Smart Voices on Satanic Stories

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 19, 2014 — 15 Comments

Satanism has been in the news recently, or more accurately, the ghost of Satanic hysteria has reared its head as two different murder inquiries offer journalists details that are sure to generate page-views. First, there’s the alleged murder of Corriann Cervantes by two teenage boys, with intimations of drug-use and the alleged intention to sell a soul to the Christian Devil.

“Assistant Harris County District Attorney John Jordan disclosed details of the occult killing Tuesday but provided no explanation for what may have motivated the two boys or where their interest in devil worship had come from. ‘They discussed the fact that Mr. Reyes had sold his soul to the devil,’ said Jordan. ‘And if they ended up killing this teenager, it would allow the 16-year-old to also sell his soul to the devil.’”

Trials are currently ongoing in that case, with one of the accused being tried as an adult, and the other being held in a juvenile facility. The second case is, in many ways, far stranger. Miranda Barbour of Pennsylvania, charged in the November murder of man she and her husband met through Craigslist, told a reporter that she had been involved in over 20 murders, and that she was part of a Satanic cult.

Miranda Barbour

Miranda Barbour

“Miranda joined a satanic cult in Alaska. Soon after, Miranda said, she had her first experience in murder. Barbour said she went with the leader of the satanic cult to meet a man who owed the cult leader money. ‘It was in an alley and he (the cult leader) shot him,’ she said, declining to identify the cult leader. ‘Then he said to me that it was my turn to shoot him. I hate guns. I don’t use guns. I couldn’t do it, so he came behind me and he took his hands and put them on top of mine and we pulled the trigger. And then from there I just continued to kill.’ While in the satanic cult, Miranda became pregnant. The cult did not want her to have the baby, so, she said, members tied her to a bed, gave her drugs and she had an ‘in-house abortion.’ However, her mother on Saturday said that when Miranda told her about the abortion, she took her daughter to a doctor who said there were no signs of an ended pregnancy.”

Anyone familiar with the Satanic Panic era should be seeing all sorts of red flags at this point. The unidentified cult leader, the massive undetected body count, the possibly phantom at-home abortion, the claims of being a “high ranking” member in the cult, invoke all the tropes of sensationalist (and almost universally disproven) claims of panic-peddlers like Michael Warnke and Michelle Smith. Given the unlikely nature of this killing spree, authorities are expressing doubts over their validity.

“Bill James, a baseball writer and statistician who analyzed prolific murderers in the book, “Popular Crime,” told ABCNews.com that authorities have every reason to be skeptical of Barbour’s claims. ‘I don’t think there has ever been a 19-year-old that killed 22 people. I don’t think that has ever happened in the country,’ he said.”

Considering the dangerous nature of moral panics, how experts and journalists respond to these “occult” and “Satanic” crimes matter. Joseph Laycock, who has studied the vampire subculture, gives a possible scenario for how these two incidents happened.

Joseph Laycock

Joseph Laycock

“I’d suggest that these teens were playing a sort of game that went terribly wrong. In his excellent study, Kamikaze Biker, sociologist Ikuya Sato explored why teenagers from affluent Japanese families became involved in motorcycle gangs, sometimes participating in gang rapes and other crimes. His answer was that participation in these gangs amounts to a form of imaginative play: a socially constructed alternate reality in which teens perform an exciting role. Normally these roles can be abandoned when the play ends.

However, play becomes corrupted when it leads to irrevocable consequences. A teenager might “play” at being a Satanist or a criminal, drawing on countless depictions of these personas from the media and pop culture. (Several sources have already compared Miranda’s tale to the show Dexter.) But once an actual murder occurs—possibly in response to frustrated sexual advances or a Craigslist date gone wrong—the role becomes real. If police approach these cases as “occult crime,” their interrogations may be more likely to flesh out the teen’s Satanic play-persona than to uncover the actual motive for the crime.”

Beth Winegarner, author of “The Columbine Effect,” says that Barbour’s claims just don’t add up.

