On Monday, a federal jury in Salt Lake City awarded the Procter & Gamble corporation over $19 million in its defamation lawsuit against several former Amway distributors who spread the rumor that P & G was controlled by Satanists. On the surface, it was justice applied to unscrupulous people who tried to get ahead by spreading baseless rumors about a competitor. On another level, one could say that it was logical for the Amway distributors to spread this longstanding rumor about P & G because Amway/Quixtar/Alticor is a quasi-religious cult and it made sense--at least from their perspective--to view the competition as being in league with the devil.
When the Amway/Satan verdict came in, I was working on a post that noted that many of the people involved in the "satanic panic" that had its heyday in the 1980's were the same people who promoted the "Clinton Body Count" in the 1990's. Let's discuss these phenomena:
During the 70's and 80's, a group of self-described experts on Satanism emerged--some of the more prominent of these "experts" were Mike Warnke, Lauren Stratford, and Michelle Smith. They and lesser-known fundamentalists spread sensational tales of highly organized satanic covens engaging in horrifying acts of Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). These highly questionable reports were reported in the mainstream media by journalists such as Geraldo Rivera and Tom Jarriel (who interviewed Warnke for a 20/20 report in 1985). In many areas around the country, this lead to what social scientists call "a moral panic." Tales of satanic ritual abuse fueled real charges of child abuse. However, a 1992 FBI report found that claims of organized covens of Satanists coordinating abuse and sacrifices were completely unfounded.
The Clinton Body Count
Soon after Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, reports emerged, mostly in the fundamentalist Christian and right-wing media, that Bill and Hillary Clinton were cold-blooded killers who were bumping off dozens of political enemies and political friends (e.g., Vince Foster and Ron Brown) who knew too much. These incredible tales became known as the "Clinton Body Count" (CBC). The Clinton Body Count was spread on web sites like the Free Republic and on right-wing talk radio (notably on Rush Limbaugh's and G. Gordon Liddy's shows). Jerry Falwell sold CBC-themed VHS tapes on his Old Time Gospel Hour television program. Billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife also funded efforts to spread this hoax. Although much of the right wants to forget about it, CBC is still a staple on Internet sites like Free Republic and on talk radio. (8/07 Update: Sean Hannity has revived the Vince Foster canard on his radio and television shows).
What I find interesting is that many of the people responsible for creating a wave of fear and hysteria in the 1980's regarding supposed satanic sacrifices were the same people in the 1990's who claimed that Bill and Hillary Clinton were killing people left and right. This makes sense because both the Satanic panic and the Foster conspiracy theories are both examples of urban legends. Here are some of the main players involved in both modern legends:
And finally, a mixed bag:
UPDATE: Eric Rauchway has a good article in the New Republic on how the GOP is demonizing the Democrats.
UPDATE II: In a 1987 episode of Geraldo Rivera's syndicated talk show Geraldo, Rivera made the following panic-inducing claims:
Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country. The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual abuse, child pornography, and grizzly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town.(Source: Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend by Jeffrey S. Victor, pp. 32, 33.)