The 1980s Satanic Panic; the persecution of Pagans (in some cases BY Pagans) as “Satanists”; and Rosemary’s Baby as a statement against systemic misogyny. Listener discretion is strongly advised.
In 1973, a woman named Michelle Smith was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. Under hypnosis, Smith “remembered” being repeatedly abused by a “satanic cult” as a child. She was allegedly tortured, locked in a cage, and forced to mutilate several babies, all in the name of Satan. These stories were published in Pazder’s 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, which became an overnight sensation. Next thing anyone knew, other hypnotherapists started parading their patients around on TV, calling them “Satanic abuse survivors” and making a shit-ton of money off of them. Sensationalists like Geraldo Rivera popularized these stories, bullying their viewers into accepting these “survivors” and their stories at face value. People started believing there really was an international conspiracy of Satanists who were sexually abusing and cannibalizing little children. Even psychiatric and law enforcement professionals blindly accepted these stories as true. Just being a daycare worker and having someone accuse you of being a “Satanist” (perhaps because you enjoy heavy metal music, or because you play Dungeons & Dragons) was enough to get you prosecuted for alleged child abuse. As with any witch hunt in history, no evidence was required; countless people were thrown in prison and prohibited from seeing their children just on the basis of rumors and hearsay. This was the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
Things didn’t improve until the FBI launched an official investigation of the matter in the early 1990s and said, “Woops! There’s zero hard evidence to support prosecuting any of the people who’ve been put away for this shit! Plus, it turns out that when people are under hypnosis, they’ll remember random shit they saw on TV and think it actually happened!” The adult “Satanic abuse survivors” were actually remembering things they had all seen in popular horror films. Many of them had suffered real abuse in their lives, but were not receiving the kind of care they actually needed. Their therapists were making far too much money being interviewed on daytime talk shows and playing off of people’s fears. Worse yet, this prevented children who really were being abused during the 1980s from getting help as well. The police were too busy hunting imaginary “witches” to do anything about the real pedophiles who were all around them the whole time, preying on children from within their police cars, their clinical offices, or even their church pews. These realizations helped to debunk the entire urban legend of organized “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA), which has not been taken seriously by anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement ever since.
(This isn’t to say that no one has ever been abused by an actual, real life Satanist; it does occasionally happen. It just isn’t as widespread a problem as people think. Such acts are typically committed by lone individuals, not by organized groups, and the victims are usually children in the abusers’ families, not other people’s children. Those who continue to peddle organized SRA stories today are right-wing conspiracy nuts who insist that all the “evidence” for SRA is being “covered up” by nonexistent cults like the Illuminati. (And newer conspiracies like “Pizzagate” are simply a variation of the same theme.) Strange that these people think themselves to be such paragons of moral virtue, given how disappointed they seem to be that there isn’t an international Satanist conspiracy to abuse and murder scores of children!)
As a result of the Panic, the 1980s were a dangerous time to be participating in any new religious movements (NRMs). This was definitely the case for Pagans, many of whom also identify as witches. The word witch is of uncertain origin, but it generally refers to any woman who is wise in the ways of the spirit world. Its use as a slur is rooted in systemic misogyny toward empowered women, and it was reclaimed by Pagans during the 20th century (especially by Wiccans). But the stigma against witchcraft continues to thrive outside of Pagan culture; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about someone calling Child Protective Services on a parent simply because that parent identifies as a witch.
And while it’s understandable that Pagans would want to distance themselves from violent criminals, this was being done in some extremely deplorable ways. Some high profile leaders wrote scathing tirades against Satanism that were every bit as paranoid, deluded, and misinformed as Michelle Remembers. Some even argued that Pagans who follow gods like Loki and Set should be completely “shunned” from the Pagan community, regardless of anything we might say to explain ourselves. So while Christians were accusing Wiccans and Druids of “worshiping the devil,” Wiccans and Druids were throwing the exact same accusation at Lokeans and Setians. This strategy of deflecting hatred by redirecting it toward other religious minorities is the most disgusting and contemptible act of hypocrisy I have ever personally witnessed, and it continues to color my perspective on many “white light” Pagans to this very day.
Contrary to what most people assume, Satanism never really existed prior to the 20th century. It began as a purely imaginary religion that Christians accused Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and even other Christians of practicing. Apart from the decadent “hellfire clubs” of the Enlightenment period, Satanism wouldn’t become an actual movement until the 1960s. That’s when Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan and published The Satanic Bible, in which he defined Satanism as a non-theistic spirituality that emphasizes self-deification. Lucifer is viewed not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol for the base animal urges in all people. Satanist rituals are about fulfilling these urges in ways that don’t actually harm anyone, like venting your hatred for someone by destroying something you’ve created to represent them. (Whether this “spell” of sympathetic magic actually works on your intended “victim” is incidental; its true purpose is to work on you.) Many of the people who follow LaVey’s teachings are narcissists, eccentrics, or even Social Darwinists; but surprisingly, most of them aren’t serial killers or child molesters.
