In a comprehensive history of the Satanic Panic, Aja Romano wrote for Vox that the panic “never truly went away,” arguing that its “legacy threads through American culture and politics, in everything from social media moralizing to QAnon.”
They cite the backlash to Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’ music video; the trial of Amanda Knox, in which Knox was described as “Lucifer-like, Satanic, demonic, diabolical, a witch of deception;” and, of course, the emergence of QAnon.
“It’s easier to believe that a dark cabal is orchestrating negative events than it is to believe that powerful people, including our leaders, are simply greedy or incompetent.”
While there are some key differences between the Satanic Panic in the ’80s and the QAnon-adjacent theories of ritualistic, satanic child abuse, Romano notes that “the tools used to spread both ideas — alarmism, fearmongering, hysteria, and reports of wildly gothic scenes of blood-drinking, children harvested for body parts, and witches” are pretty much the same.
This alarmism is present in many responses to the Balenciaga campaign. Lotta Volkova, a celebrated stylist, became the target of social media users who incorrectly identified her as a “designer for balenciaga” and posted images of an unnamed model holding two dolls which appeared to be covered in fake blood, again incorrectly identifying the model as Volkova.
“You want me to believe what Balenciaga did was an accident? No they are Satanic pedophiles that need to be exposed…” reads one tweet alongside an derogatory TikTok about Volkova.
A spokesperson for Volkova told Newsweek that she has “not worked with Balenciaga or its team since 2018 and she has in no way participated in the brand’s recent Instagram or advertising campaigns.”
Elsewhere on Twitter, users posting on the #BalenciagaGate hashtag have made false connections between Balenciaga and Hillary Clinton (here), Kamala Harris (here), and Celine Dion (here) – with satanic imagery featuring heavily throughout.
Where do we go from here?
In the midst of a resurgent moral panic, Balenciaga’s dramatic oversights were always going to stoke existing conspiracy theories. But why are some of us more inclined to believe in a satanic, child-abusing cabal than the more realistic explanations of corporate incompetence?
Mike Rothschild, the author of The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became A Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything, engages directly with this question, writing:
“Q lets people feel like they’re part of something bigger than their small lives. It gives believers a higher and noble purpose. It offers explanations for terrible things. After all, it’s easier to believe that a dark cabal is orchestrating negative events than it is to believe that powerful people, including our leaders, are simply greedy or incompetent.”
Speaking to GLAMOUR, Mike reflects on the enduring nature of satanic conspiracy theories, highlighting that anything that involves children will make people “take leave of their senses.”
“It separates you from your family, from your friends, from your hobbies. The things that you used to care about and the people who used to be in your life, they don’t mean as much anymore because you start to see everything wrapped up with the conspiracy.”
“You become sort of a self-styled crusader,” he adds. “Even if what you’re crusading against doesn’t exist. And the people who actually are trying to assist trafficked or missing children don’t want your help and are telling you to stop … It’s not about the kids. It’s about you and it’s about your feelings and your truth.
“And this stuff it’s very salacious and it’s weird, and it makes you feel like you’re sort of touching something forbidden and you’re not supposed to, and it’s evil, and oh, you’ve got the courage to confront evil. I mean, again, you don’t, but you think you do because the rest of your life is just not that interesting.”
In The Storm Is Upon Us, Mike highlights the dangerous road that people engaging with these theories often walk, including committing domestic terrorism. However, he tells GLAMOUR, they also wreak havoc on personal relationships:
“It separates you from your family, from your friends, from your hobbies. The things that you used to care about and the people who used to be in your life, they don’t mean as much anymore because you start to see everything wrapped up with the conspiracy, with the Secret War.
“And of course, the people around you, they don’t want to hear about it … And it’s very alienating to everybody else, and it isolates you and it forces you deeper into the community of other people who believe the same things.”
It might sound extreme to conclude that engaging in far-off theories about Balenciaga can descend into full-blown paranoia, but, sadly, that’s exactly how conspiracy theories work. So how do we call-out Balenciaga for their unacceptable actions without propping up far-right conspiracies? “Stick to the truth,” recommends Mike.
Was the Balenciaga shoot in bad taste? Yes, of course. But there’s simply no meaningful evidence to suggest it was anything more than that. No matter, how tempting it might feel to believe otherwise.