Sociological Views on the Controversial Issue of Satanic Ritual Abuse: Three Faces of the Devil

Mary deYoung, Ph.D.


The 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, and denial.

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 stress.

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 the community.

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, 1994).

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 issue.

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 and authority.

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 form.

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 times.

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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Published by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress - 2020

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