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  • The Satanism Scare
  • Gerry O’Sullivan

The satanism scare has spawned its share of rumor panics over the last several years. This past Halloween, fundamentalist and evangelical pastors across the country fed faxes to one another about an international convocation of satanists allegedly held in Washington, D.C. in September. The gathering—or so self-described experts claimed—was intended to allow devil-worshippers from around the world to meet in order to further the downfall of Christendom, intensify the war on family values, and to continue consolidation of their stranglehold on government.

Based upon the dubious assertions of one self-styled former satanist, Hezekiah ben Aaron, the rumor achieved widespread currency. Pat Robertson made mention of the meeting on his “700 Club,” USA Today reported both on the tale and the Christian countermeasures, and one California- based ministry used it in a fundraising letter.

While the infernal ingathering never occurred, it did produce a flurry of counterfeit documents. Detailed day-to- day schedules of events were photocopied and circulated among church leaders, complete with reports of satanic weddings and baptisms. Christians across the country convened to wage a prayerful campaign of “spiritual warfare” against the perceived evildoers. And the complete lack of evidence regarding the convention was received as still further proof of the cunning of the conspirators, always able to successfully cover their hoofprints.

Several such “panics”—usually far more localized—have had tragic results. Several churches with largely black congregations have been vandalized or set ablaze when word spread that parishioners were, in actuality, practicing satanic rites behind closed doors. Preschools have been emptied of children by parents fearful that teachers were “ritually abusing” their charges. Timothy Hughes of Altus, Oklahoma murdered his wife after watching the now notorious 1988 Geraldo special on satanism, convinced that she was a devil-worshipper. And armed mobs in upstate New York threatened to assault punks who had gathered at a warehouse for a hardcore concert, fearing that they were “really” assembling to sacrifice a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child to Lucifer.

A handful of folklorists have tracked such regional rumor panics, finding startlingly similar patterns from case to case. One constantly recurring theme concerns the racial identity of the satanists’ “intended victim.” The ideal offering, at least according to popular mythology, is a young and virginal child—always white, always fair-haired, always blue-eyed. Jeffrey Victor, a sociologist at Jamestown Community College (Jamestown was the location of the New York warehouse scare cited above), has collected hundreds of such stories from across the country, all with this theme at its center. And in each case, the racial component is key. The unseen and vaguely identified satanist is therefore defined as desiring his or her other— the pure and virginal as opposed to the dark and contaminated. The binarism is assumed, and the selfhood of the devil-worshipper is automatically constituted, through its ritualized desire, by inversion.

For instance, in the wake of the Matamoros affair, when the bodies of a University of Texas student and the murdered rivals of a drug-running gang were found buried on a Mexican ranch, daycare centers along the Tex-Mex border were rife with rumors that “Mexican satanists” were planning to storm south Texas towns in retaliation for arrests in the case—an occult twist on the myth of the brown invading horde. And said devil-worshippers were again in search of blue-eyed, fair-haired children from surrounding communities.

Central to the satanism scare is a specific social (and, as we’ve seen, racial) fantasy of the family. Mythical satanists allegedly prey upon infants, young children, and pets—threshold figures and “weak links” in the household. Once abducted, the child, cat or dog is offered as a sacrifice during some sexually-charged, moonlit rite. But the victim is never simply slaughtered. In the lore of pop satanism, its body must be cannibalized and its blood consumed by the “coven” of devil-worshippers in order to allow for a transfer of power.

But the family is threatened from within as well as from without. While both children and pets are seen as satanic quarry, adolescents are depicted as ideal candidates for membership in...

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