The Satanism scare


University of Pennsylvania Copyright (c) 1991 by Gerry O'Sullivan, all rights reserved Postmodern Culture v.1 n.2 (January, 1991)

The satanism scare has spawned its share of rumor panics over the last several years. This past Halloween, fundamentalist and evangelical pastors across the country fed faxes to one another about an international convocation of satanists allegedly held in Washington, D.C. in September. The gathering--or so self-described experts claimed--was intended to allow devil-worshippers from around the world to meet in order to further the downfall of Christendom, intensify the war on family values, and to continue consolidation of their stranglehold on government.

Based upon the dubious assertions of one self-styled former satanist, Hezekiah ben Aaron, the rumor achieved widespread currency. Pat Robertson made mention of the meeting on his "700 Club," USA Today reported both on the tale and the Christian countermeasures, and one California- based ministry used it in a fundraising letter.

While the infernal ingathering never occurred, it did produce a flurry of counterfeit documents. Detailed day-to- day schedules of events were photocopied and circulated among church leaders, complete with reports of satanic weddings and baptisms. Christians across the country convened to wage a prayerful campaign of "spiritual warfare" against the perceived evildoers. And the complete lack of evidence regarding the convention was received as still further proof of the cunning of the conspirators, always able to successfully cover their hoofprints.

Several such "panics"--usually far more localized--have had tragic results. Several churches with largely black congregations have been vandalized or set ablaze when word spread that parishioners were, in actuality, practicing satanic rites behind closed doors. Preschools have been emptied of children by parents fearful that teachers were "ritually abusing" their charges. Timothy Hughes of Altus, Oklahoma murdered his wife after watching the now notorious 1988 Geraldo special on satanism, convinced that she was a devil-worshipper. And armed mobs in upstate New York threatened to assault punks who had gathered at a warehouse for a hardcore concert, fearing that they were "really" assembling to sacrifice a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child to Lucifer.

A handful of folklorists have tracked such regional rumor panics, finding startlingly similar patterns from case to case. One constantly recurring theme concerns the racial identity of the satanists' "intended victim." The ideal offering, at least according to popular mythology, is a young and virginal child--always white, always fair-haired, always blue-eyed. Jeffrey Victor, a sociologist at Jamestown Community College (Jamestown was the location of the New York warehouse scare cited above), has collected hundreds of such stories from across the country, all with this theme at its center. And in each case, the racial component is key. The unseen and vaguely identified satanist is therefore defined as desiring his or her other-- the pure and virginal as opposed to the dark and contaminated. The binarism is assumed, and the selfhood of the devil-worshipper is automatically constituted, through its ritualized desire, by inversion.

For instance, in the wake of the Matamoros affair, when the bodies of a University of Texas student and the murdered rivals of a drug-running gang were found buried on a Mexican ranch, daycare centers along the Tex-Mex border were rife with rumors that "Mexican satanists" were planning to storm south Texas towns in retaliation for arrests in the case--an occult twist on the myth of the brown invading horde. And said devil-worshippers were again in search of blue-eyed, fair-haired children from surrounding communities.

Central to the satanism scare is a specific social (and, as we've seen, racial) fantasy of the family. Mythical satanists allegedly prey upon infants, young children, and pets--threshold figures and "weak links" in the household. Once abducted, the child, cat or dog is offered as a sacrifice during some sexually-charged, moonlit rite. But the victim is never simply slaughtered. In the lore of pop satanism, its body must be cannibalized and its blood consumed by the "coven" of devil-worshippers in order to allow for a transfer of power.

But the family is threatened from within as well as from without. While both children and pets are seen as satanic quarry, adolescents are depicted as ideal candidates for membership in such cults. Teenagers are cast as potential and unwitting dupes of cult leaders, properly socialized for the requisite ritual violence by the icons of their culture --heavy metal, hardcore and neo-gothic music, "occult" jewelry, black clothing, and Saturday morning cartoons which--as some pastors and Christian activists allege--are covertly training children in satanically- inspired, "new age" thinking.

In all of this, the teenager is never described as an agent, possessed of volition. Rather, feeling disempowered, the adolescent is said to seek out power "from below" (but through necromancy rather than, say, insurgency). His or her choice is never, however, seen as a simple act of willful defiance or resistance. It is conditioned by a kind of devious social programming which, in its way, parodies both consumerism and marketing.

The typical teenager, or so the professional lore of the satanologist has it, goes to his or her local music store to buy the latest Judas Priest, Dio, or King Diamond release. Little does he or she know, however, that certain tracks have been "backmasked" with demonic messages which are intended to engender devil-worship, mayhem, suicide and murder (usually of parents). There's a kind of truth-in- advertising problem here--kids aren't getting what they pay for. And once so hooked, they move on to ritual cannibalism, itself a fantasy of consumption gone wild.

Hundreds of professional training manuals on satanism and "occult-related crime" have appeared over the past several years, aimed at police officers, pastors, school administrators and psychologists. And in most cases, adolescent behavior of the most typical varieties is described as satanic or "pre-occultic." Kids who question traditional religion or refuse to attend church, act rebelliously, meditate, or dress in black are, according to several checklists, automatically suspect. Adolescence is itself demonized as something wild, dark and uncontrollable.

Based upon incorrect information in such training manuals, schools in Kentucky, Florida and California--among others--have banned the wearing of peace symbols on t-shirts or in jewelry because it is, in reality, the satanic "cross of Nero"--a broken and inverted cross used by the "pagan" Romans (and later the nazis) to mock Christianity. This is an old right-wing canard originally promulgated by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians, later picked up and circulated by "former satanic high priest," Mike Warnke, in a wildly popular little anti-occult book called The Satan Seller. Unfortunately, this piece of folklore has appeared and reappeared in police guides over the years.

Likewise, one high school principal in Annapolis, Maryland sent letters home to the parents of black-clad teens, warning that their sons and daughters might very well be involved in devil-worship and advising them to search rooms and bookbags for other tell-tale signs of occult dabbling. Anyone wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a metal band was also picked out of the cafeteria line-up by the vigilant principal, to be later reported to parents. Unfortunately, some families have taken the satanic panic one step further, sending their children off to "de- metalizing" and "de-satanizing" camps for "treatment" at the hands of fundamentalist pastors. Centers with names like "Back in Control" and "Motivations Unlimited" have been established to forcibly deprogram the would-be teen satanist.

The satanism scare is "about" several things, among them: the demonization of adolescent behavior through folkloric and often lurid accounts of bloodletting, cannibalism and sex; a struggle over the constitution of knowledge elites (the satanologist--usually a self-described cult cop or pastor--versus "professional" educators and psychologists who may be skeptical of their claims: it's no coincidence that most so-called cult cops are professing Christians and members of groups like Cops for Christ); and the ideological reinstitution of the family as racially pure, intact, and continually threatened from without by dark and hooded people emerging from the shadows to steal "our" tow-headed children. Combined with forged documents modelled upon The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fears of bloodthirsty invaders from the south, and tales which simply reiterate the medieval blood libel, the fear of satanism seems to point in several different, and very dangerous, directions.

The satanic panic combines the worst of several scares peculiar to the eighties--terrorism, secular humanism, drugs and child-kidnapping--to frame a largely Christian, populist critique of mass cultural forms. But its analyses remain mired in conspiracy thinking, racism, eschatological anticipation, and the displacement of what are primarily familial ills (child abuse and incest) onto highly secretive and hooded outsiders.

Go Back to Shy David's Satanic Hysteria Page.