The Suburban Uncanny

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This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: The Occult, No. 22 


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Even though Freud popularized the term, he never outright defined what he meant by “the uncanny.” He offered instead, a number of examples that might trigger the feeling, including “[t]he factor of the repetition of the same thing,” an experience that evokes for him “the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream-states.” Freud describes walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy, getting lost and attempting to find his way, only to arrive again and again at the same street, the twisting narrow streets inevitably returning him to the same place. Getting lost in a forest or mountain fog, and returning to the same spot repeatedly, or feeling about in a dark room and stumbling into the same piece of furniture — these all, Freud suggests, evoke “the same feeling of helplessness and of uncanniness.”

Freud was writing before the rise of the suburbs, but in their layout and construction they seemed almost purpose-built to evoke the uncanny. Anyone who’s ever been lost in a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs knows this sensation: the houses, row after row of them, the streets seemingly straight but also strangely curved and bent, as if to subtly guide you toward a dead-end in the subdivision’s heart. All the houses structurally the same, but with slight variations — perhaps because of a different car in the driveway, a different conglomeration of yard waste at the curb, a distinct rose bush or hedge — eliciting a simultaneous sense of sameness and difference. At night, driving slowly through such a maze, the orange glow of streetlights brightening and fading along the way, or even in daytime, as you pass by house after house shut up against the world, you are in the landscape of disquiet.

Perhaps it was not a question of if, but when, the topography of such spaces would become the locus of a nationwide nightmare.

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In 1984, in Manhattan Beach, California, the owners of a respected and elite daycare center, the McMartin Pre-School, were arrested under suspicion of child molestation. A woman named Judy Johnson had accused the staff of molesting her son Matthew, launching a trial that would consume much of the 1980s. The case would become one of the longest and most sensationalized legal battles in American history, and would come to stand in for a whole series of occult conspiracies and allegations about daycare workers that swept through the country like a virus.

This series of legal battles came to be known as the Satanic Panic, which is still associated with daycares because of the McMartin case. All over the country, childcare providers were accused of not just molesting children, but forcing them to participate in increasingly fantastical and elaborate Satanic rituals, involving animal and human sacrifice; orgies and sexual abuse; and brainwashing and memory wipes. And yet, much of the paranoia centered not around businesses but private, suburban homes. Before the McMartin case even broke in Southern California, Bakersfield to the north had been incubating suspicion and fear. In 1982, a woman named Mary Ann Barbour began to suspect that her two granddaughters were being molested by a relative, Rod Phelps. She filed child endangerment charges against their parents and moved to have her daughter-in-law’s daycare shut down. Under questioning, the two young girls told authorities they had been abused not only by Phelps, but also by their father. Eventually, they would claim their parents had run a sex trafficking ring, suspended them from hooks while abusing them, and shown them snuff films to warn them what would happen if they ever talked. When police came to search their homes, they found no pornography, or any evidence of hooks, or any other physical evidence to corroborate the children’s stories. In what would become a strange hallmark of the child abuse cases to come, children would repeatedly claim they had been subjected to atrocities and abuse for which no forensic evidence could be found, and which often contradicted known facts. The girls’ parents were sentenced to over two hundred years each, and would spend the next 12 years in prison until their convictions were finally thrown out.

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For decades, it was the city that had been seen as a place of crime and danger, where no one was safe, where no self-respecting middle-class person would venture. The suburbs were the answer: they embodied the locus of the ideal family, middle-class respectability, the signal that one had “arrived,” financially and socially. Not coincidentally, they are a place of aesthetic control and conformity, of homeowners associations dictating the color of a house, the height of a tree, the state of a lawn. Aesthetic conformity guarantees property values and ensures kind of cultural homogeneity as well. In response to that outward uniformity, the nuclear family of the suburbs turns inward: the home becomes a private space, its insides are what makes it unique and give it personality.

