The story was shocking, breaking just days before the 2016 US presidential election. As revealed in a cache of emails stolen by the Russian government and published by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta had ingested breast milk, semen, menstrual blood, and urine during a bizarre occult ritual known as a “spirit dinner.” A shadowy cabal of high-profile figures had attended the satanic smorgasbord. As if anyone needed any more proof, the Clinton campaign was, dramatic pause, in league with the devil.
So the story went, anyway.
The reality of the spirit dinner is much more banal (save for the fact that the emails were procured through a coordinated effort by a hostile foreign power to subvert American democracy, but that’s just details). John Podesta had received a message from his brother Tony, an art collector. Tony told John that performance artist Marina Abramović—a friend of Tony’s—had invited him and John to a “spirit cooking” dinner. “Spirit cooking” was a reference to Abramović’s 1997 art installation of the same name, which featured, among other jarring imagery, recipes written on gallery walls in what appeared to be blood. John never responded to the invitation. A later exchange between Tony and John revealed that John hadn’t attended the dinner, but that didn’t matter. The story was out: John Podesta was a devil worshipper. This was news to Abramović, who later explained that the dinner, which again, John Podesta did not attend, featured “just a normal menu. … We just call things funny names, that’s all.”
That particular fact check is only the tip of the iceberg; spirit cooking wasn’t a one-off conspiracy theory specific to the 2016 election. Clinton and her associates had been accused of various degrees of devil worship for decades. Months before the spirit dinner story broke, for example, Ben Carson—the brain surgeon turned Trump booster later turned Housing and Urban Development Secretary—asserted that Clinton was an agent of Lucifer himself. That Carson’s statement was forgotten almost as quickly as he said it shows how normalized the Clinton-is-a-devil trope had become.
The satanic conspiracy narrative is much older and broader than Clinton’s career, of course. Its existence within the contemporary political landscape stems from a centuries-old belief that embedded within every rung of society are demonic elements whose sole, nefarious purpose is to undermine Christianity and, indeed, Western Civilization itself. Online, the narrative remains doggedly resonant within far-right circles. This chapter traces the historical origins of the narrative and shows how modern media have ensured its continued circulation. In particular, we focus on the Satanic Panics, which began fulminating in the United States in the 1960s and reached their peak (or, perhaps more appropriately, their nadir) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drawing from decades, even centuries, of cultural precedent, these panics reflected growing concerns about Satan’s influence on secular society and on impressionable youths in particular. The panics included efforts to exorcise the demonic forces believed to be lurking in a range of media, including television, books, rock music, and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
The panics also focused on exorcising the demonic forces believed to be embedded in local communities. Some of these efforts centered on actual violent crimes that had, or were publicized as having, occult elements. Others centered on accusations of satanic abuse based on “recovered memories,” resulting in dozens of criminal trials. A networked combination of Evangelical church leaders, clinical psychologists, law enforcement officers, and concerned parents worried about the spirit dinners of their day all played critical catalyzing roles.
Besides contextualizing reactions to Abramović’s party plans, the Satanic Panics illustrate two concepts at the heart of this book. First, the panics emerged from a deep memetic frame at the core of Evangelical Christian theology. Deep memetic frames grow forth from what we’re taught, what we experience, and how we’re conditioned to interpret information. They shape our realities, and by extension our actions, so thoroughly and so seamlessly that the people peering out from behind them likely have no idea the frames even exist. This is just how the world is; the epistemological equivalent of breathing.
Second, the Satanic Panics thrived because of network climate change, which was brought on by a series of shifts within the media environment. These include the emergence of easily recordable, remixable, and shareable read/write media beginning in the 1960s. Read/write media allowed more people from more walks of life to shape their networks to more ambivalent ends. A formidable far-right broadcast media ecosystem also emerged in the 1960s, and was energized by the political rise of the so-called New Right in the 1970s. Fundamentalist media and right-wing political networks were further boosted by industry deregulation and the advent of cable television in the 1980s.
Polluted information certainly existed before these shifts. However, it had never been able to flow at anywhere close to the speed and scale afforded by the changing network climate. The Satanic Panics didn’t just epitomize these changes; they emerged from them. The panics therefore provide a crucial, if unexpected, window into the full-blown network crisis we face today. Only by studying these origins can we fully appreciate the mess we’re in. And only by fully appreciating the mess we’re in can we hope to begin cleaning it up.
Deep Memetic Frames
Understanding the tenacity of the Satanic Panics requires an understanding of deep memetic frames. The meaning of the term, and the influences informing it, can be broken down word by word.
First is the notion of frames. Sociologist Erving Goffman, folklorists Jeffrey Victor and Bill Ellis, and linguist George Lakoff writing with philosopher Mark Johnson all describe frames as sensemaking mechanisms that allow people to tell coherent stories about the world. Lakoff and Johnson go so far as to call frames the “metaphors we live by”; they’re so integral to human cognition that they shape what a person can see. Philosopher Sandra Harding’s work on feminist standpoint theory adds a crucial contour to this discussion. As Harding asserts, a person’s relationship to power—the result of their race, gender, class, ability, the list goes on—establishes where they’re positioned in the world. This standpoint, in turn, directly influences what’s visible to that person, which in turn directly influences what they know.
These frames reflect fundamental ideals and can cohere an entire lifetime of choices, beliefs, and experiences. In short, they run deep, to a person’s very core. We borrow this term from sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of the “deep stories” that animate the political ideologies of Louisiana conservatives. As Hochschild explains, the deep story these conservatives tell is one of “traditional” American values—hard work, independence, Christian faith—being trampled by “line cutters” who take what these conservatives believe to be theirs. In this case and others, deep stories are the paradigms through which we viscerally experience everyday life. We feel our way into deep stories; those same feelings form the core of deep memetic frames.
Finally, our inclusion of the term memetic signals the reciprocal social sharing that allows deep frames to spread. They’re memes in Milner’s articulation of the term, a modification of the concept introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: ideas moving back and forth between collective norms and individual actions, evolving as they travel. From this view, deep memetic frames aren’t bestowed from on high, a way of seeing that somebody assigns to you. Instead, they’re maintained through what we do and say, and what others do and say, within our networks—as well as the cultural cross-pollination that occurs between networks. All that social participation—some direct, some indirect—spreads deep frames between this person and that person, between this group and that group.
Memetic spread is further propelled by the persistent churn of catalyzing and stabilizing cultural forces. Stabilizing forces are institutional and mainstream. They codify norms and maintain the status quo within a particular cultural tradition. Catalyzing forces, on the other hand, are vernacular and grassroots. They respond to, play with, and often subvert stabilizing forces using alternative communication channels. Sometimes these communication channels exist wholly outside mainstream reach. Sometimes they’re repurposed by institutions. No matter how they’re communicated, deep memetic frames circulate through a blend of both.
The deep memetic frames at the heart of the Satanic Panics did exactly what present-day deep memetic frames do: they established ethical and ideological ways of being in the world. In the process, they didn’t just direct what people saw (or thought they saw); they shaped what people believed should be done in response.
“For We Wrestle Not against Flesh and Blood …”
Fears about a Satanist lurking under every bed are not unique to the United States nor to the 1980s. Instead, the Satanic Panics trace back centuries to a cluster of deep stories that Jeffrey Victor calls subversion myths, also known as secret conspiracy myths. Subversion myths, Victor explains, boil down to the fear of an evil internal enemy. The myths are grounded in Christian theology, specifically Satan’s rebellion against God. Having fallen, the story goes, Satan spends his days attempting to destroy God’s creations; that fall, and all of Satan’s subsequent scheming, forms the foundation of the Western ideology of evil. It’s also the foundation of Christian threat assessment. Instead of facing adversaries of “flesh and blood,” Ephesians 6:12 of the King James Bible warns, Christians are locked in a battle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Even when subversion myths sidestep specific references to Christianity, these myths still draw from Christian roots; as religious studies scholar Julie Ingersoll argues, fears about conspiratorial subversion aren’t framed by believers as conflict between specific human actors at specific moments in history. Rather, they’re seen as clashes between Good and Evil. Even more distressing to those believers, it’s not just that they are coming to get us; they are already here, hiding in plain sight.
A related predecessor to the Satanic Panics is the blood ritual myth, in which a group of malevolent strangers stealthily kidnap and murder children, then use the children’s blood and body parts in occult ceremonies. The blood ritual myth fused with satanic subversion myths in the eleventh century, when they were lobbed (falsely) by the Catholic Church against religious dissidents in Orléans, France. Similar accusations were made (also falsely) against the rebellious Cathars in the thirteenth century and the economically powerful Knights Templar in the fourteenth century. From the thirteenth century onward, accusations of occultism became a preferred religious justification for decimating enemies. Case in point is the blood libel myth. This myth shares features with the blood ritual myth but was specifically deployed starting in the thirteenth century to demonize Jews, who were said to be sacrificing Christian infants and using their blood in rituals. The blood libel myth is a cornerstone of modern anti-Semitism.
A third foundational myth implicates the Illuminati, an organization founded in the mid-eighteenth century. The brainchild of Bavarian revolutionary Adam Weishaupt, the Order of the Illuminati opposed organized Christianity and sought to seed rationalist, pro-Enlightenment ideals across the West by infiltrating powerful institutions and effecting change from within. In this sense, the Illuminati really was a subversive organization, as opposed to being a paranoid figment of the Church’s imagination. The Order of the Illuminati eventually aligned with another fraternal organization, the Freemasons, inspiring fears about which Masonic lodges may have been infiltrated.
Wherever they might have been lurking, members of the Illuminati were said to be society’s puppet masters. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these suspicions were increasingly directed at Jews, who were accused of hatching a variety of nefarious plots from the shadows—including efforts to rule the world through communism. Fascist propagandists and, later, anticommunist crusaders, ran with this association. It wasn’t long before the so-called Jewish conspiracy, dovetailing with communist infiltration paranoia, was said to extend to Satan himself.
The alleged links between Satanists, Jews, and the Illuminati fed right into the twentieth century’s Satanic Panics. Some of the most prominent far-right conspiracy theorists in the 1960s and 1970s explicitly connected the Illuminati and Satanism to “the Jewish influence,” while others played up the connection between the Illuminati and Satanism but downplayed specific references to Jewish people.
Whatever their level of implicit or explicit bigotry, the flood of anti-Illuminati articles that circulated through conservative and Evangelical media platforms during the early 1970s codified satanic Illuminati subversion, a connection that persisted well into the 1990s. Influential televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, argued in his 1991 book The New World Order that the Illuminati’s “atheists and Satanists” were the masterminds behind the formation of the United Nations. “The New Age religions, the beliefs of the Illuminati, and Illuminated Freemasonry,” he wrote, “all seem to move along parallel tracks with world communism and world finance.” Though they might seem divergent—for the uninitiated, what the Illuminati has to do with Satan has to do with the United Nations is, let’s say, opaque—all these conspiracy theories replicate the same age-old subversion myth and its warnings about the world.
The satanic subversion myth fueling the Satanic Panics tended to cluster around specific demographic groups. First, with rare exception, the Satanic Panics unfolded in small towns and rural communities. As an explanation, Victor cites the economic anxieties present in these areas during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as growing concerns about teenage drug use, crime, and depression. Also relevant, Victor argues, is rural America’s pervasive Evangelical religiosity. Strong Christian faith wasn’t the sole precursor for belief in a satanic conspiracy, but belief in the devil incarnate both provided a basis for credulity and was statistically concentrated in rural areas.
The Satanic Panics weren’t just a predominantly rural phenomenon. They were also a predominantly white phenomenon. Tracing a rumor that spread through his local community in western New York in 1988, during which many townspeople were gripped by fears that satanic cult members were planning to kidnap and sacrifice the town’s blond, blue-eyed children, Victor notes that local Black folks showed little interest in the story—likely because the threat was, very pointedly, white supremacist. It simply wasn’t directed at nonwhite children; Satan didn’t want their souls. Anthropologist Phillips Stevens Jr. emphasizes a similar racial discrepancy, which he attributes to the more nuanced role Satan plays in many Black Christian churches.
Specific religious traditions are, of course, variable across and within communities. However, as religion scholar Yvonne P. Chireau explains, subtle differences between Black Christianity and white Christianity help contextualize the devil’s respective roles within Black and white churches. These differences have deep—and deeply violent—historical roots. Namely, the stark distinction between Good and Evil and emphasis on original sin, among other characteristics of white European Christianity, were not indigenous to African religious practices. Enslaved African people in the United States were prohibited from practicing their own religions and were forced to adopt Christian traditions—which they did, with some adjustments. One of many consequences was that existing deities were mapped onto the figure of Satan, who would have been broadly recognizable to white Christians as “their” Satan but also retained many African folk elements. That Satan posed its own threats. The white Christian Satan did too, and when white Christians steeped in apocalyptic dualism began seeing those threats in their own communities, it didn’t take much kindling for the panics to catch fire.
Satan Satan Everywhere
In his analysis of the panics, Bill Ellis argues that the satanic subversion myth was a cultural grammar for believers; it connected dots across events, allowing people to explain what was happening (or what they thought was happening) in the world. Jeffrey Victor likewise observes that the satanic subversion myth helped believers interpret the deluge of threatening information about Satanism that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Fundamentalist media already had plenty to say about the devil, of course; but satanic mythology and iconography also grew increasingly prominent in mainstream popular culture. The 1980s and 1990s were even more saturated with Satan, from occult mass media to crimes with satanic elements to nonbelievers’ constant jokes about Satanism. These decades were therefore even more primed for subversion mythmaking.
