Conspiracy Theories

The Devil Made Me Do It


In Pursuit of Satan: Police and the Occult, by Robert D. Hicks, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 420 pages, $21.95

Does a centuries-old, international Satanic underground exist? Are thousands of Satanists murdering thousands of people each year? Many police officers think so. And many therapists claim to be treating the survivors of Satanic torture.

Belief in Satan is thousands of years old. From time to time, fear that his minions walk among us wreaking havoc breaks out into widespread paranoia. The most famous example in this country occurred in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, and since 1980, similar scares seem to have been on the rise.

Jeffrey Victor, a sociologist at Jamestown Community College in New York, counted 33 Satanic rumor panics in just the latter part of the 1980s. The McMartin Pre-school case in California was the first and most prominent of several instances in which day-care workers were accused of ritualistically abusing children. Thousands of women have stepped forward to say that they were the victims of torture by Satanists.

Robert D. Hicks has written an important account of this phenomenon. In Pursuit of Satan looks at the rise of the belief in a Satanic underground and debunks the legion of myths that fuel the paranoia about Satan worshipers. Too often people allow their preconceptions to determine their response to claims of Satanic influence. Christians believe that if Satan exists, Satanists must also. Skeptics assume the opposite. Hicks, however, never allows his own religious views, or lack of them, to get in the way of his judgment. In case after case, the former police officer simply examines the allegations and tries to see if the facts support them. They rarely do.

Take the case of Michelle Smith, who claims to have been tortured and abused as a child by a Satanic cult. Her 1980 book Michelle Remembers kicked off the latest wave of Satanic panic. (Kenneth Lanning, an FBI expert on cult crimes, says that he can find no claims of Satanic cult survivors before the publication of Smith's book.) Her tales of ceremonies replete with black candles, black drapes, dismembered bodies, and sexual abuse set a pattern that all other survivor stories have followed. But there is no evidence to support her story, and her father and her sisters deny the tales. (Smith's book leaves readers with the impression that she was an only child.)

Soon after the publication of Smith's book, Lauren Stratford came forward with a similar story in Satan's Underground. But Stratford added her own twist: She claimed to have given birth to children used in human sacrifices. Stratford got quite a bit of media coverage and was used as a consultant on cults by policemen (including those investigating the McMartin case). But when the Christian magazine Cornerstone investigated her story they found that it was "not true." There was no evidence to back up her claims, and friends and family who knew her when she was supposedly a victim of Satanists denied all of her stories.

What's more, the magazine concluded, "When we contacted [her] mother, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, church friends—in fact anyone who would have known [her] during the book's most crucial years—we were shocked to discover that, in nearly every case, we were the first people to have contacted them."

This is a common refrain in all of the stories Hicks looks at. Outrageous claims are made by an alleged victim of Satanists, and they are simply accepted by the police, psychologists, and reporters. Apparently, critical thinking goes out the window when the Prince of Darkness makes an appearance.

Psychologists say that questioning the claims of alleged victims of incest and child abuse hinders their recovery. This may be good therapy, but it' makes for lousy reporting and scandalous police work. Consider the recent spate of child abuse prosecutions of day-care workers.

In 1983, Judy Johnson complained that her son had been abused at the McMartin Pre-School. Johnson had never enrolled her son at the school: She simply dropped him off there, and the staff felt sorry for him and took him in. Johnson's initial allegation was straightforward. She said that her son's bottom was red, and when she asked him about it he said that Ray Buckey, a teacher at the school, had molested him. But Johnson continued to feed prosecutors stories that became increasingly bizarre: Peggy McMartin had sacrificed a baby and forced her son to drink its blood; Ray Buckey had pricked the boy's finger and forced it up a goat's anus; an AWOL Marine had sodomized Johnson's dog. (Two years later, Johnson was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.)

Despite the increasing strangeness of the stories, prosecutors took them seriously. They questioned other children at the school and eventually came away with other stories of abuse involving secret tunnels and Satanic rites. All of which they passed on to a credulous press. Several teachers were charged with abuse. But when the district attorney got a look at the evidence his office actually had, he dropped the charges against everyone except Raymond Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey. And juries later acquitted the two Buckeys.

Hicks's examination of the evidence against the Buckeys makes it clear (although he doesn't say so explicitly) that the only reason they were tried is the immense public pressure on the district attorney. His section on the "interviews" conducted by social worker Kee MacFarlane with the McMartin students is quite disturbing. These interviews were the core of the prosecution's case. But, Hicks notes, "all of the children had denied being abused at McMartin Pre-School until MacFarlane and her associates interviewed them."

Investigators had fed MacFarlane Judy Johnson's stories, and she searched for information to back up those claims. When she asked one young boy if he had played "Naked Movie Star" with Ray Buckey, the child denied it. MacFarlane scolded the boy, "What good are you? You must be dumb."

But MacFarlane's interviews were models of objective inquiry compared to those in other child-molestation cases that Hicks looks at. In some cases, children were struck or threatened when they denied abuse. In another, a girl volunteered that her brother pinched her genitals, but the claim was ignored by an interviewer seeking evidence against the girl's day-care teacher.

The interviewing techniques are based on the assumptions that children don't lie about abuse (a claim that is not backed by scientific evidence), and that they repress memories of molestation, so investigators must dig for these memories. Further, once a child has admitted abuse, the painful memories may once again be repressed, causing the child to recant his testimony of molestation. Apparently, children don't lie about abuse, unless they deny that it happened.

Day-care workers are just one set of victims of Satanic panics. Legislators unwilling to distinguish between Satanism and non-Christian religions (and unconcerned about freedom of religion anyway) have banned the animal sacrifices common to the religions of many immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Others have waged war on heavy-metal music and Dungeons & Dragons.

Hicks does an excellent job of putting everything in perspective. Stories of black-robed cults kidnapping children, sacrificing virgins, and drinking their blood have been around for centuries. They are directed against those who are unusual and politically unpowerful. In the Middle Ages, it was the Jews. In this country, in the last century, such stories were spread about Catholics. The professional Satan hunters of today have their own suspects: homosexuals, immigrants, intellectuals, single working women.

The only way to protect these and other minorities is to shine the cool light of reason on the fears of hysterical mobs. In Pursuit of Satan shines quite brightly.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor REASON.