Christine O’Donnell, Mike Warnke and the imaginary Satanists

The oddest thing to me about Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's "I Was A Teenage Witch" claims is that so much of the reaction has accepted her claim that such a thing might be possible.

It is not. Her claims of "dabbling" in what she called "witchcraft" are not true. The supposed witchcraft she describes is not something that exists. Such stories of bloody altars and Satanic covens are common and they are false. All of them. That is a matter of established fact.

The supposed witchery O'Donnell describes is simply the stuff of Satanic panic urban legends. Her descriptions come straight out of the fabrications of proven liar and con-man Mike Warnke. He made this stuff up. Her claims are about as credible as if she had said that she once conjured Bloody Mary by repeating her name three times in the bathroom mirror.

"I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things," she said. This is not true. The wholly imaginary form of Satan-worshipping "witchcraft" in which O'Donnell claimed to have dabbled has never actually existed. You can't dabble in things that don't exist.

That Christine O'Donnell would repeat such well-established lies as facts — embellishing them with additional patently false claims of first-hand experience — is not surprising. Her entire political career has taken place within the strand of the evangelical Christian anti-abortion movement that is driven and shaped by this very same late-20th Century variant of the medieval blood libel. These imaginary Satanic baby killers form the core of her identity — they are the Other against whom she has always defined herself. They are the enemy in contrast to whom O'Donnell and her supporters are able to feel good and righteous and special. That these enemies do not, in fact, exist — that they have never, in fact, existed — only highlights the desperate insecurity of O'Donnell and her witch-hunting comrades.

Let me here again commend and recommend two remarkable books on these imaginary Satanists and their ongoing influence in America.

The first is Jeffrey S. Victor's Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Victor's study of the re-emergence of this odd hysteria in the 1980s and '90s documents the spread of this nonsense and offers insight into why it continues to be so popular. The back-cover blurb neatly captures the core of the book:

Again and again we are told — by journalists, police and fundamentalists — that there exists a secret network of criminal fanatics, worshippers of Satan, who are responsible for kidnapping, human sacrifice, sexual abuse and torture of children, drug-dealing, mutilation of animals, desecration of churches and cemeteries, pornography, heavy metal lyrics and cannibalism.

This popular tale is almost entirely without foundation, but the legend continues to gather momentum, in the teeth of evidence and good sense. Networks of "child advocates," credulous or self-serving social workers, instant-expert police officers and unscrupulous ministers of religion help to spread the panic, along with fabricated survivors' memoirs passed off as true accounts and irresponsible broadcast "investigations." A classic witch-hunt, comparable to those of medieval Europe, is under way.

It was that same baseless popular tale that Christine O'Donnell was defending on Bill Maher's old show. She claimed it was all true. And when her fellow panelists challenged her on that claim, she preposterously insisted that she knew it was true because she personally had seen the evidence.

That evidence — her claim to have seen a "Satanic altar" with "a little blood there" — is cribbed entirely from Mike Warnke, the subject of the second book I'm recommending here: Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal, by Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott. Selling Satan is a remarkably thorough piece of investigative journalism by two devout evangelical Christians whose reluctance to cast judgment on a purported fellow believer lends them to document Warnke's lies in devastating detail. (The Cornerstone magazine articles summarizing this investigation can be read online here.)

Warnke's influence on this legend and his contributions to its shape and popularity really can't be overstated. He first achieved fame as a "Christian comedian" who became one of the first million-selling Christian-label recording artists. But he went on to even greater fame and wealth as an "ex-Satanist" speaker, author and expert-for-hire. He wrote a series of supposed memoirs describing his alleged past as a "Satanic high priest," leader of a 1,500-member "coven" in Southern California. The books were best-sellers, his speaking tours packed churches and concert halls, and his articles "exposing" the grisly practices and behind-the-scenes machinations of this Satanic cult were published throughout the evangelical press.

Warnke's books and "ministry" created the template for a host of imitators and supposed exposés of Satanism quickly became a lucrative revenue stream for religious publishing houses. Thumb through any of those other alleged memoirs or through the slew of books on the imaginary epidemic of "Satanic ritual abuse" and you will find details and descriptions lifted directly from Warnke's fabrications. Turn to the index or the bibliography of such books and you will find Warnke cited as an authority. His lies have even been cited in court testimony in cases where Satanic panic has brought innocent people to trial for imaginary crimes.

