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Reality Check: 'Department of Truth' #2 looks at the Satanic panic

Comic Books

Reality Check: ‘Department of Truth’ #2 looks at the Satanic panic

When the search for justice ruined innocent people’s lives.

The mega-selling Department of Truth, by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds, and published by Image Comics, isn’t just the surprise comic thriller of the year — it has important things to say, especially for our current times. In issue #1, we learned that in this horrific world, conspiracy theories aren’t true, unless enough people believe in them. The titular government organization exists to keep that from happening.

In the gruesome second issue, it’s revealed that the protagonist, Cole Turner, has more skin in this game (so to speak) than most others. He has childhood memories of being subjected to Satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s, and he wants to know if they’re real.

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The very idea seems far-fetched, but that didn’t stop the very real prosecutions of thousands of apparent devil-worshipers in the U.S., and worldwide, for using preschools and their students to commit monstrous acts like necrophilia, forced ingestion of semen, and yes, even sacrificial abortions so that the fetus could be eaten.

Reality Check: 'Department of Truth' #2 looks at the Satanic panic

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Many of the “witnesses” in such cases were 3 and 4 years old, so it’s easier to understand how they could have been coerced into testimony. But other accusations came from the “repressed memories” of adults, who only recalled the traumatic events of their childhood through coaxing, and sometimes, even hypnosis.

“There is no credible scientific support for this,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and memory expert. Loftus, who once testified in a Ted Bundy trial (before anyone knew he was Ted Bundy), had been studying memory for 20 years before she encountered the claims of repressed ones in the courtroom. She was a witness for the defense when George Franklin was convicted of killing an 8-year-old friend of his daughter — based solely on her testimony, decades later, when the memory sprang into her mind.

There is plenty of support for the fact, however, that false memories can easily be implanted in someone. In Loftus’ famous “lost in the mall” studies, in which people were “reminded” of that time they were separated from their parents in a shopping center as kid, about 25% of the subjects really did start to remember the fictitious event that never actually happened. Of course, that’s not quite as stunning as eating babies, but since those initial studies, others have successfully created more dramatic false memories of accidents, being attacked by a vicious animal, and even almost drowning.

Department of Truth satanic panic

Courtesy of Image Comics.

In the world of Department of Truth #2, no one was ever convicted in the Satanic moral panics, and while that’s accurate about the case that made the phenomenon infamous, which centered on the McMartin preschool in Los Angeles, other people weren’t so lucky. And the QAnon conspiracy theory echoes many of the same ideas today.

Thankfully, Loftus continues her work, having testified on the fallibility of memory in over 300 trials in the last 40 years, which has even prompted the state of New Jersey to provide such information in jury instructions.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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