The Satanic Ritual Cult Scare: Studying the Social Construction of False Realities

William Blake lithograph
William Blake lithograph

This blog contains excerpts and commentary from the developing the novel, beginning with “excerpt 1”: Fire of Norea: From Ashes, first excerpt. A new blog will be published periodically, up until publication. Please leave feedback, this is a work in progress! Thank you for your interest.

For more information, please visit our Official Fire of Norea Facebook Page, Twitter or blog post “Who or What is Fire of Norea?”


The following is my examination, from a sociological perspective, of how false realities find traction in society. My focus was the “Satanic Ritual Cult Scare” of the 1980s and 1990s, but I share it to impress upon my audience the fact that these false realities can be plausible, partially true and accepted by individuals who profess to embrace rationalism. Conspiracies, faith, group affiliations, ideologies, etc., are an important part of human behavior and not inherently irrational. To categorize them as such would risk criticizing the mote in the eye of one’s neighbor while ignoring the log in one’s own. It is important that we embrace rationalism and objectivity within the diversity of our modern existence…but not at the expense of denying our basic humanity, which is inherently irrational by nature.
Author’s note: I have provided expanded material in the endnotes for those interested in further inquiry. To provide them in the body would have created untenable tangents for what was already a complex topic of exploration. Enjoy!

Jamie Duncan

7 May 2014

The Social Construction of Reality and Embodiment of Belief: 

Exploring the Satanic Ritual Cult Scare of the 1980s with Pierre Bourdieu

“There, perhaps the only real proof of the presence of the Devil was the intensity with which everyone at that moment desired to know he was at work.” [1]

In 1980, therapist Dr. Lawrence Pazder and his patient, Michelle Smith, published a memoir entitled Michelle Remembers. The book chronicled their lengthy therapy session, during which, under hypnosis, Michelle reportedly recovered repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse at the hands of her family.[2] In 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California, a woman named Judy Johnson complained to a juvenile officer of the local police that her son, Matthew, had been molested at McMartin Preschool.[3] Over the next few months, Johnson convinced investigators that McMartin employees were ritually abusing children as part of their satanic cult worship. Frustrated by their inability to produce evidence, Manhattan Beach police distributed a letter to the two hundred parents of children at McMartin, informing them of the allegations.[4] Rumors spread and many local parents immediately removed their children from other daycare centers. Once a journalist from Los Angeles reported on the rumors, fear spread nationwide, leading almost immediately to a similar incident of satanic ritual abuse charges at a daycare in Jordan, Minnesota.[5]

Michelle Remembers and the rumor of satanic cult activity in Manhattan Beach contributed to similar cases over the following decade, leading to hundreds of individuals being accused of involvement in the satanic ritual abuse of children in daycare centers across the country.[6] By 1986, several hundred patients claiming to have recovered repressed childhood memories of satanic ritual abuse were touring the country with their therapists, speaking to churches, schools, law enforcement and psychiatric conferences and talk shows about their belief in an underground network of satanists targeting young children.[7] These patients and their therapists made up a network of “cult experts” which included police officers, religious leaders, journalists and the parents of daycare victims, who each could earn up to thousands of dollars for speaking engagements on satanic cults.[8] By the 1990s, academic papers claiming the existence of satanic cults gained acceptance in professional conferences and journals; federally funded social and law enforcement programs distributed literature provided by cult experts; and several states had debated or passed laws specifically defining “ritual” abuse as a special category of crime.[9]

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, some news outlets capitalized on the popularity of these claims by uncritically framing stories sympathetic to cult expert ideology.[10] For instance, in his 1989 NBC special, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground,” Geraldo Rivera combined the disparate elements of teenage rebellion, serial killers, non-Protestant religious practices and the belief in an organized cabal of underground satanists into an ostensibly cohesive narrative:

Satanism is more than a hodgepodge of mysticism and fantasy, more than a Halloween motif. It’s a violent impulse. It preys on the emotionally vulnerable, especially teenagers, often lonely and lost. It attracts the angry and the powerless, who often sink into secret lives. [Inaudible] obsession with sex and drugs and, yes, heavy metal rock and roll. Often Satanism seems to be a personal psychodrama, a kind of license for strange, sometimes violent, behavior. Sometimes it’s just half-baked mumbo-jumbo and scrawled symbols. But other times, it goes deeper, deadly. Satanism goes beyond teenage obsessions. Today, there are cults that worship the devil, engage in secret ceremonies, believe in ancient or bizarre theologies, all of it constitutionally protected, as long as no laws are broken. The other face of adult Satanism is violent and fiendish, centered on sexual ritual and torture, frequently descending into the vilest crime of all: sexual abuse of children. And what of their own children? Some are born into satanic cults and grow up as lifelong members. Others are desperate to flee or dread the penalty of grotesque death. And beyond all the mayhem and monsters, it is said that a nationwide network of satanic cultists exists. Start with the warped and wicked Charles Manson or the demented Son of Sam killer David Borkowitz. These and others, purportedly linked to the devil worship underground. Impossible to measure, easy to doubt. The very mention of it invites ridicule. Often the choice is to avoid confronting it, ignore it, find other explanations or laugh it off. That is not the choice we have made tonight.[11]   

This opening monologue played over images of Ozzy Osbourne, The Satanic Bible, teens in mosh pits at heavy metal concerts, scenes from horror movies and amateur videos of toppled gravestones and pentagrams spray-painted on abandoned houses. The message warned of a troubled generation teetering on the brink of self-destruction, preyed upon by a clandestine evil that may or may not be human.

