Lawrence C. Trostle & Melissa S. Green
There is a growing public fascination with, and accompanying fear of, satanism. Newspaper and magazine stories about the supposed explosion of satanic cult activity — including allegations about ritualistic child sexual abuse in daycare centers and supposed sacrifices of missing children — have proliferated in recent years. Women claiming to have been raised in satanic cults, where they were forced to "breed" babies for use in sacrifices to Satan, have appeared on Geraldo and other TV talk shows. Books exploring the supposed satanic influence of the New Age movement, heavy metal music, the fantasy role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons," horror movies, and Halloween are appearing with increasing frequency in bookstores and supermarkets.
This heightened fear of satanism is also found in Alaska:
- In late 1990 concerned Fairbanks parents asked for the removal of the "Impressions" reading series from Fairbanks elementary schools, alleging the books contained "scary and Satanic themes." Parents were alerted to problems with the series at Bible meetings and from an article in a Christian magazine (Associated Press 1990a). The Fairbanks school superintendent ultimately accepted the recommendation of a textbook review committee to keep the books (Associated Press 1990c). After hearing thirteen hours of public testimony a Kodiak panel also recommended retaining the series (Associated Press 1990b).
- Members of Witches Against Religious Discrimination (WARD) rented the community booth at Northway Mall in Anchorage in order to educate the public about the real beliefs and practices of their religion (Doto 1991a). After a hastily formed organization calling itself Parents Against Witches and Satanism began picketing, Northway Mall asked WARD to leave and also closed its community booth permanently to avoid a discrimination lawsuit which might have arisen if anyone else were permitted to use it (Doto 1991b).
- Paintings of pyramids by a mentally disabled Homer man were removed from display at the Homer Post Office after an unnamed pastor's wife complained they were "satanic." U.S. Postal Service officials subsequently banned artists from displaying their works in any Alaska post office (Bell 1992).
- A Christmas ornament, a five-pointed star inside a circle, was removed from display at the Wendy's restaurant in Eagle River after a customer described it as "satanic." The star had been put up by a Filipino employee to whom the star represented the star of Bethlehem (Curran 1992a). The star later found a home for the season at Eagle River Presbyterian Church (Curran 1992b).
Several of these incidents provoked rashes of letters to local newspapers. While many letter-writers criticized what they perceived as overreaction and paranoia about satanism, others appeared to take seriously the threat of satanism in their communities.
In this fearful climate, the question constantly asked by many parents already concerned for their children's welfare is, "Are my children at risk?" Many believe that claims made about a ritualistic and satanic crime wave are true and that the danger to their children is real and immediate. They are demanding the attention not only of school boards, shopping malls, post offices, and fast food restaurants, but also of police and public officials. In their own homes they are scrutinizing their children for signs of satanic influence.
But how true are the claims about satanic crime? Does danger truly exist, or is it a fantasy bred by hysteria? Are children really at risk? And are the adolescents who listen to heavy metal music and play "Dungeons & Dragons" being subtly indoctrinated into becoming satanists? Is it possible they are already practicing satanic — possibly criminal — behavior? Is Geraldo Rivera right when he asserts, "It is teenagers who are most likely to fall under the spell of this jungle of dark violent emotions called satanism, and in some cases to be driven to committing terrible deeds. . . . There is no doubt that teenage satanic activity in this country is increasing dramatically" (Rivera 1988)?
We will explore these questions by providing an overview of some of the allegations made by antisatanists about satanic crime in general, and about adolescent involvement in satanism and the occult in particular. We will also examine newly emerging adolescent gangs called "Stoners," some of whose members describe themselves as satanists, to determine whether they can be considered adolescent satanic cults. Most claims about a satanic crime wave sweeping the country cannot be substantiated and have been effectively refuted by numerous critics. The "Satan scare" appears to be fueled largely by rumors promulgated as facts by conservative Christians, "cult cops," and sensationalistic stories in the media.
The Ideology of Antisatanism
The 1989 book Devil Child — an account of teenager Sean Sellers' 1986 murders of a convenience store clerk and of his own mother and stepfather — provides a dramatic summary of the claims antisatanists make about satanic activity:
Those who choose to believe that Satanic practitioners do not inhabit their town or city, do not shop in their grocery marts, do not occupy the car in the passing lane, might take note of some figures. In 1976 the number of active Satanists in the U.S. numbered nearly half a million. By 1985 that figure almost tripled. No community is untouched. No boundary is uncrossed.
