Since this morning’s flashback post featured an excerpt from Jeffrey S. Victor’s important and helpful book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Urban Legend, I thought we’d look at another passage from Victor that sheds light on another recent story in the news.
This is from Victor’s chapter on the supposed links between “Satanism and Teenage Crime,” from the sub-section discussing “Juvenile Delinquents Involved in Pseudo-Satanism”:
When people justify murder in terms of their personal Christian beliefs, we don’t attribute the cause to the Christian religion. Instead, we seek the causes of their aggression in their particular personality dispositions and group influences.
We must do the same when we learn about some vicious act of aggression committed by a teenager who justifies what he or she has done by referring to some self-taught Satanist beliefs. It is misleading to focus too much attention on the excuse of Satanist beliefs, no matter how repulsive we may find them.
The ritual acts and group beliefs of these delinquents does not constitute a religion any more than do the ritual acts and group beliefs of teenage gang members, or than those of the Ku Klux Klan. Almost all teenagers who even profess to be Satanists lack any elaborate belief system focused upon Devil worship. Instead, they have fabricated a deviant ideology in order to: justify their underlying personality dispositions to express aggressive hostility; or justify rebellion from adult social restrictions; or obtain public notoriety. This is what I mean when I refer to teenagers as “pseudo-Satanist” delinquents rather than as “teenage Satanists.”
… The practice of Satanic black magic rituals doesn’t cause teenagers to engage in vandalism and animal mutilation. Instead, such activity is drawn from the same package of subjective meanings. Makeshift black magic rituals offer the excitement of getting away with socially tabooed, deviant behavior, assaulting the moral order of conventional society, and bonding adolescents together in a secret, forbidden activity. … If disapproving adults also take the magic rituals seriously, in either fear or anger, rather than ridicule them, those adults inadvertently reinforce the teenagers’ attraction to black magic.
… It is easy for a teenager to put together a concoction of “Satanic beliefs” from newspaper articles, from popular folklore, from horror movies, and even from what is learned in church about the Devil.
The story in the news that this relates to doesn’t involve juvenile delinquents, but rather it involves delinquent adults who preyed on juveniles — specifically the late, once-beloved BBC television personality and DJ Jimmy Savile. (Content note: That link, the article below, and the rest of this post include some upsetting discussion of the horrific allegations against Savile.)
Following Savile’s death in 2011, reports began to surface of Savile’s history of sexual abuse and the rape of children dating all the way back to 1955. More than 400 people have come forward saying they were abused by Savile.
In recent months, the tabloid press has also published a string of stories suggesting that Savile belonged to some kind of Satanic cult. This example — “Satanic Jimmy Savile Wore Devil Robes at Scarborough Sex Club” — is typical of the rest in its thin sourcing and the salacious tone suggesting that the paper hopes this is all true:
Paedophile DJ Jimmy Savile danced naked during Satanic sex rituals held in a creepy underground chamber, according to reports.
Disgraced Savile regularly visited a secret club in Whitby, Scarborough, to join in sex-based rituals around a flogging post, it was claimed.
The BBC star belonged to a convent of northern public figures, now deceased, who gathered in a venue called The Chamber — which had signs of the devil on the walls.
This is precisely the sort of thing Jeffrey Victor describes as “pseudo-Satanism” — a pose being struck in order to appear, and to feel, transgressive and rebellious. All of the stories of Savile’s purported “Satanism” describe just such a pose — the sort of stuff a lazy production designer might come up with for a “Satanic cult” film, a hodge-podge of pop-culture symbolism concocted from the news, from folklore, from the movies, and from religious instruction unwittingly based on all of the above.
It’s understandable that many people would want to believe that Savile was involved in some kind of a Satanic cult. Here was a man who was widely admired and respected, yet decades later the public learns that he was the worst sort of predator. If the allegations against Savile are true, then the evil that he did was real, vast, and enduring, but also senseless. It’s natural to want to make sense of senseless evil — to categorize it, classify it, and to come to terms with it in some way by attributing it directly to Satan and his minions.
So even though Jimmy Savile was a pseudo-Satanist and not really a member of some shadowy cult of devil-worshipers, I can understand why some people might prefer to think that he was. When we encounter inexplicable horrors, we want to be able to tell a story that can explain them.
But what I still find mystifying is why many, many people also seem attracted to stories that invent inexplicable horrors where none exist. That’s what happened in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and in the culture-war politics it left in its wake. The British tabloid press is applying urban legends about Satanism in an attempt to come to grips with the very real evil perpetrated by a very real monster. But the Satanic Panic and its culture-war politics embrace those same legends in order to provide imaginary evils and imaginary monsters for them to engage in imaginary battles.