study of traumatic stress has an interesting
history, characterized by what Herman (1992,
p. 7) refers to as "episodic amnesia."
Periods of active investigation, scholarly research,
and sensitive intervention have alternated historically
with much longer periods of detraction, disregard,
With each reclamation, however,
the study of traumatic stress becomes broader
in scope. The narrow view of trauma as "an
individual-centered event bound to soma or psyche"
(Summerfield, 1995, p.18), is being replaced
by a broader view that sees trauma, its experience,
meaning, resolution, and remembrance as continuously
shaped by the sociocultural context in which
it occurs. This perspective encourages an interdisciplinary
approach, and invites sociologists to participate
in the community of scholars studying traumatic
In its most general sense,
sociology as a discipline focuses on the structures,
relations, systems, and processes governing
social phenomena and guiding social change.
The discipline's interest in collective behavior
has afforded it some insights into one type
of trauma and traumatic stress that, despite
over a decade of attention and activity, has
remained very controversial: satanic ritual
abuse of children.
The term "satanic ritual
abuse" was coined fifteen years ago to
describe what is believed to be the widespread
sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of
young children in satanic cult ceremonies. The
term gave a name to disturbing reports that
were cropping up across the country. Children,
as well as adults who were recovering memories
of childhood in therapy, were alleging that
they had been abused during the course of rituals
that also included such horrific practices as
torture, brainwashing, cannibalism, and human
sacrifices, conducted by satanic cultists who
were family members, day care providers, friends
and neighbors, and even prominent members of
It is estimated that 185 people
were criminally charged in cases alleging satanic
ritual abuse between 1983 and 1995 in this country;
113 of them were convicted, and over fifty
of those people remain in prison today (Nathan
& Snedeker, 1995). Similar cases
were discovered in Canada, England, Scotland,
Holland, and New Zealand, generating as much
controversy as those in this country.
The failure of law enforcement agencies and
government task forces in this country and abroad
to find any convincing corroborating evidence
supporting these bizarre allegations has only
served to heighten the controversy (LaFontane,
1994; Lanning, 1992; Rapport van werkgroep,
And so does the long-awaited
empirical study by Goodman, Qin, Bottoms and
Shaver (1994), funded by the National Center
on Child Abuse and Neglect. The researchers
surveyed 6,910 clinical psychologists, social
workers, and psychiatrists, and 4,655 agencies,
including departments of social services, county
district attorneys offices, and municipal law
enforcement agencies. Respondents reported 12,264
cases of suspected or alleged satanic ritual
abuse involving children and adults. Although
the vast majority of respondents believed that
each case they reported to the researchers was
a "real" case of satanic ritual abuse,
they could offer very little, if any, evidence
corroborating their belief. What evidence they
could offer, such as visible scars on the bodies
of their clients, could be accounted for with
reasonable alternative explanations, such as
self-injury. The researchers also found that
there is little agreement between the allegations
made by children and the recovered memories
of adults; the former tended to talk about such
archetypically frightening acts such as being
confined in the dark with spiders and snakes,
while the latter disclosed the kinds of horrific
acts, like cannibalism, blood-drinking, and
human sacrifice, which have come to typify the
notion of satanic ritual abuse.
In the face of these findings,
the researchers raised serious and disturbing
questions about the nature and process of recovering
traumatic memories, and about the suggestibility
of children to repeated and leading questioning
by adults seeking confirmation of their beliefs
and fears. They also concluded that a richer
understanding of the persistence of the belief
in the reality of satanic ritual abuse in the
absence of corroborating evidence will be found
in a sociological analysis of this controversial
The purpose of this paper is
to describe "three faces of the Devil,"
that is, three interpretations of satanic ritual
abuse as a social, rather than as a clinical,
phenomenon, each grounded in the discipline
of sociology. The intention of this necessarily
brief discussion is to show how the discipline
of sociology can contribute to an understanding
of the interplay between trauma, its social
meaning, and its sociocultural context. While
the paper makes no pretenses about resolving
the controversy of satanic ritual abuse, it
does seek to enter these sociological views
into the arena of professional discourse.
