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Satan in Suburbia

How much reliance can we place on witness and victim testimony in the wake of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panics? Gareth J Medway traces the origins of a modern witch hunt.

In 1996, the National Health Service made a grant to London psychotherapist Valerie Sinason to determine whether stories of Satanic child abuse could be corroborated. She concluded that she was inclined to belief because of the repetition of identical elements in the accounts related to her by many of her patients.1 One of these consistent elements was the witnessing of a baby sacrifice. In reality, of course, if babies were killed that frequently, we would indeed expect some agreement between accounts – for example, on the place or date of such a sacrifice, or perhaps the discovery of some remains – but, in the history of the Satanic ritual abuse scare, this kind of corroboration has been completely lacking.

Far from converging in agreement, witness accounts tend to differ greatly – even accounts of the same event by the same witness given on different occasions. In 1988, Audrey Harper, an Evangelical who had been converted to Christianity by the preacher Eric Hutchings, told the Sunday Sport how, before her salvation, she had been initiated into Devil-worship at a ceremony in which the throat of a cockerel was slit and its blood smeared all over her body. Two years later, her story appeared in a book, Dance with the Devil, in which she claimed that it was a baby whose throat was slit and whose blood was smeared on her.2 Either Harper could not tell the difference between a cockerel and a baby, or she had decided that her original story was not sensational enough. Another Eric Hutchings convert, Doreen Irvine, likewise claimed, in 1973, that during her Satanic
initiation the throat of a cockerel was slit; later, however, in a 1986 television interview, she stated that she had had to bite the bird’s head off herself. 3

Some believers in Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) justify their claims by citing so-called parallel cases of ‘historical Satanism’, but even a modicum of research shows that these cases too suffer from exaggeration and outright fabrication. For instance, several writers rely heavily on the confessions of Anne-Marie Georgel and Catherine Delort, made in Toulouse in 1335, in which they claimed to have attended Sabbats at which they “ate the bodies of newborn children”. 4 Unfortunately for these case-citers, neither of these women ever existed, as was established by Professor Norman Cohn a quarter of a century ago. 5

The two self-confessed baby-eating Witches were actually invented by Etienne Lamothe-Langon for his 1829 History of the Inquisition of France. Lamothe-Langon was apparantly a man in a hurry – over a period of 50 years he wrote some 400 books, which was probably a record until the invention of the typewriter – and did not have time for the huge amount of research that a serious history would have required. Instead, he read a few books on the subject and used his imagination to fill in the gaps. In any case, he did not, it seems, intend his readers to take the women’s testimonies literally; rather, they were meant to be examples of the kind of nonsense that was ‘confessed’ by prisoners of the Inquisition. 4

Another favourite ‘historical Satanist’ is the French baron Gilles de Rais (1404-1440) who, in the year he was executed, confessed to sacrificing 150 children a year in magical ceremonies. The most striking resemblance to modem cases, however, is that no bodies were ever found. This did not daunt the Inquisition; after a mere three days of torture he admitted everything. One of the odder indictments was that he was personally responsible for various plagues and earthquakes that afflicted the district, these being manifestations of God’s wrath at his crimes. 6 There wasn’t really much anyone could do to prevent earthquakes and plagues, but de Rais made a convenient scapegoat and, ironically, a sort of human sacrifice.

For the benefit of anyone who may believe in SRA, I should point out that I am not a CSICOP debunker or anything of the kind. I started, many years ago, from the assumption that criminal Satanism was a fact, since I had heard so much about it, and I wanted to know more. It was only very gradually that it dawned on me that stories of Satanic crime proved, again and again, to be either unverifiable or simply untrue. There are of course real – and usually small – Satanic organisations, such as the Church of Satan, but they are perfectly legal. There is no law against wearing black robes and chanting “Hail Satan!” Although Witchcraft has undergone a large-scale revival in the last few decades, modern Witches are Pagans and do not worship, or even believe in, the Christian Devil. They have their own code of ethics which, although rather different from that of Christians, includes doing no harm.

During the Satanic child abuse panics of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the media regularly quoted a number of ‘experts’ on the occult who referred to Witchcraft and Satanism as if they were the same thing. At first this puzzled me, and I wondered if some new movement was starting. I soon realised that these ‘experts’ did not in fact know the first thing about the subject.

Proof that ‘Satanic child abuse’ was not a real phenomenon but a panic is shown by the way it spread. If a genuine cult had been involved, it would be possible to trace its origin and development, but this cannot be done. What can be traced, very clearly, is the origin and development of the scare. A number of ‘exposures’ of Satanism – mostly written by Christians who claimed to have been practising Satanists until they were ‘Born Again’ – were published in the 1970s. None of them, at that early stage, had a word to say about child abuse or human sacrifice. Satanists were described as evil, but their practices involved nothing worse than (adult) sex orgies and the occasional slitting of a cockerel’s throat. 7 No two separate stories described groups that could plausibly be identified with each other; either every confession involved a different Satanic cult, or else they were all fictions.