The television special consisted primarily of interviews with police officers, “cult survivor” therapy patients, McMartin Preschool parents, Charles Manson, and members of the Church of Satan and Temple of Set, among other cult experts and the targets of their claims. Rivera ended the program by acknowledging that these assertions have “never been proven in a court of law”; yet, he argued that a “national taskforce” should be organized, implying broader powers and resources allocated to concentrate on satanic cult activity as an extraordinary type of crime, for which current laws and investigation practices are ill prepared.[12]

As Rivera conceded, claims of organized satanic cult activity remain unproven. Michelle Smith’s memoirs have been criticized as unverifiable.[13] By 1990, the criminal trial investigating satanic ritual abuse at McMartin ended with dropped charges and no convictions.[14] Even so, cult experts continue to believe, commonly claiming that the lack of evidence only proves how successful the satanic cult network is at hiding its activity.[15] As representatives of state empowered public institutions, the police officer, lawmaker, journalist, academic or therapist is endowed with the authority to legitimate these unfounded claims in the public trust, contributing to widespread acceptance of an unprovable reality.[16]

Because of its fantastic nature, coupled with the religious origin of belief in Satan, some scholars frame the satanic ritual cult scare as a religious narrative that has permeated secular institutions.[17] Joel Best, one of the editors of The Satanism Scare, argues that cult experts attempted to link satanism to criminal behavior in order to establish its credibility as a secular threat.[18] He said, “Antisatanism is a religious movement. To a fundamentalist Christian audience, the movement’s warnings against all occult involvements may seem familiar, sensible, correct. But we live in a secular age.”[19] As I will explain below, this effort to classify human behavior in antagonistic categories of inclusion (the rational, secular world of scholarship and governance) and exclusion (the irrational, belief-based world of religious faith) is an example of what social scientist Pierre Bourdieu explains is a form of competition over how social experiences are organized and perceived.[20] According to Bourdieu, institutions and agents of institutions in dominant social positions compete with one another in an effort to institutionalize the social world according to their interests, thereby earning the “symbolic power” of “consecration or revelation,” to “make things with words.”[21] This applies to all agents with authority, including priests and scholars.

In this paper, I will utilize Bourdieu’s social theory to explore the satanic ritual cult scare. First, I will provide a summary of Bourdieu’s social theory as pertains to this subject. Next, I will present an overview of the social institutions and various types of “cult experts” that helped legitimate the satanic ritual cult scare as a social reality. Finally, I will provide a historical narrative for the McMartin Preschool investigation in order to demonstrate how, according to Bourdieu’s theory, arbitrary details can become embodied as a social belief.


In 1974, in Missoula, Montana, a young woman named Donna Pounds was found in the basement of her home, sexually assaulted, bound, gagged and shot five times in the head with a .22 pistol, which was then placed on the floor between her legs. Because of the uncommon violence and organized traces left behind, along with the fact that Pounds was married to a Baptist preacher and worked in a Christian bookstore, rumors quickly spread that “devil worshipers” had sacrificed her.[22] Social scientists Robert W. Balch and Margaret Gilliam began to collect information about the case that same year, collecting interviews and following the police investigation as part of their study of new religious groups and rumor construction regarding occult activity. The researchers reported beginning the study as “complete skeptics”, yet, as they interacted with members of the community over time, they developed feelings of “uncertainty” and “apprehension.” Despite the lack of material evidence to substantiate claims of occult activity, one researcher went so far as to store a gun by his bed at night. As a result, the researchers concluded “that belief in the rumor would be directly related to its currency in one’s network of friends and acquaintances.”[23] In other words, the researchers became inculcated with the social reality constructed by the community where they lived, reinforced by conversations with people they trusted, including local police and preachers, despite their commitment to a rational, objective enterprise.[24] What Balch and Gilliam described as “belief” was, according to Bourdieu, the physical inculcation of their social location, what Thomas Csordas describes as “the socially informed body.”[25]

According to Bourdieu, society consists of “relatively autonomous,” yet interrelated social fields (such as the cultural field, political field, religious field, academic field, etc.), subsumed by the broader “meta-field” of state power.[26] These fields are social constructs composed of individual and institutional agents competing from different social positions over the production and consumption of capital, quite like players on a multilevel soccer field.[27] Those of a higher position in any given field tend to exercise authority over those of lower positions in that field, while maintaining social position when interacting with additional fields.[28] Loïc Wacquant elaborates:

