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University Press of Kentucky
Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media / Edition 1

Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media / Edition 1

by Bill EllisBill Ellis


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Raising the Devil reveals how the Christian Pentecostal movement, right-wing conspiracy theories, and an opportunistic media turned grassroots folk traditions into the Satanism scare of the 1980s. During the mid-twentieth century, devil worship was seen as merely an isolated practice of medieval times. But by the early 1980s, many influential experts in clinical medicine and in law enforcement were proclaiming that satanic cults were widespread and dangerous. By examining the broader context for alleged "cult" activity, Bill Ellis demonstrates how the image of contemporary Satanism emerged during the 1970s. Blaming a wide range of mental and physical illnesses on in-dwelling demons, a faction of the Pentecostal movement became convinced that their gifts of the spirit were being opposed by satanic activities. They attributed these activities to a "cult" that was the evil twin of true Christianity. In some of the cases Ellis considers, common folk beliefs and rituals were misunderstood as evidence of devil worship. In others, narratives and rituals themselves were used to combat satanic forces. As the media found such stories more and more attractive, any activity with even remotely occult overtones was demonized in order to fit a model of absolute good confronting evil. Ellis's wide-ranging investigation covers ouija boards, cattle mutilation, graveyard desecration, and "diabolical medicine"—the psychiatric community's version of exorcism. He offers a balanced view of contentious issues such as demonic possession, satanic ritual abuse, and the testimonies of confessing "ex-Satanists." A trained folklorist, Ellis seeks to navigate a middle road in this dialog, and his insights into informal religious traditions clarify how the image of Satanism both explained and created deviant behavior.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813121703
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 10/05/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State Hazelton, is the author of Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. He has served as president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research and of the American Folklore Society's Folk Narrative Section and is an active member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Christian Magic and

Diabolical Medicine

The Theory behind the Scare

In the most civilized countries the priest is still but a
Powwow, and the physician a Great Medicine
—Henry David Thoreau,
A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers

Folklore by definition is the part of culture characterized by small-group choice in the face of institutions who impose formal creeds, rules, and laws. Institutions such as religions remain stable over centuries, though obviously they include mechanisms for change so they can adapt to new situations. By contrast, folklore has no necessary means of ensuring its own survival: being transmitted orally or at best in some ephemeral medium, it simply disappears if it no longer provides some immediate function. Nevertheless, as folklorists have noted, it can preserve some kinds of lore in a conservative way for centuries in a way that superficially mimics the means by which institutions maintain their own traditions.

    When anti-Satanism crusaders find witchcraft beliefs in circulation over a long period of time and in many different locations, it is logical for them to suspect some underground institution, similar to Christianity but devoted to opposite aims. However, to the extent that Satanism does exist in folklore, it exists as an "antiworld," a deliberate protest against institutional norms. This means that whatever structure exists in folk Satanism derives from institutional structures, which they adopt in mirror image.

    So we must be careful to distinguish folklore of witchcraft and Satanism (i.e., what witches and Satanists do believe) from folklore about witches and Satanists (what anti-occult crusaders think witches and Satanists believe). This distinction has always existed, even during the historic witch trials, as folklorist Gustav Henningsen (1980) has noted. In his study of a seventeenth-century panic in the Basque provinces of Spain, he found that oral traditions concerning the devil and witchcraft were part of a community's normal cultural language. Such traditions may be dangerous at times but on the whole served useful functions in maintaining group identity and coping with internal conflicts.

    The other tradition, folklore about witches, was made up of intense but short-lived beliefs circulated only at the time of witch crazes. These, Henningsen observes, constitute "an explosive amplification" of the fears expressed by folk beliefs "caused by a temporary syncretism of the witch beliefs of the common people with those of the more specialized or educated classes." When religious or secular authorities used these beliefs to detect "conspiracies," they had the potential to set off crusades implicating as much as half the population of some areas. Such a body of beliefs, he concludes, "could only exist over a shorter period [than folk witchcraft beliefs], as it would otherwise lead to the complete breakdown of society." So every time a witch craze is mounted, Henningsen found, these beliefs had to be reintroduced and made credible. Even during the centuries when such crusades were widespread, participants "had to be instructed through preachers or secular agitators before a new mass persecution could be initiated" (1980:390-92).