Who, then, are these Satanists who invade our protective spiritual armor? They are business professionals, politicians, even priests. They deliver your mail, cut your hair, pump your gas.
They are your children. (Dawkins and Higgins 1989, p. 2)
The implication posed here is that Sellers — whose experimentation with satanism was central to his (unsuccessful) insanity defense (Dawkins and Higgins 1989) — was somehow tied to a "satanic underground" with a nationwide membership of one-and-a-half million. The authors do not provide a source for such a figure. Because the publisher classifies Devil Child as "nonfiction true crime," many readers may accept this figure at face value. Critics of antisatanists claim that the figure — and the "satanic underground" itself — are fictions.
Sociologist David G. Bromley (1991) classifies the belief in a "satanic underground" as a subversion fear, in which satanists are seen as a secret, widespread conspiracy of subversives who want to overthrow society and remake it in their own evil image. They attempt to reach these goals by infiltrating the power structure and by corrupting the innocent through lures such as sex, drugs, rock and roll music, and fantasy games, or through brainwashing and terror. They commit ritual murder and child abuse in a bid for supernatural power.
Bromley (1991) refers to the antisatanist movement which is trying to fight this alleged conspiracy as a countersubversion ideology, and views it as only the latest in a long line of such ideologies which in the past have targeted religious cults, Mormons, Catholics, communists, the mafia, Indians, and witches (p. 50). The organized antisemitism which resulted in the Nazi death camps is an example of a countersubversion ideology.
As with other countersubversion ideologies, the antisatanism movement attempts to describe the origin, nature, operation, and impact of the supposed subversive network, and is relatively unaffected by lack of evidence of such a network. Antisatanists are believed because they offer a comprehensive explanation for, and a solution to, troubling conditions in society (Bromley 1991).
The foremost problem addressed by antisatanism is the lessened family control over the socialization of children which has resulted from changing social and economic conditions. Antisatanism "explains" family-related issues such as drug use, missing or kidnapped children, heavy metal music, pornography, suicide, delinquency, and movie and television violence (Bromley 1991): these problems all, it is claimed, have their origins in satanism.
Best (1991, p. 103) asserts that "[a]ntisatanism is a religious movement," but that misleading statistics, third-hand rumors, and sensationalistic media accounts has helped to make it also into a secular ideology (Bromley 1991). In its secular form the problem antisatanism addresses is "satanic," "occult," or "ritualistic" crime; the solution it proposes is aggressive investigation and prosecution of those who allegedly commit such crime. Because the criminal codes of most states do not define these crimes, police officers depend upon training workshops to teach them how to investigate them.
Unfortunately, as Sills (1990, p. 8) observes, lecturers at these workshops are "notorious for claiming that certain churches and religious organizations, which have nothing at all to do with satanism, are satanic." Lanning (1989) reports that, in various training materials and lectures, he has heard all of the following referred to as satanism: astrology, Buddhism, channeling, the Church of Satan, demonology, Freemasonry, Hare Krishna, heavy metal music, Hinduism, holistic medicine, Islam, the Knights Templar, the Ku Klux Klan, Mormonism, Nazis, the New Age movement, Ordo Templi Orientis, the Orthodox Church, paganism, Rajneesh, rock music, Roman Catholicism, Rosicrucianism, Santeria, Scientology, Stoner gangs, the Temple of Set, Transcendental Meditation, the Unification Church, voodoo, the Way, and witchcraft (pp. 63-64). If this catalog were to be taken literally, one could only conclude that human culture has very little to offer that is not satanic.
What is Satanism?
Even the belief systems most commonly described as satanic — witchcraft, the occult, and the organized satanic churches — differ from one another. Modern witchcraft, also known as Wicca, is part of a larger revival of pagan religions, most of which are polytheistic and pantheistic (i.e., belief that divinity is inseparable from nature), which honor the divinity of both female and male, and which tend to value creativity, intellectual satisfaction, growth, feminism, environmentalism, and "religion without the middleman." Witches do not recognize Satan or include him in their pantheon. Magic is not viewed as involving the supernatural; rather, it consists of techniques of the mind, of imagination and perception, which are used to achieve necessary ends, such as food gathering, recovery from traumatic experiences, and healing. Most neopagan groups hold to an ethic known as the Wiccan Rede — "An ye harm none, do as ye will" — and believe it is unethical to violate other people's autonomy (Adler 1986).
The term occult implies a "secret knowledge" or something which is hidden and beyond normal understanding. Beyond this, there is little agreement on what the occult is. The problem is not simply one of definition, but also of positive or negative connotation. As Truzzi (1974a) writes, "In many ways the occult is a residual category, a wastebasket, for knowledge claims that are deviant in some way, that do not fit the established claims of science or religion. . . . A question that must be considered in defining the occult, then, should at the outset be who is labeling the beliefs as occult, where the labeling is being done (the social context), and at what time the designation is made (the historical period)" (p. 245; emphases in original). Most writers on the subject agree that the occult includes schools of thought such as Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Masonry, Freemasonry, and the Qabalah. Occult also serves as an umbrella term for practices such as alchemy, magic, and various forms of divination (or fortune-telling) such as tarot cards, astrology, and I Ching.
Satanism is difficult to describe because antisatanists tend to neglect the published materials of organized satanic churches in favor of their own claims. Nonetheless, the existence of organized satanic churches "furnish a 'kernel of truth' that antisatanists can expose. Groups such as Anton LaVey's Church of Satan 'prove' that the satanic threat exists" (Richardson et al. 1991).
The members of organized satanic churches can properly be designated as Satanists, with a capital "s," because they are recognized by the government as legitimate churches. The best-known satanic church, the Church of Satan founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey, enjoys tax-exempt status just as does any Christian church. The Church of Satan has a current estimated membership of 2000 to 5000 (Richardson et al. 1991). It is an elitist organization which requires prospective members to go through complex tests and initiations before they are accepted. Members are organized in six levels governed by a hierarchy with a highly-developed bureaucracy (Truzzi 1974b).
Organized Satanism is essentially a monotheistic religion which consciously recognizes itself as a heretical offshoot of Christianity. The Church of Satan redefines the seven deadly sins of Christianity — greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth — as satanic virtues. It is materialistic and atheistic, where Satan is a symbol of the individual ego rather than a deity to be worshipped. The Church of Satan worships the ego itself (Truzzi 1974b).
According to the first six of LaVey's "Nine Satanic Statements," Satan represents "indulgence instead of abstinence;" "vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams;" "undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit;" "kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates;" "vengeance instead of turning the other cheek;" and "responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires" (1969, p. 26). These statements demonstrate the close relationship LaVey's Satanism has to Christianity: each satanic virtue is placed in opposition to what LaVey considers to be the real meaning of a Christian religious truth. Satanism, in fact, could not exist without Christianity, as LaVey points out, tongue in cheek, in his ninth Satanic statement: "Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years!" (p. 26). Some observers have proposed that LaVey was motivated to found his church as much to tweak Christians' noses as for any other reason (Richardson et al. 1991).
The ethic proposed by LaVey is similar, but not identical, to the Wiccan Rede: "Do what you will, as long as no undeserving person is harmed by your actions" (1969, p. 26). It is left to the reader to decide who is "deserving." Because "life is the great indulgence — death the great abstinence" (Jamra n.d., p. 3), Church of Satan members condemn suicide.
Despite the self-indulgence and contempt for Christian values loudly proclaimed in its literature, the Church of Satan is much more pedestrian than might be supposed. The Church has taken public stands for law and order and against "these despicable criminals who pretend to be members of the church in order to carry out their foul deeds. . . . Satanism provides the initiative for self-aggrandizement according to the needs and desires of each individual, without placing him at variance with those laws established for the common good" (Jamra n.d., p. 3). Hicks (1990, pp. 51-52) notes, "The Satanic Bible repeatedly warns the reader away from violence."
There are other organized satanic churches such as the Temple of Set, an offshoot of the Church of Satan founded by Michael Aquino. While these other churches are smaller and less well-known than the Church of Satan, and their specific "theologies" may differ somewhat, they are like the Church of Satan in one very important respect: none exhibit criminality. It is perhaps this fact which leads antisatanists to direct their energies instead toward explaining the supposed satanic megacult.
The Police Model of "Satanic Crime"
Daniels (1989) presented a typology, for use in police training, of various types of involvement in satanic belief as they relate to possible criminal behavior. In the order of their criminality, these types are: 1) "Religious satanists," members of organized churches including the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, and the Church of Satanic Liberation, to whom little criminal activity has been linked; 2) "experimentalists," youth who dabble in satanism, heavy metal music, horror videos, fantasy role-playing games, and who have been tied to trespass, burglary, criminal damage, drug use, suicide, and homicide; 3) "self-styled satanists," sociopaths or psychopaths who justify criminal activity through a belief system centered in Satan; 4) "satanic cults," groups of people, often with severe mental and behavioral problems, who are attracted to satanism because it "condones" antisocial behavior; 5) "orthodox satanic groups," intergenerational groups which pass their belief systems and coven structures to their children; criminal activities "attributed" to them include kidnapping, drug dealing, ritual child abuse, human sacrifice, and cannibalism.
Several of these definitions exhibit problems. There is no hard evidence to support the existence of the "orthodox" type of satanist or their supposed criminal activities; use of the word "attributed" implicitly recognizes this. Further, referring to this fictional type as "orthodox" cannot be supported because the term implies that criminal activity is normal and expected in satanism. Likewise, to say that satanism "condones" antisocial behavior is contrary to the published philosophies of recognized satanic churches.
Except for that Daniels' (1989) typology has five levels rather than the more usual four, it is typical of the police model of satanic crime which has been presented at law enforcement cult seminars since the mid-1980s. Hicks (1991) writes that the four-tiered model of satanic crime gives the impression of a "continuum of behavior, with innocent kids entering the occult realm through 'Dungeons & Dragons' (Level I) and emerging at the other end as well-placed, apparently responsible citizens who practice satanism clandestinely, obtaining power through human sacrifice and child abuse (Level IV)" (p. 178). Hicks contends that the model itself is derived largely from Christian sources, most (but not all) having a fundamentalist Christian bias which portrays any non-Christian belief system as "nontraditional" and hence suspicious.
Cult crime seminars themselves consume public money because they are frequently provided to police and other public employees as continuing professional education (Sills 1990). Unfortunately, many workshop presenters are less interested in improving the investigative skills of law enforcement officers than they are in cashing in on lucrative speaking fees and notoriety in the "growth industry" the satanic lecture circuit has become (Lanning 1989). Alaska itself provides an example of this problem. In 1989 the Alaska Police Standards Council (APSC) decertified a two-day cult crime seminar, which had been attended by about 70 Anchorage Police Department officers and state correctional employees after officials who had attended reported that the course consisted of a "fundamentalist Christian lecture" having little to do with investigation of satanic crimes (Enge 1990).
Claims About Satanic Crime
Antisatanists have successfully involved the criminal justice system in their fight against satanism by alleging that satanism is criminally oriented. However, close examination shows that many antisatanist claims are problematical. For example, there have been several widely publicized cases involving allegations that daycare workers engaged in ritualistic child abuse of children under their care. Perhaps the most notorious case involved the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. The last McMartin defendants were tried in late 1989, and in January 1990 were found innocent. Despite acquittals in this and other daycare cases, belief in the guilt of the defendants persists (e.g., Raschke 1990, pp. 62-67). Jenkins (1992) observed that acquittals are often cited by antisatanists as proof that courts are insensitive to the needs of child victims.
Antisatanists maintain that 95 percent of all the nation's missing children — up to 50,000 annually — are abducted for use in sacrifices to Satan (Larson 1989, p. 125; Johnston 1989, p. 82). Critics of antisatanists find such claims preposterous. The best estimate of the number of children abducted by strangers comes from a comprehensive study of missing children conducted by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which estimated that only 200 to 400 children are kidnapped by strangers each year (Finkelhor et al. 1990). While examples exist of murders committed by individuals who describe themselves as satanists (e.g., serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the "Night Stalker;" teenage murderer Sean Sellers), murders involving actual satanic cults, and intended for ritual purposes, appear to be very scarce. The FBI's Kenneth Lanning (1989, p. 82) has defined "satanic murder" as an act "committed by two or more individuals who rationally plan the crime and whose primary motivation is to fulfill a prescribed satanic ritual calling for the murder. . . . By this definition, [I have been] unable to identify even one documented satanic murder in the United States" (emphasis in original).
"Occult survivors" are individuals, usually women, who claim to have been raised in satanic cults where, among other things, they were sexually abused, were made to watch other children die as sacrifices, and were used as "breeders" — that is, they were raped by cult members, became pregnant, and the resulting babies were taken from them and sacrificed. These stories seem to have originated in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers (Smith and Pazder 1980); other accounts include Suffer the Child (Spencer 1989) and Satan's Underground (Stratford 1988). As with claims about stranger abduction of children for satanic purposes, "occult survivor" stories suffer from the lack of corroborating evidence. For example, the events described in Satan's Underground (Stratford 1988) were exhaustively investigated by journalists from the Christian periodical Cornerstone (Passatino et al. 1989); the journalists found virtually every point contained in the story to be untrue, even on such a basic point as whether Stratford had a sister. Nor has law enforcement been able to verify "survivor" stories, "at least not to confirm a satanic megacult" (Hicks 1990, p. 162).
It is impossible to prove that no instances of these crimes have occurred, but there is certainly no compelling evidence to support claims that they are either widespread or common. The sparse evidence which remains related to satanic crime chiefly involves adolescents.
Adolescents and Satanism
Antisatanists maintain that the nation's youth are increasingly subjected to influences which can lead to involvement in satanism and satanic crime. These influences are pervasive in American culture, and many are specifically aimed at adolescents. They include horror movies like the "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series; popular forms of fortune-telling such as Tarot cards, I Ching, and astrology; and virtually anything to do with the occult or paranormal phenomena such as astral projection (the projection of one's mind outside the body) (Larson 1989; Johnston 1989). The entire New Age movement and phenomena associated with it, such as the trance channeling of spirits popularized by actress Shirley MacLaine, have also become major targets of attack. Larson (1989) also cites the influence of Eastern religions and philosophies on the New Age movement as cause for concern. Informational books about the dangers of satanism typically include charts of supposed satanic symbols, including the six-pointed hexagram, or Seal of Solomon — known to Jews worldwide as the Star of David; the pentagram, a five-pointed star within a circle; and the familiar peace symbol used by anti-Vietnam war activists in the late 1960s, known to antisatanists as the "Cross of Nero."
Antisatanist warnings regarding youth center particularly in claims about fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and about heavy metal music — particularly the so-called "black" metal music of musician Ozzy Osbourne and of bands like Slayer, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica, MegaDeath, and Motley Crue — which panders to youth fascination with death and the devil through suggestive lyrics and album covers (Larson 1989). Several cases have been tried in the courts in which bereaved parents have claimed that their children's suicides were "caused" by heavy metal music (Richardson 1991). D&D has also been accused of causing teenage suicides and is considered by antisatanists as a corrupting primer in occult and satanic practices (Larson 1989). The fact that several notorious teenage murderers and suicides listened to heavy metal and played D&D offer seeming proof of such claims. Larson describes such cases by a "slippery slope" theory: beginning with heavy metal and D&D, these youths inevitably slide into satanic dabbling, with books like The Satanic Bible as their guides, and ultimately become criminals, even murderers.
Some adolescents do develop eclectic philosophies, which adopt bits and pieces from witchcraft, the occult, traditional religious satanism, and related systems of thought, and mesh them together into new belief systems which cannot be strictly equated with any preexisting belief system. In many — probably most — cases, such a philosophy does not properly constitute a "cult" because it has only one believer and practitioner — the youth who created it. Thus, even a notorious self-described "satanist" like Sean Sellers — who murdered a convenience store clerk, his mother, and his stepfather — does not prove the existence of a satanic coven, because Sellers developed his system of satanism on his own. Furthermore, although he claimed his murders were motivated by satanic beliefs, other possible motives existed. He and another boy were apparently attempting to rob the convenience store clerk, who had once refused to sell them beer, and the murders of his mother and stepfather occurred after they refused to let him date a girl he liked. At his trial Sellers pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and claimed he had no recollection of the murders. The jury nonetheless found him guilty (Ewing 1990, p. 72). Sellers has achieved considerable fame as one of the nation's few juveniles sentenced to death, and his case is frequently cited by antisatanists as proof of their claims (e.g., Larson 1989).