Part of what makes Hertenstein and Trott's book so compelling is that, as evangelicals of just the sort being cynically exploited by Warnke, there were initially predisposed to accept his claims of a Satanist conspiracy. They approached his claims believing that such things might really be true — believing them to be likely and probable. That makes their conclusion — it's all a hoax and nothing like this has ever existed — that much more devastating. (The book ends with a surreal coda, an appendix describing the authors' pleasant visit with none other than Anton LaVey — the self-proclaimed Satanist who for decades has served as an arch-bogeyman for evangelical culture warriors. His wife serves tea. LaVey plays the piano. Gershwin. He's particularly fond of "Somebody Loves Me.")

Hertenstein and Trott's initial willingness to believe Warnke's implausible claims also leads to the most frustrating aspect of their book. The authors are not at all curious as to why so many evangelical Christians were so eager to believe Warnke's lies about Satanic baby killers.

This is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of all such purported legends — the more horrifying and appalling the tale, the happier audiences seem to be to believe it. Here's one little snippet of Warnke's standard spiel:

So [the Satanists] took this little girl and they killed her by cutting her sexual organs out while she was still alive. and after she was dead they cut her chest open, took out her heart and cut it up in little pieces and took communion on it.

Believing such things involves more than just your basic blind trust in a church-approved "evangelist." It requires more, even, than a willingness to suspend disbelief. To accept this kind of outrageous horror story as fact requires the expulsion of disbelief, the abolition of disbelief. The only way to believe such stories without question is by actively, deliberately and desperately wanting them to be true.

This seems an appallingly strange thing to want to be true.

Q: Do you think there is a huge underground conspiracy of Satanic priests and priestesses ritually abusing children and committing human sacrifices and other atrocities?

A: Gosh, I sure hope so.

That's a deeply weird answer, a deeply disturbing answer. But it's the only explanation for Mike Warnke's phenomenal popularity and the enduring enthusiasm for his lies even now, years after they have been painstakingly and utterly disproved.

And that was what Christine O'Donnell was saying in that strange "I dabbled into witchcraft" clip from Bill Maher's old show. She was saying that she really wants such horrors to be true — that she enjoys the idea of such stories being true so much that she wants Maher and Jamie Kennedy and the other panelists to play along.

When the panel fails to share either O'Donnell's credulity or her enthusiasm for human sacrifice, she attempts to persuade them by embellishing with more details from Warnke's stories repackaged as a claim of personal knowledge. We know that Christine O'Donnell was lying about this supposed personal experience because we know that all such stories are not true.

But you don't have to read Victor or Hertenstein and Trott to know that Christine O'Donnell is lying in that clip. All you have to do is watch the video.

Watch her building panic as the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in during her classic Bad Jackie moment. Caught in a lie and challenged on it, she doubles down and improvises clumsily. Look at the fear in her eyes. Listen to the nervous laugh. We don't need to call in Tim Roth to analyze this video. This is simply what lying looks like.

I wish I could say here that an audacious and unapologetic liar is not the sort of person who ought to be elected to the United States Senate, but sadly that would just come across as a too-easy straight line for an obvious joke. But in any case the lying itself is not the most disturbing thing about this video.

The problem here is not that Christine O'Donnell is lying, but that she reveals herself as the sort of person who wishes that her horrific lie were true. Christine O'Donnell would prefer that America really was infiltrated by a powerful and nefarious conspiracy of Satan-worshippers performing unspeakable acts and slaughtering babies. She wishes she lived in a world in which Mike Warnke's horror-stories were all true.

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  • She’s YOU.

    No John you are the teapartys.

  • Somebody’s rearranged the abbreviation into something pronounceable. Queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, gay. QUILTBAG. I find this hilarious, possibly because my mother (who evidence suggests is against all of the above) has several bags containing future quilts.
    Although in my case, it isn’t the nicotine. It’s having something in my hands to fidget with.
    Have you looked into electronic cigarettes? You can get the cartridges without nicotine, and then it’s just water vapor with flavoring and has no carcinogens. Friends of mine like the Blu brand.
    Guys, it’s OK. Christine O’Donnell has a campaign ad where she confirms she’s not a witch.
    She’s YOU.