These contests, anchored by one’s location in social space, defined by the three dimensional coordinates of volume of capital, composition of capital, and trajectory, go on in three main arenas, ranked in order of ascending specificity and consequentiality: the ordinary judgments and mundane activities of everyday life, including routine consumptions; the specialized fields of cultural production, such as art, science, religion, and the media, wherein authoritative representations of the social world are produced and disseminated; and the public sphere situated at the intersection of the political field and the bureaucratic state, recast as the ‘central bank of symbolic power’ entrusted with adjudicating disputes over categories and certifying identities.[29]

The field’s structure externally constrains awareness and behavior, while also continually depositing its structure “inside individual bodies in the form of mental schemata of perception and appreciation (whose layered articulation compose the ‘habitus’) through which we internally experience and actively construct the lived world.”[30] In other words, embodied social structures received from fields in the past structure the unconscious, which, in turn, structures the fields through interaction in the present; however, layers of experience and volume of capital alter and constrain an individual’s ability to change a field’s structure. The layers of embodied experience from multiple fields over time produces the individual’s social identity as “a specifically classed habitus,” so that behavior and perceptions emulate the “material conditions of the class existence that contribute to her or his habitus’ formation,”[31] constraining behavior according to class expectations.

Although an individual habitus may interact with multiple social fields, the agent’s habitus maintains the same class position within each of them (similar predilections for music, politics and religious beliefs among factory workers in rural North Carolina, for example) contributing to a typically homologous structure for multiple fields located near one another in a social space.[32] Conversely, an individual’s habitus is ill-equipped to interact with a “foreign” social field, for which no social structure has been inculcated (such as the N.C. factory worker moving to San Francisco’s financial district). The number of social fields an individual may interact with depends on the physical and social space occupied and the opportunity for such interaction (for instance, isolated, rural communities interact with a smaller pool of social fields). Class position within a given field is determined by the “volume” and “structure” of the capital an individual possesses,[33] which is accumulated over time (and over the course of multiple generations, inherited in the form of wealth or nobility, for example, greatly improving an individual’s ability to accumulate capital).[34]

Forms of capital can be transferred across the interrelated borders between various social fields,[35] engaging in multiple competitions for power simultaneously, a complex model of rivalry that produces multivalent social meanings in the struggle to define how the social world is organized, perceived and understood.[36] Capital comes in three forms: economic (money/property), cultural (prestige, which can be converted to money) and social (“connections,” convertible to money and possibly “institutionalized in the form of a title of nobility”).[37] When a form of capital conceals its nature as a form of domination, it becomes “symbolic” capital, “misrecognized in its arbitrary truth as capital and recognized as legitimate.”[38] For example, therapist Lawrence Pazder found his social capital greatly increased by the notoriety of Michelle Remembers, the book he co-wrote with Michelle Smith. As a result, investigators and prosecutors involved in the McMartin Preschool investigation considered him to be an expert on satanic ritual cult activity and requested his assistance.[39] The prestige of Pazder’s new social standing masked his lack of qualifications, causing the community to misrecognize his authority as legitimate. Pazder used this authority to help condemn the accused McMartin Preschool employees, despite his lack of credentials and evidence to do so.

Bourdieu calls this “symbolic violence,” the process by which arbitrary explanations for class structure, power and authority are misrecognized by the dominated as legitimate.[40] Symbolic violence operates such that “those who do not have ‘the means of speech,’ or do not know how to ‘take the floor,’ can only see themselves in the words or discourses of others.”[41] Early in the McMartin Preschool investigation, Manhattan Beach police officers distributed a letter to the families of the McMartin children to warn them of the allegations, because they could find no evidence to proceed in the case.[42] The police department used its authority to legitimate the arbitrary explanation for unfounded allegations through the distribution of a letter. Because they lacked the authority to dispute the police department’s narrative, many members of the community accepted the letter as an official result of the investigation.

As stated earlier, institutions compete with one another in an effort to earn the “symbolic power” (authority endowed by the community) to “make things with words.”[43] That form of competition is “classification,” by which the social and natural world is divided into “antagonistic classes” based on the dualistic “logic of inclusion and exclusion.”[44] Social classifications (or taxonomies) are a form of linguistic order imposed on the social world by those with the authority granted them by social position (and often backed by state power) within a given field.[45] Bourdieu calls these individuals and institutions “professionals of discourse,” whose class position allows their public statements “to perform a kind of universalization of what they utter”,[46] while also contributing to a plurality of meanings (“semantic elasticity”) for social objects in practice.[47] This plurality results from the fact that words can often have different meanings in different social spaces, despite any given authority’s effort to consecrate a linguistic order as “natural” and, therefore, universal. For example, it benefits institutions within the religious, cultural or political fields to perpetuate the classification of “religious”/”secular” as clearly delineated spheres of social behavior, but for completely different benefits. A religious authority may use “secular” to denigrate a competitor as profane, while the political authority may discuss reasons to protect “secular” government from religious influence and the academic may dismiss the “non-secular” opponent as irrational and worthless. In this way, linguistic classifications serve various goals for the “professionals of discourse,” specific to the social space in which they are utilized.

