Exvangelical Musings: The Devil in the Details – A Brief History of Satanic Ritual Abuse

One of the most common phrases that the evangelical church likes to toss around is, “The greatest trick the Devil pulled is convincing everyone that he doesn’t exist.” I’d actually like to beg to differ. I think one of the most horrible tricks the Church ever pulled was convincing everyone within their walls that he DOES exist, and that his minions have infiltrated every crack and corner of our schools, television news, the Democratic party, MTV, and most alarmingly, under our beds where they wait for us to fall asleep. 

The war for human souls being waged between God and Satan was all explained to me when I was about five years old. Specifically, Satan considered all Christians his greatest enemies, and he would utilize every available measure at his disposal to keep us from leading others to Christ. This indoctrination starts with small children, so that we view our reality through this perpetually reinforced filter. 

When I was young, the concept of ever-present demons was simpler – they just liked to hover in my bedroom’s darkness, whispering torments to me as I clutched my sheets over my head. When I was a teenager, I prayed they would not enter into my dreams to try to lure me off the true path with shameful temptations about the cute girl in the youth group. As I aged into adulthood, every doubt I felt about all of this was just me giving into Satan’s lies. I spent so many years fearing I needed to feel ashamed for how much the Devil liked to personally torment me.

There are some fascinating books on the origins of Satan. Read THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL AND THE IDEA OF EVIL by Paul Carus for a good overview. What’s important for you to know for the purposes of this musing is that the Devil has been used to whip fervent followers of the faith into a frenzy pretty much since the rise of what became the Catholic Church. The truth is, the Devil was mostly just a comical trickster during the Middle Ages, until the Church realized how preaching a constant fear of him kept people under their control. After that, Satan had a comeback as an active player in current history – and to this day, believing that a witch is Satan’s concubine remains a great excuse to burn a town’s outsiders at the stake. 

I mean, it’s a great myth, first of all – the fall of Lucifer, the first singer of God’s praises. The Bible makes him a villain, but isn’t it interesting that the angel closest to God actually was the first one to believe that there was something terribly wrong with the way God was conducting Himself? As the angels in the cheesy 1995 horror movie “The Prophecy” muse, “Have you ever noticed how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Do you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood.”  I’ve always found it interesting that Satan successfully voiced his concerns to one-third of the heavenly hosts, who followed him into war. Satan is an interesting fictional character – foundational to so much great folklore. 

But when Satan is literalized as the ultimate force of Evil set loose upon the Earth with his soul-possessing army, he becomes a catalyst for every terrible thing that human beings have done to each other. Kill the Satan-worshipping heathens – that’s been popular since Alexander, and versions of it still exist in the evangelical church. Hell, I can’t tell you how many visiting missionaries shared stories of going to third-world countries to preach the Gospel to communities overrun by demons. I’ve heard so many tales of witch doctors, sacrificing chickens to keep the Holy Spirit away. I guess these missionaries can’t imagine why anyone in a village in a third-world country would be skeptical of rich white people showing up. If I were that witch doctor, I’d be summoning every demon I could think of. 

By my calculation, every generation of the Church has had its Satanic Panic. I’d define this term as an era in which the Church is able to whip enough of their followers into a fearful frenzy that they become a violent mob seeing Satan in their soup – more to the point, in their neighbor’s soup. Follow that thread back to the Crusades, the Inquisition, perhaps even the Holocaust (in which a group of human were demonized into near extinction), and certainly McCarthyism. Satanic influence has been blamed for Soviet communism, Castro, China, liberalism, and the War on Christmas. 

Now, follow that thread to our lifetime: My Father openly talked about how Iraq and Iran were secretly controlled my Satan, and it was a common sentiment among Evangelicals. During the second Iraq occupation, American General William G. Boykin spoke before congress about how our armies battled Satan himself in the Middle East. “We are on the side of God,” Bush Jr. kept insisting about our occupation in Iraq, ignoring pleas from his PR team to stop referring to our search for non-existent WMDs as a “holy war.” Keep walking along this road, and you’ll find Q-Anon, Pizzagate, and January 6th, 2021 – all of which are both manifestations and consequences of theological extremism constantly being a part of our rhetoric. 

If you grew up in my generation (I was born in 1981), you experienced this panic as Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). 

This bizarre cultural phenomenon in which countless lives were ruined more or less occurred because Ronald Reagan was in over his head when he got into bed with the Moral Majority. I’m sure it seemed like a brilliant idea to politicize ardent religious zealots and convince them that the Great Revival for which they all prayed was found in the welcoming bosom of the Republican Party. It won him the presidency, and it has kept Republicans in power to this day. 

The problem is, every time the Evangelical Church manages to get noticed by people in power, they have a tendency to create a great Satanic crisis from which they alone can offer a rescue. The Church just needed a good entry point, now that they were Reagan’s spiritual advisers who the world watched carefully. It is not a coincidence that at the same time of this particular Moral Panic, rumors stirred of money laundering and marital infidelities among prominent Moral Majority leaders. 

It didn’t help that popular culture was a den of sin that had already started turning people away from the Evangelical Church. Protest music inspired by Bob Dylan openly questioned the Church’s hypocrisy during the 1960s hippy revolution – even among Christian rock stars like Larry Norman and Keith Green. The Church leaders responded by whipping their congregations into panic with dire warnings of subliminal Satanic messages in rock and roll. Did you know that if you play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, you can hear, “There’s no escaping my Sweet Satan?” The idea was that rock music was sending out messages imperceptible to the human ear to convert children into devil worshipers. (Fun fact: I once played a Disney album backwards and heard “Satan” fourteen times.)

Satan’s influence bled into other forms of media. Billy Graham himself preached that Satan hid in the film reels of “The Exorcist,” for example. The Church’s exasperation was compounded when Anton LeVay entered into the mix with his highly theatrical Church of Satan, based out of San Francisco. LeVay was an organ player who played for both carnivals and churches, inspired to found his Satanic group when he realized that he played to the same people at both places – and that the faces from church were the most debaucherous at the carnival. He showed up on talk shows in cheap Satan costumes, held Satanic rituals for the press, and recruited celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jayne Mansfield.

All of this was simply theater to get a rise out of Christians, and it worked. The Church made us fear Satan in pop culture, and LeVay rose to the occasion. Rumors suddenly persisted that LeVay popped up in Eagles covers and had secret cameos in “Rosemary’s Baby” (it was actually “The Devil’s Rain,” a rip-off). LeVay’s Church of Satan – a non-theistic organization which claimed to believe in neither God nor Satan – became a sensation in the 60s-70s, because LeVay understood the kind of theatricality that drove the Church mad. His parody religion revealed the shallowness of the Evangelical Church’s knee-jerk reaction to everything that stood up to their version of reality, which in turn made them a laughing stock the likes of which they hadn’t experienced since the Scopes Monkey Trials. Evangelical leaders were bloodthirsty for revenge. 

This was the world from which the Moral Majority emerged when Reagan put them in power. 

So suddenly, a book called MICHELLE REMEMBERS – first published in 1980 – makes it onto bestseller lists. Within this book, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder makes some rather alarming claims. Through the miracle of hypnotherapy, an adult woman patient unlocks traumatic, repressed memories from her childhood. In them, she goes into vivid detail about how she was tortured by both family and community members in a series of Satanic rituals – including being forced to participate in orgies, drinking baby’s blood, and being tied down naked on an altar while hooded Satanists from her neighborhood chanted demonic verses. Without offering any evidence besides these memories, Pazder assumes that these accounts are all true while assuring his readers that they are obligated to do the same, in order to snuff out the Satanic Cabal that has infiltrated every level of our society – including their own communities. 

This positively outlandish sensationalism was everything the newly appointed Christian leaders needed to steer this country away from LeVay’s influence and back toward God. They convinced the Reagan Administration to go with it, so that the government was issuing task forces to catch the Satanic Cabal secretly running the liberal side of the country. Televangelists preached about this crisis on every major network. Paid programming offered books that could provide solutions. SRA was covered by broadcast news – I remember Peter Jennings talking about it. Police were being trained to spot the signs during their patrols. When I worked in elementary schools, I once found a faded and worn pamphlet on a counselor’s dusty bookshelf about how to tell if your students are victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse – and how to know if your peers are in on it. This shit was on Oprah and Geraldo. The Moral Majority were the vampire slayers, riding in with a fiery cross to save the day. 

Evangelicals churchgoers, meanwhile, absorbed all of this information with absolute panic. Everyone was talking about it while looking at their neighbors suspiciously, as more and more reports accumulated that children with repressed memories were revealing the truth through hypnotherapy. There were police raids, arrests, trials – and Anton LeVay’s people basically had to go into hiding. I’m honestly amazed he survived, but he pulled two smart maneuvers: He forbid his flock to talk to the press, and he refused to reveal the Satanic Church’s membership numbers – essentially removing them all from the conversation entirely so that those of us caught up in the mob mentality would just eat each other. And we did – even within churches, we were looking for potential members of Satan’s nightly orgies. 

