The Never-Ending Legacy of the Satanic Panic
A New Zealand victim of the satanic panic died before the Supreme Court deemed him innocent. How did Peter Ellis end up here?
Something remarkable happened in New Zealand last week — a first.
The Supreme Court quashed the convictions of a dead man. The man had died three years ago, riddled with cancer. It was the dead man’s third and final appeal: he’d failed in 1994, and he’d failed again in 1999.
But in death, somehow, he’d won.
I wish he’d been around to have seen it. The man was Peter Ellis, and he was a victim of the satanic panic that had kicked off in America over a decade before his conviction.
It was the same satanic panic that’s consistently fed into the QAnon conspiracy theory narratives that raged on while Ellis waited.
Now he’s deemed innocent; innocent like he knew he was the entire time.
Maybe some sanity is finally coming back. Maybe. I just wish Peter Ellis was around to see it.
Terrifying trips of abuse through tunnels.
Peter Ellis was a well-liked childcare worker at the Christchurch Civic Creche, who in 1993 was convicted on 16 counts of sexual offences against children.
He always maintained his innocence, and never went to any of his parole board hearings, because that would have meant he’d have to admit to the crimes.
He was released in 2000 — but while he was free, he was also ruined. Once convicted as a pedophile, always a pedophile.
I can hear you now: “What if he was a pedophile — you don’t just go to jail for something like that unless something happened.”
Well — let’s look at some of the things he was accused of by panicked parents :
He’d apparently forced children into steaming hot ovens, made them eat his faeces, urinated on them, suspended them from swinging cages, removed their belly buttons with pliers and — yes — took them on “terrifying trips of abuse through tunnels.”
Oh, and one parent alleged Ellis had sacrificed a kid called Andrew. Despite no kids called Andrew going missing. Or being killed.
And off to prison Ellis went. Ruined, broken, forever cast as a satanic, child-abusing monster.
A Therapist, His Lover, and their Bullshit Story That Started It All.
To understand what happened to Peter Ellis, you have to understand the ‘Satanic Panic’ that broke out in the United States in the 1980s.
That panic led to over 12,000 unsubstantiated cases of Satanic ritual abuse — first in America, and then in other places. Places like New Zealand.
Just like the advent of QAnon can be traced back to a stupid post on an internet message board, the satanic panic can be traced by to the publication of one very stupid book.
In 1980, Michelle Remembers hit the best-sellers list. It was co-written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, and his patient (and future wife!) Michelle Smith.
Lawrence used “recovered-memory therapy” to extract “memories” of Michelle’s (completely fictional) “satanic ritual abuse”. During these sessions, Michelle revealed that she’d been abused by the Church of Satan since she was five years old.
During the rituals, Smith was apparently tortured, locked in cages, sexually assaulted, rubbed with the blood and body parts of various sacrificed infants and adults, and witnessed a few kids being killed.
It all culminated in one final 81-day ritual in 1955 that summoned Satan himself.
All these “facts” were thrown into a book by her therapist, and sold as a piece of nonfiction.
People went apeshit for it, mainstream talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey attaching her carriage to the Satanic Panic train.
And so by the time three young metal-heads (dubbed the “West Memphis Three”) in Arkansas were accused (and eventually convicted) of the murders and sexual mutilation of three kids as a part of a satanic ritual, Peter Ellis was being accused in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Same year, 1993.
Peak satanic panic.
A City Possessed.
I first really understood the Peter Ellis case when I read A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case — an incredible work of journalism by Lynley Hood.
Hood examines the entire case — and reveals how Ellis was caught up in a moral panic, accusations spiraling out of control amongst children and parents.
It didn’t help that Ellis was bisexual. Many assumed he was gay. In the 1990s, in many people’s minds, that meant you were also probably under the control of the devil — and more likely to be a pedophile as well.
New Zealand police coached children until they got the answers they wanted. And yes — by this time law enforcement believed all this stuff was very, very real.
Investigators essentially wanted to make sense of the crazy shit they were hearing — and the easiest way was to have the kids parrot it back to them.
Decades later, Ellis’ alleged victims — then children, now adults — would come forward expressing huge regret:
“I think about it every day,” says Ruby, “I feel a lot of guilt about it and just how sad it was that an innocent man had to go through what he went through.
Ruby was nine years old when Ellis was sent to prison. She had been through four or five evidential interviews with sexual abuse specialists from the Department of Social Welfare before she made her first formal disclosure, and describes the pressure to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Ruby says she was given rewards like clothes, toys or fast food whenever she finished an interview, something she now feels upset about, despite being a child when it happened.
Of the 12,000 unsubstantiated cases of satanic ritual abuse, a number of them ended up focussing on men who cared for children in schools. This is just a small selection of cases that echoed Peter Ellis’ case in New Zealand:
Fells Acres Day Care Center
The Bronx Five
Wee Care Nursery School
Oak Hill satanic ritual abuse trial
Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions
Martensville satanic sex scandal
Of course, we only need to look to the Catholic Church to know that abuse towards children is very real. But that story is much more boring. It’s way more exciting if you throw in satanic rituals and goats blood; some homosexuality and cages — and a smattering of underground tunnels.
