Outsiders to the QAnon conspiracy system evolving over the past few years may be confused by its references to Satanic rites in which children are supposedly abused. Of course, there’s never been the slightest evidence of murderous, child-abusing Satanic cults, despite extensive forensic investigations (by the FBI, in fact) back in the 1980s and 1990s. But in the world of QAnon conspiracy, Satanism is one facet of—indeed, the motivation for—a vast conspiracy of elites to exploit children through trafficking, sexual abuse, and rape.
The imputation of Satanism to secretive cabals seems to come out of nowhere—or perhaps out of late medieval superstition. Yet, even if they have roots in medieval and early modern notions of ritual crimes perpetrated by Jews and witches, modern allegations of Satanic ritual abuse in fact only go back to the 1980s in America and the U.K.
Although the last popular panic about Satanic ritual abuse died down in the 1990s, the mythical image of children abducted, abused, and ceremonially sacrificed still has the power to inflame audiences. In 2016 one North Carolina believer was so enraged by the idea—spread on the internet—that children were being “ritually” abused and sacrificed beneath a popular Washington D.C. pizza parlor that he drove up to liberate them, armed with an assault rifle. Still today QAnon culture maintains a belief that international elites, including both Hilary Clinton and Rihanna, are operating a massive child-abduction scheme whose goals range from sex-slavery to abuse and sacrifice in the context of Satanic ceremonies.
What allows the QAnon Satanism conspiracy to spread through social media is its attachment to plausible posts about child-trafficking and laudable-sounding hashtags like “#SaveOurChildren.” People preoccupied with real social evils like child pornography and sexual abuse can find themselves drawn into starker, more graphic worlds of conspiracy speculation.
Indeed, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues, this anxious concern for children’s welfare, has invited the attention of increasing numbers of young women to the social-media culture inspired by QAnon and to the social media sites where QAnon conspiracies proliferate. The QAnon culture claims to reveal not only the Satanic motivations of those who supposedly do the trafficking, but even more, their identities as prominent media and political personalities. Here on social media the hashtags #Satanic and #pedophile aren’t so much sober accusations of individuals’ crimes than an insiders’ code for ‘elite liberals.’
The Satanic abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s led to the persecution and false convictions of many innocent people and caused traumatic rifts in communities. The panic involved gothic stories of bloody ceremonies conducted by community-members in black robes, including graphic claims of child and adult sexual abuse and rumors of specific “cult” locations. Across the U.S. and U.K. regional fears of a Satanic threat were promulgated through the leadership of psychiatrists, police “cult-experts,” counselors, freelance Satanism ‘experts,’ and evangelical pastors—individuals who shifted their workaday professional roles to performing as charismatic moral entrepreneurs.
In both the 1980s and 90s, and most recently through QAnon, the image of gothic Satanic rituals proliferating through public media have exploited real moral crises in popular culture. In the late twentieth century it was the discovery and acknowledgment of sexual abuse within ‘normal’-seeming families. Today we’re facing both widespread child-trafficking and a horrendous internet child-pornography industry. These are all crises abundantly documented in law enforcement records. So how would Satanism get attached to these crimes, whether as putative motivation or ceremonial context?
As I described in my 2006 book Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History, mythical Satanic cults offered an “altogether evil” context for the perpetration of crimes that many people worried had become all-too-common or even excusable in culture. Satanic ritual abuse became a “worst possible” crime that everyone could decry and the government might itself prosecute. But of course, Satanic ritual abuse took a pervasive social problem out of the immediate family, where abuse actually took place, and imagined it instead taking place in ceremonial chambers with strange cultists. It was, in a way, more comforting for people to believe that such crimes occurred in these weird and stylized contexts than in ordinary spaces like suburban homes, churches, or afterschool activities.
Moreover, Satanic rituals create a sort of frame around social horrors like sexual abuse (and now child pornography): secretive cultists practicing atrocities in elaborate ceremonies out of devotion to a god of evil. And that frame both horrifies us and demands our attention. As the many so-called Satanism experts have been telling us, we must confront these terrible realities.
The result is that people spend far more time imagining Satanic atrocities, reading their accounts, and listening to their self-proclaimed survivors’ testimonies than they ever would with graphic pornographic materials. The myth of Satanic cults—like that of witches’ sabbaths in early modern Europe and spurious accounts of primitive cannibal cults in colonial times—offers a righteous sanction for voyeurism.
Finally, Satanic cult rumors and imagery (black robes, altars, sacrifices) have long provided vehicles for the parody of Catholic liturgy. In the nineteenth century, in fact, it was writers from within Catholic culture—the so-called Decadents—who came up with such parodies. But for American Protestant culture Satanic ritual has always denoted the very opposite of proper religion: scenes of dispassionate, cold, repetitive, bloody ritualism, often involving mysterious chanting. In this context, Satanic accusations have also allowed evangelical Christians to engage fully in the horror of and mobilization against a Satanic threat, for Satanism offers the absolute inverse of evangelicalism.
The real, pacifist Satanic Temple well understands this symbolism as the inverse of popular evangelical Christianity, and it has appropriated that symbolism with playful irony. But at other moments in history the specter of Satanic cult atrocities, even if entirely the invention of moral entrepreneurs and demagogues, has caused panic with devastating consequences.
In the case of QAnon, whose Satanic conspiracies circulate predominantly online rather than face-to-face, it’s so far unclear how many people will be mobilized to investigate or avenge alleged Satanic atrocities in the real world. We should nevertheless be watchful and aware of the history of these kinds of rumors.