    It was this function that demonologists' manuals fulfilled in historical witch-hunts. Studies of witch crazes in Early Modern times have noted the role played by such manuals as Henry Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum (1486), F.M. Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (1609), and, for Anglo-American culture, King James I's Demonologie (1597) and Cotton Mather's Late Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). Folklorists have described how these works were based fundamentally on internationally distributed legends and folk beliefs (Kittridge 1929, Hole 1947, Dorson 1973). Yet social historian Leland E. Estes (1986) has cautioned against drawing a direct cause/effect relationship between witch-hunters' manuals and crazes. In fact, such panics often broke out decades after these works were published. And the explicit targets of such works—the village folk healer or curser and the dabbler in ceremonial magick—usually escaped prosecution. Rather, people who were deviant in economic, political, and gender roles bore the brunt of such crazes.

    But the diabolization of folklore served as a warrant for a subversive conspiracy of evil. Since folk practices are ubiquitous, it superficially makes sense that a secret underground institution is infecting cultures with them. Belief in such conspiracies, Henningsen notes, is not central to folk beliefs, but it constitutes the cornerstone of witch-hunting manuals produced by representatives of religious and secular authorities. Hence, we have two bodies of knowledge that draw from each other but are essentially inimical to each other: one preserved orally as part of folk culture, the other made up of folk beliefs given a new meaning in institutionally generated and preserved publications.

    This chapter and the next discuss such bodies of knowledge that came to motivate the Satanism Scare. The information developed among a tightly networked group of Charismatic Christians. A faction of a much larger religious movement, this movement sought to revive the Charismatic gifts exercised by the early Christian church in modern-day practice. Among these gifts were magical healing by identifying and casting out demons that dwelt within otherwise normal individuals. In so doing, these movements developed rituals that were, in the eyes of rival sects, perilously close to witchcraft. Even within the ranks of the Charismatics, bitter disputes arose about the proper use and interpretation of these gifts. The need to distinguish their practices from devil worship, together with the practical knowledge gained through exorcisms, soon made participants of this movement experts on demonology. However, the Charismatic movement was not without its bitter internal differences, and as they began to be aired, we find participants deflecting criticism from themselves and their practices and giving the earliest warnings against Satanism.

Folk and Institutional Mythologies

Folk traditions of witchcraft and the Devil have a structure of their own, made up of narratives about real or allegedly real contacts with evil. These are constructed with the help of broader structures which are not themselves legends but global concepts that subsume story elements and observable behavior and phenomena. These global concepts give meaning to old legends and impetus to emerging ones. Narratives make up only part of the cultural language used to construct a community's definition of reality, and they are difficult to understand unless we also pay attention to the broader units of thought that give them meaning.

    To extend an analogy from the introduction: a legend is like a name, or word, in that it expresses, or "tells" an anxiety specific to a particular place and time. Legends are part of a cultural "belief-language" that helps individuals make sense of disorienting and stressful experiences. As unexpressed anxieties build up, pressure will likewise build toward the development of a new legend type that will adequately "name" these discordant elements. The cathartic effect of this "naming" function partially explains contemporary legends' intense but short-lived careers in communities. While active, the legend process generates heated debate between believers and skeptics, and even among groups of believers who interpret events in different ways. Whether conducted orally or in popular media, this debate shows competition among alternative ways of constructing contemporary events into culturally "grammatical" interpretations.

    But legends, like words, do not carry meaning in isolation; rather they are given primary meaning by the role they play in larger expressions of thought, analogous to the role words play in sentences. Consequently, clusters of legends, rumors, and beliefs often collaborate with other kinds of stories or bits of information to form global traditions. These broader "scenarios" provide contexts for individual facts: the scenario may suggest ways of interpreting the event; the event may help flesh out the scenario. These scenarios may give meaning to experience even when they do not have any direct point of contact with the events they describe.