The tone changed in 1980 when the book Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Pazder, a psychiatrist in Victoria, British Columbia, and Michelle Smith, his patient, was published. During trances, Smith seemed to recover ‘suppressed’ memories of childhood experiences involving spiders, worms, enemas, and black robed figures. The culmination was a recollection of a huge Satanic gathering at which Satan appeared in person while the huge crowd of worshippers each offered him a dead baby and cut off one of their own fingers in homage.

It hardly needs to be said that there is no corroboration of her story, not even a sudden epidemic of British Columbians missing a finger. No-one else has emerged in 21 years – despite the book being a best-seller – claiming to have attended the same ‘Feast of the Beast’ in 1955. Michelle’s own sisters strongly denied her story, but somehow they failed to get the same publicity. More alarming is the footnote in the book that explains how the entire narrative might be, at best, a rationalisation of unconscious imagery. In it, Pazder warns that the tapes of Smith’s hypnosis sessions, on which the book is based, had to be carefully edited since some of the memories “took many fragmented sessions to coalesce” and that it was only after repeated trances that she was able “to supply crucial details that made events comprehensible.” 8

The second stage of the panic began in Manhattan Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1983. As a result of accusations made by a woman who later proved to be schizophrenic, children attending the McMartin Pre-School were intensively questioned on suspicion that they had been abused. Initially, none of the children talked about abuse and so – according to fashionable psychiatric theory – it was concluded that they were “in denial”. The inquisitors believed the abuse suffered by the children must have been so horrible, so traumatic, that they needed to be interviewed again and again until they admitted it had happened. 9

Inevitably, some of them obliged, telling their inquisitors what they wanted to hear. Many of the stories were weird, such as a boy’s claim that he had been taken from school to a local Evangelical Church, where a priest flogged him with a bullwhip. A prominent parents’ group concluded from this that McMartin was secretly run by Satanists, so they consulted Pazder and Smith.10 This establishes, clearly, that some of them must have read Michelle Remembers before they concluded that the same thing was going on in their own town. Ultimately, all the staff of the Pre-School were charged with molestation; though in 1990, after seven years and the most expensive case in American legal history, all were acquitted.

It was unfortunate for the McMartin staff that soon after their arrest in 1984 the media began drawing attention to the supposed new crime of Ritual Abuse. Similar cases began to spring up at other pre-schools. As soon as Catherine Gould, a California psychotherapist who treats both children and adults, heard about the McMartin case, she went looking for evidence of past ‘ritual abuse’ in both her children and her adult clients. She produced a list of ‘indicators’ of SRA – rather like the 'witch signs' which helped condemn many an innocent person in the great witch persecutions across Europe. Gould’s indicators, however, include any behaviour at all out of the ordinary (“Child does odd, ritualistic dances”) and also perfectly normal behaviour (“Child destroys toys”), and have since circulated all over the world. 11

I have no space here to describe what followed; suffice it to say that, quite invariably, new cases arose only where the authorities had learnt of earlier cases. In this way the SRA panic that gripped the USA, Britain, Holland, Australia and elsewhere can be clearly traced back to Michelle Remembers by way of the McMartin case. And, once again, there were never any two reports that matched, in the sense that two witnesses claimed to have been present at the same ritual, or even appeared to describe the same Satanic Order.

In 1987, the British Evangelical magazine Prophecy Today declared to its readers: “Information we are presently receiving suggests the reintroduction of infant sacrifice into Britain”. 12 Although they did not disclose their sources, their most tangible was an interview by the Reverend David M Woodhouse, the vicar of St James Church, Clitheroe, with a ex-Witch turned Christian who claimed that: “Witches also pray for the breakdown of Christian marriages. I used to take part in that.” Now, it is a commonplace in Evangelical circles that the high divorce rate amongst Christians is attributed to curses laid by Witches. Another Evangelist added that Witches also pray for “the downfall of leading Christian ministers”, ie. that they ‘get caught with their pants down’13 There is not the slightest evidence to support these claims; why would Witches bother? As one former Evangelical who has met many Witches put it to me, in reality, Witches couldn’t care less what happens to Christian marriages.

A confession that they do so is, therefore, highly suspect. The Prophecy Today article did not mention sexual abuse of children in rituals. Within a year or two, however, in Britain, dozens of children were taken into care on this pretext, some never to be returned. The main point is that the authorities responsible had always ultimately derived their information about Satanism from US sources. For instance, social workers in Nottingham used a list of ‘Satanic indicators’ given to them by Ray Wyre of the Gracewell Clinic in Birmingham, who had himself received it from a researcher from TV’s The Cook Report, who in turn had acquired it in America. 14 While there is no evidence for the existence of an international Satanic conspiracy, there is ample proof, of this sort, of the reality of an international anti-Satanist network.

