The Salem witch trials will fascinate Americans for as long as those events roil our own capacity for lunacy. In a recent Bleader post, the Reader‘s Aimee Levitt discusses the Salem trials with Stacy Schiff, author of the new book The Witches: Salem, 1692, and she tells us that Schiff believes “the legacy of Salem . . . has echoed throughout American history.”

Schiff provides Levitt with a vague contemporary counterpart to the temper of those 17th-century colonists. “There’s this increasing paranoia and sense of surveillance and the politics of fear,” Schiff says. “How much does Google know about you? Are you being tracked? It’s an easy way to feel haunted.”

Let’s not settle for that. What exists today as it existed then is our human capacity to rouse incomprehensible fears, levy incomprehensible accusations, and impose incomprehensible punishments—incomprehensible, that is, to the nice people we revert to being once passions subside.

There is a book over my desk as I type this called Satanic Panic. Published in 1993, It’s an examination by the author Jeffrey Victor of one of two things: “one of the biggest secret conspiracies, or one of the biggest hoaxes, in recent history.” Victor is certain it’s the latter, but he begins his book with a mention of someone who disagrees—a Mormon leader whose confidential report “said that he believed that [his] church had been infiltrated up to the highest levels, by a conspiracy of criminal Satanists who sexually torture children and ritually sacrifice babies.”

I wrote a lot of columns back in the early 90s about parents who came to believe their children had fallen into the clutches of satanists. I interviewed Victor in the course of preparing a story about Innocence Lost: The Verdict, a Frontline report on accusations that seven adults associated with the Little Rascals day care center in Edenton, North Carolina, had raped and sodomized the children in their care. Once the details were teased out of the tots by sympathetic but relentless inquisitors (one mother denied her little girl dessert for three weeks until she came clean), prosecutors could pick and choose from an embarrassment of riches. Revelations they wisely left out of their indictment included “Mr. Bob” dressing like a clown and robbing a jewelry store, body parts strewn around the center, a child tossed into shark-infested waters and saved by a two-year-old, and Mr. Bob and Ms. Betsy killing babies in outer space. 

All seven defendants were convicted. Mr. Bob was sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences. 

Little Rascals was just one of the child-care cases that made headlines. Another was the McMartin preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, which dragged on from 1984 to 1990. Seven adults were charged with 115 counts of child abuse, the children telling stories of nude sex games and satanic rituals. As I noted in a 2005 column, in the end there wasn’t a single conviction.

In 1993 the New Yorker carried a two-part story by Lawrence Wright about Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington, whose two daughters accused him of abusing them sexually. Ingram was dumbfounded, but a Pentecostal minister helped him understand by explaining that sins so immense would certainly be repressed. “This logic proved invincible,” I wrote in my Little Rascals piece, expanding my focus to contemplate what I called “spiritual totalitarianism.” Helped along by the minister, “first Ingram and then his wife began filling in the blanks. Ingram recalled details of satanic rituals. The testimony of the daughters (the elder especially) progressed to include goats, dogs, orgies, abortions, and the sacrifice and burial of babies. Ingram implicated two friends, and Ingram’s wife recalled a ritual in the woods that found her strapped naked to a table and covered with blood from a bleeding book.”

One reviewer of Wright’s subsequent book, Remembering Satan, commented on “the appalling abuse of police power. These doltish cops, assisted by quack psychologists and counselors, refuse to consider that the accused might be innocent. The total lack of corroborating evidence, even the easily disprovable details of the accusations, do not dampen their conviction.” 

These cases barely scrape the surface of the national madness. Reporter Debbie Nathan, formerly of the Reader, dedicated her career to standing against the tide. In 2003 I asked her to try to explain the prosecutions. “Our culture is still really atavistic,” she said, “but there’s an overlay of science on it. Mix the totally primeval stuff with science and you’ve got this mix that can’t be beat.” Prosecutors “are just as naive as anyone else, but they also know how to sway people. They have all the techniques down pat. ‘Suffer the little children.’ ‘Innocence defiled.’ ‘Worse than murder.'”

But why, I wondered, when it is clear how wrong they were, why can’t prosecutors recant? “Maybe,” she said, “it’s because the whole process of constructing one of these innocent people as a really demonically evil sexual pervert who sadistically violates lots of kids—the whole process of constructing this character on a real person is torture. You have to be very invasive. It’s a very sadistic enterprise. You become like a torturer.” 

Upton Sinclair famously said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” But a salary might be the least interesting of the reasons why we don’t permit contrary notions to take hold. Communities form around common convictions, not common doubts. Our friendships rest on shared beliefs it’s difficult to admit might not all be true. So do our politics.

Schiff tells Levitt that by accusing their elders of witchcraft, the Salem girls achieved power and celebrity. “They were running the show . . .” Schiff says. “The authorities turned to them. They were visionaries.”

Ingram pleaded guilty and went to prison for 20 years. Ingram’s daughter Ericka went on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. She described her abortion at the hands of a satanic cult when she was 16. “The baby was still alive when they took it out. And they put it on top of me and then they cut it up. And then—when it was, when it was dead, then people in the group ate parts of it.”