Satanism, ritual cults and Hollywood: debunking ‘satanic panic’ conspiracy theories

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Earlier this year the non-binary singer-songwriter, Sam Smith, performed their song Unholy, at the Grammys. Dressed in a red devil-horned top hat and latex costume, the performance drew upon popular occult and gothic aesthetics. And it attracted a huge amount of criticism for the supposed promotion of satanic imagery.

Conspiracy theorists alleged that the performance was, in fact, a real, satanic ritual orchestrated by an elite cult of Hollywood satanists. Its supposed aim? To morally subvert society by brainwashing and indoctrinating young people.

Only a few months prior, a similar mass online panic had taken hold in the form of the Balenciaga scandal – with conspiracy theorists claiming that the fashion brand was secretly engaging in child trafficking and satanic ritual abuse.

This was after photographs for its latest campaign featured children holding teddy bear bags that appeared to be dressed in bondage fetish-wear.

These are just the latest in a string of satanic conspiracy theories, from the 2014 Hampstead hoax, which involved false allegations of a satanic paedophile ring operating out of a north London school, to the rise of the now infamous QAnon movement, where supporters believe that Satan-worshipping elites are trying to take over society.

Satanism scares

In the UK and further afield, there’s a long history of claims that secret, Satan-worshipping cults exist that ritualistically abuse and sacrifice children. Emerging in the form of moral panics known as “satanism scares”, it’s possible to trace these rumours and myths back to second-century Rome. Yet they really rose to prominence during the Middle Ages.

This satanic mythology has often been used as a way to demonise Jewish communities. In particular, they’ve often involved false allegations that Jewish people use the blood of non-Jewish – usually Christian – children for ritual purposes.

The European witch-hunts which happened during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries also incorporated claims of devil-worship and child sacrifice.

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