Pitchmen of the Satan Scare by Anson Shupe Published by the Wall Street Journal Friday, Ma
Pitchmen of the Satan Scare
by 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank