The Social and Cultural Context of Satanic Ritual Abuse Allegations
Susan P. Robbins
ABSTRACT: This article explores the multiple, interrelated, and converging
social and cultural forces in American society that gave rise to the allegations
of widespread satanic ritual abuse that first emerged in the 1980s and eventually
peaked in the 1990s. It also examines the factors that sustained both public
and professional belief in ritual abuse and suggests that it is the confluence
of a variety of factors within the larger societal context that created
a climate in which ritual abuse allegations flourished.
Beginning in the early 1980s, stories of well-organized satanic cults began
to emerge in police reports of horrifying crimes. Not surprisingly, these
accounts became increasingly widespread as they also came to be well-publicized
by the media. A multigenerational, underground cult network was allegedly
orchestrating gruesome satanic rituals that routinely included child sexual
abuse, ritualistic torture, mutilation, and human sacrifice (Bromley, 1991;
Nathan & Snedeker, 1995). Both media and police reports were based on hand-hand accounts of childhood ritual abuse from adults in psychotherapy
who claimed that they had "recovered" previously repressed memories,
and from young children in day care who allegedly suffered satanic abuse
while in the care of Satanist teachers and caretakers (Jenkins, 1992; Jenkins
& Maier-Katkin, 1991; Mulhern, 1991; Nathan & Snedeker, 1995; Victor,
Although these accounts of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) varied to some degree,
most shared common themes and were based on anecdotal descriptions of early
childhood sexual abuse at the hands of parents or caretakers. Recovered
memories of SRA most typically included brainwashing, being drugged, sexually
abused, and being forced to watch or participate in satanic rituals, drinking
human blood, and ritual murder. Such early ritual initiation was supposedly
preparation for an eventual role as a "breeder" who delivered
infants to the satanic cult solely for the purpose of ritual sacrifice. Children
in day care who made accusations of SRA against their teachers and caretakers
gave accounts of ongoing, and often daily sexual abuse that typically included
violent rape, and vaginal and anal mutilation with sharp objects. Such acts
allegedly took place during normal day care hours and included the presence
of magic rooms, tunnels, clowns, jungle animals, animal mutilation, and flying.
Allegations such as these were often accepted as factual accounts, despite
the fantastic nature of the stories and the lack of evidence to support
such claims. It was believed, after all, that children would not lie about
sexual abuse and that adults could not invent such realistic and consistent
memories of horrific abuse.
This article examines the multiple, interrelated, and converging social
and cultural forces in American society that gave rise to such SRA allegations
and explores the factors that sustained both public and professional belief
in widespread ritual abuse. Previous literature in this area has described
the influence of specific social factors and trends in the growing therapeutic
enterprise (Mulhern, 1991; Nathan & Snedeker, 1995; Pendergrast, 1996;
Smith, 1995; Victor, 1993; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994), but none has
fully examined the convergence of historical, social, cultural, professional,
and ideological forces and their combined influence on the subsequent reporting
of and belief in SRA.
The Modern Satanic Cult Legend
As Shermer (1997) has pointed out, the recent concern and panic about satanic
ritual abuse is a modern version of the medieval witch crazes. In such crazes,
the intermeshing of psychological and social conditions become coupled with
a feedback loop that feeds on people's fears and drives legends and rumor
panics in such a way that they come to have a life of their own. Although
a variety of commonalities between historical witch crazes and modern SRA
accusations have been noted in the literature, some of the most salient
similarities include: 1) the prevalence of allegations of sex or sexual
abuse; 2) mere accusations become equated with factual guilt; 3) the denial
of guilt is seen as proof of guilt; 4) single claims of victimization lead
to an outbreak of similar claims; and 5) as the accused begin to fight back,
the pendulum begins to swing the other way as the accusers sometimes become
the accused, and the falsity of the accusations is demonstrated by skeptics
The role of various stakeholders, discussed in more detail below, plays
an important part in the escalation of rumor panics and, as Victor (1993)
has demonstrated, the modern SRA legend is not dissimilar to other rumor-driven
panics that have been promulgated and further legitimized by self-proclaimed
authority figures. Very significantly, legends of this sort have great mass
appeal because they provide simple explanations for disturbing phenomena
Central to the modern SRA legend are fears about evil acts perpetuated on
children that include kidnapping, murder, molestation, child slavery, child
pornography, and child sacrifice for satanic purposes (Richardson, Best &
Bromley, 1991). While such fears may be rooted, in part, in real dangers,
they have been found to be widely over-exaggerated and exacerbated by questionable
public statistics that warn of a host of dangers to children. Underlying
such fears is a primary concern regarding the sexual abuse of children.