For people who didn’t see through the satanic conspiracy frame, the occult elements pushing their way to the forefront of popular culture were disconnected curiosities. They were sources of entertainment and humor, if they were given any thought at all. For people standing behind the satanic frame, in contrast, there was nothing disconnected about any of it. It proved, instead, the undeniable existence of the conspiracy. Given all the evidence, or more accurately, all the phenomena perceived as evidence, there was no other reasonable explanation: demonic forces were on the march, and they were coming for your soul.
These forces cleave into two basic categories. First, there were empirically true occurrences: things that were actually happening in the world. Second, there were things that believers experienced as real, cohered by the deep memetic frame of satanic subversion. Our distinction between true and real draws from Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach, who illustrates how thoughts and beliefs—particularly those related to “bad” others—function as navigational maps. Those maps guide a person’s journey through life, but they don’t necessarily correspond to the actual topography of the land. The difference between true and real thus helps explain how false beliefs take hold—and what can (and can’t) be done to counter those falsehoods. At the same time, there can be, and often is, uneven overlap between the true and the real. During the Satanic Panics, plenty of empirically true occurrences were experienced as real evidence of demonic subversion—a parsing that depended almost entirely on the map a person happened to be holding.
The Truth about Satan
The first empirical truth inspiring the panics was the rise of the radical counterculture in the 1960s. Historian Richard Hofstadter argues that the “cosmopolitan” ideologies at the heart of the counterculture catalyzed widespread right-wing conspiracy theorizing. Second-wave feminism, civil rights activism, and antiwar protests were regarded as especially threatening. At the time, conservative paranoia hinged on the perceived threat of communist infiltration. It was the communists, the story went, leading the youth, and indeed everyone unaware of the threat, astray—all part of their plot to destroy America from within. As worries about communists became for many conservatives increasingly interchangeable with worries about Satanists (in both cases often serving as thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks), hippies and activists became a natural, existential, and downright spiritual threat.
It didn’t help that some corners of the counterculture actively, often gleefully, associated themselves with New Age religious movements and occultist iconography. During the height of the Vietnam War protests, for example (already an affront to conservatives), activist demonstrators associated with the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies, led an exorcism designed to levitate the Pentagon (and also designed to be a good photo op). The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or WITCH, likewise played with occult themes to publicize its unabashedly feminist social justice agenda. Famously, on Halloween 1968, members of WITCH marched down Wall Street, hexing the stock market; they followed up the stunt with many other “guerrilla theater” efforts to curse the evil twins of capitalism and patriarchy.
The actions of the Yippies and WITCH emerged against a backdrop of rising neopagan spirituality strongly associated with what’s now called “the Left.” New Age religious movements, particularly those based in California, came to be known broadly as “hippie cults.” Of course, not all countercultural religious movements were leftist; the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 San Francisco by former burlesque performer and carnival barker Anton LaVey, was libertarian, white supremacist, and utterly disdainful of hippies for their peace-and-love messaging. What the Church of Satan lacked in goodwill, however, it made up for in public relations prowess; LaVey staged a series of media spectacles that gave the people, journalists in particular, the satanic iconography they longed to see, or simply longed to scream about (which sold just as many papers). Through these spectacles, LaVey ensured that the church and its head showman would remain in the headlines for a decade. They also helped establish many of the motifs that would become tethered to Satanism in the 1970s and 1980s.
That Anton LaVey was cast as Satan in Roman Polanski’s hit 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby foreshadowed the Church of Satan’s wide-reaching pop cultural influence. But LaVey and his church were just drops in the occultist bucket. Subsequent years saw a slew of television shows, movies, and documentaries sympathetically portraying the occult. Sociologist Marcello Truzzi, writing in 1972, charted the burgeoning play with the mysterious, demonic, and paranormal, deeming it part of an “occult revival”—a phrase Time magazine also used in a 1972 cover story. This play was a prominent element of youth counterculture, and young people were frequently the target audience and narrative focus of occultist media; many universities started teaching courses about the occult, and new occult bookstores tended to crop up around college campuses.
According to Truzzi, colleges weren’t the only hotbeds of occult activity at the time; a “sexy fad” of “suburban witches” also emerged. These dabblings in the demonic were often more aesthetic than theological. Still, they were a surefire way to get asked to parties, which, as Truzzi noted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, pretty much summarized the appeal of suburban occultism. The growing popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which introduced millions of readers to wizards, magic, and other fantasy staples, further entrenched interest in the occult, as did the Tolkien-inspired world of Dungeons & Dragons. A veritable deluge of satanic imagery in mass-market films and books—along with a thriving underground market for occultist splatter cinema—continued growing in popularity, and profitability, throughout the 1970s.
The ubiquity of occult pop culture provided ample fodder for teenage rebellion into the 1980s, resulting in what Jeffrey Victor calls the “Satanic symbolism fad.” As communication scholar Kembrew McLeod—who was himself a teenager and occult symbolism-dabbler at the time—explains, the exoticism and darkness of pentagrams and hooded figures, coupled with the general ease with which they could freak out the olds, provided a compelling alternative to “a world of strip malls and monotonous minimum wage jobs.” The appeal of satanic symbolism also helps explain why so much petty teenage crime at the time—and even some outright violent crime—featured satanic imagery.
Satanism and the occult were also front and center in many high-profile news stories, which brought true visibility to satanic subversion myths, regardless of how real audiences thought the stories were. A rash of cattle mutilations in the 1970s, for example—or what appeared to be cattle mutilations; by all scientific accounts, the animals died of natural causes—spurred a media-fueled panic, prompting many to blame satanic ritual bloodletting. While the specific allegations made in these stories often tested the limits of empirical truth (and that’s being generous), they were a predominant, quantifiable element of the cultural landscape. They also intermingled nicely with the more mundane elements of the occult revival. No matter what you believed, one thing was undeniable: Satan sure was in the news a lot.
The darkest side of satanic symbolism soon entangled with a range of “sex-and-ritual-murder” stories linked to the so-called hippie cults that, until the 1970s, many outside the fundamentalist Right had regarded as benign or even attractive. The murder/Satanism trend first emerged in the wake of the Manson Family murders. Reports of extensive ties between Manson Family patriarch Charles Manson and the Church of Satan weren’t true, but made for compelling headlines nonetheless. Fears of satanic violence were compounded by the spate of serial killers that began making headlines in the 1970s. Notable cases include the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, who ultimately cited a range of satanic influences for his crimes. “The Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez eventually joined their ranks in the mid-1980s, flashing a pentagram on his palm at trial and declaring “Hail Satan!” during sentencing.
