Modern Demons

Malcolm McGrath. Demons of the Modern World. Prometheus Books, 2002.
The story of the Great Satanism Panic of the 1990s and early 1990s continues to fascinate, and in this book political science graduate Malcolm McGrath seeks to relate that episode with earlier epidemics of witchcraft beliefs. His arguments in some ways resemble those of Walter Stephens, in that he argues that while the basic magical beliefs which underlay witchcraft accusations lie in lie pre-modern world in which the mechanical, physical world and the symbolic world of human culture were still entwined.

The actual witch hunt epidemics emerged at a period in which they were beginning their separation. Western perception of the world was beginning to shift from the traditional and natural view of one dominated by personalities (gods, demons. God, the Devil. saints etc) to the modern view of the law-centred world.

As these changes progressed, the entrance into the realm of the 'demonic' became pushed back from the world of adults to the world of children, whose fantasy lives and magical thinking were seen as doorways to the realm of the demonic. Thus there was an increasing reliance on child witnesses in witchcraft cases.

The eruption of this magical world back into western culture, came through a similar process. Modern western elite education emphasizes the radical separation between the cultural and physical realms, with the physical realm being governed by impersonal natural laws, and the cultural realm the product of autonomous, self acting human beings. However, the old enchanted world view is hard-wired into us, so that the modern world view is one which does not come naturally. It certainly not so for children, and thus we all, having been children, have memories and experiences of this other realm. Our culture can therefor see childhood and children as doorway's into the demonic.

One could add other reasons why children might be seen as doorways into the other realm. Children are perceived as unformed, incomplete people, visitors from the outer realm; and as such, the subject of conflicted attitudes. Thev are seen sometimes as visitors from realms of the divine, innocent and coming with trails of glory; or as subhuman visitants from the realm of wild nature. Today popular media present children either as helpless innocents or dangerous monsters, as fits the prejudices of the occasion.

The next major modernist development which influenced the growth of the myth was that the doctrine of the self-acting individual as the source of law, morality and value which led to various liberation movements. Part of their ideology was that the world view of the oppressed was equally valid to that of the ruling cliques, indeed it was more so. However the problem with this is that groups of the 'oppressed' such as workers and women may have no clear idea what their liberation entails or that they are oppressed at all. As a result groups of intellectuals can emerge as secular 'spiritual elites' who have the means to discern the correct state of the human condition; in particular the state of the oppressed to have access to "the truth which shall set you free". If workers didn't see themselves as 'oppressed' Marxist intellectuals could discern that they were suffering from enchantment, secularized of course into false consciousness'.

Similarly the intellectuals of the recovered memory movement discerned that those who thought they were living happy lives were actually living in a state of enchantment under the spell of the secret abuser, and it was the job of the therapist to break the spell.

McGrath argues that as therapists proclaimed that the oppressed child's world view was the true and valid one, they elevated the child's world of fantasy into the 'real' reality, and thus collapsed the world of rational argument and scientific-legal evidence gathering. However the childish content of such fantasies was very much secondary to the imported imagery of adult pornography derived from witchcraft trials, lurid accounts of the activities of self publicists like Crowley and the fiction of writers like Dennis Wheatley. By constructing the image of the demonic, the 'therapists' were able to envision themselves as heroic fighters in the jihad against the anti-society of Satan, while projecting their own dark pornographic fantasies onto their victims, both adult and child.

Of course behind all of this lies the ur-fantasy: that all the pain, suffering and, heartache in the whole wide world is caused by Them, the terrible others. They are the absolute and total reverse of the good and kind and that this mysterious Them is both totally alien and totally close; it can be seen not just in the faces of the foreigner, but in the face of the neighbour.

In the concluding part of the book McGrath examines the alien abduction fantasy, in particular as presented by John Mack and Richard Boylan. He seems puzzled by why Mack has come to believe alien abduction stories, even though he can see they run counter to the modern scientific world-view in a way that lay abductionists cannot. One answer might lie in the idea of the intellectual elite who speak on behalf of the oppressed whose world view if truly known and expressed would be real truth.

The oppressed group that Mack sees himself speaking for are non-Western societies, whose world views often do not emphasize the radical separation between the physical and cultural realm. If 'the oppressed' believe in spirits and magic, then spirits and magic there must be. (Of course real people in non-Western societies often want to buy into the goodies of Western society, but the Western intellectuals who have correctly discerned the human condition, must tell them that this is because they are under enchantment by Western advertising, and they should live the authentic lives of their great-grandparents. Naturally this does not apply to western intellectuals who on no account should have to live the lives of their great-grandparents!.

Much of the mythologies of our time point to the central dilemma of modernity. Increasing education and accumulating knowledge means that the traditional world views seem less and less plausible, yet the modern disenchanted world fails to satisfy. Both worlds can appear as demonic and threatening. The fantasy of the Satanist is that of a world in which the sacred and ritual can only appear as an alien malignancy, hot and full of savage lusts and wrath, while the alien abductors, cold and remote give a fantasy image of scientific modernity that is equally alien.

Then are the fantasies of a society in which every priest is seen as a child abuser, every scientist a vivisector, and every politician a member of a secret cabal bent on world domination. A world in which no one can ever be believed, where there is danger everywhere. The Internet brings in kiddie porn (and note that this is presented as something so terrible and forbidden, that the merest sight of it will expel you from the human community - the idea of a secret so dreadful that one glance will destroy the soul is a very old one). The white van down the road contains an abductor, and the lorry parked on the corner contains a 'weapon of mass destruction'.

The latest moral panic is about people taking photographs of children's Nativity plays. secularized as fears about paedophiles, but echoing back to ideas of the magical powers of images - and note that this centres around a Nativity play, a symbol of Christian spirituality being put to a perverse use. Remember those tales of witches and the Host? -- Peter Rogerson

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