    What do we call these bodies of lore? Gillian Bennett (1987a, 1987b) has suggested the concept "traditions of belief" for such clusters of personal experience, secondhand information, media reports, and religious interpretations. Traditions like these are not homogeneous: they may in fact subsume sharp debates or skeptical opinions. They make it possible for people to share puzzling opinions about or apparent contacts with the supernatural world without defining the speaker as deviant. But since they are global in nature, these traditions frequently include references to supernatural or superscientific forces and are generally acknowledged by their proponents to be unverifiable by science; they must be mythic in nature. In the hands of highly motivated subcultures, they can become organized into self-aware mythologies. These informal definitions of reality assume ongoing penetration of this world by supernatural forces. They are verbalized, and indeed hotly debated, at times of perceived crisis. I therefore suggest that we use the term contemporary mythologies to refer to these global scenarios accepted on faith by the members of subcultures who use them to link and give ultimate meaning to puzzling events.

    The standard folkloristic definition of myth (Bascom 1964), assumes that the events related are "considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past," while accounts of more recent events have traditionally been called "legends." But many narratives alluding to ancient "mythological times" also explain present events and in fact impact the tellers' own lives (Georges 1971). Even institutionalized myths, in the traditional sense of the word, are used to explain and validate contemporary social practices (Berger and Luckman 1967). Therefore, the difference between "mythic" and "legendary" events is far less divergent than usually assumed. The distinction is simply one of levels of abstraction: beliefs are combined and linked in legends; legends are combined and linked in myths. Contemporary mythologies thus are scenarios made up of many beliefs and narratives which are accepted on faith and used then to link and give meaning to stressful events in terms of continuous penetration of this world by otherworldly forces.

    Witchcraft mythologies, Henningsen argues, are a historically stable safety valve for social aggression. Groups may use them to justify scapegoating deviant individuals, but such beliefs do not lead to panics. Over the long term, they play a positive role in the moral systems of communities.' Phillips Stevens Jr. (1991), by contrast, terms witch scares demonologies. They may give credence to some folk traditions but they combine them with quite other sets of beliefs drawn from intellectual or political institutions. As Henningsen shows, this linking of folklore to politics can lead to an explosive development in which the occasional scapegoating of deviant individuals through folk traditions may grow into a mass persecution. The contemporary Satanism Scare was such a social phenomenon, exactly parallel to the earlier witch scares.

    This is not to deny that traditions involving malicious magic remain in practice in contemporary times. What can be challenged is the belief that these practices survived only because of a well-concealed but ubiquitous satanic movement. Such a belief more likely documents the emerging need of certain movements to legitimate themselves by launching a crusade against a movement that mirrored their own concerns, a diabolical enemy. And new crusades had to be founded on a new set of demonological manuals that educated religious and secular leaders on the marks of satanic conspiracies.

    The initial development of Satanism schemes was couched in terms of medicine, not superstition. Estes notes that the intellectual basis of the earlier demonologies was the considerable turmoil caused by the overthrow of medieval theories of medicine, and that witch-hunts were in fact motivated by procedures based in the "new science" of medicine. Where earlier procedures treated illness by examining only a limited set of symptoms, the increasingly empirical newer medicine proposed a much more complex set of diagnoses. One side effect of this expanded scope of medicine was that physicians could now recognize a greater range of ailments, particularly mental ones. Medical theory, however, could not expand quickly enough to propose scientific causes for such complex or puzzling conditions.

    Ironically, advances in medicine actually led to a resurgence of belief in magic. When confronted with a puzzling illness that did not respond to natural treatment, as one physician reasoned, the obvious conclusion was to define its etiology as supernatural. An ailment could be traced to witchcraft, he said, if "natural remedies or means according unto art and due discretion applied, do extraordinarily or miraculously either lose their manifest inevitable nature, use and operation, or else produce effects and consequences, against or above their nature" (qtd. in Estes 1986:204). In other words, such logic ran, if "scientific" treatment did not lead to a cure, the medical theory being used was not at fault; rather, the Devil was at work to frustrate the doctor.

