Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Oh the Debil' made em' do it
Satan is Loose
". . . the specter of something dark and evil has permeated this community. . . While we're reluctant to give credence to the rumors, both because rumor breeds rumor and because we simply hate to think that devil worship is a fact in our own community, we're afraid the talk is grounded in fact." West Memphis Evening Times, June 7, 1993.
Over the course of the 20th century as America urbanized, notions of the devil seemed relegated to a Puritan past or, at least, to backwater pulpits. With the dawn of the 1960s some saw the coming of an age of enlightenment. There was the giddy optimism of youth, symbolized by Camelot and the age of Aquarius. But the devil would not be silenced.
Perhaps the devil's return to popular mythology was marked by the 1967 publication of Ira Levin's novel, "Rosemary's Baby," wherein satanic covens directed events and toyed with people's lives from behind the facade of cultured society. In the film adaptation, director Roman Polanski blurred art with reality by using self-proclaimed Satanist, Anton LaVey as a "technical consultant." Soon after, the fantasy achieved a horrific edge of reality as Polanski's wife was killed by cult-leader Charles Manson.
In the 70's, popular fictions of the devil such as "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" were complemented by best-selling religious authors warning of Satan's reality. Evangelist David Warnke autobiography about his days as a satanist, The Satan Seller, sold millions. Author Hal Lindsey followed up his wildly popular apocalyptic vision, "The Late Great Planet Earth" with "Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth." Lindsey preached against the "thought-bombs" of our modern consciousness such as Freudianism and relativism. During a time of rapid technological and societal change these books appealed to the fundamental notions of good and evil, black and white, and tapped into people's primal beliefs.
Soon, the belief in the actuality of a devil began to shape policy. Stories appeared of widespread Satanic based crimes that had gone unrecognized by law enforcement and the public. In 1980, Michelle Smith and her therapist/husband published a landmark book, Michelle Remembers. It spoke of the tortured early life of its author. She recalled being serially raped by covens of Satanists who committed other atrocities including child sacrifice. These phenomena termed, Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA), began to appear in other accounts, notably in the autobiography of Laurie Stratford. A vast network of Satanists was claimed to be responsible for breeding children for rape and murder with a death toll described as between 40 and 60 thousand each year. Pseudo-experts in the occult began to lecture police departments on how to recognize Satanic crimes in their communities. The fact that there was little to no evidence for such activities did not deter its believers. The argument was made that it took decades for the FBI to recognize the existence of the mafia, so why not such an underground network? Wasn't a basic principle of a conspiracy to make certain it went undetected?
Talk shows, forever seeking the sensational, jumped on the bandwagon. Michelle Smith made the talk show circuit and Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Geraldo Rivera ran episodes on the subjects of SRA and satanic murders. Geraldo's episode "Satanic Cults and Children" was claimed by the murderer Timothy Hughes as his reason for killing his wife; he had become convinced she was possessed.
"From small towns to large cities, they [one million satanists] have attracted police and FBI attention to their satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography and grisly satanic murders." Geraldo Rivera, November, 1987.
The FBI was paying attention, but only as skeptics. With an annual national homicide rate of 20,000, these allegations would have tripled to quadrupled the number of murders, and it would do that without leaving behind substantial evidence. The FBI estimated the number of satanists, self-described or active in covens, as being in the low tens of thousands. An FBI agent assigned to investigate such stories, Kenneth Lanning, wrote a series of articles debunking their existence.
Regardless of the FBI's statements, the belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse had an impact on local law enforcement. Across the US and on into England, allegations of SRA taking place at day care centers caused mass hysteria, lengthy trials, and occasional convictions. To this day, these cases excite emotions and controversy with some believing that mass child abuse did occur, others believing that there was a more limited degree of molestation, and still others believing that nothing had happened at all.
Allegations at the McMartin Day Care center in Southern California resulted in the state's longest and costliest trial. The defendants were found not guilty. The school was razed and after the verdicts the land was dug up to search for the networks of tunnels where the abuse supposedly took place. Some claimed to find evidence of tunnels; others claimed that the lack of tunnels were proof that nothing had occurred. In Wanatchee, Washington, prosecutors charged a group of alleged abusers with a total of 30,000 child rapes. Several defendants went to prison only to have their convictions overturned and their sentences commuted. In this case, the general consensus is that no crimes had occurred.