Satanic Ritual Abuse
as Subversion Ideology
A subversion ideology is a
culturally constructed myth that gives shape
and form to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty
about the future that tend to be experienced
during periods of rapid and unpredictable social
change. The subversion ideology may be transmitted
informally by word of mouth, but has more plausibility
if transmitted formally through the mass media,
networks of professionals, and individuals identified
as experts (Bromley, 1991).
A subversion ideology posits
the existence of a conspiratorial group, organization,
race, religion or cult that preys on the innocent,
especially young children. Subversives are depicted
as quintessentially evil. Separated from mainstream
society by their bizarre beliefs and practices
which are inversions of the sacred, they nonetheless
also play legitimate roles that are well integrated
into society. That allows them to corrupt, influence,
manipulate and endanger the unsuspecting. In
the history of this country subversion ideologies
variously have targeted witches, Indians, Jews,
Catholics, Mormons, Communists, and religious
cultists. Now, according to this sociological
view, it is targeting satanists.
But why satanists? The content
and narrative of any subversion ideology is
shaped by the confluence of social, cultural,
political, religious, professional and ideological
forces that is unique to that particular moment
in history. Therefore any understanding of why
this contemporary subversion ideology targets
satanists requires a thorough analysis of those
forces. That task is only just now being undertaken
by sociologists. Victor (1994), for example,
analyzes the roles that religious fundamentalism
and the anti-cult movement play in shaping this
subversion narrative; Richardson (in press)
examines, among other things, the impact of
feminism and the burgeoning child protection
movement; Mulhern (1994) looks at changes within
the profession of psychotherapy and the influence
of the diagnoses of posttraumatic stress disorder
and multiple personality disorder on therapists'
beliefs about the experience and meaning of
trauma; and deYoung (1996) considers the role
that apocalyptic thinking at the end of the
millennium has on the content and narrative
of this subversion ideology.
This sociological view, then,
suggests that a satanic subversion ideology
gives shape to contemporary anxieties and fears
that arise from rapid social change. It functions,
as all other subversion ideologies have historically,
to create a metaphor for this diffuse cultural
anxiety by naming the problem, giving it a human
cause, and locating it outside of mainstream
society. In doing so, this subversion ideology
might very well have a curiously stabilizing
effect on the culture: by drawing attention
to evil subversives, it allows the culture a
temporary respite from recognizing and dealing
with the more widespread, albeit prosaic, forms
of child maltreatment that are so deeply embedded
in the routinized and culturally sanctioned
patterns of interaction between males and females,
and parents and children.
Satanic Ritual Abuse
as Rumor Panic
A rumor panic, sometimes also
referred to as a moral panic, is a "collective
stress reaction in response to a belief in stories
about immediately threatening circumstances"
(Victor, 1993, p. 59). It tends to be triggered
by unusual, disturbing rumors about which factual
information is lacking, incomplete, or disputed.
In trying to find an explanation for these stories
people exchange ideas, try out assumptions,
and speculate freely within the parameters of
their own world view. The rumors they collectively
share may or may not be true, in the objectivist
sense of that term. They will be believed to
be at least plausible, however, if they are
consonant with belief systems, resonate well
with prevailing cultural themes, or simply are
repeated often enough by those with credibility
Once believed to be plausible,
some people will act as if the rumor is true.
That action is the defining characteristic of
a rumor panic. A wide range of fear-provoked
behaviors from fight-flight responses, to the
agitated and uncritical seeking and sharing
of more information characterizes a rumor panic.
Rossen's (1989) analysis of
a rumor panic about cult-related ritual abuse
of children in the small community of Oude Pekela,
Netherlands illustrates this process. The cycle
of that rumor panic began with people's growing
sensitivity to the idea that cults pose a risk
to social order and cherished values. The danger
they represent was then typified through widely
circulated atrocity stories that were presented
as typical of the cults' practices. Those stories
produced such incredulity, outrage and fear
that people began uncritically seeking and sharing
information, ideas, speculations and assumptions
in order to better explain what was happening.
