The rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s, combined with the Reagan Era of the ‘80s, grasped several aspects of American culture. Mortified parents longed for what they considered a socially palatable past, one filled with “clean music” and mothers “maintaining” the home. Adults fell for conspiracies with the intention of keeping their children safe, and inadvertently twisted the blame to largely innocent groups. Rapid social change and upheaval frightened people into clinging to the narrative of the evil stranger, allowing them to neglect or fail to realize that much of the abuse at the hands of children comes from within the home. To this day, remnants of the panic-fraught ‘80s live on.
When children are little, adults begin telling them to avoid strangers, especially men and white vans, encouraging them to diffuse an encounter with a stranger — walk away or find a motherly figure. While I don’t remember my parents telling me these things because of their generally liberal and unrestrictive style of parenting, these mantras were ingrained in me and others from a young age, a result of the public school system or influence from media and friends.
The fear of the unholy stranger that originated in the 1980s came from, above all else, concerns over child sexual abuse (CSA).
A 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Justice cited an increase in reported CSA cases, as well as a rise in concern and awareness of the issue in the 1980s. From the years 1977 to 1992, reported cases increased, reaching an estimated peak of 149,800 substantiated CSA cases in 1992. In the remaining years of the 1990s, cases decreased. This data is the genesis of the crusade against strangers.
Separately, research on child abduction by strangers is limited and outdated, possibly because of its rarity. According to Reuters, national child abduction rates are statistically low; fewer than 350 people younger than 21 are abducted by strangers in the United States each year since 2010. This number is low because the subject, strangers, is not the issue statistically associated with child harm. Most harm is inflicted by family members or friends of the family. In the ‘80s, adults may have recognized the severity of CSA, but used an entirely different, separate issue while raising awareness.
Child abduction data is even more so skewed when the issue of family abduction is examined. Kidnapping prevention focuses on the “stranger danger” aspect but statistics show most abduction is enacted by family members, especially in households with separated, estranged or divorced parents. According to The Journalist’s Resource, “parents were the perpetrators in more than 90 percent of kidnappings and abductions,” cited from a 2017 study by the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “91 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child or child’s family knows.”
This is concerning in itself, but even more so when this data can be falsely used to cite simply the number of kidnappings in correlation to the subject’s famed villain, the “stranger.”
These uncomfortable conversations were often pushed into fearful narratives to derive from the even more fearful issue; family members are potentially more threatening to children than strangers.
“This is concerning in itself, but even more so when this data can be falsely used to cite simply the number of kidnappings in correlation to the subject’s famed villain, the ‘stranger.'”
While strangers were shoved into a frightful bubble of everything that is unfamiliar for adults and children alike, high on the list of potential murderers, kidnappers or predators were those who worshipped and adhered to the tenets of Satanism.
Metal rock bands like AC/DC and Black Sabbath were at the helm of American culture in the ‘80s, containing sometimes dark or sexually explicit messages. The game Dungeons and Dragons was popular among geeky teenagers, and generally, no matter the intended crowd, many of these forms of media utilized devilish or fantasy-like figures. Creatively inspired, cultural icons explored lyrical freedom and horror and gore in filmmaking. Strangely enough, parents believed this directly inspired Satanic worship and acts of violence.
The issue, once again, originated from concerns over child sexual abuse and bullying. Parents panicked during the McMartin Preschool trial of the ‘80s, which occurred after children attending McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California described stories with elements of sexual abuse and witchcraft performed by their teachers to their parents and police. The longest and most expensive trial in United States history resulted in no convictions and many of the claims of magic were later discredited or rebuked — one of the children who was questioned later said as an adult he simply lied about things because of pressure from parents or investigators. It did, however, make a lasting impact on child daycare facilities and parent distrust, especially where authority over children by other adult figures commences. The publication of “Michelle Remembers” in 1980 detailed the namesake Michelle’s journey with her psychiatrist in recovering memories of her forced participation in Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) as a child. The book described Michelle’s experiences with the Church of Satan, claiming she was tortured, sexually assaulted and coerced into rituals. “Michelle Remembers” only further propelled theories that Satanism was influencing predatory and disturbing behavior everywhere.
The book, unsurprisingly, was later discredited, and continues to hold skepticism by the larger public, despite being used as evidence for the so-called prominence of SRA, especially in the ‘80s. Additionally, a 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health denies the theory that heavy metal and other extreme music forms spur listeners into anger and violent behavior, but rather are commonly used when the listener is already in a state of anger, and the music may even help the listener process emotions in a healthy manner. This makes perfect sense for teenagers, who cycle through emotions and phases and use outlets such as music to find comfort or lyrical understanding. It’s asinine to imply heavy music is the sole contributor for violence and literal Satan worshipping; there’s almost always a bigger picture. The Dungeons and Dragons argument, too, holds fallacy, and beliefs that a game can push the player into violence are similar to the more recent and untrue theory that video games cause violence and even mass shootings.
“We lambaste things that become popular among youth because we’re scared of what it’ll do to children, and in the process we discredit the actual relief it may bring them.”
If it isn’t already clear, America hates loners. Since the ‘80s and even long before that, we decry underground activities and forms of expression because of their strangeness and odd influences. We lambaste things that become popular among youth because we’re scared of what it’ll do to children, and in the process we discredit the actual relief it may bring them. American conservatism once hated Elvis; the same goes for The Beatles and Nirvana — artists that conservative pundits are proud of listening to today. An interest in fantasy or satanic media in the ‘80s comes around today in representations of the decade, with series and movies such as “Stranger Things.”
It’s important to consider those who pose real danger to children do exist, especially in familiar places. Family members are also strangers to other kids, so it’s not inherently wrong to assume some strangers are dangerous, and CSA is extremely common and detrimental to children. What’s just as important, however, is how we carry this conversation, by letting go of skewed statistics and narratives of the past that blame any one group.
Were you affected by the Stranger Danger and Satanic Panic narratives as a child? Let us know in the comments below.