts’ and media reporting on American cases perpetuated the public’s growing fears. In response, conferences featuring only local participants were organized where local publications appeared. But, unlike in the US, in Australia there was “no period in which the claims were uncontested” according to Lynch.
“Skeptical American literature and even experts were available in Australia from virtually the same time as ritual abuse discourse and allegations… there was relatively little involvement by Australian Christian fundamentalists in the panic, and relatively little sympathy in Australia for their views about the devil and his servants. As a result, the Australian population were in general more likely to accept studies and investigations that disproved allegations of ritual abuse, and these were more likely to be conducted.”
Where to now?
As with other historic moral panics – witchcraft, for example – allegations of Satanic ritual abuse have almost disappeared, and certainly do not garner the levels of media attention they once did. But Lynch notes that, on the internet, “florid conspiratorial discourse continues to this day.”
Whether such a panic sees the light of day again is anyone’s guess – but society will surely be better prepared if it does.