Lies do the work
Making demons of men
The Satanic Panic is a moral panic and phenomenon that took root in The '80s and The '90s, mostly in America, though examples have been found worldwide. The phenomenon features Moral Guardians who become obsessed with Devil worship and, specifically, Hollywood Satanism. Usually, it extends to panic on behalf of the Culture Police including Heavy Metal music, Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy games, and any other youth-centric interests, fueled by hypnosis and a new interest in psychiatric care. Many of the creators of such works would try to downplay the occult connections to avoid such accusations, while others leaned into it for the shock value.
It was also believed to be inspired in part by the turn towards They Look Just Like Everyone Else! paranoia in media of The '60s and The '70s. The popular success of Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist and its following adaptation, and the many, many Satan-themed paperback horror novels that followed in their wake, are believed to have inspired it. Rosemary's Baby is the Trope Codifier as it depicts a Satanic cult in a New York City of the Big Applesauce variety; Ira Levin even went on record to say that he felt partially responsible for the ensuing Satanic Panic as he felt he had played some role in mainstreaming it. Real-life cult activity throughout the late '60s and '70s — most notoriously, those led by Charles Manson and Jim Jones — and occult-adjacent serial killers — like the Zodiac Killer and David Berkowitz, aka "The Son of Sam", the latter of whom genuinely did claim to have been part of a Satanic cult — gave the whole thing a patina of "but it really happened" plausibility.
It can also be understood as a response to the sweeping social and political changes of the 1960s and '70s - namely, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, Second Wave feminism, and Gay Liberation. With American society becoming increasingly secular and pluralistic, a lot of conservative Christian evangelicals began to feel increasingly like the world was changing in ways they didn't like or understand. In their view, a drift away from their definition of Christianity had to be a drift toward evil, and so, in their view, their opponents were not simply people with different worldviews who disagreed with them, but literal agents of the Devil.
As a result, it is a subtrope of Witch Hunt. Other common features include Horror Hippies, Rock Me, Asmodeus!, Drugs Are Bad, and Loners Are Freaks, due to the general fear of the "other" and youth culture that fueled it. It will usually involve Everyone Is Satan in Hell being invoked in-universe.
By the Turn of the Millennium, it had finally died out in mass culture after being largely discredited over the course of The '90s, though it still features heavily throughout media, especially for a Genre Throwback or Ripped from the Headlines storylines. Certain elements of the Panic — namely, literally unbelievably widespread child abusenote ; allegations made against celebrities and other prominent public figures; and the notion that a vast shadowy "them" is simultaneously concealing all evidence of these crimes, and also publicly confessing to them via coded messages — have surfaced again recently in the QAnon conspiracy theory. It is likely that both are influenced by the far older anti-semitic Blood Libel conspiracy theory, and Satanic Panic accusations often resembled historical Witch Hunt claims as well. Indeed, some promoters of QAnon have explicitly described it as being a Satanic conspiracy, setting it up to be a case of history repeating — though others have a wide variety of alternative explanations. And, as with the Panic, people can be drawn in by the reasonable-sounding premise that if something bad is happening to children, we should surely investigate it, a premise that experiences some problems in light of, for example, the McMartin Preschool case, or the Comet Ping Pong shooting incident.
There are two mostly distinct forms of the trope in media: one treats it as though it is all real and a justifiable fear, and another that takes a more historical look at it as a phenomenon of media hysteria. The former is especially likely to have Unfortunate Implications in the modern day.
- The Dead Alewives' famous "Dungeons & Dragons sketch", often known as "Dungeon of Dorks", is presented as some kind of damning and lurid expose into "Satan's game" and the corrupting influence it has on children, but it instead gives us a pretty mundane conversation between four teenaged nerds, arguing over the rules, making juvenile jokes, and trying to hit on female NPCs.
- Chick Tracts exploited every example of the Satanic Panic imaginable, describing the Vatican as a huge child-sacrifice cult; there are Human Sacrifice cults everywhere, and if the tract Dark Dungeons is to be believed, Dungeons & Dragons is a front for Satanism.
- In The Department of Truth, the Satanic Panic is one of many conspiracy theories that is explored. One of the main characters, Cole Turner, even has a personal connection to it, having been one of the children manipulated into testifying in the aforementioned McMartin Preschool case. In later issues, we learn that the Department and one of its operatives, Hawk Harrison, was personally responsible for inflaming the Panic in order for the Department to take control over various other conspiracy theories.
- In Let Me Out, a horror comic set in a small conservative New Jersey town in 1979, a shady government agent covers up his own failed attempt to harness the power of Satan, by leaning in to the burgeoning Satanic Panic and framing the local punk, queer outcasts as murderous Satanic cultists. This is depressingly easy, since typically for a conservative town in the 1970s, the town is full of violent bigots who already think Mitch, Lupe, Terri, and Jackson are freakish sinners. But luckily for them, Satan doesn't appreciate the agent trying to boss him around.