Meanwhile, psychologists were starting to question all of this, because they were beginning to suspect that hypnotherapy wasn’t reliable. But as I said – history teaches that we love a good witch hunt. If mental health professionals were too vocally skeptical, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority could suggest that they were in on it too while providing psychiatrists from the fold to confirm the reality of SRA. The most prominent of these “experts” was a man named Dr. James Dobson, who led the charge stirring up this panic, not least of all by calling homosexuality a deadly, Satanic disease that could be cured through prayer and Christian counseling. On his massively successful radio program Focus on the Family, Dobson declared to millions of Christian listeners every week that anything that didn’t fit our narrow reading of the Bible was Satan trying to replace the traditional family unit that God Himself had declared to be the only standard by which all of us should live. 

It goes without saying that most of the targets were people whose existence challenged the Evangelical’s shaping of America into the theocracy that they wanted. They needed their families to stay conservative and traditional, so they made sure that the LGBTQ community was a key player within every Satanic orgy. It wasn’t bad enough that Falwell preached that AIDS was the gay cancer on television – now, being gay itself was being demon possessed. Satan’s plan, it was explained to us, was to have AIDS kill as many people as possible before they could accept Christ. 

It also can’t be a coincidence that educators were also being accused in abundance, because they saw the absurdity in this moral panic. But everyone was afraid to speak out, even as eyewitness testimony retrieved from hypnotherapy – including accusations against fathers, teachers, counselors – simply disintegrated underneath all the physical proof. Investigations, arrests, and trials continued. All this time, even secular “psychiatrists” exploited and fueled the panic by releasing books about new methods therapists could use to determine if their clients were victims of SRA (I specifically remember one with dolls). Look up the McMartin Preschool Trial for more information – people went to jail, lives were ruined, and the Moral Majority made a fortune.

This all lasted really until 1996. It had been gradually diminishing in the public conversation since 1989 or so, primarily because scandals finally caught up with so many televangelists that they were suddenly too preoccupied with their own skeletons to keep pushing it. SRA also hadn’t stopped Clinton from getting elected, and church leaders needed to turn their sights onto paths more capable of taking him down (like, say, an intern). Then in 1996, Carl Sagan devoted a chapter in a book to how hypnotherapy patients also recalled stories about alien abductions, and he challenged society to collectively draw a line. Suddenly Geraldo was issuing an apology, and Lawrence Pazder rightfully faded into disgrace. 

This madness was happening all around me, and invaded very part of my life as an evangelical child growing up in the 80s and 90s. Satan was EVERYWHERE – not just hiding in my closet, but part of every faucet of reality that would seemingly be safe for a child. My parents were terrified of Satanic influence over my life, and they let James Dobson set the terms. The message was clear: We were hereby at war with secular culture, which was a battle between God and Satan. 

I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man when I started chanting Grayskull’s magical spells, because I might summon demons. The TV-show “Bewitched” was off the table because its playful depiction of magic might tempt me to try it out. No Ghostbusters, because ghosts were all demons in disguise. Also, rock and roll was more than ever the Devil’s music. KISS was an acronym for “Kids in Satan’s Service,” and their cassettes were not welcome in our home. Fantasy movies like “Dragonslayer” and “Willow” were met with suspicion because magic meant demonic influence (I convinced my parents that “Highlander” was actually science fiction, which was fine because it wasn’t magic). Ninja Turtles were out, because they meditated around the fire and telepathically summoned their mutated rat master. I remember catching a few minutes of a bad old horror movie called “The Gate” once on TV about these kids who find a doorway to Hell, and my father lost his mind and told me that Satan led me to that station. I was just looking for cartoons. 

We listened to James Dobson’s family radio drama “Adventures in Odyssey,” in which he transmitted this information to children, every Saturday. It was primarily through this show that we were warned about Satanic influence in music, television, movies, even games. Dobson used this show to instruct parents how to inspect each piece of Halloween candy for signs of razor blades and drugs placed there by our neighborhood Satanists. There was an episode in which the town’s evangelical patriarch had to rescue one of the locals kids from a Dungeons & Dragons group who were using the game to conjure demons. I’m not sure what inspired the visceral hatred that the evangelicals still have for Dungeons & Dragons, which isn’t even the most “Satanic” RPG game on the market (that’s World of Darkness, and I’m playing it with friends tomorrow). But because that silly table-top game inspired introverted nerds to escape into a world of magic and adventure while eating pizza and arguing about the rules, there must have been something terribly evil about it. I remember sermons warning us that playing it would make us Satanists. 

I’m sure it confounded my parents that despite believing wholeheartedly in Satan, I was into monsters and horror stories. To their credit, they more or less let me engage with it – as long as it was only the classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy. (Fortunately, those were the ones I was actually really interested in.) King Kong and Godzilla were fine. Freddy Krueger was out altogether – literally a demon. I was warned to be careful going down this road, because doing so could summon demons waiting to lead me from the straight and narrow. I understood – I was terrified of demons. I also thought I wasn’t being given enough credit for clearly being able to recognize make-believe from reality. (Then again, I DID mutter those spells from He-Man, and now I’m an exvangelical. I guarantee you that some evangelical out there reading believes there is a connection.)

At this point, it should not come as a surprise to learn that feeling this close to the Devil all the time basically up until the moment I finally walked away from the Church has caused some serious psychological trauma that it has taken a long time for me to work through. 

I will give you a deeply personal example. It actually gives me goosebumps to write this, because I’ve never uttered it before – never released it. When I was probably five, I remember listening to a conversation my mother was having with a woman in her church. They were talking about how one of their mutual friends had been possessed by demons. This poor woman had figured it out one day when she looked down at her hand and counted six fingers instead of five. Demons can do that sort of thing – corrupt your vision. Just to torment you and to make you doubt your faith. 

As an adult, I recognize that this conversation was the result of people in the Church mistaking mental illness for demonic possession. I now understand that there are disorders that can cause a person to see six fingers instead of five. But for the duration of my time as an evangelical, I was terrified to look at my hands in fear that I would see six fingers. I would push each finger individually against my body, counting them over and over again to make sure there were only five. I spent sleepless nights counting fingers against my pillow again and again as I felt the demons creeping up from under my bed. I’d count my fingers before getting up to preach every sermon, just to make sure demons didn’t hover to distract me from saving souls. 

This compulsive obsession was such a common part of my childhood experience that I cannot imagine the person who I would have been without it. I still count my fingers compulsively, even though I no longer have a literal reason to. I’ve come to learn that this is a trauma response. 

I have worked with children both in churches and in treatment centers who believe they are demon-possessed, because their parents told them that they are. Not just for the obvious diagnoses, like schizophrenic disorder. Depression has been called a demon – anxiety, addiction, alcoholism, anger, lust. And I do not mean this metaphorically – some of these kids literally believed that if they could only drive the demons out and get right with God, then they could get through their debilitating handicap. It was the demon of abortion that tempted them to get rid of the product of rape growing inside of them, and now they must feel shame for committing this murder while Satan gloats in his victory. 

It is this mentality that leads pastors to lay hands on a gay, transgender, or fluid children in an attempt to pray the demons out. Conversion therapy was one of Satanic Ritual Abuse’s many twisted offspring, because of the way that homosexuality was positioned by James Dobson and his despicable ilk as a mental illness, and then mental illness was stigmatized and personified as demonic possession. 

And I will attempt to be fair here – there are psychologists and therapists within the evangelical community who are truly trying to redirect this dialogue, who are making strides in shifting the Church’s conversation about mental illness. I’ve heard pastors suggest that we need to have more an awareness about mental wellness and how tools like therapy and medication are useful accessories to the Bible. Slowly working it in like this will be the only successful way to reach that crowd, and I commend their attempts to heal.

I also guarantee that large portions of the Evangelical Community – particularly in small and rural areas – have not yet started having these conversations. I believe that until we can start talking about Religious Trauma Syndrome with the same passion that that Moral Majority pushed Satanic Ritual Abuse, we are still a ways off from it reaching these communities, from where most of the kids I’ve worked with came.

Here is the bottom line: Until the conversation about mental health shifts so that we can start understanding how deeply rooted our society truly is in church abuse’s many manifestations, more children will continue to believe that they are gay or addicted to drugs or depressed or hearing voices because they are possessed by a demon. More children are going to self-harm become of it. More children are going to drive themselves into self-isolation and crime. More children will not become adults. Because telling your child that demons are clawing on the edges of your soul – and that you feel the doubts that you do because Satan has ensnared you – is abusive and leads to trauma the layers of which we are only now beginning to understand. 

In short, it is time we had an exorcism. I think maybe it’s time we stopped teaching children to believe in the Devil. I think its time those of us who believed in him as children to start taking steps toward healing, because we deserve to heal. Enough is enough. 

Thank you for reading. If you are someone who has experienced trauma because of a fear of a demonic presence in your life, I hope that you will come to a place where you can simply rest your head on your pillow at night and not be afraid of the dark. If you have ever been informed that you have a demon inside of you, I’m so sorry that someone would tell you such a cruel lie. Whatever your struggles are, however deeply they may have taken root – what you are feeling comes from within your own body, not from some evil invading force. You are not alone, and there is help available for you. I’d love to help you find it. 

3 thoughts on “Exvangelical Musings: The Devil in the Details – A Brief History of Satanic Ritual Abuse

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