The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the world

In the 1980s some of the world’s most powerful institutions were taken in by stories, begun in Victoria, of a global Satanic underground abducting and abusing thousands of children

By Jen Gerson
August 29, 2020

The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the world

In the 1980s some of the world’s most powerful institutions were taken in by stories, begun in Victoria, of a global Satanic underground abducting and abusing thousands of children

By Jen Gerson
Aug 29, 2020
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the world

In the 1980s some of the world’s most powerful institutions were taken in by stories, begun in Victoria, of a global Satanic underground abducting and abusing thousands of children

By Jen Gerson
August 29, 2020
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The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the world
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

This month, US president Donald Trump was asked an offhand question about QAnon. "I've heard these are people that love our country… so I don't know, really anything about it, other than they do supposedly like me," he said during a press briefing. "If I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it." 

It may seem like an innocuous remark, but it's hard to imagine it was genuine. QAnon is the purveyor of one of the wildest and most pervasive conspiracy theories running through American politics. Based on the cryptic ravings of an anonymous imageboard user named "Q," the theory's adherents believe that Donald Trump is working to ferret out a global satanic pedophilic sex ring secretly supported by elements of the Democratic Party and the "deep state" within the U.S. government. 

The group is now holding rallies in numerous cities, ostensibly to combat child sex trafficking. At least one open QAnon believer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has won a Republican primary in Georgia to run for the House of Representatives. Trump, of course, tweeted his support: "Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up - a real WINNER!"

QAnon may sound like  something that could only have birthed in the darker corners of the internet. But QAnon predates president Donald Trump and even the internet itself;  It’s just the latest iteration of a moral panic that swept the highest levels of Western society only a generation ago. One  of the most polarizing and divisive social movements in modern history; it destroyed families, turned communities against one another, and sent numerous innocent men and women to prison. 

And it all started in Victoria, BC. 

Michelle Proby, in this image from the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, recalling "repressed" memories of Satanic abuse while under hypnosis.

It was known as the Satanic Panic; a conspiracy theory that convinced millions of well meaning and rational people that a secret cabal of Satanists had infiltrated the highest echelons of society in order to sexually molest children. The Satanists were accused of sacrificing animals and using women as "breeders" to create an endless supply of dead babies for use in their gory, bloody-fuelled rituals and orgies.

It destroyed lives and ripped apart families. Reports of ritualistic child abuse were reported across the English speaking-world. Almost all of them were eventually found to have been partially, or wholly fabricated, but not before dozens of innocent people were falsely accused, and sentenced to years and even decades in prison. 

Born of a genuine historical injustice — society's neglect of childhood sexual abuse — this was a panic that saw some of the world’s smartest minds taken in by accusations, that, at their root, were as preposterous as any raised during medieval European witch hunts. It  was legitimized by a professional class, captivated law enforcement and proved itself a lucrative grift for fraudsters and attention seekers. Worse, as the conspiracy grew under its own weight and influence, the hysteria inspired real and horrific crimes — usually by disturbed teenagers who claimed they were sacrificing humans to Satan. 

This is a case study of how badly off the rails we can go when we allow our best intentions and passions to overwhelm us.

The Fort Royal Medical Centre, located just across the street from Royal Jubilee Hospital, where Lawrence Pazder used to have his office and where he first met Michelle Proby (Alex Abraham).

The story begins in 1980, with the publication of a book called Michelle Remembers. It detailed the fantastic claims of Michelle Proby, who recounted several months of gory and sadistic ritualistic abuse at the hands of a cabal of Satanists when she was a child in 1950s Victoria. The memories, she alleged, were repressed for decades, until she sought help from psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. Under a state of hypnosis, Proby began to uncover a horrifying tale of murder, torture, abduction, and molestation. She claimed to have been taken from her willing family and groomed to take part in a ritual to call the devil — one in which she witnessed the murder of children, was forced to eat human remains, covered in dead baby parts, and locked in a cage with snakes.

An explosive bestseller. Michelle Remembers would become the folkloric template for countless other claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse ostensibly uncovered during therapy during the 80s and 90s. 

