Archives For moral panic

Here are some quick updates on stories previously reported on at The Wild Hunt.

Shield_230x140.jpg_1951677811In July of last year, I reported on rumblings in the UK over the possibility that new governmental policies over filtering obscene adult content on the Internet would affect non-obscene sites, including occult-oriented pages. Now, these parental controls are indeed being shown to over-block sites that having nothing to do with porn, including a news site that deals with the world of torrenting and piracy. Quote: “What happened? The broader context is that the UK government’s launched a war on internet porn, with ISPs blocking porn sites unless users specifically opt-in to access them. but TorrentFreak says that lots of other sites are getting caught in the censorship net – ‘hate sites,’ gore, dating sites, and TorrentFreak itself.” TorrentFreak was officially un-blocked by the ISP, though that hasn’t stopped the site from calling these filters a “blunt instrument that is prone to causing collateral damage and known for failing to achieve its stated aims.” So far, from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like Pagan or occult sites are being filtered (though this should be monitored by folks in the UK who use various ISPs), but these stories do point to the fact that initial concerns were not unfounded. We’ll keep an eye out for further developments.

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Back in December I wrote about the release of several incarcerated victims accused of “Satanic” ritual abuse, and the ongoing, ugly, legacy of the Satanic Panics. Now, Slate has published an excellent, in-depth article about Fran and Dan Keller, recently freed after 20 years in prison, and moral panics that ruined hundreds of lives. Quote: “The seeds of the panic were planted with the 1980 publication of Michelle Remembers, the best-selling account of a Canadian psychotherapist’s work with a woman named Michelle Smith, who, under his care, began recalling forgotten memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and others who were part of a devil-worshipping cult. The book, though riddled with fantastical claims (for example, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael healed Smith’s physical scars), launched a cottage industry in recovering memories of satanic ritual abuse. (The psychotherapist and Smith later married.)” As the article mentions, the problem with panics is that most never realize they were in one until after the fact. Let’s hope that this particular panic has finally run its course in our society. You can read many of my thoughts, and reporting, on this topic, here.

-7e3949c270db2aa2I’ve recently highlighted, on a couple different occasions, that the famous tomb of Vodou/Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau in New Orelans was painted pink by an unknown person (though there are theories). Now, preservationists are unhappy with the restoration work being undertaken by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, alleging that the pressure washing techniques are causing damage. Quote: “Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that works to preserve historic cemeteries throughout the city, saw someone blasting Laveau’s tomb with a high-pressure water gun she said she immediately called the Archdiocese. ‘Pressure washing is terrible for any old building,’ Green said. [...] Green is also concerned that once the pink paint is removed, the Archdiocese will cover Laveau’s tomb in Portland cement, the most common kind of cement used around the world. The most effect technique used to repair tombs and preserve their historic look is by using lime-based mortar and plaster and then coating the tomb in a lime wash, Green said.” Laveau’s tomb is a tourist icon and place of religious pilgrimage in New Orleans, and that is making this process, no doubt, a more sensitive ordeal than a normal restoration job. As for the press attention, no doubt Marie Laveau’s recent pop-culture resurgence has made press outside of New Orleans take notice.

1979 re-release era poster.

1979 re-release era poster.

I just want to quickly mention that January 7th finally saw the U.S. blu-ray release of the restored “Final Cut” of 1973 cult cinema masterpiece “The Wicker Man.” This new, restored, version was announced back in July of 2013, and a special 3-disc edition was released at the end of 2013 in the U.K. (the lucky beggars). I’ve written about this film so often, that you could spend a good day going through the Wicker Man tag here at The Wild Hunt, so I’ll be brief. The new blu-ray is essentially the “middle” length version that played in art houses during the late 1970s and 1980s in America, it lacks the extended mainland sequence at the beginning, but does have scenes the “extended” version doesn’t have. The picture quality is superb (for a film of this era), and you’ll not get anything better in HD so long as the original masters remain lost to legend and rumor. I’m hoping that we Americans will see a multi-disc set eventually, so we can have a “branching” version that incorporates the lesser quality extended cut sequences, as the UK set includes. For now, however, this is well worth any fan of this film picking up and re-enjoying. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to keep…

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

In North America and the UK the “Satanic” moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s are seen as an unfortunate rement of the recent past. A time when fear of secret “occult” and “Satanic” forces led innocent men and women to be accused of, and sometimes imprisoned for, imagined ghastly crimes against children. Sadly, these panics are not a remnant of the past, they continue to flare up across the world, and now that modern Pagan religions are truly global in scope, we are increasingly involved in, or endangered by, these panics.

