Sexual Attitudes in the Contemporary Legend About
Jeffrey S. Victor*
ABSTRACT The contemporary stories about satanic cults arise from an
ancient legend that can be traced to the eleventh century. None of
the current claims are supported by reliable evidence and historians
agree that no Devil worshipping religious cults ever existed.
These legends arise during periods of disruptive social change and
provide explanations and scapegoats for the anxieties people have about
their society and their future. The current satanic scare is the
result of anxieties about the perceived moral corruption in modern
society resulting from the rapid social changes in gender roles, child
rearing and sexual attitudes since the 1960s. Stories of sexual
deviance are prominent in the satanic cult legend in which innocent
children are seen as victims of an absolute evil in the form of sadistic
and bizarre sexual perversion.
The Witch-Hunt for Criminal Satanists
The Salem witchcraft scare was ignited by the unexplainable suffering
of teenage girls to which professional authorities, ministers and
physicians, gave frightening meaning. So too, the contemporary
satanic cult scare is sparked by the apparent suffering of children,
given frightening meaning by some prestigious professional
authorities. The gathering storm of this new witch-hunt is being
propelled by the same social forces.
The satanic cult scare is manifested in a broad range of collective
behaviors: 1) Rumor-panics: There have been community rumor-panics in
response to stories about dangerous satanic cults in at least 62
locations across the country. 2) Censorship campaigns: There are
nationally orchestrated censorship campaigns against supposed satanic
influences in children's books, schools and rock 'n roll music. 3)
Teenage satanists: There are widespread claims being made by police
"experts" that secret satanic cults are recruiting teenagers
into criminal activity. 4) Ritual child abuse: Allegations are
being made against child-care workers of engaging in satanic
"ritual sex abuse" of children and there have been some
criminal trials of accused child-care workers. 5) Satanic cult
survivors: There are now hundreds of multiple personality disorder
patients who claim that they were victims of childhood
"ritual" sex abuse by secret satanic cults, and many
psycho-therapists believe them.
There is a wide range of claims about criminal satanic cults being
circulated in American society. In brief, these claims assert that
there exists a secret organization, or network of criminals who worship
Satan, and who are engaged in the pornography business, forced
prostitution and drug dealing. These criminals are also said to
engage in the sexual abuse and torture of children, in an effort to
brainwash children into becoming life-long Devil worshipers. In
their Devil worshiping rituals, these criminals kill and sacrifice
infants, and sometimes adults, and commit cannibalism with the body
parts. They kidnap children for ritual sacrifice and commit random
murders of indigents. They actively try to recruit teenagers who
dabble in occult magic into their secret groups. Some
claims-makers even assert that satanists have infiltrated all the
institutions of society in order to subvert society and create chaos, to
promote their beliefs in Satan worship. Some claims-makers even
suggest that this satanic cult conspiracy can be traced back many
centuries. None of these claims are supported by reliable
evidence, either legal or scientific.
The purpose of this brief paper is to explain the
origins, functions and symbolism of the satanic cult legend, as it
relates to claims about the ritual sex abuse of children. The
argument is presented much more fully in the author's new book, Satanic
Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend.2
The Medieval Origins of the Satanic Cult Legend
Contemporary stories about Satanism and satanic cults arise from an
ancient legend in Western societies. The historical roots of these
stories can be traced back to Eleventh century. Their motifs have
been employed as a basis of Western counter-subversion ideologies about
all kinds of alleged secret conspiracies. The stories have been
targeted at groups as diverse as heretics, witches, Jews, Freemasons,
Catholics, and Communists.
During periods of rapid, disruptive social change, many people need
explanations for daily dislocations in their lives and their fears about
an uncertain future. In every society, these explanations blame
some kinds of evil internal enemies for the anxieties people feel about
their fate. The term "demonology" has been wed by some
scholars to refer to these explanations. A demonology is an
elaborate set of beliefs about the evil forces that are inexorably
undermining Society's most cherished values and institutions. A
demonology does not necessarily refer to beliefs about evil demons, and
today it may even have entirely secular, non-supernatural content.
The satanic cult legend is a product of that Western demonology.
The eminent British historian, Norman Cohn, has documented the
cultural development and social consequences of the Western demonology
in several books (Cohn, 1970, 1975). Its root metaphor can be
found in Christian beliefs about the struggle of Satan and his earthly
henchmen to undermine the Christian moral order of society. In a
brilliant article titled, "The Myth of Satan and his Human
Servants," Cohn concisely describes the history of this Western
The fantasy is that there exists a category of human beings that is
pledged to the service of Satan; a sect that worships Satan in secret
conventicles and, on Satan's behalf, wages relentless war against
Christendom and against individual Christians. At one time in
the Middle Ages, this fantasy became attached to certain heretical
sects, and helped to legitimize and intensify their persecution.