A series of “confessing Satanist” narratives circulating in the 1970s further boosted the visibility of Satanism. One of the most prominent confessing Satanists was Mike Warnke, whose 1972 book The Satan Seller chronicled his professed experiences working for, essentially, a multilevel satanic marketing scheme. Warnke would later become a frequent guest on national television programs. Equally notable was John Todd, who began giving lectures detailing his time as an “ex–Grand Druid” within a “Satan-type church” in the early 1970s. And then there were the self-proclaimed satanic ritual abuse survivors. One of the first, and arguably the most influential, was Michelle Smith. In her 1980 book Michelle Remembers, Smith described, to much fanfare and media attention, being raped by snakes, having devil horns surgically attached to her forehead, and being rubbed with the bisected halves of ritually murdered babies.
Michelle Smith wasn’t alone. Throughout the 1980s, hundreds of public accusations were made by women and children claiming to have been victims of satanic ritual abuse—abuse that included, among other alleged horrors, blood sacrifices, the forced ingestion of bodily excretions, sexual violence involving sharp foreign objects, and participation in infanticide. The “atrocity stories,” as Victor calls them, at the heart of these accusations resulted in dozens of criminal trials, as well as countless reams of newspaper copy and television coverage that beamed the stories into millions of American homes. The most high-profile of these trials centered on alleged satanic ritual abuse at day care centers. One particularly infamous case was the 1983 McMartin preschool trial, which took place in Manhattan Beach, California. The story told by the alleged victims’ parents, child welfare advocates, and self-proclaimed satanic abuse experts was that over a period of five years, 360 children were subjected to “extremely bizarre sexual acts,” as well as baby killings, cannibalism, and animal mutilations. Michelle Smith consulted with the parents of the allegedly abused children and, according to the first prosecutor in the McMartin trial, helped shape the children’s testimony.
None of the satanic ritual abuse alleged during these trials was ever substantiated, even after intense investigations by law enforcement. Moreover, the accounts of satanist media boosters like Warnke, Todd, and Smith have since been exposed as questionable at best and demonstrably untrue at worst. But no matter how false the claims might have been—whether they were born of cynicism or delusion or misdirected trauma—their consequences were still true. They could be outright devastating, particularly for the dozens of innocent people who were brought to trial, some of whom were convicted. And then there were the broader consequences for public opinion. All the publicity around all these stories provided Satanism an enormous amount of visibility.
National television played a particularly important role. Geraldo Rivera’s now-infamous 1988 NBC special “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground” employed absurd levels of hyperbole, shouting, and weaponized quotation to further the satanic subversion myth. In one instance, after the camera zoomed in on the business card of a Kansas serial killer, Rivera proclaimed that the card “seemed straight from hell!” Rivera’s program was especially shrill, but it was just one among many exploitative, aggressive, and often shockingly lurid prime-time specials overhyping satanic threats. During one Sally Jessy Raphael special in 1989, for example, a self-professed satanic ritual abuse survivor described the various rapes and pregnancies satanic cultists forced her to endure so that they could use her children as sacrifices. In one case, the woman claimed, the cultists ate her baby.
Inspiring and inspired by national television coverage, local newspaper coverage kept the devil omnipresent in the small-town and rural communities inclined to believe satanic subversion myths. This coverage played a much different role than national news coverage. Rather than redirecting focus to what was happening elsewhere (a basic hallmark of the national news), local reporting grounded satanic rumors within specific geographic areas and therefore sustained interest in satanic conspiracy stories. As Victor notes, the people being quoted in local news stories tended to be locals themselves, including cops, community leaders, and members of the clergy—lending even more credence to the subversion myths for people already inclined to believe.
Real but Not True
To true believers reading the headlines and following the ritual abuse trials, the threat of Satanism took the form of fears about—obviously—Satan. But fears about Satan went much deeper than Satan himself. Instead, the Satanic Panics epitomize digital media researcher Nancy Baym’s observation that moral panics are “representative anxieties” about social change. The fears at the heart of this panic, like any panic, thus unearth deeply held ideals about how the world should be—ideals shaded by the deep memetic frames that adherents stand behind.
Throughout the Satanic Panics, the underlying subversion myth reflected anxieties about the decline of “traditional values” and the nuclear Christian family central to those values. Maybe that family never existed the way people thought it did. Maybe “traditional values” were only ever code for patriarchy or white supremacy or any number of other oppressions. That didn’t matter. The perception among many conservative Americans was that the droves of women entering the workforce, the droves of parents who chose to practice alternative religions or no religion at all, the droves of children shuffled off to day care and teenagers coming home to empty houses, represented an existential threat. “Satanism,” sociologist David G. Bromley notes, “constitutes a metaphorical construction of a widely experienced sense of vulnerability and danger by American families.” The creeping sense that something bad is going on here, something evil, must therefore be understood as cultural commentary as much as religious lamentation. Seeing through this particular frame, seeing so much evidence of so many threats, how could a person not panic?
Understanding how and why the Satanic Panics reflected broader cultural tensions demystifies believers’ most baffling claims. It also contextualizes how the panics could persist in the absence of empirical proof. In the case of satanic ritual abuse allegations, no credible evidence of anything even close to a national network of satanic abusers was ever produced. In some of these cases, sexual and physical abuse likely had taken place. But a conspiratorial cabal of Satanists was not responsible.
What persistent claims to the contrary show is what happens when the real clashes with the true. For believers, satanic ritual abuse was—that is to say, felt—very real because a number of co-occurring, even seemingly contradictory, cultural forces helped position the believers behind the deep memetic frame of satanic subversion. That frame, in turn, helped translate true information into perceptions into evidence.
One of the most robust planks of that frame was shifting attitudes within psychiatry toward the sexual abuse of women and children. These changes emerged from a newfound understanding of the psychological effects of trauma, stemming from research into post-traumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam War. Work done by feminist survivor advocacy groups also contributed to the growing body of knowledge about trauma. This research informed how sexual abuse accusations began to be handled. Historically, when women and children alleged abuse, they were not believed, and in fact were frequently discouraged from making such accusations. Efforts to right this wrong were appropriate and sorely needed. They also primed many social workers not just to believe ritual abuse narratives, but in many cases, to actively seek those narratives out—creating an odd, slim, short-lived overlap in the deep memetic frames of feminists and the deep memetic frames of conservative Christians. Both groups were looking through their own respective portals, for their own respective reasons. It just so happened that when it came to ritual abuse, they saw, for a brief moment, the same thing.
Second, in reframing their understanding of, and therefore their responses to, patients’ trauma, many psychologists—particularly within the burgeoning “Christian therapy” movement—began employing multiple personality disorder (MPD) as a diagnostic tool. MPD was said to be the result of trauma so unbearable that the sufferer quarantines their memories of the experience within an entirely different personality. MPD diagnoses, which were reclassified as “dissociative identity disorder” in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, have since undergone significant scrutiny and are now as controversial as they are rare.
However, in the early 1970s, MPD diagnoses experienced a sudden uptick, both as a response to patients’ existing claims about ritual abuse and as a tool to coax out new claims. Indeed, most women who professed to be survivors of satanic ritual abuse were diagnosed with MPD, the first being none other than Michelle Smith, author of the MPD archetype Michelle Remembers and, later, consultant on satanic ritual abuse cases. Smith wrote her book with her former therapist—and later husband—Lawrence Pazder. Pazder was, unsurprisingly, a vocal proponent of MPD diagnoses and, through the publicity surrounding the book, became the clinical face of satanic ritual abuse. Tellingly, he is credited with the first recorded use of the term, invoking it during the 1981 meeting of the American Psychological Association.
Using MPD to codify accusations of satanic ritual abuse was a logical, if misguided, extension of efforts to correct the systemic dismissal of women’s and children’s experiences. Whether the victim was an adult woman or a child, not remembering abuse provided, within the MPD frame, evidence that the abuse had in fact occurred. It had just been pushed down so far that it needed to be coaxed out by a psychotherapist.
Other external forces influenced allegations of satanic abuse. Victor describes the recovered-memory sessions that children were subjected to as a process of joint storytelling. This process, Victor explains, drew equally from mass media—including films and television, as well as the stories told by Michelle Smith and other first-wave satanic ritual abuse survivors—and folklore about witches, black magic, and devil worship. It easily veered toward priming; the child would be coached, however subtly, into telling the story they knew the investigator wanted to hear. Adult women diagnosed with MPD had similar experiences and told stories similar to those told by children—so similar, in fact, that the stories could be outright interchangeable.
For MPD proponents, the similarities between these stories pointed to their truth. For MPD critics, the similarities pointed to deep methodological flaws. Most troubling was the frequency with which MPD therapists used the atrocity stories told by women to corroborate, and even to help extract, the atrocity stories told by children, and vice versa. Anthropologist Sherrill A. Mulhern sums up the problem: it wasn’t just that the alleged victims of satanic cults were saying the same things; it’s that they were being heard in the same ways.
Many of these women and children were unquestionably at risk. Many had spent a lifetime not being believed. Many genuinely needed protecting. The satanic subversion frame took all these empirical facts and transformed them into evidence of another reality entirely. True dangers became real myth. That myth, in turn, created a whole host of imaginary evils—evils that, for believers, needed exorcizing.
Concerns about the deluge of satanic influences in popular culture were similar to ritual abuse allegations. In both cases, panicked citizens pointed to things that were truly there and reframed them as evidence of something else. Anti-Satanist activism focused in particular on identifying and eradicating presumed demonic influences—which included, most basically, any presence of magic—in children’s programming, with cartoons like He-Man singled out by Evangelical conspiracy theorists. Children’s toys inspired the same alarm, as exemplified by Christian writer Phil Phillips. Phillips’s books, including Turmoil in the Toybox and Saturday Morning Mind Control, augmented mainline Christian concerns about secular culture with claims that children’s toys were conduits for actual demons. The belief that children’s souls were at risk, and not just metaphorically, also resulted in widespread book bannings in public schools and libraries.
Anti-occult activists weren’t just worried about elementary-age children. Teenagers were thought to be particularly susceptible to pop Satanism, with rock music pegged as the ultimate highway to hell. Jack Chick, author of popular fundamentalist direct-mail comics known as “Chick tracts,” addressed the threat in the 1978 tract Spellbound?. The comic chronicles how powerful occultists infiltrated the music industry. To produce rock songs, the tract explains, druids play melodies from ancient manuscripts, and witches overlay them with lyrics hiding coded spells. Rege, one of Satan’s top demons, is then summoned to curse the final record.
No matter the empirical truth of Rege’s hellish production schedule, the subversion myth informing it was experientially real enough to hold tangible sway. Indeed, many people outside the Chick tract distribution network believed that something sinister was happening in the music industry. That underlying fear was front and center in Geraldo Rivera’s 1988 “Exposing Satan’s Underground” special. In front of a live studio audience, he grilled Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne about the prevalence of Satanism in heavy metal music. Osbourne, utterly baffled throughout the interview, was far from the only musician sucked into the Satanic Panic orbit. Organizations as high-profile as the Parents Music Resource Center, established in 1985 by the wives of prominent American political figures, had long railed against the presumed dangers of hard rock music, triggering congressional hearings about the threat. Notably, the organization charged concerned parents and educators fifteen dollars for “Satanism Research Packets.”
Relying on similar tropes, anti-Satanists also targeted the fantasy tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, claiming that D&D uses mind control, causes teens to kill themselves and others, and generally lowers their spiritual defenses against demonic influence. Such was the argument of Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) founder Patricia Pulling, who blamed her son’s 1982 suicide on a curse he received during a D&D session. As writer Paul Corupe notes, many D&D players were amused by anti-D&D advocacy, acquiring and circulating anti-D&D literature—including a Chick tract titled Dark Dungeons—as high camp.
For non-Christians and Christians whose relationship with Satan was more metaphorical than literal, satanic conspiracies made little sense, veering between derangement and comedy. For believers, however, the power of the Satanic Panics was how logical they were—at least based on the maps believers were holding. The claims were also, as Bill Ellis emphasizes, unfalsifiable, which just added to their explanatory power. There was nothing anyone could argue to definitely prove that Satan wasn’t secretly pulling the strings. That was the teflon of anti-Satanism advocacy. Efforts designed to fact-check the conspiracy or make fun of the conspiracy (cue Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey in full Church Lady drag imploring, “Could it be … Satan?”) didn’t just amplify the message; they provided further support for the theory by looping the attempted debunker into the them of the conspiracy itself. Denying Satan’s existence is exactly what a Satanist would do. The harder they resist the truth, the more proof it provides us.
The Satanic Panics were not unique in their imperviousness to fact checks. Ellis maintains that all subversion myths are similarly impenetrable, with similar outcomes for those who try; for true believers of any of the myths, the more emphatic the debunking, the more likely it is that the debunking will backfire. Nor were the Satanic Panics unique in the cultural issues they raised. As is always the case with moral panics, they weren’t “just” about what they were about. Satan may have been at the center of the story, but he was, himself, a minor player in the drama. The panics were able to grow when they did, as they did, with whom they did, because of the social and technological forces at the heart of American culture. Much has changed between then and now. Simultaneously, much has remained the same—affirming novelist Hunter S. Thompson’s observation that “yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why.”
Network Climate Change
When considering the spread of polluted information, it’s tempting to point to social media and other recent communication advancements as the reason things have spun so desperately out of control. The problem, goes the lamentation, is what’s happened in the last few years. It’s all Facebook’s fault!