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand.

I think it is imperative that we start thinking of ourselves as a global movement. We aren’t just in Europe and the West, modern Pagans are endangered in Syria and Egypt, and the surviving Pagan religions of Russia (and their modern cousins) are increasingly threatened by draconian laws against “extremism.” We are in Africa and India, we are global in scope, we are no longer a handful of visionaries in England, New York, and California. This does not mean we should improperly claim innocent victims of witch-hunts as “ours,” but we should recognize that we can’t ignore the ramifications of ongoing attacks on “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” and the “occult” in nations across this planet. The boundaries are now getting too blurry to pretend it won’t become a major issue for us in the decades to come.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World's Religions.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World’s Religions.

It is for this reason, among others, that I think Pagan involvement with the global-scale interfaith movement is vital. As these issues intensify, it is imperative that Pagan voices are in a place where we can be heard. Where we can connect with influential men and women in positions to help us. Individuals like Don Frew, Patrick McCollumAndras Corban ArthenPhyllis CurottGus diZerega, or Angie Buchanan are going to be increasingly vital to how we are perceived outside our most populous strongholds. We have to move beyond the romantic ideas about who we are, and were, and work harder on pragmatic advances that will help all Pagans (and our allies). In addition, here in North America, the UK, Australia, and other places where being an out Pagan is (relatively) safer, we need to continue our outreach and dialog with African Traditional Religions, African Diasporic faiths, and other traditions who are experiencing the brunt of ill-informed and discriminatory beliefs about their practices.

Modern Paganism has been more successful than I think many people could have anticipated, and with that success comes new and greater challenges as we move forward. I think we are able to overcome these obstacles, but only if we are ready to take a clear-eyed view of what is happening in the world.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Spencer Butte in Eugene, Oregon

Spencer Butte in Eugene, Oregon

  • This just in: walking in the woods is good for you! Quote: “In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find nonextractive ways to use forests, which cover 67 percent of the country’s landmass, the government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004. It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy sites within 10 years. Visitors here are routinely hauled off to a cabin where rangers measure their blood pressure, part of an effort to provide ever more data to support the project.” Those of us who love to sojourn into nature regularly can most likely attest to the salubrious effects of wooded terrain.
  • Religion Clause reports that the USDA has “released a lengthy report titled USDA Policy and Procedures Review and Recommendations: Indian Sacred Sites.” Quote from the summary: “[The report calls] for USDA and the U.S. Forest Service to work more closely with Tribal governments in the protection, respectful interpretation and appropriate access to American Indian and Alaska Native sacred sites on national forests and grasslands. The report recommends steps the Forest Service should take to strengthen the partnerships between the agency, Tribal governments, and American Indian and Alaska Native communities to help preserve America’s rich native traditions.” This seems a welcome step forward after some recent incidents involving sacred lands.
  • Moral panics often help promote the very thing they (sometimes literally) demonize. Quote: “The most common way for music to blow up from a small scene into global pop is for a controversy to erupt. Music history is littered with examples of “moral panics”: be-bop jazz was blamed for white-on-black race riots in the mid-1940s, just as rap music was blamed when riots erupted in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial. In both cases, sensationalized news reports and especially a focus on the “dangerous” elements in the music attracted young people in droves. Moral panics, like magnets, repel and attract.” That quote is from Jennifer Lena, whose book “Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music,” looks very interesting. To give this a Pagan spin, one wonders if the “Satanic” panics of the 1980s and 1990s actually drew people into the occult and modern Paganism? Yet another factor to explore in the “teen witch” boom?
  • Remember folks, reality television, all reality television, distorts its subjects.
  • In a final note, Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish is going independent, and will subsist on reader donations. Which makes me wonder, will the future of media not be with massive ever-expanding content hubs, but with smaller, curated, islands that are more responsive to the communities they serve? Or, at the very least, will the new media ecosystem allow for both to thrive?

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The United Kingdom’s Department of Education has released a national action plan for dealing with cases of witchcraft and occult-related abuse of children within religious communities. This comes after several high-profile cases of murder and abuse of children related to anti-witchcraft rituals, most prominently the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi’s flat.

