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.