The theme of witches harming children goes back thousands of years to the earliest known cases of blood libel in Alexandrian Egypt; but if there is any contemporary influence that gave shape to the Satanic Panic in particular, it is most certainly Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which set the standard for all “devil cult” movies to follow. (In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “survivors” were specifically remembering things from this film while they were under hypnosis.) And due to its depiction of witches and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby can be a very difficult film for many Pagans to watch or even discuss.
Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes) move into a new apartment in Manhattan. Guy is a struggling actor looking for work, and Rosemary dreams of having a baby to care for at home. She appears to have mixed feelings toward her Roman Catholic upbringing; she blushes when other characters voice criticisms against the Pope, but she dreams of domineering nuns and of parties that are for “Catholics Only” while she’s asleep. The Woodhouses also have some peculiar new neighbors named Minnie and Roman Castavet. They’re an elderly couple who have a young hippie woman living with them, and they make lots of strange noises in their apartment at night. Their young lady friend soon turns up dead (after jumping out a window near the top of the apartment building), and then the Castavets suddenly become very interested in the Woodhouses. Rosemary notices Roman talking conspiratorially with Guy, who seems to have formed a close friendship with the old man, and Minnie keeps invading Rosemary’s space, showing up at the front door all the time and just inviting herself in.
Eventually the Woodhouses decide to try and have a baby, so they schedule a romantic evening at home. But Rosemary falls sick after dinner and collapses in their bed. She has a dream in which she is surrounded by the Castavets and many other elderly people (all of whom are nude). Then she is raped in the dream by a big hairy creature with snake-like eyes. Upon waking, she notices all these bruises and claw marks on her body. This is when we get our first clue that something is seriously wrong with her marriage, because Guy tries to comfort Rosemary by claiming that he had sex with her after she passed out (ostensibly because he was worried about missing her fertile window). Rosemary clearly isn’t comforted by this admission of marital rape, but she suppresses her anger and submits to her husband’s will. And when she discovers soon thereafter that she is actually pregnant, she seems to forget the whole thing for a while.
Rosemary is overjoyed with the prospect of motherhood, but her happiness wanes as she starts to feel a terrible pain in her stomach. The Castavets recommend that she see a doctor named Sapirstein, who prescribes a special vitamin drink for her and tells her she’ll be fine. But the pain only gets worse after that, and whenever Rosemary tries to tell Guy about it, he just becomes angry and belligerent. She begins to lose more and more control over her own body (even receiving criticism for a haircut she gets halfway through the film), and she starts to imagine that the Castavets are child-murdering witches. She comes to suspect Guy of having made a pact with them, a pact that somehow involves her unborn child. This is sustained by the fact that Guy visibly hated the Castavets when he and Rosemary first met them, but now he adores them for no apparent reason, listening to everything they suggest about Rosemary’s pregnancy. But are the neighbors really witches? Do they really want to hurt Rosemary’s baby? And is Guy really in on the plot? Or could it be that poor Rosemary has just gone crackers?
(If you wish to avoid reading any spoilers, stop reading this and go watch Rosemary’s Baby right now. If you’ve seen the movie already, or if you don’t care about spoilers, please proceed.)
It turns out the Castavets are indeed leading a coven of Satanist witches, but they’re not interested in harming Rosemary’s baby; since the father is actually Lucifer himself, they’re working to protect the little monster instead. And Guy is definitely in cahoots with them, having prostituted his wife to the devil in exchange for a solid movie career. But the real horror in Rosemary’s Baby is neither witchery nor diabolism; it’s the experience of being physically violated, of not being able to trust your spouse, and of being caught between two clashing ideologies that both regard your body as someone else’s property. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Castavets and their followers; for them, Rosemary is simply a vehicle for the delivery of their dark messiah, and she has no choice but to obey them at the end of the film. But do you know what else is good for oppressing women and legislating their uteruses? Roman Catholicism, that’s what. Were Rosemary to approach the Catholic Church for help, her situation would not be any different; she would still be expected to carry her pregnancy to term, and she would still be told what to do with her body by men who know nothing of what it’s like to be pregnant. (If the church thinks it’s a woman’s “duty” to give birth even when she’s been impregnated by a rapist, why should we expect anything different when that rapist turns out to be the devil?) In fact, Rosemary’s Christian upbringing actually helps the Castavets control her, because it has already conditioned her to go along with whatever is expected of her.