During sentencing, Judge David Paget said the murder had a “sadistic element”, adding it was “prolonged torture involving mental and physical suffering being inflicted before death”. He added that the ordeal the children were subjected to “almost passes belief”. However, he accepted Bikubi’s defence that he had brain damage and had believed that Kristy was a witch. But Judge Paget added: “The belief in witchcraft, however genuine, cannot excuse an assault to another person, let alone the killing of another human being.”

Children’s Minister Tim Loughton told the BBC that “abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths,” while Andrew Flanagan of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) goes out of his way to note that this isn’t a problem within communities that actually believe in and practice witchcraft or magic as part of their religious faith.

The vast majority of people in communities where witchcraft is practised are horrified by these acts and take no part in this atrocious behaviour. So we must not be afraid to raise this issue so the offenders can be exposed.”

Despite the desperate and craven attempts by some in the media to wrongly conflate modern Paganism with this issue, this is a largely a phenomenon that is nurtured within a Christian context, a point that has many ministers in the UK deeply concerned. In fact some, like Debbie Ariyo, director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, wants explicit laws against branding children as witches.

Debbie Ariyo, the director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, described the action plan as the first step taken by any government to seriously tackle ritualised child abuse, but said it was not going far enough. She called on the government to make it illegal to brand a child a witch. ”We would have liked to see the government go further but we believe this action plan will go a long way to encouraging voluntary agencies to take concrete steps to fight this type of abuse,” she said.

Ariyo has previously noted that the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse(Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

This new initiative joins recent moves by British police to better spot sorcery/witchcraft-related abuse cases, and has so-far been widely praised as an important step forward on an issue that many believe is under-reported to law enforcement. Modern Pagans, practitioners of African indigenous faiths living in the UK, and other occult-oriented communities should take a proactive stance on involving themselves in assisting the government, and pushing for laws that criminalize the abuse of children because of occult-oriented religious beliefs. Not only because it’s a good idea, but because our input will be important to make sure future laws and regulation thread the needle between protecting children while safeguarding the rights of those interested in religious Witchcraft or occult practices.

For more on this new action plan by the government, here’s the executive summary, and here’s the full plan. We will be following this story as it continues to develop.

On Thursday, Religion Dispatches featured a guest editorial from Joseph Laycock, religion scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism.” Laycock examined the most recent crackpot theory from crackpot conspiracy theory king David Icke, he of the “reptoid hypothesis.” In short, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics were part of a brainwashing Satanic conspiracy, and in turn a rallying cry to the spiritual warriors, the “experts in evil” skilled in rooting out these hidden conspiracies. While Icke is largely a figure of fun, a comical nut who sees evil vortexes and reptoid hybrids under his couch, Laycock reminds us that this is no laughing matter.

“While the theories can be entertaining, when too much momentum forms behind them they have historically resulted in moral panic and the persecution of innocent people. The Satanic Panic that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s is constantly threatening to return.

“Constantly threatening to return.” Is this true? Could the madness that were the Satanic Panics really manifest itself again, in an almost identical fashion? It’s hard to believe, until you start looking for the signs.

[Judy] Byington is an authority on Satanists, and as a clinical social worker she spent years helping others heal from wounds so deep most would shrink from the task. With the permission of her clients, she has written about one woman’s experience of growing up within a coven and surviving. The book is called “Twenty-Two Faces.” “This is a huge breaking story validating the existence of human sacrifices of children in our society,” Byington said. [...] They have secret combinations. They live in duplicity. They torture and sacrifice the innocent. They give birth in secret so the babies they sacrifice have no birth certificate record. They take the time to learn speaking Latin backwards from what is called the Black Bible.”

That’s not an archive story from the mid-1980s, that’s from a paper in Utah, dated July 28th of this year. Those of us old enough to remember the moral “Satanic” panic of the 1980s and 90s will find the narrative put forth in “Twenty-Two Faces” eerily familiar.

“As the only known survivor-intended-victim of a human sacrificial ceremony, Jenny Hill is living proof that ritual abuse is, in fact, a reality. With great courage and in open defiance of her sadistic abusers, Jenny wishes her story told. The ending will shock you.Referring to journals written throughout childhood, Jenny Hill and her multiple personalities document how as a five year-old, she overcomes trauma by turning to prayer while utilizing her alter states to compartmentalize abuse at the hands of a master mind-control programmer from Nazi Germany. After suffering deaths of a high school sweetheart, plus her only girlfriend, she somehow completes Army medic training, receives a nursing degree, prepares for a church mission and becomes a mother. Simultaneously led by sex-addict Head Alter J.J., intrepid alters assume frequent control, engaging in larceny and prostitution. With her children, her lifeline, the increasingly desperate nurse escapes a drugged-out pimping husband, blacks out in a job interview, comes to nine days later as an inpatient headed for the Utah State Psychiatric Hospital and only then learns what her life has really been.”

