History Stories

On June 20th, a couple who served 21 years in prison for the Satanic ritual abuse of children was formally exonerated by the district attorney in Austin, Texas, who said there is “no credible evidence” against them.

The decision brings an end to one of the more prominent cases brought during the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the early 1990s, where fears of devil-worshippers influencing American children spread rapidly. During this time, hundreds of childcare providers were accused of unspeakable crimes, and many would spend years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

Fran and Dan Keller were convicted in 1992 of sexually abusing a three-year-old girl at their home daycare facility on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. After the girl’s initial reports of abuse (she said Dan spanked her, according to the Intercept, but later alleged rape under further questioning), the local community grew panicked. The charges leveled against the Kellers soon included supposedly Satanic rituals like baby sacrifice, the amputation of a zoo gorilla’s arm, secret graveyard ceremonies, and transportation of children to Mexico to be assaulted by members of the military. Following a trial, the Kellers were each sentenced to 48 years in prison.

The Kellers were finally released in 2013 after multiple appeals, when the doctor who had provided the only physical evidence of the alleged assault recanted his testimony. This week, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore exonerated the couple, bringing an end to the Kellers’ 25-year-long struggle to clear their names.

An accused witch going through the judgement trial, where she is dunked in water to prove her guilt of practicing witchcraft. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

An accused witch going through the judgement trial, where she is dunked in water to prove her guilt of practicing witchcraft. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Though the Satanic Panic that ensnared the Kellers certainly has historical precedents (most notably the Salem Witch Trials), the panic’s more immediate roots can be traced to the tumultuous decade that preceded it.

“In the 1970s, there was a lot of anxiety being put onto the idea that Satanists were controlling things and had their hands in things,” said Debbie Nathan, a longtime investigative journalist who co-authored a book about the panic, “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt” (2001), with Michael Snedeker.

At the time, a number of gossipy urban myths were going around about Satanic influences on corporations. Procter & Gamble even had to hold a press conference in 1985 to deny allegations that their logo was the sign of the devil. According to Nathan, such myths had staying power because they reflected people’s anxieties about “corporate consumerism and corporate culture,” about women entering the work force, and especially about children being left in daycare facilities in increasing numbers. In the early 1980s, “Daycare was really demonized in ways that were way beyond the facts. There was just a lot of anxiety about public childcare, which I think was tacked onto a generalized anxiety about women going into the workforce.”

In the early 1980s, these concerns unexpectedly tracked with those of feminists, who were seeking to confront violence (particularly sexual violence) against women and children. “Those two things came together and caused a really powerful panic,” Nathan said. “It was really remarkable to see all of these institutions buy into the idea that there was an international conspiracy of Satanists set out to recruit tiny kids, and somehow brainwash them so that later on when they became adults, you could sort of snap your fingers and they would go into this Satanic trance.”

The panic gathered steam with the McMartin preschool case, when allegations of Satanic ritual abuse at a southern California preschool led to a lengthy and expensive prosecution featuring hundreds of children. The $15 million case ended in 1990 with zero convictions, but by that time the country was in a full-blown hysteria, aided in no small part by the efforts of televangelists and TV talk show hosts.

“They did a lot to spread this,” Nathan said of hosts like Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael. In a 1988 special report for NBC called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground,” Rivera warned viewers that a “secret network” of more than one million Satanists was using secret messages in heavy metal music and other nefarious methods to spread their agenda. Even Oprah Winfrey entered the fray on her show in 1989, interviewing Michelle Smith (subject of the controversial 1980 book “Michelle Remembers”) and others who had recovered repressed memories of ritualized Satanic abuse through psychotherapy.

In addition to hundreds of accusations of abuse against daycare providers and other caregivers, people identified all kinds of evil influences in modern American society during the panic. People saw Satanic messages in rock music, cartoons, role-playing video games like “Dungeons and Dragons,” the theme song from “Mr. Ed” and even the diapers they put on their children.

By the early ‘90s, evidence was mounting against the existence of a widespread Satanic conspiracy among childcare providers. A report in 1992 by the Department of Justice found the reports of widespread Satanic ritual abuse were not credible. In 1994, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect released another report debunking the claims.

Mugs of the "West Memphis Three." (Credit: West Memphis Police Department)

Mugs of the “West Memphis Three.” (Credit: West Memphis Police Department)

Thanks to increased skepticism, the Satanic Panic died down by the mid-1990s, and by now many of the cases against childcare providers have been overturned due to mishandled prosecutions. In perhaps the most notorious panic-fueled case, three Arkansas men—known as the West Memphis Three—were freed in 2011 after serving more than 18 years in prison; they had been convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the sexual assault and murder of three young boys, but DNA evidence showed they had no connection to the crime.

With the exoneration of the Kellers, and improved techniques used by law enforcement officers, social workers and other professionals to interview children in cases where abuse is suspected, it’s tempting to believe something like the Satanic Panic could not happen today. Nathan warned against such complacency, however, saying that the Internet has sparked all kinds of new anxieties about what children are doing online, and what kind of dangers they might be exposed to.

In fact, the earlier panic may hold a lesson for us in today’s news climate, with its prevalence of conspiracy theories and unsupported rumors. “We saw this 30 years ago,” Nathan said. “It’s sort of an object lesson, what happened then, and I think it’s unfortunate that not very many people remember it.”

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