On its face, the book seems too implausible to take seriously. But neither Michelle Proby nor Lawrence Pazder gave anyone the impression of being loony, hysterical, or liars. Proby was a married woman living an ordinary life in Victoria. Measured and even-tempered, with close cropped curly dark hair and a soft-spoken, feminine lilt to her speech.

Pazder, her psychiatrist, was by all accounts a brilliant family man, a respected professional psychologist and a devout Catholic.

In 1973, Proby began to visit Pazder to seek treatment for depression. After four years of regular therapy sessions, the pair had worked through Proby's ordinary childhood issues and, it was clear, that their sessions were coming to a natural close. Then, in 1976,  Proby suffered a miscarriage and began to experience horrible nightmares. Pazder was called in to help. 

"I had a bad dream last week," she said in one of these first sessions, as described in Michelle Remembers.

"A bad dream?" replied Pazder. 

"Yes … a very bad dream,” she said before describing a terrifying dream about scratching an itch on her hand only to have the skin rupture with spiders. “Little spiders, just pouring out of the skin on my hand. It was just --I can't even tell you how it was.”

From there, the sessions began to delve into increasingly bizarre territory. Proby would slip into a kind of hypnotic trance, in which she began to recount long-forgotten events in the childlike voice of her five-year-old self. 

Over the following 14 months, the pair recorded 600 hours of testimony in this state. It was this work that would become the basis of Michelle Remembers. Funded by a $100,000 advance in 1980 dollars, it would earn another $242,000 in paperback rights and royalties — worth more than $1 million in 2020 currency. 

At first, the events Proby remembered were merely horrific. She began to remember some kind of orgiastic party at a home in the Victoria neighbourhood where guests clubbed a woman to death She remembered an evil man named Malachai, who packed a car with the dead woman's body and then faked an accident on the Malahat highway in order to cover up the murder. She then recalled being forced to eat the dead victim's ashes. 

As the sessions wore on, the remembering grew more dramatic, detailed and overtly paranormal. While she was at first merely an unwilling participant in Satanic rituals, Proby claimed she was eventually kidnapped by a group that the pair would come to identify as a Victoria-based Satanic cult.

She described rituals performed at night at the city’s historic Ross Bay Cemetery; being placed in an opened grave while a crying cat mewled and a woman dressed in a dark robe chanted above her. She remembered a bizarre ritual of rebirth in a nearby mausoleum, her tormentors hissing and dancing like cats while one of them licked her.

Each session with Pazder built on the horror of the one before, eventually becoming so nightmarish that the therapist brought in priests to offer blessings and benedictions to protect Proby from the evil of her own memory. 

Eventually, Proby said that she was saved by the miraculous intervention of Jesus and the Virgin Mary — who appeared to her in the midst of a Satanic ritual. 

Taken together, the book's claims seem so extraordinary — and its evidence so thin — that it becomes difficult to imagine anyone believing Proby's utterances to be literally true. 

And indeed, Michelle Remembers’ central claims can all be debunked with even cursory investigation. 

There is no evidence of a fatal car crash on the Malahat highway in the time period that the book covers. The Ross Bay Cemetery mausoleum pictured in the book was too tiny to accommodate several people and a Satanic ritual. 

The mausoleum of BC politician Harry Helmcken. The tiny structure was identified in Michelle Remembers as having hosted a large and elaborate Satanic gathering (Alex Abraham).

Proby's two siblings did not corroborate any of her claims. One sibling contacted by The Capital said only that she did not want to talk about the book.  

There's no evidence that Proby suffered a prolonged absence from school during the events described. Besides a dentist's letter confirming a bashed tooth, and a photo of a skin rash, she wasn’t found to have any physical scars of the intensive abuse she had claimed. 

Most heartbreaking of all, Proby's estranged father told Britain’s The Mail on Sunday that the claims were entirely false and that Proby had grotesquely misrepresented her late mother. 

“It was the worst pack of lies a little girl could ever make up. The book took me four months to read, and I cried all the time. I kept saying to myself: ’Dear God, how could anyone do this to their dead mother?’" Jack Proby told reporters in 1990. 

