The tagline for the 2014 TV series Salem was that “There’s something worse than a witch-hunt: a witch.” Which as slacktivist Fred Clark has pointed out, is bullshit. Witchcraft and black magic don’t kill people. Witch hunters have killed hundreds, maybe thousands. And they’re still destroying lives in the modern world.
In the Satanic panic of the 1980s, innocent people went to jail for years on charges they’d abused small children in Satanic cults, operating through daycares. Part of the problem was inept therapists believed that if you demanded toddlers tell you they were abused, they’d refuse unless it was true (this is inaccurate. At that age, they’ll say whatever the grownups want to hear). And police and prosecutors who proceeded to accept this at face value, even when the tales got more outlandish (the cult killed my dog, then brought it to life!) or accused people in law-enforcement of being in on the cult. Like the investigation of the Massie rape case, the problem wasn’t just a false accusation but the police refusal to say Stop.
Author Judy Byington claims the existence of a Satanic cult indistinguishable from the lies Mike Warnke told 40 years ago. And of course, it’s now spilling into politics as conspiracy theorists Liz Crokin and Alex Jones, among others, make the same claims (which segue into paranoia about The Storm) only focused on Clinton (and whoever else is in their spotlight) as one of Satan’s agents, just as they and their listeners and Trump are in the crosshairs.
Evidence? Schmevidence. Slacktivist again writes about Alice Tallmadge, who recounts how her entire family swallowed one relative’s claims of being abused by a cult. Evidence? The complete lack of evidence just shows how the cult is so subtle and powerful it covers up everything! As Slacktivist points out, it would be easy to check whether Tallmadge’s niece had actually suffered some of these tortures, but the family didn’t.
As Clark says, some of the people promoting these theories are undoubtedly hucksters, no different from the peddlers who once offered pieces of the true cross or vials of Mary’s breast milk (yes, seriously). Some of them are gullible or religious enough to believe it; I’ve known people who could have a perfectly serious discussion about how their friend’s recent accident was obvious Satan tampering with his brake line (but his guardian angel saved him from serious injury).
And others make up the kitten-burning coalition: they want to believe, because if there are evil Satanic cults molesting children, committing human sacrifice and trying to take over the country, just by opposing them they prove their own virtue. Supporting Trump isn’t simply racist or knee-jerk Republican, it’s fighting to protect little children from Satan! In that context, nobody wants to worry about evidence. Evidence would spoil their fun. Or interfere with what they “know” is true.
I don’t think this is a new thing. If the people who heard Mike Warnke confess to being a Satanist priest or read his book The Satan Seller really believed him, they’d have to believe he was a willing participant in human sacrifice — a murderer. So far as I know, that never stopped him being acceptable in good Christian circles, nor did anyone suggest investigating. Five seconds research would have proven Warnke couldn’t have been a freedom rider in the late 1960s, as the Freedom Rides happened in the Kennedy years.
At some level, as Clark says, maybe they don’t believe, but they just excise those inconvenient thoughts. They’d sooner believe in a world run by Satan in which they’re champions of virtue than a world in which The Other isn’t all evil. And as the Satanic panic shows, that can have ugly consequences. A couple of times recently I’ve heard a TV show or movie say that no witches were burned at Salem — they were all hanged. No. No witches were hanged, either.
#SFWApro. Image from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights