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Demons of the Modern World

Demons of the Modern World

5.0 1
by Malcom McGrath, Robert A. Baker, Robert A. Baker (Foreword by)

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This fascinating discussion of modern demonology focuses on our ability to differentiate the physical world, with its mechanical laws, from the inherently less predictable psychological realm of thoughts and beliefs. McGrath points out that this ability was a hard-won historical development, and today must be learned in childhood through education. Because of this


This fascinating discussion of modern demonology focuses on our ability to differentiate the physical world, with its mechanical laws, from the inherently less predictable psychological realm of thoughts and beliefs. McGrath points out that this ability was a hard-won historical development, and today must be learned in childhood through education. Because of this historical background and our rich fantasy life in childhood, each of us unconsciously suspects, or fears, that supernatural forces may break through the borders of our everyday commonsense order at any time. Indeed, at times of personal stress or societal crisis, the modern boundaries between fantasy and reality begin to slip, and then a magical world of demons and other phantasms can come flooding back into our disenchanted reality.

Through this innovative thesis McGrath goes a long way toward explaining both our fascination with fantasy entertainment, such as horror stories and films, and bizarre crazes such as witch-hunts, Satanism scares, and even claims of alien abduction. Despite our demystified culture the lure of childhood's magic kingdom with its monstrous shadow realm remains strong.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1994, after a $750,000, four-year study, federal government researchers announced there was no evidence that ritual abuse or organized satanic cults ever existed in U.S. day-care centers. Comparing contemporary cult fears with 17th-century witch-hunts and the McCarthy era, McGrath, a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at Oxford University, contends that "the illusion of a world of demons lurking behind our day to day reality is built right into the structure of modern western culture." This concept of a "demonic illusion" is the book's central thesis. McGrath views satanism scares as akin to a mass hallucination, since psychological theories supporting such cults "were in fact no more than unfounded urban legends, spread about by therapists and social workers." He opens by juxtaposing the 1692 witchcraft accusations aimed at once-respected Rebecca Nurse, a 71-year-old grandmother, with the false 1984 claims of organized satanic rituals at California's McMartin Preschool, a case with no credible evidence and no convictions after a 28-month trial. Mapping boundaries between fantasy and reality, McGrath looks at modern-day witch-hunts generated through unreliable child witnesses, rumor mills, urban legends and pseudo-science, noting numerous linkages with popular culture from Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Sybil (1973) to Michelle Remembers (1980), Psycho and The Shining. Dangers of false memories are detailed, alien abduction is dismissed, and the 1991-94 collapse of Multiple Personality Disorder and recovered memory therapy are picked over. Oddly, McGrath has chosen to ignore the massive misinformation circulating daily on the Internet, but this is a terrifically contextualizeddebunking that is sure to generate debate among the faithful. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
There's really no need for the lurid dustjacket; McGrath's analysis of the Satanism and recovered-memory scare of the 1980s, as well as many people's continuing insistence on the reality of alien abductions and other frightening phenomena, is chilling all on its own as a lesson on the dangers such beliefs still pose to society centuries after the witch trials. McGrath (doctoral candidate, political philosophy, Oxford U.) traces the origins and manifestations of the "strange fear," which is built into Western civilization: "that somewhere on the edges of our reality there is a world of demons that is trying to break into our world and wreak havoc." His history examines why such myths persist and how lives have been destroyed by them. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.27(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.18(d)

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Chapter One



In 1492 Columbus discovered the New World, and by 1515 Copernicus had already begun to publish his theory that Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519, contain complex analysis of the way birds fly, sketches of rapid-firing guns and flying machines, and anatomical drawings not surpassed in detail for hundreds of years. Around the same time, Europe's inquisitors and judges began torturing people accused of witchcraft, most of them poor old women, into confessing having made a pact with the devil. Many of those who confessed were burned at the stake.

    A typical confession was made by a French peasant woman in 1477. Although denying the accusations at first, after being tortured she admitted to the following story. She claimed that eleven years earlier when she was coming home from church filled with melancholy, she was approached by a neighbor who promised to introduce her to a person who could help her if she came to a nocturnal meeting with him. At the meeting she was introduced to the devil in the guise of a black man. She was told that if "you will renounce God your creator and the Catholic Faith and that whore they call the Virgin Mary, and then you take the Devil called Robinet to be your lord and master ... you will be able to do whatsoever you want and will have gold and silver in abundance."

    This she did and consecrated it by kissing the devil on his foot and stomping on a crosswith her left foot. In return for renouncing her faith, the devil gave her a magic wand and some ointment to rub on it. She could fly to the nocturnal meetings on the wand at great speed. The devil also gave her an ointment that she could use for producing illness in people, which she later used to make a four-year-old girl languish and die. The devil gave her a powder made from the bones and innards of children, which she used to kill several of her neighbor's cows. She also claimed that at the meeting there had been many other people feasting, dancing backward, and engaging in wanton sexual activities.

    During the course of over two centuries of European witch trials, the basic story line of these confessions remained remarkably similar and came to be called the witches' Sabbath. There are two essential points worth mentioning about the witches' Sabbath. First, it was entirely fabricated by European intellectuals at the time, and second, it contains within it one of the most common modern horror-story plots.

    Recent historical research has shown that in spite of the tens of thousands of confessions extracted, none of these meetings ever took place. Furthermore, while certain aspects of the witches' Sabbath can be traced back in European history and some of the details of the confessions are colored by local folktales, the story as a whole has no basis in popular culture. In fact, by using torture and leading questions, inquisitors and judges obtained confessions from people accused of witchcraft, which conformed to a preconceived story made up by Europe's intellectuals.

    Norman Cohn has shown in detail how the story came to be invented. At that time inquisitorial courts prosecuted heretics, accusing them of secret meetings where they performed atrocities such as eating babies. The belief in people who could leave their bodies and fly about at night, as well as the belief in using magic to both bring luck and do harm, had a long history in European folk belief. Furthermore, Cohn carefully reconstructs the process by which around 1420, in remote areas of the French and Swiss Alps, judges began to combine this strange hodge-podge of inquisitorial trial procedure and ancient myth to create the witches' Sabbath.

    By the end of the fifteenth century, the idea of the witches' Sabbath and fear of witches had begun to spread throughout Europe. In 1482 Jacob Sprengler, the dean of Cologne University, published a detailed witch-hunting manual the Malius Malificarum, which popularized the fear of witches and pacts with the devil and laid the intellectual foundation for two centuries of panic and burnings.

    Those who believed in the witches' Sabbath, pacts with the devil, and the persecution of witches were by no means on the fringe of European culture. Martin Luther, the intellectual founder of Protestantism, proclaimed, "I should have no compassion on these witches: I would burn them all." Jean Bodin, often referred to as the founder of political science, claimed that, "Those who let witches escape, or who do not punish them with the utmost rigor, may rest assured that they will be abandoned by God to the mercy of the witches. And the country which shall tolerate this will be scourged with pestilences, famines and wars." Cotton Mather, the intellectual inspiration of the Salem witch trials, was the son of the president of Harvard University and had entered Harvard himself at age twelve. His father, Increase Mather, had been educated at Trinity College Dublin as well as at Harvard and had even been a member of London's famous Royal Society, which played an important role in promoting new scientific ideas.

    The intellectual credibility of the some of Europe's greatest witch-hunt promoters is one of the mysteries of the event. While historians have been able to piece together the process by which the witches' Sabbath myth was created and the social tensions that may have fueled a general sense of panic, the fact that such a bizarre story gained such widespread credibility and influence on the very edge of the Age of Reason is still something that has gone largely unexplained.


To unravel this mystery, it is necessary to examine the underlying plot structure of the witches' Sabbath. There is a basic story line that occurs again and again in the witchcraft trials and that has lived on in Western culture, long after the end of the trials, in the form of fiction and horror stories. At a basic level, this plot structure sets up a dichotomy between two different types of reality. On the one hand is normal everyday human reality, and on the other hand is a kind of demonic antireality. In normal reality, nature operates on the basis of natural laws, human behavior is governed by social norms and accepted notions of decency, and things are familiar and predictable. In antireality, natural laws do not apply and the rules of human decency are turned upside down. The antireality is inhabited by demons and/or the devil, who are bent on gaining access to normal human reality and causing havoc in it.

