Interpreting the Satanic Legend
By James Hunter
*Journal of Religion and Health* Vol. 37, No 3, Fall 1998, pp. 249-263.
It is argued that the recent hysteria about Satanic cults can best be understood as a moral panic and an urban legend. Data from a wide variety of sources, including the author's own personal experience, are brought forward in support of this thesis. It is then suggested that if we are not to remain at the mercy of the anxieties and distortions that produced this moral panic, we must interpret the legend. The interpretation that is offered is that this most recent outbreak of panic about Satanism is specifically about a growing awareness of the ubiquity of intergenerational Eros.
When psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder undertook the treatment of a client named Michelle Smith, he became persuaded that the appalling and bizarre stories that emerged in the course of therapy -- stories of being tortured at the hands of a Satanic cult -- were not fantasies, but literal truth. The book that they wrote together, Michelle Remembers, sounded the alarm. The modern war against Satanic cults was launched.
In the course of providing psychotherapeutic services in a mental health clinic I had occasion to work with a number of clients with stories very similar to those Michelle related, and I supervised others who worked with the same population. These clients generally carried a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. They claimed that large numbers of otherwise normal appearing adults, many of them pillars of society, regularly gathered together in obscure places at night where, in the name of Satan, they committed unspeakable crimes against children.
According to their reports, sexual molestation and rape were only the beginning. Children were forced to eat feces and drink urine, were subjected to heinous tortures and to the mutilation of their genitals, were systematically brainwashed, were taught to act in violent and ruthless ways, and were sacrificed to Satan after which they might be ritualistically dismembered and fed to the participants in the ritual.
In the 1980s and the early 1990s I was by no means alone in wondering what to make of "cult abuse" stories. A workshop I attended, a "survivors" newsletter, and a sizable body of literature on the subject all insisted that the cult abuse stories had to be accepted as literal truth. I was told that not to "believe" my clients was to betray their trust in me. Yet I was unsure and sought some objective evidence to either substantiate or refute the stories. Some therapists, who may also have had doubts, suggested that it was not necessary to take a stand on the objective reality of the stories. If the stories were "true for the client," that was sufficient. But babies in large numbers either were or were not being cut to ribbons on Satanic altars throughout the country. And it made a difference -- a profound difference -- to a lot of people. I have come to the conclusion, with many experts in the field, that the Satanic child abuse conspiracy can best be understood as an urban legend. But I believe we need to go beyond this. When an urban legend destroys well functioning families, traumatizes children, slanders innocent people, poisons the trust which is the foundation of any community life, leads to the creation of draconian laws to protect people against imaginary threats, and condemns people to prison on the evidence of the fantasies of disturbed individuals, then we must ask ourselves what is taking place in society. We must, in short, interpret the myth. We must ask what the myth tells us about our collective fears, confusions, and delusions. In this essay I make an interpretation of the Satanic myth that will be disturbing to many individuals. That should not be surprising. When a set of highly implausible propositions, with profoundly negative consequences for society and its members, is passionately defended by otherwise intelligent persons of good will, then we must suspect that society is intent on suppressing a truth of profound and far-reaching ramifications. I believe that truth concerns the ubiquity of intergenerational Eros.
Satanic Ritual Abuse as Moral Panic and Urban Legend
In their book, Moral Panics: the Social Construction of DevianceErich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda capture the essence of the Satanic conspiracy stories very nicely. "Beginning roughly in 1980, a tale has been told on a national scale that qualifies as a contemporary legend, a collective delusion, a moral panic, and, when told among believers, a rumor panic as well. It seems that, in the United Sates and England, a conspiracy of Satanists is kidnaping (and breeding) children in order to use them in Satanic rituals, which includes sexually molesting, even torturing, mutilating, and murdering them. Most, or a least a significant proportion of cases of missing children, sexual molestation, and child pornography, the legend claims, have a Satanic connection."(4) Goode and Ben-Yehuda suggest that there are at least five criteria for judging an event to be a moral panic: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality, and volatility. With regard to the first criteria, the depth and intensity of the concern about the Satanic conspiracy is captured in a quote by Geraldo Rivera:
The second criterion, hostility, takes the form of moral outrage against some enemy of society who is held responsible for threatening civilized values, for engaging in immoral behavior and/or for perpetrating crimes and atrocities against innocent citizens. The identified "folk devils," as they have been termed by some researchers, are so immersed in evil as to be almost incomprehensible by ordinary people.