This claim holds some basic truth: without the mass adoption of social media, there wouldn’t be so damn many places for pollution to flow. Recent history, however, is not the root cause of network pollution, as the Satanic Panics underscore. That root cause extends, instead, to network climate change, which first took hold in the 1970s and 1980s. Just like the ecological climate crisis, the network crisis emerged from the buildup of wide-reaching, often overlapping forces, including the introduction of new communication technologies, changes within the media industry, and the rise of the political powerhouse known as the New Right. Each of these forces map directly onto the Satanic Panics, illustrating its slow, steady burn toward impending disaster.
The first shift contributing to network climate change was the mass adoption of read/write media. These media included home video cameras, audio recording devices, and electronic photocopiers, whose output could circulate through distributed publishing and broadcasting channels. Thanks to read/write media, the number of mediated messages everyday people could spread increased exponentially. Catalyzing cultural forces—which accrued energy from the things everyday people were saying and doing—could also set agendas across and between networks with much greater ease. Just as the Industrial Revolution led to a rise in environmental pollution, the network revolution led to a rise in polluted information.
Of course, everyday people—at least some of them—could contribute to their information landscapes long before read/write media. The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century, for instance, opened up media production considerably, certainly compared to the centuries before, when literacy was exceedingly rare, and professional scribes were responsible for cataloging most information. Over the next few centuries, an increasing number of well-to-do amateurs and small-time professionals were able to produce limited runs of their own commentary. The early days of electronic media, from high-speed telegraph lines to amateur radio broadcasts in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, gave even more users even more agency, even more choice, and even more ability to make their voices heard in their networks.
However, the commercial and technological trends that made mass media big business in the first half of the twentieth century ensured that the everyday people who had access to daily newspapers, broadcast networks, and movie theaters were typically end users, not producers—and certainly not owners. A smattering of hobbyists may have homebrewed amateur media, but the average global citizen didn’t have a publishing house or pirate radio station in their basement. In short, while communication innovations throughout the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century resulted in an increasingly nuanced relationship between everyday people and their media, the vast majority of folks remained vastly reliant on corporate institutions for news and entertainment.
Read/write media, which emerged slowly in the 1960s and more quickly by the 1970s, rewrote that equation. More people could now create and distribute a variety of media content from their basement, office, or a public television studio a few blocks away. The information landscape was fundamentally and irreversibly altered as a result. This was a boon for democratic participation. It was also a boon for polluted information.
The “media-enhanced conduits” of Evangelical Christianity, which directly fueled the Satanic Panics, are a case in point. Particularly significant was the emergence of Charismatic Evangelicalism in the late 1960s and its broader acceptance within the Christian mainstream throughout the 1970s. Charismatic Christianity focused on the “charismata,” or “gifts of the spirit,” including speaking in tongues, prophetic ability, and powers of exorcism. It shared tenets with the deliverance ministry movement, which held that true believers could cure diseases, cast out demons, and otherwise perform miracles. Both maintained that Satan and his demonic influences were everywhere, including within some human beings, who had made a pact with the devil through active choice (including blood pacts and witchcraft) or inadvertent consequence (including contact with the occult). It was extremely easy to be exposed to satanic influence and, through that exposure, to “infect” family members and children.
Adherents of Charismatic Christianity and the deliverance ministry were linked together through networks of folk media, including newsletters, direct mailers, comic tracts, transcribed sermons, and spoken-word records. After the introduction of VHS tapes in the late 1970s, videotaped sermons and alt-Christian films, including fear-the-reaper titles like Exposing the Satanic Web, added to the prevalence of Evangelical grassroots media. Although they often emerged on the religious fringes, charismatic and deliverance ministry messages about the reality of Satan’s earthly influence were shared so often, across so many religious networks, that they became increasingly common within mainstream Christian circles.
The confessing Satanist and “ex–Grand Druid” John Todd, for example, employed Christian media networks to spread, and in the process normalize, his exceedingly tall satanic tales. Todd began giving lectures about his professed experiences in the early 1970s. Over time he amended his narrative to include elements of the Illuminati myth, additions he pilfered from other fundamentalist media, including records and books (among them Mike Warnke’s The Satan Seller). Todd then recorded his remixed reflections on cassette tapes and distributed them through vast anti-occult networks. Todd’s folk media content subsequently caught the attention of Jack Chick, who drew from Todd’s accounts to write his most popular Chick tracts. These homebrewed, catalyzing forces, created by people working out of their own garages, were quickly sucked into established networks of professionals with institutional backing. As these stabilizing forces played catch-up with catalyzing forces, and catalyzing forces added fuel to what had already been stabilized, the stakes became increasingly apocalyptic, at least for the people who saw Satan everywhere they looked.
Read/write media did not emerge in a vacuum; nor did the Satanic Panics. Both emerged, instead, in the context of much broader changes within the media environment. These changes helped empower the Evangelicals pushing the panics. They also precipitated the network spread of far-right fearmongering. The consequences of both would reverberate for decades.
The most structural of these changes was the development of an increasingly professionalized Evangelical media ecosystem, which allowed Chick tracts, bootleg sermons, and other grassroots charismatic media to trickle into ever-widening networks. This ecosystem thrived, first, because mainstream corporate media in the mid-twentieth century began shying away from explicitly religious programming, rankling audiences who wanted God on the airwaves. Relatedly, Evangelical media thrived because fundamentalist Christians were growing increasingly wary of creeping cultural secularism and innately mistrusted the professional news media’s role in that process.
For these overlapping reasons, Evangelicals began building their own communication channels. Most notably, vast Christian radio networks began cropping up in the 1950s, an outgrowth of the small fundamentalist stations that had peppered the country for decades. Christian radio filled a cultural void for listeners resistant to secularized mainstream media, and Christian television wasn’t far behind. By 1961, Pat Robertson—who would go on to author the antiglobalist, anti-Satanist, anti-Illuminati manifesto The New World Order—began airing religious programming on his new television station, WYAH. WYAH grew exponentially over the next few years, rebranding as the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), and by 1975 was beaming via satellite to millions of viewers across the world. By the time Robertson cemented his Evangelical legacy in the mid-1980s, CBN was the third-largest cable network in the United States, trailing only CNN and ESPN.
The rise of fundamentalist broadcast media was not merely the result of available infrastructure and interested audiences. Deregulation was another catalyst. For most of the twentieth century, a Federal Communications Commission directive called the Fairness Doctrine had been a stumbling block for fundamentalist media. The doctrine mandated that broadcast stations devote airtime to matters of public interest and that they present diverse perspectives on those issues. Personal attacks required free airtime for the aggrieved party to reply, and specific political endorsements required free airtime for opponents to say their piece. As media scholar Heather Hendershot explains, the Fairness Doctrine didn’t keep fundamentalist firebrands off the air and didn’t extinguish their conspiratorial messages. It did, however, incentivize the stations carrying them to vary their programming and kept fundamentalist programs from diving directly into electoral politics.
