Following the negative response that greeted its cinema release, the movie Regression recently appeared on DVD to little fanfare. In the words of critics, the film inhabited a ‘purgatorial wasteland between cop thriller and Rosemary’s Baby-style Satanic drama’ in which ‘absurdity turns quickly to boredom’.
While some of the criticism was fair, it is also a shame, as the film documents a historical episode that demonstrates the problematic nature of perception and memory.
During the 1980-1990s, fears of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) swept across the United States and other nations in ‘one of the purest cases of moral panic’. 1 The phenomenon grew from the interactions of a number of disparate groups: Evangelical Christians, journalists, police officers, social workers, and therapists using controversial new methods that they claimed accessed ‘repressed memories’.
Stories appeared concerning bizarre rituals, involving mutilation, cannibalism and incest, with children usually identified as the victims. Women came forwards as self-proclaimed breeders, forced to give birth solely to provide sacrificial victims. Accusations fell upon childcare centres and social workers. Most notorious was the McMartin Preschool Trial, which became the longest, costliest criminal trial in American history.
In case after case, psychotherapists claimed that large numbers of children had repressed memories of ritual abuse. Adults undergoing therapy claimed they too had been abused as children by shadowy figures, and even demonic entities. Police forces held training workshops on occult criminality. Voices across the media, including a former senior FBI officer, began to talk of a national, even international, network of satanic cults whose members could number in the millions and who had infiltrated all levels of society.
Except, despite all the hysteria, evidence for such outlandish claims never materialised. In fact, most of the cases that contributed to the panic were later found to have little substance, or to have been grossly misrepresented.
Satanic cults have long been a staple of cinema, with The Seventh Victim (1943) and Night of the Demon (1957) being notable early efforts. 2 But it was Rosemary’s Baby (1968) that was of most relevance to the later panic, depicting an innocent woman in New York falling under the control of Satan worshippers, her pregnancy central to their evil plan. Anyone could be a Satanist – even seemingly upstanding members of the community. A host of similarly themed films followed, including The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), helping make satanic influence the central horror motif of the decade. 3
With a pop cultural understanding of Satanism firmly established, in the early 1980s a number of factors aligned that helped spread the hysteria. 4 The most important was the rise of the Christian Right in American politics, and the growing Evangelical movement. Organisations such as The Moral Majority tried to combat what they saw as the spiritual degradation of society, while the Christian publishing and bookshop industry provided an outlet for all manner of conspiracy theories, echoing episodes of political paranoia like McCarthyism, and the much older scares of Jewish blood libel and witch hunts.
Beginning with Michelle Remembers in 1980, a number of memoirs were released from a very different perspective: psychotherapy. Using a variety of methods, including hypnosis and drug usage, a small but growing number of practitioners claimed they could recover hidden memories. Even at the time such practices were a niche pursuit and faced criticism from within the profession. The most famous memoirs were later proven false, and the methods used to elicit accusations from the children involved in many of the court cases were questioned. And although the debate continues, a lot of subsequent research suggests that confabulations can be implanted into a subject’s mind with enough prompting.
The media of the time, facing economic pressures, failed to be critical and resorted to a sensationalist reporting style. 5 Geraldo Riviera and Oprah Winfrey presented high profile shows accepting the claims without question. A small pool of people were presented as experts on the subject and repeatedly interviewed by the media. Once again, many of them were subsequently shown to have little credibility or to be completely fraudulent. 6 It was only by the late nineties that the panic subsided, as thorough research debunked many of the claims and revealed the discrepancies in many of the stories.
The SRA moral panic showed the fallibility of memory and the power of suggestion, along with the strange ways in which different cultural trends can collide to create popular new imaginings. Individuals imagined horrific experiences that were unlikely to have occurred, while acceptance of the overall narrative was widespread and permeated public institutions. 7 Faith based readings of history are still prominent among sections of the American Right, and some of the elements of the SRA story are still employed in current conspiracy theories. Lack of evidence is turned into confirmation: it proves the power and meticulousness of the perpetrators.
Historians have an important role to play in combating such fantasies, which can cause misery for the people caught up in them and lower the tone of public political debate. An understanding of how memory and culture work is vital, while recognising past similarities can act as a warning. Of course, historians should also be aware of how psychological biases can cause seemingly irrational behaviour in the historical actors they examine, and perhaps even in their own research.
Due to poor viewing figures Regression is a missed opportunity to spread popular awareness of these strange aspects of human behaviour. But if you’re not put off by the reviews, the film itself is a solid overview and can still serve as good introduction to a fascinating historical reality. 8
Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines economic knowledge and ideas as cultural constructions, and charts how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers during the interwar period. He also watches a lot of films. You can find Aaron on twitter @.
- Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London, 2011), p. xvii. ↩
- British studios produced period pieces that helped codify the visual imagery of ritualistic sacrifice, such as The Devil Rides Out (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). ↩
- Two lesser 1975 films exemplified the idea that nefarious cults might be embedded throughout rural America. In Race with the Devil the protagonists unwittingly disturb a satanic ritual while camping. Managing to flee, they soon learn that no matter how far they drive they can never truly escape. The cultists have infiltrated every local institution, even law enforcement. The Devil’s Rain, in contrast, is confined to one locale. But, once a cult takes hold, diabolical rituals are used to forcibly turn all the members of a town to darkness. ↩
- The pop cultural understanding of Satanism was bolstered by the publicity garnered by figures such as Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan. You can find out more about this in P. Jenkins, D. Maier-Katkin, ‘Satanism: Myth and Reality in a Contemporary Moral Panic’, Crime, Law and Social Change, 17 (1992), p. 53-75. ↩
- One the key interventions was a special report from the ABC news show 20/20, which also nicely displays the role played by pop culture in many of the accounts: 20/20: The Devil Worshippers, 16 May 1985. ↩
- For example, Mike Warnke and John Todd. Both were exposed as having fabricated accounts of time spent in satanic or occultist groups before their supposed conversions to Christianity. ↩
- In some cases, it is likely that abuse did occur, but was unrelated to any satanic or ritualistic practices. The framing of the issue led to resources being misallocated, and made an already distressing situation even worse for the victims. ↩
- The poor reception may be due to audience expectations. The advertising campaign portrayed Regression as a supernatural thriller akin to director Alejandro Amenábar’s earlier film, the critically lauded ghost story The Others (2001). However, if seen as a dramatization of the unfolding of a moral panic, the film fares much better. It does perhaps try to have the best of both worlds, delving into formulaic horror movie territory with creeping shadows, and creaking floorboards. Yet, as the protagonist is enveloped by the growing hysteria, this is justified. ↩