- Calvin and Hobbes would occasionally joke about this. In one memorable 1992 strip, Calvin asks him mom for some money to buy "a Satan-worshiping, suicide-advocating heavy metal album". His mom, rather than indulge the Panic, simply points out that "...the fact that these bands haven't killed themselves in ritual self-sacrifice shows that they're just in it for the money like everyone else. It's all for effect." It's safe to say Bill Watterson probably wasn't too concerned about Satanic influence in the media.
Calvin: Mainstream commercial nihilism can't be trusted?!Mom: 'Fraid not, kiddo.Calvin (back in his room): Childhood is so disillusioning.
- Bless the Child leans heavily on the keystones of the Satanic Panic, including as it does a cult of Satanists that can stage impossible crime scenes, cover up those crime scenes mere moments later, child abduction, and the same sort of quality research carried out by genuine Panickers; at one point, a detective confidently asserts "That's a Druidic Rune straight out of the 16th Century." The Druids didn't use runes, their religion died out in the 11th Centurynote , and even if you ignore all of that, Druids Aren't Satanists.
- The 'Burbs: Invoked. The protagonist becomes obsessed with a family that he believes to be Satanists.
- Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism by Jeremiah Films was made in 1989 during the height of the Panic, and did much to help keep it going.
- In Easy A, Holier Than Thou Marianne and her flunkies accuse their high school of endorsing Satanic worship in order to bully the administration into changing the popular Blue Devil mascot into a woodchuck.
- Discussed and defied in Hail Satan?, which has a section about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and explains that this does not line up with Satanism as the Satanic Church practices it and that most (if any) of the accused were not Satanists.
- The House of the Devil, being a Genre Throwback to '70s and '80s horror, opens with a caption about the prevalence of Satanic cults being hidden everywhere in America, and proceeds to tell a story about one that targets a young babysitter.
- Invoked in The Last Exorcism. Cotton is a firm believer that any so-called possessions are evidence of this, and that Nell is acting out because she has been raped, potentially by her father or brother, and the supposed supernatural activity is simply her doing. But he's wrong, as there really is a Satanic cult which impregnated Nell with a demon. He was right about one thing, though: Nell's own brother is indeed part of the cult.
- Lords of Chaos is about heavy metal and (purported) black magic in Norway during The '90s, specifically focused on the notorious real-life band Mayhem, which was connected to arson attacks against churches and the murder of one of their members.
- Mazes and Monsters is a pointed take on the association between Satanism and tabletop games, which was made numerous times throughout the Satanic Panic.
- Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was an HBO documentary about how Goth teens were railroaded into being sentenced for murder because they were nonconformist, and accused of Satanic worship. It was followed by two sequels, following up on the case in 2000 and 2011, the latter of which after the defendants were released from prison.
- Satanic Panic opens with a narration insisting that the 1980s panic was in fact based on real events and unsolved crimes, before telling the story of a camp being hunted by insane Satanists.
- In Satanic Panic (2019), the villains are Rich Bitches in Stepford Suburbia who obtained their power and wealth through the worship of Satan, and spend the film trying to sacrifice a pizza delivery girl.
- The Sisterhood of Night: Emily accuses the girls of sexual molestation and witchcraft because Mary wouldn't let her into the group. It unleashes a panic that gets on the news, and Lavinia is forced to confess, then commits suicide.
- Summer of Sam: Everyone is convinced that the Son of Sam is a Satan worshipper, and so they go to increasingly desperate lengths to figure out who would be a Satanist, utilizing stereotypes from the then-ongoing panic. For this reason, they settle on punk rocker Richie. Vinnie is concerned that Richie is in a cult.
- Under the Silver Lake updates it to being about a death cult in Hollywood but maintains the interest in black magic, secret codes, and animal abuse in Horrible Hollywood, which is one of the favorite locations for devil worship.
- We Summon the Darkness is set during the Satanic Panic and discusses it in great detail, revolving around a fear that heavy metal musicians were sacrificing young women to Satan. But it is ultimately true to the "panic" part as it turns out to be a hoax perpetuated by a preacher and his daughter, who stage fake "Satanic" murders in order to scare people into converting to Christianity.
- WNUF Halloween Special, set in 1987, has a repeating thread about an evangelical group, called HARVEST, convinced that Halloween is a Satanic plot to corrupt America's youth, and protesting the filming of the special itself. The TV station try to appease them by giving them a little interview segment to share their message, but it doesn't work. Ultimately, all the actual murders in the movie are committed by HARVEST members whipped into a paranoid frenzy. On a broader level, we also see the Satanic Panic in the general atmosphere beyond a few radicals, in the way the backstory of the local Haunted House is given to us, with an emphasis on how the disturbed young man responsible for the killings was very fond of playing with his Ouija board, leading to his murder spree being dubbed "The Spirit Board Murders".
