Lawrence Wright’s Look at the Satanic Panic

Book review: Remembering Satan, by Lawrence Wright (Amazon / Book Depository)

Journalist Lawrence Wright is one of my favorite nonsense-busters. It just doesn’t get past him. And his books are so well-written that even when they’re dealing with the eye-rolling (but also very sad) “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s/90s, they’re meticulous and brilliantly laid out. If there’s anyone who can take a kooky cult or fundamentalist story and pare it down until there’s only truth left, it’s him. He didn’t disappoint here.

In Remembering Satan, published in 1994, he covers the story, psychology, and legal repercussions of a case from the bizarre historical moment of the Satanic Panic, a frenzied wave of accusations of satanic ritual abuse in the wake of the McMartin preschool trial.

In Olympia, Washington, in the late 1980s, sisters Julie and Ericka Ingram accused their father, deputy sheriff Paul Ingram, of sexual abuse occurring over the preceding decade. The story began evolving to contain elaborate satanic rituals, eerily similar to those suddenly being described in ubiquitous exposé programming and by other survivors suddenly realizing they were victims. Eventually the accusations grew to include two of Paul’s departmental colleagues and the Ingrams’ mother, Sandy, and later morphed even further into Sandy’s having been raped in addition to partaking in the satanic abuse against the girls and the Ingrams’ sons as well. Oh boy.

Just before Julie wrote the second note… disclosing the abuse by her father and the poker players, the Ingram family sat down together and watched a prime-time Geraldo Rivera special on NBC entitled “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” It was one of the most widely watched documentaries in television history, although it was only one of many such shows. (The day before, the subject of Rivera’s daily program had been “Satanic Breeders: Babies for Sacrifice.” Daytime talk shows had become obsessed with Satanic abuse since the McMartin case.)

It’s a lot of disturbing material to process, and if this had actually happened, it would be devastating. It didn’t, however; and the plot thickened further when Paul admitted to satanic abuse in cultish rituals and implicated others in confessions that were highly unethical and included heavy suggestion from detectives who unquestioningly believed the wild stories with zero evidence.

It amazed Lanning that police officers, who regularly complained about inaccuracies in the media and often joked about tabloid-television accounts of “true” crimes, were susceptible to such material when it involved satanism. Yes, there were psychotic killers who heard the voice of Satan, just as there were psychotic killers who heard the voice of Jesus, but that didn’t mean that they were members of an organized religious cult, Lanning argued … [He] could not find a single documented case of the phenomenon in the United States. He worried that many officers were allowing their personal religious beliefs to affect their judgment.

The sisters’ accusations stemmed from repressed and recovered memories, a controversial psychological event. The trigger occurred at a church retreat where Ericka was told by counselor (who allegedly possessed psychic powers) that her father had abused her.

Wright follows, with his characteristic attention to detail and phenomenal storytelling ability, the Ingram case and all of its oddities, including how and why it played out as it did considering its moment in time. It’s reminiscent of the Salem witch trials and, to a lesser extent in content but not in fervency, McCarthyism.

It’s truly incredible what we can convince ourselves of, and the dangerous power those convictions assume when echoed and mirrored by others, reinforcing whatever shred of belief we’ve cultivated. When a Pentecostal church that placed heavy emphasis on the role of Satan in believers’ lives is in the mix, as here, supplying the idea that Satan had the power to control actions then wipe people’s memories of evil deeds, it seems less far-fetched that all of this happened.

This is a quick read, thankfully, considering the weightiness of the subject, although I should stress again that all of it was proven false, so the true scariness is in the psychology of the suggestible (also scary: Paul Ingram was already in too deep legally, spending two decades in prison despite recanting his confession and lack of evidence).

The context-setting includes showing that none of the allegations of satanic abuse or any of the related rituals, like sacrifices, ever had any evidence to back them up. Rather, they all began emerging after 1980 and the publication of a book called Michelle Remembers, in which a woman recounted an impossible tale of surviving satanic ritual abuse supposedly uncovered in therapy sessions.

In Wright’s signature style, this packs so much well-rounded and researched information into readable storytelling. Despite the tabloidy subject, it’s neither lurid nor sensational. Anyone who’s read Wright might have guessed as much already, but worth mentioning for others unfamiliar with the quality and integrity of his journalism and scared off by the topic. It’s a specific case study of the Ingrams and how these accusations snowballed until they destroyed their family and others’ lives as well. In his examination of the greater culture, he hits on how Christian fundamentalism could collide with mental health with horrifying consequences.

Thus two communities that normally have little to do with each other—fundamentalist Christians and a particular set of mental health professionals—found common ground in the question dominating any consideration of satanic-ritual abuse: whether to believe it actually exists.

And just consider the proportions this took on:

Lanning, the FBI’s research expert on the sexual victimization of children, had been hearing stories of sexual abuse with occult overtones since 1983. At first he had tended to believe the stories; but as the number of alleged cases skyrocketed, he had grown skeptical. Soon hundreds of victims were accusing thousands of offenders. By the mid-eighties, the annual number of alleged satanic murders had reached the tens of thousands … Word circulated in the police workshops that satanic cults were sacrificing between fifty and sixty thousand people every year in the United States, although the annual national total of homicides averaged less than twenty-five thousand.

Surprisingly entertaining, well written, and incredibly informative look at a weird corner of American paranoia (not to mention an instance of history repeating), using one family’s unbelievable experience as a lens to examine this unfortunate intersection between susceptibility, psychology, and fundamentalism.

Remembering Satan:
A Case of Recovered Memory and the Shattering of an American Family

by Lawrence Wright
published 1994

Amazon / Book Depository


26 thoughts on “Lawrence Wright’s Look at the Satanic Panic

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    1. I totally forgot this was around the same time as the West Memphis Three, that’s right! I haven’t any of the books about them but have seen a little of the documentary and heard it covered on podcasts. That story is all kind of awful. It always boggles my mind that there’s some kind of beast who could kill 3 kids and then let 3 other kids potentially sit in prison/be put to death for it.

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    1. That’s such a perfect way to put it – it was a weird blip in people’s ability to function sanely! This was really a good book and a detailed, level-headed look at what happened and why. I didn’t even remember that there was a My Favorite Murder about the McMartin preschool, I’ll have to go back and listen to it again.

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  1. Sounds like an excellent read. I note a similarity in the quasi-hysteria around this topic in those days and the Salem witch trials – the stories start with one person and balloon to more. Also parallels to other “witchcraft” outbreaks in history. Fascinating topic from a psychology perspective. Thanks for reviewing this book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true – he mentions that connection as well, both in the way the stories spread and more people believe they’ve had similar experiences despite no evidence, and of course in the hysteria of the topic. The psychology of it was fascinating, it’s really a great read. Glad you liked the review, thanks for your thoughts!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember that time period where people believed satanic cults were running wild. It’s amazing the hysteria that groups can generate. And once it gets going, copycat cases inevitably start popping up.

    Made me think of earlier in the week where I came across a guy on Quora who was looking for help for his wife because she was hearing demonic voices. They were both fundamentalists so they knew that it was not a mental health issue, but actual attacks by Satan. 😮

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it’s something that’s happened repeatedly, but I still struggle to get my head around it, how it’s really possible that people can hear the story and somehow apply it to themselves without ever having an inkling towards it before. Such a bizarre psychology. But I think this fundamentalist religious aspect is key in helping that along – he writes here about the big role Satan played in their church’s theology so they were receptive to that angle. That’s so troubling that you still see that happening…it makes you wonder how many people could be helped by proper mental health diagnoses instead of just ascribing it to the devil! It’s like we still live in the Dark Ages!!

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