What happens when we as a society fall into the trappings of what some call a moral panic?  There have been very few of these mass hysterias recorded, but one which happened during my childhood, shaped me in a way that even I may never have expected.  I am talking about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s which led to over 12 thousand unsubstantiated claims of Satanic ritual abuse.  I’m John Dodson, welcome to The Secret Sits.

Don’t forget to leave us a Rating and Review on Apple Podcast.

Support the show


Send show suggestions to:

[email protected]

Follow us on our social media at:

TheSecretSitsPodcast (@secretsitspod) / Twitter




You can find our podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Amazon Music
iHeart Radio
Podcast Addict
Pocket Casts
Listen Notes
Player FM
Podcast Index

#SatanicPanic #1980s #KernCounty #AntonLavey #Therapy #Pazder #LawrencePazder #MichelleRemembers #MichelleSmith #McMartinPreSchool #RayBuckey #JudyJohnson #AstridHeppenstallHeger #falsememorysyndrome #ParentsMusicResourceCenter #WestMemphisThree #CometPingPong #Podcast #TrueCrime

What happens when we as a society fall into the trappings of what some call a moral panic?  There have been very few of these mass hysterias recorded, but one which happened during my childhood, shaped me in a way that even I may never have expected.  I am talking about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s which led to over 12 thousand unsubstantiated claims of Satanic ritual abuse.  I’m John Dodson, welcome to The Secret Sits.

Now I am a child of the 80’s, and what I mean by this is that most, if not all of my formative memories, memories from my childhood are from the 80’s.  This is also the time period when I started to become fascinated by true crime stories and I also developed a fascination with movies, of the horror genre.  The 80’s was a time when it seemed that the very essence of the United States of America sat, tipping over a great precipice. Citizens of this great land became concerned over everything and anything, they as a majority did not understand.  Protests over explicit song lyrics rang out, by people who spoke the same words behind their own closed doors.  And growing affections for belief systems other than their own tipped the scales toward utter doom.  And the belief which spurred this movement like no other was the rise of belief in the ominous occult.  Overwhelmingly driven by teens and young adults as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd, many believed that it was a sign that Lucifer was on earth and walking amongst us.

Beginning in the early 1980s was a phenomenon which would become to be know as “Satanic Panic”, but of course at that time, they just called it “Good Parenting”.  You know the saying; history is bound to repeat its self? Well, I think this is one perfect example of this.  I think that the Satanic Panic from the 1980’s is simply history repeating the Salem Witch Trials from 1690s.


Everyone just started accusing everyone else of being imbedded in some ominous hidden cabal of Satanists.  And these Devil Worshippers were said to be abducting children and using them for the craziest, most bizarre acts of satanic ritual abuse you will have ever heard of.  And these accusations just ripped families apart, because they would believe so hard that they could not see past their own noses.

In the Kern County child abuse cases in 1982, Alvin and Debbie McCuan's two daughters, coached by their step-grandmother Mary Ann Barbour, who had custody of them, alleged they had been abused by their parents, and accused them of being part of a "sex ring" that included Scott and Brenda Kniffen. The Kniffens' two sons also claimed to have been abused. No physical evidence was ever found. The McCuans and Kniffens were convicted in 1984 and given a combined sentence of more than 1000 years in prison. In 1996 the convictions were overturned and the two couples were released.

Around this time is when the United States took a collective breath and finally, slapped ourselves on the forehead and said, what the hell is going on here.  People finally started to realize that the Satanic Panic had been some type of mass hysteria.  But, the problem with realizing this was, there were still people in jail for these crimes, people’s lives had been ruined, business closed and sued and children, so many children had been subjected to the most ridiculous things, things that they would never be able to forget.  But let me be explicitly clear, not everyone awoke from this mass hysteria, many still believed, and they would continue the fight to free children of these Satanists.

Satanic Panic was heralded by the rise of evangelical Christianity that, could possibly have cultivated a fear of supernatural evil. This is exemplified by the "evil empire" speech delivered by President Ronald Reagan on March 8, 1983. This speech was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals, shortly before Reagan was re-elected to a second term. Reagan was actually talking about the Soviet Union, the concepts like good versus evil spoke to a transformation in Americans' relationship with religion, and many had joined the evangelical Christian movement.

Reagan was in the favor of the Moral Majority. This was a political action group formed in 1979 by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, Sr. It aligned itself with conservative values and the political right, setting the stage for the conservative Republican politics that are still active in the U.S. government today.

