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Imagine yourself for a moment in a painfully far-too-common scenario. A loved one, suffering from a growing sense of insecurity and deepening depression, begins seeking a destructive and delusive sense of purpose in wildly improbable conspiracy theories. Day by day, this person that you once felt a strong common rapport with drifts further and further away into an imaginary apocalyptic world governed by megalomaniacal harvesters of human infant blood cultivated to prolong the vampiric lives of an anti-human elect that populate the upper echelons of entertainment and politics. You find it increasingly difficult to reason with this person, as their conviction that “the media” is controlled by an evil, global, omnipresent cabal has caused them to look upon any claim of fact, no matter how well supported by evidence, as potentially manipulative disinformation designed to turn them away from the horrific, yet cherished, “truth.”

Now imagine that this loved one of yours, fully dedicated to the conspiracy theory that they have cultivated from selective information gathering and online chat boards, decides nonetheless to seek professional mental health treatment due to their increasingly unbearable anxiety and overall decreased ability to cope with the daily stresses of life. You might have high hopes that a mental health professional will be able to help your loved one return to a rational state of mind. But imagine your horror if you were to learn that the mental health professional your loved one has begun consulting also propagates bizarre conspiracy theories regarding secretive Satanic human sacrifice cults who practice an insidious form of mind control on an untold number of the unwitting population.

Concerned that your loved one is already in a mentally vulnerable state and that the persuasive effect of a licensed professional acting to validate the most crippling of paranoid delusions could prove to have life-long devastating effects, you look to report the mental health worker for malpractice. 

You will find no support from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In fact, the APA confers Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to mental health professionals who attend lectures that focus on conspiracy theories attributing certain disorders to mind control, and likewise sanctions professional conferences that still take seriously the long-debunked notion of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” as a primary cause of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder).

In fact, the Satanic Panic never ended amongst a professional fringe in mental health care. And while a “return” of the Satanic Panic has been widely announced throughout popular culture of late, the old Satanic Panic never left us, leaving a conspiracist infrastructure—a conspiracy of conspiracists. We must finally confront this reality if we are to leave this embarrassing modern moral panic behind and prevent it from claiming any more victims, whether in the form of those falsely accused of imaginary “Satanic” crimes, or those who learn to live in paranoid fear, combatting an invisible enemy.

The problem of combating harmful conspiracy theories has quickly elevated from a fringe interest with advocates viewed as hyperbolic eccentrics, similar to the conspiracists they decried, into an openly and often-discussed necessity for reestablishing democratic norms in a “post-truth” age of disinformation, misinformation, lies, and autocratic drift. 

While a “return” of the Satanic Panic has been widely announced throughout popular culture of late, the old Satanic Panic never left us.

A legacy of Trump

The Trump presidency, of course, made it so. Donald Trump, as president, utilized conspiracy theories as a means of avoiding accountability, as a distraction from his own ignorance and remarkable failures, and as a way of casting suspicion upon any fact that did not support his preferred narrative. The cult-like conspiracy-fueled QAnon movement, which holds Trump as its central prophet, has horrifically found believers insinuating their way into public office where their mental incompetence threatens to leave a lasting deleterious impact on our institutions.

The dangers posed by this proliferation of conspiracy theories have become terrifyingly clear.

But while right-wing conspiracy theories have flourished in the mainstream since the ill-fated 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump, conspiracy theories themselves are not exclusive to any particular political viewpoint. The most insidiously pernicious conspiracy theories are those that are presented as politically neutral, tethered first and foremost to an unassailable moral cause.

It is gratifying and facile to pretend that the horrors of the Satanic Panic were solely the product of fundamentalist extremists scouring popular music for backward messages, and interpreting the “sword and sorcery” scenarios of Dungeons & Dragons as blueprints for the demonic spiritual corruption of children. Thoughtlessly, many journalists write about the Satanic Panic today as though it were merely a flare-up of Christian paranoia that reached comical proportions.

In reality, the Satanic Panic ruined countless lives. False accusations of bizarre ritualistic crimes rampaged through an alarming number of communities, irreparably damaging family ties, and resulting in the false imprisonment of an untold number of victims. 