A couple of centuries later, it gave the traditional witchcraft
beliefs of Europe a twist which turned them into something new and
strange ... And, the fantasy has also been attached to the Jews
and not only in far-off times but in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, when it helped to prepare the way for the secular
demonology of the Nazis. It is a long story but perfectly
coherent one, and it is excellently documented (1970, p.3).
In his book, Europe's' Inner Demons, Norman Cohn explains the
essence of this demonology, indicting how it forms the core metaphor of
Western counter-subversion ideologies:
The essence of this fantasy was that there existed, somewhere in
the midst of the great society, another society, small and
clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great
society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be
wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human (1975, p. xi.).
This is the structure of the Western ideology of evil, which makes it
distinct. The message is that our society's striving for moral
perfection is being undermined by hidden, internal enemies, and we
cannot blame ourselves for any failure to attain our ideals. The
cognitive structure of this demonology encourages people to project the
shadow of their fears and guilt, their inner "demons," upon
convenient scapegoat groups.
The First Accusations of Devil Worship
Accusations of the ritual murder of children did not become
widespread until the time of great social change and religious ferment,
just after the turn of the first Millennium. At that time,
religious dissent against the hierarchical Church began to gradually
develop and spread.
In 1022, in Orleans, France, a group of about fourteen heretics were
burned at the stake. These were the first of many hundreds of
thousands of accused heretics, accused witches and Jews to be executed
in this manner over subsequent centuries (Cohn, 1975; Moore,
1987). The execution of the accused heretics of Orleans was also a
precursor of future persecutions in several other ways. Those who
were executed were innocent victims of a power struggle between the King
and local nobility. Accusations of heresy became a weapon in
political disputes. More importantly, the accusations were
elaborated in the years after their execution, with allegations that the
Orleans heretics engaged in secret rituals in which they worshiped the
Devil, held sex orgies and sacrificed infants, whose ashes they used to
make a special magical ointment (Cohn, 1970, 1975; Moore, 1987).
The satanic cult legend that one hears repeated today was born in
Orleans in the Eleventh century. It was as empty of literal truth
then as it is today.
Devil Worship Accusations Against the Cathars
By the middle of the next century; various heresies spread
widely. The most important of the religious movements against the
Church hierarchy and its allies among the nobility was that of the
Cathar heresy (also known as the Albigensian heresy). By the
1160s, the Cathars had attracted many thousands of followers in southern
France and in northern Italy. They were even able to establish
their own churches and clergy organization. In some communities,
very few people continued to practice the old religion. The
response of the church hierarchy to the growing heresy was the gradual
organization of what became known as the Inquisition.
The Cathar heresy is not a familiar benchmark in Western history, but
it was an important turning point in the cultural evolution of the tools
of mass persecution (Moore, 1987). Not only did it give impetus to
the long-lasting structure of the Inquisition, but it led to a further
elaboration of the demonology of persecution. Clerics and
religious scholars engaged in a propaganda war against the Cathars and
other heretics. The Cathars were accused of engaging in sexual
orgies, sometimes involving incest, and of practicing secret rituals in
worship of the Devil, involving the sacrifice of children and eating
their flesh in cannibalistic rites (Cohn, 1975).
The Great European Witch-Hunt
The great European witch-hunt began around 1430 and persisted over
three hundred years, until about 1750. It began as an extension of
the Inquisition's search for heretics, in a rather obscure incident in
the long history of persecutions. In 1428, in the Swiss canton of
Valais, agents of the Inquisition were in search of Waldensian heretics,
who had taken refuge for generations in the remote mountain valleys
(Strayer, 1971). Between 100 and 200 accused heretics were
apprehended, tortured, and burned. In the confessions extracted,
usually under torture, many of the accused were said to have admitted to
be Devil worshiping witches.
Church propagandists elaborated the accusations against suspected
heretics, with stories about their purported practice of all sorts of
black magic and acts of anti-Christian sacrilege. Heretics were
accused of making compacts with the Devil to obtain magical
powers. This supposedly enabled them to fly at night between
villages, so that they could attend conclaves of witches. They
were also accused of killing and eating children, their own and those of
other people. The women were reported to copulate with demons at
night, and the infants which resulted were sacrificed at the witches'
Historian Norman Cohn notes that in later years, some people, mainly
women, came forth and voluntarily confessed to having engaged in
infanticide and cannibalism. These voluntary confessions provided
the inquisitors with apparent evidence to confirm the coerced
confessions of satanic witchcraft.
