Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Remembering the "Satanic Panic"

There's a good article up today on io9 recounting the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's and early 1990's, during which phony "recovered memories" were treated as evidence of widespread Satanic cult activity. I started practicing magick in high school and graduated in 1987, so my first forays into occultism happened during that whole media circus connecting day care centers, heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and pretty much anything else fundamentalist Christians found distasteful.

The article references a video entitled "The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults" that is now available on YouTube. The poster does not know whether it was ever used as a training video, but as it dates from 1994 I would guess not. The FBI report that debunked the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon was published in 1992, and afterwards public opinion rapidly turned against the fundamentalist leaders who were pushing it as real. So the video was certainly made for police training, but 1994 was likely too late for it to be taken seriously by many police departments.

It's impossible to know if this 1994 oddity was ever used as an actual police training tool (hopefully not), but it's presented matter-of-factly. It features input from "experts" like blatantly homophobic "former Satanic priest turned Christian" Eric Pryor (a fascinating guy in his own right), who interprets graffiti and sets up altars, presumably for the benefit of the wide-eyed police officers who suspected their communities were being overrun by a Satanic menace.

The video offers a glimpse at the context that spawned not just the McMartin trial, which ran from 1987 to 1990, but also at the widespread fear that a battle of good versus evil was raging just below the surface of American culture. Heavy metal songs (and the subliminal and backwards messages supposedly contained therein) and album art, horror movies, and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons all offered easy, obvious targets. (As seen in the classic TV movie Mazes and Monsters.)

Talk shows, the era's number-one source for dubious investigations of hot-button topics, also helped fan Satanic Panic's flames. (Check out the Oprah clip below; the technical quality isn't good, but the content — in which a calm and clear-eyed representative of an alternative religion calls out an audience member who makes vague claims of having, uh, murdered a guy as part of a Satanic ritual — is very telling.)

"It was something we didn't realize at the time, but now, it looks like a low-scale version of the McCarthy-era paranoia around communism," Peter Bebergal, author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, tells io9."The devil worshippers could be anywhere. They could be your next-door neighbor. They could be your child's caregiver."

The entire moral panic hinged on the completely inaccurate notion that "repressed memories" can be recovered accurately. The "cognitive repression" model - that is, the idea that the only reason we can't remember some events well is that the process is being interfered with an internal censor separate from our normal thought processes - is the cornerstone of the psychoanalytic model, but has no scientific support whatsoever. In fact, neuroscience has shown that every memory is reconstructed and rewritten every time it is recalled.

With childhood events that are barely recalled it is possible to recover them in a sense, but with many of the details changed or at least shifted around. In the 1980's fundamentalist therapists developed a whole system of hypnosis and manipulation that allowed them to twist these dim recollections to fit a bizarre narrative of widespread cult activity. My suspicion is that the goal was to convince the public that Satanism equaled child abuse, and then move on to classify all non-Christian religions as Satanism and ban them. The Poor Oppressed Christians would support that in a heartbeat, even today.

There is such a thing as repression, but it's social rather than cognitive. We always think what we think, but taboo or embarrassing thoughts are rarely voiced to others. In my opinion this is where Freud and the other psychoanalytic thinkers went wrong - they confused the energy expended by patients to avoid discussing certain thoughts with what was going on in their minds. In fact, the real mechanism absolutely requires conscious awareness of taboo thoughts and conscious awareness of their inappropriateness to have any effect on cognition.

Here in the United States we like to think that we are more advanced and sophisticated than people living in countries where "witch panics" break out on a regular basis. That's true to some extent, but it's also important to remember that the "Satanic Panic" was just such a witch hunt that happened here not so long ago. That impulse seems to be a basic human response when confronting fear of the unknown, and we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent about it.

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