Satan’s Day Care

by djtafoya

I’m just endlessly fascinated by the way pseudoscience, hysteria and fears about the breakdown of society and the loss of innocence periodically come together in a kind of perfect storm of insanity. Anyone remember crack babies? How about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? Lately I’ve been reading about the Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.

One day in 1983, a three-year-old named Matthew Johnson told his mother that Ray, a worker at the day care he attended, could fly.  He went on to say Ray had thrown another child to lions, that he chopped off a baby’s head and set it on fire, molested a goat, conducted rituals with elephants and witches, taken the children on trains and planes and made Matthew drink blood. Rather than being treated as a fanciful tale or a bizarre or even alarming fantasy, Matthew’s story became testimony at the longest, most expensive trial in California history.

The McMartin Preschool investigation and trial, which lasted from 1983 until 1990, is a fascinating exemplar of a whole class of so-called ‘ritual abuse’ cases of the 1980’s. All over the country, police, prosecutors and child-welfare advocates investigated, charged and convicted dozens of day care and preschool workers, teachers and parents of molesting hundreds of children. The abuse supposedly involved Satanic ceremonies by ‘sex rings,’  and the daily sexual and physical torture of children that went on for months or years, all without parents suspecting that their kids had become the sex slaves of Satan’s minions.

In 1983 the police, acting on the suspicion of a mentally-ill woman named Judy Johnson, panicked the entire town of Manhattan Beach with phone calls and letters suggesting that their kids might have been molested by the McMartins and their relatives and employees. The calls triggered an avalanche of accusations and prosecutions in which children were badgered, coerced, bribed and threatened into making false accusations against their caregivers, teachers and parents. That the ‘testimony’ was largely the sort of ridiculous fantasy characterized by Matthew’s tales of planes, trains, submarines and elephants was rarely an issue for the authorities, who urged doubters to ‘believe the children.’

A 1995 book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker called Satan’s Silence gives an excellent survey of the panic, its victims and the precursors and likely causes of the episode, which found leftist feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in league with reactionary Christians who believed Satan was trying to turn children away from God, citing evidence like the “’Wicca Letters,’ a document whose origin and content were remarkably like the rabidly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and which purported a Satanic plot to corrupt America’s preschoolers.

The ritual abuse panic had it all –false memories, rumored suburban sex cults, anatomically-correct dolls, multiple personality disorder, even fraudulent ‘facilitated communication’ that allowed profoundly disabled people to join in the craziness. The parallels to Salem’s witch hunts of the 1600’s are almost too perfect, right down to the search for ‘Satan’s marks’ on the bodies of victims, echoed in the disturbing, scientifically-faulty examination of children’s genitalia for signs of abuse.

The fallout went on for years, with lives and careers ruined and falsely accused people languishing in prison for ten or fifteen years before the authorities finally freed most of them. Janet Reno, who participated in two ritual abuse cases as a Florida prosecutor, went on to order the attack on the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh because she thought child abuse was going on inside.

I was reminded of all of this the other day after reading about the reconsideration of people sentenced to long prison terms based on medical testimony about ‘shaken baby syndrome,’ which may turn out to be false. I think the impulse to believe deeply in things that are sketchy, unlikely or even demonstrably untrue is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and that impulse comes out most strongly when we feel frightened, marginalized or under siege by forces beyond our control. I’m just an armchair psychologist, but I don’t think you have to look too far to find a lot of examples of people reaching farthest for the most ridiculous explanations when they feel wronged by dark forces.

15 Comments to “Satan’s Day Care”

  1. Dennis, what were the “Wicca letters?” I’ve never come across them before. I too find this endlessly fascinating. I do wonder if a lot of these panics probably did start with an abused child–some of these stories, although obviously not true, are, as you say, “alarming fantasies.” What do you think the underlying causes were here? I feel like I can never puzzle out exactly what people were scared of with this–or maybe they weren’t scared, maybe they were just looking to prove some kind of point?

  2. The two cases that Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker report as the instigating incidents, the Kern County case and McMartin Preschool case, were both the result of women making complaints who were pretty flamboyantly crazy, both of them later diagnosed as schizophrenics. Mary Ann Barbour, in Kern County, was obsessed with the condition of her grandchildren’s genitalia and used to constantly examine them for imagined abuse, eventually getting the police interested in her assertion that another relative was abusing the kids. Judy Johnson was deeply disturbed – even the prosecutors who turned her allegations into charges against the McMartin’s used to joke about how crazy she was.
    I think it was that these charges, even coming from such doubtful sources, found fertile ground among authorities who were just beginning to take child abuse, child abduction and child pornography seriously as social problems. The issue found sponsors among the counseling community who felt that previous allegations of child abuse had been ignored, and it resonated with christians who saw it as part of the general breakdown of the family – younger and younger children were in day care because their newly liberated mothers were out working. Widespread abuse also rang a chord with feminists who saw the powerful and corrupt behind this abuse as they had been behind so much real abuse of women and children in the past.

  3. The Wicca Letters were a ridiculous hoax, “discovered” by a San Diego sheriff’s deputy and promoted as real by ‘cult cops,’ law enforcement members who specialized in investigating the cults that were a huge part of the 70’s and 80’s cultural landscape. It’s hard to remember how really frightening people found cults in those days. The letters made the rounds of Christian publications, and contained (pretty funny now) the plan for “infiltrating schools,” “infiltrating boys/girls clubs,” and “instigating and promoting rebellion against parents and all authority.”

  4. For years my dad thought the Russians were conducting weather experiments designed to diminish the agricultural output of the free world. I know, it explains something about me, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

    All the while he was preaching this stuff, dad a pretty important job in the defense industry where his decisions were critical to the lives of thousands of people all over the world.

    But he remained convinced the Russians were fucking up his tomato plants.

    BTW, you forgot to mention, Obama is a Muslim, Michael Dell will give you a free laptop if your forward that email, and Paul is dead.

    Can a discussion about the viability of human resurrection be far behind? Oh right, that’s a zombie and we all know that shot is real.

  5. New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright wrote a book about this phenomenon as well as few years back, called REMEMBERING SATAN. It focused specifically on the cases were hypnosis was used by the authorities on children to “reveal” accounts of satanic abuse. Wright is supposedly working on Paul Haggis’ tell-all Scientology memoir now.

  6. At McMartin, the majority of the jurors believed the children had been molested (Tapes of Children Decided the Case for Most Jurors – Tracy Wilkinson & James Rainey LA Times 1/19/1990)

    Originally, 41 former pupils of the McMartin school, almost all had physical evidence of having been sexually abused, were going to testify at the trial (Reporter’s Notebook: 6 Months of California Case By Robert Lindsey 2/13/85).

    Judy Johnson had no history of mental illness when she reported abuse at the McMartin day care. It appears later pressure and harassment and her increased drinking may have caused this later.

    Tunnels were found after the trial that corroborated the children’s stories. (Summit, R.C. (1994). “The Dark Tunnels of McMartin” Journal of Psychohistory 21 (4): 397-416.)

    Many believe there was no panic but a cover up afterward.
    google “ ritual abuse”

    • Thanks, that’s interesting, I’ve read that as well about the tunnels. As I said before, it certainly doesn’t seem impossible to me that the children were abused, or that other bad stuff was going on. Putting the blame on a giant satanic conspiracy is what seems unlikely to me. In one of Andrew Vachss’ books he portrays a (fictional) scenario where these children are abused by adults *pretending* to be satan worshippers, when they’re really just plain old child pornographers, because they know no one will believe the kids that way. A lot to think about and I will google for the link you suggest!

  7. wow. thought provoking stuff. Muslim laptops… lol 🙂

  8. Jeffrey Victor wrote a book in ’93, called Satanic Panic, describing and debunking the Satanic cult phenomena. A hodgepodge of esoteric beliefs and practices, from Thelema to Wicca to New Age mysticism, get thrown together and labeled “satanic,’ though what most people fear is Medieval Satanism, which requires a belief in the Christian God of the bible and a conscious choice to play hardball for the Other team. Many parallels exist with the witch craze that began centuries ago and continues worldwide today, especially in Africa. The Witching Hours ( is a good resource.

  9. Megan – I did read the Wright piece about Haggis and Scientology – fascinating stuff. Scientology is so damn odd, sort of a cult of sucess, I guess. I think on one level it’s not much different than any of the ‘power of positive thinking’ stuff that’s been around forever in a hundred different forms. But it does have it’s own ridiculous arcana, like every religion. I think at the root most religions are pretty much the same, but latter day stuff like LDS and Scientology played out in the age of mass media and post-enlightment skepticism, so there’s none of the two-thousand-year haze between believers and the mythic founding events.

  10. Oh wow, I loved that New Yorker piece. So much interesting stuff in there! The origins–the connections to jack Shaver, Alesteir Crowly, & Jack Parsons–are almost too good to be true. Hubbard was such a brilliant character, in his own twisted way. I also found it really interesting that there are scientologist apostates (is that the right word?)–people who use the tools of scientology without getting involved in the cult-like hierarchy. That big Janet Reitman book that’s coming out soon is by my editor, by the way–very excited to read it, hint hint, Andrea!

  11. Nicely put. Crazy things happen when superstition takes hold of otherwise rational people. I really have to know, what’s the deal with that photo of what looks like some kind of ritual? I have to know more!

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