You can’t drive slowly down an avenue of identical houses without giving some thought to how each might be different on the inside. But as fear of secret Satanic cults overtook the nation, that curiosity about what was going on behind those walls became pathological. The stories children told were of a separate suburban landscape, one that seemed to exist alongside this picture of normality, a nightmare world of hidden suburban depravity, laid like a palimpsest over ordinary America. The low-slung houses lining these cul-de-sacs might look identical, each one home to some happy family going about its days — but behind Venetian blinds and locked doors strange rituals were afoot.

Soon the suburban house was defined by what came out of the children’s testimonies, testimonies that bore no relation to empirical reality. It was a panic dependent on the construction of fantastical and impossible architecture — a house with endless hidden spaces, always opening up on to some other den of horror, one completely invisible to authorities.

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Among those swept up in the Bakersfield panics were Mary and Brad Nokes. Their 10-year-old son Mike was removed from their custody in 1984 and questioned as to whether he’d been abused. At first Mike denied having been molested, then changed his mind six days later, but then reversed his story once more three weeks after that.

When Mike Nokes was asked why he had accused his parents of molestation if it wasn’t true, he responded that he had been coached by the county childcare investigator, Cory Taylor. “When I tell the truth,” Mike told a private investigator working on behalf of his parents, “she [Taylor] says, ‘C’mon. Better start telling me the truth, or I’ll keep you in this room all day.’” Subjected to this kind of intense questioning, in which the only correct answer was one that implicated parents and daycare workers, Mike Nokes became hysterical. Alone and subject to the increasing stress of endless questioning, Mike seemed driven by separation anxiety: when the police told his grandparents they could no longer visit him, he accused his grandparents of molestation. When Cory Taylor was taken off the case, he accused her of molestation, too.

Under the intense questioning of another social worker, Carolyn Heims, Nokes finally began telling a story that would send the child abuse panic into a new level of sensationalism. Nokes told Heims not only that he had been abused, but that he had been forced to witness and participate in the ritual murder of infants. “Michael said that once everybody got there, all of the adults would take their clothes off and stand in a square around the children, who were in a circle,” reports of his testimony reported. “Michael said that all during this time the adults were chanting prayers to Satan. Michael said that he (and a little girl) were handed knives.” Michael said he and the girl were forced to throw their knives at one of the infants, after which “all of the adults started throwing knives that they had.”

Nokes’s story was so bizarre it seemed impossible that anyone could believe him. Instead, he was not only believed, but Kern County officials began dragging local lakes, searching for evidence of the disposed baby corpses. None were found, though that didn’t stop them from believing that this sexual abuse was in fact the work of a secret ring of Satanists.

Nokes and several other children eventually named 27 different victims of this supposed Satanic cult; when it turned out that two people on the list were still alive, and a third had died during surgery, officials were undeterred; they assumed instead that the children had been brainwashed and instructed to recount false memories to throw authorities off the trail of the true story.

What had started as molestation accusations became increasingly baroque, bound up in occult ritual. Judy Johnson, the accuser at the heart of the McMartin case, began leaving increasingly bizarre answering machine messages for the L.A. County investigators, relating her son Matthew’s stories of a “goatman,” accusing daycare worker, Peggy McMartin, of power-drilling “a child under the arms, armpits.” The preschool’s atmosphere, she alleged, was one of ritual magic: “Peggy, Babs and Betty were all dressed up as witches. The person who buried Matthew is Miss Betty. There were no holes in the coffin.” Bob Currie, a parent of one of the McMartin children who devoted his life to ferreting out Satanic ritual abuse, would later state on Geraldo:

When the children started talking, they started talking about robes and candles. They described an Episcopal church. And once they started narrowing that down, you could see it had to be Satanic. It’s very important in Satanic religions to have a priest, because they truly do believe in power. […] The truth about Satanism is they truly do use blood, and they mix it with urine, and then they also use the real meat, the real flesh. This is what makes Satanism true, and this is what 1,200 molested kids in the city of Manhattan Beach have told the sheriff’s department.


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What’s noteworthy about the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s was how quickly it became about more than just child abuse. History is rife with sexual abuse scandals orchestrated by large conspiracies — Cardinal Bernard Law resigned from his position as the Archbishop of Boston after documents were unearthed alleging that he had reassigned known abusive priests to different parishes to avoid detection, and the Miami Heraldhas recently detailed how prosecutors have shielded millionaire Jeffrey Epstein from damaging sexual trafficking allegations. But what happened in the 1980s was that the public — and prosecutors — became far more fixated on the suburban occult aspects then the actual abuse. After the McMartin trial ended in a hung jury, nine of 11 jurors held a press conference in which several jurors stated they felt abuse had occurred but hadn’t been proven, and that the focus on bizarre stories of animal mutilation, blood drinking, and other occult behavior had tainted those allegations that seemed substantial.

“I am concerned,” FBI profiler Ted Lanning would later write, that in some cases “individuals are getting away with molesting children because we cannot prove they are satanic devil worshipers who engage in brainwashing, human sacrifice, and cannibalism as part of a large conspiracy.” These fantasies of the occult were something the mind could fixate on, precisely because such cults were hidden, while also being everywhere. And the mere specter of such a terror endured because it responded to so many different aspects of culture all at once.

Why did so many families become convinced of these massive cults, their tentacles reaching throughout the country? For some parents, dealing with either real or imagined guilt that their children may have been victims of abuse, it offered a strange means of assuaging that guilt. As Lanning put it, “If your child’s molestation was perpetrated by a sophisticated satanic cult, there is nothing you could have done to prevent it and therefore no reason to feel any guilt.” Lanning recalled parents describing day care centers whose cults “had sensors in the road, lookouts in the air, and informers everywhere,” a secret, indefatigable network of malevolence that no parent could match.

But Robert Beck also notes that such fantasies could be empowering, and that they “lent a sort of heroic glow to the very idea of parenting.” The middle-class suburbs of the 1980s had become a place of selfishness and lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center. McMartin, Beck notes, “reimagined life there as a battle to preserve that peaceful, comfortable way of life.” The Satanic Panic turned the suburbs into a battlefield between Good and Evil, and allowed ordinary parents starring roles in waging Holy War.

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In his assessment of the Satanic Panic scare, sociologist Jeffrey S. Victor diagnosed the epidemic as the result of a convergence of forces: when multiple, distinct social groups — each with its own concerns and agendas — begin to fixate on the same topic, the groundswell of concern can grow exponentially as each group echoes and amplifies the others’ fears and anxieties. Numerous interest groups also had a stake in fueling the panic, interest groups that had little in common with one another, but made common cause against this nebulous network of occultists and abusers.

Fundamentalist Christians saw accounts of these rituals as proof of the literal work of the Devil, as well as validation that the messages they perceived in heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were far from benign. Social conservatives, as well, saw in the children’s accusations extreme proof of the lax permissiveness of liberals, who’d eschewed traditional morality and now were reaping what they’d sown. Most curiously, however, were feminist groups, who found themselves on opposing sides of the debate. Many feminists saw the whole panic as an attack on working mothers, while others saw it as proof both of the dangers of pornography, and the pathological result of a patriarchal culture that failed to take seriously the voices of abused women and children. (When the McMartin preschool was finally razed to the ground, it was Gloria Steinem who paid for the excavation in search of hidden tunnels beneath the building.)

But in the case of the Satanic ritual abuse trials, these groups would in turn be aided by the nascent field of recovered memory hypnosis. The new field was popularized by the book Michelle Remembers,written by Lawrence Pazder, a psychiatrist who’d used hypnosis on his patient Michelle Smith to recover a series of memories about a group of Satanists who abused her when she was five. In a trance, she recalled scenes such as one where Satanists dismembered and then reassembled a corpse, reanimating it with electric shocks (“God help me! He cut off its feet! Oh no, I don’t want to hear. I can hear him cutting its legs. I can hear him cutting the bones up. […] Oh, God, that’s what they’re going to do to me next.”) Many of Smith’s recovered memories contradicted known and incontrovertible facts, and nothing from the book could be corroborated. But the popular reception of books like Michelle Remembers and Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil gave practitioners of recovered memory therapy a foothold and a means of establishing themselves with in the larger psychiatric community.

