The Lasting Horror of Witch Hunts in America: McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, and Beyond


Cultural history is consistently reflected through the fears that we focus on in the horror genre. America, in particular, has a bevy of traumas to choose from which have fed into American horror themes and subgenres for decades.

One particular concept – that is certainly not limited to American horror – is paranoia. But distrust expands beyond the lingering gaze of a mysterious stranger (which is typically tied to a cultural history of Xenophobia). Themes of deep suspicion are perhaps most effective when turned on someone who has already broken that “inner circle” – your neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even family.

Following WWII, there was a concern that the Anti-Democratic and Totalitarian nature of Communism would spread to the U.S. and infiltrate the American public and every aspect of their lives. This fear led to a frantic hunt for possible domestic supporters -- a hysteria that is commonly known as the Red Scare.

The first Red Scare was actually during WWI (between 1914-1915), after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. But the hysteria really gained notoriety in the 40s and 50s due to the volatile witch hunt for Communist supporters and sympathizers. The loyalty of federal employees and the Hollywood film industry were questioned and analyzed. Thanks to the efforts of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), countless careers - and lives - were destroyed.

This climate of fear and repression developed into a series of films that reflected that domestic paranoia (intentional or not). Thematically, these secret invaders are often represented by an alien or outside force that attempt to take over or control their innocent victims.

In Invaders from Mars (1953), a flying saucer lands in a sand pit near the home of a young boy named David MacLean. The invaders carve out tunnels under the town to trap their local victims and implant a controlling device in their necks. David’s parents fall prey to the aliens, as do the local police.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) follows a comparable beat. In the film, Dr. Miles Bennell is shocked to hear all of his patients complain that their loved ones have been acting strangely, suddenly emotionally detached. Naturally, upon investigation it is revealed that an alien species has been growing duplicates of the townsfolk in plant-like pods in an attempt to take over the town.

Similarly, the blood-red titular menace of The Blob (1958) absorbs its victims, growing bigger and stronger with each new “recruit”. As the Blob quietly shifts through town, consuming all in its path, the only living witnesses struggle to find anyone who will believe their story of this ever-expanding threat. It is only when the gelatinous monster seeps out of a movie theater that others understand the massive scope of this danger (which can only be stalled by a freezing cold).

the blob via mondo digital.jpg

Now, it would be rather bold to imply that all of these films have a political axe to grind. In the cases of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob, it’s been openly denied that this was ever the intention. However, that pervasive paranoia came out of the zeitgeist that America was still grappling with, which continues to feed into our cultural horror.

In 1960, a particularly poignant episode of The Twilight Zone aired, titled The Monsters are Due on Maple Street (Season 1, Episode 22). The episode focuses on a neighborhood witch hunt sparked by a panic that was puppeteered by an alien spaceship, intent on using this discovery to destroy our world. The closing narration to the episode certainly does not mince words.

With time comes perspective, and those thematic elements of internal danger, distrust, and violent witch hunts continue to appear in modern media. We see this more openly The Thing (1982), but these themes still pose an underlying threat in films like The Faculty (1998) and It Comes At Night (2017).

via Ex-Press

via Ex-Press

Although we’ve moved far beyond the Red Scare of the 40s-50s (well… chronologically speaking), this concept of a localized witch hunt sprung up again with the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s.

Following a surge of counterculture in the 70s and 80s, there was a knee-jerk fear that “Satanic” heavy metal was corrupting the youth. This even extended to a concern that Dungeons and Dragons was a covertly insidious game that aimed to teach the evils of witchcraft and wizardry (an attempt to justify this connection can be seen in the 1982 film Mazes and Monsters).

A moral panic ensued that was fuelled by allegedly recovered memories of childhood Satanic ritual abuse. A toxic combination of media hype, a misunderstanding of mental health, and Christian Fundamentalism devolved into fears that were validated by law enforcement professionals and psychotherapists.