Sometimes small groups of friends who share a common interest in the occult, witchcraft, or satanism appear to create a shared belief system, a "minicult," as it were. These groups consist largely of teenager dabblers who appear to be experimenting out of adolescent rebelliousness, and their interest in such matters fades away as they reach adulthood. Only rarely do their activities escalate into any type of criminal behavior, much less murder, and even in those cases little or no evidence exists to support theories that they are part of a larger "satanic underground" or that they have been actively encouraged, directed, or indoctrinated by "hard-core" adult satanists.
An example might be the three boys in a "self-styled satanic cult" in Joplin, Missouri, who beat another teenager to death with baseball bats, then tied a weight to the body and dropped it down a well (Ewing 1990, p. 71). The three boys reportedly had been fascinated with satanism and satanic rituals for several months prior to the killing. They supposedly planned the murder together as a "human sacrifice" and had already made several abortive attempts to kill the victim. However, other information about the case reveals the real motive for the murder was a dispute about a drug payment, and the "satanic" claim derived from one defendant's use of a "diminished capacity" defense in order to evade the death penalty (Richardson 1991, p. 206). The other two defendants pleaded no contest to murder charges. Regardless of whether other rumors about the three youths' supposed interest in satanism are true, this murder thus would not fulfill Lanning's (1989, p. 82) definition as a "satanic murder" because its primary motivation was not "to fulfill a prescribed satanic ritual calling for the murder." Rather, it occurred as a result of a drug dispute.
It becomes apparent that we must look more closely at the facts surrounding cases of even well-known "satanic" crimes before labeling them satanic. It is, in particular, important to distinguish between a youthful criminal's self-definition before and after his or her crimes are committed. It is possible that some offenders become satanists "after the fact" in order to defend themselves at trial under a diminished capacity argument.
It was due to a widespread perception that belief in satanism was increasing among youth that Trostle (1992) undertook a study of predominately Hispanic members of newly emerging adolescent gangs in East Los Angeles, some of whose members exhibited interest in witchcraft, the occult, and satanism. They called themselves Stoners.
"Stoners" is a term which had been used in southern California since the early 1970s to describe loosely-structured groups of youth who socialized together to abuse drugs and alcohol. Another bond between them was an interest in heavy metal music. For a long time they were not considered street gangs because they were not involved in the violence generally associated with street gangs. With time, however, some Stoners came into conflict with others around them and gradually coalesced into gangs. By the time this study was undertaken in 1985, a few had begun to espouse a belief in satanism, and members had been tied to incidents of grave robbery, cemetery and church vandalism, and animal mutilation (Jackson and McBride 1985; Trostle 1992) — activities which are frequently cited as evidence of satanic crime. Stoner gangs have in fact been referred to in law enforcement cult crime seminars as satanic (Lanning 1989).
While the study's primary purpose was to test law enforcement assumptions about Stoners — such as the perception that they were more violent and more involved in drug abuse than traditional gang members (Trostle 1992) -- their relationship to satanism adds to their interest. Could Stoner gangs, composed mostly of minors, be described as adolescent satanic cults? Could their existence serve to substantiate claims about a criminally oriented satanic underground? Are crimes committed by Stoners motivated by satanism? The answer to each of these questions appears to be no.
The study, which compared 150 randomly selected Stoners with 150 traditional gang members involved in delinquent or criminal behavior in East Los Angeles, showed that despite some differences between the two groups, the similarities between them were stronger. Members of both groups were from low income families — with average family income below the poverty level — and on the average their parents' education was below the ninth grade level. All subjects in the study were Hispanic, and the vast majority of both groups reported a religious profession of Catholicism (Trostle 1992). Because data for the study was taken from criminal and probation records, it was not possible to determine if any of the subjects considered themselves satanists.
The perception held by some law enforcement officers that 90 percent level of Stoners were substance abusers was not supported; in fact, traditional gang members had a higher level of substance abuse arrests than did Stoners (70% compared to 65.5%). Traditional gang members had higher levels of violent crime in homicides and armed robberies, but Stoners had a significantly higher level of arrests for violent crimes, assaults on officials, rapes/sexual assaults, and felonious assaults. They were also more likely to assault teachers. The only one significant difference between the two groups in the area of property crime was that Stoners were five times more likely to have been arrested for grand theft of automobiles than their counterparts. The most serious violations, as determined by a crime seriousness scale, were committed by Stoners. Stoners also surpassed traditional gang members in the total number of status offense arrests — e.g., curfew violation, minor in possession of alcohol — although the two groups were not significantly different (Trostle 1992).