It really is as if someone took the 1980 book phenomenon “Michelle Remembers” and used it as a guide.

“The book documents Smith’s memory of events recovered during therapy, documenting the many satanic rituals she believed that she was forced to attend (Pazder stated that Smith was abused by “the Church of Satan,” which he states is a worldwide organization predating the Christian church). The first alleged ritual attended by Smith took place in 1954 when she was five years old, and the final one documented in the book was an 81-day ritual in 1955 that summoned the devil himself and involved the intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel, who removed the scars received by Smith throughout the year of abuse and removed memories of the events “until the time was right”. During the rites, Smith was allegedly tortured, locked in cages, sexually assaulted, forced to take part in various rituals, witnessed several murders and was rubbed with the blood and body parts of various murdered babies and adults.”

Unlike Icke, this is no joke. This is the very tinder that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people as they were accused of being a part of underground Satanic abuse organizations. We often forget how pervasive anti-Satanic propaganda was back then, with many journalists and talk-show hosts (even Oprah) diving right into the hysteria. The West Memphis 3, released almost a year ago, were probably the most well-known victims of this panic. Jessie Misskelley’s former defense attorney Dan Stidham, in an interview with John Morehead, painted a picture of the Satanic hysteria that surrounded the trial.

“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”

We are still dealing with the fallout of this era, with a dedicated core of true believers keeping the fires burning, all that has to happen is for the right/wrong set of circumstances to line up, and it all erupts again. Indeed, this time it could be worse, since it’s far easier to do “research” and even the usually reserved Catholic church is ramping up the rhetoric about demon possessions, exorcisms, and even underground Satanic cults.

Peg Aloi: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?

Father Gary Thomas: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.

PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States. 

FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories stated to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.

It’s a tinder box, all it needs is a match. Will they target Witches and Pagans? Adherents of Santeria or Palo? Those who venerate Santa Muerte? It’s impossible to say, as it will depend on how the panic manifests, but any group that gets confused with “Satanists” are fair game in such a scenario. It is for this reason that more Pagans need to engage in serious ecumenical, intrafaith, and interfaith work,  and move into more proactive advocacy and anti-defamation initiatives. This advocacy shouldn’t be from small start-ups on Facebook, but from the dominant organizations within our movement, the groups that have built networks and connections over the span of 20 or 30 years. We need to be ready in case an incident that none of us could foresee sparks an ugly backlash against us or our allies. We need to be ready in case our society panics.

For several years I’ve been asking the question of what do we do when the men and women accused of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are no longer “over there” in Africa or the Middle East, and are instead at our doorsteps.

“If this trend isn’t seriously addressed soon, we may find this madness turning its eye towards “safe” occultists and Pagans in places like America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.”

Now, with the UK still reeling over the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home, and British police being trained to spot cases of sorcery among immigrant communities, some Christian writers have seized on a largely constructed controversy over religious education in Cornwall to cynically launch attacks on modern Paganism. First out of the gate was  Catholic Telegraph columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I recently highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

To Odone’s credit, she doesn’t explicitly conflate the recent sorcery and exorcism-related deaths and attacks with modern Paganism, though she does bemoan liberals “who spy covert imperialism or racism in every moral judgment.” It took Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby’s insulting and sloppy article to do that. Interweaving Odone’s opinion piece with recent stories on witch-hunting and killings in the developing world, Kerby joins the imaginary dots.

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

Beliefnet’s sole Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, has posted his own response to Kerby’s piece, hinting that his time at the religion portal may be coming to an end soon if nothing is done. But even if Kerby does ultimately walk back his statements, the connection has been made, and Catholic columnist Christopher Howse has decided to use it to hammer on Cornwall’s curriculum.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

“So it seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.”

Howse seems to suggest that there should be no distinction, that all witchcraft is bad. However, he undermines this somewhat by shifting to a “Paganism and Wicca aren’t truly ancient so they shouldn’t be taken seriously” argument.

“What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. [...] It [Wicca] was no more an ancient religion than Jedi.”

