Speak of the Devil

Jean La Fontaine, Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

This is the long awaited detailed study by Professor La Fontaine of her research into the satanic abuse scare, and it is an important contribution to the range of topics discussed in Magonia. Professor La Fontaine traces the broad history of witchcraft panics both in early modem Europe and the contemporary third world, noting the important similarities as well as the differences with the modern outbreak.

She provides close detail of the circumstances surrounding the accusations in contemporary England, and emphasizes the point made several years ago by Roger Sandell, the vast majority of those accused were not the sort of people who would have the funds or education to engage in genuine occultism, they were members of the bottom most layer of the underclass, whose children were brought up in a chaotic fashion. (One is tempted to argue that there abuse and neglect of the children was more likely to be caused by ignorance and stupidity than active malevolence)

La Fontaine points out that these tended to be the sort of outsiders who were traditionally accused of witchcraft: if the poor are demonic and evil they are not entitled to the concern or charity of wider society. What we may be seeing in the labeling of this deep underclass as Satanists, is the merger of the myth of devil-worshipping conspirators, with that of the cannibalistic, sexually indiscriminate feral people living in the wastes beyond organized society, as in the legend of Sawney Bean. If so wer are seeing a processes by which culturally the 'sink estates' are being relegated to the status of wilderness.

La Fontaine argues that the stories of children being the victims of Satanism began, particularly in the Nottingham case, as a means of making sense of their extreme behaviour, their wildness and terror in their new location. The foster parents began to interpret themselves as being in a struggle with the forces of cosmic evil for the souls of the children (the influence of the media with films such as The Exorcist, Omen, Rosemary's Baby and The Innocents could have been commented on here). An aura of superstition prevailed in both the original families and the foster carers, one foster mother believed that the children's dog was a source of evil, and that their behaviour improved when it died, especially after its ghost appeared to her, and greeted her in a friendly fashion. We are clearly very close to the idea of witches familiars here.

The processes by which narratives were generated is closely analyzed, La Fontain notes how the general inarticulateness of the children added to the difficulties in deciphering what they were saying, and allowed for misconceptions and misperceptions. She notes, a point which applies to all such fields, that broad similarities hid profound differences in what the children were saying, often about the same event. Children's folklore about ghosts, witches and vampires merged with images from the media, and the suggestions of interrogators, who often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly coerced the children into saying what they wanted to hear.

The second great source of the legend was the survivors tales, but she notes that the tales told by young children were very different from the fantasies of satanic conspiracies told by teenagers and adults, who were much more clued up in social imagery. She notes the similarities between the survivors personality profiles and those of people with Munchhausen's syndrome, in particular the need for endless approval. Both adults and children could use escalating tales of terror to gain attention and divert attention from their own wrong doings. In the case of the adult survivors, La Fontaine makes the very important point, similar to that made by Hansen et al about the Brooklyn Bridge abduction, that as these events were being reported as still happening, why did none of the investigators call the police, was it because at some level they knew the stones weren't true.

La Fontaine notes the evolution of the panic. Tales of horrific witchcraft began with adult survivors, often Christian converts, and their audience was largely religious, prior to Michelle Remembers and Lauren Stratford's Satan's Underground, survivors such as Doreen Irvine had described being involved in ordinary vice.

This clearly echoed the survivors tales of the earlier British Satanism panic in the 1960's and early 1970's, when books such as Sellwood and Haining's Devil Worship in Britain (1964) Peters' The Devil in the Suburbs (1970) and June John's Black Magic Today (1971) presented Satanism (not distinguished much from Wicca) in terms of kinky adult sex, homosexuality, drug taking, and suburban wife-swapping, with the now largely vanished phenomenon of the desecration of churches. As society became more permissive and secular this repertoire ceased to conjure up images of ultimate decadence and evil, and a new darkness was needed. This was provided by the image of the child abusing satanic cult.

At this point the evangelicals were joined by secular social workers and feminists. This, and the fact that a proportion of the social workers were themselves Christian, allowed for a merging of concerns. Furthermore the connection between social work and evangelical Christianity has a long history, and social work has a somewhat evangelical edge to it: the determined middle class respectable person bringing enlightenment and civilization to the internal wilderness. Some early social work campaigns were not for nothing called domestic missions.

Both social work and therapism recruit to some extent from the sort of people who in a less secular age may have been attracted to the religious life, and social workers and other professionals have succeeded the clergy as the main instruments of bourgeois control over working class life ways.

Following the collapse of the child centered Satanic abuse scare (La Fontaine doesn't seem to have noted that like some early modern witch scares, it collapsed when the 'wrong people', in this case middle class parents in the Orkney Islands, were accused), the belief system has returned to one largely promoted by adult survivors with, evangelicals and social worker being replaced as main carriers by therapists of one sort or another. These seem to fit into the mode noted by Eileen Showalter in the Observer Review for 14th June 1998, that female therapists in particular are adopting the role of the good parent, in contrast to the patients' evil parents: a 'good parent' who offers endless support and never contradicts.

Returning to the children's stories, I was struck how they fit into a pattern one sees in ghost stories, alien abduction narratives etc., that the adult world, having lost its faith in the world of daylight reason and common sense, can no longer protect children against their nightmares, rather they become seduced by the nightmares, possessed of a curiosity for more information, because at some deep dark level, the worst thing there is has a hold on our imagination. Or perhaps in fighting for the souls of children against the boggarts and ghosties and grays and ghouls and demons in both goat-like and human shape we can win against the biggest baddie of them all, and gain immortality.  -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 64, August 1998.


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