Conservative Christianity was pushing back against the more liberal cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s. This included the rise of new religious practices like the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by musician and occultist Anton LaVey.

Anyway, this is not a political nor religious podcast, so back to the true crime.  Back to the 1980’s and the rise of Therapy! Yes, the 80’s was when people finally decided that it was ok to go talk to another person about your life and mental health, and they would do it with, just the slightest bit of embarrassment and shame, if they could see us now, with Olympians and celebrities all standing up for mental health and just listen to a podcast, I bet there will be 3 commercials for therapy during those commercial breaks.  I know that it’s still not perfect today, but think about how it was in the 1980s when they were just kicking it into gear.

Anyway, people were now getting careers as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors of all shapes and sizes, but the problem was that this also caused the rise of the quacks as well.  And these now debunked pseudo doctors came with therapies like hypnotic regression, where they could make you remember, no not remember, recover memories, which could simply never be proven.

This time period also birthed mandatory reporting laws and rose the Child Protection Services department into the spotlight.  And let me be clear, I am not saying that anything is wrong with these things, but I’m also not saying everything is right with them as well.  Because as these laws and departments gaining so much notoriety during this socially panicked time, some things may have grown out of proportion as everyone worried about the soul of the nation. 

Michelle Remembers, published in 1980, was the first work to claim that Satanic practitioners were ritually abusing children. This book was written by Psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient and eventual wife Michelle Smith, the book contained garish stories of abuse uncovered during Smith's hypnotic regression therapy sessions.

The book documents Smith's memory of events recovered during therapy, documenting the many Satanic rituals she believed that she was forced to attend (Pazder stated that Smith was abused by the "Church of Satan," which he states is a worldwide organization predating the Christian church). The first alleged ritual attended by Smith occurred in 1954 when she was five years old, and the final one documented by the book was an 81-day ritual in 1955 that supposedly summoned Satan himself and involved the intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Michael the Archangel, who removed the scars received by Smith throughout the year of abuse and blocked memories of the events "until the time was right". During the rites, Smith was allegedly tortured, locked in cages, sexually assaulted, forced to participate in various rituals, witnessed several human sacrifices, and was rubbed with the blood and body parts of various sacrificed infants and adults.

After Smith had seemingly recovered her memories, she and Pazder consulted with various church authorities, eventually traveling to the Vatican.

Michelle Remembers has now been thoroughly debunked, both because Pazder used unproven methods and because no corroborating evidence was uncovered. For those who believed that well-organized Satanists were wreaking havoc in the world, this was a stark, terrifying confirmation. For others, it was a graphic, compelling story that took hold of their imaginations and made the changing world all the more terrifying. For Smith and Pazder, The Revealer says, it was the ticket to a highly public and lucrative career as speakers and consultants.

Though the writers of Michelle Remembers claimed that a well-organized Satanic cult was operating in Canada, soon those claims would wind their way down the west coast to a little place called California.  The McMartin preschool case would become one of the most expensive legal cases to come out of the 80s Satanic Panic.

In 1983, Judy Johnson, reported to the police that her son had been sodomized by her estranged husband and McMartin preschool teacher Ray Buckey. Ray Buckey was the grandson of school founder Virginia McMartin and son of administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey. Johnson's belief that her son had been abused began when her son had painful bowel movements. What happened next is still disputed. Some sources state that at that time, Johnson's son denied her suggestion that his preschool teachers had molested him, whereas others say he confirmed the abuse.

In addition, Johnson also made several more accusations, including that people at the daycare had sexual encounters with animals, that "Peggy drilled a child under the arms" and "Ray flew in the air." Ray Buckey was questioned, but was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. The police then sent a form letter to about 200 parents of students at the McMartin school, stating that their children might have been abused, and asking the parents to question their children. Ok, I’m going to read this entire letter and go to our social media and tell me, if you got this letter from your child’s school, would you just panic and be terrified and therefore wouldn’t you question your child until they told you something?

Anyway the text of the letter read

September 8, 1983

Dear Parent:
This Department is conducting a criminal investigation involving child molestation (288 P.C.) Ray Buckey, an employee of Virginia McMartin's Pre-School, was arrested September 7, 1983 by this Department.

The following procedure is obviously an unpleasant one, but to protect the rights of your children as well as the rights of the accused, this inquiry is necessary for a complete investigation.

Records indicate that your child has been or is currently a student at the pre-school. We are asking your assistance in this continuing investigation. Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible criminal acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of "taking the child's temperature." Also photos may have been taken of children without their clothing. Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.

