If you weren't around at the time, the two-decades-old panic over "satanic ritual abuse"—on both sides of the pond—will seem ridiculous. It was however, very real, and we need to understand how these things start, and how they get out of control. Our own contemporary moral panics might be about the threat of fundamentalist terrorists, about immigration, about Internet predators, but they're no less damaging to the individuals caught up in them.
“It sounds laughable,” says Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter who co-wrote Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt about the panic and is now a director for the National Center for Reason and Justice, which took up the Kellers’ cause. But there is certainly historical precedent, going back even further than the Salem witch trials: Ancient Romans, for example, claimed that Christians ate babies; Christians later claimed that Jews used Christian babies’ blood in religious rituals.
“Children symbolize the good things about culture, the innocence and purity, the future of the culture,” says Nathan. When a culture feels under threat in some way, fear and anxiety focus on the safety of children. America was experiencing upheavals in gender roles, child-rearing practices, and social expectations, and more and more people were embracing fundamentalist religion and belief in the devil. The fear of satanic ritual abuse was perpetuated by both ends of the political spectrum. “In the right wing, you had that kind of preoccupation with Satan, and on the left, you had a lot of concern with the well-being of children, and women going back to work, and I think it was a perfect storm of fear and anxiety,” says Nathan. Most if not all of those involved believed they were acting in the best interests of the children—which meant that any healthy skepticism was interpreted as anti-child.