“The way to not publicize and glorify your actions is to avoid talking to the press. You talk to the police. You cooperate with an investigation of your claims. You don’t talk to reporters. What I’m saying, I don’t think this adds up. I’ll be interested, in the weeks and months to come, to see how much of her story holds up.”

Meanwhile, the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple have both made it clear that these murders (and the alleged perpetrators) have nothing to do with them.

“According to our records, we have never had any contact from this woman, nor her accomplice,” said Magus Peter Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan. “It seems to me that she is calling herself a member of a ‘satanic cult,’ not a legally incorporated above-ground form of satanism. Thorough investigation will likely demonstrate that this cult story is fiction.”

Finally, Literata gives advice to Pagans tempted to respond publicly in the media to these stories.

Literata

Literata

“Pagans, please think before you respond to questions about this. Please, for the love of all you value, think before you reflexively start any comment with, “Well, we’re not Satanists.” That’s true, but it’s usually missing the point. When people ask you about your practices and beliefs, lead with what you actually believe: “I recognize the divine spirit in everything and value life and nature.” Then, if you absolutely must, continue with: “So obviously a string of vicious murders – if it actually happened – is completely antithetical to anything I’m involved in.” Now, you may actually be involved in conversations about this that don’t have anything to do with your religion. If it’s office scuttlebutt, and no one confronts you, then the above advice is irrelevant. But – and this is a big but – you should still think about framing. If no one asks you about your religion in the context of this issue, don’t reinforce the connection in people’s minds between the spurious Satanic Panics of the 90s and any form of alternative religion.”

The take-home here is that trials should be held, the perpetrators brought to justice, and we should all work to dispel any claims to an illusory underground Satanic cult. So far, the mainstream media has largely behaved itself, realizing that Barbour’s claims could be mere fantasy. However, moral panics are not rational things, and we must remain vigilant that the wild claims of the Satanic Panic era do not find purchase once more. The writers quoted here give us all some sensible context for moving forward in a media landscape that rewards the sensational.

Send to Kindle

Jason Pitzl-Waters

Posts

  • Florence Edwards-Miller

    Thank you for this, Jason!

    I admit, this concerns me. I’ve been worried for a little while now that our society is overdue for a moral panic. From what I’ve read, moral panics are most likely at a time of general social anxiety that doesn’t have a easily defined source (like a war or a depression). That seems to describe American society in general right now.

    I’ve also been concerned that fictional media has been ‘priming the pump’ for that panic to snap onto the Pagan community when it comes. American Horror Story Coven isn’t directly going to make anyone decide there are ‘real witches’ sacrificing babies out there – but I can’t help wonder if that and all of its ilk aren’t planting a kind of meme out there that, given time, will ripen into people subconsciously accepting that such things are real. That could all be BS pop psychology, but I admit I’m concerned.

    • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

      Florence, it concerns me as well. I take hope in the fact that these days not even Tucker Carlson on FOX News can attack Wiccans without having to apologize. Our culture will have its demons of paranoia and fear, but Pagans are in a lot better position today to rise up and counter waves of panics that may try to get widespread traction.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The difference between media response then and now may lie in the simple fact that a new generation of journalists has come on stream since the 1990s. Old Satanic Panic coverage may have become an in-house cautionary tale. (I have no evidence for that; it’s just the simplest explanation that springs to mind.)

  • g75401

    I, for one, already see cause for concern-not because of a “Satanic Panic” but how local churches in Harris Co. (where I live) have chosen to respond to the “reports” from these two obviously troubled teens. Not a rational ” these are two disturbed young men” meme to a, unfortunately, predictable “we are under spiritual attack” meme. It’s one thing to panic over “seeds of satanism”, it’s another to sense an imminent attack. One may be used to justify prison sentences, the other is used to justify violence.

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    Thanks for quoting Literata’s excellent advice on speaking to the news media. Define your faith on your own terms, not in comparison to current events!

