Revisiting the Satanic Panic television specials of the 1980s and '90s


In 1995, the journalist Geraldo Rivera issued an apology for his previous work.

“I want to announce publicly,” Rivera said, “that as a firm believer of the ‘Believe The Children’ movement of the 1980s, that started with the McMartin trials in California…I am convinced that I was terribly wrong…and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result.”

The McMartin trial that Rivera mentioned was one of the earliest instances of the so-called Satanic Panic in America. In that particular story, the owner of a day care center, as well as four teachers, were accused of 208 counts of child abuse. Those allegations also included that a teacher at the daycare center could fly, was a witch, and was operating a secet network of nefarious underground tunnels. No tunnels were ever found, the teacher was never proven capable of human flight, and the allegations led to the a trial that cost the state of California $15 million, resulting in zero convictions.

Thus began the boom of the Satanic Panic in America. At the onset of the Reagan Era, heavy metal and Christian evangelicalism rose simultaneously in popularity, leading to concerned parents worrying about the objectionable material in the music of Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe. Either as a hoax, or due to general concern about the state of the world and the moral decay of America, many, many stories were promulgated about Satanic cults. Satan, clearly, was behind much of the crime.

The myth of Satanism spread rapidly across the United States because of incessant news coverage (a lot of which is on YouTube). A string of scandals rocked the country—most famously at a the McMartin school, in Manhattan Beach, California. After those accusations, Satanism was seen everywhere: as the reason for kidnappings, for child murder, for the rise in black clothing.

Mostly, however, it was seen on television, in nighttime specials, deep investigations, and the daily news. Looking back, the fear was misplaced; unsurprisingly, most of the crime ascribed to the Devil never happened. But the TV clips still exist; looking back on them provides a fascinating glimpse back at the years when the Devil was feared and blamed for many of the ills of American society

20/20, 1985

This segment repeatedly cites hearsay to stoke fear. Unfortunately, at the same time, it says that law enforcement officials haven’t been able to tie Satanism to any wider-ranging uptick in crime, saying “nationwide, police are hearing strikingly similar horror stories and not one has ever been proved.”

The 24-minute-long segment takes a few breaks to say “heavy metal music is bad” and broadcast clips from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, so it’s a neat encapsulation of the ridiculousness of Satanic Panic as well as a great example of how people grew so concerned with it: if 20/20 was talking about it, it must be real, right?

At the 14:30 mark, Tom Jarriel—a former White House correspondent who was a well-respected newsman—takes the word of a group of 12-year-olds who say they witnessed a Satanic cult commit ritual acts of murder. Kids don’t have wild imaginations or like to commit pranks, right?

Geraldo, 1994

In an interview with io9 last January, Peter Bebergal, author of the book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, compared Satanic panic to the Red Scare of the 1950s. That sentiment rings very true in this clip from a special on “devil worship” and the West Memphis Three—the Satanist killers next door.

Geraldo Rivera was no stranger to this material, airing several broadcasts about Satanism during the ’80s and ’90s, such as this 90-minute special. Though it happened in the ’90s, the West Memphis Three case was one of the first times that it actually seemed like the phenomenon may have been real after all.

Rivera is not very subtle in this clip. He repeatedly describes the gruesome details of the murders, or badgers the victims’ families to provide the same. It’s unpleasant.

That tree children were murdered, the special suggests, in such a horrifying manner and quiet community, means that it had to have been the devil’s work. A telling moment is when a neighbor of one of the accused says that all the rumors about Satanism “could just be kids writtin’ things” but “there’s just too much talk about it for it not to be true.”

Here’s Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Oprah, 1980s

In this clip, a soft-spoken, facts-only Actual Satanist discusses his military service, as well as what he Really Believes; it’s clearly an attempt to humanize Satanists in America, and prove that they are not all about baby sacrifices and goat murders. Then he’s confronted by an audience member who claims to have participated in a sacrificial murder; due to “partial amnesia” he cannot provide details about the heinous crime when pressed for specific information. The Satanist refutes each wild audience claim calmly, poking holes in the audience member’s story, but is still presented as the bad guy in the interaction. It’s baffling.

Geraldo, 1987

Here our intrepid host asks a “cult investigator” if he believes the stories that “babies being sacrificed are true.” The response: absolutely, based on what he’s heard. The man, Ted Gunderson, is a former FBI agent and currently is popular in some internet circles for his 9/11 Trutherism.

Michael Aquino, an Army Colonel and member of the Temple of SET, a sort of evolved Church of Satan, who was in the Oprah clip above, asks Gunderson why no names ever come out of these “investigations” or why there are never any convictions. Gunderson tells him and the audience that it’s too hard to prove through police work. A nationwide epidemic of child murder simply isn’t something law enforcement would pursue, Gunderson says.

Rivera asks why all levels of law enforcement aren’t working to prove or disprove the existence of Satanic Cults. There’s no answer, but they were. In 1992, after 11 years of investigating, the FBI issued a report that concluded, in part “there is little or no evidence for…allegations that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies.” Further:

The public should not be frightened into believing…50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that satanists are taking over America’s day care centers or institutions.

The report goes on to say that no one can prove this isn’t happening, but there’s no evidence it is.

All of the ritual abuse happening to children was no longer a criminal investigation matter, but rather one for mental health professionals. The FBI basically concluded that it was all a matter of False Memory Syndrome.

In 2005, one of the accusers in the McMartin case wrote for the Los Angeles Times that his accusations were all false, and that as a child he felt pressured to tell doctors and prosecutors what they wanted to hear. 21 years after he helped kick off Satanic Panic, Kyle Zirpolo put a final nail in its coffin.

Scares like these are a reminder that we live in a country where it’s easier to accept boogeymen as bigger threats than ourselves. Adults and children really were kidnapped and murdered at the time, of course, but it wasn’t part of a Satanic conspiracy: It’s easier to believe a fabulist with a really good story than accept the mundanity of evil.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: [email protected]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin