The Lessons of Folklore

Michael Goss
Magonia 38, January 1991.
‘Folkloric’; a slightly gawky adjective and perhaps one that exudes too much n aroma of musty libraries and still mustier academics who browse in them. But, a convenient adjective for all that. Can mean more or less what you want it to mean. What I want it to mean when I’m writing on satanic child abuse – and what I don’t want it to mean – goes like this:

When we refer to something as 'folkloric' we do not wish to imply that the thing in question has no literal reality, that it’s 'just a story' – we don’t mean that necessarily, though that may turn out to be a true assessment.
To call a thing 'folkloric' means that it displays aspects familiar to us from the study of folklore. The narrative(s) contained in it show certain similarities, perhaps structural or conceptual, with those found in the folklore canon; there may be types, motifs and subdivisions of either. Even more important, the audience’s response to the narrative(s) may fall into a category wherein general rules relating to conviction and perception apply after models we have encountered in contemporary folklore – in which case this response too can be called folkloric.

A folkloric approach to satanic child abuse reports can discern several motifs without looking too hard – and without prejudging the question of whether or not these reports contain a factual basis. But even before we get down to motifs, what kind of story have we here? Had I to jot out a Stith Thompson or Ernest Baughmann-style plot outline it might go like this:

Aliens, a covert crypto-conspiratorial group in out midst, are kidnapping and subverting (abusing) children in and for their obscene rituals. We are looking at kidnap stories.

We are looking not only at the stories, for with any legend we can anticipate that they will remain dreadfully the same, with only the specifics altering. What also interests is the popular reaction to those stories. I suppose you could say that too will be moderately predictable: a mixture of uncritical belief, hysterical outrage, and a demand that someone in authority does something. The two latter facets draw power from the fact that the victims are children, for children symbolise purity, innocence and helplessness. We feel at our most vulnerable through our children.
A good illustration of the force which kidnap rumours unleash, and none the worse for being over a hundred years old, took the form of a hysteria that afflicted Madras, Ceylon and other parts of India in the 1880s. (1)

Orally communicated warnings that the British needed child victims to placate the angry gods opposing their incomprehensible engineering 'moorman' who ill-advisedly accosted a nervous boy was badly beaten. Few, not even the most educated (as the reporter put it) questioned the truth of the allegations. In a curious demonstration of backward projection which is not unknown in kidnap rumours, the alien minority – the British – was accused of unspeakable beliefs and child-murdering rituals which they had traditionally imputed to the native majority. That Indians accepted and practised foundation sacrifice to ensure the stability of new buildings was attested by several western folklorists: it was as if the rumour-mongers could not believe that the aliens did not follow the same practices which they themselves believed in and followed even to the point of having to placate the same gods.

But then the group which promotes such allegations of kidnap and sacrificial abuse is not untypically one which has suffered from the same kind of rumourised allegations in the past. Take in evidence the conflated medieval legend of William of Norwich (c. 1138 or 1147) and Hugh of Lincoln (1156), the latter being better known for the fact that Chaucer put it in the mouth of his Prioress as her contribution to the Canterbury Tales.

Exceedingly popular if we judge from the sheer number of versions and variants, the legend tells of an innocent Christian child murdered (ritualistically in some tellings) and secretly buried by one or more cruel Jews. By the grace of Christ, Hugh is allowed to call his mother to the well or ordure-heap that hides his body. Like most of the Canterbury Tales the story was already in its senior years by the time Chaucer came to retell it, but the Prioress’s conclusion, “for it is but a litel while ago” makes it plain that for the audience the narrative had a certain topicality. C.G. Coulton believes Chaucer wrote his new Hugh of Lincoln as “a satire on childish legends”, and one would like to agree with him.

Local conditions may have encouraged the promotion of this medieval audio-nasty; the invention of William of Norwich has been credited to a plan to found a cult that would generate money for church building projects. But its popularity as attested by the surviving versions suggests something deeper and darker. All too patently the legend expresses a perennial suspicion, resentment and fear of the 'heathen', too economically successful Jews – a tight-knit group of outsiders firmly entrenched within the medieval urban community, and supposedly committed to its subversion and overthrow by foul means or fouler.

But the supreme irony is that the Christians were accusing these child-molesting devils of the sort of thing that they themselves had supposedly done. In Imperial Rome it was the Christian minority whose unfathomable private rituals inspired accusations of child sacrifice – and castration as we will hear a little later on. Once the persecuted minority became a state-sanctioned majority, it remembered a useful rumour-legend which, though they would scarcely own as much, enabled its followers to deal with other suspect minorities.
Before Chaucer, before Hugh of Lincoln, conceivably
before the pre-Christian Romans, crypto-conspiratorial
child abductors had paraded through folklore
in guises that sometimes stopped short of ritual murder,
and sometimes didn’t

Before Chaucer, before Hugh of Lincoln, conceivably before the pre-Christian Romans, crypto-conspiratorial child abductors had paraded through folklore in guises that sometimes stopped short of ritual murder, and sometimes didn’t. And for long afterwards. Fairies were always on the look-out for human children (the changeling motif). Look what nearly happened to Hansel and Gretel – stay out of woods, caves, and most of all gingerbread houses. If you have a rodent infestation problem, think seriously before you hire that notorious child-enticer the Pied Piper. The Rev. Baring-Gould detected him as the Fiddler of Brandenburg and the musical hermit of Lorch. (2) Folkore has its alarmist tales and never tires of repeating them.

The Georgians, and the Victorians after them, were too sophisticated to fear that their children might be kidnapped by fairies. But as they had nomadic gypsy bands whose entire raison d’etre seemed to involve stealing chickens or children, the loss was not felt. The ever-mysterious gypsies were another 'alien insider' group, of course, and quite as effective in 18th and 19th century rumour-legends as Jews had been for Chaucer’s contemporaries.

The gypsies, rather than the real-life paedophile rings such as those uncovered by W.T. Stead in the later 1800s, were useful in the nursery too. Several Victorians have left testimony to the traumatic power of behavioural control stories told to enforce obedience in the nursery: I suppose Dickens’s 'Captain Murderer' is the best known. (3) If you weren’t good who was it who would come to carry you away? Well, not necessarily the gypsies. There was a queue of drooling monsters waiting to bear naughty kids away. Kidnap by aliens looms large in the peculiar folklore told to children at bedtime by adults and specifically to curb incipient rebellion. Who first dreamt up the original bogeyman, when and where?

Maybe those questions are redundant. We can see well enough what the bogeyman was for. We are so concerned for our children’s welfare – we are so terrified that they will be abducted and abused by aliens – that we project into their consciousness certain images of abductor-abusers which we find particularly terrifying. For many modern adults satanists probably pose a more credible and invidious threat than those old-time Jews, fairies, gypsies…

We could ask, for instance, who began and propagated a most anti-Ray Bradbury image of Halloween that manifested itself as what Sylvia Grider calls 'The Razor Blade in the Apple Syndrome'. (4) The rationale is awesomely simple: given justified concern among parents over the safety of their children as they went door to door trick-or-treating – and on Halloween which is a suspiciously pagan festival, and one now associated with vandalistic violence – at a time when children are in danger from strangers for all the other 364 days of the year, a rumour-legend arises in which the treats are laced with pins, poison or razor blades. It may have originated amongst the children themselves – that much is not clear. What shines like crystal is that, encouraged by corroborative elements which include media warnings, publicity given to hospitals offering free x-ray services on dubious treats and mercifully rare cases in which the treats certainly were laced with poison (strychnine, 1974; tyranol since then), parents uncritically believe the rumours and transmit that belief to their children.

In recent years the mere event of Halloween has depopulated some American schools as effectively as the foundation sacrifice rumours of 1880 depupilised schools in India. Moreover, the festival’s pagan origins naturally revive fears of satanic child abuse. In one version recorded by Bill Ellis, the proposed victim was to be blonde and blue-eyed, which I’d take as yet another kidnap rumour-legend motif. (5) If Halloween’s future as a spontaneous or uninstitutionalised ceremony does not look good; not in the USA at least.

If only the image of the abductor was always or even most times an adult construct! But there is a strong possibility that whereas children may adopt and react to an evil image projected by their nervous parents or by other adults – and if the real villains of the satanic child abuse panic are the horror films on TV or video the latter would have to be true – it seems equally certain that another kidnap flaps the point of origin lies in what children themselves fear.

 But who was the first to notice the bizarre ghastliness that dwells in the clown-caricature features we are supposed to love?
Take Loren Coleman’s accounts (6) of a spate of 'phantom clowns' attempting frightening children across a wide geographical span of America – Boston and outlying Massachusetts cities, Kansas City, Omaha, Pittsburgh – over a relatively short space of time (May-June 1981). He is not entirely certain that, despite the lack of arrests, the alleged incidents were entirely without foundation. We could also say that the element of risk or kidnap was more potential than actual. Mr Coleman writes of “Ronald McDonald, a modern Pied Piper with a mission”, but who was the first to notice the bizarre ghastliness that dwells in the clown-caricature features we are supposed to love? Was it the parents who, unnerved by the numbers of people children are taught to take on trust, suddenly perceived that clowns maybe aren’t so lovable after all? Or was it the children who first admitted that a strangely behaving, garishly abnormal fellow with a smile too big and too bright to be reassuring, is fundamentally untrustworthy?

