The New Satanic Panic

Single art for COLD SONG (Jack Frost Blues) by Mom Cheese Art by Tony Vricella/

In the early 1980s in Manhattan Beach, California, a preschool founded by Virginia McMartin became the epicenter of allegations of child abuse, including claims of satanic rituals and molestation. Some of these allegations were bizarre in nature, and included claims that students had witnessed teachers flying and that there were secret tunnels under the preschool used to transport children. In 1984, hundreds of charges of child abuse were brought against six members of the school’s staff and the founder. By the time the trial began in 1987, charges had been dropped against all but two defendants: the founder of the school and her son. 

Despite the prosecution’s efforts, the case resulted in no convictions by the time of its conclusion in 1990. It remains the longest and costliest trial in American history. Satanic ritual abuse taking place against children at the school was never proven, but the seed had been planted. The idea of widespread satanic abuse took root in Americans’ collective consciousness and blossomed into claims that child abuse, purportedly satanic in nature, was happening in schools all over America. 

Undeterred by the lack of concrete evidence in the McMartin case, the sensationalized media coverage and public hysteria surrounding the allegations helped cement the belief in the existence of secret satanic cults perpetrating unspeakable acts against children. Parents, educators, and law enforcement officials began to view seemingly innocuous events through a lens of suspicion. As a result, numerous other daycare centers and preschools became targets of investigations, and countless individuals found themselves accused of heinous crimes based on flimsy evidence and unfounded allegations.

Despite the lost court cases, paranoia continued to snowball over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and the fear of satanism permeated popular culture. Pop artist Madonna released the music video to her song ‘Like a Prayer’ in 1989 and was met with swift backlash. Critics claimed that the video, which featured provocative religious iconography, was blasphemous, with even the Vatican Church condemning the video and calling for a boycott of the popstar. Other artists who pushed the boundary with their music faced similar criticisms, and the satanic panic was prominent in multiple facets of American culture.

While we may look back at the satanic panic of the 1980s and recognize the absurdity of the claims made at the time, our current political landscape is just as ludicrous. The rhetoric used by such groups as Moms for Liberty has burst into political discourse, rearing its head fully again in modern politics. Today, certain conservative politicians are campaigning against the social progress that has been made in America and are determined to bring the country back to a time when traditional values reigned supreme and when they had more control over America’s political landscape.  

“What motivates many on the religious right is the fear that they’re losing influence, that they haven’t been influencing American politics anymore,” says Michael Hagen, a political science professor at Temple University. “And the fact is, they’re absolutely wrong. They have a great deal of influence in American politics. They may not have as much as they’d like, but who does?”

In our current political moment, we are in the midst of an alarming moral panic that utilizes similar rhetoric to that of the satanic panic. The religious right has shifted its focus to attack another target that it claims is a threat to the wellness of our nation and our children: the L.G.B.T.Q. community. 

The shift to target this group did not come out of nowhere. Jennifer Pollitt, who has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality and is an Assistant Professor and the Assistant Director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Temple University, says that the targeting of the L.G.B.T.Q. community is the result of decades of effort. “Starting in the 1970s, we see a concerted effort by the religious right,” she says. “You start to see organization and solidification of the religious right. And so now 40-plus years later, we’re seeing the fruits of all that labor, of all of those conservative talking points, of all of the fear, panic, all of the pieces of policy and legislation. Now we’ve got a new generation that is using some of the old tactics to create just the same exact storm.”

Conservatives have implemented a series of talking points to raise alarm. The most divisive talking point is the perpetuation of the “groomer” theory, a harmful and baseless stereotype against the L.G.B.T.Q. community that has origins in the early 20th century. Members of the right have used it to imply that individuals actively seek out and recruit children to adopt non-heteronormative identities and that they do so to indoctrinate children and normalize pedophilia.

“We’re seeing the reemergence of all this language,” says Pollitt. “Everything that is old is new again. It’s really harmful because it makes people afraid. And most people are going to stay afraid or anxious, and maybe nothing awful will happen. But for some people, they’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, L.G.B.T.Q. folks are out to hurt my kid,’” Pollitt says, “And this is where we see homophobia and transphobia turn into violence. It’s dangerous when you intentionally try to make people afraid of others, where they don’t have to be afraid at all.”  

Similar to the era of the satanic panic, the religious right is using the reasoning of protecting the wellbeing of the nation’s children to rally support from the public for bringing the country back to traditional values. As a result, lawmakers have drafted numerous bills calling for the censorship of curriculum in American schools. Infamously, legislation targeting the education system in the United States first gained substantial traction with Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill. Better known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill,’ the policy was signed into law in 2022 with the purpose of “prohibiting discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom in certain grade levels.” The bill alleged that instruction regarding topics like identity and sexuality is inappropriate for young children and that they should not be exposed to these discussions. Since the passage of the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill,’ several other states have followed suit in crafting similar legislation, with censorship in schools being a hot-button issue across the country.

