Desperately Seeking Satan

Roger Sandell
Magonia 42, March, 1992
In November 1991 the Old Bailey’s first Satanic human sacrifice trial took place. Two girls, ten and fourteen, accused their parents and two other people of having forced them to take part in ceremonies in Epping Forest, on the eastern fringes of London, at which babies were killed and buried. In spite of the sensational headlines that greeted the opening of the case it was clear from the start that it had very curious aspects.

Despite the unambiguous claims made against them, not one of the accused faced a murder charge but were instead charged with child abuse. The prosecution admitted that digging by the police had produced no buried babies and there was no evidence of any accompanying epidemic of missing babies. After four days the case collapsed when one of the girls stated that she was unsure whether the events described had really happened or were nightmares, and that her grandmother, with whom she was living, has stopped punishing her when she told her about them.

A few weeks before this case took place, the nazi activist Lady Birdwood had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of inciting racial hatred by distributing material accusing Jews of ritual murder, a coincidence which highlighted the way this trial seemed to exploit similar images of Gipsies as child stealers and wizards. The Satanist ceremonies were said to have taken place at a memorial to Gipsy Smith, the Romany evangelist of the 1930′s and 40′s, and the defendants included Gipsy Smith’s grandson George Gibbard, an Evangelical Christian and South Eastern representative on the National Gipsy Council. [1]

Meanwhile hearings into the official handling of the Orkney Satanism case continue. A parent has been cross-examined to explain why she bought a child a video of The Witches (for non-cinemagoers, the recent film of the Roald Dahl children’s story).

Meanwhile in the USA, bizarre trials continue. In North Carolina a day-care centre owner stands accused of sexual abuse and Satanic ceremonies. The evidence includes testimony from children describing the presence of lions and elephants at these ceremonies. In Chicago a judge has dismissed a case against a man accused by a five-year-old girl of murdering five identical girls in a human sacrifice. The defence centred on allegations that the child had been coached by Barbara Klein, a counsellor who apparently gave advice to the prosecutors in the recent Old Bailey case. [2]

The Satanism scare has now been with us long enough to have produced several books. Patricia Pulling’s The Devils Web [3] a US publication sold in Britain in evangelical bookshops, gives a good idea of the different components of the scare. ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and similar occult-type games are controlling teenagers minds to the point where they murder each other or commit suicide (the book opens with an account of the allegedly D & D related suicide of Patricia Pulling’s teenage son). Records by heavy-metal rock bands not only contain pro-Satanist lyrics, but also subliminal Satanic messages only audible when played backwards. Many unsolved murders are the work of Satanists.

If it was possible to influence people by secret messages in heavy metal records why are there no messages like “Buy our next album”?
  When examined in detail the evidence for most of these claims evaporates pretty rapidly. The alleged backwards messages in heavy metal records seem to be contemporary versions of tales dating back to the ‘sixties of great secrets hidden in rock records or their sleeves. Nothing that is known about record production or the psychology of perception makes them plausible (if it was possible to influence people in this way, why are there no messages like “Buy our next album”?) The whole argument has been reduced to total absurdity by claims of Satanic messages in such places as ‘The Mr Ed Song (the theme from the TV series about a talking horse, not the UFO witness).

Stories of groups of Satanists committing random murders appear to have originated with the US wave of alleged cattle mutilations in the 1970′s when the mutilations gave rise to rumours of cults carrying out sacrifices. Patricia Pulling’s evidence relies on two cases of the last few years. the first is Henry Lee Lucas, a Texas murderer who in 1983 confessed to murdering 360 people as part of the rites of a cult called ‘The Hand of Death’. Although Lucas’s confessions were widely publicised and were seized upon by police forces anxious to improve their clear-up rate, the only supporting evidence linked Lucas to just one murder, that of his mother, and his claims are now generally discounted by law-enforcement authorities.

The second case is rather more substantial: the Matamoros (Mexico) slayings of 1989 in which at least twelve people were murdered by a drug smuggling gang led by Adolfo Constanzo, a practitioner of the sort of supernatural beliefs held by many poor but otherwise respectable Mexicans. At least one of these murders, that of an American tourist named Mark Gilroy, does seem to have been seen as a sacrifice to confer magical powers (the gang was exposed after a member drove through a police check, believing himself to be invisible) but it is not clear where religious beliefs began and the general casual violence of drug gangs towards rivals and informers stopped.

