A Nation Hoodwinked:
The Power of Moral Panic
This blog series contains content that is not suitable for children.
If that's you, go outside and run around and enjoy your youth.
"A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.
Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension, and in which agreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo. The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking.
Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic."
— "Moral Panic" | Wikipedia
I can still make out fuzzy memories of a television screen: children drawing pictures, adults being dragged around in handcuffs, and reports of the worst crime imaginable—ritual sexual abuse of children by Satanists.
It was 1984, and I was 6 years old.
Honestly, I can't be certain if I'm having actual memories, or if I'm just recalling pictures from my imagination. It was around this same time that I started writing stories, and my brain was constantly filled with all kinds of fictional fantasies. However, there are some recollections of the news story I know were my own: faceless figures donned in hooded black robes, their hands hidden in hanging sleeves as they stood in a semi-circle around an altar, looking over kneeling young children in white briefs and blindfolds.
Isn't it possible then that I'm misremembering the whole thing? Isn't it possible that I've somehow made all of it up?
Well, yeah, except research proves that I didn't. Thanks to one specific detail that I vividly remember (and that my young imagination ran wild with), I was able to pinpoint the specific case that I'd seen on TV all those years ago. That connection spurred an obsession, and has opened my eyes to the capabilities of the human mind.
And it all started with underground tunnels.
"In 1983, Judy Johnson, mother of one of the [young students attending McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA], reported to the police that her son had been sodomized by her estranged husband and by McMartin 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. 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.
It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, [children] saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground 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 investigations 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 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 unsuspecting parents. Some interviewed children talked of a game called 'Naked Movie Star,' suggesting they were forcibly photographed nude. During the trial, testimony from the 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.
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 [acute paranoid schizophrenia] 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 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."
— "McMartin preschool trial" | Wikipedia
"The children were never allowed to say, in their own words, what happened to them—and to me, that was crucial." (10:27)
— John Breese, Juror
"People have always seen devils and demons as an outgrowth of religion and superstition, but the Satanic ritual abuse idea emerged at a specific time in modern history and has a very specific set of themes.
1) Child Sexual Abuse
2) Infanticide (mass murder of babies)
3) Blood Drinking
4) Ritual (regalia, chanting, rites, devil worship)
5) A Widespread Network
6) Impossible Allegations (flying, magic and the supernatural)"
"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 trial, and were believed by the initial prosecutor Glenn Stevens to have influenced the children's testimony. In 1986, a new district attorney 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.
During the trial, 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 other cases, in several instances creating false confessions of other inmates. In order to guarantee his testimony during the McMartin case, Freeman was given immunity to previous charges of perjury. Under immunity, Freeman admitted to fabricating Buckey's confession."
— "McMartin preschool trial" | Wikipedia
"We know historically that when these sort of allegations start to appear, you have an adult who knows about this questioning a kid, and the kid starts saying it, you almost always find out what's going on is that the adult is probably inadvertently planting those ideas in the child's head." (4:20)
— Dr. James Wood | Professor of Psychology, University of Texas El Paso
"Extensive investigations revealed little to no truth to the Satanic ritual abuse panic. The McMartin preschool trial ended in 1990 with no convictions, even after the government threw more than $15 million at prosecuting it. In 1992, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, in his report on Satanic ritual abuse, declared that Satanic ritual abuse wasn’t credible: 'Hundreds of communities all over America are run by mayors, police departments, and community leaders who are practicing Satanists and who regularly murder and eat people? Not likely.' Two years later, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, under the federal Department of Health and Human Services, released a report claiming that there was no evidence of truth in Satanic ritual abuse claims. Even so, people still believed: A Redbook magazine survey conducted in 1994 found that fully 70 percent of Americans believed that Satanic ritual abuse was real."
— "The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse: The dangers were imaginary, but the consequences were not" | By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
"Satanists are atheists. We see the universe as being indifferent to us, and so all morals and values are subjective human constructions.
Satan to us is a symbol of pride, liberty and individualism, and it serves as an external metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential. We do not believe in Satan as a being or person.
Satanism has strong rules prohibiting sexual activity with children and non-human animals. In fact, if a Church of Satan member abuses children sexually or otherwise, his membership is automatically terminated without possibility for re-instatement. The Church of Satan also does not accept anyone who is not legally adult as an Active Member. In Satanism, sexual activity is only advocated between consenting adults.
The only people who perform sacrifices are those who believe in supernatural beings who would consider a sacrifice to be some form of payment for a request or form of worship. Since we do not believe in supernatural beings there is no reason for a Satanist to make a sacrifice of any sort."
— "Fundamental Beliefs" | Church of Satan
"We naturally, as humans, seem to have these pieces built into our brain that want us to believe things that are not necessarily backed up by the evidence." (0:50)
— Caleb Lack, PhD | Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling Practicum Coordinator in the Department of Psychology, University of Central Oklahoma
"'The adults at the McMartin Pre-School never did anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything,' [Kyle Zirpolo, 30-year-old former McMartin preschool student] says today. 'I said a lot of things that didn't happen. I lied.
My mother divorced my father when I was 2 and she met my stepfather, who was a police officer in Manhattan Beach. They had five children after me. In addition, my stepfather has three older children. In the combined family, I'm the only one of the nine children he didn't father. I always remember wanting him to love me. I was always trying excessively hard to please him. I would do anything for him.