Despite the fact that sexual abuse of children is a very real and tragic
social problem, public concern about child abuse and CSA was not mobilized
until these were publicly defined as a problem that cut across social class
boundaries (see Costin, Karger & Stoesz, 1996; Hacking, 1995; Pelton,
1981). Although the data have consistently and clearly indicated that violence,
child abuse, and CSA are strongly over-represented among the poor, the myth
of classlessness and the subsequent acceptance of child abuse as a middle-class
problem was a key factor in the spread of our current concept of CSA. In
addition to separating the problem of abuse from the less appealing issue
of violence associated with persistent poverty, the new mythology of abuse
became extremely profitable for the growing industries of psychotherapy and
law. It also increased the likelihood that legislation would be passed and
funded to provide services that were not linked directly to conditions of
poverty (Costin, Karger & Stoesz, 1996; Pelton, 1981).
It is within this social and cultural context that allegations of CSA and
SRA in day care settings first arose in the early 1980s. Although satanic
cult rumors predated this by more than a decade, the first ritual child abuse
allegations and arrests occurred in 1983 in the famous McMartin Preschool
case (Victor, 1993). According to Nathan (1991), by mid-1984 reports of
ritual child abuse skyrocketed and, by 1987, over 100 such cases had been
validated by child protection agencies and police, despite the total lack
of admissible evidence in many cases. In response to such allegations, criminal
evidence statutes were reformed to make it easier to prosecute such cases
and a new cadre of police, mental health, and child welfare "specialists"
claiming expertise in SRA developed new methods to elicit SRA affirmations
and discourage denial and recantation. As these new and questionable methods
were taught to other professionals through a series of training seminars
and specialty conferences, the epidemic of accusations of ritual abuse in
day care settings began to grow as well.
The Demonization of Cults
Concern about satanic cults and satanic crime, however, was predated by
a growing widespread alarm about religious cults since they first emerged
in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The media gave special
attention to a variety of relatively new, small, non-traditional religious
groups that proliferated during this time period (Beckford, 1985; Robbins,
1992). The popular use of the term "cult" generally carries with
it extremely pejorative connotations, and such groups are viewed as essentially
deviant and controversial due to their unconventional beliefs and lifestyles,
and often totalistic separatism from mainstream society (Beckford, 1985;
Robbins, 1992; Shupe & Bromley, 1991).
By the mid 1970s, stereotypes of cults as being "dangerous," "extreme,"
and "destructive" began to emerge, and anti-cult sentiment was
further solidified with the 1978 mass suicide/murder of the followers of
charismatic leader Reverend Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana. From this point
on cults were seen as groups that were brainwashed into submission and labeled
as being authoritarian, totalistic, dangerous, destructive, fanatic, and
violent (Victor, 1993). Despite a growing body of empirical research that
questioned the validity of this stereotype and demonstrated that most new
religious groups are, instead, characterized by an impressive diversity,
these ideas became central to the negative conception of satanic cults as
well (Beckford, 1985; Robbins, 1995a, 1997; Victor, 1993).
Satanic Cults and the New "Crime Wave"
By the late 1980s societal concern turned to reports of a new "crime
wave" that connected violent crimes to occult practices and satanic
worship (see Larson, 1989; Raschke, 1990; Schwarz & Empey, 1988). Satanism
became linked to the use of ritualistic magic and animal sacrifice in religions
with African and Hispanic origins such as Voodoo, Santeria, and Brujeria
(Kahaner, 1988). Growing reports of cult-related child sexual abuse (CSA)
and recovered memories of SRA added fuel to the increasing hysteria about
coercion and brainwashing within satanic cults and previously unrevealed
and unthinkable forms of horrific cultic crime.