Ultimately, disputes over meaning in these competitive fields can be settled by the meta-field of the “bureaucratic state, recast as the ‘central bank of symbolic power.'”[48] The state (lawmakers, law enforcement, schools, media, etc., as arbitrators of the state) provides legal consecration of a social reality, universalizing an arbitrary social structure as “absolute,” denying its inherent relativity in social space and time.[49] Institutions within the various fields, as authorities of the state order, propagate this “official point of view” as natural, contributing to its efficacy as a socially constructed reality. It is for this reason that Bourdieu argued that the modern state has become the “geometral locus of all perspectives,” replacing the religious field as the site of “consecration,”[50] whereby the arbitrary social structure is legitimated for the dominated classes as natural and universal.[51]

The illusion of unified meaning is maintained despite the competition produced by radically different experiences[52] depending on the extent to which a social location’s “collective bad faith” (reinforced by local representatives of the state) is maintained in order to support an individual’s “bad faith” to ignore the contradictions in social behavior.[53] In other words, an individual has little recourse but to accept the social reality constructed within her social field (especially if reinforced by authority) if all other individuals within the field support that reality, however false. Fields structure the individual unconscious to accept that social reality as natural. Fields physically deposit the class-structured “rules of the game” into the individual habitus, what Bourdieu describes as unconscious “bodily submission” to “doxa,” the forms of ideology we accept without questioning.[54] As a result, individual “bad faith” is simply an unconscious process of social indoctrination, the inculcation of a socially constructed reality. Bourdieu explains that the resulting unified “smooth working habitus” masks the suffering caused by “internalized contradictions” caused by competition within[55] and between[56] fields and can contribute to self-destructive behavior. Because of misrecognition, the social origins of the strife are masked and cannot be articulated except by a figure of authority, as a form of classification (which, by its very nature, only reflects the socially constructed reality).

For instance, it is still common for the dominant religion in a social space to categorize the opposing theology as “magic” or “sorcery,” (therefore, inferior and profane), according to its own definition of terms.[57] False condemnation of an opposing theology, an example of what Bourdieu calls “subversive symbolic actions,” succeeds “only to the extent that–acting as symbolic triggers capable of legitimating and ratifying senses of unease and diffused discontents, socially instituted desires that are more or less confused, by making them explicit and public–they manage to reactivate dispositions which previous processes of inculcation have deposited in people’s bodies.”[58] When personal strife (caused by the conflict of internalized social structures) becomes social strife (as during an economic crisis when families become financially vulnerable and must rely on strangers to care for their children), previously deposited antagonistic categories of social ordering can become activated, triggered by an authoritative agent. The “witch hunt” targets a manufactured category of opposition, whether the “witch” is a member of an inferior religion or a fictional puppet master operating behind the scenes of powerful institutions.[59]

Balch and Gilliam’s research team visited Missoula, Montana, to conduct a scientific study how “witch hunt” rumors develop. Despite their belief in rational skepticism, however, they became inculcated with the socially constructed reality of a “devil worship” scare. Bourdieu argues that beliefs are not “mental representations” or “discourses,” but, rather, “embodied in the believer”[60] as structures embedded from within a social space. The research team’s faith in rationalism could not protect them from the experience of social interaction.

Social Construction of the Satanic Ritual Cult Scare

The satanic ritual cult scare succeeded largely due to the dualistic categories of inclusion/exclusion propagated by agents who relied on embedded social memories of previously conceived threats to the social order. In this section, I will survey some of the influential material provided by predecessors of the antisatanist movement, including a summary of some “cult experts” who helped construct the national social movement known as the satanic ritual cult scare.[61]

Dr. Lawrence Pazder, a devout Catholic, practiced medicine in Nigeria “in the early 1960s, at the height of widespread public concern there over activities of cults and secret societies active in blood sacrifice, cannibalism, and child maltreatment.”[62] Pazder claimed to have witnessed missionaries destroying and replacing African symbols of “black magic,” which they referred to as “juju,” with the crucifix, in order to convert them. Although the Nigerian term juju once referred to priest-kings or “the ancestral spirits of past kings,” Europeans colonized the word as a “catch-term for any sort of African religious concept or magical idea, equivalent to ‘mumbo-jumbo’ or ‘voodoo,'”[63] denigrating Nigerian practices as inferior and irrational.[64]

In 1976, Michelle Smith visited Pazder’s office in Canada for psychiatric treatment for depression following a miscarriage.[65] After a prolonged period of treatment, Smith reportedly began to vocalize repressed memories of childhood satanic ritual abuse while under hypnosis. Although researchers have never been able to corroborate Smith’s claims,[66] Pazder expressed belief that Smith had been raised by Satanists who had used “mind-control techniques” he claimed to have witnessed in Nigeria.[67] He explained that Michelle’s recovery was “too consistent to be false, had too much information, was too sophisticated from the psychological point of view to have been made up.”[68]

Between 1977 and 1979, Pazder disappeared with Michelle for extended periods of time before divorcing his wife and marrying Smith. Michelle Remembers was published the following year, describing a network of underground satanists who had abused her. Their material evidence included a priest’s testimony that Michelle’s mysterious rash was shaped like a barbed tail, numerological coincidences and the public Church of Satan.[69]