    In a second irony noted by Estes, a medieval physician diagnosing a "diabolical ailment" would have assumed that demons induced natural symptoms and would have prescribed a natural cure. Such practices built on the herbal cures followed by the majority of wise women and "white witches" to our day. But a "new science" physician confronted with an illness that his theories could not explain thought it inappropriate to treat such a patient medically. Instead he would rely on the older folk methods of punishing the person thought to be the witch. Rather than using the various rituals intended to "turn the trick" on the implicit witch, physicians would notify religious and secular authorities, who in turn would trace, arrest, prosecute, and, if necessary, execute the person thought to be guilty.

    Finally, Estes notes, older paradigms of witch-caused illness might have convinced enough people in a rural community to cause the scapegoating of deviant individuals. Such individuals might well have turned this scapegoating to their social advantage by adopting the title "witch" and promising to cause illnesses for a fee. But actually prosecuting even a self-proclaimed witch was unlikely to convince a local magistrate and even less likely to impress a judge coming from a literate urban background. Thus, to convict a witch before a court of law, Estes argues, the prosecution's case would have to find support both in local rumor and folklore and, more importantly, in the great medical tradition with which the "judicial classes" were closely in touch. That is, the charges would have to make sense in terms of the latest and best medical opinion, as supported and taught by the universities and propagated in the scholarly literature of that period (1986:207).

    We therefore expect modern demonologies to syncretize older folk medical beliefs with learned medical theories. The result would be a "diabolical medicine" intended to give a supernatural diagnosis of an ailment not easily explained in natural terms. Such a theory would help religious and legal authorities to detect individuals who caused such illnesses. To be credible, the diagnosis would need to be based not just in folk mythologies, but also in the most learned of institutional mythologies.

The Rise of the Modern Charismatic Movement

This connection developed through the deliverance ministry as it developed from a small-scale, uncoordinated movement into a highly coordinated conduit of ideas and information. It is an oversimplification to treat Christian fundamentalism per se as a folk group; this movement is a mass culture centered on the central mythic belief in the infallibility of the Old and New Testaments, both as history and as codes of behavior. And, while most within this culture would concede the Bible's supernatural character, they would object to linking "magic" with "religion." But let's accept as normative Aleister Crowley's famous definition of ceremonial magick as "the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will" (qtd. in Adler 1986:8).

    Clearly, the use of prayer in a Christian context is close to a form of ceremonial magick, in which priests and their followers collectively request changes to occur in one's world in accordance with will. The majority of fundamentalist Christians may and do ask for healing of medically incurable illnesses, for instance. But most theologians argue that asking for change is not the same as causing change: God may or may not grant such requests in accordance with His will. When a person claims to carry out such healing directly with the help of a special gift from or through God, many conservative Christians would consider such a claim blasphemous.

    But there were conduits within fundamentalism that believed that Christians could actually make claims to powers that were in fact, if not in name, magical. The Pentecostal movement of Protestant Christianity arose around interest in reviving the "gifts of the Spirit," the miraculous powers exercised by the original apostles during the first century A.D. Among these were the ability to speak in foreign or heavenly languages and to receive insights about individuals' personalities and prophecies concerning their future. Again, Pentecostalism as a whole did not constitute a folk religion, but well-defined factions did construct methodologies of dealing with mental or physical illness in terms of identifying and casting out oppressing demons. Such practices were often held in deep suspicion by other factions within fundamentalist Christianity, and indeed within Pentecostalism, because, objectively speaking, their gifts often were indistinguishable from magical practices.