A dramatic moral imbalance was created through
role amplification--the deviants became more
evil, the victims more innocent, the heroes
more virtuous--in the telling and retelling
of these rumors. Deviants so corrupt, so quintessentially
evil, then were imagined as being capable of
all kinds of associated evils. In the case of
Oude Pekela, rumors of ritual child abuse soon
ballooned into rumors about child pornography,
drug abuse, and sacrificial murder. Incredulity
then was replaced with certainty, outrage with
imposition, and fear with resolve. A call to
public action was sounded and all kinds of social
control activities occurred in response. That
rumor panic finally reached resolution. It dissipated
for lack of sustaining hard evidence, but resolution
also may be reached when a rumor panic evolves
into a different rumor, moves geographically
to another community, or continues in some variant
Victor (1993) suggests that
the concern about satanic ritual abuse may constitute
a rumor panic. The rumor originated in the collectively
shared anxieties and ambiguities about the protection
of children, and was shaped through the process
of collective sharing among professionals, the
public, and between professionals and identified
survivors. The rumor's persistence over the
last fifteen years is not because it is supported
by incontrovertible and objective evidence,
but because it is consistent with the belief
system of many professionals, resonates with
prevailing cultural themes, and has been repeated
so often that it has taken on the blush of truth.
Satanic Ritual Abuse
as Contemporary Legend
Like both a subversion ideology
and a rumor panic, a contemporary or urban legend,
as it often is referred to, tends to arise during
periods of social strain when traditional and
sacred values and customs are in such jeopardy
that the future seems uncertain. Functioning
as a collective metaphor, a contemporary legend
is a tale that expresses a group's or a society's
anxiety about the future.
Endangered children often are
the theme of contemporary legends. The threat
posed to unsuspecting young trick-or-treaters
from Halloween sadists who fill their bags with
poisoned candy or apples with razor blades (Best
& Horiuchi, 1985), and from diabolical white
slavers lying in wait in shopping mall restrooms
(Odean, 1985), are familiar and oft-told tales.
Children represent the future, therefore in
a contemporary legend they become a metaphor
for the future. Thus, people's anxiety about
the future, which often is diffuse and nebulous,
can be expressed with more certainty and parsimony
as a concern about the safety of children. The
narrative structure of the contemporary legend
provides in deviant individuals and groups a
clear, discernible target for that concern,
and the clarity of the target suggests manageable
strategies for intervention (Best, 1990). The
contemporary legend, then, encapsulates anxieties
about the future, externalizes the threat, and
suggests methods of response, thereby restoring
for groups or societies what often is an illusory
sense of order and control in troubled and troubling
Contemporary legends come and
go, but it is precisely that they do that they
are often so believable. When a contemporary
legend disappears from one community only to
reappear in another, the experience of the first
community validates that of the other; when
it arises one year and then again a decade later,
the previous experience with it validates the
current experience. And when a contemporary
legend becomes institutionalized, that is, when
it becomes part of popular culture and professional
discourse, it can become not just plausible,
but compellingly and seductively believable.
Society's historical experience
with similar contemporary legends about endangered
children creates a perceptual readiness to accept
satanic ritual abuse of children as plausible.
Popular culture representations of this social
problem make it believable; professional discourse
about it makes it real. And action taken about
and against it makes the contemporary legend
of satanic ritual abuse of children true, if
only in its consequences.
The purpose of this brief paper
was to describe and analyze "three faces
of the Devil," that is, three interpretations,
grounded in the discipline of sociology, of
satanic ritual abuse as a social, as opposed
to a clinical, phenomenon. While it does not
resolve the controversy over what is true and
who, and what, should be believed, the paper
does attempt to explain the sociocultural context
in which the allegations arose, were given meaning
and credence, were sustained in the absence
of evidence, and were acted upon.
Sociologists do not require
the kind of controversy and mystery posed by
the notion of satanic ritual abuse to make a
contribution to the study of traumatic stress.
Every trauma is experienced, understood, resolved,
and remembered within a larger sociocultural
context. An appreciation of that interplay between
culture, trauma, and memory may be the most
significant contribution sociologists can make
to the study of traumatic stress.
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The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic