Modern-day conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and ‘QAnon’ have roots that stretch back to medieval Europe.
by Mark Hay
This summer, Americans got a crash course in “QAnon,” a pro-Trump conspiracy theory (or possible anti-Trump prank) that has been percolating online for about a year. QAnon’s claims are hard to track, in part because its believers believe so many different things. Conspiracy theory academic Joseph Uscinski noted in an interview that its adherents can basically connect its threads to any number of other conspiracies or beliefs. But most iterations claim that a top government operative nicknamed Q is leaking “breadcrumbs” that show that Donald Trump is secretly working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to expose Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other high-level Democrats’ involvement in a murderous, Satanic pedophile ring. Not many people actually seem to believe in this QAnon stuff, Uscinski pointed out. But even though the theory has largely been out of the news for a couple months, QAnon groups are still active online, and supporters have manifested at Trump rallies.
Naturally, many have drawn a connection between QAnon and Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that blossomed in 2016 and centered around the belief that Democrats ran a ritualistic pedophile ring out of a basement at Comet Ping Pong, a DC pizzeria that doesn’t even have a basement. That theory metastasized in late 2016, leading to a December shooting at the pizzeria by a self-proclaimed investigator and sex slave liberator. Even after former Pizzagate promoters like Alex Jones backed off of the theory, it still has proponents. Some observers have slatted these conspiracies into a wider trend on the modern far right of crying pedophile, often using flimsy evidence, against high-profile liberals.
Pedophilia is a real threat. Officials have caught large-scale pedophile rings far more often than one might think, and some of them have involved famous individuals and cover-ups. To many, it is a uniquely evil crime; someone who sexually abuses a child seems capable of anything. But fear of pedophiles can be weaponized and used to whip up mobs that don’t want to wait for solid evidence of wrongdoings to emerge, lest unspeakable horrors go unchecked. In many ways, it is an ideal tool for mobilizing small but highly vocal pockets of opposition against one’s enemies, as it can co-opt some people with genuine fears about child trafficking into perpetuating smear and harassment campaigns. It also offers those who are already predisposed to believing terrible things about the accused more license to hate. Accusations of pedophilia are often taken extremely seriously by law enforcement as well: In 2014, for instance, British police launched a multimillion-dollar investigation into a number of individuals, some of them national politicians, based on one man’s accusations, which turned out to be utterly baseless.
But Pizzagate, QAnon, and other related conspiracies floating around don’t just fit into a long tradition of accusations of pedophilia. As others have noted, the flourishes of these theories—Satanic rituals performed on child victims by depraved cabals, cryptic symbols signaling dark intent or links to the occult, and secret tunnels under ordinary businesses used to abet villainy—actually connect them to a discrete, centuries-old lineage of satanic, or occultic, panics. Most notably, they bear striking similarities to the American “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Pizzagate, QAnon, and their modern ilk are “not as Satanic as the stuff in the 80s was,” said Margaret Peacock, an expert on propaganda and conspiracies involving children, but added there are clear “similarities in language and materiality between them.”
According to Rickard Sjöberg, a neuropsychologist who has studied the long history of allegations of Satanic child abuse and pedophilia rings, these sorts of accusations may stretch back at least as far as the 14th century, when stories of ritualistic child abuse by the Knights Templar crusader order were in active circulation. But the first definite link in this conspiratorial chain goes back to 1428 and the valley of Valais, in what is now Switzerland. Locals there started circulating accusations that members of their community had entered into a pact with the devil, who told them to avoid religious services. Rumors and coerced confessions spread the idea that these occult rings met in cellars to hear Satanic preachings, flew around in enchanted chairs, put curses on their neighbors, and abused, murdered, and even ate children. These tales had horrific consequences, as at least hundreds of accused witches were killed over the course of several years, while many more were imprisoned and tortured.
The same things that inspire conspiracies today likely fueled these early occult panics. Mary deYoung, a social psychologist and expert on moral panics, says the roots are often anxieties about social change or strains, and especially the potential loss of power by an in-group. These worries are then projected on “folk devils” who embody that stress. “Usually, but not always, folk devils are already marginalized people,” she said, “so inflammatory rhetoric about the evils they pose to the social and moral fabric of society is easily accepted.” Self-proclaimed “moral experts” pick up these claims and spread them, and people try to rise up against their folk devils.
“You have a flow of rumor that compounds over and over on itself until it creates a critical mass that legitimizes itself,” said Peacock, “if a listener hears it enough.”
Early occult panics, Sjöberg noted, coincided with social changes linked to the transition away from Medieval social structures and norms. (They have been, he said, “described as the dark side of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.”) Informed by the demonological literature of the day, they used a Christian framework to tar (often, but not exclusively) women as witches, who would supposedly “manifest their dedication to turning normality upside down by eating with their necks, dancing back to back,” and so on. They were accused of abducting and abusing children as part of their self-indulgent effort to distort the social order for their benefit, thus corrupting them. These accusations led, over the course of numerous panics across Europe, to the imprisonment, torture, coercion of confessions, and eventual execution of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of individuals.
Similar panics bounced around Europe well into the late 1800s, Sjöberg notes, often in “naïve” communities that had not yet dealt with them before. Each community and era, conspiracy theory wonk Robert Blaskiewicz said in an interview, made adjustments to the targets of the panic, reflecting the stresses of the area and age. Jewish populations, for instance, were on-and-off targets, accused of trafficking children for blood rituals from the medieval era well into the early 1900s. Details changed as people came to realize certain things weren’t physically possible. “The belief that witches are able to fly on cattle, sleeping humans, or sometimes broomsticks,” Sjöberg pointed out, “has become inconsistent with modern thought and disappeared.”