But this subtext goes even deeper, for Rosemary is the mother of the Antichrist, who is naturally the opposite of Jesus Christ. And what happens in the story of Jesus? Well, he’s born of a young woman who’s made pregnant by a supernatural being without her prior knowledge or consent, and—
The Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby are nothing like real life diabolists; they are instead a metaphor for the twisted chauvinist society in which we all live. Sure, they worship Lucifer instead of Yahweh, and they serve Antichrist rather than Jesus; but at the end of the day, they’re still an oppressive, abusive, and manipulative patriarchy. The men are in charge, the women are subservient, and one woman is raped so their male “savior” can walk the earth. How is the story of the Virgin Mary any different from that of Rosemary in principle? How is the Christian “pro-life” movement any better than what Guy and the Castavets do to keep Rosemary under their control? When I first saw this film, I couldn’t get past the fact that so many people think its depiction of witchcraft is 100% accurate. But as I re-watched it over the years, I began to understand its true purpose: to illustrate how horrible it is for women to be treated as “property” in the name of any male superbeing. Even Ira Levin, who wrote the novel on which Rosemary’s Baby is based, has expressed regret that it would later be used to reinforce the Satanic Panic so much. (Levin is Jewish, which means he doesn’t even believe in Satan and would have no reason to believe in organized SRA.)
Strangely, Anton LaVey was obsessed with this film, and it continues to enjoy a strong fan base among real life Satanists. The reasons for this are not immediately clear. LaVey appears to have thought the Satanist characters are revolutionary insofar as they resemble realistic, everyday people (as opposed to being a bunch of weirdos wearing black hooded robes). He also claimed to have served as an uncredited technical advisor for the film, providing some authenticity to the film’s ritual scenes. To the best of my knowledge, this claim has never been substantiated; LaVey simply spread the rumor around to cash in on the film and generate some free publicity for his church. Every now and then, I encounter a Satanist who thinks Rosemary’s Baby is “pro-Satan” somehow, and I can only shake my head at them. Considering how much fuel this movie gave to the Satanic Panic about 13 years after its original theatrical release, you’d think these people would find it just as troubling as most Wiccans or Druids do; but I digress.
Back in the 1990s, when I was still a young Setian novice, things were very different in the Pagan community than they are now. Nowadays, I can attend a Pagan meetup, mention I worship Set, and most people will probably be OK with having me around. But in the 1990s, it was a whole other deal. As soon as people saw my horned pentacle necklace or heard me praise the Son of Night, they would tell me I wasn’t welcome, that I was being a “disruptive influence,” and that I should just leave. They automatically assumed I was some demented freak who just wanted to cause trouble. I’m pretty sure most Wiccans and Druids have no idea what it feels like to be excluded and alienated by other Pagans in this way. The thing that has always infuriated me the most about this treatment is that it was trickling down from the top. Big name Pagan leaders like Isaac Bonewits were actively encouraging their followers to treat Setians, Lokeans, and other Pagans they didn’t approve of like we’re all a bunch of extremist psychopaths. These “leaders” seemed to think the most appropriate way to deal with the Satanic Panic was by diverting society’s attention from themselves to people in Paganism they wanted to exclude. In doing this, they helped to promote a “legitimized” stereotype about Paganism that is not representative of the entire Pagan population.
To make things even more interesting, the #MeToo Movement has helped to reveal that some of these Pagan “leaders” are or might have been child abusers themselves. This brings new light to every nasty thing these people have ever said about people like us when the Satanic Panic was still fresh. Trying to save their reputations by targeting an entire sector of the Pagan population for exclusion is one thing; but to think that even the late great Isaac Bonewits was one of the people the police should have been investigating the whole time? I hope you can understand why I would be enraged by this.
The lessons to be taken from all of this are as follows. No one should ever be deprived of their bodily autonomy like Rosemary Woodhouse is by her husband Guy and the Castavets. While the Castavets don’t reflect actual Satanist practices or values, they do reflect the very real issue of human trafficking, which was not an issue most people were aware of during the 1960s. But if Rosemary’s Baby was meant to galvanize society into addressing this particular concern, perhaps it succeeded a little too well. It blurred the line between “new religious movements” and “human trafficking rings,” leading people to assume that all religious minorities are extremely dangerous. This distracted law enforcement from sufficiently investigating and prosecuting some of the real trafficking rings that were actually in operation at the time. It also led to several Pagan “leaders” throwing Pagans they didn’t like under the bus, even while some of them were allegedly abusing children behind locked doors. And if that doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, you must have a much weaker gag reflex than I do.