Two recent series of murders have set the media awash with claims of Satanism and satanic rituals. In the first, two teenage boys in Houston are accused of allegedly murdering a girl in an occult or satanic ritual that was part of selling a participant’s soul to the devil. According to the limited details released about the two minors, a girl was taken to an abandoned apartment, abused, perhaps sexually, and mutilated, and ultimately killed. It is claimed that an inverted cross was carved into her abdomen and “cult-like objects” were found near the body. What exactly these are is not clear. In an unrelated case, Miranda Barbour, who the media has dubbed the “Craigslist Killer,” claims that she has killed numerous “bad people” and that her first killings took place with a “Satanic cult” located in North Pole, Alaska. In both of these situations, if the parties are guilty as charged, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. What I am concerned about, however, is the loose use of the term, satanic these news reports.
In each of these cases, prejudicial terms such as satanic, cult, and occult are used in vague ways that taint the crimes with a sinister context, adding to the sensationalism of the crime. In the first case, the Houston boys may have thought they were in communication with the devil. Many people think they communicate with a variety of non-corporal beings, whether it is angels, demons, or aliens. So it is not hard to believe a teenage boy could claim communication with Satan. The problem, however, is what that claims means. How did this teenage come to believe that one could sell their soul by committing murder? Similarly, Barbour claims to have been in a satanic cult while in Alaska and that the cult murdered people. This claim, however, is meeting resistance from North Pole authorities who claim that there is no satanic cult in the community and that there are no people missing. This causes one to ask, what exactly does Barbour mean by saying, “a satanic cult”? How is she defining that term? What does she think makes something a cult?
When surveying the history of Satanism, it becomes apparent that there are different kinds. There is the kind attested to within churches and faith ministries, where Satan is in an eternal struggle against God, fully documented in the Bible. Then there is institutional Satanism, or Modern Satanism, which has well established and documents group such as The Church of Satan, and the Temple of Set. Lastly, there is the Satanism of the media, the kind that is promoted in movies, books, and news reports. The first kind of Satanism I mention does not really exist, at least objectively. It is more of a straw man that some Christian religious leaders use to denigrate things they disagree with or imaginatively see Satan involved with. For instance, anything from popular culture, various non-Christian religions, to the United Nations are all part of a worldwide satanic conspiracy. While Satan, in this context, is useful rhetorically, the satanic conspiratorial net is cast to widely that little is not caught up in it at one time or another. As this kind of Satanism exists only in the minds of a minority of Christians, it is certainly not the kind to which our alleged murders make reference.
Modern, institutional Satanism, on the other hand is a very real thing and has a large number of members. Most of these members, however, are quick to disassociate themselves with such behaviors as murder. Peter Gilmore, the current high priest of the Church of Satan, was adamant that Barbour was not a member of the church. He went on to add that as far as he is aware Barbour’s “satanic cult” is “not a legally incorporated above-ground form of Satanism.” This disassociation makes sense as modern satanic groups have adopted conventional organizational structures, membership, and meetings. While some may assert the existence of a powerful being called Satan, Set, or the like, other forms of Satanism are purely atheistic and Satan is used as a symbol or aesthetic. These groups also take time to think about their theology and rituals, and are not vague when they discuss them. Lastly, all these groups require members to be eighteen or older. This would preclude membership of the Houston boys.
There is, however, a form of Satanism that is readily available to anyone of any age. This kind of Satanism is created by and maintained by the media, especially Hollywood. It is found in American movie theaters, video rental stores (the few that still exist), Red Box kiosks, and on streaming video sites. It is also in fiction, websites, and of course in the news outlets. This kind of Satanism, however, is polymorphous, shallow, and prone to sensationalism. It has nebulous associations with candles, daggers, the Ouija board, blood sacrifices, selling one’s soul to the devil, claims of power through the devil, and possession. This is the kind of Satanism that seems to be at the core of these two cases. The Houston murder scene sounds like it comes right out of a horror movie and is certainly not based on Anton LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, nor any kind of established occultism. And for Barbour’s case, there is no indication of ritual activity, just unsubstantiated claims of an unnamed “satanic cult.” One wonders if making such a claim is just her way of enhancing her fifteen minutes in the spotlight.
How is it possible that such claims of satanic association can continually emerge in the media and remain relatively uncontested or examined by religious studies scholars? While there are exceptions, the problem is that there are few scholars within America who can really speak to the history of Satanism and claims of satanic abuse, a topic so fundamentally connected to American religious history, yet so universally overlooked. All the prominent scholars on the history of Satanism, in all its forms, are in Europe, predominantly Scandinavian countries. Moreover, what little scholarship there is about Satanism is often relegated to NRM scholars and not generally read by the majority of religious studies scholars at any time in their career, including graduate school. This has left a serious lacunae in the knowledge base of scholars of American religion. The result is law enforcement turning to those individual who are less qualified and more prone to accepting sensationalist claims. One example is this police training video. While I do not doubt the sincerity of the participants, the claims made within it are overly broad and dubious.
Should American religious scholars take a more active role in discussing these issues? And if so, in what forum? Should religious scholars be consulted by law enforcement or the courts? Of course each scholar has to decide for themselves, but in general, it seems pretty common for scholars of religion to be appear on news media programs or be consulted by law enforcement personal or participate as expert witnesses in cases. There are even prominent scholars like Stephen Prothero who attempt to elevate the discussion of religion in the media and lobby for better religious education. Moreover, I know even in my own depart the local authorities have consulted our faculty on occasion. Scholars involved with court cases is common, although it can become controversial, such as a number of NRM scholars, like J. Gordon Melton, being labeled as a cult apologists or Candy Gunther Brown’s recent participation in the case that involved yoga in public schools. But in general, our years studying religion should put us in the position to engage religious topics at a higher level. But what happens where there few American specialists on Satanism and similar traditions? When there is no one to correct the record? Claims of satanic crime are only an occasion occurrence, but when they arise, scholar of American religion should be prepared to respond. Unfortunately, at this point, I fear most cannot.