The American Satanic Panic of the 1980s fits this lineage perfectly. As US families transitioned from depending on one parent’s income to expecting both parents to work, children increasingly spent their days with childcare professionals. This social change led to widespread suspicion of daycare workers, among others. (Rampant homophobia and rising awareness of the ubiquity of queerness also played a role in these suspicions.) Innocuous but odd remarks made by children or bizarre claims drawn out of kids and adults via bullshit recovered memory techniques got sifted through the same cultural prism that inspired other occult panics through history. Unfamiliar with the details of earlier European panics, most Americans approached increasingly wild claims with an unnerving degree of credulous naivete, said Sjöberg.
Rumors circulated, first in-person within communities, then in the press. They then coalesced into a common narrative about daycare operators forcing children into rituals involving physical mutilation and animal slaughter, among other horrors. These tales of Satanic child abuse and sacrifices in secret tunnels marked by occult symbols, while pegged clearly to that era’s culture and fears, harkened back to older panics.
“The ability of this myth to survive over more than 550 years in considerable detail,” marveled Sjöberg, “is remarkable.”
The American Satanic panic faded by the early 1990s, as investigations into its horrific narratives failed to pan out, and critical reporters debunked their sources. But even though naive societies are more prone to these panics, Sjöberg stressed, this doesn’t mean one experience inoculates a community against experiencing variations of them again.
No one is entirely sure how this conspiracy spreads, or gets recycled within a culture over time. One explanation is that there have always been conspiratorial people predisposed to explore all manner of eccentric theories. It is also likely that even after an occult panic fizzles out, low-level belief in it persists in pockets of these conspiratorial circles. At least one major modern conspiracy theorist, for example, was still investigating a long debunked and widely abandoned 1980s ritualistic abuse claim centered on a childcare facility run by the US military when he died in 2016. So it is possible that themes or motifs of these theories bleed into new general conspiracy believer groups over time, who don’t critically engage with them but rather adapt them to their needs.
Peacock added that it is also not clear whether this bleed is intentional, with people grabbing what they think will be an effective tool to demonize their enemies, or organic. Either way, it makes sense that conspiratorial people would glom onto the old chestnut of Satanic child abuse, even in modern America. Like all good theories, it takes a plausible core—pedophile rings really exist—and details which are easy to spin out of ambiguous evidence but hard to disprove. Blaskiewicz said it also speaks to an attack on “the identity, morality, and cosmic order of Christendom, which some people use as shorthand for the West.” That element is likely less attractive in modern Europe, argued Peacock, which is now highly secularized. This may be why occult inflected pedophile panics don’t seem to strike there as often now. But, she said, “we are kidding ourselves if we think we are free from that [preoccupation] in the United States.”
“’Satanic baby rapist’ is like the ultimate thought-stopping epithet for the worst possible person,” said Blaskiewicz, “combining all of the most hair-triggering fears of parents with the actual worship of evil personified.” So it’s no wonder that the same tropes burble up over and over.
Pizzagate and QAnon, may have strayed from older panics’ primary focus on Satanism, but they carry forward similar language, structure, and certain motifs, all of which are still potent.
These theories seem to draw on other long-standing conspiracy theory lineages as well, like deep-state conspiracies, which have been circulating for much of the last century by groups on the left and right. (Uscinski argued that this lineage actually is the primary focus for many QAnon adherents.)
So how do you fight a seemingly immortal conspiracy? Some research has indicated that persistent debunking, and even ridicule, can sour people on a belief, perhaps breaking it as a social force over time. But diehards, experts always note, will almost never give up on a theory. And even after a conspiracy fades from the public eye, it may simmer in conspiratorial circles just out of mainstream view, and so a related occult-inflected pedophile ring theory may just resurface with new vigor decades later. “Maybe there is no solving it,” mused Peacock. “Maybe we are cursed, like we are cursed to violence, as humans. Maybe there is nothing to be done but try to survive it.”
“Every moral panic is time limited,” noted deYoung. “As the social strains from which they emerge lose their salience over time, their power to generate social anxiety and fuel the relentless pursuit of folk devils” fades as well.
Thankfully, Pizzagate, QAnon, and similar conspiracy theories in the air now and to come down the line will likely not do nearly as much damage as their predecessors.
Social media makes it easier for conspiracy believers to find each other and spread their ideas. The fact Trump and elements of his administration seemingly endorse conspiracy theories, including QAnon, is not reassuring either. Nor is the fact that unlike earlier occult panics, which depended on the (dubious) testimonies of “actual” child victims as anchors, these theories just make claims without identifying clear victims. “When the kids are unidentified,” Blaskiewicz said, “hell, you can imagine whatever extravagant travesty meets your worldview’s need for a villain.” It also frees believers up to constantly adjust their targets and details, reiterating the theory over and over without losing potency or momentum.
However, previous occult-inflected pedophile panics were even more mainstream. They led to the murder of tens of thousands of people, if not more, in the early modern era. Even in the 1980s, they had the buy-in of major media outlets and law enforcement agencies, which actually jailed a number of people on totally bogus charges for years on end. QAnon and its modern kin remain far on the political fringe.
“Mobilization may be today’s conspiracy theories’ biggest challenge,” said deYoung. “We sadly live in an increasingly fragmented and divided society. To build steam and turn into a full-fledged moral panic, such claims and claim-makers would have to bridge these divides. And I don’t think that can happen. So we will not likely experience a moral panic a la the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic. But more likely a series of smaller, evanescent moral crusades.”
That may seem like cold comfort, as Pizzagate already led one armed man to storm a pizzeria. Fears always swirl about future acts of violence. But these panics are no longer sweeping up entire regions or recruiting serious media figures. As ugly as they still are, their destructive power has lessened over time. Even if Satanic pedophile ring conspiracies are immortal, they are hopefully increasingly impotent as well.