    Under normal circumstances these two realms of reality are separate. For demons to gain access to normal human reality, they usually have to use some kind of trick or disguise, thereby manipulating unwitting humans into letting them cross the line between the two realities. Similarly, for humans to cross into antireality usually requires some kind of magical transportation or special ritual to unlock the passageway between the two. However, once the line is crossed between the two realms, it bodes great danger for normal humans. Ill-intentioned demons who cross into human reality bring with them magical powers that defy natural laws, thus enabling the demons to do immense damage and making them virtually immune to normal means of attack such as guns and knives. And humans who cross into antireality are also able to bring back magical powers into normal reality, usually with the aid of special powders, ointments, or symbolic trinkets such as amulets. More often than not, humans use these powers for mischief.

    This basic plot structure is readily apparent in the witchcraft confession noted above. The peasant woman is tricked by a neighbor into going to a meeting where she will gain access to a strange demonic world. By performing rituals that turn normal fifteenth-century rules of religious propriety upside down, she gains access to this demonic world and is given ointments and powders that she can use to take magical powers back into the human world for mischievous purposes. She is also given a wand to use as high-speed magical transportation to this demonic world.

    Magic was by no means a new idea in European culture. Magic in various forms has been practiced in almost all known cultures. What was new in Renaissance Europe was the idea that magic was not normally possible in the human world and that to obtain magical powers one had to travel by means of magical transportation to an antireality and bring magical powers back to the normal world with demonic aid. It was this thought that proved particularly terrifying to European intellectuals; so much so as to justify tens of thousands of executions.

    However, while the basic story line of the witches' Sabbath remained largely unchanged over the two hundred years of trials and executions, European high culture as a whole did not. By the time of the Salem witch trials in 1692, the scientific revolution on the continent was well under way. Under the influence of thinkers such as Newton and Descartes, a new vision of the universe as a giant machine governed by mathematical principles was taking hold. In this new vision of the universe, the possibility of bringing magical powers into the human world by flying to secret meetings on a broomstick was simply nonsensical. As this new view of the world took hold, witchcraft trials lost credibility and faded out. Nonetheless, while the idea of an antireality inhabited by demons lost scientific credibility during the Enlightenment, it did not fade from Western imagination. Instead, it shifted into the realm of popular culture and fiction, where it has become the basis of a great many modern Western horror stories.


On Christmas Eve 1764, a little over fifty years after the end of the great witch-hunt and the beginning of the Age of Reason, Horace Walpole, an eccentric English Parliamentarian, first published The Castle of Otranto. This story of an ancient haunted castle with clanking, armor-suited ghosts and ancestral portraits that sigh and moan was an instant success with the reading public. In writing the story, Wapole explained that he was attempting to create a new style of fiction, one that mixed the wild fantasy of the ancient romances with the cold clarity of modern thought. He claimed, "It was an attempt to blend two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success."

    What Walpole had succeeded in writing was the first modern horror story in the English language. His gothic style would dominate horror fiction for almost a century and reappear in fits and starts right up to the present, as in the recent movie remake of Brain Stoker's Dracula. More importantly, the basic formula he outlined, juxtaposing modern skeptical sensibilities with the fantastic demons of the past, would form the basic structure of the horror story from then on. This formula, or variants of it, appears in all stories of what the great horror author of the early twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft, called "cosmic horror."

    Dracula, the most famous modern horror story, is an archetypal example of this formula. The outset of the book sets up the basic dichotomy between England in the 1890s, the land of law, scientific enlightenment and commerce, and Transylvania, where different principles are at work. Count Dracula makes this clear early on when he says to Harker, an English lawyer visiting him in Transylvania, "We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." As Harker becomes more fully aware of these differences, he himself notes in his diary, "It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill." These powers, as Harker is to find out, are exemplified in the evil Count Dracula, in whose castle neither the laws of science nor the laws of civilized human society seem to apply.

    Yet, the real horror in the story is not just that an evil demon lives in Transylvania, but that by tricking Harker's law firm into buying him property in England, the evil demon crosses into the modern West. And by bringing with him coffins full of magical Transylvanian dirt, Dracula manages to take his strange powers to England, where he uses them to terrorize women and children. As the plot thickens, the lawyer Harker joins forces with two doctors and a couple of businessmen to drive the demon from the modern West. In their battle with the demon, their main weapons emerge as careful legal reasoning, the scientific method, lots of money, and the remarkable typing skills of Harker's fiancée. In the end the heroes drive the magical demon back to the Transylvanian East and kill him. At the end of the novel, one even has the feeling that Transylvania has lost some of its magical power and the rational West is creeping eastward.