And so those are the stories that spread and are listened to. It’s natural selection: The best stories always win.
Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not.
I decided to call Dr. Justin Sledge, a professor of philosophy and religion in the US. He has a special interest in moral panics, more specifically the satanic panic that swept America — and the world — during the 1980s. Why is he so interested? We’ll get to that soon.
Dr Sledge reminded me that we’ve been chasing humans down for fictional heinous “satanic” things for ages.
“What you have in the witch hunts is a kind of conspiracy theory — a group of pretty primeval myths tied into a narrative around how some group of people, this mysterious group of people, are meeting and coordinating to undermine all of Christendom.
This is developing in the aftermath of the Black Death, and what you get is a closed loop of logic:
There are these women doing this; If we can arrest one of them, we can torture them through juridical torture; They will confess that they’re a member of one of these groups; The confession system is incredibly leading — to lead you through what they basically want you to confess to.
If you confess and you name names, the odds of you getting out of this are higher — not terribly high, but they’re higher; And of course, denying the charges of witchcraft are an indicator that you are, in fact, a witch.”
The witch hunts began in the 15th century, before really amped up by the middle of the 17th century — only to decline away and basically not be a thing by the mid 18th century.
But it lasted for several hundred years, and claimed the lives of what we now believe between between 40,000 and 60,000 people, mostly women.
“And that’s not counting the amount of people incarcerated. Their reputations ruined, them being tortured, people living under suspicion of being accused of this.
So there’s the direct damage of being hanged or burned at the stake. But there’s also the secondary damage of even if you’re acquitted, the suspicion is there for life.”
I think of that dead man, Peter Ellis. Because the thinking behind the witch hunts never really left.
They came back.
“I think that what’s happening in the world, out of which the satanic panic precipitates, is the decline in the twilight of American power and prestige in the world.
We go from the halcyon days of Eisenhower in the 1950s, where we just won this titanic war against evil. We had just built all this infrastructure. We had, you know, The Brady Bunch.
But the massive social movements of the civil rights movement questions our idea that everyone’s equal, and we have the big insurrections and riots.
We have the hippie movement. We have the countercultural movement. The ‘Red Scare’ gives us the idea that we’re not safe, that the Reds are going to undermine us.
So on top of that, things continue to get worse. The world oil crisis is really ramping up by the late seventies.
This is a time period where Detroit is burning down half the time. This is a period where the factories are closing everywhere. Walmart and Kmart are really destroying middle America by the late seventies. The malls are rising and gutting what used to be Main Street America. America is going through a huge identity crisis.
Many of the marriages from the 1960s and the free love movement are collapsing in divorce. We have a social, political and economic disaster. It’s a really slow moving train wreck.
That slow moving train wreck would have produced some kind of conspiratorial reason as to why it was happening. And this is also the rise of the moral majority — the big hardcore evangelical rightwing Christianity that really argued that the decline of America was the result of basically the apocalypse coming.
And so there’s a lot of apocalyptic ideas in the 80s — about America’s moral degeneracy, and rejection of Christianity as a kind of state religion.
That was the cooking pot.”
And there’s a reason Dr Sledge is so engaged in all this stuff.
He too was a victim of the Satanic Panic — a panic which saw him serving prison time.
“I mean, the satanic panic very nearly destroyed my life.
A young man in October of 1997 murdered his mother, came to my school, and he handed me a bunch of documents — the first of which was clearly a will, and mentioned very clearly the word ‘murder’.
And then he proceeded to murder his ex-girlfriend, to kill a young woman sitting near her, and then shot randomly into the crowd, one of the first school shootings of this era.
This is two years before Columbine.”
The Pearl High School shooting happened in October of 1997 at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi.
16-year-old student Luke Woodham killed his mother before heading to school, where he shot and killed two students, and injured seven others
Earlier in the month, Luke Woodham had met another student, Grant Boyette, apparently accepting an invitation to join a satanic group Boyette founded called “The Kroth”.
“And as the days went on after this really horrific crime happened, we began to hear the rumours: There’s a satanic cult in the town. They found some animal bones out in the woods somewhere.
Somewhere a county over, someone found some candles while they were jogging. I’m not kidding you. That was a piece of the evidence.
Even a young woman came to the police hysterical, saying that she saw a cloud take the form of a skull. And she knew that the presence of satan was in the town.
And then about five days later, myself and several other young men, about a half a dozen young men, many of which did not know each other, were all arrested and charged with conspiracy to be part of a murderous satanic cult.
What exactly this cult was supposed to have done, that was never really clear. But what ends up happening is I ended up spending about 60 days in jail.”
He said it was awful.
But he got out.
Thankfully for him, clouds in the shape of a skull didn’t hold up in court.
The atmosphere was thick with this stuff.
No longer was Dungeons and Dragons a game for smart nerds, it was a portal to the devil.