By the 1980s, however, the Fairness Doctrine was dying a slow death. For one thing, the FCC dismissed most complaints without much investigation. For another, the rise of cable television undermined the doctrine’s usefulness. The growing number of specialized cable networks ensured that there were, ideally at least, plenty of places to get plenty of perspectives. Crucially, these networks weren’t licensed like broadcast stations and therefore weren’t subject to the Fairness Doctrine anyway. Enforcing the doctrine only on the broadcast stations that were now a smaller part of the mass-media landscape seemed increasingly moot, and in 1987 Ronald Reagan’s FCC decided that the free market could regulate broadcasting well enough on its own.
And regulate itself the market did. Free from even the shakiest Fairness Doctrine guardrails, networks could be as hyperpartisan and hypertargeted as they wanted. In fact, demographic laser focus was a safe way to turn a profit in an increasingly noisy business. Within the mainstream, cable networks and establishment broadcast outlets competed for attention through entertainment stories, human interest stories, and satanic Geraldo spectaculars. Anything to keep audiences glued to the television.
For the Christian Right, Anne Nelson argues, these industry shifts launched an outright bonanza. Fundamentalists were now free to express their Christian nationalist subversion myths unfettered. The televangelists and fundamentalist media figures pursuing American theocracy no longer had to worry about even pretending to care about other perspectives. Why would they? This was, from their frame, a holy war. The only broadcaster to lose a license under the Fairness Doctrine had defended himself on precisely those grounds. When you’re giving God’s point of view, he’d argued before the FCC in 1972, why would you give free airtime to Satan? By the late 1980s, the devil was no longer owed his due—and increasingly, neither was a shared universe of accepted facts. Your preferred frame was only a dial spin away.
A third factor contributing to network climate change was the rise of the radical Christian political movement known as the New Right. Christening itself as America’s “moral majority,” the New Right sought to restructure US culture by restoring it to a halcyon yesteryear of patriarchal, white Protestant domination. Equally impressed and distressed by the grassroots successes of the labor, feminist, and civil rights movements, Anne Nelson explains, fundamentalist operatives in the 1960s sought to counter those successes by pushing Christian churches toward conservative political activism. By the end of the next decade, Evangelical Christians and the Republican Party had essentially become one and the same. To mobilize this newly coalesced Evangelical voting bloc, the New Right established a complex matrix of organizations, linking local and national politicians, community leaders, and churches.
Through the New Right’s organizational, political, and communication infrastructures, fundamentalists across the nation received marching orders about perceived threats and policy initiatives. Unsurprisingly, one of the core grievances of the New Right was that secular media, with all their occult undertones, were undermining everything that made white Christian America great. This particular affront generated increasing political energy with the 1980 presidential election, and found an unexpected ally in presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, a secular divorcé from California. Despite a fairly moderate reputation and tone, Reagan happily courted Evangelicals and happily parroted fundamentalist talking points as he did.
Reagan’s decisive victory was yet another coup for the New Right; it was the perfect realization of a long-standing effort to purge moderate voices from the Republican Party. After all, the New Right’s frame naturally transformed anyone who opposed its policies into an enemy—and a spiritual enemy at that. From this perspective, even mild dissent was tantamount to, as Nelson describes it, “Satanic agitation striking back at God’s natural order.” Moderates did not have a seat at that table. You were either with us or in league with the devil.
To purge moderates from the broader cultural landscape, the New Right cultivated strategic alliances with Christian media companies, whose owners were already firmly embedded within New Right networks (relationships that persist to this day, as Nelson exactingly maps). Through this synergy, Christian cable outlets like CBN and Christian radio networks like Salem Radio wielded more and more influence, and the New Right’s messages were able to spread farther and farther, helping to stabilize what had once been wholly grassroots Evangelical messaging.
Although Evangelical messages were, of course, targeted toward Evangelicals, they didn’t remain perfectly confined to Evangelical networks during the Satanic Panics. Instead, these messages were able to filter into contiguous networks when a person with one foot in Evangelical circles had another foot in secular circles. The people carrying the messages from Evangelical networks to secular networks may have been oblivious to their role in the filtration process. Still, cross-pollinating Evangelicals did a great deal to spread the panics far and wide. Loose connections across multiple networks were all it took to bring the devil to secular doorsteps.
For example, bolstered by the New Right’s growing political clout, organizational sophistication, and Evangelical media wraparound, a cadre of overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly conservative Christian law enforcement officers began rooting—or at least trying to root—violent satanic elements out of local communities. These officers were known colloquially as “cult cops.” As there were no actual violent, child-sacrificing occultist networks to prosecute, cult cops instead employed community policing methods designed to “manage deviance,” that is to say, zero in on the community’s most visible outcasts. Cult cops also hosted frequent cult seminars attended by local educators, social workers, mental health personnel, victim advocates, corrections officers, and clergy. Cult seminars linked a variety of symbols—including the peace sign, as well as all sorts of supposedly atypical behaviors, like listening to heavy metal or wearing black clothes—with violent criminality.
Cult cop seminars weren’t the only opportunity for anti-Satanism professional development. Multiple personality disorder training seminars and conferences, at which MPD therapists and self-proclaimed survivors would attest to the absolute truth of the survivors’ claims, were another (seemingly) official source of satanic rumors. Although these proceedings were neither released publicly nor subjected to peer review, some of the talks and workshops were bootlegged and shared across other networks. Because they had a professional air, they were then accepted as scientific fact by interested cult cops, mental health professionals, and child welfare organizations, eventually spreading all the way back to the ministries that had carried the ideas to prominence in the first place—ministries that were, in turn, validated by all the secular professionals saying the same thing that they were.
Specific participants within specific networks didn’t necessarily know about all the other networks propagating the panics. Nor was there necessarily any coordination between groups that fell outside the New Right; individuals were, as Victor emphasizes, “usually unaware of the broad scope of the collective organizing process going on.” In some cases, obscuring certain connections to certain networks was a deliberate communications strategy. It’s why, for instance, so many organizations linked to the New Right falsely presented themselves as nonpartisan and secular. The result was to bolster the credibility and potency of the subversion myths. When what the cops were saying lined up with what the psychiatrists were saying lined up with what the pastors were saying lined up with what the television was saying, each claim sure seemed to reinforce the next.
As the messages pinged between networks, accruing with each turn what looked like corroboration, believers—along with people who might otherwise have discounted Satan’s material influence—didn’t see those network machinations at work. They only saw what was right in front of them. And what was right in front of them didn’t just look like evidence. From their vantage point, it was evidence, as real as the day was long. The New Right didn’t have to lift an organizing finger for this to happen. A slowly intensifying network crisis did the work for them.
The Rising Tide of Pollution
The problem of network climate change is not, in itself, the shift from one media ecology to another. This is especially true considering how restrictive the previous ecology could be: restrictive of diverse access, restrictive of diverse expression, restrictive of diverse representation.