A number of other books were published throughout the twentieth century promoting global domination conspiracy theories, some uniting the narrative about organized satanists with the Illuminati, Free Masons, the British Fascisti and Communists.[70] Most influential was The Protocols of the Elder Zion-influenced Pawns in the Game, written in 1958 by William Guy Carr, founder of the Charismatic Catholic organization Federation of Christian Laymen.[71] Carr’s book became popular among conservative American anti-Communists, particularly Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, who later published Reverend Clarence Kelly’s Illuminati exposé, Conspiracy Against God and Man through the Society’s press in 1974.[72] The organization’s public legitimation of the satanist conspiracy spawned a number of other Illuminati exposés in the 1970s, circulating among “right-wing and evangelical media-enhanced conduits, mainly drawing on Carr and other anti-Semitic sources,”[73] providing an abundance of cultural material for satanic cult experts.

Beginning in the 1960s, a number of popular “save the children” movements originated from public awareness campaigns. During the 1960s, definitions of child abuse expanded to “include neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse by both family members (incest) and outsiders (molestation),”[74] leading to broadly defined child protection services. Beyond the requisite changes in legal parameters, social movements developed, such as popular crusades focused on child pornography and prostitution in the late 1970s and child abductions in the early 1980s. Throughout the 1980s, many groups also protested against “objectionable content” in popular media, such as rock music and videos, movies and games, which would eventually be framed as satanic in origin.[75] Characterizing children as completely vulnerable, yet too innocent to deceive, “save the children” movements helped justify unconventional (and sometimes unconstitutional) methods for protecting children from perceived threats. For instance, Roland C. Summit, M.D., of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, published a paper in 1983 on the “child accommodation syndrome,” arguing, “children do not lie about abuse.”[76] Kee MacFarlane, the chief child abuse expert during the McMartin trial, drew from Summit’s work to build the prosecution’s case by aggressively seeking testimonies from the children.[77]

Also beginning in the late 1960s, various “family-based groups,” religious figures, therapists, social scientists, members of law enforcement and politicians, with the help of mass media, made up the loosely formed “Anticult Movement” (ACM). The ACM condemned the new religious movements popular in youth counterculture as “cults”[78] luring impressionable youths under false pretense and “brainwashing” them.[79] Kenneth Wooden, an investigative reporter who focused on cults and missing children stories for 20/20[80] and produced network documentary reports on satanism during the late 1980s (most notably Geraldo Rivera’s “Devil Worship” program),[81] helped legitimate these notions for the public with reports on Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple as evidence of a broader trend.[82] In many ways, the media helped structure public perception of all religious groups outside the socially constructed norms of Christianity[83] by framing stories to “reinforce existing stereotypes and dominant ideologies,”[84] capitalizing on anxieties about “drug use, casual sex, and the threat of random violence” from counterculture movements.[85] The media’s eventual focus on satanic cults recycled existing “sex-and-ritual-murder” cult stereotypes,[86] while also drawing from public occult figures like Aleister Crowley[87] and Anton LaVey,[88] as well as pop culture sources like Dennis Wheatley’s occult novels,[89] Hammer Films movies that provided startling images of Black Masses and ritual murders,[90] and mainstream films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

During the 1980s, cable and satellite broadcasting greatly increased the number of available channels and programming, prompting a production focus on low-budget talk shows to gain the attention of smaller audiences for a steady revenue stream. Cult experts collected thousands of dollars for each appearance in lectures and on popular talk shows like Geraldo, Oprah and Sally Jessy Raphael,[91] and found a willing public platform for their narrative on the talk show format of televangelist programs.[92] Documentary style programs like Rivera’s “Devil Worship” and made-for-television movies like CBS’s 1989 “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” found satanism, cult activity and missing children programs to be highly popular.[93] Openly shunned by NBC’s news division, however, “Devil Worship” was produced by its entertainment division after the network had “all but eliminated” its broadcast standards department and NBC attorney Alan Gerson took responsibility for the show’s content.[94] As a result, Rivera was able to promote his program as an exposé of satanism while avoiding any responsibility for questionable content, thereby providing risk-free entertainment under the guise of journalism. In a similar way, some reporters uncritically recapitulated information provided by police officers interested in cult activity, allowing those cult experts to recycle the published material at therapist and law enforcement professional seminars as objective proof of active satanists.[95]

Self-described “cult experts” grew out of and perpetuated the social construction of the satanic cult scare. Patricia Pulling, whose son committed suicide in 1982, founded Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) in 1983 because she believed her son had been brainwashed by the “satanic” role-playing game. Pulling toured mental health and law enforcement professional conferences and talk shows as an “award-winning private investigator,”[96] “jury trainer” and “expert witness” in satanic occult cases.[97] She claimed that Dungeons and Dragons was responsible for “125 documented suicides and murders in the last ten years,” that satanist activity among adolescents was steadily increasing[98] and that an underground network of satanists had infiltrated all levels of American society.[99]