In this context it is worth reviewing the subsequent career of the influential Reverend Woodhouse. In 1988 he went to work at Ellel Grange, a Christian healing centre near Lancaster 15 and by 1990 he was speaking at conferences as an expert on the subject of SRA. He was a key speaker at a conference in Cardiff that June; in his audience were social workers from Rochdale who, the following week, took 12 children into care on suspicion that their families were Satanists. 16

The counselling methods used at Ellel Grange were criticised in 1992, following a Dispatches programme on SRA featuring a woman who claimed that Satanists had made her sacrifice her own baby. The Daily Mail revealed that she had only "remembered" this event at the insistence of a member of a prayer team at Ellel Grange, where she had been staying. The counsellor, it seems, had had a vision of her helping "a devil priest" stick a knife into a baby; he told the woman that it was a 'true vision' sent by the Holy Spirit, implying she could not deny it without calling the Holy Ghost a liar. 17

By this time, Reverend Woodhouse had left Ellel Grange to become vicar of Christ Church, Lye, near Stourbridge. He wrote a manual, Rebuilding the Ruined Places, on "Ministering to those affected by Satanism", which includes the bizarre text entitled the "Typical History of a Satanisticly [sic] Abused Person". Such an unfortunate, Woodhouse asserts, will have been conceived by multiple rape, will herself be raped and forced to witness a fœtus sacrifice for the first time at the age of five; then she would have to sacrifice four of her own children by the age of 19.

I am not suggesting that Woodhouse is a fanatic; on the contrary, on my brief meeting with him he struck me as a genial, trusting gentleman. The problem, I guess, lies in a credulous nature which leaves him indisposed to assess stories critically. This would explain his unusual beliefs – eg., that in some Satanic covens, "girls have been impregnated with the sperm of an animal such as a cat or with frogspawn." Whatever doubts Woodhouse may have about such incredible claims – "Whether they have birthed a kitten or frogs is unclear" – he seems content to believe that his informants are "certainly under that impression." 18

Finally, the curious pattern of the invention and transmission of false myths about SRA seems to have been established by the modern reinvention of the Black Mass itself. Certainly, the historical literature on Witchcraft and demonology abounds in accounts of secret gatherings – sabbats – to conduct cannibalistic infanticide and other rituals in worship of the Devil. This has been well-studied by historians such as Norman Cohn 5, who conclude that most of these sensational details were the product of prejudiced and anxious imaginings about a succession of cultish meetings dating back, at least, to the ancient Roman fears about the lawless mobs celebrating Saturnalia. Confessions extracted under torture aside, there is no credible documentary evidence for any ritual like the Black Mass as popularly imagined and portrayed in fiction and movies.

A case in point: one influential description of the ritual appears in Modem Witchcraft (1970), which Frank Smyth later claimed to have written in five days. Smyth describes the preconditions of the Black Mass: "A ruined or deserted church is favoured by Satanists for their rituals… The Mass begins at eleven o’clock, timed so that it shall finish on the stroke of midnight." The Host, he informs us, may be black and triangular in shape and so on.19

None of this was first-hand; Smyth had never attended a Black Mass himself. Like many other 'sources', he was retelling an account known as the ‘Mass of Saint Secaire’ that had appeared in several sensational books including The Satanic Mass (1964) by HIF Rhodes… and it is Rhodes’s book that contains the translation of Etienne Lamothe-Langon’s previously mentioned History of the Inquisition of France, with its fund of fabricated details. 4

One of these lurid notions is that the ‘unholy’ water for the Black Mass must come from a well in which an unbaptised baby has been drowned. Some years ago I set out to discover the original source for this widely told story. It proved to be a book called Contes Populaires de La Gascogne, published in Paris in 1895. Rather to my surprise, I discovered that it was not a ‘history’ but an anthology of fairy tales, in which the 'Black Mass of Saint Secaire' appears alongside 'The Sleeping Beauty', 'The Wicked Stepmother' and 'The Sea that Sang, the Apple that Danced, and the Little Bird who Told All'.

None of this would matter much, but it demonstrates that the habit of repeating details without taking the trouble to authenticate them first is endemic among writers on Satanism. The consequences of this sloppy scholarship have been terrible, as baseless allegations of Devil worship have lead to police investigations, children being taken into care, prosecutions, prison sentences, and ruined careers, besides the mass executions of previous centuries.

Some Christians believe that the insidious Satanist cult is huge and has infiltrated all levels of society, that the Satanists are so powerful they can hide the damning evidence of their Black Masses and frustrate police inquiries. Yet they have never been able to silence these same anti-Satanists despite the latter’s claims that they are under constant attack from Satanic forces. If these beleaguered Christians were to restrict themselves to counselling girls who believe that they give birth to frogs, all might be well, but I fear we have not heard the last of retributive action against imagined Satanists.

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Author Biography
Gareth J Medway is a priest of The Fellowship of Isis, a historian of the occult and the author of Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism (NYUP, 2001).
NOTES:
ARTICLE SOURCES:
  • Jean La Fontaine Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England (1998)
  • Fortean Times 57:46-61, A series of articles on SRA and related topics.

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