Satan in Poughkeepsie

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming Fall Issue. Read it in full on


DISCUSSED: Baby Rabbits, The Initial Accusations, Leading Questions, Aftereffects of the Counterculture Movement, That Goat’s Head, Satanism’s Highest Holiday, Lost Nuances, Reporting by Geraldo Rivera, Tangerine Dream, The Black House, Full Bava Lighting, Wurlitzer Gigs, Spooky Names, The Nazarene Eunuch

Maybe it was during nap time or snack time or shortly after their parents dropped them off each day, but it was certainly during preschool hours that the teachers Mrs. McMartin and Mr. Buckey led the children through trapdoors in the classroom floor and down into the maze of tunnels. There below, the cold walls were covered in images of Satan, with his red face and massive horns (any child would have recognized him). There underground, the children—all of them young, between two and five years old—were touched in private places and made to pose for dirty pictures. And maybe those tunnels made up a vast underground network, because somehow, in daylight, without any witnesses, the teachers managed to take the entire class to a nearby Episcopal church, where the grown-ups donned black robes and masks and stood before the altar and slit the throats of baby rabbits and birds and even a couple of turtles, letting the hot blood run into fancy cups. And they passed the cups to the children and forced them to drink the animals’ blood. And babies were killed (maybe); and corpses were dug up from the ground (maybe); and the teachers took the kids out into the cemetery, among the tombstones, and touched them between their legs. And once Mr. Buckey took a long knife and chopped a pony to death right in front of them, saying that their parents would die that way, too, if any of the children said a word about anything that had happened at preschool that day or any other day or ever. And everybody spoke the name of the Devil over and over again, dancing.

These were among the 208 charges of abuse leveled against the seven teachers of the mostly family-run McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1984. It began when the mother of one two-year-old boy claimed that her son had been molested by his teacher. The initial accusations were so over-the-top—not only was there baby killing and blood drinking, but clown costumes were involved—that the DA dismissed them as utterly unsubstantiated. (The mother had also accused the boy’s absent father of abuse, and was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.) But at this point, the Manhattan Beach chief of police took it upon himself to send around a “confidential” letter to parents of two hundred present and former McMartin students, outlining the charges in detail, and advising them to ask their kids if they, too, had been assaulted. When nearly all the children denied mistreatment, the authorities recommended that the parents take them to Children’s Institute International, a Los Angeles center with a new focus on child-abuse prevention, where they were interviewed with puppets and anatomically correct dolls and asked leading questions, with some case workers outlining very specific abuse scenarios for the kids before they were given a chance to answer on their own.

Of the hundreds interviewed, about forty eventually filed claims. Of those, only nine were seen as credible-­enough witnesses for the prosecution to risk putting them on the stand. Over the course of seven years, all “Satanic” charges were eventually dropped, and the accusers were narrowed to eleven, the McMartin defendants to two. They both were ultimately acquitted on all counts—after a seven-­year trial that, at fifteen million dollars in total costs, is still widely considered the most expensive in American history. But long before the trial proved a disaster, the McMartin case set a pattern. In the months following the initial charges, accusations of “Satanic” child abuse surfaced at seven other preschools in Los Angeles County, and the panic soon began to spread throughout the country. Over the decade that followed, more than twelve thousand recorded cases of such abuse were investigated—accusations that ranged from group sex abuse to baby sacrifice and cannibalism—and in no instance was substantial physical evidence uncovered. No traces of blood or carnage, human or animal, were ever found; medical tests on the young victims were later discredited: there was no proof.

The ’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. Contrary to what most outsiders thought, LaVey and his (literally) card-carrying Satanists did not believe in the Devil or Satan or superhuman entities of any stripe. (“Man has always created his gods,” LaVey wrote.) Above all else, they were—and remain today—cynics and pragmatists, atheists and libertarians. The Satanic Bible, the church’s best-selling central text (over one million copies sold to date), is LaVey’s unrelenting critique of institutionalized religion; and in light of the violence that continues to take place in the name of God (or Allah, or Whoever), whether here or abroad, certain passages read like brutish common sense. He slams religion as fueled by self-hatred, false feelings of guilt, and a denial of man’s essential nature. Man is a self-­interested animal, writes LaVey, and there’s no reason to go around apologizing for it. “Just as the Satanist does not pray to God for assistance, he does not pray for forgiveness for his wrong doings… [C]onfessing to another human being, like himself, accomplishes even less—and is, furthermore, degrading.” Each Satanist, members like to reiterate, is his own god. In keeping with its rampant egotism, Satanism’s highest holiday is each member’s own birthday.

LaVey became known as the “black pope” with good reason: his church, from a Christian perspective, is extravagantly blasphemous, using the format of Catholic high mass to create its own brand of gothic theater. If the substance of religious ritual is guilt-­inducing reactionary nonsense, Satanists believe, the form of ritual can still tap into some primal truths about man. And so Satanists use high-mass drama to get the blood flowing (though, as far as I know, not in the literal, open-wound sense). “Hail Satan!” they chant, over and over: Satanand evil and hell are trigger words to encourage members to embrace a freethinking, contrarian, wildly egocentric life outside the mainstream—a life-affirming mantra. “When we say ‘Hail Satan,’” says Peter Gilmore, the church’s current high priest, “what we really mean is ‘Hail Ourselves.’”

These nuances, however, were lost on the media during the Panic years, when the stakes were high for associating with the Devil—even in name alone. Throughout the ’80s, major outlets fed the paranoia, from ABC’s 20/20 and NBC News to The Oprah Winfrey Show. The material covered ranged from the ridiculous—20/20 correspondent Tom Jarriel, after listening to “Stairway to Heaven” played backward, announced that Robert Plant was singing “My sweet Satan!”—to the unverifiable. What these high-­profile media reports all had in common was the insupportable logic that these “Satanic” networks were impossible to uncover, which only proved how wily they were. As Jarriel announced, in a bizarre call to action, “Nationwide, police are hearing strikingly similar horror stories—and not one has ever been proved!” Without proof, what exactly was anyone reporting?