Satanic-Panic Pod Rankings · Mobbed Up · ID's Nine At 9

Plus, a zero-Kelvin take on Jeffrey MacDonald.

Sometime in the ’80s, police started to get reports of ritualistic abuse of children happening in childcare facilities. The abuse wasn’t just horrifying; it was Satanic, connected to a massive underground network of violent devil worshippers. Somehow, they were doing all this torture without ever leaving behind any evidence, aside from the testimony of the children who had survived. People were imprisoned based on this testimony, which was later found to have been coerced from children, and many of the so-called ritual abuse experts were either discredited or faded away. Those of us who grew up during it may remember how scary ouija boards and pentagrams were, or how were were banned from listening to Metallica or wearing all-black clothes.

The cases began to be grouped under the catchy term Satanic Panic, and several of them have been well covered by famous true-crime properties, like the West Memphis Three and the McMartin Preschool trial. Recently there’s been a crop of podcasts dedicated to this moral hysteria and the subsequent legal proceedings. Gimlet and CBC released new series on the ritual abuse phenomenon within weeks of each other, and several big-name shows have dedicated explainer episodes to the subject. Listening to them, you get a sample of the best and worst of true-crime podcasting, and I'd bet my last roll of toilet paper that this presages an uptick in Satanic panic-related media releases.

Before, dark Lord forbid, Ryan Murphy gets to it, here’s a guide to what’s worth listening to on the moral panic that took as much inspiration from Hollywood horror as it did from the Bible.

1) Uncover: Satanic Panic

The sixth season of CBC’s dependably excellent series starts off in the small town of Martensville, Saskatchewan, a place that reporter Lisa Bryn Rundle remembers from scary stories of her childhood. The terrifying things that happened in Martensville were happening across the world. From preschools, nurseries, and playcare programs, children were confessing to incredible tales of ritual abuse, done in the name of Satan, and they were being believed by child psychologists, social workers, police, and prosecutors. Rundle goes to Martensville to find out what happened, only to discover that there’s never going to be any clear answers. Compassionate but clear-eyed, this show walks us down the path of good intentions on the way to hell.

2) Conviction: American Panic

Gimlet’s true-crime show takes on the mass hysteria of ritual-abuse claims with a big journalistic get: the cooperation of one of the children who testified against a parent. At ten years old John Quinney testified that his father Melvin was the head of a Satanic cult. He didn’t question his father’s guilt for years, and the series starts when John’s doubt begins. Having both John and Melvin discuss what did — and didn’t — happen is heartbreaking. but it lacks the kind of binge-worthy suspense that someone over at, say, Wondery, would’ve brought to the story. Between the high-drama music cues and the breathless narration, it feels as if the producers wanted the series to have classic thriller appeal, while also erring on the side of “looking good for the Peabody judges.”

It doesn’t quite pull off the balancing act and some parts feel a little rushed. I wanted far more about the alleged “expert” on ritual abuse who confesses his own regrets in an exclusive interview. But it maintains a dignified and nuanced look at the phenomenon that demolished families across the country.

3) You’re Wrong About…

The beloved indie explainer series has Satanic Panic in its DNA, as co-host Sarah Marshall tells us every episode that she’s writing a book about the subject. It’s a topic that perfectly fits the brief of the show, which is more or less “the counterintuitive truth about the stories you heard about on ’90s daytime TV.” The very first episode is dedicated to Marshall taking fellow journalist Michael Hobbes through a rapid-fire introduction to the daycare ritual-abuse claims phenomenon. At under an hour and a first-time episode, it’s a little rough around the edges, as Marshall and Hobbes are still audibly working out what they’re doing. Two years later Marshall returned to the subject with a four-parter on the infamous book Michelle Remembers, a dodgy recovered abuse memoir that became an improbable bible for government officials.

4) Mountain Murders: Satanic Panic

Appalachian crime specialists Mountain Murders did a one-episode special on the Satanic Panic that does a tidy job of covering the major cases in context. If you’ve only got an hour to devote to the many-headed hydra of the Satanic cult frenzy, this is a level-headed take from grown-ups who can cop to having worn the occasional black t-shirt in their time.

