Will Santa Muerte Spark a New Moral Panic?

Will Santa Muerte Spark a New Moral Panic? April 11, 2012

Joseph Laycock, scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism,” examines media coverage of the killing of two boys and one woman over the span of four years in Mexico, allegedly the work of Santa Muerte cultists. Laycock’s Religion Dispatches piece argues that “these murders will likely have lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” that they are a “Manson moment” that will have potentially harmful reverberations in the years to come.

Santa Muerte

“It goes without saying these murders are unconscionable, and a tragedy. But attempting to find a grand pattern, or a reason, in a connection to so-called ritualistic violence brings authorities no closer to preventing such crimes—while greatly increasing the likelihood that innocent people will be persecuted.

It is almost a certainty that at some point in the future the events that have unfolded in Nacozari will be presented as “proof” that Santa Muerte is an inherently violent tradition. As Saint Death’s popularity spreads and the Latino American population continues to grow, this is not a theory we can afford to entertain.

If we can accept that not all Beatles fans are Charles Manson, we must also have faith that not all who pray to Santa Muerte are Silvia Meraz.”

Will these incidents provide the tinder necessary to fuel a new moral panic in the United States? We’ve already seen some declare that illegal immigration wasn’t simply a problem of policy, economics, or laws, but a religious war between antidemocratic religious “fanatics” and Western Christendom. Nor is Santa Muerte isolated in this rhetoric, as Santeria has also been invoked in the increasingly polarizing debate over immigration policy in America. These tensions seem likely to increase as the religious landscape in Mexico becomes increasingly diverse (and the diversity continues to filter north).  R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” notes that the once-dominant Catholic church faces “significant competition from Pentecostals, neo-Christians, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even “heretical” folks saints, such as Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde.”

“Among two of the most dynamic religious practices in the Mexican megalopolis [of Mexico City] are the cults of Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, and Santa Muerte. Centered in the notorious barrio of Tepito, devotion to Saint Death takes place beyond the pale of the Church. Just a few miles away, the Church of Saint Hippolyte draws tens of thousands of devotees to its monthly celebrations of Saint Jude, who shares Santa Muerte’s devotional base of marginalized youth.”

Mix growing outsider faiths, increasingly inflamed rhetoric over the issue of illegal immigration, and reliably bad journalism on often misunderstood religions like Santeria and Palo, with an incident that seems to validate the worst fears of those who are already negatively disposed towards non-Christian or syncretic traditions and you have a potential powder keg. Isolated criminal actions can be, and have been, used to prove the existence of a widespread malefic network. In “Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend,” Jeffrey Victor talks about how Charles Manson and Jim Jones were used to create a stereotype of criminal Satanism.

The stereotype of criminal Satanism merged imagery of fanatical religious cults with that of psychopathic criminals like Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson. This dramaic imagery had great mass media appeal. Satanic cult stories were first able to find a channel to a national audience when they appeared in small town newspaper reports as a possible explanation for an epidemic of spurious claims about cattle mutilations. Later, small town newspaper reports about a wide variety of crimes, from a cemetary vandalism to serial murder, began to attribute the crimes to “Satanists.”

Replace “Satanism” with “Santeria” and you can see the pattern emerging once again. “Santeria Panic,” fueled by fear, bad journalism, and extreme events like these “sacrifices” to Santa Muerte. In fact, back in 2010 Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, made explicit the link between the old panic, and the one that seems ready to emerge.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

So if this is the new “Manson moment,” the thing that will spark a new moral panic that could have “lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” it raises two practical questions for modern Pagans. How do we derail this trend, stopping it before it ruins thousands of lives as it did during the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and early 90s, and how do we form a workable political coalition with practitioners of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, and other groups that will no doubt inhabit the eye of such a storm?

During the recent Hindu-Pagan panel at PantheaCon 2012, I suggested that our faith’s friendly interactions move to the next stage, that we form a national advocacy group that merges our resources and concerns. Perhaps the timetable on that needs to be moved up and expanded. Considering the amount of overlap between modern Paganism and the African/Caribbean diasporic religions, we certainly can’t afford to simply claim it’s not our struggle. A new moral panic about non-Christian faiths would damage us all, and that’s something none of us can afford at this critical juncture in our movement.

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24 responses to “Will Santa Muerte Spark a New Moral Panic?”

  1. I look around for models. I see what Selena Fox has done for the Pentacle Quest, Pagan civil liberties, Pagan chaplains. Perhaps the way to tackle this is for someone to make it their ministry.

  2. “We’ve already seen some declare that illegal immigration wasn’t simply a problem of policy, economics, or laws, but a religious war between antidemocratic religious “fanatics” and Western Christendom.”

    It is.  The “antidemocratic religious fanatics” are the current religious-right leadership of the Republican Party. 😛 A lot of Christians are just as angry with the party’s development as we are.

  3. I can definitely see this going sour quickly. Think of all the false allegations attributed to “decidedly Pagan” groups – the groups that are in the overarching umbrella that we identify with. How long will it be until one small lie or deceit will cause a firestorm again?

    I wish I could do more.

