Articles‎ > ‎

Book Review - The Satanism Scare

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 09, Number 1, pages 129-135. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Satanism Scare. 

Edited by James T. Richardson, Joel Best, & David Bromley. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1991, 320 pages.

To date, "politically correct" propagandizing among aging academics left over from the 1960s has been confined, for the most part, to the conventional fields of literature, art history, anthropology, and psychology.

But now this peculiar intellectual pathology seems to have wormed its way into provisionally defined, and historically marginal, fields such as sociology of religion with its alleged "empirical" and "scientific" strategies of inquiry and reflection. Although the charge of "PC" has been overused, and frequently abused, within the mounting popular polemics against the intellectually shallow politicization of the American university, the phenomenon should not be construed lightly.

So long as the "politically correct" were nothing more than hypercultivated Milton scholars, or inordinately arcane model-builders fascinated with class, ethnicity, and gender, who happened to be obsessed with the socially fashionable causes of a bygone era, the problem could be easily circumscribed. However, when a bald and scarcely concealed political agenda masquerades as cool, "objective" science, it is quite another matter.

The Satanism Scare has an extensive list of contributors. Therefore, one could get the impression that the book constitutes a cross section of academic opinion on the subject of Satanism and occult-related crime. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To the contrary, the book is a rather laborious, three-hundred-page-plus, blinking and bleeping parade of sophistic reasoning, non sequiturs, spurious appeal to authority, and systematic disfigurement and denial of the sheaves of actual evidence about Satanism and occult-related crime.

If the authors had been sufficiently honest to say, "There is a good deal of hype, misinformation, confusion, and questionable claims by unqualified experts in the area" -- which is true -- it would be one thing. If they had been honest enough, moreover, to draw from this tangle of circumstances the inference that the terrain of research is craggy and cratered and that much work and sorting of the evidence are needed in order to (1) determine the real character, scope, and ramifications of the problem and (2) make careful distinctions between witness accuracy, cult-motivated criminal cover-up, and ideological blinders and enthusiasms, it would be quite another matter. However, with the exception of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, whose published work on belief and folklore pertaining to the demonic in Western culture is exemplary, virtually all of the essays take a rather straight "party line."

The party line can be summarized as follows:

--There is no such thing as a "bad" satanist or an occult-connected crime.

--Virtually every incident of occult criminality, including such notorious cases as "The Night Stalker" (Richard Ramirez), is not at all what it appears to be.

--The attribution of negative characteristics to Satanism can be blamed on the persecutory campaigns of Christian fundamentalists, small-town district attorneys and law enforcement officials, newspaper editors and television anchorpersons, psychiatrists in general, and a routinely "hysterical" public that is snorting and pawing to trample the rights and prerogatives of religious oddballs who are simply minding their own business.

--The facts about Satanism, which have been delineated and reported copiously in the media, can be explained away as rumors, "urban legends," deep-seated psychological projections, fantasies, and "social constructions" of a populace that is undergoing various stresses from rapid social change.

In other words, society as a whole is "sick" and hallucinating. Only the Satanists -- those who are alleged to burn babies, consort with drug traffickers, impale cats in ceremonies, and drink blood from time to time -- emerge with their reputations fully intact. At least the authors did not wheel out "The Myth of the Six Million."

The Satanism Scare is to serious religious scholarship what 2 Live Crew is to family entertainment. The bald flaunting of prejudices and spurious inferences, along with the flagrant omissions of hard data from court records, police files, psychiatric transcripts, and casework documents, is more numerous than the loves of Don Juan. The gangrenous flaws of the book's so-called methodology can be found in the article, "Law Enforcement and the Satanism-Crime Connection: A Survey of Cult Cops," by Ben M. Crouch and Kelly Damphouse. The essay sets about to "prove" that widespread police concern about occult-connected criminal activity is overblown because these "cult cops," as the authors call them (referring to those law enforcement professionals who take the problem seriously), are ipso facto driven in their zeal by preexisting conservative or Christian evangelical biases. As it happens, there is absolutely no way, given the way the authors set up their research boundaries, that they could have reached any other conclusion whatsoever. The authors state, "Conducting a survey of law enforcement perceptions of the Satanism-crime link proved extremely difficult. The first problem was identifying an appropriate sample" (p. 193).

For the "sample," the authors "located" two mailing lists: one from a police lieutenant in Boise, Idaho, named Larry Jones and the other from a roster of attendees at a Texas police academy, nearly all of whom came from southern and southwestern states. They then "randomized" the names on the lists. Such samples are about as representative of the total police population involved in occult crime as the readers of Millie's Book (about Barbara and George Bush's dog) could be said to constitute a cross section of the national electorate. The authors themselves point out that Lt. Jones is "known in the cult cop network for his strong Christian anti-cult orientation" (p. 194). This type of approach is tantamount to undertaking a supposed scientific examination of how many ordinary citizens hold pro-environmental beliefs by "randomly" interviewing participants at a Sierra Club convention and a Greenpeace rally.

However, this ridiculous and obviously rigged sampling method does not preclude the authors from generating impressive tables of statistics and making sweeping conclusions about who "cult cops" really are. They are "often from smaller towns, with less education and income, and more religious, officers who perceive a greater threat appear to live and work in a relatively modest and conservative setting" (p. 202). Next one might survey the authors of this particular book and draw the dazzling conclusion that, in light of this sample, sociologists "on the whole" tend to think like Norman Lear and the organization People for the American Way.

On the other hand, one may wonder whether these self-professed experts on the "scare" even read the newspapers or the law enforcement journals. According to one of the authors, Hicks, "the satanic crime model coalesced from several unrelated events: the publication of Michelle Remembers . . . the identification of multiple personality disorder (MPD) as a dissociative disorder in the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and allegations of child abuse at the McMartin Preschool and other day-care centers (beginning in 1983)" (p. 176). This rather odd generalization makes little sense insofar as none of the episodes or cases cited by Hicks had anything much at all to do with police investigative models -- furthermore, from the outset, they were all considered problematic by serious researchers.

In fact, all of these so-called benchmarks concerned hypnotic recall of strange events by subjects in psychotherapy. Hicks's account is akin to saying that strategic thinking about the Cold War coalesced from the McCarthy hearings, interviews with J. Edgar Hoover, and the book None Dare Call It Treason. Hicks goes on to cite what he dubs "the seminal conference on satanic crime in Colorado in September 1986," at which only one police officer appeared on the program. Precisely how a conference that Hicks himself criticizes for lacking criminal justice expertise could have become ipso facto the basis of the elaboration of a "police paradigm" defies logic.

Interestingly, Hicks fails to mention such experienced police officers as Ohio's Dale Griffis or Chicago's Jerry Simandl, who belong to a rather sophisticated network of practicing law enforcement professionals and are generally regarded as leading authorities on the problem. The gambit is the model for most of the essays in the book: play up the frivolous and loony cases, along with the poorly credentialed "experts," while completely scanting any reference to legitimate evidence or significant research. Overall, by means of cheap, but transparent, rhetorical subterfuges, the reader is left with the impression that the entire matter is not worthy of intelligent consideration.

Ironically, the approach here is not much different from the tack taken by the National Inquirer, albeit with a reverse spin. We would not be far from the mark if we were to call it tabloid sociology. It is characteristic of tabloid sociology to constantly trundle out rampant popular superstitions, intemperate rumors, and alleged media "atrocities," as if this prurient spectacle were somehow the sum and substance of the "evidence." Indeed, tabloid sociology consistently spews out its own myths and folk legends, which are nothing more than grievous overdeterminations of incidental, or even dubious, "facts."

For example, Hicks says that "cult seminars assert [which, by the way, is like saying "ministers preach" or "all doctors say"] that satanic crime is increasing . . . . With no dependable statistics, cult seminars include estimates of up to 50,000 human sacrifices per year" (p. 183). Such a canard has been used routinely by tabloid sociologists and their less academically distinguished hangers-on, who often claim to be "experts in the occult." It is not clear who, if anyone, ever made such an estimate. But this "example" is ceremonially unfurled to point up the foolishness and gullibility of all who might take the occult problem seriously.

The absurdity of this approach can be found in Thomas A. Green's article, "Accusations of Satanism and Racial Tensions in the Matamoros Cult Murders." The Matamoros Cult murders, discovered in the spring of 1989 at an isolated ranch in Mexico just across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas, turned out for many occult investigators to be a dramatic smoking gun. This case confirmed not only that cult-related homicides take place but also that they are of a singularly gruesome quality. In this instance, a Houston-area college student, Mark Kilroy, was kidnapped late at night during a spring break blow-out; he was transported to the ranch where previously there had taken place numerous grisly sacrifices of victims by satanic cultists, who were also drug traffickers. Kilroy was murdered and dismembered with the whacks of a machete. Bodies of the cult's victims were unearthed by a team of North American federal agents and Mexican national police, and the perpetrators confessed their crimes in front of international media.

Despite the graphic evidence, Green attempts, with chutzpa and pseudo-logic, to explain the Matamoros horrors as a cryptoracist plot on the part of the press, the police, the government, the academic establishment, and virtually the entire American populace who viewed the cultists' cauldron of human blood and body parts on prime-time television. Green writes:

By focusing such social anxiety on a particular set of religions practiced by the allegedly threatening group, popular authors and the regional media gave form to the fears of the area, and provided a means for rationalizing these fears. . . .Behavior seen as aberrant by the dominant system is interpreted within preexisting frameworks, rather than leading to a reorganization of the dominant group's worldview. (p. 245)

In other words, the death of Kilroy and numerous nameless Hispanic victims, some of whom were tortured in the most brutal and inhumane manner, is alchemized through the syntax of a relatively sophisticated sociobabble into some kind of collective dementia on the part of the public at large. Other essays throughout the book take much the same tack: the public is either malicious or crazy; the experts are all enmeshed in their own conspiracy to whip up hysteria aimed at socially marginal groups; the cults are innocent despite whatever evidence can be mustered; "we" the experts (that is, the authors) know that to be the case.

The curious thing about all these putatively authoritative analyses is that they present no evidence to support their own tacit claim that the public reaction to the problem of Satanism is out of line. What they offer instead are currently discredited, pop-political, 1960s-style New Left "grand theories," arguing that (1) satanic cult participants are de facto stigmatized and vilified because they are "different" and (2) this stigmatization is attributable to virtually everyone in power or with a social or professional position, especially the media. As graduate students Laurel Rowe and Gray Cavendar state:

In the past years, the media covered Satanism in light-hearted Halloween interviews with the Church of Satan's Anton LaVey. Today, however, television news and newspapers cover satanic crime, ranging from sensationalistic national stories of ritual murders to local coverage of vandalism in cemeteries. Because they present "hard news," the mainstream media lend legitimacy to allegations that satanic activity is on the rise, posing a threat to society. However, stories about Satanism, like all news stories, represent the media's social construction of reality through news frames. (p. 264)

The implication is clearly that somehow the media make up stories about Satanism, or at least radically distort the real picture. This argument is, of course, rather sophomoric and would not be held by any credible sociologist, let alone a media analyst. The media are notorious for subtly editorializing and flaunting their biases, for ignoring or even censoring certain subject matter. Journalists, however, rarely fabricate stories. When they do, immediately, they are held up to public disrepute or they may be threatened with actual prosecution, as happened in 1991 when a television reporter in Colorado allegedly helped set up an illegal pit bull dogfight.

In sum, The Satanism Scare substitutes a tiresome stream of political ideology for documentary evidence, while in the same breath systematically accusing American opinion makers of inventing what information is available. Also, some of the few facts in the book are presented horribly wrongly. These falsities are not mere trifles; they turn out to be effective forms of character assassination against credible experts. For instance, American Studies professor Bill Ellis (Pennsylvania State University at Hazleton) characterizes Dale Griffis as a mild-mannered crackpot "driven by emotions created by his personal life and his professional fears" (p. 289). Supposedly, these emotions were inflamed "after his teenage son committed suicide, allegedly `in the name of Satan'" (p. 289). In fact, Griffis's son is very much alive and has never been involved in Satanism.

One breathlessly awaits the next volume on the whereabouts of Elvis.

Carl Raschke, Ph.D.

Professor of Religious Studies

University of Denver

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1992