In 1970, 24-year-old Mike Warnke contacted Melodyland, a Charismatic “revival” and drug rehabilitation center in San Diego, California. He claimed to have dabbled in the occult, causing attacks from demons, which then led to his Pentecostal conversion.[100] Warnke soon toured the country with evangelist Morris Cerullo and journalist Dave Balsiger in a “Witchmobile,” displaying examples of occult “paraphernalia” such as an Ouija board, a crystal ball, a black robe, candles and “voodoo” charms. On tour, Warnke expanded the details of his former involvement in a vast, underground satanic cult, leading to the publication of his memoirs in 1973, The Satan Seller.[101] Warnke became a leading figure in the anti-satanism movement throughout the 1980s, combining tales of blood rituals, hippie blood cults and a ubiquitous, Illuminati-type satanic organization, stories that were distributed by religious organizations and law enforcement professionals.[102] In 1992, the fundamentalist journal Cornerstone published a detailed investigation of Warnke, debunking his occult narrative as well as exposing “a pattern of fabrications in Warnke’s later church activities, which were tarnished by frequent sex and money scandals.”[103] The journalists clarified, however, that a widespread satanic cult conspiracy might yet exist.

Warnke was not the typical “cult survivor,” however. After the publication of Michelle Remembers and the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (MPD) published in the DSM-III, both in 1980, the First International Conference on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States was organized in 1984, the same year stories about satanic ritual cults operating in daycare centers began to surface.[104] Patients and their therapists began to meet at the annual conference, networking and sharing stories.[105] By 1985, satanism was an “informal conversation” at the conference and some therapists believed their patients had been brainwashed by satanic cults and were waiting to be “triggered by cult leaders” who continued to monitor them.”[106] By 1986, many satanic “cult survivors” who had been diagnosed with MPD claimed to be cult experts, “offering authoritative advice at police conferences, schools, and accredited training seminars for interested mental health professionals.”[107] By 1989, 20 percent of the conference focused on satanic ritual cult survivors;[108] by 1990, hundreds of patients claimed to be satanic cult survivors.        Most cult survivors were women who had undergone several years of therapy[109] before recovering “repressed” childhood memories of satanic worship (such as consumption of bodily fluids, ritual sex, sacrifice and cannibalism)[110] while under hypnosis.[111] The resulting narrative of abuse often developed over the course of several months, pieced together by a therapist searching for the origins of the dissociation,[112] often by utilizing a “yes/no” pattern of “semi-automatic finger movements”[113] in response to questions.[114] Because MPD patients use autohypnosis to manifest alters, these patients are highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion and environmental influence, “like sponges, soaking in whatever they focus on in their environment.”[115] Despite the absence of physical evidence to support the recovered memories,[116] many therapists presented their patients as proof of the satanic network, arguing that the law’s “standard of proof” was ill-equipped to deal with satanists.[117]

Cult experts in law enforcement also presented “cult survivor” memories as witness testimony and argued for expanded investigative parameters.[118] Dr. Al Carlise of the Utah State Prison System claimed that forty to sixty thousand Americans are victims of ritual cannibalism each year, the evidence “burned in portable high-temperature ovens” and hidden by satanic morticians; “or the power of Satan caused the bodies to disappear.”[119] Deputy sheriff Larry Dunn of Washington state once stated that “devil worshipers sacrifice 50,000 humans a year, mainly transients, runaways, and babies conceived solely for the purpose of sacrifice,” the remains burned and buried.[120] Richmond, Virginia, investigator Bill Lightfoot asserted that he was aware of an unnamed daycare center that daily flew children to a “ceremonial site” and sexually assaulted them in coffins before returning them to their unsuspecting parents.[121] These are examples of the claims made by law enforcement officers during presentations given on satanic cults at accredited conferences for professional training, where interested police officers joined other cult experts to distribute information about alleged cult activity.[122]

In the mid-1980s, investigative journalist Kenneth Wooden joined other cult experts Mike Warnke, Patricia Pulling, Lawrence Pazder and investigator Sandi Gallant of the San Francisco Police Department to develop the “four-tiered model” of satanic cult involvement, which they provided to law enforcement officers at professional conferences[123] in order to train investigators to interpret the “signs” of satanic activity (heavy metal, graffiti, animal mutilations or vandalism, for example).[124] This postulates a progressive journey of occult activity from hapless dabbling to murderous loner to initiation into the underground satanic organization,[125] a model untenable with known human behavior.

These cult experts (journalists, police officers, therapists, etc.) have increased their social capital over time within a closed network of information exchange that has developed into state-sanctioned behavior. Police officers distributed their information freely at accredited professional conferences. Cult experts like Lawrence Pazder and Patricia Pulling were given the authority to influence investigations and trials. Therapists and their “cult survivor” patients met annually at supportive conferences, establishing social networks that produced recurring patterns in the “recovered” memories, repeated in different geographical areas.[126] Together, these self-described experts have created the vast, underground satanic network out of nothing but words, a bold display of symbolic power. In a 1988 investigation, anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern argued that the network of information exchange between cult experts “together is sufficient to completely explain the creation, elaboration, and spread of the satanic-cult rumor.”[127] The satanic cult experts profited from the social construction of a reality they developed, yet professed to fear.

