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 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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.