The Devil, You Know

Satanic panics from Geraldo to QAnon.

An illustration depicting people named in the story, including Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, and and murderers Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and Sean Sellers

Murphy Phelan

“Remember the movie The Exorcist? The film?” asks Geraldo Rivera in his 1988 multipart TV special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. “It dealt with ridding the body of Satan in a ritual called exorcism.”

Throughout the special, Rivera stands before a wall of TVs, individual faces grimly flickering from each. On one screen, we see Sean Sellers, described by Rivera as “an all-American boy,” who is waiting to be interviewed from his cell on Oklahoma’s death row. On another screen, we see Charles Gervais, a man serving a life sentence in Louisiana State Penitentiary for allegedly sewing his victim’s body into a couch and dumping it into a swamp. On yet another screen waits Ozzy Osbourne, the so-called Prince of Darkness, who sang songs about witches and black masses, songs with lyrics like, “Look into my eyes, you will see who I am / I am Lucifer, please take my hand.” On the stage, alongside the host, sits a Catholic priest, Anton LaVey’s daughter Zeena, and Michael Aquino, the founder of the Temple of Set. In the audience: journalists, representatives from the victim’s rights organization Believe the Children, and veteran FBI agent and cult investigator Ted Gunderson.

The Exorcist is mentioned only once in the course of the entire series, but it looms large over every episode. The special begins, not unlike Johnny Carson’s warning about The Exorcist some fifteen years before, with the sobering disclaimer: “The very young and impressionable definitely should not be watching this program tonight.” Throughout the series, Geraldo recounts a string of increasingly outlandish tales: fathers wearing baby feet around their necks, high school boys beating their classmate with a bat “just because he was a human,” and young killers drinking the blood of their victim in a barn while heavy metal blares. The series lavishes special attention on the white men who supposedly murdered innocent victims in the name of Satan, including Sellers and Gervais but also Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam, who once claimed to have been heavily influenced by
The Exorcist himself.

“No place in America is beyond the reach of devil worshipers,” Geraldo repeatedly warns his millions of viewers.

Devil worshipers lurked in even the most unexpected of American places: small-town churches, quiet suburban neighborhoods, the upper echelons of the military. However, the most dangerous places in America, if you listened to people like Geraldo, were the steadily growing number of private day cares cropping up across the nation.

In 1971 Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established a national day care system to aid working parents and alleviate the mounting pressure on the country’s embattled welfare system. If the bill had passed, parents would have been charged for childcare on a sliding scale based on their ability to pay. Along with basic childcare, the centers would have provided a suite of dental, medical, nutritional, and counseling services. In his rationale for vetoing the bill, Nixon employed timeworn red-baiting rhetoric to argue that a national day care system would erode the nuclear family and establish a dangerous “communal approach to child rearing,” the very thing many feminists and gay and lesbian activists saw as the key to their freedom.

Nearly identical logic has been used to discredit universal day care in recent years. In April 2021, during renewed talks about the state of childcare in the United States, Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted a link to a 1974 New York Times article about free day care services in the Soviet Union. Idaho state representative Charlie Shepherd has said of universal day care, “Anything that makes it easier or more convenient for women to get out of the home, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.”

As a result of the failure of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, private day care centers began opening up all across the country, welcoming the children of the many single or working mothers who entered the workforce throughout the decade. By 1983, twelve years after the bill’s failure and ten years after the premiere of The Exorcist, these day cares served as one of the Satanic panic’s most useful and enduring points of hysteria.