Please complete the enclosed information form and return it to this Department in the enclosed stamped return envelope as soon as possible. We will contact you if circumstances dictate same.

We ask you to please keep this investigation strictly confidential because of the nature of the charges and the highly emotional effect it could have on our community. Please do not discuss this investigation with anyone outside your immediate family. Do not contact or discuss the investigation with Raymond Buckey, any member of the accused defendant's family, or employees connected with the McMartin Pre-School.

And then at the end in all capital letters it says:


Judy Johnson ended up being diagnosed with and hospitalized for acute paranoid schizophrenia and in 1986 was found dead in her home from complications of chronic alcoholism before the preliminary hearing concluded.

Now because of this letter and every parent who received it turned off Who’s the Boss and started pelting their kids with crazy questions about being abused at school, all the kids started admitting to having been abused.

Several hundred children were then interviewed by the Children's Institute International, a Los Angeles-based abuse therapy clinic run by Kee MacFarlane. The interviewing techniques used during investigations of the allegations were highly suggestive and invited children to pretend or speculate about supposed events. By spring of 1984, it was claimed that 360 children had been abused. Astrid Heppenstall Heger performed medical examinations and took photos of what she believed to be minute scarring, which she stated was caused by anal penetration. Journalist John Earl believed that her findings were based on unsubstantiated medical histories. Later research demonstrated that the methods of questioning used on the children were extremely suggestive, leading to false accusations. Others believe that the questioning itself may have led to false memory syndrome among the children questioned. Only 41 of the original 360 children ultimately testified in the grand jury and pretrial hearings, and fewer than a dozen testified at the actual trials.

Michael P. Maloney, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry, reviewed videotapes of the children's interviews. Maloney, testifying as an expert witness on interviewing children, was highly critical of the techniques used, referring to them as improper, coercive, directive, problematic and adult-directed in a way that forced the children to follow a rigid script. He concluded that "many of the kids' statements in the interviews were generated by the examiner." Transcripts and recordings of the interviews contained far more speech from adults than children and demonstrated that, despite the highly coercive interviewing techniques used, initially the children were resistant to interviewers' attempts to elicit disclosures. The recordings of the interviews were instrumental in the jury's refusal to convict, by demonstrating how children could be coerced to giving vivid and dramatic testimonies without having experienced actual abuse. The techniques used were shown to be contrary to the existing guidelines in California for the investigation of cases involving children and child witnesses.

Some of the accusations were described as "bizarre", It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through tunnels. When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis (the McMartins' lawyer), one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.

Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several excavations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any secret chambers or tunnels was found. There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their parents. Some child interviewees talked of a game called "naked movie star" and suggested they were forcibly photographed nude. During trial testimony, some children stated that the "naked movie star" game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children—"What you say is what you are, you're a naked movie star"—and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.

Judy Johnson, who made the initial allegations, made bizarre and impossible statements about Raymond Buckey, including that he could fly. Though the prosecution asserted Johnson's mental illness was caused by the events of the trial, Johnson had admitted to them that she was mentally ill beforehand. Evidence of Johnson's mental illness was withheld from the defense for three years and, when provided, was in the form of sanitized reports that excluded Johnson's statements, at the order of the prosecution. One of the original prosecutors, Glenn Stevens, left the case in protest and stated that other prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense, including the information that Johnson's son did not actually identify Ray Buckey in a series of photographs. Stevens also accused Robert Philibosian, the deputy district attorney on the case, of lying and withholding evidence from the court and defense lawyers in order to keep the Buckeys in jail and prevent access to exonerating evidence.

Two trials were conducted for the McMartin preschool case. The first lasted from July 13, 1987, to January 18, 1990, while the second lasted from May 7, 1990, to July 27, 1990.

On March 22, 1984, Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey, Ray's sister Peggy Ann Buckey and teachers Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor, and Babette Spitler were charged with 115 counts of child abuse, later expanded to 321 counts of child abuse involving 48 children.

In the 20 months of preliminary hearings, the prosecution, led by attorney Lael Rubin, presented their theory of sexual abuse. The children's testimony during the preliminary hearings was inconsistent. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, co-authors of the now-discredited Satanic ritual abuse autobiography Michelle Remembers, met with the parents and children involved in the case, were believed by the initial prosecutor Glenn Stevens to have influenced the children's testimony.

In 1986, a new district attorney, Ira Reiner, called the evidence "incredibly weak" and dropped all charges against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor and Babette Spitler. Peggy McMartin Buckey and Ray Buckey remained in custody awaiting trial; Peggy McMartin's bail had been set at $1 million and Ray Buckey had been denied bail.

