Gareth J. Medway. Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism. New York University Press, 2001.
The great Satanic Conspiracy myth has not gone away, despite the absence of stories about ritual abuse in the newspapers. Recently articles have appeared denouncing the concept of False Memory Syndrome, and reviving suggestions that this is a concocted cover-up for real paedophile activity. Gareth Medway’s book is therefore a timely reminder of the background to modern Satanic allegations.
Those who have read the author’s articles in Magonia will know that besides writing in an accessible and entertaining way, he is also meticulous in his use of contemporary sources, and this comes across in this carefully researched and referenced study.
Beginning with an overview of historical accusations of Satanism from the era of the Witch trials to the growth of `satanic’ literature in fin-de-ciecle France, Medway shows how the accusations of the religious establishment have borne little resemblance to the activities of real-life occultists, whether they have called themselves Satanists or not. The chapter ‘Historical Satanism’ looks at characters such as Gilles de Rais, Francis Dashwood and J-K Huysmans, amongst others, concluding that none of them live up to their reputations as devil worshippers and Satanists.
Unlike some other writers who have attempted to expose the myths of modern Satanic allegations, he does not jump from 19th century writers such as Eliphas Levi to the Manson Family and the sixties occult revival (with perhaps a passing mention of Aleister Crowley), but devotes a good deal of space to lesser-known occult groups in the twenties and thirties. The chapter ‘Before Michelle Remembered’ gives a fascinating account of the sensational stories of ‘Black Magic’ which formed a staple of the British Sunday tabloids in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. Curiously these stories, no matter who was telling them after their escape from a sinister Devil-worshipping coven, all bore a remarkable resemblance to each other, but with a gradual accretion of sensational details as they progressed.
In discussing modern Satanic allegations, besides looking at the well-publicised American cases such as McMartin and Lauren Stratford, he produces a great deal of information on some of the lesser-known British cases, and looks at the role of individuals such as Roger Cook, Diane Core and the late Geoffrey Dickens MP. As with the historical evidence, this is all carefully supported by references to newspaper articles, and other contemporary documents.
A frequent feature of such exposes is the insistence of the importance of having thirteen people at a Black Mass or Satanic ceremony. As Medway points out, few occultists of any sort meet in groups of thirteen, for very practical reasons:
“To have exactly thirteen members, usually you will either have to include people whom you don’t really want or exclude people whom you do want. If just thirteen people are invited to a particular gathering, then very likely one will phone at the last minute to say that he or she can’t come because the dog is sick. Alternatively, they will all turn up, but someone will bring along a new boyfriend, girlfriend, or cousin Fred who is staying and doesn’t want to be left out”.
The chapter ‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch…’ shows the way in which the modern witchhunt has been organised through an alliance of evangelical groups, newspapers and politicians looking for an easy target. There are some frightening tales here of how people lives have been ruined through vicious and sensationalised reporting of perfectly legal activities.
The final chapters, which look at the motivations behind the Satan-hunters, are perhaps the only point at which I would offer a serious criticism of the book. Medway’s emphasis is on the way in which the Satanism idea has been promoted by religious figures and organisations, from the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church to modern-day fundamentalists in the US and Britain and their right-wing political allies. I feel he has not given adequate coverage to the other factor in development of the contemporary panic: the leftist, feminist influence. This has demonstrated itself most clearly in the attitudes of some social services agencies, particularly in Britain. A leading proponent of the movement in Britain has been the Socialist Feminist [although this has not prevented her from accepting an OBE -Order of the British Empire - in 2009] writer Bea Campbell, who has for a long time been promising a book revealing the truth about satanic abuse, but there has as yet been no sign of it. This perhaps also explains some of the difference between the American Satan-hunters, who have largely concentrated on the children of middle-class working parents in day-care centres, and the British cases which seem to be concentrated in run-down council estates and other areas of social deprivation.
Despite this one cavil, I recommend this book most strongly as a scholarly yet readable and accessible account of a very serious matter which is too often treated trivially or as an exercise in propaganda. — Reviewed by John Rimmer