Despite the growing hysteria, studies have consistently shown that there
is no reliable empirical evidence to support allegations of widespread,
organized, multigenerational satanic crime (Blimling, 1991; Bromley, 1991;
Jenkins, 1992; Lyons, 1988; Melton, 1986a; Richardson et al., 1991; Victor,
1993). Numerous and extensive police and FBI investigations have concluded
that there is no definitive physical evidence that such cultic crime exists
(see Bromley, 1991; Lanning, 1989a, 1989b; Lyons, 1988; Victor, 1993).
Contemporary Satanism, on the other hand, does exist, and is manifested
primarily in two forms: 1) open satanic groups and churches that pose no
public threat; and 2) small ephemeral groups of self-proclaimed Satanists,
composed primarily of teenagers and young adults (Melton, 1986b). In addition
to these groups, individuals who have no group affiliations may be involved
in their own version of satanic worship. Both individuals and groups of
self-proclaimed satanists are frequently involved in violent crimes such
as murder and rape, as well as crimes involving drug trafficking. The causal
link between organized satanic worship and the crimes committed by these
individuals is, at best, tenuous (see Lyons, 1988; Ofshe, 1986; Victor,
Although there is no evidence to support the claims of widespread satanic
crime, proponents of satanic conspiracy theory continue to pose an argument
that is virtually irrefutable (Bromley, 1991). The lack of evidence is cited
as "proof" of the successful clandestine operation of the cult.
Thus, according to Victor (1993), "sensational claims" of cult
survivors have come to be transformed into irrefutable "truths."
The rise of new religious cults in the 1960s and 70s led to the formation
of anti-cult groups that were initially composed of parents who were concerned
about losing their children to destructive cults (Robbins, 1992; Shupe &
Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1993). By the 1980s, anti-cult groups achieved greater
organizational stability, and were able to draw media attention to their
cause. Central to their allegations was the idea that cult members were
victims of brainwashing that was achieved through the use of drugs, hypnotism,
and other forms of coercive mind control (Shupe & Bromley, 1991). As
the anti-cult movement became more sophisticated, they forged an alliance
with sympathetic social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social scientists,
lawyers, and police. Professional newsletters, journals, monographs, and
seminars on destructive cultism quickly proliferated and gave greater credibility
to the idea that cult members were victims of mind control.
As reports of satanic crime and SRA began to surface in the 1980s, parallel
coalitions emerged to confront what they believed to be the new and growing
threat of satanic cults. Similar to the dissemination of earlier allegations
of cultic mind control, claims of a satanic conspiracy, CSA, ritualistic
abuse, and kidnapping were quickly spread through conferences and literature
for police and mental health counselors, through fundamentalist articles,
books, and radio programs. Eventually, sensationalistic stories of SRA made
their way into the mainstream media (Bromley, 1991; Crouch & Damphouse,
1991; Jenkins, 1992; Victor, 1993).
The Influence of the Media
The news media have played an important role in the general public's perception
of and belief in satanic cults and cultic crime. The tendency of the media
to report sensationalistic stories about SRA and cultic crime greatly contributed
to a widespread belief in the reality of ritualistic abuse (Richardson et
al., 1991; Victor, 1993).
Newspaper and magazine reports on satanic cults relied heavily on officials
and cult "experts" who portray all forms of Satanism and cult
membership as dangerous and destructive. During the 1980s, terrifying accounts
of SRA and cult victimization were commonly featured on national television
talk-show programs such as "Geraldo" and "Oprah Winfrey"
(Richardson et al., 1991; Rowe & Cavender, 1991; Victor, 1993). Divergent
views, though aired, were frequently overshadowed by horrific stories of
a satanic conspiracy, mind control, ritualistic torture and sexual abuse.