    I’m very glad that news outlets are already debunking Miranda Barbour’s outlandish claims. I’m sure there’s still people in the Bible belt and Biblical literalists that will latch on to this story of proof of Satanic activity. But I am hopeful that the efforts of the many Pagan educational organizations (AREN, Circle Sanctuary, Pagan Pride Project, Witchvox, WLPA, WARD, etc.) throughout the past three decades (esp. since 9/11) have laid a foundation against a full-blown Satanic panic.

  • mamiel

    “Miranda joined a satanic cult in Alaska. Soon after, Miranda said, she had her first experience in murder. Barbour said she went with the leader of the satanic cult to meet a man who owed the cult leader money. ‘It was in an alley and he (the cult leader) shot him,’ – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/2014/02/smart-voices-on-satanic-stories.html#sthash.TZ2x9kma.dpuf

    That should have been a clue something was wrong right there. There are no alleys in Alaska

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

      Ha! I am hoping your comment on Alaska is humorous hyperbole. There are, of a sort. This Alaskan immediately perked up when it was mentioned. Has she actually lived there? Likely some one I know knows her then!

      • mamiel

        Yes, I was just kidding. A non-Alaska person tends to imagine Alaska as all tundra, no urban density…

    • Mary Elise Switras

      Are there any unsolved murders wherever she lived in Alaska, where the victim was found dead from a gunshot in an alley? That part of her story should be pretty easy to verify or debunk.

  • PegAloi

    Thanks Jason! The spin of my own in-progress blog post on this is that many pagans seem to get up in arms about such stories, unable to see that such stories really do involve our community because of the widespread tendency towards a a mainstream generalization of anything to do with the occult…

  • Mike

    Many people with extreme mental illness think they are in touch with “satan”. Paranoid schizophrenia anyone?

  • Mauvesoul

    Ridiculous. As the Church of Satan said, with more investigation the public will eventually learn that the entire story is fabricated. First of all, there is the need to separate the Christian Devil from Satan. The Christian Devil is evil, cruel, jealous, perverse, greedy, and perverse. So too can the Christian God be. http://biblehub.com/exodus/34-14.htm. If you research the word Satan, you will find out that the word is translated as “the Truth” by the Sanskrit language. The oldest known written language in history. The Christian Devil and Satan are two different entities. Notice in the story the person is said to be a member of a satanic cult, or truth cult. The story is probably just fabricated in order to fan the flames of fear. Because remember, God is a jealous God and he wants to destroy all other religions or practices. Funny how He claims to be jealous and demands no idols before Him, and yet they sell those very things in the Vatican city itself. But of course, the media doesn’t show pictures or talk about that…

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I know that there has been an on going Satanic Panic going on in South Africa since 2007 and whenever a gruesome crime takes place the media start yelling Satanic Crime. What makes it even worse is the South African Police Services actually has an Occult Crime Unit run by evangelical Christians and the evangelical community in South Africa actively promotes the idea of a Satanic Conspiracy. The actualy crimes should be investigated as crimes, not under phony religious tags.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Can I add a story to the list:

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/02/18/colorado-woman-jesus-christ-put-my-newborn-baby-on-railroad-tracks/

    Seems Satan is not the only one enjoying a bit of notoriety at the moment…

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    The only thing that I have to add to Literata’s well-written suggestion is to note that just because you get a call from a reporter doesn’t mean that you have to answer. There are a number of Pagan organizations and individuals who have experience dealing with such issues. Circle Sanctuary comes to mind, as does Jason Pitzl-Waters, himself, and there are certainly others. You can say to a reporter, “I’m not completely up on the details of this story. Let me put you in contact with a Pagan who can answer your questions.” Then get them the contact info. Most people who really care about their public relations don’t deal with the press, themselves. They have PR people and/or lawyers to do that. It’s flattering to get a call from a reporter and fun to imagine your name in print or how your family will react when they see you on the evening news. But I’ve seen even Pagans who are regular public speakers get taken out of context, get lulled into a sense of comfort that lets them make a silly comment that will be fodder for the evening news. Stop. Ground. Center. Ask what YOU have to gain from dealing with this reporter and whether you are the best person to handle the question.