Little wonder the talk shows ate it up. Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, Phil Donahue — the final piece of the puzzle, all of them running breathless testimonials of abuse, terror, ritual, and blood sacrifice. In 1989, long after Michelle Remembers had been thoroughly debunked, Oprah invited Smith (who’d since married her psychiatrist Pazder) on as a guest, along with another supposed abuse survivor (Laurel Rose Willson, who’d later reinvent herself as an ersatz Holocaust survivor). Winfrey gave both hoaxers an uncritical platform to spin their wild, unsubstantiated tales to a rapt audience.

In the daytime talk show, the host offers witness and affirmation, while the guest offers her or himself up, blood and body, for immediate consumption by the studio audience and millions of viewers. It is a format designed to generate a kind of pathos, a response to the human soul in extremis. Particularly for their primary demographic, stay-at-home mothers, they became a means to escape, if only for a few hours, from the drudgery of the suburbs, a kind of emotional adventurism, a journey through someone else’s psyche. The talk shows were perfect peddlers of conspiracies, panics, hoaxes, because truth is of secondary importance to emotional impact. It is no surprise that years after Michelle Smith’s appearance, Oprah played host to another hoax memoirist, James Frey, or that she offered a dangerous platform to anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy.

Like repressed memory therapy, the talk show is about recovering a testimony, bringing what was hidden into the light. Neither the talk show guest nor the therapy patient is expected to substantiate her or his story with facts or evidence; it is the act of testimony itself which is sufficient, which substantiates itself. If the repressed therapy session was like the confessional booth, the talk show was the tent revival.

Conservative Christians and talk show hosts, psychotherapists and social workers, feminists and anti-feminists: the heart of the Venn diagram where they all overlapped was a fear of the occult. Anti-Christian, defined by an orgiastic quality that could imperil women and children, and a direct rebuke to the notion of a nuclear family — all governed by a fear of ritual abandonment and a loss of self-control.

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The fear of secret rituals speaks to something that is, for many people, deeply primal and terrifying. Rituals — particularly those foreign, unknown, or unexplained — strike at the very core of how a society constructs itself. In the cult ritual, bodies writhing in ecstasy, speaking in tongues, engaging in sexual licentiousness, using blood and other bodily fluids — the perfect convergence of threats. An elevated emotional ecstasy offers a kind of dissolution of the self: your boundaries break down, you lose yourself, you become frenzied, bestial, something not quite human.In such a state, the normal rules that govern a culture are suspended: laws don’t apply, shame and guilt no longer limit activities. Familial and communal bonds — the things that normally govern our behavior, the very heart of the suburban world — cease to have an effect. And traditional authority figures — the priest, the police officer, the governmental authority, the head of the household — are replaced with hierarchical figures of unknown provenance. If we fear the specter of such rituals, it’s because they offer the chance to dissolve all of the normal restraints that govern middle-class life and replace them with an entirely different set of values that cannot be restrained or controlled in the usual manner.

The Reagan ’80s were in every way about selfishness, about asserting oneself and one’s own needs over others. Cults offered a most radical rebuke to this individualism: an inverted world where there is no self, where you are not yourself, not in charge of yourself — and afterward, you are not even in control of your own memories, which bear no trace of how much of yourself you’ve lost. It was the perfect hysteria for the inherently uncanny feeling of living in suburbs, feeding the fear of what other people were doing in their own homes. Alone at home with the TV on in the background, dwellers of the suburbs peered through the blinds and wondered if the neighbors were letting themselves go.

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Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith.