There was a general decline of Satan in the wake of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modernism (a decline in him being perceived as a real and imminent danger, that is). Nonetheless, he still remained alive and well within certain types of Christianity, particularly within the more conservative forms which do account for a large percentage of modern Christianity. Certainly not all of these conservative Christians subscribed to conspiratorial theories regarding Satan’s dastardly plans to undermine God’s activity. Yet there were — from the 1970s-1990s — a number of somewhat widespread notions of Satan’s evil machinations that are best described as conspiracy theories, two of which I will touch on here.
On the one hand were the very frightening claims of “Satanic ritual abuse“. There was a variety of contextual factors that fed the development of this particular conspiracy theory including the following:
1) There were general fears within some Christian circles regarding the many New Religious Movements (NRMs) — “cults” from this perspective — which were perceived as deceiving and brainwashing their potential members into joining. One of the results was a somewhat organized anti-cult movement, including groups such as the International Cultic Studies Association (a newer organization that follows in the footsteps of earlier groups), that produced substantial amounts of literature. The Church of Satan, or the unintentional worship of Satan via other “cults” generally, could naturally be subsumed within this framework.
2) Added to this was the actual existence and public visibility of an actual Church of Satan (founded by Magus Anton Szandor LaVey in about 1966 but especially visible in the 1970s) , which claimed to be the continuation of the worldwide worship of Satan that had been going on since ancient times.
3) Within certain circles of Christian social workers or therapists who held the view that there was a Satanic conspiracy, certain methods developed (namely suggestive interrogation) which resulted in a high number of cases where children and adults reported or confessed to involvement in Satanic rituals, often as victims. In some cases, the results of such approaches regarding stories of Satanic abuse were published in popularizing books, including Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers of 1980.
In essence, this conspiracy theory entailed a worldwide, secretive network of Satan worshippers who were systematically exploiting both children and adults to engage in wild and demonic rituals. One of the handbooks for therapists, as cited by the historian David Frankfurter, explains that Satanic abuse usually involves:
“group cult ceremonies in which children engage in sexual acts with adults and other children; the sacrifice and mutilation of animals; threats related to magical or supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs, ‘magic potions,’ blood, and human excrement; and distortion of traditional belief systems” (Susan J. Kelley as cited by Frankfurter, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 , p. 356).
Another such handbook for those who believed in the conspiracy states:
“Such abuse may include the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of an animal, the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of a person, forced ingestion of real or simulated human body fluids, excrement or flesh, [and] forced sexual activity” (Noblitt and Perskin as cited by Frankfurter, p. 357).
The fact that this was indeed a conspiracy theory arising out of certain peoples’ worldviews and not reality is now widely recognized. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which stereotypes of the dangerous “other” which have a very long history — including the trio of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion — play a key role in this incident as well. Back in Roman times, for instance, the early Christians were accused by outsiders of engaging in precisely these three activities, as were other marginalized or foreign groups in antiquity (on which see my earlier posts here and here). Similar dynamics of marginalization and demonization were also at work in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts.
A second main conspiracy theory, which is somewhat less frightening or disturbing, involves the accusations against certain rock n’ roll bands regarding their allegiances with the Prince of Darkness (Satan not Ozzy), via backmasking, or backward messaging. The idea was that if you play a record backwards (remember records?) you could potentially hear an alternate message that, it was believed, was placed there intentionally by the artists in order to serve their lord and master, Satan. Among the first to fall prey to this accusation was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, which, when played backwards, it was imagined, revealed the following message:
Here’s to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is fake/Satan.
He’ll give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
(Page / Plant, “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV, ©1971 SuperHype Music Inc.. Lyrics online here)
Many other bands were likewise accused of broadcasting the messages of Satan to the impressionable ears of our youth. The fact is that, if you want to find it, a word that sounds like “Satan” would appear in just about any music played backwards. But soon the idea of putting hidden, backward messages on albums was consciously taken on, particularly in the case of heavy metal bands of the 1980s, who seemed to think that Satan, with his number 666, was “cool”.
UPDATE (March 24): Now see the comments section and “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” blog, where there was an earlier post on the Satanic abuse scare focussing primarily on the issue of therapists or psychologists who created the scare, to some degree, particularly in connection with popularizing books on the topic (sadly, there is a Canadian connection). He also includes the cover of a book on Satan (and, yes, it is now available in a new edition with flashy cover to boot) from good ol’ Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame (a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, best-selling book showing the end was near in the 1970s):
Is there another Satanic scare on the horizon?