The Satanic Panic’s false accusers often were not Bible-obsessed, demon-haunted zealots. The judges who sent the Panic’s victims to prison were often not fundamentalist extremists. And the most harmful elements of the Satanic Panic, then and now, dressed conspiracist paranoia in secular rhetoric decrying a non-existent conspiracy of fanatical religious cultists. Publicly, the savvy conspiracist has been more likely than not to pretend that the anti-Christian nature of these alleged cults was not the primary concern, but rather the presumption that these anti-Christian beliefs motivated activities that were criminal, psychopathic, and murderously destructive. 

The complicity of mental health professionals

Conspiracist mental health professionals invested in pseudoscientific notions of “traumatic repression” have been instrumental in giving the Satanic Panic a false veneer of academic support as they probe clients, by way of hypnotic regression or various other techniques, to “remember” events of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” that are presumed to be “repressed” from their conscious memory. Never mind that qualitatively identical memory recovery techniques have produced “recollections” of extraterrestrial abductions and “past life” narratives that are equal to ritual abuse claims in the sincerity of belief in their veracity expressed by those who “recovered” them.

Despite the clear evidence throughout over 30 years of research psychology that “recovered memory therapies” are far more likely to cultivate delusions than reveal historically accurate facts, the mental health care profession itself has done nearly nothing to prevent conspiracists in their ranks from using the idea of memory recovery to develop false memories in their clients which corroborate the therapist’s own bizarre beliefs.

It is this aspect of the Satanic Panic that has arguably been the most devastating, as spectral evidence from “recovered memories” has too often been deemed admissible to convict the innocent of alleged Satanic crimes for which there was no actual, reliable evidence. Yet this aspect of the Satanic Panic is also the most commonly overlooked. I suspect that it is because it is this element of Satanic Panic that is not as comfortably black and white, the least credibly dismissed as the excesses of superstitious zealots.

The ISSTD and QAnon

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) presents itself as “an international, non-profit, professional association organized to develop and promote comprehensive, clinically effective and empirically based resources and responses to trauma and dissociation.” But at their annual conferences—many of which in recent history have been attended and documented by members of The Satanic Temple’s Grey Faction (a segment of the Temple dedicated to combating pseudoscience and Satanic Panic)—we have found them hosting lectures in which the central topics are conspiracy theories of the most stereotypical tin-foil hat variety, such as Satanic Ritual Abuse, Illuminati mind-control, and government child-slavery programs. 

The ISSTD’s history extends back to its formation during the Satanic Panic in 1984. They harbored some of the Panic’s worst purveyors, many of whom still speak at the conferences, and none of whom appear to have altered the faulty reasoning in a way that would compel them to abandon their conspiracist delusions.

While the ISSTD espouses QAnon-like narratives, the difference (and the only real difference, at that) is their lack of dedication to the political right wing. Some members of the ISSTD may be theocratic republicans, but others are decidedly not. While QAnon frames their position as openly politically partisan and apocalyptic, the ISSTD is not, organizationally, politically partisan. And when presenting themselves publicly, they are typically more circumspect than to outline specific conspiracist narratives. Instead, they convey broad, general concerns about trauma and rehabilitation from traumatic events. That the traumatic events in question may be unreal “recollections” of Satanic Illuminati mind-control experimentation goes unmentioned on the brochures and website. 

To challenge the ISSTD on their destructive pseudoscience is almost surely to result in retaliation that attempts to paint the critic as a denialist who refuses to acknowledge the reality of trauma. More specifically, sexual trauma. In this way, the claim that mental health care clients are believed to have been victims of an Illuminati human trafficking program wherein sexual abuse was intentionally administered for the purposes of “trauma-based mind-control” is generalized into a mere sexual abuse claim. Skeptical inquiries directed toward specific irrational claims are likewise generalized as mere refusals on the skeptic’s part to accept the damaging reality of sexual abuse or, worse, an active effort to cover up its existence. 

Congruent with the rise of the Satanic Panic was a growing awareness that sexual abuse was more prevalent than previously acknowledged, less reported than assumed, and reports, when received, far too often disbelieved and disregarded. False sexual abuse claims, believed to be exceedingly rare, were then disregarded as a counterproductive contrarian, fictional concern. All claims involving sexual abuse, it was decided by some, are best taken at face value.

