The American ‘Moral Panic’ Problem

by Sofia

Hopefully, this isn’t just of interest to me, but I’ve been really eager to try to understand or place what is uniquely American about this myth of the ‘satanic cult.’ To be clear, that isn’t me trying to say that this is a trope that is somehow only been expressed as part of American film tradition and cultural lore—because, truthfully, that would be one of the sillier crosses to die on. If nothing else, I mostly just want to use this post to think about how American culture might encourage an especially sympathetic relationship between itself and moral panics.

Something nodal that emerged for me from this particular line of inquiry was a contention with the United States’ relative cultural youth. Even though a lot of this comes down to subjective conjecture, compared to most other countries, I’ve always been taught that America is on the naïver end. Again, it is possible that I’m totally off, here, but, from my experience of history, it seems as though the United States has lagged centuries behind other nations in crystalizing certain parts of its cultural identity. 

What does this have to do with moral panic, you might be asking? Well, if you take a historical perspective on social scourges like the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80s, you’d see that the timeline of most of these scandals share a pretty prescriptive formula: rapid societal change meets the knee-jerk reaction of fear and, next thing you know, people want a scapegoat to externalize their fears onto. For a country that reads more like a crash course in political upheaval and moral freefall, you could see how things might take off. What’s more, the United States is largely considered to be a pretty culturally Christian society, which means it doesn’t take much to conjure a Devil in the imagination of the average American. So, between those two, say, ‘cultural pressures,’ I think it is easy to see how people might’ve gone running with conspiratorial theories in an attempt to make themselves feel safe in an otherwise largely turbid, disordered world. 

This, of course, doesn’t excuse the fact that a lot of people’s lives were ruined by these social contagions, it’s more just an attempt to flag the ways that people understand themselves as acting within this broader tradition of heroism. I think that is, in large part, what makes these moral panics so fervent: barring those bad actors who just want to turn a profit on others suffering, or sow seeds of chaos, there seem to be a lot of people—parents especially, as evidenced by the Tipper Gore reading—who are well-intentioned, but can’t seem to quiet their desire to cocoon and, ultimately, control the vulnerable populations around them in the name of ‘safety’ (think slices of our population like children, the elderly, animals, so on and so forth).

This also helps to explain how these movements come to snowball and almost ritualize themselves into our shared cultural conscious: if people think a witchhunt is protecting kids from something like a shadowy realm of people who live among and take pleasure in abusing us, then it’d make sense that those same fantasizing ‘heroes’ would be willing to look past the appalling lack of physical evidence that usually accompanies these sorts of movements. When everything is conveniently clandestine and truth can operate as needing to be recovered or prompted back by some mediating authority, as was the case in the 80s, then it follows that audiences would have been more lenient in their appraisal of what is factual information and what is anxiety/fear masquerading as such.

 As a final thought of sorts, I think it is interesting to think about how, with ‘Satanic Panic’ specifically, there was no Jonestown, or David Koresh scenario, and yet that didn’t stop people from buying into the validity of these claims! It seemed that with fewer touchpoints to any verifiable crimes, preoccupation with these stories only grew. This, in my understanding of things, is a really fascinating parrot or mime of how people negotiate the lore/specter of the supernatural and occult. Because these claims crucially existed beyond the metaphorical court of peer-reviewed methodology and hard evidence, means that these allegations were allowed to take hold in the same place that the monsters from horror movies do: our own imaginations.

With that in mind, the next time you see the alarm bells of hypervigilance take precedence over incontrovertible fact, step back and seek perspective: is this really about evil being perpetrated in the world, or is this more in line with a projection of someone’s fear of difference or change? Using that lens to revisit the years of Satanic Panic would tell us that it is more than likely the latter. 

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