In 1980, a book called Michelle Remembers shocked the nation. Written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his long-time patient Michelle Smith (who eventually became Pazder’s wife, so... red flags there), the book chronicled Michelle’s recovered memories of horrific abuse inflicted by her mother and other members of a Satanic cult in the 1950s. It’s worth noting that Michelle initially began therapy for reasons completely unrelated to her childhood.

Pazder naturally faced a lot of skepticism and scrutiny once the book was published (the book has since been debunked). But despite the large number of inconsistencies and the outrageously unlikely details of the story, the damage was done, and the public was convinced.  

In 1983, the McMartin preschool trial focused on uncovered allegations of the sexual and Satanic ritual abuse of children at the hands of the day care’s staff. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were made and all charges were eventually dropped (though the lives of the McMartin family were already ruined).

The moral panic surrounding Satanic ritual abuse continued to spiral out of control in 1980 with the Kern County child abuse cases– a witch hunt that saw the conviction of at least 36 innocent people (of which, two died in prison) - and in 1994 with the conviction of the West Memphis Three.

This pearl-clutching paranoia created laughably earnest “cautionary tale” films like Do You Know the Muffin Man (1989) and the Ed & Lorraine Warren based-on-a-“true” story The Demon Murder Case (1983). On a brighter, lighter note, Joe Dante offered a reflection of this hypocrisy in his 1989 film, The Burbs, while Charles Martin Smith poked fun at the heavy metal uproar with 1986’s Trick or Treat.

The majority of Satanic ritual abuse cases can be attributed to coerced or coached allegations from a child’s psychiatrist or psychotherapist - or even a family member - that propagate iatrogenic memories of abuse.

This incredibly problematic practice is not too far off from the confessions that came from the systematic torture of those accused of witchcraft in the 15-1600s.

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Thanks to the popularity of the Malleus Maleficarum – the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and inquisitors – sorcery was elevated to a criminal status, and vicious torture was recommended to effectively obtain a confession (a topic explored in 1968’s Witchfinder General). The death penalty was the only sure-fire way to stop the evils of witchcraft once a confession was obtained (a focus in 1983’s The Devonsville Terror and 1957’s The Undead)

Most recently, themes of witch hunts and trials have been featured in films like the period-accurate stylistic masterpiece, The Witch (2015), in which the paranoia and terror surrounding the family causes them to lash out against their own in a test of their faith.

Similarly, 2018’s Assassination Nation explores a modern, thoroughly feminist retrospective on the Salem witch trials, mixed with the furious anger of a generation fighting against toxic masculinity, homophobia, slut shaming, and easily accessible gun violence. Assassination Nation also dives head-first into the longstanding fear of female sexuality.

First published in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was written by a discredited Catholic clergyman. The book contained a considerable focus on the sexuality of female witches. Men who were experiencing erectile dysfunction or other similar issues would often point the blame at witchcraft and accuse women who may have “cursed” them.   

In 1922, Benjamin Christensen’s documentary-style silent film - titled Häxan – was a study of how the witch hunts developed out of superstition and a misunderstanding of mental illness. It’s likely that many of the “old crones” accused of witchcraft had been suffering from dementia, long before the symptoms could be diagnosed. Christensen sought to demonstrate how the treatment of “hysterical women” through this troubling period of history was horrifically fed by fear of demonic influence.

Ironically (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the film was banned in the United States because of its graphic depictions of torture and sexual perversion.

by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

In all cases, these hunts were mobilized by fear. A combination of paranoia and systematic misunderstanding led to the conviction of countless innocent people who suffered greatly for an unsubstantiated cause. Even now, we still see the effect of mobilized, interpreted-as-justified fear on a regular basis.

Thematically, this fear is reflected through horror films that prey on paranoia and distrust. In the context of our history, it’s easy to understand why these on-screen events escalate as quickly and dramatically as they so often do.

If there’s ever a question of how – in a film – our humanity could devolve so quickly, just remember, this has happened before.