Think that witch hunts ended several centuries ago? Slate on the “Satanic Panic” that engulfed parts of the United States in the 1980s and 90s:
Among the atrocities that Frances and Dan Keller were supposed to have committed while running a day care center: drowning and dismembering babies in front of the children; transporting the children to Mexico to be sexually abused by the Mexican army; putting the children into a pool with sharks that ate babies; putting blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; exhuming bodies at a cemetery, forcing children to carry the bones.
It was frankly unbelievable—except a Texas jury did believe the Kellers had committed at least some of these acts. In 1992, the Kellers were each sentenced to 48 years in prison.
After multiple appeal efforts and 21 years in prison, the Kellers are finally free. Their release may also finally mark the end to one of the strangest, widest-reaching, and most damaging moral panics in America’s history: the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s.
The panic began in earnest with the McMartin Preschool trial, an investigation that began 30 years ago. The owners of a California preschool and several teachers were accused of molesting a 2½-year-old boy; before it was over, hundreds of children, usually after lengthy sessions with coercive therapists, came forward to say that they, too, had been taken to a church to watch the beheading of a baby, then forced to drink its blood or flown by plane to random cities for sexual abuse, or countless other bizarre stories.
While that investigation and trial unfolded, other cases surfaced. As televangelists prayed for deliverance from Satan’s scourge, talk show “experts” claimed that every imaginable form of abuse was happening on a massive scale in America and that networks of Satanists had infiltrated schools, the police, and local government. Geraldo Rivera claimed in a televised 1987 special report that more than a million Satanists were plying their evil trade in America right at the very moment. (He has since apologized.) In 1989, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michelle Smith and another woman who claimed to have recovered memories of being abused by a satanic cult; Sally Jesse Raphael, not to be outdone, ran two shows on the subject.