The Ongoing Legacy of a Satanic Panic

Today's guest post is from Joseph Laycock, who holds a PhD from Boston University and is a wandering adjunct at present.  He is currently busy with numerous publications on American religious history, foremost of which is a manuscript on the Catholic seer Veronica Lueken.

Joseph Laycock

            Fran and Dan Keller have been imprisoned for twenty-three years for a crime that almost certainly never occurred.  In 1989 the Kellers opened a daycare center in Oak Hill, a neighborhood just southwest of Austin, Texas.  Their business prospered until 1991 when Suzanne Guinn, along with social worker Donna David-Campbell, became convinced that the Kellers were sexually assaulting Guinn’s three-year-old daughter.  As investigators moved to gather evidence against the Kellers, the Guinn girl, along with two other children from the day-care, began to tell incredible stories about atrocities committed by their caretakers.  They had seen numerous animals tortured and abused––including a gorilla that the Kellers had taken from Austin’s non-existent zoo in Zilker Park.  They had been taken to graveyards and buried in open graves in Satanic rituals.  They had been transported to other places in airplanes.  One child describing seeing a baby’s heart removed and watching it continue to beat as the Kellers held in their hand.  Another child said that the Kellers cut open his arm, removed one his bones, and replaced it with “Satan’s arm bone.”  All of this had allegedly taken place without anyone noticing, at a daycare with regular visitors.  The Guinn girl had only attended the daycare on thirteen occasions.

            All of these stories were coaxed from the children by well-intentioned social workers, some of who believed in a secret network of Satanic cults that was slowly taking over America by brainwashing children through Satanic ritual abuse (SRA).  The seemingly pointless abusive rituals, it was claimed, were intended to induce a split personality or “alter” in the children that would then perpetuate the work of the cult.  Unfortunately, when a grand jury indicted the Kellers for sexually assaulting the Guinn girl, they attempted to flee Austin––a move they claimed was a misinterpretation of their attorney’s advice.  The prosecution took this as an admission of guilt.
            At the trial, the Guinne girl was called to the witness stand where she was described as “more silly than frightened.”  She recanted her original story and claimed that she the Kellers had never abused her.  When asked if she had described abuse to Donna David-Campbell she replied, “No way, Jose.”  But the prosecution had other evidence.  Dr. Randy Noblitt served as an expert witness and explained his theory of Satanic ritual abuse to the jury.  (Noblitt also claimed that the Kellers were controlling the Guinne girl’s testimony by making furtive Satanic hand signs that served as hypnotic commands.)  Dr. Michael Mouw had examined the Guinne girl’s genitals and discovered what he then identified as irregularities on her hymen.  Mouw explained that the irregularities “could be consistent” with sexual abuse.
The strongest evidence was the testimony of Dan Keller’s long-time friend Doug Perry.  Perry had been questioned by Texas rangers for four hours.  Although no tapes of the interrogation were produced, Perry eventually signed a confession that he had attended a “beer and sex party” where he and the Kellers had taken turns abusing the Guinne girl and another child.  Weeks later Perry recanted this confession in an affidavit where he stated, “I was scared because the officers were not believing me so I started making up a story. I basically started telling them what I thought they wanted to hear."  The prosecution called Perry to the witness stand and implied that his recantation was false.  Perry’s “eye-witness testimony” persuaded the final hold out on the jury to vote guilty.  Dan and Kelly were sentenced to 48 years in prison for sexually assaulting the Guinne girl.  According to the Austin Chronicle, when the verdict was read, the hold-out juror fled to the bathroom and wept.

In 2009 The Innocence Project of Texas began working with Kellers toward an appeal.  This January, Austin attorney Keith Hampton petitioned for a writ of habeus corpus on the Keller’s behalf, although the Kellers have not yet received a hearing.  Hampton obtained an affidavit from Dr. Mouw, stating that he erred in suggesting the Guinne girl’s hymen might be evidence of abuse.  Mouw explained that he was an emergency room physician with minimal training in pediatric sexual abuse and that he had mistaken ordinary variation in the appearance of the hymen for lacerations.  In the 1992 trial, Mouw’s findings had been the only form of physical evidence. Hampton was quoted, “A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt and render justice accordingly.”  I hope he is right.

The imprisonment of the Kellers is one of the last tragic remnants of the Satanic Panic that swept America in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Rumors of Satanic cults began in the 1960s fueled by the Manson murders and tropes borrowed from horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby.  By the 1970s, elaborate conspiracy theories had begun to form about Satanic cults who committed murders undetected and were supported by powerful figures in world government and finance.  Then in 1980 the best-selling paperback Michelle Remembers introduced a new element to the Satanic conspiracy theory––the ritual abuse of children.  Michelle Remembers described the “recovered” memories produced by Michelle Smith while placed under hypnosis by psychologist Lawrence Padzer.  Like the conversations between social workers and allegedly-abused children, Smith and Padzer worked together to produce a truly bizarre and horrible tale in which Smith remembered being tortured by her own mother, having horns grafted to her head, and witnessing a portal to hell.

The fear that children were undergoing the type of abuse described in Michelle Remembers fomented a strange alliance of evangelical Christians, law enforcement, feminists, and social workers.  These diverse forces––all of whom wanted to see victims believed and abusers punished––supported each other.  They created a mutually affirming web of expertise that caused claims of SRA to seem plausible.  Also fueling the panic were talk show hosts such as Geraldo Rivera, who warned America about SRA in his famous 1988 special “Satan’s Underground.”

The hunt for abusers resulted in the McMartin Pre-School Trial, which lasted from 1984 to 1990.  Like the Kellers, the case revolved around a family-owned daycare center, the proprietors of which were accused of abusing children as part of a Satanic cult.  The trial may have been the most expensive in American history, costing $15 dollars.  In the end, all defendants were acquitted.  However, the parents of some of the alleged victims formed an advocacy group called “Believe the Children.”  Accusers in the Keller case became convinced that their children were being abused after receiving a mailing from Believe the Children that featured a  “checklist” of signs that your child is the victim of SRA.

David Bromley has suggested that daycare providers were often targeted because economic forces in the 1980s had caused families to reluctantly cede the task of raising of their children to others.  In families with two incomes, parents were forced to share influence over their children with teachers, afterschool counselors, bus drivers, and others.  In this sense, Bromley argued that claims of SRA were “metaphorically true even if empirically false.”  Many parents really did feel that there was an invisible force in America working to turn their own children against them.  Claims of Satanic cults helped to make these frustrations apprehensible.

With the recent release of the West Memphis Three, the Kellers remain one of the last victims of Satanic Panic.  However, it would be a mistake––as historians and as citizens in a democracy––to assume that Satanic Panic is a relic of the 1980s.  Karen Hutchins is an Austin therapist whose services include hypnosis and shamanic drumming.  She assessed several children in the Keller case and explained to Texas Monthly that Satanists had infiltrated the legal, medical, and law enforcement professions.  In an interview last month, she insisted that the Kellers are guilty and that the stories solicited from children were true.  The organization Stop Mind Control and Ritual Abuse Today (S.M.A.R.T.) continues to hold conferences were alleged survivors discuss their abuse at the hands of Satanists and covert CIA programs.  Since September 11, 2001, the culture of conspiracy has grown exponentially and it seems inevitable that dangerous claims about Satanic cults will continue to influence our culture.  The victims of these claims will continue to be individuals who lack the education as well as the legal, and financial resources to defend themselves.

David Frankfurter has framed claims of evil rituals––which occur throughout many times and cultures––are a discourse through which cultures render a complex and trouble-filled word sensible.  This theory suggests that human beings may, in some sense, be hard wired to believe accusations like those made against the Kellers.  This is why the work of historians matters.  If we forget the Satanic Panic of the 1980s or dismiss it as a strange fluke that can be hermetically sealed from the larger narratives of American culture, we ensure that someday people like the Kellers will face similar accusations.


Paul Putz said…
I was not aware of a widespread "Satanic Panic" in the U.S. But in my home state of Nebraska, I heard more than a few times about the "Franklin Cover-up." Basically, a lawyer and former state senator (John DeCamp) wrote a conspiracy book detailing a 1980s satanic pedophile ring that reached to the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the Reagan administration. A quick google search shows that DeCamp is still around on the internet fringes talking about his satanic conspiracy. Meanwhile, his book has gone through a couple editions and is even available on kindle.
James Hazlerig said…
Great article. As a hypnosis practitioner who has to constantly explain that hypnosis does NOT reliably recover lost traumatic memories, I was surprised to learn that one of the cases happened so close to where I now live, that the accused are still imprisoned, and that the licensed counselor who was involved is still in practice and still believes the Satanic conspiracy nonsense. Disturbing.