It seems ... that ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike,
while pursuing Waldensians, repeatedly came across people
chiefly women who believed things about themselves which fitted
perfectly with the tales about heretical sects that had been
circulating for centuries. The notion of cannibalistic
infanticide provided the common factor. It was widely believed
that babies or small children were devoured at the nocturnal meetings
of heretics. It was likewise widely believed that certain women
killed and devoured babies or small children; also at night; and some
women even believed this of themselves. It was the extraordinary
congruence between the two sets of beliefs that led those concerned
with pursuing heretics to see, in the stories which they extracted
from deluded women, a confirmation of the traditional stories about
heretics who practiced cannibalistic infanticide (1975, p.228).
These women's voluntary confessions closely resemble those made by
women today, who suffer from multiple personality disorder. The
women of the fourteenth century, whose delusions told them that they
killed and ate their infants after being impregnated by demons, may have
also suffered from the same personality disorder. In a bizarre
way, history may be repeating itself. Psychologically disturbed
women, who incorporate the fearful folklore of the times into their fantasies,
are used by Satan-hunters, who incorporate the women's testimonials into
their more lucid fantasies of a criminal conspiracy.
The Lack of Evidence for the Existence of Devil Worshipers
Over the following centuries, the mythology of the witch-hunters
added an increasing variety of occult tales to their literature of
persecution. Estimates of the numbers of people executed for
demonic witchcraft are difficult to obtain, but it seems that from
60,000 to 100,000 people were victims, disproportionately elderly women
The consensus of historians who are life-long specialists in studies
of social life in the Middle Ages, and who use original documents of the
era, is that no Devil worshiping religious cult ever existed (Cohn,
1975; Levack, 1987; Moore, 1987). The stories of demonic witches,
no matter how elaborately detailed, were works based upon oral folklore,
confessions coerced under torture, testimonies of psychologically
disordered individuals, and a vast repository of accumulated religious
It would seem that the Satan-hunters of today, who claim that
criminal satanic cults are so secretive that they cannot be found, are
repeating a refrain heard over and over in the past. Police agents
have proven quite competent at infiltrating secretive political groups,
such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, and even small groups of
political terrorists. However, police can't infiltrate secret
criminal satanist covens, because they simply don't exist.
Sexual Attitudes in the Satanic Cult Scare
What does this brief excursion into Medieval history tell us about
current claims about criminal satanists? The lessons of Medieval
history suggest that elaborate claims about secret Devil worshipers are
constructed from a demonology, which is now almost a thousand years
old. Most of the motifs of that demonology originated in Medieval
Ultimately, all the claims and allegations about satanic cult crimes
arise from a contemporary legend. A contemporary legend can be
defined as being a type of constantly evolving rumor story which is more
widespread and recurrent than an ordinary local rumor. The content
of a contemporary legend is largely symbolic and not actually about
particular people and events. A contemporary legend communicates,
in metaphorical language, shared anxieties about a new, collectively
perceived threat. The threat is expressed in age-old recurrent
motifs, which usually convey a moral message. In other words, the
motifs of contemporary legends are usually derived from stories which
have ancient origins. However, the age-old story is transformed to
fit contemporary sources of anxiety.
The current satanic cult scare arises from the deep-seated
frustrations and anxieties of people about what is seen as the moral
corruption in modern society. There have been rapid social changes
in gender roles, child rearing and sexual attitudes since the
1960s. The divorce rate has skyrocketed and parenting has become
more difficult. The perceived sexual freedoms from this era are
seen as contributing to the decline of traditional values. These
changes have produced widespread disruption in family
relationships. The result is a shared belief in the "moral
decline" of modem society.
The cultural symbolism of the satanic cult conspiracy legend says:
"The moral order of our society is being threatened by evil forces
beyond our control." In other words, many Americans are
saying that they feel that their deepest traditional values are under
threat by mysterious, evil forces. The legend provides imaginary
scapegoat deviants to blame for widespread social stress from economic
dislocation and the breakdown of stable family bonds. It provides
a satisfying consensual explanation for deep-seated, ambiguous
frustrations and uncertainties about the future of American society.
Stories of sexual deviance are prominent in the satanic cult legend
the sexual abuse of children, incest, sexual orgies, forced breeding and
the ritual sacrifice of aborted fetuses and newborn babies. As sex
researchers, we must ask: What is the symbolic meaning of these
metaphors? The answer, I believe, is that these are ancient
symbols of moral pollution. They are images of the workings of
absolute evil. They symbolize contagious threats to the moral
order of society. These symbols convey collective cultural
messages, rather than personal attitudes about sexuality.