My stepbrothers and stepsisters and a half-brother and half-sister went to McMartin. So did I. I only remember being happy there. I never had any bad feelings about the school—no bad auras or vibes or anything. Even to this day, talking about it or seeing pictures or artwork that I did at McMartin never brings any bad feelings. All my memories are positive.
The thing I remember about the case was how it took over the whole city and consumed our whole family. My parents would ask questions: 'Did the teachers ever do things to you?' They talked about Ray Buckey, whom I had never met. I don't even have any recollection of him attending the school when I was going there.
The first time I went to CII [Children's Institute International, now known as Children's Institute, Inc., a respected century-old L.A. County child welfare organization where approximately 400 former McMartin children were interviewed and given genital exams, and where many were diagnosed as abuse victims], we drove there, our whole family. I remember waiting ... for hours while my brothers and sisters were being interviewed. I don't remember how many days or if it was just one day, but my memory tells me it was weeks, it seemed so long. It was an ordeal. I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm not going to get out of here unless I tell them what they want to hear.'
I remember feeling like they didn't pick just anybody—they picked me because I had a good memory of what they wanted, and they could rely on me to do a good job. I don't think they thought I was telling the truth, just that I was telling the same stories consistently, doing what needed to be done to get these teachers judged guilty. I felt special. Important.
It was like anything and everything I said would be believed.'"
— "I'm Sorry" as told to Debbie Nathan | Los Angeles Times | Oct. 30, 2005
"Human memory is created and highly suggestible, and can create a wide variety of innocuous, embarrassing, and frightening memories through different techniques—including guided imagery, hypnosis, and suggestion by others. Though not all individuals exposed to these techniques develop memories, experiments suggest a significant number of people do, and will actively defend the existence of the events, even if told they were false and deliberately implanted. Questions about the possibility of false memories created an explosion of interest in suggestibility of human memory and resulted in an enormous increase in the knowledge about how memories are encoded, stored and recalled, producing pioneering experiments such as the lost in the mall technique. In Roediger and McDermott's (1995) experiment, subjects were presented with a list of related items (such as candy, sugar, honey) to study. When asked to recall the list, participants were just as, if not more, likely to recall semantically related words (such as sweet) than items that were actually studied, thus creating false memories. This experiment, though widely replicated, remains controversial due to debate considering that people may store semantically related items from a word list conceptually rather than as language, which could account for errors in recollection of words without the creation of false memories. Susan Clancy discovered that people claiming to have been victims of alien abductions are more likely to recall semantically related words than a control group in such an experiment.
The Lost in the Mall technique is a research method designed to implant a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall as a child to test whether discussing a false event could produce a "memory" of an event that did not happen. In her initial study, Elizabeth Loftus found that 25% of subjects came to develop a "memory" for the event which had never actually taken place. Extensions and variations of the lost in the mall technique found that an average of one third of experimental subjects could become convinced that they experienced things in childhood that had never really occurred—even highly traumatic, and impossible events."
— "False memory syndrome" | Wikipedia
"No material evidence has been found to corroborate allegations of organized cult-based abuse that practices human sacrifice and cannibalism. Though trauma specialists frequently claimed the allegations made by children and adults were the same, in reality the statements made by adults were more elaborate, severe, and featured more bizarre abuse. In 95% of the adults' cases, the memories of the abuse were recovered during psychotherapy."
— "Satanic Ritual Abuse" | Wikipedia
“The problem is that from a research standpoint, we are now discovering that if you put kids who were not abused through the same kind of highly leading repetitive interview, some of those children will also disclose events that seem credible, but in fact are not born in actuality.” (2:20)
— Stephen Ceci | Professor of Developmental Psychology, Cornell University | "Can You Always Believe The Children?" | Interview with John Stossel
"A four-year study in the early 1990s found the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse to be without merit. The study was conducted by University of California at Davis psychology professors Gail S. Goodman and Phillip R. Shaver, in conjunction with Jianjian Qin of U.C. Davis and Bette I. Bottoms of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their study was supported by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. The researchers investigated more than 12,000 accusations and surveyed more than 11,000 psychiatric, social service, and law enforcement personnel. The researchers could find no unequivocal evidence for a single case of Satanic cult ritual abuse."
— "Satanic ritual abuse" | The Skeptic's Diary
"‘Do you have an independent recollection of being abused?’ ‘No.’ ‘You think you’re abused?’ ‘Yes.’ I’ve asked several times ‘Are you interested in talking about this?’ They say ‘No’ and I say ‘OK, let’s not talk about it.’” — Kevin Cody, Publisher of The Easy Reader, which covered the case extensively
— "30 Years Later, Key Figures Reflect On McMartin Preschool Case" | CBS Los Angeles
It's been fascinating to research this topic, as when I first heard about it as a child, I was thoroughly convinced it was real. That would make sense though, wouldn't it, a child falling for something like this? The problem is, adults were thoroughly convinced as well. And not just those attending the church I grew up in, but an entire nation.
I emphatically believe that I first heard about this story from an episode of the "news" program The 700 Club. While I can find many instance online of The 700 Club being associated with Satanic ritual abuse, I cannot find one single source specifically. Hmmm. Of course, after all the time I've put into this, I'm more than okay accepting the inaccuracy of that particular memory.
Though I highlight the McMartin case, allegations of Satanic ritual abuse were rampant not only in the US, but the panic spread across the world. This was a BIG deal, and pretty much everyone believed it. So how did a nation get there? Well, that's for Part II.