Not surprisingly, divergent views were often seen by the general public
as less credible than firsthand accounts of abuse and torture. Quite simply,
it was incomprehensible to think that anyone would lie about such events.
Common portrayals of Satanism by anti-cult groups and alleged SRA survivors
included diverse practices such as kidnapping, ritual sexual abuse, sacrifice
of children, cannibalism, blood drinking, and animal mutilations. Perhaps
most significantly, when unfounded allegations about such crimes and practices
were proven to be untrue, they received sparse media attention. Thus, uncritical
and sensationalized reporting have helped shape, support, and perpetuate
the public's belief in SRA and cultic crime (Robbins, 1995a, 1997).
The Recovered Memory Movement
Because many of the reports of SRA were based on memories recovered in the
course of therapy, one of the significant factors in the spread of SRA stories
was the rediscovery and embracing of Freudian theory by professionals and
paraprofessionals in the field of mental health (Robbins, 1995b). Freud originally
believed that repressed memories of early childhood seduction were responsible
for much of the psychopathology that he encountered in his psychoanalytic
practice. He later revised his position and, although he continued to believe
in his patients' conscious and spontaneously reported memories of abuse,
he came to doubt the veracity of unconscious memories of early infantile
seduction, which he concluded, "were only phantasies which my patients
had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced on them" (Freud cited
in Demause, 1991, p. 126). Thus, in accordance with Freud's revision of
his early theory, psychoanalysts and therapists trained in neo-Freudian
thought were taught that patient reports of seduction and sexual abuse were
incestuous wishes rather than memories of actual events (Masson, 1990).
By the mid-to-late 1970s, feminist researchers and therapists began to document
the reality of CSA and brought it to the forefront as a public issue. Recognition
of the reality of CSA was long overdue because most mental health professionals
ignored, minimized, or avoided the topic of sexual abuse for a variety of
social, cultural, and professional reasons (Craine, Henson, Colliver, &
MacLean, 1988; Jacobson, Koehler, & Jones-Brown, 1987; Nathan &
Snedeker, 1995; Post et al., 1980; Rose, Peabody, & Stratigeas, 1991).
Given the prevalence of abuse found in clinical populations, the failure
to inquire about or respond to reports of sexual abuse was, indeed, a serious
omission (Robbins, 1995b).
As neo-Freudian thought began to be displaced by biological psychiatry and
family systems approaches (among others) in the early-to-mid 1980s, influential
psychoanalysts began to revive Freud's early theory of childhood seduction.
Expanding on Freud's early theory and British psychoanalyst Fairbairn's
object-relations revision of repressed sexual trauma (1952), Swiss psychoanalyst,
Alice Miller (1981, 1983, 1984) was among the first to popularize what has
now become the common conception of repressed childhood trauma at the hands
of one's parents. Further building on the tragic reality of incest and the
revived concept of repressed sexual trauma, psychiatrist Judith Herman's
book Father-Daughter Incest provided early impetus for the formation of
incest survivor therapy groups in the Boston area (Webster, 1995). Perhaps
even more influential was the work of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, the former
projects director of the Freud archives. In his now famous book The Assault
on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984), Masson proposed
that for personal, political, and professionally expedient reasons, Freud
abandoned his theory about the importance of incest in the development of
As Pendergrast (1996, p. 423) noted, Masson's work has served as "one
of the cornerstones of the Incest Survivor movement." The revival of
Freudian seduction theory led the way for what would soon become a largely
uncritical acceptance of uncorroborated accounts of repressed memories of
repeated sexual abuse and recovered memories of SRA.
Addiction, Denial, and the Self-Help Movement
The expansion of recovered memory ideology was aided by a new and growing
social and cultural phenomenon that emerged in the 1980s: the growth in
the size and scope of self-help groups based on the twelve step model of
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The escalation of "zero tolerance"
in the War on Drugs and the concomitant push for widespread identification
and treatment of substance abuse was eagerly embraced by the media. Estimated
and fabricated figures that warned of the growing prevalence of alcoholism
and illegal drug use became commonplace (Baum, 1996; Peele, 1989). The resulting
growth in the substance abuse treatment industry was aided by media campaigns
that included testimonials by well-known people such as Kitty Dukakis, Betty
Ford, and Elizabeth Taylor, whose stories were aimed at convincing people
to get help for their addictions. Thus, as Peele (1989) has pointed out,
addiction not only became destigmatized, but addicts were turned into role
models. As drug treatment programs came to rely heavily on AA ideology and
group treatment methods, the AA credo of twelve step recovery became a national
dogma (Peele, 1989).
Ironically, even though AA had enjoyed some degree of popularity since its
inception in the 1930s, the ideology of self-help recovery in the 1980s
began to shift some of the ideas that were central to AA. Instead of people
seeking help because they knew that they were having problems with alcohol,
alcoholics were now seen as being in denial about their illness (Peele,
As the idea of denial became popularized, the ever-expanding concept of
"addiction" and twelve step recovery began to spread to a wide
variety of other behaviors such as eating, gambling, sex, love, and relationships.
Groups like Al-Anon and Alateen that were initially set up to provide support
and guidance for non-alcoholic family members, now began to portray wives,
husbands, parents, and children of the alcoholic as themselves having a
disease. Alcoholism and drug addiction were no longer seen as an illness
of the individual alcoholic or addict, but of the entire family system.
Denial was defined as "part of the disease for both the alcoholic and
his family" (Woititz, 1976). With denial at the core, the newly popularized
concepts of "co-dependency" and the "dysfunctional family"
gave rise to a burgeoning self-help industry in which all of life's problems
were defined as a previously undiagnosed disease, rooted in childhood family
dysfunction, over which the sufferers had little, if any, control.
Pop Psychology, Feminist Theory, and Survivor Ideology
The addiction self-help movement provided fertile ground for the expansion
of theories and ideology to support the growing view of families, and society
as a whole, as being diseased and dysfunctional. Rather than examining some
of the very real and social and economic stressors that accompanied the
quickly changing and unstable job market, fluctuating economy, profound changes
in family structure, changing social roles, and the increasing demands on
women, many of whom now found it necessary to join the labor market as well
as be responsible for child care, the disease model turned our attention
inward and backward. Newly self-appointed "experts" in addiction
and dysfunction turned to the prototypical Freudian model of individual
pathological functioning based on alleged parenting deficiencies in early
childhood (Kaminer, 1993; Pendergrast, 1996; Smith, 1995). Popularized versions
of Freudian-based object-relations theory emerged as one of the primary
theoretical explanations of adult dysfunction (see Smith, 1995; Wood, 1987).
Although early American feminists criticized Freudian theory for its distinctively
anti-female assumptions, later feminist thought embraced a revised form
of psychoanalytic theory that accepted many of Freud's fundamental assumptions
about the nature of the unconscious and the importance of early childhood
experiences in the formation of adult personality (see Chodorow, 1978).
While rejecting the idea of female inferiority that was pivotal to Freud's
work, both psychoanalytic feminism and an emerging body of radical feminist
writing portrayed male domination (i.e. the patriarchy) as the root of women's
oppression and the primary cause of psychological disorders. Violence against
women (physical, sexual, and psychological) was seen as a primary force
through which women were denied control over their lives and choices.
The recovered memory movement readily embraced the idea of male violence,
particularly that of repressed CSA at the hands of fathers, step-fathers,
and other male authority figures. Women (overwhelmingly white and middle
class) who sought counseling for alcohol and drug problems, depression,
eating disorders, and a variety of other conditions were told by their therapists
that they were abuse victims because they showed the "symptoms"
of CSA, despite the fact that most had no conscious memories of such childhood
violence. Many were encouraged to "abreact," or recover and relive
the repressed memories, and to join ongoing incest survivor self-help groups
to aid in their "recovery."
More recently, a newer "third wave" of feminism has produced scathing
critiques about feminist theory and practice that is rooted in the concept
of victimization (see Kaminer, 1995; Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 1998).
Requiring women to assume the role of the "victim," a person who
is perpetually in recovery, has been criticized for being disempowering
as well as being a suppression of women's rights to sexual, psychological,
and economic freedom. Nonetheless, "victim feminism," as it has
been dubbed, was an integral part of the recovery culture that emerged in
The Recovery Culture and the Rise of SRA
In the context of a variety of self-help recovery groups, women came to
adopt the view of themselves as co-dependent, dysfunctional and "diseased,"
and they came to accept their therapist's and recovery group's definitions
of the cause and nature of their problems.
Among the burgeoning self-help recovery literature on addictions, codependency,
sexual abuse, and family dysfunction, the publication of a pivotal book,
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
advanced the purely ideological position that "if you think you were
abused, and your life shows the symptoms, then you were" (Bass &
Davis, 1994.) Written by two women with no formal training in psychology
or counseling, this book became the veritable bible of the sexual abuse
survivor movement. With victimization now elevated to an even higher and
more desirable status, women were told, and many came to believe, that they
could not trust themselves, their self-knowledge, or their actual memories.
Ironically, this new therapeutic ideology, allegedly rooted in feminist
thought and concern for women, actually replicated the oppressive patriarchal
model of therapy in which the patient's self-knowledge was inferior to the
Newly "recovered" memories of CSA were sometimes accompanied by
even more horrific accounts of childhood abuse that included torture, abuse,
and murder in satanic cults. Although some of these stories first surfaced
in the early 1980s (Nathan, 1991), they became quickly fueled and spread
by the popular media, and an uncritical belief on the part of a small cohort
of therapists that their patients' accounts reflected real memories of cult
abuse. In this context, SRA survivor stories became a primary focus of therapy.
New and often barbaric techniques to invoke abreaction were taught at professional
seminars and were justified by the idea that SRA survivors suffered Multiple
Personality Disorder (later renamed Dissociative Identity Disorder) that
was reinforced by sadistic satanic cult brainwashing.
As SRA and MPD became inextricably linked with one another, stories of satanic
abuse gained credibility through their association with a psychiatric diagnosis.
Through its inclusion in the primary manual used to diagnose psychiatric
disorders, the aura of medical acceptance validated the treatment of satanic
possession and abuse, despite the fact that there was no verifiable evidence
that any such abuse had occurred. Skeptics were always critical of this
diagnosis and were quick to label MPD an "iatrogenic" disorder,
a disorder that is actually caused by the treatment itself. Although SRA
claims are now being examined with a more critical eye by the media and
most therapists, the diagnosis of MPD/DID continues to be linked to dissociated
Many therapists are now approaching such cases more cautiously, however,
due to the fact that a large number of people have now recanted their SRA
"memories," questioned their diagnosis of MPD/DID, and some have
won very high profile lawsuits against their therapists for implanting memories
of SRA and CSA that never occurred. In addition, professional organizations
that regulate mental health counseling have now issued statements or guidelines
warning about the use of hypnosis and other therapeutic methods aimed at
the recovery of repressed memories (Pendergrast, 1996).
The numerous social and cultural forces that gave rise to the widespread
belief in SRA coalesced at a time in which American society was undergoing significant transformation. New societal fears about cults, child pornography,
rising crime, family instability, and a growing concern for children's safety,
all contributed to the belief in the ritual abuse of children. Fueled by
media sensationalism, these apprehensions and concerns became further enhanced
by a growing self-help movement and counseling industry based on defining
life's problems in terms of addictions and one's status as a victim. This
was then coupled with the renewed ideological belief that present day problems
stem from early childhood trauma and family dysfunction. This paved the
way, in part, for the rise of an increasingly profitable therapeutic enterprise
built on people's fears and dissatisfaction.
Although many of these forces were interactive and intricately built upon
one another, they must also be placed within the larger social context of
the day in which real and unsettling changes in the industrial economy were
accompanied by economic insecurity, changing family forms, and increasing
anxiety about family stability and sex roles. It is the confluence of these
multiple factors that made the climate ripe for a rumor panic about a satanic
conspiracy that led otherwise reasonable people to believe in fantastic
and unfounded accounts of satanic ritual abuse.