    If she’s ME, then she IS a witch!

  • GDwarf: I wouldn’t think so, no. Any dropped object, no matter what it’s made of, can only bounce up to a height slightly lower than the one it was dropped from.
    Glass is not particularly bouncy, and water in the pickle jar would absorb a fair amount of the upwards momentum anyways.
    So unless you dropped the jar from 20 feet up I’d say you’re safe.

    Thanks, man. :)
    Time for dinner.

  • Mink

    Ruby: Thankyou, it was a really rough year. Mom’s death was the hardest. Dad’s… not so much. I now he didn’t act the way he did purposely to make it somehow easier on us… but ironically it helped. Mom’s death made me not want to see the next day; Dad’s… I just felt nothing. :(

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Nearly anything can be a form of self-medication. Books, food and sex are my personal standard ones.
    Posted by: MadGastronomer
    I self medicate with food. This is why I’m overweight. It leads to a vicious cycle: I’m overweight, so I’m depressed. I’m depressed, so I eat to comfort myself. Which makes me overweight.

  • ajay

    hapax: well, that’s why they call it Gross Anatomy.
    The counterpart would be Fine Anatomy. (AKA “ogling”).

  • quo

    Guys, it’s OK. Christine O’Donnell has a campaign ad where she confirms she’s not a witch.
    She’s YOU

    Roger Ebert posted a blog entry about how he finds that commercial incredibly effective and extremely scary.
    I’m not sure I quite understrand why, though Christine O’Donnel demonstrating that she’s able to open her mouth and produce words in an order that makes sense and contains nothing overtly racist, homophobic, misogynistic, islamophobic, or flat oout gibberish, that she was able to communicate like an actual adult, basically blows away all the expectatons I’d had about her
    (ISTR, back in ’00, folks insisted that Bush won the debates with Al Gore simply by virtue of not drooling too much)

  • Also, somehow my name got mangled.

  • MG: Ooh, e-cigarettes? I may do that–both for the fiddling aspect and because one of my LARP characters is a chain-smoker, and candy cigarettes are sort of meh as a prop.

  • Izzy, a lot of them even glow when you inhale — although the Blu brand glows, well, blue. It’s pretty cool looking, actually.

  • MG: Even better! (Girl’s a necromancer in a post-apocalyptic world, and has recently been talking about getting Underworld cigarettes, since we’re running out of real ones.)

  • Oo, yeah, Blu cigs would be awesome for that. Here, linky.

  • I have to admit, even as someone who’s never smoked and never wanted to, the Blu cigs look kind of awesome, and I sometimes toy with the idea of getting one.

  • Vermic

    Roger Ebert posted a blog entry about how he finds that commercial incredibly effective and extremely scary.
    It’s certainly effective as an appeal to the base. “I’ll go to Washington, and do what you’d do” is exactly what Tea Partiers want in their leaders — regular people just like them, just as ill-informed as them, thinking from their gut. Personally I don’t want my representative to do what I’d do. I want them to do what a person much smarter than me would do. But of course, that’s silly pointy-headed ivory-tower liberal talk.

  • ajay

    Girl’s a necromancer in a post-apocalyptic world, and has recently been talking about getting Underworld cigarettes
    “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.”

  • Lonespark

    I do want my reps to do what I’d do…if I had a lot more time and resources, and heck, self-improvement therapy. And if I were better informed on certain issues. I almost wish they’d abstain from voting when they don’t know what they hell they’re talking about.

  • ajay

    Also: given that a necromancer is one who can communicate with the dead, and the apocalypse involves the dead being raised, it strikes me that one could be “a necromancer in a post-apocalyptic world” using nothing more exotic than a phone.

  • Mink, “Really, I’m not usually this bitter — ooh, 90% dark chocolate, yum!”

    It really kind of underscores the implosion of disappointment that the Tea Party is going to experience when all their favorite candidates go to DC and realize that there are some things that they just won’t be able to do. Then they’ll say ‘America is dead!’ and turn into fiftyteen secessionist movements.