    Dracula repeats many of the same themes of the witches' Sabbath. There is a fundamental dichotomy between a normal human reality and the demonic antireality of Dracula's castle. Dracula's magic dirt is a special technology he uses for bringing magical powers from antireality into normal reality, just like the ointments and powders in the witches' Sabbath. And, once the magical powers have been brought into normal reality, they are used for dangerous evil purposes. The main difference between Dracula and the witches' Sabbath is that in Dracula the demon himself brings the magical powers into normal reality. Nonetheless, underlying both stories is the fear that somewhere there is a magical antireality inhabited by demons. Crossing between these realities with magical powers poses a great threat to the civilized world.

    This underlying theme of crossing back and forth between antireality and reality with dangerous magical powers recurs again and again in horror stories. In the movie Nightmare on Elm Street, the antireality is the world of dreams, and the danger is that the barrier between the world of dreams and the normal world might break down while sleeping. If this happens, humans can be drawn into a horrible nightmare world, and the nightmare demon can perform ghastly magical murders in the normal world. Thus, since the great witch-hunt, modern Western culture has harbored an underlying fear that somewhere on the edge of our reality there is a magical demonic antireality. This would be of purely historical and literary interest were it not for bizarre events in America in the 1980s.


In 1980 Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Pazder, coauthored the book Michelle Remembers, which described how Dr. Pazder had helped Smith remember being abused by a satanic cult in 1955 when she was five years old. The book contains detailed descriptions of Smith being raped, tortured, and sodomized with candles; being forced to defecate on a Bible and a crucifix; and witnessing adults and children being butchered. These tortures are said to have been conducted by an organized satanic cult for the course of an entire year.

    In Manhattan Beach, California, in 1983, seven workers of the McMartin Preschool were arrested for taking part in an organized satanic cult that had supposedly abused 360 children in bizarre sexual rituals. The arrests resulted in the longest and most expensive trial in American history, costing over fifteen million dollars. The arrests began when the mother of one of the children reported to the police that her son had begun to tell her stories of strange goings on in the preschool. The following statement is one of her accounts:

Mathew feels that he left L.A. in an airplane and flew to Palm Springs. ... Mathew went to the armory.... The goatman was there ... it was a ritual type atmosphere.... At the church, Peggy drilled a child under the arms, armpits. Atmosphere was that of magic arts. Ray flew in the air.... Peggy, Babs and Betty were all dressed up as witches. The person who buried Mathew is Miss Betty. There were no holes in the coffin. Babs went with him on a train with an older girl Where he was hurt by men in suits. Ray waved goodbye.... Peggy gave Mathew an enema. ... Staples were put in Mathew's ears, his nipples and his tongue. Babs put scissors in his eyes.... She chopped up animals.... Mathew was hurt by a lion. An elephant played ... a goat climbed up higher and higher and higher, then a bad man threw it down the stairs.... Lots of candles were there, they were all black.... Ray pricked his right pointer finger ... put it in the goat's anus.... Old grandma played on the piano ... [a baby's] head was chopped off and the brains were burned.... Peggy had scissors in the church and she cut off Mathew's hair. Mathew had to drink the baby's blood. Ray wanted Mathew's spit.

Once the arrests had begun, social workers began extensive interviews with many of the toddlers who had attended the preschool. The results of their interviews seemed to confirm that almost all of them had undergone a similar kind of ritualistic sexual abuse at the hands of an organized satanic cult.

    These events were the beginning of a nationwide satanic-cult scare. Therapists all over the country began reporting that their patients had "recovered memories" of being sexually abused by organized satanic cults as children. Accusations began to fly that day-care workers were actively involved in the satanic ritual abuse of children on a massive scale. In 1985, one such accusation of organized Satanic ritual abuse of children led to the conviction of a California woman to 405 years in prison. Several other women were also charged in the trial, and their sentences were the longest in California legal history. Social workers, therapists, religious leaders, and police "experts" began to tour America giving lectures on the expanding dangers of organized satanic cults.