Given the particular cultural heritage of Americans, so many of whom
regard the Devil as an active reality in the world, it should not be
surprising that "Devil worshipers" have been socially
constructed as scapegoat deviants to blame for the social turmoil and
moral crisis in American society. The possible existence of
earthly agents of Satan is entirely consistent with the ideological
fears of religious traditionalists. It does not require a great
leap of faith for many of them to believe that Devil worshiping agents
of Satan are at work, behind much of the immorality and sexual
perversion rampant in American society today.
However, what is curious is that many people, who do not hold a
traditional religious ideology are also swept up in the satanic cult
scare. The explanation may be that the satanic demonology remains
a powerful metaphor for the workings of evil even for some
professionals, who are also socialized in American culture. Thus,
secular professionals see evil in the sexual abuse of children, and some
of them can easily find it credible that "satanist" Devil
worshipers perpetrate such heinous crimes.
In the contemporary legend, children are seen as pure and innocent
and the absolute evil perpetrated against them is sexual perversion of
the most bizarre and sadistic form imaginable. Thus, a symbolic
meaning of the satanic cult scare is that sexuality is dangerous, evil
and readily perverted by the scapegoat deviants.
Understanding the Origins of Testimonial Claims
One basic question remains to be answered: How can we explain the
testimonials of people who claim to have been victimized by criminal
satanists, and those who claim that they themselves are former or
current satanists? These testimonial claims heard by
psychotherapists and social workers are commonly offered as the
conclusive "evidence" of the existence of dangerous satanic
cults, even though there exists no external corroborating evidence to
verily any of the claims. This is where research on contemporary
legends is particularly useful in explaining what is happening.
Contemporary legends create self-fulfilling processes whereby legend
stories are sometimes acted out, or used in providing
"accounts" for behavior. Folklore scholars term this
process ostension (Degh, 1983; Ellis, 1991). The process is
similar to the "copy-cat" modeling of behavior from
movies. The legend stories, for example, are used in hoaxes by
some phony self-proclaimed "former satanists." The
legend stories are used by some psychologically disturbed people to
provide themselves and their therapists with acceptable accounts of
their confused mental states and bizarre behavior; as is the case of
women having dissociative disorders, who claim to be satanic cult
"survivors" (Victor, 1991a). The stories are also used
to provide self-justifying accounts for deviant behavior by some
juvenile delinquents and violent criminals who call themselves
In some cases, the legend stories can become part of a cooperatively
negotiated interpretive account for a very ambiguous situation; as is
the case when children have given accounts of satanic cult ritual sex to
therapists who prime their responses (Victor, 1991 b, 1992).
Contemporary legends are active processes of collective behavior, spread
by ostension, as well as by rumors and the mass media. This is why
very similar satanic cult "survivor" claims and claims of
"ritual sex abuse" can be heard from people who report them
seemingly independently in distant locations.
In times of moral crisis, people believe that unbelievable evil can
easily happen. When newspapers report one moral outrage following
yet another, people are inclined to believe that even worse outrages are
still to be uncovered, and then the incredible becomes believable.
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Douglas (Ed.). Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations ()
(pp. 3-16). New York: Travistock.
Cohn, N. (1975). Europe's Inner Demons ()().
New York: Basic Books.
Degh, L., & Vazsonyi, A. (1983). Does the word 'dog' bite?
Ostensive action: A means of legend telling. Journal
of Folklore Research, 20, 5-34;
Ellis, B. (1991). Legend-trips and satanism: Adolescent's ostensive
traditions as 'Cult' activity. In J. T. Richardson, J. Best, & D. G.
Bromley (Eds.), The Satanism Scare ()()
(pp.279-296). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Moore, R. I. (1987). The Formation of a Persecuting Society ().
Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Strayer, J. R. (1971). The Albigensian Crusades ()().
New York: Dial Press.
Levack, B. P. (1987). The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe ()().
New York: Longman.
Victor, J. S. (1991a). Satanic cult survivor stories. Skeptical Inquirer,
Victor, J. S. (1991b). The satanic cult scare and allegations of
ritual abuse. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 3(3),
Victor, 3.5. (1992). Ritual abuse and the moral crusade against
satanism. Journal of Psychology and Theology,
S. Victor is a Professor of Sociology at Jamestown
Community College, 525 Falconer Street, Jamestown, New York,
1 This paper was
presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex,
San Diego, California, November 15, 1992. [Back]
2 Victor, Jeffrey S.
(1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend
Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Co.