In normal circumstances, such off-the-wall claims might have generated little interest. But Pazder was a difficult man to dismiss. He was a respected psychologist with impeccable credentials; degrees from the Universities of Alberta School of Medicine, the University of Liverpool, and McGill, in addition to being a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, a staff member at local hospitals. Pazder was also deeply religious, and it was likely no coincidence that Proby's recollections came to starkly confirm his own faith. 

When Michelle Remembers hit bookshelves, Proby’s account even had the tacit endorsement of the Catholic Church. One of the religious authorities brought in to investigate Proby's claims was Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, Remi De Roo. 

Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Michelle Remembers identifies this courtyard as having been used for a fire ceremony in which an evil presence was seen to settle around Michelle (Alex Abraham).

Reached by phone for this story, De Roo, now in his 90s, said he was impressed by Pazder's credentials and Proby's storytelling. "I listened to the story, obviously," he said. He also accompanied the pair to the Vatican, where Proby's story was recounted to higher church authorities. 

While De Roo admitted that Proby's claims did seem extraordinary, they were not outside the realm of belief for a deeply faithful and spiritually committed man. A bishop requires a degree of open-mindedness to the possibility of evil. 

De Roo quoted Bible verse Matthew 7:16, which warns the faithful to judge false prophets by the outcome of their actions and words: "You will know them by their fruits." 

As a bishop, his role was not to debunk the claims of ritual abuse, but rather to support his parishioners — to watch for the fruits of their revelations. 

"I've dealt with strange things in a number of ways," he said, describing a Vancouver Island nurse who contacted him about a patient believed to be suffering from demonic possession. 

De Roo said he told the nurse to gather a prayer group and confront the allegedly possessed man with a crucifix. If he reacted violently, she told him to call back. The nurse did call back; the patient had simply admired the crucifix and asked to buy it.

"The Church is well aware of the existence of mysterious and evil forces in the world,” wrote De Roo in a brief forward for Michelle Remembers. "I do not question that for Michelle this experience was real. In time we will know how much of it can be validated.”

When asked whether this forward gave Proby and Pazder undue credibility, he said: "It's possible." With the benefit of time, he said, "I didn't see very good fruits." 

In this February, 1977 photo from Michelle Remembers, Michelle (left) and Bishop De Roo (right) are seen at The Vatican with Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli.

It's tempting to write off Michelle Remembers as a simple fraud; to assume that Proby and Pazder were lying in the pursuit of fame and fortune. But the details of their story don't square with Michelle Remembers being a con; these were two people who genuinely believed in the truth of Proby's claims. 

It’s partially because of Michelle Remembers that cognitive scientists now understand that memory can be an incredibly malleable thing. "At some level, everybody knows that memory has reconstructive elements," said Stephen Lindsay, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria who has conducted research into the limits of eyewitness testimony

That does not mean that our memories are false, but they are rarely as accurate as we think they are. Numerous studies have demonstrated the weakness of memory; among the most famous is a paper from 2001 which found that with only a little prompting, fully one-third of respondents could be convinced that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland — despite Bugs being owned by a Disney competitor who has almost certainly never appeared in the iconic theme park. 

The creation of false memories was supercharged by the fact that most of Proby’s sessions occurred under hypnosis. The disinhibition of hypnosis, combined with regular, emotionally demanding sessions create conditions in which fantasies can begin to acquire the hue of memory. 

It’s a phenomenon that was observed nearly 100 years before Michelle Proby first met Lawrence Pazder. In the late 19th century, the famed Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud put 18 female patients into hypnosis. The women were emotionally troubled, and Freud surmised that through hypnosis he might be able to extract subconscious memories of sexual abuse and restore their mental health. 

What he found astounded him. Under hypnosis, the women recounted extraordinary tales of not just sexual abuse, but also of cannibalism, even the appearance of the Devil himself — the sorts of claims that are eerily similar to those recounted by Michelle Proby. 

At first, Freud was enthusiastic about the discoveries. But as the claims grew more bizarre and implausible, he was forced to admit that they were probably fictional. 

There’s also a subtext to Michelle Remembers that becomes unavoidable once you know the ending of the story. Their marathon therapy sessions spanned hours away from their respective spouses and the unacknowledged motivation for much of this may have simply been the desire to spend time with one another. 

In the end, Pazder left his wife and four children; Proby left a deeply embittered husband, and patient and therapist wed. They appear to have remained together until his death in 2004, when Pazder passed away from a heart attack at the age of 67. In his obituary, Michelle is described as his "wife and soulmate." 

A photo of Lawrence Pazder from Michelle Remembers. The author identified himself as being "in a typical attitude—listening." 

Kenneth Lanning was a pioneering early researcher into child sex rings, pedophilic grooming and abductions. In the course of this research, he became one of the FBI's top experts in child sexual abuse. As such, he often helped local law enforcement with difficult cases.

In 1983 he received a call from a police officer; an adult woman had come forward alleging that she had recalled been sexually abused by a Satanic cult and forced to participate in rituals that involved animal sacrifice and shadowy rituals. 

"I'd heard pieces of cases like this, but I had never heard it all together like this," Lanning, now retired at age 73, told The Capital over the phone. 

Lanning and the officer discussed investigative approaches; a conspiracy like this would require rooting out a rat who could turn on the others. Fortunately for any investigators trying to build a case, a cult that sacrificed humans and drank their blood should leave a lot of physical evidence. 

The FBI agent remembered putting down the phone and thinking, 'I'll never hear a case like this again." 

Ken Lanning

Two weeks later, he got another phone call. It was a second investigator with allegations that were so similar that, at first, Lanning assumed he was speaking about the same one. It was an entirely different case. 

Then, more and more calls like this came, until Lanning suddenly found himself consulting on dozens of cases of alleged Satanic Ritual Abuse. 

Lanning eventually found that the cases tended to fall into several different categories. The first were very similar to Michelle Proby. Adults — usually women — who were living highly successful, functional lives when they sought therapists to deal with issues like anxiety and depression. Through the therapy, they would discover elaborate memories of cult-driven sexual abuse. 

Almost all of these cases, it would later be discovered, could be traced to a group of therapists who bought into since-debunked methods of using hypnosis-like techniques to recall false memories of sexual trauma. 

Another type of case involved claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse being used to gain the upper hand in child custody disputes. The third type were usually episodes of mini-hysteria that broke out in small rural communities. One of the more famous occurred in Martensville, Saskatchewan, where more than a dozen people were criminally charged in the 1990s for their alleged link to a non-existent “Devil Church” that was abducting children. 

The last type of Satanic abuse case identified by Lanning would become the most infamous of all: The daycare cases. 

These usually began with an allegation of sexual abuse against a child that, during the course of investigation, snowballed to include more and more children and staff members. In police interviews, scores of very young children would allege supranormal acts of mass sexual abuse; orgies, sex trafficking, masks, rituals and blood sacrifices. Many of these cases led to years-long trials. While most produced acquittals, some of them did end up with convictions, but the common feature of all of them were failures of due process, and a total absence of corroboration and physical evidence.

There was the Little Rascals Day Care Center in North Carolina; the Oak Hill trial in Texas, Wee Care Nursery School in New Jersey, Fells Acres Daycare in Massachusetts; Country Walk in Florida; the Bronx Five

In the UK, the panic insinuated itself in a slightly different way. Social workers in the country's various child welfare agencies became convinced of the reality of widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse, leading them to seize children from their families in Rochdale, Orkney, and Broxtowe. 

In 1988, these cases prompted Geraldo Rivera to air one of the most infamous episodes in the genre of talk television. 

"Satanism goes far beyond teenage obsession. Today there are cults that worship the devil, engage in secret ceremonies, who believe in an ancient and bizarre theology," intoned the opening narration of the episode, entitled Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground.

"The other face of adult satanism is violent and fiendish. Centred on sexual ritual and torture, frequently descending into the bilous crime of all — sexual abuse of children." 

