Demonic Conspiracies

David Frankfurter. Evil Incarnate: Rumours of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Susan Faludi. The Terror Dream: what 9/11 Revealed About America. Atlantic Books, 2008.

In this important book David Frankfurter links together images of evil and obscene ritual from historical European witchcraft fears, contemporary witchcraft panics in the Third World and Satanic abuse allegations in the West. All are linked with the imagination of monstrous and terrible rituals which reverse the social order and invert the values of the ruling culture.

Echoing somewhat arguments made by John Rimmer in another context more than forty years ago, Frankfurter sees these images of 'the terrible others' as containing features which offer obscene parodies of the hegemonic culture of the period. In early modern Europe this was the ritual of the all embracing global church, in modern Africa the witches symbolically manipulate images of modernity like cosmetics and TV sets, products of the global capitalist culture.

The imagery derives from deep common themes of the human imagination, the antihuman forces which violate all true human bonds; they eat in excrement rather than void it out, they use children as nourishment rather than nourish them, they destroy crops instead of harvesting them etc. They are not just images of anti-society, but of anti-life.

In highly structured and controlled societies these fantasies, whether the confessions of witches or the 'recovered' memories of satanic abuse victims offer windows onto the world of the 'terrible other', the chaotic forces of the wilderness, through which members of the society can stare with appalled fascination. The thought occurs to me that this portrayal of the wilderness is what informed the Roman circus, and what informs modern confessional TV, in which those that violate societies mores are paraded before the public, who are strengthened in their conviction that they themselves are part of the ordered and law abiding 'us', while allowing the prurient gaze into the lawless and terrible world of 'them'.

The image of the witch as an embodiment of anti-society means that these are presented as "others" who are not just people who happen to have different customs and beliefs to us, even ones we don’t approve of, but are totally outside the human sphere. Time and again the message is given out "don’t go down the road, the terrible others out there will eat you, or subject to hideous tortures".
The idea of the giant super conspiracy of evil helps explain the complexities of life, the rise of the modern, global world, with its evaporation of traditional boundaries, especially in the cosmopolitan cities with their commodity culture.

In modern Western society, the images of evil which circulate among charismatic Christians in Africa or even America - cosmetics, television, mobile phones, various sexual 'deviations' - have little resonance, because they are part of, or largely adopted into, popular culture. We are forced further back onto the idea of children as images of undiluted innocence. Because our society cannot accept that children can have aggressive and sexual fantasies, then the stories more or less coerced out of them by adults, must be 'true' because no pure, innocent child could think such things. Children represent the future of the people, crimes against them are constructed in most cultures as acts of treason against humanity.

Faludi suggests that part of the appeal to therapists of stories of SRA was that they made sense of 'ordinary' abuse; they placed what seemed like random acts of ambiguous transgression into something wider, deeper and more clearly other. Of course we may argue that our society’s obsession with sexual abuse blinds us to more 'ordinary' kinds of abuse. For example at a time in which our society (or at least its more insane political leaders) have reached such levels of paranoia that they propose banning images of naked children (there goes a good slice of European art), there is a curious indifference to the main criminal threat to the lives of young children in Britain today: their murder (often several at time) at the hands of estranged fathers. Presumably if these fathers had 'inappropriately touched' their kids or taken photographs of them naked in the swimming pool, rather than gassing, stabbing, hammering or burning them to death, society would be suitably outraged.

Themes of kidnap and violation are another source of permissible pornographic appeal, the fears that the terrible others are going to take 'our' women and children out into the wilderness and do unspeakable things to them. This was theme of the first great wave of American alien abduction stories, those of white women kidnapped by native Americans, during the first two centuries of colonisation, which Faludi sees has having a traumatic effect on the American psyche. The stories had the same ambivalent appeal, in that they allowed society to say 'how terrible', and at the same time titillate themselves with pornographic imagery. They also imposed a cultural wound; fears among men of being unable to protect 'their' women folk from the terrible others, which surfaced at the time of 9/11 with quite irrelevant attacks on feminism. Behind this was perhaps the idea that by loosening its tight structures, society was inviting the forces of the wilderness into the new world garden.

These stories of course lead to modern alien abduction themes, which link some of these concerns together, though neither writer does more than mention them. The alien abductors are now seen as mainly threatening women, and they, like the native Americans, can invade the domestic hearth and take the vulnerable away. The aliens are witches of the modern technological age, the stories hold out a parody of modern bureaucratic mass society, and in an age in which many features of the human condition have been medicalised, in which the doctor not the priest is the agent of salvation, we have not anti-churches with anti-rituals and anti-priests, but anti-hospitals staffed by anti-doctors who perform anti-healing. Reviewed by Peter Rogerson. Originally published in Magonia 98.
 

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