- Dark Places is set in the 1980s and deals with the Satanic Panic as the central topic. The protagonist's brother, Ben, is accused of ritual sexual abuse culminating in the murder of his whole family sans protagonist Libby, none of which he did.
- A Head Full of Ghosts is a postmodern update to the Satanic Panic, in the context of The New '10s, especially the recession, after teenage daughter Marjorie appears to be possessed and they invite a reality show into their home for an exorcism. It's left firmly in the case of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, as it never firmly answers who is possessed, if anybody.
- Grady Hendrix, the writer of Satanic Panic (2019) (mentioned above under Live-Action Film), frequently references the Satanic Panic in his work:
- My Best Friend's Exorcism is set in the 1980s and features a great deal of Satanic Panic related leaflets, television specials, and other media. While Gretchen, the "best friend" in question, is possessed, the panic is absolutely useless in telling the protagonist Abby how to deal with it.
- Paperbacks from Hell discusses the Satanic Panic multiple times, and covers Michelle Remembers, a notorious book claiming to be the "true account" of a woman who escaped a Satanic cult that her mother was involved in. Hendrix has a pretty low opinion of the book, and the Panic in general, although he can't help but enjoy some of the weirder novels that resulted from it.
- We Sold Our Souls is about the heavy metal component of the Satanic Panic. Terry Hunt, the lead singer of the band Dürt Würk, sold his soul to Black Mountain and continues to give it the souls of his fans to feed upon. Mobs of angry people, fans, and Devil worshippers try to kill the band's former guitarist Kris Pulaski while she tries to stop him, having learned that he also sold his bandmates' souls to the Devil shortly before he went solo and left the rest of the band behind.
- Night Film: Stanislas Cordova is targeted by a mob who believe he is worshipping the Devil and murdering children in an attempt to spare his daughter's soul. It's left ambiguous whether he actually was.
- The Scream is a contemporary to the time example that deals with this phenomenon, about a band trying to make it big amid the Satanic Panic.
- Secrets Not Meant to be Kept: Subverted. Although Very Loosely Based on a True Story of Satanic ritual abuse, the book actually omits any mention of Satan. Actions that were believed in real life to be Satanic are discussed as just being forms of terrorizing the victims of abuse.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In "Gingerbread", a demon takes the form of two seemingly sacrificed children and uses that disguise to trick the parents of Sunnydale into turning on the witches in town (such as Buffy's best friend Willow and side characters Amy and Michael). Until the demon is slain, Sunnydale was in a full-on panic complete with an attempted witch burning. Turns out it's been doing this a long time, starting with its appearance as Hansel and Gretel.
- Dark (2017): In the 1980s storyline of the series, Egon Tiedemann, a rather conservative and incompetent policeman, believes that the mysterious death of an entire flock of sheep is connected to a satanic ritual, with local teenage ruffian Ulrich Nielsen, who listens to heavy metal music with violent lyrics, as his prime suspect. However, this is presented as Egon's personal quirk rather than a widespread panic, as none of the other characters seem to share his concerns about Satanism.
- Dead of Summer: The series is set in 1989 when this was in full tilt, with news on the TV and radio that are frequently reporting on lurid stories that stoke fear. However, real Satanists or similar people still really exist, with them being the villains who murder other people in league with demons.
- Stranger Things:
- Implied at the end of Season 3, where the epilogue has a television special that suggests a Satanic cult may be responsible for the strange occurrences at Starcourt Mall. Naturally, this statement is accompanied by B-Roll footage of rolling D20s.
- Played deadly serious in Season 4, where Vecna's killing spree is pinned on the anti-conformist head of the high school's D&D club because of Satanic Panic mentality. Worse, after years of mysterious unexplained deaths, the town is desperate for someone to blame, so it isn't long before most of the town is demonizing the club as a Satanic murder cult and hunting them. It doesn't help that the first peoplenote to learn about the sinister parallel universe that was actually responsible for the deaths were a literal D&D party of middle-school nerds, and they gave the creatures of that parallel universe D&D-based names like, um, Vecna.
- True Detective uses it as a Running Theme:
- Season 1 is about an occult conspiracy of ritual murder and child abuse, but the bad guys use the Satanic Panic as a cover.
- It also gets several references in Season 3, including the famous belief that Dungeons & Dragons was Satanic. Which is in fact just to underline how different the mystery of Season 3 is than Season 1.
- The X-Files:
- Fox Mulder is mentioned to have worked in the FBI's Occult Crimes section in the early 90's, before his obsession with UFOs made him a laughingstock.