The evidence for the alleged ill-effects for Dungeons and Dragons seems similarly inconclusive. Although some press stories have featured allegations of teenage murders and suicides by the game’s devotees, further investigation has revealed violent homes or other factors that seem at least as relevant than the fact that those involved had played a game with a US following of several million other players.

Patricia Pulling’s account of her son’s suicide after a curse was placed on him in a D & D game is certainly a sad tale, but according to local press accounts he was also depressed by his failure in a school election (and one can only be astonished by the fact that his mother had left a pistol freely available while he was alone in the house). The only other evidence for the Satanic effect of D & D games seems to be some cases of adult D & D players being convicted of sexual offences against younger players, but these fall into a long established pattern of paedophiles cultivating activities and interests liable to bring them into contact with children.

Reading Pulling’s book suggests that one reason for the current US anti-Satanist scare is the fact that it has connected a wide variety of current American fears. Serial killers, the increasing rate of suicide among young people,, the violent messages of some types of popular music, drug gangs, and the increasing presence in the US of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, some of whom maintain traditional non-Christian religious practices, all are linked together in the same way that a few years ago Armageddon theology managed to link a variety of late ’70s and early ’80s concerns about the US and its place in the world.

The fact that most of these scares are specific to the USA probably accounts for the failure of the scare to achieve such resonance in Britain. However Children for the Devil by Tim Tate, researcher for the highly unconvincing Cook Report TV programme on Satanism, attempts to make out a case for the reality of Satanism in Britain and the US. [4]

Tate attempts to distance himself from Evangelical Christian anti-Satanism. He rejects such manifestations of the scare as campaigns against Halloween celebrations, and heavy metals bands, and accepts modern neo-Paganism as a valid religious belief. Indeed he give some interesting information on the background to US anti-Satanism that I was not previously aware of.

Especially striking is the fact that one organisation involved in spreading the anti-Satanist scare is the so-called US Labor Party led by the now-jailed political cultist Lyndon Larouche (Diane Core of ‘Childwatch’ the charity backed by Geoffrey Dickens MP that has publicised anti-Satanist tales, has also spoken at Larouchist meetings). What is significant about this is that this organisation was spreading similar tales in other contexts long before its present anti-Satanist campaign. In 1974 it claimed to have uncovered a CIA-KGB assassination plot against Larouche. Dissident members of the group were subjected to ‘debriefing’ sessions, which later resulted in charges of kidnapping against their accusers.

As a result the victims told tales, promoted by the Larouche organisation, of CIA brainwashing that involved details identical to those made later in tales of Satanic child abuse. These involved sex with animals, exposure to pornography and scatological humiliations. One detail especially reminiscent of US day-care centre Satanism tales is the claim made in the confession of one victim who had been living in London that these events took place in an Islington school when it was closed over the weekend. (Incidentally Larouche has been accused of sexual abuse by female former disciples).

While Tim Tate rejects many feature of US anti-Satanism, he nonetheless devotes most of his book to defending the validity of charges of Satanic child abuse (SCA). he begins his argument by claiming that; “Ritual crime. abuse and murder have been reported, investigated, proven and recorded for nearly five hundred years”.

To prove this he devotes nearly fifty pages to a resume of the history of Satanism and witchcraft. It is difficult to speak of this section of the book with restraint. Tate gets just about every historical fact wrong and clearly has not the faintest idea of what he is writing about. He shows no sign of having read any serious books on European witchcraft such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, or Hugh Trevor Roper’s European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Century. Instead the only historical sources cited are Dr Margaret Murray’s discredited writings, H. T. F. Rhodes equally unreliable The Satanic Mass, and a Peter Haining pot-boiler (Were these the only books on the subject in his local library perhaps?)

He begins by distinguishing Satanism from witchcraft, and follows Margaret Murray in seeing witchcraft as a primitive nature religion involving the worship of a horned god and moon goddess. He states that: “By the time of Christ this rural pantheistic religion was well established throughout Europe.” Oh yes? Where exactly? Such a cult bears no relation to classical or Nordic Paganism, or Celtic Druidism, the main religious systems of immediately pre-Christian Europe.

