A shadowy group of powerful figures are secretly in control of the United States. They’re abducting children and subjecting them to lurid, Satanic abuse. Our only hope lies with a single brave source, one with first-hand experience of the horrifying conspiracy, to expose the plot.
This may sound like a brief description of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which, after spending a year bubbling at the fringes of the internet, suddenly burst into the mainstream last week at a Trump rally in Tampa, Florida. But it’s actually a description of another conspiracy theory that gripped America in the early 1980s, one that led to the most expensive trial in California’s history and was eventually proven to be utterly false.
In 1980, Canadian psychiatric patient Michelle Smith co-wrote a book with her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder — whom she later married — titled Michelle Remembers. In the book, Michelle claimed to “remember,” via hypnosis, that her mother was actually a member of a Satanic cult and had forced her to endure horrific abuse. Michelle claimed that she was caged, was forced to watch the cult slaughter kittens, and endured 81 straight days of abuse in an effort to summon Satan himself.
Michelle Remembers created a full-blown moral panic in America about Satanic Abuse. The book earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, spawned copycats, and helped usher in a series of unfounded claims.
The most infamous of these was the McMartin trial, which would become the most expensive court case in California’s history. After a parent accused the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach of abuse, a police investigation ensued, resulting in 321 counts of abuse being leveled against seven staff members. The subsequent trial lasted five years before eventually collapsing due to a lack of evidence.
In another particularly horrific case, two Texan daycare operators — Dan and Frank Keller — were also imprisoned for their role in alleged “Satanic Abuse,” spending 22 years in prison before later being exonerated.
QAnon is not the same as the Satanic Abuse panic of the 1980s, nor for that matter is the Pizzagate conspiracy of 2017. But the similarities between them show that the conspiracies that have festered online during the Trump administration aren’t new. Rather, they are the re-packaging of themes which have been consistently used to drive other cases of moral hysteria in America.
Take for instance this 1994 article by former Nebraska state Sen. John DeCamp (R) which alleged there was a child prostitution ring being run by prominent citizens and politicians in the state — allegations that a federal grand jury later ruled to be without merit. “They are used as drug couriers, as sexual objects to compromise this or that politician or businessman,” DeCamp wrote at the time. “They are used in the most gross fashion possible, including ritual murder and things like that. I am talking about the most unbelievable things…. I’m talking about the most prominent of citizens, the most respectable.”
Now look at the claims of the far-right Veterans on Patrol (VOP) group, which claims an abandoned homeless camp in the Arizona desert was actually a front for a child sex camp, operated by the Deep State elite. Or this November 2017 post from a QAnon supporter, which claims “The New World Order Worships Satan.” It’s not hard to see a recurrence of themes.
“It’s certainly true that throughout U.S. history there have been sexual panics and concerns about sexual perversity,” said Professor Kathryn Olmsted, who teaches history at University of California Davis. She pointed to the anti-Catholic paranoia of the 19th century, and the claims that Catholic clergy were kidnapping Protestant girls and keeping them as sex slaves. The claims were initially backed up by the “first hand account” of Catholic nun Maria Monk, but as in the case with Michelle Remembers, her account was eventually discredited.
“I see [Q] continuation in that there’s this belief in a group of dangerous insiders — the Deep State,” Olmsted continued. “The new part [with Q] is that it’s a hopeful theory. That’s unusual — conspiracy theories are more often full of doom, awakening the public to expose the plotters.”
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, told ThinkProgress the sex trafficking theme is likely able to endure because of its shock value.
“In evolutionary terms, the conspiracy theories that fly are the ones that get attention,” he said. “For that to work, you have to have an upsetting theory, and nothing’s more upsetting than sex trafficking for people who are evangelical.”
Uscinski stresses against tying QAnon directly into the family of Satanic conspiracy theories. He notes that while QAnon describes the Deep State as a removed, shadowy organization, part of the Satanic Panic was the fear that Satanists had infiltrated the positions of power in the conspiracy theorists’ local communities. Instead, he likens the QAnon theory to the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK, in which a shadowy cabal of government insiders colluded to assassinate Kennedy. The only difference with QAnon, Uscinski said, was that the script has been flipped.
Both Uscinski and Olmsted agree that the “Deep State” remains a powerful recurring theme in many of the conspiracies, especially those with a partisan edge. “The Deep State [theory] has been around in different forms since the 1960s — [it was blamed] for keeping us in Vietnam,” Olmsted explained. “The John Birch society built a complete conspiracy which called people who ruled ‘Insiders.'”
But where Uscinski and Olmsted differ is the amount to which Americans are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories, which a fair amount of QAnon coverage has implied. Olmsted maintains that America’s growth as a nation of immigrants has repeatedly triggered questions about how some define “real Americans,” and which group is considered the “other” — which in turn creates a more ideal environment for conspiracies to flourish.
Uscinski notes that no data has yet shown America either believes more in conspiracy theories than it once did, nor that it is necessarily more susceptible to conspiracies then other nations. He also warned against presuming that conspiracy theories were a distinctly right-wing phenomenon, singling out the appeal to some progressives of several lurid conspiracy theories related to Russia and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The Church of Satan, for its part, has noted a crucial difference between the QAnon theory and the allegations made during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. While the QAnon theory seems to be fracturing somewhat under the glare of the public spotlight, the Satanic Panic thrived in it, with politicians, law enforcement and certain media hosts readily investing in the theory.
“Conspiracies are baked into the American psyche, from Freemasonry, secret societies, JFK, and on and on. One could say that the American Revolution itself was born out of conspiracies and hidden plots,” Rev. Raul Antony of the Church of Satan told ThinkProgress. “‘Satanism’ has historically been an accusation placed on your enemies that they’d have to disavow. Freemasonry, Catholicism, Judaism were all labeled ‘satanic’ at one point or another, with hidden histories tracing their ‘occult’ roots.”
In Rev. Antony’s opinion, QAnon’s only agenda appears to be leaving “breadcrumbs” online and watching others get led on wild goose chases. He’s also noted that while some baby boomers readily buy into QAnon’s tales of child trafficking, they ignore abuses made by Christian institutions or politicians who share their political leanings.
“People are malleable, biased, manipulative and manipulated. Satanists acknowledge that there’s an invisible war out there, and armed with skepticism and pragmatism are able to navigate and exploit it when necessary,” he claimed. “There certainly is a Satanic Elite in the world, but conspiracies like QAnon are barking up the wrong pyramid.”