Starting with the 1983 McMartin preschool scandal in Manhattan Beach, [California,] news stories sprouted everywhere about devil-worshiping day care workers physically and sexually abusing the young children they were paid to keep safe. Most of these accusations developed out of small truths, such as a day care worker spanking a child. Concerned parents, the burgeoning victim’s rights movement, and the newly minted twenty-four-hour news cycle then whipped these stories into a noxious frenzy. Oprah took a cue from Geraldo too, interviewing the crown princess of the Satanic panic, Michelle Smith, in 1989, nearly ten years after her memoir, Michelle Remembers, was published. In the book, Michelle graphically recounts her torturous upbringing in a satanic cult using the repressed memories she was able to retrieve with help from her therapist-turned-husband-turned-coauthor, Dr. Lawrence Pazder. If Geraldo’s special sent a clear message that the nation’s youth were constantly in danger of the most sickening forms of sexual and physical abuse, Michelle Remembers convinced some adults that they might have once been victims too, even if the knowledge of it was still waiting latent in their subconscious.

It didn’t matter that most acts of child abuse, including sexual abuse, are committed by relatives or friends, or that Satanism as an ideology has far less to do with violence and demonic worship than it does personal liberation and opposition to Christian doctrine, or that scant physical evidence was ever found to corroborate any of the Satanic panic’s most outlandish claims. Moral panics do not operate out of fact but out of ignorance and fear, mobilizing blatantly obvious fictions to keep the existing order safe. As Paul M. Renfro writes in Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State, the hysteria around child abduction and abuse was a reaction to the “perceived moral rot unleashed through sixties and seventies liberationism” in which “economic and political instability, alongside the reconfiguration of cultural and sexual norms, had supposedly disrupted the idealized white American family and the child upon which it hinged.” By the time I was born in the early ’90s, the innocent American child—almost always white, photogenic, and middle-class—was perceived as a pressing cause around which the entire nation should rally to protect.

This effort, of course, was selective. The child abduction and abuse panic unfolded during, and in fact fueled, an unprecedented expansion of the nation’s carceral and surveillance state, which quickly ensnared Black youth in its ever evolving punitive net. While white children were elevated as pure innocents constantly at risk of unimaginable abuse, Black children were largely deemed “super-predators” and increasingly tossed into prison, often for life.


A fiercely conservative and anti-Semitic impulse, Satan as a cultural boogeyman tends to emerge whenever society is perceived to be swinging leftward, providing traditional factions with an excuse to cast any signs of “progress” as harbingers of evil. If the original Satanic panic erupted partly in response to women making professional strides outside of the home, a similar panic began to smolder just as the first woman in American history came dangerously close to shattering the executive ceiling. This time around, however, rather than infecting the small institutions of middle-class American life, Satanists had at last gained control of the most exclusive channels of American power, allowing our nation’s leaders to corrupt good and decent Americans on a scale day care workers and Dungeons & Dragons aficionados could only have dreamed of a few decades before.

The epicenter of the latest round of satanic paranoia was, of course, Hillary Clinton. According to the conspiracy theories that began popping up around the time of the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was a murderous, paraphilic Satanist with a body count that put Ted Bundy to shame. During the campaign, stories quickly began to spread that Clinton was part of a vast network of corrupt devil worshipers stretching from Hollywood to DC, who liked to sip on cocktails of semen and baby’s blood while planning the enslavement of the God-fearing American people. Unsubstantiated stories about crucified babies and sex-trafficked children once again seized the attention of a distressing number of American citizens, forming a dangerously seductive far-right counterweight to growing movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Conspiracy theories and moral panics like QAnon tend to ignore the very real dangers facing the groups they claim to care about in favor of outlandish tales centered on conveniently invented enemies. For example, most instances of sex trafficking happen to young people abandoned by their families, often due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, not to suburban children supported and protected by their loved ones. Focusing on stories about satanic murder or child sex trafficking allows us to deflect, to focus all our rage on a rare and often imagined crime rather than on real, structural causes of youth suffering or on the hallowed institutions—such as the Boy Scouts of America or the Catholic Church—that have escaped true accountability for years.


Excerpted from Marlena Williams’s Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of “The Exorcist,” published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.


Oregon Humanities Magazine, Media and Journalism, Religion, Violence, Fear


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