Michelle Remembers (6)
In defining the third criterion, consensus, Goode and Ben Yehuda point out the "sentiment must be fairly widespread, although the proportion of the population who feels this way need not be universal or, indeed, even make up a literal majority." (7) An example from The Courage to Heal, one of the most popular books ever written on the subject of child sexual abuse, will serve to give some indication of the credence that much of the professional community gave to stories of Satanic cult abuse.
Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, the authors of the book, presented this as fact. And it was uncritically accepted as fact by innumerable counselors working with an untold number of clients, helping them to discover the "reality" of their abuse through hypnosis, recovered memories, and just plain suggestion and imagination. In a speech on cult abuse, psychologist Cory Hammond summed up the position of many of the militant believers:
Good and Yehuda suggest that the fourth criterion, disproportionality, is met when "public concern is in excess of what is appropriate if concern were directly proportional to objective harm."(10) Obviously if thousands and perhaps millions of children throughout our communities were in danger of being raped, tortured, dismembered, and killed by an extremely powerful and efficient organization of psychopaths, no amount of concern could be deemed excessive by any reasonable person. We must, therefore, address the objective validity of the claims before concluding that we are, in fact, dealing with a moral panic. Whether it be Loch Ness monsters, wolves under the beds of young children, or rumors engendered by the latest moral panic, it is notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything. Reasonable adults, however, discard their belief in entities and phenomena when two criteria are met: first, sane and conscientious people have investigated the matter and found no evidence for the existence of the entity, and second, the existence of the entity is highly implausible. When we have carefully examined the area under the bed, as well as the closet and all other possible hiding places in the room, and found neither wolf nor wolf droppings, and we have in addition thought about how unlikely it is that a really hungry wolf has been hovering there for the last 365 nights without ever having devoured the inhabitant of the bed, most children will probably concede that there is no wolf in the room, at least until you turn out the light and leave. The case against the great Satanic conspiracy is almost this clear. Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker point out in Satan's Silence that testimony growing out of Satanic cult abuse allegations "typically included accounts of being raped and sodomized with weapons and other sharp objects while camera shutters clicked and videotape machines rolled, of participating in the slaughter of animals and human infants, of being kidnaped in vans, boats, and airplanes, of hearing threats that their parents would be killed if the abuse were disclosed, and of suffering these tortures while the perpetrators engaged in devil worship rituals." (11) The defense lawyers would point out that "there was no evidence to support these claims: no adult witnesses, no pornography, no lacerations on the youngster's genitals, no blood, no dead babies -- and virtually no talk of abuse from the children until investigators and their parents pressured them relentlessly to disclose." (12) Indeed, over a decade of investigation by competent law enforcement professionals has failed to turn up corroborating evidence of Satanic rituals and cults as they are described in the literature. Nevertheless, prosecutors frequently obtained convictions and extremely severe prison terms for alleged cult related crimes. Clearly it is imperative that we carefully examine the nature of the evidence that led to such convictions. Much of the evidence of cult abuse comes from "memories" retrieved from the minds of adults about events that purportedly occurred many years before.