  4. Just affirm your own right to your beliefs and, when you can and with much care, share them with others either through dialog or action.  Help people to see that individuals within a larger group need not define it for the rest. 

    If you want a less abstract way to help out, maybe you could set something of for International Pagan Coming Out Day ( on May 2nd.  A great way to help people realize that we’re just regular people with jobs, houses, mortgages, student debt, etc. is to help people see us in their community.

  5. You know, I read articles about people who die as a result of Christian exorcism and no one calls those “Manson moments.”  I’m not discounting Jason’s very valid concern, just noting that, once again, those who are good at framing win the argument.

    Meanwhile, Leesburg, Virginia is still tied up in knots over holiday displays:

  6. My Gramma’s patron saint is St. Jude, she’s got him and Queen Mary all over the kitchen. It’s interesting that he’s mentioned here.

    Given the state of the world these days I’m not surprised that he and Santa Muerte (whom I’m fond of) have a steady cult base. The Vatican in all it’s pompous glory certainly isn’t doing a thing to help those on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Santa Muerte, in contrast, isn’t going to judge, because death takes everyone eventually.

    I completely agree that this is our fight as well. Not only for religious freedom, but for the marginalized to be recognized as people deserving of basic rights and respect like everyone else.

  7. Another case where something is worshiped mostly by brown people, so “oooh.. scary. “

  8. I just don’t see this taking on a huge life of its own as a reprise of 1980s “satanic panic.” The element of sinister paganism is, at best, a very marginal factor in the anti-immigration fervor of recent years. It’s 99% economic. Of course the evangelicals will try to make hay of Santa Muerte and there will always be some sensationalistic journalism trying to make a buck off it, but I don’t think it’s going to catch fire as an issue with the general public. The possible ritual killing of three people over four years in Mexico is pretty thin gruel for widespread panic. The drug violence in that country has killed probably 60,000 in that time period. People are murdered on a staggering scale there – in hospitals, in kids birthday parties, at random in the streets. People in the United States also have a more sophisticated understanding of pagan religions in general and of Mexican culture than they did even a decade or two ago. It’s a good idea to be doing pro-active work on these issues, but I’m not ready to lose a lot of sleep over Santa Muerte reactionism just yet. 

  9. I thought Santa Muerte was favored by drug cartels.  So perhaps those deaths are somehow cartel related.
    There will be some who will cry ‘wolf’ whenever something other than their brand of Christianity pops up. 

  10. Knowledge is the antidote to prejudice.  Also to admit when we DON’T know.  Here’s a book I recently read that really helped me understand some things about Aztec/Mexican spiritual paths:

    “The Flying Witches of Veracruz: A Shaman’s True
    Story of Indigenous Witchcraft, Devil’s Weed, and Trance Healing in
    Aztec Brujeria” by James Edredy

  11. I’m intrigued. Can you tell me what, precisely, is “Devil’s Weed”?

  12. I had also read that Santa Muerte was common amoungst drug cartel members . I also agree these killings are more related to drug activity than ritualist religous murder.But as prevously stated knowledge is power , if no one else gives good  reliable information on this , then we must .   Kilm

  13. Devoted to Death is a pretty interesting book, and much better than the sensationalist title and cover art would suggest.  Santa Muerte seems pretty darn pagan to me, based on that book!  I think some kind of panic is inevitable, but I don’t think the folks who push these kinds of panics are nearly as influential as they used to be. 

  14. Are these legitimate followers of Santa Muerte?Or just some crazy idiots with Death ideology murdering people.Like all the ritualized “Satanic” murders in the US that just turned out to be either insane or demented people.To my knowledge there has never been A proven case of Satanic murder.

  15. She is pagan (Folk Catholicism in general is very pagan, a major source of friction between people and Vatican bureaucracy for the past 1500 years). She’s not sanctioned by the Church at all, and the local priests are relatively vocal in their disapproval, in both the US and Mexico.

    Think about it this way, there’s not supposed to be a “Saint Death” because Jesus conquered death, giving his followers eternal life instead. How she’s justified is that she’s the “other side” of Queen/Mother Mary to some followers, because life and death go together. Which still rubs Catholic ideology the wrong way though.

    Also, Santa Muerte isn’t just a saint of drug cartels, to those that mentioned that. Prostitutes, orphans and the poor in general flock to her as well. Funny enough, the Catholic version of Santa Claus, St. Nick, is also a patron of the same types of people. But nobody worries about him because he’s depicted as a jolly fat guy or a regal bishop rather than a skeleton.

  16.  About .5% of the people who worship St. Death are drug dealing criminals.  About 99.5% are abuelitas (Grannies). 

    I also wanna point out that around 70% of the murderers currently serving life terms are mainstream Christian.

  17. The Mexican government is probably trying to distract from cartel violence again.  Santa Muerte is called the defender of innocents. She holds the sands
    of time and the earth in her old delicate fingers. She may be a symbol
    of death but she is also loving. She protects children. She leads
    those who pass on to the other side. She represents the womb and
    rebirth. Mictecacihuatl was an indigenous religious figure and then Northern Europeans who went to Mexico brought elements of lady death to it.  The Ctaholic church used to allow syncretism to get converts but now they are turning their back on it.