The FBI was blaming Dungeons and Dragons for murder.
And pop culture was never far behind. Tom Hank’s first leading role was in a 1982 TV movie called Mazes and Monsters — about the evils of table-top games. Tom Hanks’ character plays too much D&D, eventually losing touch between the game and reality. Carnage ensues.
That film was very loosely based on the real story of James Dallas Egbert III — an avid D&D player, who took his own life.
While the source of James’ torment was his closeted homosexuality, investigators blamed it on his love of D&D — which the media was referring to by then as “a bizarre and secretive cult”.
James also LARPed in the steam tunnels under Michigan State University. This became a huge part of the media narrative, and bled into future stories about demonic, awful things going on in underground tunnels. Cue the tunnel stories that would hit Peter Ellis decades later.
Meanwhile, Christian circles were passing around Jack Chick’s propaganda — his mini-Evangelical comics like Dark Dungeons furthering the panic.
Many of those comics also equated being gay with being under the control of Satan. Again — this was all in the public’s mindset by the time Peter Ellis started working at the Christchurch Civic Creche in New Zealand.
I encountered the tail end of this peak Satanic Panic.
In the late 90s (I graduated in 2000) I attended Bethlehem College — a Christian school I’ve written about at length here in Webworm. As part of music class, we were made to watch Hells Bells — a “documentary” fully anchored in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
We were told that Madonna had entered a pact with the devil, and that heavy metal music contained hidden backwards tracks that would summon satan.
If this all seems ridiculous, well — it was. You can watch the whole three hour film on YouTube:
It seems laughable now — but I believed it. Most of the class believed it.
And who am I kidding? The satanic panic never went away. It’s deep in our culture, still. Parents saw Satan in Pokemon, and they saw Satan in Harry Potter.
Just last week a woman in Texas made headlines when she went on a tirade against Disney’s new Hocus Pocus film:
“I'll try to be brief, Please hear me when I tell you the truth that the Witches and Warlocks in the satanic church abuse and sacrifice children in their ‘spiritual rituals’ to gain more power in the underworld,” Gooch said in the post that is now private but was shared by ABC13.
Goosh continued, “So before you hit play on the night of the premiere of this movie please ask yourself if not only your mind but your children's minds are strong enough to ward off the hypnotization and bewitching trance that will be coming through the screen to aid in the desensitization of the coming evil in this world. Don’t fall victim to the schemes of hell.
A worst-case scenario is: you unleash hell on your kids and in your home. The whole movie is based on witches harvesting children for blood sacrifices.”
Harvesting children. Peter Ellis knew those accusations all too well.
“It seems a bit of an anti-climax.”
A week before he died, Peter Ellis gave an interview to John Campbell (a mentor of mine).
Ellis gave a hint about how he survived the weight of a conviction that would not go away:
“I’ve always laughed, laughed away through things, it’s just part of what happened to me, I suppose, I just laughed my way through it.”
It may seem like an odd response, but considering the circumstances, what else was he meant to do? New Zealand readers / VPN users can watch the whole interview here. It’s tragic and it’s incredible.
Last week, outside the court — after Peter Ellis was deemed innocent — his brother Mark talked to reporters:
“I suppose it’s good news. But [it’s been a] long time coming, it sort of takes the edge off it a little bit.
[I] wish my brother was here, because it was really what he deserved.
[It’s] not for us to hear so much, him and mum who were the staunch party in the whole thing, and always stood strong under probably quite trying circumstances that he had. He was always so positive.
I don’t want to downplay it, but it seems a bit of an anti-climax.”
Isn’t that always the way; the anticlimax of it all.
Like the cabals and adrenochrome of QAnon and the satanic panic chaos that led to Peter Ellis’ conviction: the stories that got us to this place were so riveting.
So full of horror.
Kids were being stuffed in ovens, while others were having their belly buttons torn off. A kid called Andrew was sacrificed, while his friends remained trapped in a network of underground tunnels.
The reality is much more anti-climatic. A man sat in prison for seven years, and then he got out, and then he died from cancer.
It’s boring and it’s forgettable.
I wish we’d learn that boring and anticlimactic is okay. Because — more often than not — boring and anticlimactic is the truth.
PS: You can share Webworm if you like: webworm.co/p/satanicpanic.
A note on Webworm, Arise!
I feel incredibly proud of what Webworm has done this year — from the guest writers and investigations, to the changes and discussion that’s come from this lil’ newsletter I started two years ago.
I’m back in New Zealand for this live Webworm event on November 3 — about Arise megachurch, and other crooked systems — and to meet readers, answer questions and chat late into the night, and drink wine and chocolate milk (there will be choco milk at the bar).
Webworm had the kindest, best comments section and community I’ve encountered ever — and I wanted to bring that into IRL with Webworm, Arise!
If you don’t know about this event, it’s because you don’t subscribe to Webworm — and that’s on you!
Giant thanks to Toby Morris for the graphics — a limited edition poster print that will be available at the show.