- ''Syzygy'' invokes the Satanic Panic as a small town is believed to be under attacked from Devil worshippers, but it turns out to be a pair of best friends invoking it for their own revenge.
- Multiple episodes have Satanists committing murders, though it's mentioned as rare or subverted in some way, with the murderers mostly having a noble facade which lets them get away with this.
- One episode of Young Sheldon has Mary getting upset about Sheldon playing Dungeons and Dragons.
- Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, organized the Filthy Fifteen. Although most of the songs were placed on the list for sexual explicitness or drug use, Venom's "Possessed" and Merciful Fate's "Into the Coven" were put on for encouraging "the occult".
- AC/DC were swept up in the Satanic Panic due to Satanist serial killer Richard Ramirez's fandom of them, including being accused that their name stood for "Antichrist/Devil's Child."
- Ghost lampshade the concept in the title of their 2019 EP Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, although in the band's lore it's a re-release of their first EP from 1969 and its first song, "Kiss the Go-Goat", has obvious Satanic references.
- the Mountain Goats' "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton" is about a pair of death metal enthusiasts in their conservative Bible Belt who are separated and institutionalized for their supposed Devil worship. This inspires them to actually summon the Devil for real to get revenge on people who wronged them.
- Ozzy Osbourne was frequently accused of being a Satanist. In Geraldo Rivera's documentary, he appeared as a guest and was essentially described (along with other metalheads) as a blood-drinking grave robber.
- Lil Nas X reignited the Satanic Panic in mainstream media in 2021 with the music video for his single "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)", an allegorical video about his sexuality rich in Biblical and Greco-Roman imagery, which ends with him descending to hell and giving Satan a lap dance. Most of the outrage tends to ignore the fact that Lil Nas X subsequently kills Satan with a Neck Snap, usurping him as king of Hell.
- Sam Smith and Rihanna have been targets of this in 2023. Smith got it for their performance at the Grammys, and Rihanna for her Superbowl half-time show. Demi Lovato also brushed up against it, with the poster for their album Holy Fvck being banned by the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK and getting some attendant accusations, though not as prominently as Smith or Rihanna.
- Invoked in Crusader Kings II. A rare Random Event can result in the birth of an Enfant Terrible and their parents can be accused of witchcraft, potentially taking a large opinion penalty with other characters and a big hit to your religious Piety score. The Monks and Mystics Downloadable Content introduces a secretive cult of Hollywood Satanism. The religious representative on a ruler's council can be sent to hunt down these cultists and other apostates, hauling them before the liege to offer the choice to Burn the Witch!, imprison them, brand them with a Mark of Shame, or Tempt Fate and release them unharmed.
- EVE Online has Space Satanists in the form of the Sani Sabik, evoking a mix of Hollywood Satanism, the real-life philosophy of Anton LaVey, and vampirism. A heretical splinter sect of the Amarr state religion (itself a faith with roots in a Catholic splinter sect thousands of years ago), they embrace an Übermensch philosophy that some people are destined for greatness, that others exist only to serve them, and that these people could attain immortality by following Sani Sabik practices, including drinking blood, kidnapping children for ritual sacrifice, and keeping women as Breeding Slaves to birth children specifically for the aforementioned purpose. They were suppressed on the Amarr homeworld of Athra, but once the Amarr Empire started colonizing space, they fled Athra and founded Cult Colonies across the galaxy. One of the more notable Sani Sabik factions you encounter, the Blood Raider Covenant, is the main pirate faction in Amarr space, a rather appropriate enemy for a devoutly religious empire.
- FAITH: The Unholy Trinity is set in 1987 and the director's major inspiration was the Satanic Panic. Whilst in Chapter I, whether or not it suggests that Satanic worshipping cults are real depends on the path that the player takes through the game, both Chapter II and Chapter III do in the realistic explanation and has the player frequently confront real demons.
- Discussed in The CarnEvil Cult. The narrator states that the cult was likely trying to get into video game development as a way to brainwash new recruits (or broadcast messages to the cult) and they even talked about the old Satanic Panic of The '80s but it's also subverted when the narrator says that the cult dismissed the Satanic Panic as nonsense, but believed that gaming could be used as a tool for mind control.
- The Floating Hands short "The Dungeons and the Dragons" Parodies this with a mother who goes into a fit when she sees her son playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends. A group of Moral Guardians in the '80s advocated against D&D as a Satanic recruiting tool.
Mrs. McCaffrey: Jake, have they been making you partake in blood orgies?!
- The Spoony Experiment: Spoony mentions in his review of Mazes and Monsters (which runs right ahead with the premise that fantasy board games turn people into killers) that when he was young, his mother was initially worried that he was part of a cult because he was into D&D. When she saw that he and his friends were just a bunch of nerds, she changed her mind immediately.