McMartin Preschool, Manhattan Beach, California

In this section, I will provide a summary narrative of the events leading up to the McMartin Preschool trial as an example of how the satanic ritual cult scare developed in the community and how we can apply Bourdieu’s theory of embodied belief to understand it.

In 1983, Judy Johnson submitted an application to McMartin Preschool of Manhattan Beach, California, for her two-year-old son, Matthew. Informed of a yearlong wait, the recent divorcée dropped him off at the gates of the school one day, without identification and unattended. Peggy McMartin Buckey decided to allow him enrollment.[128]

A few months later, Johnson took Matthew to a doctor because he complained of an “itchy” anus. She informed the doctor it may be related to her vaginal infection, but only she was treated. Soon after, she reported to Jane Hoag, a Manhattan Beach juvenile officer, that her son’s anus had been bleeding “and that he had blurted out something about a man named Ray at his nursery school.” Over the next few weeks, she relayed other stories about Ray Buckey (Peggy Buckey’s son) to Hoag, including that he had “sodomized the boy while he stuck the boy’s head in a toilet,” had inserted an “air tube in the boy’s rectum” and had forced the boy to “ride naked on a horse and then molested him while dressing as a cop, a fireman, a clown, and Santa Claus.”[129] Hoag attempted to interview Johnson’s son, but he would say nothing. Johnson then reported the names of other children who had been abused, but their parents did not respond.

Even so, Hoag gained permission to interrogate Ray Buckey and search the school repeatedly, seeking clues to corroborate Johnson’s expanding narrative of abuse, including “sessions at a church, where the preschool workers dressed as ‘witches,’ flew in the air, burned black candles, chopped up animals, and made the child drink baby’s blood.”[130] From the searches, officers confiscated a rubber duck, Peggy McMartin Buckey’s graduation gown (catalogued as a “satanic robe”) and Playboy magazines belonging to Ray Buckey. Due to the lack of progress, Manhattan Beach police captain John Wehner authorized the distribution of a letter to the two hundred parents of McMartin Preschool students, informing them of the allegations.[131] Word about the accusations spread quickly, leading to the closure of seven other local daycare centers and rumors that as many as twelve hundred children had been abused.[132] Johnson continued to provide information to Officer Hoag, who then secured search warrants for “the school, a supermarket, a photography studio and private homes.” Officers tore up the floors and excavated the school grounds, searching for alleged secret tunnels and the remains of mutilated animals, but found nothing.[133] No other witnesses corroborated Johnson’s story[134] and none of the children showed signs of abuse, “such as bleeding, bruising, pain, bedwetting, and sleeplessness.”[135]

In response to complaints from parents about the lack of results in the investigation,[136] the head of the Manhattan Beach District Attorney office’s child abuse unit contacted an acquaintance from Los Angeles, Kee MacFarlane, a social worker from Children’s Institute International (CII), a child advocacy organization. A medical consultant for CII, Dr. Astrid Heger, accompanied MacFarlane, informing McMartin parents, “You’ve got to accept it. If your children went to McMartin, they were probably abused.”[137]

Although neither MacFarlane nor Heger were trained therapists or investigators, they interviewed nearly four hundred children over the following eight months. MacFarlane dressed in costumes, displayed anatomically correct dolls in play areas and told children to use puppets to tell their “yukky secrets” to the “secret machine,” a hidden camera. She rewarded children who provided “right” answers to questions about abuse based on details provided by Johnson.[138] Journalist Mary Fischer observed MacFarlane encouraging an eight-year-old boy to admit to participating in “Naked Movie Star,” a game Johnson claimed Ray Buckey played with children as a prelude to taking lewd pictures. When the child resisted her, she said, “What good are you? You must be dumb.” He then agreed to help her.[139] Heger also admonished children who denied abuse, once saying, “I don’t want to hear any more ‘No’s.’ No, no, Detective Dog and we are going to figure this out. Every little boy and girl in the whole school got touched like that.”

In February 1984, Los Angeles television station KABC reported on the expanded satanic ritual abuse allegations generated by the CII interviews, garnering international attention.[140] The FBI later revealed that MacFarlane had become romantically involved with the reporter and promised an exclusive story.[141] McMartin parent Robert Currie appeared on Donahue20/20 and in many magazine and newspaper articles, sharing evidence of satanic activity he claimed to have gathered through his personal investigation.[142] Johnson’s ex-husband, Bernard, came forward to report that she was an alcoholic and their son Matthew suffered from “a history of hygiene problems.”[143]

That same year, satanic cult experts and Michelle Remembers authors Michelle Smith and Dr. Lawrence Pazder arrived to offer guidance in the investigation.[144] By this time, some McMartin parents feared that community leaders were involved in the underground satanic cult, thwarting the investigation. Pazder agreed. “The cult that had abused Michelle was not only active but was international in scope,” he said. He explained that “anybody could be involved in this plot, including teachers, doctors, movie stars, merchants, even…members of the Anaheim Angels baseball team.”[145] Investigators consulted with Pazder and prosecutors used Michelle Remembers as “an investigative guide.”[146]