The targeting of the education system in particular is a calculated move. Pollitt says that policy focusing on education provides lawmakers with more social control. “Education is so powerful. The more knowledge that you give people, the more access you give folks to their bodily autonomy, to agency, to critical thinking and decision making,” Pollitt says, “The more that you can do to chip away at education, the more you are able to make people conform, the more you are able to have social control. And so that is why we’re seeing all of these censorship things, all of these book bans, all of these ‘Don’t Say Gay’ things.”

Members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community are not just facing threats at the legislative level, but also in the court of public opinion. In the age of technology where social media allows for the widespread dissemination of misinformation, we are arguably more susceptible to a moral panic now than ever. The instantaneous and borderless nature of social media enables sensationalized narratives to spread like wildfire, often without involving the necessary skepticism or fact-checking. Algorithms designed to maximize user engagement can amplify controversial and emotionally-charged content, further exacerbating the propagation of panic-inducing information.

Libs of TikTok is a popular account on X, formerly known as Twitter. Run by Chaya Raichik, the account posts videos of members and supporters of the L.G.B.T.Q. community to mock them and spread anti-L.G.B.T.Q. sentiment. Many of their posts feature teachers and other school faculty members. The replies in response to Libs of TikTok’s posts are filled with individuals calling staff members and others groomers and predators and include other disparaging homophobic remarks. Schools with staff members featured on the page have received threats. 

Across America in the 1980s, teachers and childcare workers faced damaging accusations that they were involved in satanic abuse and that they were abusing children. Today, teachers face threats online for being a part of, and even just supporting, the L.G.B.T.Q. community. “It’s incredibly parallel,” says Pollitt. “It’s just a different medium, but the message, the outcome, is the same. And when we keep pushing this narrative that people in the L.G.B.T.Q. community are grooming our children, that our children are unsafe, it’s actually taking time, energy and resources away from focusing on how to actually make kids safer.”

Brittany Lynn is a drag queen who has been active in the Philadelphia drag scene since 1996, when she was called on stage by the hostess of a drag show and was later encouraged to enter a drag competition. Lynn entered a competition at the Gayborhood bar 12th Air Command, now called Tabu, and won on her first try. She has been performing ever since.  

Today, Lynn is the Don of Philly’s Drag Mafia, the area’s most award-winning drag troupe. She runs the Philadelphia chapter of Drag Queen Story Time, where local drag queens read story books to children while in drag. She has also written two children’s books of her own that feature lessons of acceptance and the importance of being one’s self.

Rhetoric targeting the L.G.B.T.Q. community has thrust events like Drag Queen Story Time into the national debate. Critics have opposed the concept of children attending drag performances and accuse them of being age-inappropriate. Lynn has faced harassment online from those who oppose the concept of Drag Queen Story Time and other drag events geared toward youth. 

Lynn has been featured on Libs of TikTok’s page multiple times. In March, Lynn performed at Northeast High School. Libs of TikTok posted the flier to the show along with an unrelated photo of Lynn from a drag history book in which she poses ‘sitting like a man’ while wearing a babydoll dress as a play on gender. The post alleged that the content of the show would be inappropriate. “They said that I would be coming to Northeast High School to dance provocatively, which is a big joke, if you ever see me try to dance,” Lynn says, “And they said that I will be performing sex acts in front of children while their parents were unaware and the school was allowing this.”

The harassment Lynn has faced has not just been limited to online. Groups have come in person to protest scheduled Drag Queen Story Time events. Lynn does not let the criticism get to her. Protestors attempted to disrupt a story time that Lynn was putting on at the National Liberty Museum, but originally showed up to the wrong museum at the wrong time. They showed up to the correct location as Lynn was leaving the event, and she rolled down the window of her Uber to speak with the protestors. “I said, ‘Maybe you guys should come to Drag Queen Story Time because you were unable to read the time, date and location. If you’re going to come protest me, then make sure you’re on time and at the right place,’” Lynn told them. “This is why literacy is so important.”

Despite the protests of Drag Queen Story Time, Lynn finds that the support for the initiative outweighs the negativity. “People want this. I would say maybe 30% of the families that come are L.G.B.T.Q. 70% of them are heteronormative and they’re so supportive, and they just want their kids to see drag queens and see and hear stories about other cultures and stuff. The parents are so thankful because some of them have kids that are questioning and they’re very thankful when they come to the program. And sometimes we get really emotional at these events because you see the parents are all teary-eyed or you see the kids that you can kind of tell are questioning youth and they just look so relieved to see that there’s others out there.” 

With the 2024 presidential election, the stage is set for the morality of social issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights to be called into question. Their future will be determined by the political party that wins the election. 

Despite the negative discourse and the targeting of the L.G.B.T.Q. community today, Pollitt thinks that in the long term, today’s moral panic won’t hold. “I think that with each push we make towards progress we always have a little bit of a backslide or a big backslide and right now, the pendulum is swinging back hard,” Pollitt says, “But I think when the pendulum swings again, it’s gonna swing back even harder, and it’s gonna break through all of that panic.”

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