You can’t have it both ways, really. Either all forms of witchcraft and sorcery are indistinguishable, or they aren’t. If you acknowledge that Wicca is something other than the  phenomenon that led to Kristy Bamu’s death, you create cracks in the cynical false dilemma you’ve created to ratchet up the fear and misinformation. This misinformation not only harms modern Pagan religions, but African Traditional Religions as well, and obscures what may be the true culprit. According to groups like AFRUCA, the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

“We were concerned about this before this trial of Kristy Bamu,” said Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

You see, what these concerned Catholics don’t want you to know is that this wave of violence is partially the fault of missionaries who inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamic into traditional beliefs about malefic magic. This created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Nothing seems to be the fault of Christianity, of course. Even though there are several high-profile Christian witch-hunters who make a name for themselves by casting out demons, and receive support from Western churches. Spiritual warfare is waged, perverting indigenous beliefs in the process, but the response isn’t to crack down on Christian churches, the response is to further demonize non-Christian traditions.

Writers like Kerby and Howse aren’t stupid, they know their assertions will have reverberations beyond the page or computer screen. But will they be willing to take responsibility if their words spark a new moral panic? One that engulfs anyone who is suspected of practicing “witchcraft?” Somehow I don’t think they’ll have the courage or stomach for it, and will instead find someone (or something) to scapegoat. Anyone but themselves.

The moment when “witch-hunts” over there come home to roost on our doorsteps is now. How Pagans react will be very important in how this issue plays out. We must resist at all costs the urge to fall into Howse’s trap and create a “two kinds of witchcraft” split on ethnic lines, and instead build a response that holds fear-mongering churches and writers responsible while creating new coalitions between Pagans and practitioners of African diasporic and traditional faiths. We must not let moral panics break out against adherents of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, or smaller groups, while we try to pretend there’s no connections or overlap between these traditions and modern Pagan faiths. The response to fear and growing hysteria is not to bury our heads, or isolate ourselves, but to show that we won’t sit quietly in the corner while our spiritual cousins are demonized, hoping they won’t turn their attention to us.

Among Pagans, the rallying cry used to be “Never Again the Burning Times,” calling to a distant, sometimes romanticized, past. Perhaps instead we should say “Never Again the Panics,” and use our very real experiences with the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s as an instructional on how to fight these new attempts to “other” belief systems and groups most people don’t understand. The answer to exorcism-related violence and death isn’t to find a single scapegoat, but to instead ensure that education and enforcement are allowed to spread.

Joseph Laycock, scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism,” examines media coverage of the killing of two boys and one woman over the span of four years in Mexico, allegedly the work of Santa Muerte cultists. Laycock’s Religion Dispatches piece argues that “these murders will likely have lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” that they are a “Manson moment” that will have potentially harmful reverberations in the years to come.

Santa Muerte

“It goes without saying these murders are unconscionable, and a tragedy. But attempting to find a grand pattern, or a reason, in a connection to so-called ritualistic violence brings authorities no closer to preventing such crimes—while greatly increasing the likelihood that innocent people will be persecuted.

It is almost a certainty that at some point in the future the events that have unfolded in Nacozari will be presented as “proof” that Santa Muerte is an inherently violent tradition. As Saint Death’s popularity spreads and the Latino American population continues to grow, this is not a theory we can afford to entertain.

If we can accept that not all Beatles fans are Charles Manson, we must also have faith that not all who pray to Santa Muerte are Silvia Meraz.”

Will these incidents provide the tinder necessary to fuel a new moral panic in the United States? We’ve already seen some declare that illegal immigration wasn’t simply a problem of policy, economics, or laws, but a religious war between antidemocratic religious “fanatics” and Western Christendom. Nor is Santa Muerte isolated in this rhetoric, as Santeria has also been invoked in the increasingly polarizing debate over immigration policy in America. These tensions seem likely to increase as the religious landscape in Mexico becomes increasingly diverse (and the diversity continues to filter north).  R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” notes that the once-dominant Catholic church faces “significant competition from Pentecostals, neo-Christians, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even “heretical” folks saints, such as Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde.”

“Among two of the most dynamic religious practices in the Mexican megalopolis [of Mexico City] are the cults of Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, and Santa Muerte. Centered in the notorious barrio of Tepito, devotion to Saint Death takes place beyond the pale of the Church. Just a few miles away, the Church of Saint Hippolyte draws tens of thousands of devotees to its monthly celebrations of Saint Jude, who shares Santa Muerte’s devotional base of marginalized youth.”

Mix growing outsider faiths, increasingly inflamed rhetoric over the issue of illegal immigration, and reliably bad journalism on often misunderstood religions like Santeria and Palo, with an incident that seems to validate the worst fears of those who are already negatively disposed towards non-Christian or syncretic traditions and you have a potential powder keg. Isolated criminal actions can be, and have been, used to prove the existence of a widespread malefic network. In “Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend,” Jeffrey Victor talks about how Charles Manson and Jim Jones were used to create a stereotype of criminal Satanism.

The stereotype of criminal Satanism merged imagery of fanatical religious cults with that of psychopathic criminals like Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson. This dramaic imagery had great mass media appeal. Satanic cult stories were first able to find a channel to a national audience when they appeared in small town newspaper reports as a possible explanation for an epidemic of spurious claims about cattle mutilations. Later, small town newspaper reports about a wide variety of crimes, from a cemetary vandalism to serial murder, began to attribute the crimes to “Satanists.”

Replace “Satanism” with “Santeria” and you can see the pattern emerging once again. “Santeria Panic,” fueled by fear, bad journalism, and extreme events like these “sacrifices” to Santa Muerte. In fact, back in 2010 Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, made explicit the link between the old panic, and the one that seems ready to emerge.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

So if this is the new “Manson moment,” the thing that will spark a new moral panic that could have “lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” it raises two practical questions for modern Pagans. How do we derail this trend, stopping it before it ruins thousands of lives as it did during the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and early 90s, and how do we form a workable political coalition with practitioners of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, and other groups that will no doubt inhabit the eye of such a storm?

During the recent Hindu-Pagan panel at PantheaCon 2012, I suggested that our faith’s friendly interactions move to the next stage, that we form a national advocacy group that merges our resources and concerns. Perhaps the timetable on that needs to be moved up and expanded. Considering the amount of overlap between modern Paganism and the African/Caribbean diasporic religions, we certainly can’t afford to simply claim it’s not our struggle. A new moral panic about non-Christian faiths would damage us all, and that’s something none of us can afford at this critical juncture in our movement.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

  • The New York Times does a profile of Lady Rhea, “the Witch Queen of New York.” The article focuses on how Lady Rhea doesn’t fit the profile of the fantasy witch, noting that she is “no cartoon witch. She is a no-nonsense Bronx native who drives a Ford Focus and tells it like it is. No black robe and pointy hat here. On Wednesday night, she wore slacks, a sweatshirt and designer glasses and jewelry.” Actually, Lady Rhea’s non-pointy-hat wearing fashion sense is pretty much the norm for most Pagans, and it seems strange that the fact that we don’t dress like Elphaba Thropp is still a story hook to hang a profile on. Still, it’s a positive look at a local figure, and I’m glad the NYT devoted time to doing the story.
  • Remember all my talk about Pope Benedict XVI meeting with Vodun leaders in Benin? Turns out it didn’t happen, at least according to the National Catholic Reporter. Quote: “One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism. Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe.” NCR reporter by John L Allen Jr surmises that the controversy over Pope John Paul II’s 1992 meeting with Vodun leaders made Benedict gun-shy about doing something similar. So much for the “importance of dialogue with practitioners of indigenous African religions.”
  • The Los Angeles Times looks at Pagans and Paganism in the Air Force Academy, focusing on the $80,000 outdoor worship center for “earth-based” and Pagan religions that was recently installed. Quote: “Witches in the Air Force? Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan, branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy, sighs. A punch line waiting to happen, and he’s heard all the broom jokes.” It’s a fairly decent story, but I have to say, and maybe I’m biased, but I felt Cara Shulz’s recent story for PNC-Minnesota focusing on the same topic (which was reprinted here) was better.
  • Ritch Duncan, co-author of “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten”, writes about the bizarre media panic that ensured after a “Satanic sex ritual” resulted in a man being hospitalized, and his book was listed as being found at the scene. Quote: “Even worse than being misrepresented in the media was how lazy it all seemed to be. If the reporters charged with covering this story actually spent five seconds looking up what the book was about (they certainly had the time to do a Google search and steal an image of the cover), they could have mentioned it was filed under the “humor/parody” section.” The piece is a great look at how moral panics are fueled just by shifts in emphasis.
  • Amanda Marcotte writes an editorial for Reuters on the “increasingly Godless” American future. Quote: “The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.”
  • This year the Christmas Tree at the United States Capitol was given a traditional Native American blessing by an elder from the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk tribe, the first time such a thing has happened. Quote: “It was an amazingly moving ceremony they sang and blessed the tree and blessed the people there on site and blessed our safe journey for the tree.” You can watch a video of the blessing, and the tree being harvested, here.
  • The Guardian looks at the rise and mini-revival of “occult rock,” highlighting Rise Above Records, the return of Black Widow, and Swedish band Ghost.  Quote: “Whether it’s a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians, occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power. Perhaps more importantly, its newest exponents seem to have abandoned shock tactics in favour of a subtle, persuasive approach worthy of Eden’s duplicitous serpent himself.”
  • The Times of India has yet another article about the spread of Wicca in India, this time focusing on Swati Prakash, head of The Global Wicca Tradition. Quote: “In the middle and dark ages, anyone who followed any ancient belief was falsely accused of ‘consorting with the devil’ and was tortured into accepting the new faith. Ironically, you will note that male wizards are always depicted as wise old men in fiction and art throughout history while women witches were shown as cunning and ugly. Clearly, there has been a gender bias in favour of male spiritualists and gurus.”
  • The Associated Press explores American Indian reactions to the James Arthur Ray verdict, with some hoping that it will result in better safety when non-Natives try to appropriate Native ceremonies. Quote:  Bill Bielecki, an attorney representing the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, said the trial would encourage non-Natives to focus on safety when running sweat lodge ceremonies. “They’re going to look at the facts,’’ said Bielecki, who also was party to the lawsuit, “You don’t use a large sweat lodge, you make sure people can leave and you don’t coerce the occupants into staying beyond their limits or capabilities. If you do that, then you avoid gross negligence.’’ You can see a round-up of my coverage regarding this case, here.
  • Why do Catholics think the worship of Maria Lionza is so popular in Venezuela? Why, “poverty and poor education are contributing factors,” naturally. But they better be careful what they wish for, because isn’t Catholicism’s main growth areas with the very same “people lacking education and social services?” Do I sense a double-standard here? Are the poor and uneducated Catholics actually wise, then?