From this unpromising beginning Tim Tate jumps a millennium to give us his bizarre version of the witch trial era, arguing that tales of human sacrifice and sex orgies confirm similar modern tales. He does at one point concede that tales told under torture should be treated sceptically, but promptly disregards his own proviso by treating the trials of the Knights Templar, Gilles de Rais and Father Grandier of Loudon without mentioning that torture was employed in all these cases, neither does he point out that all these people had made powerful enemies beforehand. He accepts clearly absurd details such as the eight hundred or so child victims ascribed to de Rais – enough under medieval demographic conditions to depopulate quite a large area. He quotes the alleged Satanic pact given in evidence at the trial of Father Grandier without mentioning that it was supposedly countersigned by a devil.

He totally fails to mention many important areas of the witch-mania that are highly relevant to the Satanism scare. He is totally unaware that British witch-trials were very different from those on the continent. The systematic use of torture and centralised inquisitional bodies were not a feature of British trials. As a result the tales of mass sacrifice and huge witches Sabbaths are found almost entirely on the continent. The British cases involve fewer defendants and much less spectacular organisations.

There is no discussion of the role played in the witch mania by child accusers who testified to manifest impossibilities, and in some cases resorted to conjuring tricks to create the impression of being bewitched, a subject highly relevant to contemporary SCA cases. [5] Neither does he discuss the identical accusations of ritual child murder that were commonly made against Jews. If modern SCA claims are vindicated by similar claims made hundreds of years ago, are modern neo-nazi claims vindicated by similar medieval claims?

Not content with relying on discredited ideas from other writers Tate makes some insupportable claims of his own. He sees modern witchcraft as being largely a Cathar creation and supports this by quoting the confessions of two Cathar witches who confessed to worshipping Satan in fourteenth century trials. The only problem with this is that neither of the witches quoted ever existed. Their confessions are both nineteenth century forgeries, as Tate would have know had he troubled to read Norman Cohn. [6]

Like many dubious writers on witchcraft he seems especially fascinated by the Black Mass, and devotes several pages to the 1680′s ‘Affair of the Poisons’ and allegations of Black Masses at the court of Louis XIV. Although, as usual, most of the more bizarre allegations in this case come from confessions made under torture, the affair seems to have some factual basis. However the Black Mass of the period bore little resemblance to later fantasies. In an age when the Mass was seen as an almost magical ceremony and masses might be said for good harvest and success in war it did not seem a very big step to secretly hold masses for purposes not approved by the Church, such as sexual success or the death of an enemy. Such practices were seen more a testimony to faith in Church rituals than as a blasphemy.

Of course no book of this nature is complete without a lurid account of Alastair Crowley, a figure who in fact, when his more bizarre claims are dismissed, seems simply a not untypical member of the avant-garde of the period exaggerating his own wickedness to outrage convention in a manner similar to Gabriel D’Annunzio and the young Salvador Dali.

A further measure of Tim Tate’s historical ignorance is that he seems to know nothing of Gerald B. Gardner, who in the 1940′s and 40′s originated the ‘Wicca’ cult which Tate seems to think is genuinely ancient and whose rituals involving nakedness and flagellation are a perfectly genuine example of so-called ‘witchcraft’ being used as a cover for bizarre sexual practices.

After this lamentable ‘historical’ section we arrive at the present day. We are presented with a list of modern self-proclaimed ‘Satanists’ who have appeared in court charged with a variety of offences, chiefly sexual. The list presented is far from exhaustive, Mr Tate’s cases do not include Norman Pasnail, the 1970′s Jersey (Channel Islands) sex killer who was obsessed with Gilles de Rais, or Vic Morris, the neo-nazi Satanist and convicted child molester who various investigative journalists have linked with the search for the killers of Hilda Morrell. [7]

