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Dr. Bill Ellis is an expert on folklore and the occult in contemporary culture, and is a professor at Penn State University. He is the author of a number of books including Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. Dr. Ellis was interviewed by Watchman Fellowship so that we might learn from his area of expertise as it relates to the claim of “satanic ritual slaying” in the Laci Peterson murder case.
Q: Dr. Ellis, please tell us a little bit about your background and expertise in terms of research, writing, and professional affiliations as they relate to folklore, the occult, and Satanism.
A: I took my degree in folklore studies from Ohio State in 1978 and have worked in this area since that time, first as a post-doctoral researcher at OSU, then, since 1984, as a teacher at Penn State University’s Hazleton Campus. When I started out, folklore still mostly referred to quaint traditions of the past, and so my early work dealt with topics such as ballads and storytelling. But there was a growing interest in what were then called “urban legends,” and many young scholars were challenging the idea that folklore was something that only ignorant people believed. Still-living traditions, such as teenagers’ “legend trips” (ritual visits to haunted places to test their courage) and “urban” legends hadn’t been studied as intensively. When Psychology Today published a summary of my research in 1983, I discovered that many people in other disciplines were interested in contemporary folklore, and this soon became my primary research emphasis.
As the Satanism Scare of the 1980s grew I was asked to comment on the use of contemporary folklore in the panics and controversies inspired by it. This in time grew into a research project into the origins of the Satanic cult theories being circulated in folklore and popular culture. In 2000, the first part of this research was published as Raising the Devil; this looks closely at the early stages of the Scare and how it entered secular circles of law enforcement agents and clinical psychologists. The second part, Lucifer Ascending (forthcoming this fall), will deal with the genuine folk roots of occult movements.
Q: In the Laci Peterson murder case, the Scott Peterson defense team has stated that the crime might be linked to a “known satanic cult” in Modesto. Can you comment on published media reports you have heard on the case in this regard and the likelihood of such an event given your research?
A: California is a hotbed of new religions, so it is quite possible that there are organizations that might be loosely characterized as “Satanic” in the Modesto area that are known to the police. Are they “Satanic cults,” though? Cults do exist, and their leaders can gain surprisingly strong psychological control over their followers and so inspire dangerous acts. The Manson Family, who committed a series of violent murders in 1969, represents one obvious example. Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult, who committed mass suicide in 1997 represent another (though in point of fact they ritually murdered each other in shifts). However, neither group was properly speaking “Satanic.” Manson most often represented himself as a manifestation of Jesus, not Satan, and Applewhite adapted much of his apocalyptic worldview from extreme Christian end-time groups. People who are drawn to Satanism tend to display an extreme rebellious nature against any kind of authority, and so they cannot be easily integrated into a group that demands single-minded obedience to a cult leader, either Christian or occult. So “Satanic cult” is a contradiction in terms, something like “anarchist party” or “born-again atheist.”
Criminal groups often use occult trappings to inspire fear and present an image of threat to outsiders: motorcycle gangs often take names such as “Satan’s Slaves” and sport Satanic symbols such as the inverted pentagram and “666” to maintain such an image. While such gangs may well commit violent crimes, though, their open use of “Satanic” images hardly makes them secret; in fact, their power lies in having as many people as possible know about their “Satanic” orientation. For this reason, when a gruesome multiple murder was committed in 1990 in Salida, California (same county as Modesto), the gang members responsible were not difficult to trace or apprehend. This gang used symbols and ideals drawn from popular culture Satanism, but they were hardly elusive: arrested and tried in short order by Modesto District Attorney Jim Brazelton, the members responsible were convicted and now face death sentences.
For this reasons, it seems likely that if strong evidence existed that pointed to such a “Satanic” group, Modesto police would have aggressively followed it to the known suspects who had a motive or opportunity to commit such a crime. In fact, we know that they did check out tips about “Satanic” groups forwarded to them during the early days of the investigation, as professional detectives should always do. However, it seems that the preponderance of evidence so far points to another suspect. Nothing so far suggests that police have passed up credible leads that would implicate a cult in this murder.
Q: You have written a book on Satanism and the media, and in it, you discussed a Satanism panic. Can you give us a summary of this panic and the possible relevance of its residual effects in contemporary culture?
A: The panic affected much of the English-speaking world from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Not only the United States, but Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and even South Africa and Zimbabwe were touched in some way by the rumors. The gist is that a large number of underground organizations were brainwashing members, often through initiation rituals of mind-numbing depravity, and then encouraging them to go out and commit heinous crimes including child abduction, rape, and murder. The contemporary version called these groups “Satanic cults,” but the ideas they were based on had been recycled from earlier conspiracy theories in which the bad guys had been Communists, Jews, Masons, or (especially in the early 19th century along the American East Coast) Catholics, who were thought to abduct and brainwash young women into becoming nuns, then ritually murder their babies and hide them in specially constructed cellars beneath their nunneries. Sadly, the baby-murdering cult rumor can be traced century-by-century back into recorded history to the days of ancient Rome, when it was the first Christian communities who were persecuted partially because rumor held that they were in the habit of kidnapping, murdering, and cannibalizing Roman babies.
While the panics largely seem to have dissipated, the ideas circulated remain in the form of continuing prejudice against new religious movements and the ongoing use of conspiracy motifs to demonize Muslims, who are now subject to a form of “religious profiling” to stereotype them as being more likely than Christians to commit acts of terrorism.
Q: Recently, animal slayings in Ohio were blamed on Satanic ritual slayings; but the media later abandoned that theory as false. Is there a stereotype of Satanism and so-called “satanic ritual crime” that continues to play a part in American culture?
A: Sadly, yes. Probably the most widespread stereotype is that “Satanic cults” can be identified through some sort of shared set of symbols or predictable holidays. Scott Peterson’s attorneys made much of the fact that Laci was reported missing on Christmas Eve, supposedly a “Grand Climax” in a Satanic calendar. Previously, a woman had disappeared on May 1, another “Grand Climax” date, and was subsequently found murdered in ways similar to Laci Peterson. This correlation superficially makes sense until you begin to look closely at the alleged Satanic calendars. First, none of these have ever been traced to the practice of any observable or documented cult. The calendars appeared first in 1987, as part of an overblown article in Passport Magazine alleging a nationwide conspiracy of ordinary-seeming citizens in the ritual abduction and murder of two million children per year. (If true, this meant that over half the children born in the US every year died in Satanic cult sacrifices.) As critics later pointed out, the dates were borrowed uncritically from a wide range of sources, including the 15th century witch-hunters’ manual, the Malleus Malificarum.
Even if we take the calendar seriously, critics have noted that it covers some 123 days out of the year, or one out of every three days. Given the uncertainty of when a given crime was committed (police think Laci Peterson might have been killed on December 23 and reported missing the next day), it’s possible to link just about any crime to a “Satanic holiday.” In any case, is it likely that any cult would be able to fulfill the prescribed numbers of abductions, rapes, and ritual murders without drawing police and (more importantly) media attention to the pattern?
Sadly, the calendar is available from over a hundred websites, nearly all Christian in orientation. In at least one case, a pedophile was apprehended with a copy of this document in his pocket: he was not a Satanist, but had gotten the list from a Christian-sponsored public event supposedly warning against cults. Yet as the calendar had recommended sexual abuse of a child on an upcoming date, he had carried it out to the letter. Christian organizations need to ask whether the information they circulate in fact discourages evil acts or, paradoxically, could encourage some people to commit the crimes we decry.
Q: How have these ideas about Satanism and the occult woven their way into the fabric of American culture to where they become modern folklore and myth?
A: Let me answer that with an example: My involvement in the Satanic panic began in 1982, when there was a high-context murder case involving the gruesome mutilations of two teenagers in rural Ohio. Many details seemed to implicate the stepfather of one of the teens, and one of the theories that he, like Scott Peterson, used in his defense was that a Satanic cult had committed the crime. I recognized many elements in the defense scenario that had been drawn from contemporary folklore, ranging from conspiracy theories to details from local legend trips, which often used weird cults as one of the dangers teens were asked to confront. The murder investigation proved inconclusive, and the murder was never officially solved, which led me to suggest a number of possible scenarios using new concepts from contemporary folklore studies.
The most important of these was “ostension,” the use of legends to inspire real-life actions. Most dramatically, it is possible that this murder was inspired by media coverage of other alleged “Satanic” murders, either by a person trying to act like a Satanist or by a criminal who committed the murder for other reasons and who left “clues” that he or she knew would be read as “Satanic.” Alternatively, Satanism might have had little to do with the crime but everything to do with how it was investigated by local police and by the media, both of whom were well aware of the alleged “signs of Satanism” then being circulated through networks of “cult cops” who believed that cults were widespread social dangers.
What this means is that, as with the “Satanic calendar” that I mention above, dissemination of information about Satanism may in fact create the danger we fear. Legends about Satanic murder and ritual abuse are not just expressions of fictive horror, I have warned, they are paradigms for making the world more horrifying.
Q: Why are these myths and other urban legends so prevalent in our culture?
A: Paradoxically, I believe that they remain popular precisely because so many people feel that existential evil is necessary to maintain their beliefs in a just God and an orderly universe. Just as many young people feel that contacting Satan (or some similar demon) on a Ouija board “proves” that God really exists (since one supposedly can’t exist without the other), so too many adults feel that persecution by cults driven by mindless evil “proves” the validity of their religion. It seems to me that for many people the logical motivations to believe and practice a religion have weakened in recent decades: it’s no longer enough to love God and one’s neighbor because it is the right thing to do. Rather, a crusade against evil is more attractive, even if it means committing acts of unrighteousness in the supposed name of God.
This is why I ended my book with a quote from John Warwick Montgomery: “In the case of the witch trials, irony is piled upon irony, for in an effort to conquer the devil by whatever means, man falls directly into the clutches of the evil one.” In much the same way, when believers are seduced into hating one’s neighbor, under the impression that one’s god demands us to hate them, then Christian movements are themselves subverted from the inside out. Satan stands to gain more from such subversion, since powerful and respected religious institutions obviously can do more harm with less social interference than can marginalized cults of any flavor.
Q: How might people more critically interact with popular appeals to the occult, Satanism, and other urban legends and myths?
A: As William Blake observed (appropriately enough in a list of “Proverbs of Hell”), “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.” There is some truth in all folk legends and beliefs; discernment lies in recognizing what is realistic and what derives from our natural tendency to see life as simpler, more black-and-white, than it ever is. Real alternative religions deserve to be studied objectively, not stereotyped as “occult” or “evil,” and real murders need to be investigated factually, not made the basis for splashy soap-opera-style speculation, whether cults or Scott Peterson is made the target for our self-serving contempt. It is otherwise too easy to deny the bit of evil that dwells in each of us by projecting it out into some stereotypical or shadowy social evil.
For more information on Occultism, please visit our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.
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