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I’ve reported on this again and again; a dead animal (or animal part) turns up and local officials cry “Santeria”. This is despite the fact that academics, experts, and even officials within the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say that this usually isn’t the case.

“According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.”

So I wasn’t particularly surprised  to see this article from The Journal News in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley about animal heads turning up in a local park.

While no direct link between the two macabre discoveries has been made, investigators said the incidents were the latest in the Lower Hudson Valley linked to ritualistic practices, such as Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion that often uses animals for ceremonial sacrifices. “Something like this, from what we’ve seen, is pretty close to Santeria,” said Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is investigating the New Rochelle incidents. “What we’re finding is the ritual here looks like it has to do with the blood or sacrifice to a god,” he said.

The statements by the local SPCA head aren’t that unusual, we’ve seen them before from various law enforcement and animal welfare officers. Nor is the article from The Journal News all that bad, it even goes to the trouble of contacting Miguel De La Torre, a theology professor and all-around go-to guy for debunking Santeria scares. What stood out for me, and made me want to write about it, was this secondary quote from Kenneth Ross of the WSPCA.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

Everyone was dabbling in Satanism? Now folks are dabbling in Santeria and creating “different sects”? Or maybe it’s the “influx of different nationalities”? This sort of open conjecture is troubling. First off, I’m concerned when law enforcement agents of any nature start talking about Satanism. For instance, the case of a Humane Society Police Officer, and member of the Lycoming County SPCA, who intimidated a local Satanist and told him that practitioners of his religion sacrifice animals. Add in the not-too-distant “training” many officials received concerning “Satanic crime”, and you end up with officials who may hold dangerous preconceived notions about what’s going on in someone’s house if they are “Satanic”. Secondly, for the last few years there’s been an increasingly ugly dimension to some Santeria stories that point towards anti-immigration hostility, and have even led to what some have called racial profiling.

“Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford Detective Bureau said Wednesday that police are targeting people of African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent who practice satanic rituals as potential suspects in the grave robbing. “We’re starting to look at this as a ritualistic-type incident,” said Conklin … Conklin said evidence recovered at the grave site and in New Jersey indicate the body was taken for ritualistic reasons. For fear of compromising the investigation, he would not go into specifics …”

In many of these cases I’ve covered the terms “Satanic” and “Santeria” are used interchangeably by journalists and law enforcement officials.  Though both camps are quick to cover their rears with a quick statement that it could just be “vandals”, in case it turns out to be, you know, vandals.