It is thus apparent that there were some differences between the two groups, but the differences were far outweighed by the similarities. One could probably expect to find comparable similarities and differences if one were to compare, for example, the criminal records of Hispanic traditional gang members with the records of Afro or Asian-American gang members. It seems evident that the types of criminal and delinquent activities engaged in by Stoners do not radically differentiate them from other gang members who commit crimes. Nor does anything in the criminal or probation records of these Stoners point at a "satanic" motivation for their crimes.
Subjective study of Stoners revealed other points of comparison with traditional gang members. A separate study of 25 Stoners and 25 traditional gang members, all volunteers, revealed that the Stoners were far more likely to express a belief in black magic, death caused by voodoo or black magic, and reincarnation than were traditional gang members. Stoners also reported a higher preference for heavy metal music (Trostle 1992). At first glance these findings might be interpreted as evidence that Stoners are satanically oriented; however, it must be emphasized that a belief in paranormal phenomena or a liking for heavy metal music do not "prove" that someone is a satanist.
Like traditional gang members, Stoners adopted styles of dress and behavior which strengthened their group identity and used graffiti to mark their territory. Unlike traditional gang members, "territory" did not consist of physical "turf" but of an ideology defined by the values they found in heavy metal music and, in some cases, their own self-created brand of satanism (Jackson and McBride 1985). Although Stoners were not territorial in the traditional gang sense, and could move from gang neighborhood to gang neighborhood without apparent fear of enemy gangs, they frequently established alliances with traditional gangs, and, indeed, often had siblings in traditional gangs (Trostle 1992). Since Trostle's study was conducted in 1985, the relationship between Stoners and traditional gangs appears to have strengthened. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office reported in 1992, "Over time, the separate identity of the 'stoners' has faded as they have evolved into close approximations of street gangs" (p. 44). Even in 1985, despite some differences between Stoners and traditional gang members, it would be more accurate to describe Stoners as a gang phenomenon rather than as a satanic cult.
Why, then, was there a widespread perception that Stoner groups were satanic? The answer appears to be that some Stoners, like adolescents elsewhere, constructed their own belief systems incorporating aspects of satanism and the occult. Indeed, Trostle (1992) conducted interviews with some Stoners who described themselves as satanists, and some of whom displayed sophisticated knowledge about the occult and the writings of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. Nonetheless, no evidence was found to tie these Stoners formally to any recognized satanic church or to any adult "hard-core" satanist who indoctrinated them in their philosophy. Further, it is difficult to ascertain how much such self-described satanists influence other members of their Stoner groups; there is no reliable evidence to indicate that all, or even most, Stoners consider themselves satanists. Although Stoners are describes as satanists in cult crime seminars, not only does their existence not prove the existence of a nationwide satanic underground, but it is highly questionable whether the definition of Stoner gangs as satanic is in any way accurate. The characterization of Stoner gangs as satanic appears to stem from applying the self-definitions of a few Stoners to all Stoners.
Interestingly, antisatanists maintain that the youth most likely to become satanists are middle class, white, and male (Larson 1989, p. 105). The East Los Angeles Stoners studied by Trostle (1992) — not all of whom considered themselves satanists — fit this profile in terms of sex. Very few Stoners were female — 2.8 percent as compared with 12 percent of traditional gang members (p. 151). However, they came predominately from low socioeconomic classes, and while a few Stoners are white, all those included in the study were Hispanic.
Stoner groups appear to form, as do traditional gangs, to provide support and to fulfill needs that juveniles cannot otherwise obtain in their communities. These needs include self-identification, a surrogate family, freedom from authority, and peer acceptance. To the extent that some Stoners believe in satanism, it is a self-defined satanism, an invented belief system which may function more as a means to strengthen group identity and cohesiveness, rather than as a religious rationale for criminal activity. This does not mean that Stoners do not engage in criminal activity, but it appears to proceed from their status as gang members, rather their religious beliefs. The exception to this might be cases in which Stoners are implicated in grave robbery, cemetery or church vandalism, or animal mutilation; it is possible (but not proven) that Stoners who consider themselves satanists are attempting by such activities to "practice satanism," albeit a self-defined brand. Even in these cases, it would behoove law enforcement officers to follow the advice of the FBI's Kenneth Lanning (1989, p. 83): "Many police officers ask what to look for during the search of the scene of suspected satanic activity. The answer is simple: look for evidence of a crime." Actual crimes committed by Stoners, rather than a belief system that probably only a few Stoners share, should be the issue for law enforcement officers, as it is for any other type of gang. In Los Angeles County, "[g]ang males are responsible for more than six times as much crime, per capita, than non-gang males" (Los Angeles County Prosecutor's Office 1992, p. 53); Stoners are simply part of this larger problem. Once again, it appears that antisatanist claims about adolescents and satanism do not stand under close examination.