The problem of network climate change is, rather, just how easily contemporary networked media facilitate, and even outright encourage, unstoppable flows of raw sewage. The infrastructures established by the previous regime simply aren’t equipped to filter such an overwhelming, incessant deluge of pollution. Just like the natural environment, the media environment has become stressed beyond capacity. Polluted rivers spread sludge to other regions, to other ecosystems, to other water tables. Polluted networks do the same.
Of course, the Satanic Panics emerged at the outset of network climate change, not at its pinnacle. Falsehood might have spread far and wide throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But network flows had their limits. One of the most conspicuous was that people within the mainstream—including mainstream journalists—were broadly oblivious to the growing influence of Evangelical media and the growing political power of the New Right. These folks may have been aware of the brewing “culture wars,” and may have heard some jokes about televangelists, especially the ones caught up in sex scandals, but the twain of Evangelicalism and mainstream media had little reason to meet. The adherents of each were standing behind totally divergent deep memetic frames; the vistas they saw and even the air they breathed were simply different. As a result, many on the Left, who tended to live in more secular, urban areas, had no reason to dip a single toe in any Evangelical media circles—which was just fine with soldiers of the New Right, who took active measures to bypass traditional, secular, unchristian media.
A similar gap existed between local newspaper coverage and national newspaper coverage. National newspapers—unlike national cable television—showed little interest in satanic conspiracy theories, certainly when compared to their small-town counterparts. When they did report on Satanism-related stories, national papers tended to report on them as skeptical outsiders. It may have been that the reporters and editors at national newspapers weren’t aware of the panics unfolding in rural areas because they were headquartered in metropolitan cities. It may have been that the publications were aware of the localized panics but chose not to amplify them because these reporters, from their more secular, left-leaning vantage point, thought the rumors were silly. Either possibility points to the growing disconnect between rural and urban, a gulf that would continue to widen in the US over the coming decades—to explosive effect during the 2016 election.
The lack of widespread national newspaper coverage also shows that, at the time, local rumors could still remain local, even as certain elements of those rumors were stabilized nationally through broadcast news, popular movies, and high-profile court cases. Indeed, different Satanic Panics could be unfolding just a few towns apart from each other, without either town realizing another panic was happening in its own backyard. While conducting research into satanic cult abduction rumors in Jamestown, New York, for example, Victor was shocked to learn that many similar but independent rumors existed within a 250-mile radius covering western New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio. Information could still remain quarantined, even as the same deep memetic frame pervaded multiple locations.
The Satanic Panics, in short, highlight a landscape with increasingly porous network boundaries. That permeability didn’t stop the Far Right and the mainstream from building out their respective Galapagos Islands of communication media. For decades, they remained separated by a vast ideological gulf, and were free to cultivate their own norms. When some messages, or at least some parts of some messages, traveled upstream from the fundamentalist Right to the mainstream, it was easy enough for the mainstream to filter those messages out. They could be ignored or laughed at or sensationalized for ratings and then forgotten. The fundamentalist Right, in contrast, had always been down current from the mainstream, and had always been aware of the messages emanating from Ungodly Island; all that refuse was precisely why Evangelicals tried to bypass the mainstream’s influence in the first place.
Digital networks ensure that any clear-cut separation between the mainstream and the Far Right is no longer possible. In our fully realized network crisis, filtration barriers between local and national networks, between rural and urban populations, between the pluralistic mainstream and the MAGA Right, have weakened and in some instances dissolved entirely. Informationally, the two islands now find themselves linked.
Research published by Viktor Chagas, project lead of the coLAB research group at Fluminense Federal University in Brazil, illustrates the contemporary dissolution of network barriers. Chagas and his team focused on the rampant spread of polluted information via WhatsApp in 2018. They found that pollution flowed seamlessly between large, diverse Brazilian influencer networks and smaller, more homogeneous, local Brazilian networks. Using these data, Chagas and his team then mapped the Brazilian disinformation ecosystem. The results show the fundamental permeability of networks. When the information that spreads is helpful and true, free-flowing channels can be crucial. When the information is destructive and false, free-flowing channels can trigger a public health crisis.
John Podesta’s supposed demonic diet, a story cherry-picked and grossly misrepresented from the 2016 WikiLeaks email dump, is a case in point. None of the lurid details were new. Podesta participated in satanic rites? Been there. He drank blood and semen and urine? So eighties. He’s part of a secret cadre of devil-worshipping elites calling the shots from the shadows? When’s lunch? We have all, deliberately or through cultural osmosis, watched this movie before. But the seamlessness with which those lurid details could travel across and between networks: that’s what was new. The checks and barriers that had in the past generally kept this thing over here and that thing over there now carry polluted information to entirely new shores. Not every shore is blanketed evenly; that’s not how pollution works. Still, as we’ll see in the coming chapters, when pollution is introduced—about Clinton’s satanic leanings, about secret cadres of child-molesting globalist elites within the government—those currents can be so strong that pollution can filter straight into the presidency itself.
It took some time for the Podesta allegations to travel to the center of US politics, of course. That filtration process began with the far-right conspiracy factory InfoWars, which first floated the spirit dinner story. Such a narrative fit right in with InfoWars’ steady stream of refuse; in the previous month, for instance, InfoWars’ host Alex Jones had asserted that Hillary Clinton, along with US president Barack Obama, was an actual demon. “And they say ‘listen,’” Jones explained, “‘she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama.’ I go, ‘like what?’ ‘Sulfur. They smell like hell.’” InfoWars’ publication of the Podesta spirit dinner story triggered, in turn, coverage by more widely established conspiracy-adjacent outlets like the Drudge Report, which triggered even more coverage by even more established outlets like Fox News, which triggered Twitter’s algorithms to push #SpiritDinner to the top of the day’s trending topics list, which triggered wall-to-wall coverage by mainstream news organizations. More and more people, conservative and progressive, piled on and piled on, ensuring increasingly dizzying, and increasingly expansive, spread. The Washington Post, for example, doing its best to stand above the fray (but not quite succeeding), lamented, “Oh, Cool, Now the Campaign Is All about Charges of Satanism.”
Like the Satanic Panics, the uproar over John Podesta’s unanswered email points to much larger shifts within the media climate. Thanks to all the changes—political and technological and regulatory—that began in the 1960s, there’s now no longer such a thing as a purely local story. There’s now no longer such a thing as geographic or ideological quarantine. The network crisis makes sure of it. The next chapter shows how quickly, and indeed how stealthily, pollution travels across all these interconnected networks of networks. It focuses in particular on what happens when the people doing the sharing have no idea that the things they’re posting, remixing, commenting on, and laughing at are contaminated. This particular iteration of the Satanic Panics may have passed, but when pollution enters the system now, we all have hell to pay.