While these cases should serve as a warning that not all cases where allegations are made are baseless, they take us no nearer to the allegations of large scale undercover Satanist cults and human sacrifice. Most of them involve a single person and the only alleged ‘human sacrifice’ Tate can find is a case of two Birmingham fans of the pseudo-Satanist band Iron Maiden, one of whom stabbed the other after a party. Although the police officers in charge of the case talked of human sacrifice this failed to impress the Appeal Court who reduced the murder conviction to manslaughter on self-defence grounds. The cases quoted no more validate the more bizarre allegations than the recent case of a rabbinical student from London’s Hassidic community convicted of child abuse validates tales of Jewish ritual murder.
Any form of cultist organisation grouped round a
leader seems to be a fertile field for sexual exploitation, whatever its alleged belief

Nor does Tate consider these stories in a wider context. As has previously been pointed out in Magonia, any form of cultist organisation grouped round a leader seems to be a fertile field for sexual exploitation, whatever its alleged belief. For example the regime of Frank Beck, the Leicester children’s home manager recently convicted of sexual assaults on inmates, seems to have had many cult-like features. Beck appeared to have total domination of his staff and inmates, and justified his sexual abuse as therapeutic. [8]

Tate takes the SCA cases of the last few years back to the book Michelle Remembers. To persuade us to take this book seriously he summarises it in a highly misleading way, omitting to tell us any of the details that make it impossible to take this story at face value. He carefully ignores all the many supernatural claims made in the book, such as the appearance of the Virgin Mary to the abused child Michelle, and the presence at the Satanist ceremonies of Satan himself, speaking in what sounds like fourth-rate heavy-metal lyrics; “Look at my eyes and you can see/ the fire burning inside of me./ Look at the children in them too/ The fire that burns, what is new?”.

He ignores the prophecies of an Armageddon brought about by a Soviet/Iranian alliance in the early 1980′s. Nor does he mention the fact that Michelle has two sisters who strongly deny her story. He gives the impression that her account has been endorsed by the Vatican, whereas the quote from a Canadian archbishop given in the book seems carefully non-committal: "I do not question that for Michelle this experience was real. In time we will know how much of it can be validated. It will require prolonged and careful study. In such mysterious matters hasty conclusions could prove unwise.”

Other cases cited by Tim Tate are the US day care cases, and some British ones that he has personally investigated. He is convinced of the accuracy of the children’s testimony. Consider these quotes:
“Like many who remain sceptics I tried to write off these children’s disclosures as fantasies or the product of watching too many videos. But neither theory works. Tried and tested psychological research has proved that children cannot fantasize the details … to recall it so vividly they have had to have experienced it in some way … More telling still is the way in which the children disclose these incidents. It causes them real visible pain to talk about their experiences. How do I know? Because I have sat with these children – by their request not mine – as they struggled to share the poisoned memories inside them”
“Of all the reports I’ve received the most personally depressing for me are those dealing with very young children … No matter how familiar researchers become with the details, the knowledge cannot alleviate the horror and confusion of such events – particularly in the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable among us. Yet those provided by three or four-year old children furnish the investigator with valuable evidence concerning the reality of this phenomenon. Since such small children cannot read there is no chance of contamination from written sources. Few TV programmes during early viewing hours have ever offered specific details of this experience… Consequently the details that children relate can be regarded as purer thanthose in adult accounts … But so far our knowledge outpaces our skill in helping people deal with these previously unimaginable experiences. New coping techniques must be introduced, new therapeutic skills must be developed. Much work is to be done if very young lives are not to suffer permanent psychological scarring.”

The first quote is from Tim Tate; the second is from Budd Hopkins, describing his interviews with very young children recounting abduction experiences. [9] In view of the similarity of their arguments we must conclude that either Satanists are holding hideous ceremonies in our midst and aliens are descending to abduct large numbers of people, or that the question of assessing testimony from children (or adults) is rather more complicated than either of these writers allow.

