Pitchmen of the Satan Scare

Anson Shupe


Published by the Wall Street Journal
Friday, March 9, 1990

Last Sunday Roman Catholics who attended services at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York heard Cardinal John O'Connor lambasting heavy-metal rock music as "pornography in sound" that leads to spiritual entrapment and suicide among teenagers. Echoing a message dear to the hearts of Tipper Gore and her watchdog Parents Music Research Center, His Eminence called on the music industry to police itself more thoroughly.

But Cardinal O'Connor went further. While not naming them, he linked rock groups like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath to cemetery desecrations, perverse sex, and demonic possession. His sermon even included readings from "The Exorcist." He claimed William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel was "gruesomely realistic."

Unfortunately, the cardinal's sermon only added more hype to what has become a form of cultural hysteria in America. That hysteria is Satanism or, more accurately, a preoccupation with worrying about satanic influences in our music, our movies, our families, even in our high schools.

From the occasional teen-age dabblers to purported conspiratorial rings of devil-worshippers in high places, Satanists are credited with promoting drug abuse, snatching kids off the street, organizing child pornography rings, breeding infants for ritualistic sacrifice and cannibalism, and mutilating cattle in the countryside. Groups such as the Cult Awareness Network, which formerly stuck to making life difficult for such unconventional religions as Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, have now sounded the Satanist alarm in earnest.

A Growth Industry

Satanism-exposure-mania has become a growth industry in this country, as Arthur Lyons reveals in evenhanded but blunt terms in his 1988 book "Satan Wants You." The Satanic theme is profitable not just as a gimmick for rock bands and titillating Hollywood horror movies, nor simply for publishers, both secular and Christian, who churn out potboiler accounts of mass murders and disturbed young would-be Charles Mansons. It also is profitable for a growing cadre of self-proclaimed "experts" who are canvassing North America offering seminars to police departments, clergy, social workers, nurses and educators.

Commanding between $500 and $1,000 (plus expenses) an appearance, these speakers purport to reveal the rituals, implements, beliefs, symbols and secret codes used by Satan's occult underground. Under the rubric of Satanism they draw connections among violence, mind control, sexual orgies, drugs, the lyrics of rock music, and even the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons.

The content of most of these seminars is pure rubbish from any kind of informed scholarly standpoint. Aside from unsubstantiated claims and sweeping generalizations, what is presented is a naive mish-mash of occult and mystical traditions confused with shamanism and the theatrical antics of such performers as rocker Ozzy Osbourne.

Relatively benign and openly operating groups such as Anton LeVey's Church of Satan and Michael A. Aquino's Temple of Set (which offer syntheses of philosophy, unexceptional fraternal-organization gibberish, and exotic costumes for initiates, while never really acknowledging a personal devil figure such as Lucifer) are thrown together with the bloody drug-cult murders in Matamoros, Mexico, as examples of the imminent danger among us. It would all be laughable if serious, well-intentioned persons were not taking this Satanic threat at face value.

Economics fuels the spread of the fear of Satanism beyond the popular culture of rock music and horror movies to professional audiences. Many middle-level educators, health and social-service workers, and law-enforcement officials across the country are required to attend a number of educational workshops each year to keep or upgrade their certifications or to be eligible for raises and promotions. Just as ex-Satanists have seemingly come out of the woodwork in recent years to give their gripping testimonies, so also the entrepreneurial experts of Satanism have emerged. Now they are offering workshops to enlighten service providers. As a result, Satanism has emerged as one of the most popular offerings in such continuing education. The lurid content of the presentations sure beats the generally dry fare otherwise provided at such conferences.

How much money is involved? Likely no one is getting filthy rich, and mere millions, not billions, are involved on a national scale. But the fees typically come out of local taxpayers' pockets. Moreover, these new entrepreneurs have now spread the gospel of Satan-fear through all 50 states and in most large urban areas. Recently, according to J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the nation's premier authority on _real_ Satanic cults, these speakers have taken their workshops to such middle-size communities as Sioux City, Iowa; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and, in my Indiana backyard, the cities of Fort Wayne and Evansville.

Such workshops are rarely publicized and are closely limited to specific audiences of professionals. One reason often given is that Satanists would try to find some way to disrupt the proceedings if they knew about them in advance. However, probably the better reason is the sad quality of their "information." Says Mr. Melton, "If what was being taught in these 'limited seminars' were revealed and became fair game for public discourse, the ridiculousness of it would be evident." But minus such open inspection, an entire generation of genuinely concerned professionals is being exposed, under the guise of technical training, to downright misleading, false and poorly assembled information.

Ironically, this entrepreneurial expansion comes at a time when the Satanist hysteria may actually be losing some power. Cardinal O'Connor himself admitted Sunday that there were only two exorcisms in the entire New York archdiocese last year--not much of a body count for active Satanists or their opponents. And recently Harvest House Publishers, a Christian press, decided to cease publication of "Satan's Underground," a successful "autobiographical" best seller by Lauren Stratford, who claimed that as a Satanist she had deliberately bred three children for sacrifice. It seems reporters for the evangelical Christian magazine Cornerstone tracked down ambiguities and inconsistencies in her account and discovered that Ms. Stratford had made up the whole thing (which she later admitted).

Likewise, some professionals who have been the largest audience for Satanism hysteria have become angry. Robert Hicks, a criminal justice as become vocally critical of the sloppy content of workshops supposedly informing his law enforcement colleagues about Beelzebub's current activities. Much of it, Mr. Hicks maintains, is based on sensational newspaper articles, undocumented secondary sources, or unsubstantiated claims.

Skeptical Officers

Police never find the tangible evidence to back up ex-Satanists' claims, such as one commonly repeated claim that about 50,000 human sacrifices are perpetrated each year in this country. The absence of _any_ traces of such activity has begun to cause some reflective police, at least, to question if they have been conned. As a result, skeptical law-enforcement officers in Virginia are now boycotting workshops that offer Satanic conspiracies as a tempting way to "clear" the unsolved crimes on their blotters.

Cardinal O'Connor cannot be blamed for being concerned about the hedonism, the decline in aesthetics, and the decay of civility in modern American society. But seeking its cause in a demonic influence loose among rock lyrics--just as professionals are now being told to seek the roots of abuse and maladjustment they see in their clients and patients in Satanic cult abuse--is to retreat to medieval thinking. History shows that human beings are perfectly capable of acting in evil, destructive ways without infernal help.


Mr. Shupe is a professor of sociology at Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and is preparing a book on cult and Satanic phenomena in the U.S.

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