“Still, police note that graffiti and other vandalism — and even more graphic discoveries such as those in New Rochelle this month — could always have another explanation: They could just be the work of vandals.

But how many casual readers are paying attention to the small disclaimer? How much fear and animus towards innocent practitioners of Santeria, and other African diasporic faiths, is being generated by this stream of “dead animal” stories? Why do we almost never see the follow-up stories where it turns out to not be Santeria? I keep insisting we have to on the lookout for the development of new moral panics in our society, are we seeing a “Santeria Panic” in the works? Fueled by sensationalism, ignorance, fear, and increasingly desperate occult “experts” grasping to the last straws of their relevance? Whether a moral panic ensues or not, what is clear is that journalists and law enforcement/animal control don’t seem to care if they all but blame Santeria and turn out to be wrong later.

Several mainstream news outlets have reported on a two-day conference of American Catholic bishops and priests regarding the rite of exorcism (more than 50 bishops and 60 priests signed up to attend). Taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, and organized by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, the meeting is designed to “respond to demand”, but not, allegedly, to “revive the practice.”

…to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, the bishops’ timing makes perfect sense. “What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism. It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”

To paraphrase Dr. Appleby, Catholic bishops and priests want to be seen as players in an ongoing supernatural battle. Conference organizer Bishop Paprocki told CNN that discussions about the devil and exorcisms were a small but “regular part of our faith.” Of course, he also said that the force behind sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church were “none other than the devil.” Further, Paprocki has at least one theory as to why there’s been an increase in demand for exorcists.

No one knows why more people seem to be seeking the rite. Paprocki said one reason could be the growing interest among Americans in exploring general spirituality, as opposed to participating in organized religion, which has led more people to dabble in the occult. “They don’t know exactly what they’re getting into and when they have questions, they’re turning to the church, to priests,” said Paprocki, chairman of the bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and church governance. “They wonder if some untoward activity is taking place in their life and want some help discerning that.”

What Paprocki dances around, others, like Father Thomas Euteneuer, state more baldly.

“Father Euteneuer does not speak as a theorist. Since 2003 he’s had extensive experience ministering to those possessed by demons … Father Euteneuer told me possession is almost always a result of someone getting involved in some sort of occult practices, such as witchcraft, Wicca, tarot cards, and Ouiji boards. ”Harry Potter and these Twilight vampires glamorize the power of evil,” Father Eutenener explained, “and this has lead to many, many cases of possession among young people.” It may begin with a child or teenager simply “playing around” with the occult, but that seemingly harmless act is “opening a window” to possession.”

So what does this matter? Why should Pagans even care what sort of rites Catholics perform? When European bishops warn against “esoteric religiosity”, or the Pope warns of “subjugation to occult powers” in his encyclical on love, does it have an effect on our lives? There’s been a marked rise in the popularity of exorcism and spiritual warfare of late, not just with Catholics, but with Pentecostal and evangelical Christian groups as well. While still a small percentage, some of these fringe groups have powerful allies in political circles. Further, professor Ebony Utley says we should take “all the silly devil talk” seriously.

Conspiracy theories ebb and flow in waves associated with how confident people feel about their social environments. When times are hard and unemployment rates are high, individuals get creative in where they look for explanations. Joshua Gunn, author of Modern Occult Rhetoric explains, “Whenever there’s a sense of social anomie and crisis these things do tend to flair up.” He also noted that “white guys who feel disempowered in some way” are most likely to be conspiracy theorists.

Another clue that many of these claims are catch-all conspiracy theories is the conflation of disparate vocabularies. Occult — a word which simply means secret, or hidden — is not a term necessarily linked to evil. The negative connotation has been added over time. The claimants also conflate masonry, Egyptian mythology, Satanism, and the Illuminati, as if they were all the same.

Right now we have a simmering pot of assumptions, prejudices, conspiracy theories, and demonization that only occasionally bubbles up into something truly worrisome; but as economic hard times continue to drag on, and fringe ideas about spiritual warfare and exorcism start to become mainstreamed, we increase the likelihood of a new moral panic breaking out. Right now some folks (and media outlets) are torn on whether Pagans are harmless eccentrics or dangerous cultists, but that calculus can always change. Few could have thought that a pulpy book on a secret Satanic underground could help spark a panic that imprisoned dozens and ruined the lives of many more. By essentially facilitating the mainstreaming of exorcisms these bishops and priests are playing with fire, but perhaps not the sort of spiritual fire they imagine.