As the camera flashed to clips of terrifying interviews, statements of survivors, and robed cultists performing arcane rituals, the narrator went on, warning that notorious serial killers and criminals had been linked to a Satanic underground, that Americans were being born into lifelong Satanic cults. Some were desperate to leave but feared the penalty of "grotesque death." 

Innocent people around the world would find themselves facing decades-long prison sentences as a result of Satanic hysteria. In 1994, three Arkansas teenagers who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three were accused of killing three young boys in a Satanic ritual. The trial that convicted them was riddled with inconsistencies and false testimony, as investigators mostly ignored the much more compelling suspect of one of the boys’ stepfathers.  Only after decades of lobbying by celebrities and civil rights activists, the three were released from prison in 2011.  

In Texas, daycare operators Fran and Dan Keller spent more than 21 years in prison on the completely baseless charges that they subjected children to rituals involving dismembered babies and grave desecration.  

But the most famous “daycare case” of the era was the McMartin Preschool case, which became one of the highest profile child sex abuse scandals in modern history. Located in Manhattan Beach, California, the daycare would ultimately face allegations that they had sexually abused more than 350 children. Among other allegations, some children claimed they had been ferried around town using secret tunnels under the daycare — even though the only evidence of the tunnels was a probable sewer line. The case lasted seven years, resulted in no convictions and was ultimately one of the most outlandish cases to be heard in a US courtroom in modern times. 

It’s no accident that the panic would coalesce around daycare centers. The 1980s saw unprecedented numbers of women entering the workforce and placing their children into daycare to do so. The Satanic Panic fed perfectly into societal fears that these women were neglectful mothers abandoning their children to strangers. Take this 1997 letter penned by then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence noting that “day care kids get the short end of the emotional stick” and that a child cared for by others was "less affectionate toward his mother." 

Lanning told The Capital that the law enforcement officials who pursue child sex abusers are often deeply religious; they are able to cope with the horror of their work by seeing it as a kind of divine calling. This would have primed them to believe incredible tales of literal evil. 

The Satanic Abuse panic also couldn't have happened unless a faction of social workers, pediatric specialists, and therapists bought into a host of dubious interrogation techniques now known to prompt false testimony from children. In the case of the McMartin Preschool, transcripts of interviews with the children showed that investigators often pushed and prodded their subjects via leading questions into divulging ever more gruesome tales. 

An example from the McMartin transcripts

Interviewer: Can you remember the naked pictures? 
Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’) Interviewer: Can’t remember that part? 
Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’) Interviewer: Why don’t you think about that for a while, okay? Your memory might come back to you.

There was also rampant cross contamination of testimony. A child who revealed something in a session would tell his or her parents, who would then call other parents at the preschool, who would then plant suggestions into the fertile imaginations of the other children at the daycare. These would then emerge during subsequent interrogations, which gave the appearance of corroboration. 

But the most important factor was a dramatic cultural shift. In the midst of the cultural revolutions of the 70s and 80s, there was a growing awareness that sexual abuse of children —  once a dark family secret — was, in fact, far more widespread than anyone had previously acknowledged. 

The pre-Michelle Remembers world had harboured any number of pedophilic teachers and authority figures whose “inappropriateness” was largely treated as community in-jokes. To compensate for the collective failures of the past, many well-meaning professionals felt that they must take all allegations of child sex abuse with extreme seriousness. Children, they preached, did not make things up. They did not not lie. 

But, of course, children lie all the time. They lie to please the adults in their lives. They lie for attention. They lie because they struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy. "What we discovered is that when you took stories of five or six-year-olds, they were telling things that had been based on television," Lanning noted. Professional wrestling, cartoons of ghosts chasing kids around — in the minds of children, all of these scenes could transform into tales that seemed far more lurid to adults. 

Seminars on identifying and investigating Satanic Ritual Abuse became common throughout North America, where Michelle Proby and Lawrence Pazder were frequent guests. "Pazder was an unbelievably intelligent man who was extremely skeptical of almost all the other cases of Satanic ritual abuse except his own, and a few others," said Lanning, who attended one of these conferences in the 1980s. 

Pazder told the assembled police officers that he could spot the valid cases involving true intergenerational Satanic cults from hoaxes and mere teenaged rebellion. Lanning, intrigued, recalls taking about 40 pages of notes throughout the presentation — until he began to notice something odd. Police officers would ask Michelle Proby about her experiences, and she would simply turn to Pazder, who would answer the question. 

Lanning piped up. "I'm curious, these are all things that happened to Michelle, but you seem to be answering all the details," he said. Pazder responded that Proby no longer retained any memory of the events after she recounted them in full in her therapy sessions. Her brain had "locked back up again, and now I'm the keeper of the story," Lanning said. 

Lanning said, "I immediately put down my pen and didn't take another note." 

Pazder, meanwhile, would continue to talk on behalf of his new wife for years to come. The same Mail on Sunday reporter who in 1990 talked to Michelle’s family was denied access to Michelle herself by Pazder. “For Michelle to go on talking about these things is too painful. She is totally free of Satan today,” the psychiatrist explained.  

There was one more factor crucial to understanding why the panic spread when it did. 

Films like Rosemary's Baby in 1967 and books like The Satan Seller in 1972, stoked the public’s imagination of latent Satanists well before Michelle Proby recounted her tales to Lawrence Pazder. 

Pop culture had already created a public mythology of Satanism, but it was Michelle Remembers that launched it into the real world. 

For Lanning, the calls had begun in 1983 and they continued for almost a decade. Tale after tale, each mimicking the one before. But the similarities didn't convince Lanning that the conspiracy was real — in fact, the nearly identical nature of stories are what made him more skeptical. As if these victims were reading from the same invisible cultural script. 

Lanning saw all of it. He watched as the  impossible testimonies of women and children coalesced into a conspiracy, a movement, and then a full-blown moral panic. If people could believe this, he thought, they could believe anything.

In an era that was suddenly devoted to the idea of believing the children, the irony is that therapists and investigators often didn't believe the children; many children implicated in the daycare cases told them multiple times that nothing bad had happened before they eventually relented to intensive cajoling. 

It's also not impossible that some of these daycare cases were, in fact, based on legitimate claims of molestation that were subsequently lost in the ensuing panic over Satanism. Ross Cheit, a scholar at Brown University, made this case in his 2014 book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, which argues that the eventual backlash to the Satanic Panic allowed real abuse to go unchecked.

We know that there were, and are, child sex trafficking rings active around the world. One need only look at the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet to know that this is a real and pervasive horror. A recent New York Times series, for example, noted that technology companies had reported 45 million images and videos showing child sex abuse in 2019 — a number that appears to be growing exponentially. 

The most common perpetrator of child abuse is usually in the home; parents and family members are, statistically, a far more likely threat to a child than some remote well-connected villain. This is not a fact that many people find easy to accept. Even today,distant conspiracies are far easier to process than the devil who lives in your own home. 

The ultimate irony of the Satanic Abuse Panic is that as the world sought out a shadowy religious cult devoted to abusing children, they overlooked an actual worldwide institution that was covering up child sex abuse at the highest echelons of power. It wasn't Satanists. It was the Catholic Church. 

Although abuse by priests is now so well understood that it's become a punchline, it took years of reporting by the Boston Globe to reveal the details of systemic, decades-long cover-ups within the Vatican. In the end, the Satanic Panic was a grossly distorted mirror of a real problem. 

Excerpt from Michelle Remembers

The Satanic Abuse Panic began as a response to a legitimate historic injustice. It was aided and abetted by the capture of mainstream institutions such as academia and law enforcement, and it was helped along by a popular culture that normalized demonic imagery and narratives. 

It was also a movement that offered its adherents the grandest of motives: Saving children from literal evil. 

But just as Michelle Proby's rememberings began as mundane flashes of creepy wrongdoing, and grew into outright paranormal visions, so too did the claims of the Satanic Panic grow more elaborate and implausible.  

If all of the men, women, and children who claimed to have experienced Satanic Ritual Abuse were to be believed, then Satanists had to have been murdering tens of thousands of people every year. Lanning noted that the bodies simply never showed up. Nor did any residual evidence of animal sacrifices or fetal remains.

To explain this, the conspiracy had to widen. The evidence could only be covered up if Satanists existed in the upper echelons of power: police officers, judges, politicians, media, everyone -- everyone with any influence -- would have to be in on it. "If this were true, it would have been the largest criminal conspiracy in the history of all time," said Lanning. 

Polarization turned neighbour against neighbour; it destroyed families in towns where ritual abuse was alleged. It even infected the academy: Lindsay, the researcher at the University of Victoria who studies the reliability of memory, noted that the researchers who doubted the veracity of retrieved memories were accused of disbelieving sexual assault survivors. Lindsay said the era is now remembered in his field as the "Memory Wars." 

But by the mid-90s, the tide was turning. More academic research poked at the underlying assumptions of repressed memory. This 1996 study concluded that a minimum of 70% of abuse allegations obtained under hypnosis had no basis in reality, even when the memories weren’t explicitly Satanic. A comprehensive 1997 essay in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology called for an audit into the failures of psychotherapy that had allowed the panic to spread. A 1997 survey out of the UK tracked the human toll of false accusations obtained under hypnosis, saying that it caused health declines, job losses and even the permanent loss of children to those struck by it. This 1993 study linked false repressed memories not only to the Satanic Panic, but also accounts of alien abductions and past lives. “People sometimes fantasize entire complex scenarios and later define these experiences as memories of actual events rather than as imaginings,” it read. 

"Over time, the Satanic part of it began to be discredited," Lanning said. But rather than disappear, the conspiracy only shifted. "Then they said the Klan was doing it, or organized crime, or the government, the CIA."

Traces of the Satanic Panic regularly wind their way into modern conspiracy theories. The Pizzagate conspiracy was the manifestation of a theory that the Democratic Party was running child sex slaves out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlour in Washington DC. In In 2016, a North Carolina man showed up with an assault rifle to the restaurant and shot up the door in search of the child sex slaves he believed were locked in the basement. 

But just as the tunnels underneath the McMartin Preschool never materialized, the pizza restaurant had no basement. The man was sentenced to four years in jail in 2017. 

Or consider the more recent conspiracy that home furniture website Wayfair was actually trafficking kidnapped children in overpriced cabinets

A drawing by Michelle of the Devil, whom she alleges to have met in several different forms.

The Satanic Panic didn't go away. It evolved. It has, arguably, even accelerated. The internet and social media turbocharges moral panics well beyond anything Geraldo could have envisioned in 1985, with QAnon as the most obvious modern example. 

A conspiracy theory is, at its core, just a belief system; a way to frame and understand a terrifying and complicated world. In pursuit of its goal to save children from a legitimate problem of unaddressed abuse, the Satanic Panic abandoned rationality and due process as necessary to the more pressing moral ends. 

Its adherents libelled and exiled skeptics and dissenters, operating on the assumption that anyone who could oppose such a noble cause must be guilty of the sin the movement was trying to abolish. It recruited and captivated media, academia and other mainstream institutions. 

And, lastly, the conspiracy theory that underpinned the panic created a set of beliefs about the nature of the world that were unfalsifiable. 

Once you strip away the core of the Satanic Panic, the mechanics are obvious everywhere. We are all capable of falling for conspiracy theories and hysterias that confirm our most deeply held beliefs. And all mass movements are a form of social warfare that draw their tactics from the same flawed human playbook. 

At its heart, a moral panic is just the dark side of social progress. 

The last lesson that we can learn from the Satanic Panic is that time is the master of truth. 

Our history should teach us to approach everything we believe — especially the beliefs grounded in our best, most virtuous instincts — with humility and care. Some of today's most zealously defended convictions will look absurd and hysterical to us in another 40 years. Others will go on to form the very moral framework by which we judge our past, and ourselves. 

We will know the tree by the fruit it bears. 

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