  • Flying sardines

    @Vermic | Oct 04, 2010 at 11:24 PM
    Guys, it’s OK. Christine O’Donnell has a campaign ad where she confirms she’s not a witch. She’s YOU.
    But .. I look nothing like her! And I very much doubt she’d do what I’d do in Washington .. or anywhere else for that matter. ;-)

  • You all were talking about the smaller frequency of moral panics in other countries: I just saw on tv: “And later, on the news, everybody is worried about this new version of an Ouija game.” *headdesks*

  • Vermic

    No John you are the teapartys.

  • Guys, it’s OK. Christine O’Donnell has a campaign ad where she confirms she’s not a witch. She’s YOU.
    …which really, REALLY shows she doesn’t get it. We KNEW she wasn’t a witch. She probably still thinks she “dabbled in witchcraft”.

  • ksm

    “I wish I could say here that an audacious and unapologetic liar is not the sort of person who ought to be elected to the United States Senate”
    Why not? We currently have one for our President.

  • Oddly apropos tweet from FakeAPStylebook:

    Dungeons & Dragons should not be referred to as “satanic.” All the Satanists are playing World of Warcraft now.

    Vermic: Guys, it’s OK. Christine O’Donnell has a campaign ad where she confirms she’s not a witch. She’s YOU.
    Izzy: ‘Round here, the association I’m more worried about is the “flaky chick who actually believes in the Burning Times” thing. Frankly, I’d rather have people think I fucked the devil–at least that has a little panache, y’know?
    Heh. Well, now, that’s another reason right there for those of us who embrace it not to disown the term. I try to be a good example to the contrary. Helping to break the association between “witch” and “flake with bad grasp of history and a martyrdom complex,” one encounter at a time, that’s me!
    Big boatload of hugs to pretty much everyone on thread, starting with colorlessblue and working out from there. Why are people so shitty to people? Stupid world!

  • Ms Anon E Mouse, Esq.

    This is strange. I had my first smoking dream in about 8 years last night.

  • You are right. I am agree with you. Your blog lead people to right direction. After reading your blog I konw much thing ,For example I konw how to get well to other peoples,and now I have a lot of good friends and we help each other ,thank you very much …….

  • Consumer Unit 5012 doesn’t have time to flame you right now

    @ksm: Obvious troll is obvious.

  • Bill Maher’s simian face and monkey moves led Christine to doubt Darwinism. In the Delaware Senate contest, Christine O’Donnell is more qualified than her opponent, the old Marxist whose name is not allowed on NYmag comment board. Now, that’s funny!

  • Those old tapes are fine for Daily Intel, but they’re a waste of time for people actually interviewing her. They should ask her about her current positions on abortion, homosexuality, etc. which are right out on the edge. Though that one about China wanting to take over the US (while facing a Chinese-American opponent) was only a few years ago.

  • Cedric Klein

    All C O’D said was that she dabbled in witchcraft & dated a guy who had a Satanic altar set up with blood on it. Nothing about covens, ritual abuse, sacrifices, etc. Maybe she played around with some form of occultism & through it, met a guy who thought it would be cool & get him laid to show a hot chick (and her craziness aside, she IS a hot chick) his blood-spattered (either from blood drained off a thawed steak or maybe fake blood) Satanic altar.
    Heck, I casually talked with some guy in grad school who complained about “red hot Christians who judged him for reading stuff they questioned”. In further conversation, it came out that he actually believed in & planned to do invocations from Simon’s NECRONOMICON.
    And he was horribly offended when I told him~ 1.) there is no real NECRONOMICON; that what he had was a mashup of Lovecraftian fiction
    & real Sumerian pagan texts; and 2.) even tho it was a hoax, if he
    seriously did invocations from it, there are dark forces out there
    which may just answer. Yep, apparently I was one of his dreaded
    “red hot Christians”.
    My point in telling this is- there are all kinds of goofy out there &
    just because there was a lot of Satanic panic in the 1980’s, it doesn’t
    mean that no one ever actually played around with it.

  • hapax writes:

    Of course, if her upbringing were strict RTC-enough, going out trick?or?treating on Halloween might count as “dabbling in Satanism.”

    Indeed, in that same episode of Politically Incorrect, Christine O’Donnell says, “I don’t celebrate Halloween because of what it means. Because it is a Satanic holiday, it is a pagan holiday, and while people are going around getting free candy, people are falling victims to human sacrifices and things like that. That’s the reality of what’s going on on Halloween.”