5) The Satanic Panic

There’s a lot of exhaustive research behind this single-season podcast on the myriad cultural pressures that fed into a moral panic. The hosts have fascinating details, and a convincing thesis. But they appear to have been possessed by the demonic spirits of 12-year-old boys, complete with edgelord humor, random giggling fits, and pointless digressions. Part of the problem in dealing with this material is how ridiculous the testimony quickly gets (toddlers being flown to Mexico? Baby gorillas? Goat-human hybrids?) but, call me prissy, I think it’s better handled without rape jokes. There’s also a sloppiness to some of the reporting, like the “fact” they dropped about the West Memphis Three case that I couldn’t verify with a moderate Google. Only to be approached if your cringe tolerance levels are high.

6) Stuff You Should Know: The “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s

True crime can have a tone problem, with its campier excesses sometimes ringing very hollow given the genuine anguish caused by the subject. Case in point: the usual jovial stylings of Stuff You Should Know hosts Josh and Chuck can make for a great listen on a whole host of topics, but it’s a terrible fit for a discussion where the line between the outrageous and the traumatic is so thin. They bring in some solid references, but you can probably pick them up elsewhere without the baby blood jokes and pop-culture asides. — Margaret Howie

New podcast Mobbed Up: The Fight For Las Vegas drops tomorrow, May 26. I interviewed host/producer Reed Redmond about the podcast, why the Mob space in true-crime podcasting is still relatively wide open, and what it’s like to interview an enforcer in Blotter Brief 43; if you liked Casino, and in particular the tension between traditional Mob ways and the growing pains of a small town, this is the audio doc for you. Check it out, let me know what you think! — SDB

And if you can’t wait that long for a fix of new programming, ID kicks off its Nine At 9 “event” tonight (at…wait for it…9 PM). The true-crime channel is rolling out nine new specials on notorious cases for nine consecutive nights, starting with tonight’s on Jeffrey Dahmer and continuing through Heather Elvis, Faith Hedgepeth, and Brittany Murphy, among others (that the Murphy doc contains the line “you’re the first to see the infamous bathroom” is, in my view, not a great sign?). Things wrap up with the world premiere of yet another Jeffrey Epstein property, a three-parter, followed by yet another Joe Exotic property. Set those DVRs…or, if you like, recommend alternative programming in the comments. — SDB

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I’m not sure it’s “honoring our people in uniform” to point out yet another crappy take on the case of one of the Green Beret uniform’s worst…but that’s what we do in Today In True-Crime Buttholes, so here it is.

  • I’ve seen fourth-grade book reports written more smoothly than this so-called review of A Wilderness Of Error, which chooses to pile on Joe McGinniss instead of confronting the idea that MacDonald can not have received due process but still be guilty. (Even the blog’s title, “Shelf Reflection,” is bad.) Will Doolittle’s last graf begins, “I can’t review the whole huge complicated case here”; the Malcolm-ian failure even to attempt it while taking the Stoeckley testimony at face value, combined with the stilted prose, gives the overall impression that the author’s trying to take a veiled shot at lamestream-media received wisdom. [The Post-Star]

  • The title of this item speaks for itself, I’m afraid — “Sister Of Suspect In Ahmaud Arbery Case Posted Photo Of Arbery’s Dead Body To Snapchat Because She’s A ‘True Crime Fan’” — so I’ll confine myself to remarking that it’s “fans” like this turd who make it hard to feel good about trying to exist in the true-crime space with good-faith reviews and recs. [Oxygen] — SDB

Speaking of those reviews and recs, we know it’s an economically uncertain time for everyone, even as the country tries to “reopen”…and if all you’re “certain” of is that you can’t afford a paid Best Evidence subscription, we completely understand! But if you can free up $5 a month (or want to save by “buying bulk” for $55 a year), we would appreciate it so much. It lets us rent garbage like Capone so you don’t have to, and pay our contributors to talk about it. And if, like mine, your non-Zodiac dad is tough to shop for, it’s a convenient and virus-free gift. — SDB

Later this week on Best Evidence: paid subscribers get my review of Dopesick; everyone gets my review of The Painter And The Thief; Jim Gaffigan maybe wishes he could re-cast…himself; and True Crime A To Z graduates!

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