A Chicago Police Department document from 1989 that outlines (in absurd fashion) how to identify teens involved in ritualistic crime went viral on Twitter on Sunday.
On May 6, Jennifer Jordan, a PhD student at Stony Brook University in New York, tweeted
that her sister, a Florida art teacher, had found a 25-page pamphlet called "Identification, Investigation, and Understanding of Ritualistic Criminal Activity," by a Detective "Robert Semandi
" of the Chicago Police Department in a supply closet. That tweet was shared 7,000 times, liked more than 25,000 times, and made Twitter's "Moments" section on Sunday. Some outlets, like the digital news sites the Daily Dot
, have posts responding to the document pictured in Jordan's tweets.
But the detective's name was misspelled—it's actually Simandl. He was a "gang crimes and ritual abuse specialist" for the Chicago Police Department who traveled the country and held seminars and spoke at conferences to train police and other child-protection-affiliated professionals in the 80s.
"It's a very complex subject that makes street gang activity look like a nursery school rhyme," said Simandl in a 1987 Minneapolis Star Tribune article
. "It's not a pleasant topic, but I believe it's going to be the crime of the 1990s."
Not quite. The "satanic panic" was a very real case of mass hysteria that peaked in the 80s. Law enforcement played no small part in it.
It started in February 1984, when the media reported accusations that teachers at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, had tortured and raped small children (and, yes, killed their bunny rabbits) for two decades. A short time later in Jordan, Minnesota, 24 people were arrested for their alleged membership in a child-porn sex ring whose members were said to have murdered babies, drank their blood, and disposed of their corpses. In Chicago, a janitor and three teachers at the Rogers Park Day Care Center were accused of boiling and eating babies.
Meanwhile, the law enforcement officers, social workers, and therapists who worked on the McMartin case became nationwide consultants to others in their fields. FBI agent Kenneth Lanning held a seminar titled "Day Care Center and Satanic Cult Sexual Exploitation of Children" in February 1985 that was attended by police officers, social workers, lawyers, and academics from around the country. The materials were similar to the recently uncovered document presented by Simandl, which describes the "four stages of Satanic activity" and warns that teens are being seduced by offers of "free sex and drug parties." It describes 16 signs of satanic involvement, including using tarot cards, altars, and ceremonial knives (a "letter opener will suffice," it notes).
In 1986, parents of children thought to be victims of ritual abuse formed Believe the Children—an organization headquartered in the Chicago suburb Cary that raised awareness of this specific kind of child abuse until the mid-90s. (The group's executive director, Beth Vargo, wrote a letter to the editor
in 1996 after the Reader
published a feature, "The Mouths of Babes
," discrediting ritual abuse cases).
The satanic panic also spread throughout evangelical churches, much of it due to the influence of minister-comedian Mike Warnke. Warnke claimed to be a former satanic high priest who'd gone from performing cat-killing rituals for the devil to being a born-again Christian. He became a star among fundamentalists who already believed that Lucifer was a real walking-and-talking evil being
trying to take the bodies and souls of believers. (I have some firsthand knowledge of this: I grew up attending an evangelical church in Springfield in the 80s, and Warnke was a regular guest preacher.) He was so convincing that before he was discredited as a liar and crook in an exposé by Cornerstone
magazine in 1992, he once appeared on a 20/20
episode titled "The Devil Worshippers" to talk about his supposed involvement in satanic ceremonies.
The media certainly didn't help. There was coverage in glossy magazines and on TV—60 Minutes
and Oprah fell for it the ward. The satanic panic crested
when talk-show gadfly Geraldo Rivera aired Exposing Satan's Underground
, a two-hour exposé on the dangers of satanism
Even Oprah fanned the flames of the "satanic panic" hysteria.
It's telling in that in many news accounts about ritualistic abuse cases, the evidence cited is extremely anecdotal. From the 1987 Star-Tribune
article: "While (Simandl and other police) say they've come up with only hints of organized activity, apart from the established 2,500-member Church of Satan based in San Francisco, they are convinced that covens of child molesters around the country practice satanic rites and are in contact with one another."
Yet, as David Futrelle wrote in the Reader
, the charges were bullshit; among other things, no blood, satanic robes, or altars were ever found. As he writes, "The 'ritual abuse' scare of the 1980s and 1990s reflected a kind of collective delusion, a hysteria resembling nothing so much as the legendary trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Reporters and others covering the Hill case treated the bizarre claims of abuse uncritically; indeed, they were far more bewildered by the recantations than by the original charges." By the time panic around satanism subsided in the early 90s, about 190 people nationwide had been charged with the ritual abuse of children, often those who worked in child day care
. Eighty-three were convicted.
Over the weekend, the Internet treated the found document as a nostalgic joke about a bygone era ("And, yes, they're as hilarious as you hope," wrote the Daily Dot), but the "satanic panic" is alive and well in 2018—in a slightly mutated form.
There's a dark corner of the right-wing Internet that subscribes to a conspiracy called QAnon—also known as "the Storm." It's essentially a theory that Donald Trump is on the verge of arresting a bunch of top Democrats—including the Clintons—for their alleged involvement in a satanic child-sex-trafficking ring. Two years ago, a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch was so convinced that a pizza parlor was part of a Satanic child sex-trafficking operation, he drove to Washington, D.C., and commandeered the restaurant with a military-style assault rifle—even firing off a shot while inside. Last month, I profiled Liz Crokin
, a former Chicago gossip columnist who's propagating the myths of the latest case of satanic panic.
Yep, trends from the 80s—even ones to do with debunked cases of satanic ritual abuse—are back in style again. God save us.
(Note: This post has been corrected and updated to reflect that Robert Semandi is Robert Simandl—a real CPD officer)