Satan in Poughkeepsie

Alex Mar in Believer:

ChurchThe ’70s counterculture and wo­men’s movements had derailed all kinds of assumptions about American family life and sexuality, and, in their wake, a collective nightmare had emerged: the notion that an invisible underground network of Satanists was lurking in the shadows, poisoning the water with sexual and moral depravity, waiting to turn out or torture our children. This period in the ’80s and early ’90s became known as America’s “Satanic Panic.” As absurd as it sounds now, the Panic was a time of thousands of accusations of “Satanic” abuse of children—so many that authorities coined the term “Satanic ritual abuse,” or SRA. Charges were brought against hundreds of child-care workers and suburban parents around the country. In courtrooms, prosecutors relied entirely on the accusers’ personal narratives, with no conclusive evidence. On the national level, law enforcement, prosecutors, and social workers began meeting at conferences around the country to hear from self-­proclaimed experts on how to deal with the SRA plague. One of the leading social workers in the McMartin case testified before a congressional committee in 1984, warning of SRA involving the slaughter of animals in front of small children. It all would have been a bizarro comedy of errors if the charges had not been so disgusting—and if some of those accused hadn’t gone on to spend decades in prison. Throughout the Panic, one group was turned to again and again as the best evidence that the Devil had droves of organized followers: the Church of Satan.

A product of flamboyant, late-’60s countercultural San Francisco, the Church of Satan was, and still is, the largest organization centered around Satan (it trademarked that goat’s head). Founder Anton LaVey, a former carnie, presented himself as a caricature of the Devil—complete with satin cape, shaved and Vaselined head, and appliqué horns—and gave lectures on the occult and the absurd, led workshops on how to manipulate the squares, and threw decadent “ritual” parties at his Richmond District “Black House” (a Victorian painted mainly black). The whole thing was an attention-seeking enterprise, but underlying the “church” was a sincere crusade against the evils of organized religion.

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