The first trial opened on July 13, 1987. During the trial, the prosecution presented seven medical witnesses. The defense attempted to rebut them with several witnesses, but the judge limited them to one in order to save time. In their summation, the prosecution argued that they had seven experts on this issue, when the defense only had one.

In 1989, Peggy Anne Buckey's appeal to have her teaching credentials re-instated after their suspension was granted. The judge ruled that there was no credible evidence or corroboration to lead to the license being suspended, and that a review of the videotaped interviews with McMartin children "reveal[ed] a pronounced absence of any evidence implicating [Peggy Ann] in any wrongdoing and ... raises additional doubts of credibility with respect to the children interviewed or with respect to the value of CII interviewing techniques themselves." The following day the state credentialing board in Sacramento endorsed the ruling and restored Buckey's right to teach.

In October 1987, jailhouse informant George Freeman was called as a witness and testified that Ray Buckey had confessed to him while sharing a cell. Freeman later attempted to flee the country and confessed to perjury in a series of other criminal cases in which he manufactured testimony in exchange for favorable treatment by the prosecution, in several instances fabricating jailhouse confessions of other inmates. In order to guarantee his testimony during the McMartin case, Freeman was given immunity to previous charges of perjury.

On January 18, 1990, after three years of testimony and nine weeks of deliberation by the jury, Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted on all counts. Ray Buckey was cleared on 52 of 65 counts, and freed on bail after more than five years in jail. Nine of 11 jurors at a press conference following the trial stated that they believed the children had been molested but the evidence did not allow them to state who had committed the abuse beyond a reasonable doubt. Eleven out of the thirteen jurors who remained by the end of the trial voted to acquit Buckey of the charges; the refusal of the remaining two to vote for a not guilty verdict resulted in the deadlock. The media overwhelmingly focused on the two jurors who voted guilty at the expense of those who believed Buckey was not guilty.

Ray Buckey was retried later on 6 of the 13 counts of which he was not acquitted in the first trial. The second trial opened on May 7, 1990, and resulted in another hung jury on July 27, 1990. The prosecution then gave up trying to obtain a conviction, and the case was closed with all charges against Ray Buckey dismissed. He had been jailed for five years without ever being convicted of committing any crime.

Due to the nation’s stress about what would become known as Satanic Panic, police had initiated new training, and some of that new training was questionable.  Police were taught to treat everything from graffitied pentagrams to heavy metal music as evidence of occult activity.

While paranoia grew within police departments, practically no evidence uncovered a vast, satanic conspiracy. Yet, people like Lawrence Pazder, who co-wrote Michelle Remembers and helped to set off the panic, remained in high demand as a paid "expert" consultant.

As part of the Satanic Panic, people began to grow wary of the imagery and culture of metal music. Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, helped to form the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. The PMRC was founded with the intent to give parents greater control over children's access to music with violent or sexual imagery, including occult themes. It was tied to the same moral fears that gave rise to the Satanic Panic. At the same time, this video from Vox reports, police departments and investigators were told to be especially wary of metal music, which they were told contained hidden occult messages that led teens along a dark, otherworldly path.

The paranoia surrounding the look and sound of metal music very nearly killed Damien Echols. Along with Jessie Miskelley and Jason Baldwin, The New York Times reports, Echols was convicted of the 1993 assault and murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three young men were eventually called the "West Memphis Three." The evidence linking the trio to the murder was negligeable and largely circumstantial. The convictions were based in part on their goth aesthetic and love of metal music, which investigators linked to occult elements that were supposedly identified at the crime scene, but never confirmed.  The West Memphis 3 was a case I was always fascinated by at the time it was happening and we will be doing a West Memphis 3 episode soon.


Though Echols was initially sentenced to death, all three have now been released from prison. The true killer of the boys has never been identified.

While throngs of Americans were still frantic that the new AC/DC album was going to turn their sweet 12-year-old into a Devil Worshipper, real people were still being convicted of crimes with little to no evidence. Damien Echols of the West Memphis 3 barely escaped being executed.  Some spent years in prison and where only released after someone came to their senses and questioned the assertions of the evidence.  And there are even some that remain in prison to this day.