    By the late eighties, Satanism had become a popular theme on talk shows. In November 1987, talk-show host Geraldo Rivera asserted that "estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country." One of Rivera's specials on Satanism attracted one of the largest audiences in television history. The Kansas City Times reported in 1988 that Chicago police investigator Jerry Simandl had claimed that as many as fifty thousand people a year were killed by Satanists in America.

    However, in 1994, a U.S. federal government research team that had studied the problem for five years determined that the rumors of satanic conspiracies were unfounded and that there was no evidence of any organized cults abusing children in satanic rituals. As serious studies of the problem began to emerge in the 1990s, it became apparent that none of the claims that organized satanic cults were conducting large-scale abuse of children could be supported by any corroborating evidence. There were no corpses, no abuse locations, no serious injuries to the children, and no missing person reports that corresponded to the stories. In the case of Michelle Smith, during the time Smith claimed she had been locked in a basement and tortured for months, her neighbors remember her attending school and even being photographed for the school yearbook. And the woman who gave the above statement to the police in the McMartin case was shortly afterward diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

    In fact, in spite of the enormity of the claims, aside from rumors and hearsay, there were only two main sources of evidence for the accusations of Satanism: recovered memories and the testimony of preschool-age children extracted in interviews by social workers. The first of these, recovered memories, is based upon the newly restored Freudian idea that people who suffer terrible abuse in childhood protect themselves from the emotional scars by blocking out the memory of the events. The theory goes that the more terrible the abuse, the stronger the urge to block it out of the memory. Consequently, in order to "recover" these memories, patients need to undergo years of intensive therapy. The idea of recovered memories of childhood abuse was popularized in the 1970s by the book and movie Sybil. While the story of abuse in Sybil was not satanic, after the publication of Michelle Remembers, more and more therapists began to report cases of their patients recovering memories of organized satanic ritual abuse.

    The other important source of evidence used in Satanism accusations was the testimonies of preschool-age children, as in the McMartin Preschool case. The interviewing techniques of the social workers were based on an underlying principle similar to that in recovered-memory therapy. The principle is that the more terrible the abuse, the more reluctant the child would be to report it. Thus, in order for social workers to ascertain the full extent of the abuse, it was deemed necessary to interview children sometimes for weeks on end, in isolation from their parents, using new and untested techniques such as demonstrations with anatomically correct dolls. And, in both recovered-memory therapy and the preschool interviews, therapists and social workers played an active part in helping the victims reconstruct the events surrounding the satanic ritualistic abuse.

    In light of the extremity of the claims on the one hand and the total lack of corroborating evidence on the other, critics in the late eighties and early nineties began a careful reexamination of the therapy and interviewing techniques used in obtaining such evidence. They found that by using manipulative interviewing techniques, leading questions, and by allowing a broad scope for creative interpretation and filling in the gaps, therapists and social workers have in effect constructed the stories of satanic ritual abuse themselves.

    This is not to say that the therapists and social workers did not believe in the danger of Satanism. On the contrary, it seems that their fear of Satanism led them to read it into situations where it did not exist. Just as the judges and inquisitors of the great witch-hunt used the trial procedures to generate confessions that were a product of their own imaginations, it appears that therapists and social workers, during the 1980s, used therapy and interview techniques that confirmed a story they already wanted to hear.

    The story they wanted to hear went like this: thousands, if not millions of Americans were involved in organized satanic cults. These cults met on a regular basis to perform rituals in order to communicate with Satan. The content of the rituals involved doing things that turned the normal rules of human decency upside down, such as sexually abusing babies, killing babies, eating "poo," or drinking blood. The ritual meetings also involved an elaborate display of satanic symbolism, using such paraphernalia as pentagons, candles, and black robes. Apparently the motive for performing these rituals was that the Satanists would receive special magical powers from Satan, which they could take with them back to the normal world to use for their own selfish ends.

    While the details have changed, in its basic structure this is the same story that has haunted Western civilization since the Renaissance. In effect, during the 1980s, Americans were being tried, convicted, and sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for attending a witches' Sabbath.

Excerpted from Demons of the Modern World by Malcolm McGrath. Copyright © 2002 by Malcolm McGrath. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Malcolm McGrath (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at Oxford University.

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