    The Pentecostal movement had its modern origin in nineteenth-century Great Britain. In 1830 a Presbyterian group led by the Reverend Edward Irving became convinced that the end of the world was imminent. The Christian community needed to find apostles, equipped with the original spiritual gifts, to usher in the new age. The movement, which eventually was called the Catholic Apostolic Church, provoked controversy, especially for its emphasis on tongue-speaking, and its activity virtually ceased around the turn of the century when the last of the self-proclaimed apostles of the church died. A similar movement broke out in the United States at a Kansas bible college in 1901 and soon after spread to a largely black and ethnic mission in Azuza, California. A number of organized denominations, such as the Assembly of God, trace their origins to this movement, but after the initial excitement, tongue-speaking and similar gifts became associated mainly with marginal cultures and areas.

    But starting around 1960, the Pentecostal movement began to make inroads into mainstream sects as well, both among Protestants and Catholics. Informal "bible groups" sprang up within existing denominations to focus on these gifts, which were often termed the "charismata" and those who practiced them, "Charismatics." By 1975, theologian James Hitchcock said, the Charismatic movement within the Roman Catholic Church had become "the most formidable religious movement on the American scene" (1982:38). Relying on Ronald Knox's 1950 work Enthusiasm, he characterized the modern Charismatic movements in terms of three common features.

    First, faith needed continual reaffirmation through contact with the divine world. Indeed, Hitchcock noted, any intensely meaningful experience was assumed to be divine in nature. As described by participants, the most common experience involved being filled with the power of an entity associated with the Biblical Holy Spirit. Believers might fall into an ecstatic trance—"slain in the Spirit"—or, more commonly, speak in an inspired voice. At times these utterances were revelations in English, but most often they were interpreted as messages expressed in celestial language.

    Second, they held that God's direct intervention superseded ordinary means of worship. "The devotee does not apply ordinary prudential skepticism to allegedly supernatural manifestations," Hitchcock says, adding, "a certain pride ... causes the individual to assume that everything which happens in his or her life is supernaturally caused."

    Third, believers who are motivated spontaneously by the Spirit were impatient about comparing these revelations with established theologies. It followed that since enthusiasts saw themselves as extraordinary people, they must have an extraordinary mission, which means that God was using them for some immediate great purpose, presumably to prepare society for the Second Coming (1982:16-23, 125-32, 156).

    Those who were instrumental in publicizing such beliefs were often criticized by conservative religious figures as being themselves tools of the Devil (e.g., Hoekema 1972). Spiritual healing and tongue-speaking were both attacked as being at best unnecessary for Christian growth and at worst a form of supernaturalism that equated grace with the miraculous. Nevertheless, the movement flourished, particularly in nonwestern cultures, where converts from traditional religions focusing on spirit possession found it more congenial than doctrinally focused missionary movements. Glossolalia, or tongue-speaking, and trance states, indeed, have been recognized as central to shamanic religions across the world, and research by Felicitas A. Goodman, among others, has argued that spirit possession is a universal human experience (Tippett 1976, Goodman 1988).

    It was this persistent and ultimately successful attempt to reintroduce spirit possession into the mainstream Anglo-American Christian tradition that led to the need for Pentecostals to construct an evil satanic counterpart. Pentecostals needed to justify their revival of spiritual gifts that the theology-based European religious tradition had suppressed for centuries. And, as Goodman has pointed out, signs of possession by benevolent spirits is difficult to distinguish from signs of demonic possession. A number of critics within fundamentalism, as we shall see, used this very point to attack Charismatics.

Media-Enhanced Conduits

Such a link, however, presented no surprise to Pentecostals. Even more so than mainstream fundamentalism movement, their mythology required there to be demons in order for the divine magic of tongues to be valid. But it therefore became essential for factions of Pentecostals that came particularly under attack to collect and network information among themselves about how to distinguish genuinely divine supernaturalism from its diabolical counterfeit. As this ministry became more tightly networked, rituals that originally were practiced within folk groups became formalized and validated in terms of an increasingly complex demonology that relied on human scapegoats.

Excerpted from Raising the Devil by Bill Ellis. Copyright © 2000 by The University Press of Kentucky. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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