I grew up in the Satanic Panic — and it’s happening again

I was a young teen when I destroyed my music collection in the name of Jesus.

I stood in the cul-de-sac with my best friend, Joanna, and we smashed our CDs to smithereens on the hot, hard asphalt. Scratched and snapped and broken into pieces, these secular musicians would never again whisper their ungodly thoughts into our young, impressionable ears—a thing we had been convinced, in church and youth group and summer revivals, would tempt us slowly away from our god.

Hallelujah! Free from . . . smooth jazz? Good Charlotte? No Doubt? I don’t remember which bands they were, but I do remember that anything not made by a Real Christian™ was trying to plant demonic influence in my very soul. So smash
“Riot Girl” on the pavement; scratch “I’m Just a Girl” until it is no more. The devil isn’t in the details, you see: He’s in the music.

With that story as my Genesis, you won’t be surprised to learn that I grew up during the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s, when a large portion of the U.S. population truly believed that cartoons and musicians and a certain type of book were trying to convert their kids to Satanists. Rock music, they said, when played backward, contained hidden messages from the devil. The Smurfs were a gay cult. My Little Pony was trying to entice me to witchcraft (never mind that the witches were the bad guys). And an underground Satanic cult was abusing children en masse.

The only safe choice for us teens: Smash those CDs. Turn off the cartoons. Burn the books.

Be afraid.

Because anything might be trying to destroy your soul. A punk rocker, a Care Bear, a rainbow.

Now, the so-called villains are drag queens, queer people, history teachers, gender rebels. Ironically, in the crossfire of both panics lie the children—who are learning to be afraid

This was my childhood. My teen years. My formative moments. A collection of fever-pitch fears that the most innocuous things might be the very path to hell. You may not be surprised to learn that I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in my 20s. I’m hypervigilant, prone to panic attacks, triggered in the clinical sense of the word. For so much of my life, everything felt like a threat. Some (even innocuous) things still do.

Fear is something I’ve since learned to interrogate in myself. Because fear is natural, and even good sometimes. It tells us not to touch the hot stove. It asks, “Do you really want to walk down that dark alley”? It protects. But when the fear is unjustified—not grounded in real danger—it can be a prison. It can do real harm.

During the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s, that fear led to the false imprisonment and deportation of innocent people. Terrified parents decided their kids were being abused by daycare providers and, despite a complete lack of evidence, the paranoia that had gripped the nation pushed judges and juries to convict. One couple spent 21 years behind bars.

And then there were the invisible victims, like me and my cohort. With our panic attacks and our shame and our confusion about who and what to trust. With our childhoods missing pieces because instead of laughing at cartoons, we were being asked to interrogate them, tattle on them, and destroy them in the name of God. The panic stole some part of our innocence and had a ripple effect deep into our lives.

For the past few years, I’ve watched—with growing unease—as another Satanic Panic unfolds in my lifetime.

QAnon is still growing (in 2021, an alarming 16 percent of Americans said they believe its core tenets, according to a 2022 PRRI study), pushing the idea that secret Satanists within the government are both sacrificing children (because the bad guy is always secretly sacrificing children) and trying to undermine your personal safety and take away your (unspecified) rights. Rippling outward from there, an even larger sample of the population seems to be stuck on the idea that children’s books and history classrooms hide a secret evil that’s coming for our children.

Just like in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s not just the secret, powerful Satanists who are the focus of this cultural fear. It ripples outward to yet again demonize marginalized groups. It’s the heart of the panic about Critical Race Theory and gender education that has already resulted in the introduction of dozens upon dozens of legal attempts to censor education. It’s the foundation of the panic about so-called obscenity in kids’ books (being so loosely defined as to sometimes include fart jokes or dressing the “wrong” way), leading to campaigns to defund entire library systems. And it’s what has turned the nation to a sinister debate about who uses what bathroom, which has already resulted in legal changes that Human Rights Watch warns will undermine people’s rights to health, education and privacy.

They say that history repeats itself, but I didn’t realize history was so short. That I’d watch the fever pitch play out in my teen years and again as I approach 40. Of course, these aren’t the only two moral panics to grip a nation and destroy lives. Go back further and you find actual witch hunts. You find Jeanne d’Arc burned at the stake for wearing pants. You find the myth that Jewish people were ritually killing Christian children, a myth known as blood libel that has put millions of Jews in danger in multiple eras.

Our children aren’t in danger from the stranger in eyeliner or the person of ambiguous gender; they are in danger from their fathers, brothers, family friends. The latter is an uncomfortable truth, one our hearts rebel against.

We like to think modern people are logical. But I see no logic in the screaming terror at seeing a performer in a feather boa or in the stubborn denial of the real statistic that 80 percent of those who commit sexual violence know their victim. Our children aren’t in danger from the stranger in eyeliner or the person of ambiguous gender; they are in danger from their fathers, brothers, family friends. The latter is an uncomfortable truth, one our hearts rebel against.

In 2020, as I watched these dominos falling, fear building, I quietly started writing a book I’d meant to write for years: “The Wicked Unseen,” a young adult novel set during the Satanic Panic that asks the same questions, now weighing even more heavily on my heart. How do we bridge the gap between what we are afraid of and what we should be afraid of? How do we get better at interrogating our fears? If the stove is clearly off, should we still be afraid to touch it? If statistically there is no danger from drag queens, should we be afraid of them?

In my book, the pastor’s daughter disappears on Halloween weekend, and the whole town cries “Satanists!” But their panic, their assumption, their focus on Satan, is keeping them from the truth. And that’s the point. Panic often keeps us from the truth. Instead of making us safer, it makes us less safe.

In the ’90s, the so-called villains of the panic were innocent daycare teachers who ended up jailed or deported with no proof of wrongdoing. Now, the so-called villains are drag queens, queer people, history teachers, gender rebels. Ironically, in the crossfire of both panics lie the children—who are learning to be afraid. To break their CDs and burn their books and run from ideas their parents disagree with instead of wrestling with them. Children like me, in therapy for over a decade, grieving the unnecessary loss of childhood innocence.

I’m not coming to this essay on a high horse, the wide-eyed shock of How could this happen? or This is not my America. I’m coming here with a broken CD in my outstretched hands, saying I too have been afraid of things that couldn’t hurt me. And that it is never too late to interrogate your fears, measure them against the facts, and change your mind.

We do it every day.

When we jump because we thought the scarf on the floor was a snake—but realizing it’s a scarf, we pick it up. When we think someone doesn’t like us and then learn they’re shy and become their friend.

The panic is here. The panic is dangerous. But the panic isn’t inevitable. I say this as person who has—many times—reevaluated and changed my mind. Every one of us has the choice to stop participating, to make those mind changes, heart changes, action changes. To say that if “My Little Pony” can turn us from church to witchcraft, well, our faith wasn’t very strong in the first place, was it?

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