Written confession of Paul Ingram (13)
Here we have a remarkable case of a recovered memory that we know to be false, because we know when and how it was implanted. Actually Paul Ingram's confession was the result of two implanted memories. The sequence of events that led to the "confession" above started when his daughter Erica was twentyone years old. A charismatic Christian speaker at a camp she attended announced to Erica, "You have been abused as a child, sexually abused." The charismatic leader then received another message from God. "It's by her father and it's been going on for years." (14)When Erica repeatedly told others that she had been sexually abused, the Sheriff's office eventually heard about it and launched an investigation. During this investigation a second daughter came up with stories of her own which supported Erica's accusations. When confronted with these accusations, Paul at first denied them; but it was explained that people frequently repress this kind of memory, and it was pointed out that his daughters would not lie about such matters. Paul found these points persuasive. With the aid of some crude, auto-hypnotic techniques, he was able to "recover" the related memories, which supported his daughter's accusations. However, when Paul Ofshe, one of the authors of Making Monsters, was called in for consultation, he had his suspicions. So Ofshe made up a story, a purely fictional and imaginary account, and related this to Paul as one of the accusations of the daughters. Paul then used his memory retrieval technique to produce the account reproduced above - one that corresponded exactly to the deliberately induced fictional account. The example of Paul is unusual only in that it enables us to observe directly a deliberately induced, false, recovered memory. Investigator induced memories of this kind provide believers with a large proportion of the evidence that is used to persuade people of the existence of Satanic cults. In addition to the recovered memories of adults, the other common source of damning testimony against alleged perpetrators of cult abuse come from children interviewed by police and professional counselors. When the now famous McMartin Preschool case was being investigated, the police sent a letter to two hundred families whose children had some previous connection with the preschool. Parents were informed that Ray Buckey, one of the defendants, was being investigated for child molesting, and parents were asked to "question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she had been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible criminal acts include oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly under the pretense of 'taking the child's temperature.' " (15) Not surprisingly, such an alarming letter led to many parents bringing their children to professional child care workers for more intensive questioning. Lee MacFarlane, a leader of considerable prestige and influence in the field of investigating child sexual abuse, and a creator of new techniques for conducting investigative interviews, was active in the investigation. A small sample gives the flavor of how such interviews were conducted.
Felicity Goodyear-Smith, a doctor in New Zealand who has studied the matter carefully, concludes that "it can be seen from many videotapes of interactions between therapists and children that overzealous interviewers often use leading questions, cueing of desired responses, praise for desired answers, and manipulated fantasy play which implants ideas about sexual activity." (17)Before I had formulated any firm conclusions about the objective reality of the cult abuse stories, I either observed or participated in efforts to track down evidence that would corroborate the cult abuse stories related by our clients. Always, it seemed, we were just on the verge of finding either cult members or unequivocal evidence of their activities, yet somehow the evidence slipped though our fingers at the last moment. I came to call this the mirage effect. When I turned to the examination of the literature, beginning with the reading of a number of accounts by the "survivors" themselves, the mirage effect continued to manifest itself. That so many atrocities could have been perpetrated by so many people for so long, and to have all corroborating evidence dissolve into nothingness whenever anyone gets close enough for a good look, can lead a reasonable and unbiased investigator to only one conclusion: the Satanic child abuse conspiracy is a mirage. It is an urban legend engendered by a moral panic. Therapy offered to the "victims," many of whom came to therapy with only ordinary problems in living, has frequently been devastating. Elizabeth Loftus provides an example which unfortunately is not that atypical.
Lynn had come to therapy with some signs of depression and anxiety and an eating problem. It was also true that she had, as a child, been raped. These were real problems that needed attention and help. The help she received, however, led to her being swallowed up into the fantasy world of the therapist, with devastating consequences. Finally, with the aid of a new therapist, she came to realize that "the massive doses of drugs, the preoccupation with sexual abuse, the paranoia inspired by her therapist, and the mass hysteria of the group, worked together to create a traumatic but wholly fictional world. The memories had actually created the trauma." (19) Then she was able to begin to heal. Perhaps most tragic of all, perpetrators of these stories have caused great suffering for the very children they purport to protect. In Making Monsters, Ofshe and Waters relate the disturbing case of "Mark," who was described by a nurse at the start of his treatment as being "warm and appropriate and friendly with peers and staff," so much so that the intake psychiatrist was reluctant to admit him. Early in his treatment, after a visit from his father, Mark tried to barricade his door so his father couldn't leave, saying: "Please don't go, Dad! When will you come back? A week is a long time." After being persuaded during three years of institutionalized "treatment" that he had been sexually molested by his mother and that he had committed heinous crimes at her instruction, he was described at the end of the treatment as "incapable of 'social niceties,"' and as having trouble with 'lying and violating the rights of others ' ". (20) If stories of Satanic cult abuse were in the same category with legends of finding cockroaches frozen in ice cubes at expensive restaurants, or Doberman pinschers gagging on the fingers of intruders they almost caught, it would be material for amusing dinner party stories and interesting Ph.D. desertions. But belief in this particular urban legend is not harmless. As Ofshe and Waters point out in Making Monsters, "If we discover that Satanic cults do not exist beneath our society, committing horrible crimes with impunity, then the recovered memory therapists are responsible for the destruction of the lives of thousands of patients and their families." (21) The fifth criterion of a moral panic, cited by Goode and Ben-Yeuda, is volatility. Moral panics "erupt fairly suddenly (although they may lie dormant or latent for long periods of time, and may reappear from time to time) and, nearly as suddenly, subside." (22) The Satanic panic has waned in England, and is showing signs of waning in the United States. However, the underlying social tensions, that provided the soil in which this legend could flourish, remain. Therefore the Satanic legend is very much in need of interpretation so that we can dispel its power and prevent it from re- emerging in some new guise at a later date.
Historian N. Cohn gives us the key to interpreting the Satanic cult abuse stories. "To understand why the stereotype of Devil-worshiping sects emerged at all, why it exercised such fascination and why is survives so long, one must look not at the beliefs or behaviors of heretics but into the minds of the orthodox themselves." (23) For us this means looking into the minds of the parents, the therapists, the law enforcement people and the investigators who set themselves the task of defending children against this wholly mythical threat. It means looking deeply into the collective assumptions, conflicts and tensions of our society as a whole. As Nathan and Snedeker point out, "at the beginning of each ritual-abuse case, the children had been eminently reliable, but what they communicated was that they had not been molested by Satanists. It was only after an investigation started, after intense and relentless insistence by adults, that youngsters produced criminal charges. By then, their utterances had nothing to do with their own feelings or experiences. Rather, what came from the mouths of babes were juvenile renderings of grownups' anxieties." (24) A similar process is clearly documented in the literature with regard to how adults in therapy "discover" their victimization. If we use the cult abuse stories as a legend to be interpreted, what do they tell us about the anxieties driving our culture?
In this case, described by Loftus, the therapist concludes that her client is trying to keep repressed memories from surfacing, and subtlety guides her to begin producing those "memories." But there is a simpler, more obvious, and more direct interpretation that remains closer to the immediate data. Suppose, as is usually the case with repression, that it is a forbidden impulse, feeling or idea, rather than a memory, that the client was wishing to repress. Suppose what is so disturbing to the client is simply that the child is sexually attractive to her. How then, do we understand the behavior of the therapist? Why has she by-passed this obvious interpretation and encouraged the client to focus on repressed memories of a purely hypothetical nature -- memories that, as we have seen, are generally not recovered records of the past, but creations of the therapeutic or investigative process itself? The answer to this question is as simple as the interpretation of the client's anxious thoughts and feelings. The therapist also is profoundly uncomfortable with the reality of intergenerational sexual feelings. She does not wish to deal with them in herself or in the client, so they are projected onto Satanic psychopaths. The therapist thereby saves the client from that most damning of all identities -- the pedophile. We may have in this little vignette a microcosm with which to interpret the larger picture. Let us hypothesize for a moment that there is a growing awareness in our society that sexual feelings between children and adults are ubiquitous, powerful, and mutual, and that the function and motivating force of the legend is to collectively deny to ourselves the reality of this fact. Is this interpretation consistent with known facts? Does it bring coherence to them? The Satanic cult abuse legend is about sex, and the current out-break of the legend, is, above all, about sex between children and adults. This legend tells us that hundreds of thousands of otherwise normal appearing adults have a shadow side. In reality they are sadistic perverts, obsessed with the desire to commit sexual perpetrations against children. Who are these perverts? Well, they may be the police officer, the step-father, the teacher, the minister -- they may be anyone. They may be you and me. And, in fact, that is just who they are. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." The Satanic stories are pictures of people with normal intergenerational sexual feelings seen through the distorting lens of fear. The fear is that if society gives up the myth of the sexless child, and the companion myth of the normal adult who is totally unmoved by the sexual attractiveness of children, people will descend into behaving like the Satanist in our legends. So we project such feelings onto the newly created folk demon -- the Satanic pedophile. Such an interpretation fits. And it brings an elegant coherence to the data we have been reviewing in this article. But is it consistent with the facts? In large part the answer to this question hinges on whether intergenerational sexual feelings are, in fact, normal and ubiquitous. The ubiquity of intergenerational Eros: Floyd Martinson, the author of The Sexual Life of Children makes some interesting observations about the experience of breast feeding.
The parallels between breast feeding and coitus so vividly delineated in this passage raise an interesting point with regard to semantics. Should such feelings, even when the genital dimension is minimal or nonexistent, be called "sexual." In his study of infantile sexuality Freud did not limit the use of the term "sex" to drive states that necessarily had a genital focus. There is a rational for this use of terms. It acknowledges the close kinship between all love feelings, and suggests a possible common origin. At the same time, to use the term "sex" to cover such a wide range of phenomena can be confusing. I would suggest it might be useful to use the term "Eros" to designate the full range of intense love feelings between people, and to reserve the term "sexual" for those erotic manifestations that have a specifically genital focus. I deal with this issue in more detail in a clinical paper entitled The Phallic Child. (27) The power of Eros takes on a genital focus from a very early age. Consider this detailed description of the interaction between two-year-olds in a kibbutz:
It is important to note that real and deep attachments can emerge out of such interactions:
Such feelings may emerge between people cross-generationally. Richard Green provides us with the example of a boy he interviewed:
Reuben: I feel that I did, but I just didn't know what they were.
R.G. Why do you think they were sexual attractions?
R.G.: And what's the earliest that you remember those feelings?
Reuben: Seven." (30)
Whenever an intense love emerges between two people -- that is, whenever two people experience a strong desire for bonding or union, their relationship is erotic. The activities of feeding, grooming, cuddling, comforting, horse play and caressing that anyone would understand to be normal and desirable in close relationships between adults and children express this eroticism. Whether in breast-feeding or in wrestling on the living-room floor, such activity frequently leads to explicit sexual arousal in both adults and children. It is this profoundly erotic nature of all love relationships, and the ease with which erotic feelings become explicitly sexual even within a cross-generation context, that is so disturbing to the American consciousness today. The emergence of the Satanic cult abuse legend, with the Satanic pedophile as the new folk demon, is an effort to repress and mislabel any awareness of this dimension of our experience. The fact is that most, if not all, adults are capable of responding to children in a sexual manner, and the sexual interest of children in adults is equally universal. Evidence for this can be found in history, anthropology, psychoanalytic writings, literature and popular culture. It is well known that, at least with the upper class, man/boy love was an accepted and almost universal phenomena in 5th century Athens. Felicity Goodyear-Smith summarizes a few examples of institutionalized man/boy love from anthropology. "All men and boys of the Siwa Valley, North Africa, were reported to engage in anal intercourse ... In the Aranda Aboriginal society of Central Australia, fully-initiated unmarried men would take boys aged ten or twelve to live with them as their wives for several years, until the older men married. The Kiwai men of New Guinea also practiced sodomy, which they believed gave their young men strength." (31)
History shows that erotic attachments between men and prepubescent or pubescent girls has also been common, and in many cases culturally normative. St Augustine, a "father of the church" living during the fifth century, betrothed a prepubescent girl and presumably would have consummated a marriage with her as soon as she came of age (had her first menstrual period), had he not first become persuaded that he should live a life of celibacy. Mohammed, at the urging of his followers, married a seven year old girl after the death of his first wife, and probably consummated the marriage after her first menstrual period. Gandhi slept with pre-pubescent and adolescent girls. Although he did not have sexual intercourse with them, they slept with him naked and they engaged in a cuddling and touching that must have been erotically arousing for all concerned. I think that it is fair to say that most psychoanalytic literature simply assumes that the capacity for sexual feelings is ubiquitously present in intimate intergenerational relationships.
The theme is also frequently encountered in literature, Henry James' Turn of the Screw, and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice simply being two of the more notable examples. A skeptic might argue that anthropological, historical and literary evidences are subject to the vagaries of interpretation. So perhaps it is worthwhile to point toward scientific research based on purely physiological measures.
A study by the Clark Institute of Psychiatry using a phallometer to measure changes in penile volume, as an objective indication of sexual arousal, showed pictures of nude children and adults to "non-deviant" adult males. One of their conclusions was that "with males who have no deviant object preferences, clearly positive sexual reactions occur to 6- to 8-year old female children." (32) This finding is qualified by the observation that "the generalizations drawn in this study do not imply that every adult male is equally erotically sensitive to little girls." (33) A more recent study at Kent State University based on a self-selected but otherwise representative community sample concludes that "20% of the current subjects self-reported pedophilic interest and 26.5% exhibited penile arousal to pedophilic stimuli that equaled or exceeded arousal to adult stimuli.
Research based on surveys support the research based on the direct measurement of penile arousal. Kathy Smiljanich and John Briere reported that in a University sample of 180 females and 99 males, 22.2% of the males and 2.8% of the females reported sexual attraction to at least one child." (35) In a study that also used a university population, Ethel Person et. al. found that 29% of the males and 5% of the females reported fantasies of "sex experience with a much younger partner." (36)
As this was a college age population, we must assume that the "much younger" sexual partner fantasized about was a child or very young adolescent. John Briere and Marsha Runtz surveyed 193 male undergraduate students and found that 21% of them reported sexual attraction to small children. (37) Briere and Runtz comment that "given the probable social undesirability of such admissions, we may hypothesize that the actual rates of child-focused sexual interest in this sample were even higher." (38) The degree to which love feelings between children and adults manifest themselves in genital arousal and excitement is highly variable both with regard to children and adults. It seems probable that constitutional and developmental factors, as well as the conscious or unconscious inhibition of impulses, all influence the strength of the impulses, the degree to which they are accurately labeled, and the behavioral outcomes. But the Erotic substratum of intense intergenerational relationships is, I believe, clearly evident to the careful observer.
Recognition of the ubiquity of intergenerational Eros will give us a different starting point for one of the most important questions that needs to be debated in our society: what social norms and personal behaviors with regard to sex are most conducive to the psycho/social and spiritual health of society and its members? To provide an adequate answer to this question, even if I were equal to the task, would be beyond the scope of this paper. It is clear, however, that if we are to make progress, we must begin with reality. This means correcting the distortions created by the moral panic about the Satanic legend. It means recognizing, in a non-hysterical manner, the ubiquity of intergenerational Eros. It means avoiding the hysteria that clouds the issues in reckless and violent rhetoric. It means gathering evidence, thinking logically, and listening to each other as diverse views are shared. It means making distinctions. An affectionate pat on the behind of a junior high-school football player by his coach is not the same thing as the rape of a five year old girl. Our use of the language of abuse and victimology should not lead us to think they are even similar events. In our innermost core we find Eros. It drives the developmental process; it pervades all relationships; it draws us to love those we need and who need us; it is the well-spring of love, joy, spirituality and growth. From a theological point of view, it is the Love of God in and for creation, planted within our souls. It is not always clear which expressions of Eros are helpful and which are harmful. But it is clear that to deny or condemn the reality of this Eros is to declare war on our essence. No good can come of this.