In 1987 prosecutors Lael Rubin, Christine Johnston and Glenn Stevens brought charges of three hundred twenty one counts of child abuse against seven former employees of McMartin Preschool. Evidence consisted of the CII interviews and the testimony of convicted felon George Freeman, who, through a plea bargain deal, claimed his cellmate Ray Buckey had confessed to everything.[147] Freeman’s testimony was later discredited. When the CII interviews were compared to McMartin attendance records, only two of the children’s stories coincided. Also, some of the accusations against Ray Buckey dated to a period before he worked at McMartin, so could not have occurred.[148] Prosecutors removed attorney Glenn Stevens from their team when he questioned Johnson’s testimony. He later expressed doubts about Kee McFarlane’s credentials, accused CII investigators of influencing the children’s testimonies, and claimed the stories told by the children were too dissimilar to be accepted by the court.[149] He also asserted that Pazder’s influence had contaminated the children’s testimony.[150] By 1990, the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history ended with no convictions, costing more than fifteen million dollars.[151] Despite its failure to prove the existence of practicing satanists, the McMartin Preschool trial helped launch the celebrity careers of several satanic cult experts, ignited national media interest and influenced many similar allegations.

In 1983, just before the allegations surfaced, Judy Johnson and her husband divorced, after which she began to drink heavily.[152] She was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia[153] and died during the trial from liver failure.[154] Johnson’s personal demons grew beyond her ability to restrain them, and her conviction converted a juvenile officer to her testament of abuse. Many scholars have argued that widespread panics, rumors and false narratives occur during periods of extreme economic or institutional crisis.[155] Bourdieu also remarks that the “prophet” (the challenger to the traditional “priestly” order in the religious field) arrives during crises:

Prophetic discourse has more chance of appearing in overt or masked periods of crisis affecting either entire societies or certain classes, that is, in periods where the economic or morphological transformations of such or such a part of society determine the collape (sic), weakening, or obsolescence of traditions or of symbolic systems that provide the principles of their worldview and way of life.[156]

When the institutional structure fails a community (for instance, the promise of economic stability inherent in the narrative that serves to naturalize the state’s domination over the community fails to coincide with experience), the agent of strife can originate as a scapegoat. Whether this takes the form of a caricaturized group of people or an imaginary anti-community, the process is the same. Judy Johnson fulfilled the role of “prophet” in the McMartin Preschool scare. Once Captain Wehner agreed to distribute an official letter of acknowledgement to the families of Manhattan Beach, the satanic cult activity became real for them as well, legitimated by institutional authority. The additional authorities of media, CII representatives from Los Angeles and the arrival of famous experts only served to reinforce and verify the socially constructed reality the community had embodied as belief.


Bourdieu’s social theories on how social reality is constructed and belief is embodied suggests that religion is one aspect of a broader spectrum of “irrational” human behavior, dependent more upon one’s social location and class than one’s choice of belief. This would explain such religious diversity as evangelicals who believe aliens built the pyramids or atheists who are afraid of ghosts. It would also help one to understand why an individual could embrace an ostensibly “secular” political issue with the religious fervor and dogmatism generally relegated to the pews.

Although Satan is a religious figure and the known enemy of the normative Christian perspective, perceived reality is a social construction involving the interaction between many fields of competition. For instance, Catholic therapist Lawrence Pazder’s social power originated from his cultural capital as a Canadian and Catholic while in Nigeria; his economic capital as a renowned author after the publication of Michelle Remembers; and his social capital as a cult expert among inexperienced investigators and prosecutors during the satanic ritual cult scare. He operated within the fields of religion, politics, culture and medicine, occupying a similarly high status in each. The police officers in charge of the McMartin Preschool investigation drew their social power from the community (which explains why they reacted so rashly to social pressure), but their actions of tearing up the school, distributing the letter, validating the CII interviews and publicly endorsing the expertise of cult experts was consecrated by state power, the arbitrary nature of their allegations legitimated as “natural” because they were arbitrators of the state. The perceived reality of a satanic underground was founded in the state-sanctioned power of the police department, who masked their domination of the McMartin Preschool employees (and, by extension, the unwary families of the community) through symbolic violence by authorizing the existence of a false, evil organization whose structure mirrored the law enforcement agency. The police helped perpetuate the dualistic linguistic order of social classification, by which a fantastic group of satanists was excluded from the community in order to define the community’s misrecognition of an ordered society defined by inclusion. As Bourdieu said, symbolic power is the power to make things with words.[157] The state-sanctioned authorities of police officers, prosecutors and media cooperated to construct a false reality out of unfounded claims and false testimonies. Collective “bad faith” aggressively rejected any alternative reality, continually reinforcing each individual’s “bad faith,” the circular process of social fields structuring the unconscious habitus, which, through practice, structures the social field.[158]



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