Certain features of the stories Tate looks at underline the similarity between SCA claims and abduction stories. He concedes at one point that some stories contain clearly impossible features and mentions claims of ‘operations’ that are contradicted by medical evidence, and even a case of a child who claimed to have been abused in a spaceship. ‘Natalie’, a teenager returned to her mother after living with her grandmother for ten years, tells of being taken into a big house where children were kept in cages and murdered. But the house also had a more curious inhabitant named ‘Lucifer’: “He was a sort of friend, at least he seemed to be then … When I was locked up in my room at nan’s he used to be there … I had no friends except him … Now I know he was a spirit or something”

Tim Tate seems to have no very clear idea what to make of such stories. However he insists on the literal truth of all the details of them that are not manifestly impossible in spite of all contrary evidence. He tabulates allegations made in 28 US cases. Practically all of them involve claims of babies being slaughtered and acts of child abuse being videoed, but no corpse has ever turned up, no video been recovered. Satanist never get caught by the sort of mischance that commonly happens to non-Satanic criminals. The serial killer Dennis Neilson was caught when neighbours complained about the smell from his house, the Yorkshire Ripper when stopped for a traffic violation. Serial killers usually work alone and the examples of pairs are rare enough to be notorious for years afterwards (e.g. Loeb and Leopard, Brady and Hindley). However we are asked to believe in large groups of people committing murder and torture of a viciousness surpassing the worst of individual serial killers.

Tate seems impressed by Sandy Gallant, a San Francisco police officer widely credited as an expert on Satanic crime. Some of her notes of advice to police forces are printed in an appendix to The Devil’s Web and they include a quite remarkable list of problems involved in the prosecution of SCA:
“No evidence is found at alleged crime scenes to substantiate statements made by victims. Though homicides are reported no bodies are found. Though children say they saw other children who were kidnapped no record of these children can be found with the National Center for Missing/Exploited Children.”
Is any comment necessary?

The British cases described in detail are Nottingham, and others derived from Tate’s own interviews. Unfortunately his handling of the historical material already examined means there are problems here. When his assertions can be checked Tate can be shown to have ignored the use of duress in producing confessions and ignored parts of stories which are clearly impossible. Since these are also items of controversy in the modern confessions how can we be sure the same process has not gone on in the summaries of his own interviews?

His section on Nottingham gives some further details about the extended family on whom the allegations centred. These seem to have been a horrifying collection of urban hillbillies living on the fringes of society in a nexus of poverty, crime, incest and subnormality reminiscent of the legendary Sawney Beane family. However the idea of such a family being the high priests of some secret cult seems to owe more to H. P. Lovecraft than reality.

This highlights another problem. Tate rejects the idea propounded by evangelical anti-Satanists that all Satanists are part of a world-wide cult hundreds of years old. He believes rather that modern Satanists are simply following information on historical Satanist practices. At one point he remarks the resemblance between one modern Satanist claim, and the case of Gilles de Rais, and demands that sceptics explain how the person making these claims could know such obscure facts. Apart from the fact that de Rais has long been a favourite for ‘World’s Wickedest Men’-type paperbacks, this question is quite meaningless unless one accepts the ancient cult idea that he explicitly rejects. In any case, the Nottingham family do not appear to be the sort of people one can easily imagine researching historic Satanism.

In spite of this, a Nottingham social worker declares herself convinced of the SCA charges when a three-year old produces “a historic Satanist chant”. Ignoring the lack of understanding of anyone who thinks there is such a thing, the claim is, as Peter Rogerson points out, identical with the evidence frequently offered in reincarnation claims.

The villains of Tate’s account of the Nottingham affair are the police, who he depicts as being blind to SCA evidence and refusing to investigate. He does not mention, much less reply to, the police contention that they searched the houses for supporting evidence and found none. Nor does he point out that we are asked to believe in mass chanting, murders and the sacrifice of a live sheep (curiously described by the child as being brought in a plastic bag and killed by someone sticking their fingernails into it) in a terraced house, unnoticed by the neighbours. Does Tim Tate not realise that if such dubious material was introduced into court a defence counsel would have a field day, and the real acts of child abuse that did occur in Nottingham might well have gone unpunished? It may be that the adversarial court system of Britain and the USA is not the best means of sorting out the truth of these cases, but at present it is the one the police have to operate within.

A less tendentious account of the Nottingham case is contained in Peter Hough’s Witchcraft: A Strange Affair, a journalistic survey of the development of the anti-Satanic scare in Britain. [10] It includes some dubious anecdotes and is more sympathetic to the idea of the pre-Christian antiquity of witchcraft than the evidence warrants, but is a useful and fair-minded account. It includes interviews with people on both sides of the controversy and gives a much more rounded picture of the subcultures of Satanism and amateur occultism.
Hough describes the activities of the anti-Satanist con-man Derry Mainwaring-Knight, providing an insight into the credulity of some Evangelicals to any anti-Satanist claims, however ridiculous. He also gives examples of how the activities of some Evangelical anti-Satanists have caused some disturbed people they have come into contact with to become even more disturbed. He looks at the parallels of SCA claims and UFO stories, but only devotes about a page to this. I would have been interested to see this discussed in more detail, something that Peter Hough’s involvement in UFO fieldwork investigations makes him well qualified to do.

Like sixteenth century witch-finders they seem to define ‘supporting evidence’ so widely as to make in practically impossible for anyone to defend themselves
 A different sceptical perspective come from In Pursuit of Satan, [11] Written by Jim Hicks, a former US policeman and analyst for the Virginia Department of Justice, he looks at the response of US police departments and the psychiatric and welfare agencies to the SCA scene. The story he tells is alarming. The SCA gospel is spread to local police departments by seminars often organised by Christian fundamentalists. Like sixteenth century witch-finders they seem to define ‘supporting evidence’ so widely as to make in practically impossible for anyone to defend themselves. (Sandy Gallant advises police seeking evidence of Satanism to search houses for objects including I-Ching books, gongs or bells, and chalices, goblets or cruets) They advocate authoritarian measures such as examining library records to see who is borrowing books on the occult, and spread tales of mass Satanic political conspiracies. Their influence on law enforcement seems a scandal reminiscent of the influence of the Ku Klux Klan on some 1950′s police departments.

The promoters of such seminars try to present themselves at ‘anti-cultist’, apparently defining cults as any non Christian-fundamentalist fringe religious belief. Thus concerns about the rise of superstition and irrationality are seized upon to reinforce political and religious authoritarianism, just as the SCA panic seizes upon increased awareness of the reality of child abuse to promote a similar agenda.

The response of the US psychiatric profession seems to have been, from James Hicks account, equally dubious. Psychiatrists are shown to have accepted obviously apocryphal stories and dubious historical accounts in discussions of SCA in professional journals. Elaborate discussions around the day-care cases have sought to explain why the accused corresponded to no known profile of child molesters or why inspectors or visiting parents never found supporting evidence. (From a British viewpoint it would also be pertinent to ask why these day-care cases seem to be a purely American phenomenon with no parallels in the British cases.)

Looking at the conduct of the day-care cases, Hicks depicts investigators leading child witnesses in a manner which seems to approach child abuse itself. His account of the most notorious of these cases, the McMartin affair, bears very little resemblance to Tim Tate’s and the story calls for a complete book of its own (a TV mini-series is not surprisingly planned, but will no doubt simply endorse the view of the affair held by whichever of the protagonists has the most expensive lawyer).

What future developments in this story will be is hard to predict. So far, what it has told us about the continuing ability of irrational panics to exercise wide influence in modern societies in not reassuring.

  1. As is the usual custom in such cases, Mr Gibbard’s name was not given in the press. It is given here because he has chosen to make it public as part of his campaign for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. See New Statesman, November 29, 1991
  2. Economist, August 31, 1991, also Fortean Times, nos. 60 and 61
  3. Patricia Pulling, The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children for Satan. Word Books, 1991.
  4. Tim Tate, Children for the Devil: Ritual Abuse and Satanic Crime. Methuen, 1991.
  5. Also worth considering in this context are the ‘Little Uri Gellers’ of the 1970s, who, following Geller’s TV appearances, fooled parapsychologists with simple tricks.
  6. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, University Press/Heinemann educational, Paladin, 1995. See chapter 4. Pimlico, 2nd revised ediiton 1998.
  7. Searchlight Anti-Fascist Monthly, September 1985. Incidentally local rumours have linked the Morrell case with witchcraft. She was killed on the spring solstice and the wood where her body was found had previously figured in local ‘witches’ sabbaths’ tales.
  8. To be precise, some sort of ‘regression therapy’
  9. UFO Brigantia, November 1991
  10. Peter Hough, Witchcraft: A Strange Conflict. Lutterworth Press, 1991.
  11. James Hicks. In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult. Prometheus Press, 1991.