Stand back from the situation – look at children as symbols of purity and innocence at its most vulnerable – and perhaps you may feel that satanic child kidnap and abuse allegations are a subtype of a subtype. For kidnap rumours function just as well when the beautiful, blue-eyed (preferably blonde) victim is an adult or nearly so.

In the classic Abducted Girl legend we have the same elements of force, cryptoconspiratorial alien groups, and (though often implied rather than explicit) sexual abuse. The finest examples have a young girl drugged while trying on clothes in some boutique; she has ended up as part of the white slave trade. You can meet her in Brunvand (7) where he tells us that “hardly an urban center in the United States that is large enough to have suburbs and shopping centers” has been free of the legend. You can also meet her historical (late 19th, early 20th century) version in your Magonia editor’s The Evidence for Alien Abductions (8) which also draws attention to Edgar Morin’s treatment of a fairly recent Rumour in Orleans (9) that inspired violent vigilante action against certain Jewish-owned shops. This cycle appears to antedate slightly the run of kidnapped female customer stories centre upon an accessories shop in Tienen, Belgium. (10)

Here, true to narrative format, the victim’s helplessness is induced not only by the fact that she is taken by surprise in supposedly safe surroundings, but by drugs – more specifically in a hypodermic needle inside the glove she is trying on. Drugs, whether injected by means of a needle (e.g. through a cinema seat) or on a pad, chloroform style, or even puffed mysteriously into the victim’s face (as in some of the 1880s Indian foundation sacrifice rumours) are fairly essential to kidnap legend. They add another unhallowed criminal secret to the abductor’s nefarious repertoire.
Recounting the understandable disquiet aroused when gangs of black girls in Upper West Side Manhattan took to jabbing female passers-by with pins or needles (11) Bill Ellis aptly invokes white slaver kidnap rumours from Massachusetts and Baltimore in 1914 and 1920 respectively. He adds that poor blacks of Washington DC fear, or used to fear, abduction by white “night doctors”, medical students who needed subjects for dissection and other experiments; it was as though the Manhattan girls had taken revenge on their behalf.

Or perhaps we have here another example of a legendary abuse by one race being swung round and used against it. Still, at a time when the approach to interpreting legends is undergoing vigorous reappraisal, we ought to be cautious as to how we isolate possible meanings. The Orleans boutique kidnap cycle suggests, as I may have implied, a vicious germ of antisemitism; the shop owners were after all, Jewish. And yet this example, or the Kidnapped Female Customer legend overall may not come down to racism purely. The disguised criticism in these stories may be directed at modern female emancipation – the folly of letting them out on their own; and/or at that easiest of easy targets for moralists, female frivolity and vanity.

 Photograph from cover of  Rumour in Orléans, Blond, 1971
 The disguised criticism in these stories may be
directed at modern female emancipation,
the folly of letting them out on their own,
or at that easiest of easy targets for moralists:
female frivolity and vanity
The girls are struck down doing, by implication, unnecessary shopping in a clothes-shop: vanitas vanitatum or something like that. On this score and scare, Eleanor Wachs’ fine paper on 'The Mutilated Shopper at the Mall' (12) surveys Bostonian legends about women attacked as they shop late at night in boutiques. The mutilation element takes the form of the woman’s finger being severed by a man who wants her valuable ring. The legend, Ms Wachs says, can offer a variety of meanings and the caution to women not to show off their finery, not to be mesmerised by such rampant consumerism as the modern mall symbolises, must be numbered among them.

True enough, the shopper is not kidnapped; in fact she is belatedly succoured by a husband, a security guard or some other handy, hardy male. But mutilated she surely is, which leads back to abduction/child abuse allegations via the Castrated Boy. Rediscovered in the early sixties, this unhappy little chap rates as one of the earliest urban legends; Brian Ellis has detected it as far back as second and third century Rome. (13) The Romans accused the Christians of castrating children, but what else would you expect? It is certainly one of the nastiest urban legends. Mother lets young son go to “restroom” – possibly for the first time alone – during a shopping trip or outing. He doesn’t appear for a long time – is found lying in a pool of blood having been castrated by a gang of (black/Mexican/hippie/fill in current panic) youths as part of an initiation ceremony. As Florence H. Ridley said, it is “a tale told too often”. (14)

Michael P. Carroll, who found that a sizable proportion of the Castrated Boy stories did not single out black perpetrators or other minorities, resists the idea that the story is racist in meaning. He prefers to interpret it psychoanalytically as a legendary vehicle of female penis-envy. (15) I doubt he will persuade too many folklorists that racism or fear of the alien outsider, does not enter into this legend.

You may have read Thomas Bullard’s article in Magonia 37 on the limits of treating UFO abductions in folkloric terms. It makes several cogent points, including one about folklorists underplaying variations in accounts in favour of spurious analysis. However, looking at the issue of satanic child abuse reports in the context of other stories – the ones I have just summarised – I would still have to say that the similarities appear too significant to be passed over.

In one class of story (1880s India, medieval England and pre-Christian Rome) three alien minorities (British, Jewish, Christian – members of non-indigenous faiths) were said to have abducted children and murdered them in acts of religious observance. (But note, the Indians appear to have assumed that the British were placating their own, i.e. Indian, native deities.)

A second class of story from contemporary USA again features a perceived threat to children (Halloween rumours, Coleman’s phantom clowns). There is no kidnap element (although it may be implied in the case of the clowns) and no murder. Against this a distinct physical danger to the children is envisioned even when it does not materialise. (Griver points out that the strychnine murder of 1974 was modelled on or inspired by the rumour-legend. It cannot be taken as confirmation that the rumour originally represents an actual danger borne out by events.)

A third class shows a mixture of characteristics. We have Mormon rumours of children abducted by non-Mormons (?) or from non-Mormon settings (amusement parks). Insofar as some stories designate the victims as intended for the child pornography industry, we have a physical abuse element. The kidnap of poor Washington DC blacks by “white doctors” involves murder, but the age of the victims is left open.

Finally the disparate groups can be made to contain the widest-spread rumours (France, Belgium, USA) of young but not under-age girls and women (ages not specified) kidnapped from clothing shops by Jewish or unspecified crypto-criminal groups. Since they are destined for the white slave trade and prostitution, we would be justified in ticking the physical abuse column for these stories.

The last category does not involve kidnap but certainly features mutilation (Wachs’ mall-shopper, the Castrated Boy). The attacks take place in supposedly safe yet cloistered or cubicle-like environments which are features of modern everyday experience: changing rooms, public conveniences. I would see here an analogy with the fully fledged “shopper-kidnap” stories from Europe and America just detained in the third category, noticing that in some of these (e.g. Bill Ellis’s Massachusetts and Baltimore examples) the victim is not enclosed by the physical walls of a 'cubicle' but by the encompassing darkness of a cinema.

Where do we go next? Can we go anywhere without crunching the data in an unacceptably unacademic fashion? I believe we can say that the material reveals a general or thematic pattern. Two symbols of innocence, vulnerability, and of our future are being threatened with blight and oblivion. They are being stolen from us: metaphorically as where the kidnap is replaced by corruption and subversion, which essentially alienates the victim from the rest of us; but also literally – the kidnap rumour per se. They are mutilated, again literally or metaphorically, and they may be murdered literally or metaphorically. The Enemy is always a self-contained alien group (which may, however, possess so loose an identity that we can only label it as' strangers' or 'perverts'). The Enemy strikes at us through our children (who will never grow to be adults like us). It is not merely that all we hallow in our culture is being corrupted and taken away. Without the bearers of children to continue that culture, without the children themselves, there will be no culture. This is what we are encouraged to protect by these stories.

I believe that satanic child abuse allegations are, in these generic senses, folkloric. I do not say they are 'entirely folklore' or 'only rumours'. But in the broadest meaning of the adjective, they are folkloric.

Also in this issue of Magonia: Peter Rogerson, Somewhere a Child is Crying, and Roger Sandell, From Evidence of Abuse to Abuse of Evidence

  1. Folk-Lore Record III, pt III, 1881 and Folk-Lore Journal, 5, 1887
  2. Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, 1892, 417-446
  3. See ‘Nurse’s Stories’, originally one of ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ series, All the Year Round, 8 September 1860. Included in most minor-Dickens anthologies.
  4. Smith, Paul (ed.). Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Academic Press, 1984,128-140
  5. Foaftale News, 17, March 1990, 10
  6. Fate, March 1982, more or less repeated in Coleman’s Mysterious America, 1983, 211-217
  7. Brunvand, The Choking Doberman, 1984, 78-80
  8. Rimmer, John. The Evidence for Alien Abductions, 1984, 50-53
  9. Morin, Edgar. Rumour in Orleans, translated edition 1971, Blond
  10. See Stefaan Top’s article in Foaftale News, 17, March 1990, 4
  11. Foaftale News, 16, December 1989, 5-6
  12. ‘The Mutilated Shopper at the Mall’ in A Nest of Vipers: Perspectives on Contemporary Legends V, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990, 143-160
  13. Journal of American Folklore, 1983, 200-208
  14. ‘A Tale Told Too Often’ in Western Folklore, 26, 1967, or Brunvand’s summary in The Choking Doberman, 82-92
  15. Folklore, 98-ii, 1987, 216-225