Frank and Ileana Fuster owned the Country Walk Babysitting Service in the Country Walk suburb of Miami, Florida, United States. In 1985, Frank was found guilty of 14 counts of abuse. He was sentenced to prison with a minimum length of 165 years. Fuster's alleged victims testified that he led them in Satanic rituals, and terrorized them by forcing them to watch him mutilate birds, supposedly a lesson to children who might reveal the abuse. Fuster had been previously convicted for manslaughter and molesting a 9-year-old child. Testimony from children in the case was elicited by University of Miami child psychologists Laurie and Joseph Braga, who resorted to coercive questioning of the alleged victims when the desired answers were not forthcoming. Fuster's wife, Ileana, recanted her court testimony in an interview with the television program Frontline, saying that she had been kept naked in solitary confinement, and subjected to other forms of physical and psychological duress until she had agreed to testify against her husband.


The case was prosecuted by Dade County state's attorney Janet Reno, who also prosecuted day-care sex-abuse cases against Grant Snowden and Bobby Fijnje. Ileana said Reno visited her in jail and pressured her to confess, she was imprisoned for three years and then deported to Honduras in 1989, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Fuster continues to serve a 165-year prison sentence, allegedly making him the last person imprisoned by the hysteria.

Though the U.S. seemed to be the heart of a mysterious network of Satanic abusers, the panic spread outwards into other countries. In 1992, the CBC reports, it struck Martensville, Saskatchewan. A local daycare was targeted after children claimed to have been abused by the people working there. Some claimed to have been taken to a blue shed outside of town, which they called the "Devil Church," and where they were supposedly trapped in cages and made to participate in blood rituals. The accusations went to trial in 1993, but further scrutiny brought police investigation techniques into question. Though some of the accused were convicted, the vast majority of their sentences were overturned after authorities failed to produce any evidence. 

In 1997, Italy experienced its own Satanic Panic with the "Devils of Lower Modena,". After a local parent referred her child to a psychologist to counter possible abuse, it spun into a widespread and paranoid investigation. Children claimed that they were made to participate in murders, blasphemies, and gory nighttime rituals held in cemeteries. Sixteen children were removed from their families and six people were convicted. As in so many other cases of Satanic Panic, no one ever uncovered proof that satanic ritual abuse or murder had taken place.

According to The Oxford Handbook of New Religions, media outlets began to grow skeptical of the moral panic beginning in the late 1980s. In 1992, Pacific Standard reports, the U.S. Department of Justice published a study written by Special Agent Kenneth Lanning that debunked the whole affair. Lanning, who was a consultant on hundreds of Satanic Panic cases, criticized the fluctuating definitions of Satanism used by law enforcement agencies. He also noted that some of the alarming symbols used by "Satanists" were ultimately innocuous things like heavy metal music and role-playing games.

I remember that in 1995, HBO released a movie called, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and this “made for TV movie” showed the growing disbelief surrounding the danger of satanic ritual abuse. The movie portrayed Ray Buckey, the accused man at the center of the McMartin preschool trial, as a victim of the moral panic. Though reviewers at The New York Times didn't find it to be especially nuanced, it was at least indicative of the changing beliefs that led to the fade of the Satanic Panic.

That doesn't mean the Satanic Panic was entirely over. A training film called the "Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults" was produced in 1994. Cases bearing the marks of the panic are still in the court system. As per The Guardian, the "Devils of Lower Modena" case that supposedly centered on satanic ritual abuse in Italy was still being argued in court as recently as 2019.

Though many convictions have since been overturned, families, businesses, and entire communities have been scarred by the Panic. Even now, we're left with media that often encourages hysteria and false beliefs that have real, harmful consequences. Look at how political a new vaccine has gotten!

"Pizzagate," the viral allegation that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, was part of a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton, led to actual violence. In 2016, Edgar Welch entered the pizzeria and fired a rifle, demanding that the owners hand over evidence. His paranoia clearly echoed the damaging spread of the Satanic Panic decades earlier. 

Specifically, terms like Satanic Panic have been largely swept under the proverbial rug by mental health professionals.  But there are still people who believe in high level organized crime groups spurred on by a satanic influence. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, one therapist practicing in Salt Lake City, Barbara Snow, was put on probation for reportedly planting memories of satanic ritual abuse in her own patients.

12 thousand claims of Satanic ritual abuse, and everyone was so swept up in this mass hysteria that science no longer mattered, the phrase, we believe the children, became almost a national moniker and no matter what proof was shown, people just knew what they knew, even when it was disproven right in front of their faces.  But I guess that’s why it is called mass hysteria.  It makes you wonder if we are, even today in the throws of another mass hysteria that we may see from the outside in the near future.  Take care of one another, be kind, be generous.  I’m John Dodson this has been The Secret Sits.  Audio Engineering by Gabriel Dodson.  Original artwork provided by Tony Ley.