Satanic Abuse Representations in the Media and Essay

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Satanic Abuse Representations in the Media and Social Science Literature

Throughout history, few things have been able to literally scare the bejabbers out of people as much as reports of satanic abuse in general and in their own communities in particular. Indeed, based on various reports from Europe and North American over the past four centuries, it would seem that when Satan fell from Heaven, he fell directly into many peoples' lives. Even today, isolated but sensationalized reports of satanic abuse can still create the widespread perception that these practices are commonplace and are increasing in prevalence. The hysterical reaction that can sweep through entire communities is proof positive of the continuing relevance of this phenomenon today. Irrespective of the actual reality of the satanic entity, the implications of these reactions for some people are profound and severe and may even cause some people to experience potentially life-threatening mental health issues as a result. To gain some additional insights into these reactions, this paper provides a comparison of satanic abuse representations in the popular media and social science literature, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

During the past three decades or so, clinicians have reported an increase in the numbers of psychiatric patients who have reported suffering some type of satanic ritual abuse in the past, a trend that has fueled a limited amount of research in this area (Leavitt & Labott 1998). In spite of increasing public concern and a heated debate regarding satanic ritual abuse, there remains a dearth of timely and relevant studies concerning this controversial issue (Leavitt 1994). The research to date, though, does seem to indicate that satanic ritual abuse victims share some commonalities that bear further investigation (Leavitt & Labott 1998; Leavitt 1994). Nevertheless, the findings from the studies thus far have been mixed and there remains some dispute concerning the actual factors that contribute to public reactions to reports of satanic abuse and some people appear to be much more susceptible to such reports than others (Kent 1993).

Confounding the analysis of these trends has been the spurious nature of much of the evidence that has been involved. For instance, a study contemporary to the North American satanic ritual abuse hysteria conducted by Cozolino (1989) emphasized that, "The reports are often so bizarre and unsettling that every new disclosure is accompanied by confusion and disbelief. The available knowledge consists primarily of reports of adult survivors and relatives of child victims, as well as police reports and therapeutic case studies" (p. 131). Likewise, many reports of satanic ritual abuse lump these practices in with other paranormal cases such as unidentified flying object abductions (Littlewood 2004). One of the main themes that quickly emerges from the relevant literature on satanic abuse is the difficulty involved in establishing credibility on the part of the witnesses, due in part to the paucity of juried studies in this area. In this regard, Cozolino adds that, "In spite of numerous corroborating reports from various areas of the country, the nature and content of these reports often provoke questions concerning credibility" (p. 131).

What is known for certain is that widespread allegations of satanic child abuse first emerged during the 1980s in North America, followed by other reports from Britain that variously alleged sexual abuse, torture and murder as part of satanic worship rituals (La Fontaine 1998). In response to these reports, a senior British anthropologist, Jean La Fontaine, conducted a 2-year study concerning the satanic ritual abuse allegations and determined they were unsubstantiated (La Fontaine 1998).

Based on her exhaustive examination of case studies and critical review of the literature, La Fontaine concluded that younger subjects did in fact believe the abuses that they were reporting, but their recollections and reports of abuse had been manipulated by adults with apparent ulterior motives. In this regard, La Fontaine suggests that the same type of manipulation has been used throughout history to evoke confessions from otherwise-innocent people with respect to instances of satanic abuse. Likewise, in his book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, sociologist Jeffrey Victor examines the satanic-cult trends that emerged in North America which were centered in southwestern New York state during the 1980s and also concluded that there is no evidence for the actual existence of satanic ritual abuse by organized satanic cults (Victor 1993).

These findings have been supported or confirmed in a number of other studies as well. For example, in his essay, "Defending a diagnostic pariah: Validating the categorisation of Dissociative Identity Disorder," C.M. Traub (2009) reports that, "In past decades and still, in contemporary society, the notion and validity of the phenomenon of multiple personalities, or dissociative identities, within a single individual, have resulted in much debate and discord among mental health care professionals. Even with diverging opinions on the subject, the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders bears proof of the genuine nature of what is now termed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)" (p. 347). Notwithstanding this assertion, other authorities cites the continuing debate concerning the "reality" of the phenomenon (Littlewood 2004).

Moreover, Frude (1996) argues that there are significant problems associated with the increased tendency of clinicians to include diagnostic categories such as "ritual abuse" with other categories of child maltreatment, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. According to this authority, "Ritual abuse raises a number of special conceptual difficulties and the process of 'diagnosis' (recognizing a case) is beset with problems. Some cases which might be recognized as examples of ritual abuse reflect an abusive motive of the perpetrator, but others do not" (Frude 1996, p. 59). Because every case is unique, Frude (1996) suggests that existing protocols and laws serve as an adequate framework in which to investigate and prosecute cases that may or may not involve satanic ritual abuse without the formulation of an entirely separate diagnostic category for the practice. In this regard, Frude concludes that, "Some actions which might be considered abusive reflect the practices of organized religious groups. Child-protection issues can be adequately addressed in all cases by applying the established categorization system and avoiding the addition of 'ritual abuse' as a separate category" (1996, p. 59).

According to Traub (2009), these knee-jerk reactions to reports of satanic ritual abuse reflect the powerful effect of popular media on shaping medical practice. In fact, Traub (2009) specifically includes the enormous influence of popular media representations of satanic abuse as a contributing factor to its on-again-off-again nature. In this regard, the four factors set forth in Table 1 below are believed to have contributed to the formulation of the DID diagnostic category:

Table 1

Four Factors Contributing to Dissociative Identity Disorder Diagnostic Category

Contributing Factor


Childhood trauma

Traumatic experiences in childhood are commonly held to be the primary cause of this disorder; however, issues arise with regard to the intensity, duration and kind of abuse, as well as the measures in recording such abuse.

Prevalence Ratings

Current prevalence ratings emphasize the dramatic increase of diagnosis in the 1980s, with perspectives supporting both an under- and over-diagnosis of the disorder.

Media Influences

Vast media influences may have played a role in the over-diagnosis of DID, such that the number of cases alters per person, and rates of ritual satanic abuse increased dramatically, with subsequent sharp decline.

Psycho-Physiological Perspectives

Psycho-physiological experimental studies provide some support the validity of this diagnostic category; however, these studies may also simply demonstrate the ability for intense concentration and/or a desire for role-play.

Source: Adapted from Traub 2009, p. 347

In sharp contrast to the approach used by researchers in the social science literature, reports of satanic abuse in the popular media are clearly intended to generate interest, intrigue, and, of course, increasd sales. For instance, in this book, The Witches of Warboys: An Extraordinary Story of Sorcery, Sadism and Satanic Possession, the author, Philip C. Almond, ". . . leads us into a half-forgotten world of horror and crime, of victims and victimizers, of spectres, sex with the devil and 'scratching' the witch: a macabre and dangerous world where nothing is as it seems, where evil begets evil, and where innocence is betrayed" (p. iv). In sum, Almond emphasizes the pervasiveness of beliefs about the existence of Satan even in modern times, a point also made by Segerberg (1997) who reports on the emergence of satanic cults in Finland in recent years. According to Segerberg, "The Satanists [are] mainly adults embracing the philosophical aspects of Satanism with no interest in hurting others, and the devil worshippers of Satanic cults, who accept teenagers into their group and whose activity may take violent forms. The main Satanic cult activity is vandalism, but other activities are now becoming more aggressive: causing bodily and mental harm to members and victims and luring young people into criminal activity" (p. 188).

The implications of these activities on people when reported by the popular media can be profound and severe…

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