The antisatanist ideology has developed to the point that its claims are irrefutable: if there is no physical evidence of 50,000 human sacrifices annually, it is because the satanic megacult is so tightly organized, so efficient, and so diabolically clever that its members are able to conceal all evidence of their crimes (Bromley 1991); if detractors find antisatanist claims about child abuse to be unbelievable, it is because "[s]atanists deliberately fabricate preposterous forms of child victimization, knowing that the more unthinkable their atrocity, the less likely the victim will be believed" (Larson 1989, p. 126); if responsible authorities like the FBI's Kenneth Lanning criticize antisatanist reasoning, it is because they are apologists for satanic cults (Raschke 1990); if police are skeptical of sensational claims about outbreaks of satanic crime in their communities, it is because satanists have infiltrated police agencies and the government (Jenkins 1992). Jenkins summarizes the anti-rationalism inherent in the antisatanist approach to evidence:
- An implausible and unlikely claim is as probable as a well-authenticated one, and perhaps more so.
- The weaker the witness the better.
- Failure to substantiate the charge merely proves the scale of the menace. (Jenkins 1992, p. 3)
In short, then, the very lack of evidence has itself become the most powerful proof antisatanists can offer for their claims. The American criminal justice system, however, requires evidence that a crime has been committed before an alleged offender can be prosecuted. Perhaps the greatest danger of the antisatanist ideology is the attempt by many of its proponents to short-circuit that process.
It is a logical fallacy to suggest that "links" between crime and an interest in satanism and the occult imply causality (Hicks 1990). It is, in effect, stating that because some youths who call themselves satanists have committed suicide or murder, therefore satanism causes suicide and murder. By this same faulty logic, one could also claim that, since some Christians commit suicide or murder, Christianity causes suicide or murder. Jenkins (1992) and Lanning (1989) both observe that murderers who attribute their crimes to commands from God far outnumber murderers who blame Satan — yet it would go against reason to label their crimes "Christian ritual sacrifices."
As Hicks (1990, p. 282) observes, "where satanic motifs or imagery turn up in cases of troubled youth, even a superficial inquiry reveals other misbehavior, destructive preoccupations, even psychiatric disorders." Larson (1989), an antisatanist, states that alcohol abuse, violence, and neglect within the family contribute to youth attraction to satanism. He thus implicitly admits that problems within the family are the root "cause" of the teenage delinquency and crime he explicitly blames on satanism. It is here, in the realm of the family, that Larson's warnings to parents about heavy metal, obsessive D&D playing, and self-defined satanism have some validity: these "destructive preoccupations" (Hicks 1990, p. 282) are symptoms of an underlying problem, not the problem itself. Cast in this light, it becomes apparent that the proper response to troubled youth is not an all-out law enforcement attack on a supposed satanic megacult, but active participation and guidance by parents and other people concerned about confused adolescents. A belief in the antisatanist ideology of a nonexistent satanic conspiracy can divert parents and other concerned people away from taking the constructive, critical actions needed to deal with the problems of troubled youth. Nonetheless, the antisatanist movement promises, for better or worse, to be a rich source of data in the study of the sociology of religion for years to come.
Questions for Students
- Sociologist David G. Bromley calls antisatanism a countersubversion ideology. In the past such ideologies have targeted religious cults, Mormons, Catholics, communists, the mafia, Indians, witches, and Jews. Research the history of one of these groups and describe the countersubversion ideology which was used to attack it.
- The authors argue that antisatanism is dangerous because some of its proponents attempt to bypass the criminal justice process in the prosecution of alleged satanic crimes. What other dangers does antisatanism pose?
- Read and analyze a "true crime" book about a juvenile offender whose crimes were allegedly motivated by satanism. What evidence does the author give for the offender's motivation? What other motivations might the offender have had?
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