Cult or no cults, people get edgy Satanism: Rumors abound and reports of lurid crimes produce sensational headlines. But police experts who should know say that satanic cult activity is uncommon. Not everyone agrees.

Sun Journal

November 01, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Have you seen the latest demon movie? Al Pacino in "Devil's Advocate," with his novelty-store fangs? Have you heard the new tune by Marilyn Manson (who hit the heights with "Antichrist Superstar"), or anything by other devil-worshipping rock stars?

If so, you might wonder at the continuing preoccupation in this country with satanism, satanic cults and all their foul and bloody rituals. Such as they are. Clearly, these days people expect the worst. Especially these days.

Why else would those who run animal shelters around the state (( be extra protective of the black cats under their care in the weeks before Halloween? Is it a real problem? It is according to the executive director of the Maryland SPCA, Deborah Thomas. She was quoted last week in this newspaper as follows: "As horrible as this may sound, cats are tortured around Halloween time."

Then there is that business down in Mississippi, where a group of teenagers are said to have formed a satanic cult. One of them allegedly stabbed his mother to death, then went to school and )) shot two fellow students

It's all very unnerving. But not everybody believes the Antichrist is coming in on the next broom. Lt. Terry L. Katz doesn't.

Katz is with the criminal intelligence division of the Maryland State Police. It's his job to keep track of dangerous cults in Maryland. He describes satanic cult activity as "not a significant problem." Animal sacrifice and ritual abuse of children are uncommon, though evidence of the former does turn up now and again, usually in rural parts like the Eastern Shore, or other areas where there are large numbers of immigrants who indulge in what Katz describes as "alternative religions."

"They practice these religions, and what remains after their rituals, maybe feathers, or bones or coins -- to an individual not familiar with this, it looks like satanism," says Katz.

And so they tell their neighbors.

Katz strongly emphasizes the difference between satanism and "dangerous cults." There is nothing illegal about satanism, he says, or organizations like Anton La-Vey's Church of Satan. It is a legal religion, with its own organization, texts, ministers. It may be a bit nonconformist, but it is established.

It is illegal, however, to torture cats, to spray a pentagram, or any other message on somebody else's property. And, of course, it is illegal to kill, man or beast.

This, according to Jeffrey S. Victor, is the differentiation a lot of people fail to make: between stories, rumors, or what he calls "contemporary legends," and actual criminal activity carried out by people who link their behavior to their professed belief in the devil. It is not a small distinction: There are a lot of the former, and not very many (relatively speaking) of the latter.

That's what the Maryland State Police Department thinks. That's what the FBI thinks. Victor is the author of "The Satanic Panic." He is a sociologist at Jamestown Community College in New York. He offers an analysis of the whole satanic-cult syndrome.

Stories, rumors, allegations about satanic cults are invariably lurid. They tell of human sacrifices, usually of "blonde, blue-eyed virgins," or of men who kidnap and impregnate women, then murder the resultant infants in dark rituals. Other stories involve killing people, usually the homeless, as an initiation into satanic cults.

"Satanic cultists are often said to be involved in child pornography, and child sex," says Victor. "Those stories are commonplace and circulate widely, usually in areas where there are numerous fundamentalist Protestants, who give them credibility."


Because in many of these religious sects good and evil are personified. There is God. His opponent, the devil, is a personal force. "It resonates with their religious ideology," says Victor, a Unitarian.

But there are other busy transmitters of diabolical stories: the media and thousands of psychotherapists around the country.

Victor reported in the Harvard Medical School's Mental Health Letter that surveys show that most psychotherapists -- the professionals who treat the mentally disturbed -- believe stories of satanic conspiracies and atrocities, and tend to pass them on. They have also been among those who encourage, and in some cases plant in the minds of their troubled patients, dubious "recovered memories" of early sexual abuse, usually by parents and frequently in cult situations.

The media's role in perpetuating devil-cult violence is significant. Newspapers and television report crimes. Lurid crimes tend to be sensationalized, either intentionally or because the subject matter is in itself sensationalistic. Crimes linked to satanism are a favorite material for television magazine shows and supermarket tabloids.

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