America's magic cult of ignorance

8 August, 1993, San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, August 8, 1993
Section: Living
Page: 1L

By: DAVID O'REILLY, Knight-Ridder News Service

ON NOV. 19, 1987, Geraldo Rivera hosted a national TV special called "Satanic Cults and Children."

"Estimates are that there are over 1 million Satanists in this country," Rivera declared. "The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography and grisly satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town."

Just then a rumor began to spread through rural Jamestown, N.Y.

A lot of non-conformist teen-agers -- wearing dark clothes and offbeat haircuts -- had a party in an old warehouse on Halloween.

People said it had been a satanic Mass. The local Humane Society started getting calls about ritually slaughtered cats and dogs. A fundamentalist minister wrote letters warning about the surge in local Satanism.

Teens who had attended the Halloween party got threatening phone calls, and young thugs began to prowl the town, beating up those they suspected of Satanism.

Then, around April 1988, the rumors began to escalate. Jamestown police -- who had been unable to find any evidence of slaughtered cats and dogs -- began fielding dozens of calls warning that the Satanists were planning something awful for Friday, May 13.

And as the date drew closer, the rumors intensified: The Satanists were preparing to kidnap a blue-eyed, blond virgin and sacrifice her on the 13th.

Parents kept their children indoors as the date approached. Young women armed themselves. And then . . .

Nothing. On Saturday morning, all the local virgins were accounted for, and the hysteria was deflated.

But across the nation, satanic panic still surges, fanned by sensationalist journalists, preachers, zealous police and eager psychologists who contend that countless infants are being slaughtered in secret satanic rituals. The numbers offered range from 5,000 a year to 2,000,000.

But FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, the FBI's leading authority on child abuse, sees it differently. After more than a decade spent chasing down rumors of ritual child abuse, Lanning came to the conclusion that "there is little or no corroborative evidence" to support the claims, he wrote in a report last year. Although some Satanists are practicing in the United States, he wrote, there was no reason to believe that such activities are widespread. The hysteria, he contended, was distracting the nation from the real crisis, child abuse being perpetrated by parents and stepparents and boyfriends.

Lanning's reassurances outraged some on the religious right who once applauded his investigations. Lanning, they said, was a secret Satanist out to lull the nation so that Satanism may flourish.

The charge is "absurd," he wrote.

Faulty memories?

The current panic over alleged baby killings and ceremonial murders seems to have been launched in 1980 with the publication of "Michelle Remembers" by Michelle Smith, who was diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality syndrome.

Under hypnosis, Smith told her Toronto-based hypnotherapist (and now husband), Lawrence Pazder, that her parents had been part of a robed satanic cult that kept her locked in a cage with spiders and snakes, ritually sacrificed infants and once sliced a fetus in half and rubbed it over her body.

Smith, who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, in the early 1950s, further contended that the cult leaders had sewn horns and a tail onto her, and that once she was being tortured by Satan himself but was rescued by Jesus and Mary. Police investigations turned up no graves and no missing babies, and an analysis of Pazder's methods led some observers to conclude that his questioning had steered Smith into "remembering" events that might not be real.

But authentic or not, psychologists, preachers, drug counselors, crime "experts" and the media have been exploiting the public's fascination with Satanism for profit, fame, or Jesus, says media critic Gerry O'Sullivan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of "Satanism in America," a 1989 study of the Satan panic.

Though all attempts by police or journalists to verify lurid satanic tales have failed to locate any bodies or even missing-children reports that might corroborate the allegations, that has not stanched the flow of such claims.

Mass-market nightmares

Indeed, the Book-of-the-Month Club is offering "Lessons in Evil, Lessons From the Light: A True Story of Satanic Abuse and Spiritual Healing," by psychologist Gail Carr Feldman.

Feldman tells how she hypnotized a patient, Barbara Maddox, who was complaining of sexual problems and rage, and discovered "a horror story beyond their worst nightmares," reads the Book-of-the-Month Club bulletin. Maddox's family had been Satanists, and "Barbara had been marked as the 'Princess of Darkness,' " the bulletin says.

The book is offered as a "true crime" selection for August.

Rural police departments seem to be most credulous about these satanic tales, media critic O'Sullivan notes, and many have been bilked into spending money to learn more about the various "danger signs" of Satanism and witchcraft.

The money has gone for short videotapes that cost as much as $350, as well as for $75 seminars that dispense rumors, unsubstantiated anecdotes and unverified statistics -- such as Geraldo Rivera's "one million Satanists" claim -- as fact. Indeed, some police seminars present the unfounded claims of satanic baby-murder made on TV talk shows as "proof" that the crisis is real.

Yet despite the false accusations and suspicious obstacle courses, psychologist Richard Whelan cautions that crimes are committed in the name of Satan.

"It's not rampant, but these things are out there," says Whelan, who counsels public and parochial schools in South Jersey about teen-age Satanism. He pulls from a folder a photocopy of a sheet of paper found in a field in South Jersey several years ago. Written in an adolescent hand, it features a scraggly star made of intersecting triangles with "Fred" and "Jason" -- apparently references to the villains of two popular movies -- and these words:

"EHT GNOS -- Hmmmmmmm. Satan is our savyour, HMMMMMMM, He is our only lord. Hmmmmmmm. Satan is my master. HMMMMMMMMMM. Speak: Satan is my lord. He is my only master. I will kill for Satan. Satan is Me. I am Satan. Nema."

Lives on the edge

Young people who feel emotionally abandoned are "easy prey for deviant groups," Whelan says, and an obsession with Satanism and violence can be a sign of emotional difficulty that can lead to some strange encounters. He tells of the two teen-age boys in Passaic County, N.J., who turned up at a hospital screaming that the devil was running around inside them.

Police and hospital officials learned that the boys had been to a party where they were served liquor apparently laced with a hallucinogen. Their adult host then made a small incision above their right hips and announced that he was "putting Satan inside" them. He sprinkled the cuts with belladonna, causing them to burn. The boys fled to the hospital.

Whelan never learned what that ritual was about, but much apparent Satanism is often "pseudo-Satanism," he says: a pretext to lure youngsters into sex, pornography or distributing drugs.

Parents alarmed by the sight of pentagrams or other occult symbols doodled on a son or daughter's algebra notebook need not conclude that they have raised a budding ax murderer, says Whelan.

Nevertheless, he says, parents who discover Satanist books or symbols should sit down with the youngster to learn his or her interest in these ideas. "Most of the kids I talk to don't even know what it means, or else they are just trying to get a rise out of their parents," he says. "It usually lasts for a few weeks."

The San Jose Mercury News archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from Vu / Text Library Services, a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.

Last Updated: 26 Nov 95 -- Mark Pritchard

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