For most readers, the problem is now perfectly clear. It can be easily discerned that we have moved past the easily-mocked Satanic Panic conspiracist claims and into a fraught territory where rational skeptics are often placed on the defensive. The ISSTD has become so adept at posturing themselves as sexual abuse victims’ advocates that many who will publicly decry the lunacy of QAnon will ignore the near-identical deranged narratives espoused by the ISSTD for fear of being denigrated as an ignorant defender of a culture of silence that denies the prevalence and harm of sexual abuse.

In 2021, New York magazine published an article about the “memory war,” as academics referred to the debate over recovered memories and traumatic repression. It was hack journalism at its worst, taking the side of pseudoscience, treating actual science as a sinister plot, and all from a perspective that lacked any right-wing Trumpian sympathies. The author, Katie Heaney, treated the idea of false memories as though it were merely an excuse to resume an unacknowledged policy of disregarding sexual abuse claims. Reading the article, one would think that the false memory argument is trotted out reliably to counter any claim of sexual abuse as an elaborate confabulation by the accuser, and not the predictable result of recovered memory therapies. In fact there was no mention of the conspiracist communities built upon the refining of collected recovered memory narratives of Satanic cults, or experimenting extraterrestrials. Nor was there any acknowledgment of the long list of “retractors”—those who recovered “memories” in the course of therapy, during which time they truly believed their recollections to be true, only to later find direct evidence debunking their own claims. Many retractors came to realize that they had been victims of an egregious form of sanctioned malpractice.

These omissions were not oversights. I myself had been interviewed by Heaney at length for the piece, and I gave her a detailed background on those very things. Even if she thought I was incorrect, she could have accurately reported my point of view, the actual view of the consensus of objectors to recovered memory therapies, but she did not. She supported the conspiracy theorists by endorsing their framing of the issue, a framing that conveniently entirely redacts the conspiracy theories themselves. She did it, I assume, not to silently endorse Satanic Panic conspiracy theories, but for the convenience of an absolute moral position: One must always side with the accuser. It is a moral position that most people are unwilling to attack, leaving discussions about potentially (or even clearly) false accusations in a forbidden domain where the ISSTD have annexed space to offer refuge from critical scrutiny for their conspiracy theories.

QAnon, too, has discovered the forbidden domain. With much less success than the ISSTD, QAnon have attempted in its more recent history to position itself as a loose-knit community of volunteer soldiers in a battle against child trafficking. This almost certainly is not the result of any direct consultation or inspiration taken from the ISSTD but of evolutionary pressure in the social environment, where criticism and scrutiny relentlessly expose the flawed foundations of their reasoning. The pressure comes from unbiased rational inquiry, driving them to seek refuge behind sexual abuse victims whom they treat as human shields.

Some are compelled to imagine that there is a bright side in all of this, that at least these conspiracists—the ISSTD and QAnon—recognize the plight of victims of sexual abuse and, regardless of how misguided their perceptions of the problem may be, their overall moral calibration is sufficiently correct, and they only defectively contribute to a greater good. This ignores the innocent victims of QAnon’s increasing militancy and the mentally vulnerable who receive delusional conspiracist narratives instead of proper care. It ignores the reality of retractors and of the countless families that to this day are being torn apart by false accusations derived from pseudoscientific recovered memory therapies. It ignores that opportunistic parties are victimizing people in the name of victims’ rights. It ignores the fact that conspiracists are merely justifying behaviors or practices that they hope are shielded under the banner of victims’ advocacy, with no real apparent concern for the outcomes experienced by the victims themselves. It ignores the fact that faulty evidence inevitably results in false allegations. It allows clinical malpractice a safe haven from censure. 

It ignores the damage done by the Satanic Panic.

And this is how we ignore the true cost of the Satanic Panic almost every time we talk about the Satanic Panic. 

For more information about The Satanic Temple’s Grey Faction campaign to confront the Satanic Panic, please see GreyFaction.org

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Lucien Greaves is the most prominent contemporary Satanist in the world and front person for the band Satanic Planet. As spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, Greaves has gained international attention...