According to this lurid article on the tabloid Daily Express website, the disgraced TV weirdo Jimmy Saville “beat and raped a 12-year-old girl during a secret satanic ritual in a hospital” during which he “wore a hooded robe and mask as he abused the terrified victim in a candle-lit basement” while chanting “Hail Satan” (in Latin no less).
It is interesting to see the old satanic sex ring phantasm pop up again (though not surprising to see it pop up in the Express I have to say). Not least because satanic sex abuse scandals are so 80s they practically qualify as ‘retro’. It is easily forgotten now, but there was a whole spate of such scares during that decade, all across America, beginning in the summer of ’82 in a place called Bakersfield in California, where a paranoid and delusional 37 year old grandmother accused several people around her of being part of a satanic abuse ring. When the county prosecutor decided to press charges – resulting in the conviction of four defendants – the flames were sufficiently fanned that investigators soon uncovered no less than eight similar ritual abuse rings in the immediate surrounding area. This pattern of wild and disturbing accusations followed by the ‘discovery’ of a widening net of abuse and abusers was consistent in pretty much all the cases that followed – which probably numbered in the hundreds – and it is a pattern that can be discerned in many historical outbreaks of extraordinary popular delusion. As John Demos points out in his fine history of witch-hunts, there was a “core of similar elements” driving these allegations: “parents taking the lead; children asked (or urged, or coaxed, or cajoled); zealous prosecutors and child-abuse ‘experts’ eager to push matters into the courts.”
Demos also notes:
[A] certain commonality in the details of the abuse allegations. Sexual assault (rape, sodomy, fellatio) was everywhere the starting point. But much else would be added: ritual acts of urination and defecation; objects (sticks, knives, combs, beads) poked into various bodily orifices; nude photography; animal sacrifice; digging up or burying corpses; the consumption of human blood and flesh; rides in vans, buses and aeroplanes; crawling through tunnels and secret passageways; capes and hoods and graveyards; and so on. Much of this was connected – by the adults involved, if not always the accusing children – with Satanism. Its recurrence in widely different settings was taken by some as the indisputable sign of a nation-spanning conspiracy.
You’ll notice echoes of these themes in the allegations against Saville detailed in the Express article, from the robes down to the sex-dungeon basement setting. Yet I seriously doubt these details are telling us about anything more than the contents of one or two disturbed minds. After all, upon further investigation it turned out that the evidence for the multiple satanic abuse rings during the 1980s also only existed in the minds of anxious parents, eager prosecutors, irresponsible parts of the media, and traumatised kids whose memories of abuse were often ‘recovered’ under hypnosis (memories uncovered when you are half-asleep are, to make an obvious point, not the most reliable). There is, in other words, not a shred of solid evidence that such satanic abuse rings have ever actually existed. Most of the cases collapsed eventually, but many people were jailed and some spent many years inside. Perhaps one or two of the accused were abusers – if not Satanists – but the vast majority were wholly innocent. The phenomenon peaked in 1984, and had largely petered out by the middle of the 90s. Yet many people had their lives ruined, and saw their communities riven apart by these outbreaks of mass hysteria, across that span.
Since that time, the notion of satanic sex abuse rings has been kept (barely) alive by crackpots like David Icke, who reckons the Royal family are not just evil twelve-foot shape-shifting inter-dimensional lizards, but evil twelve-foot shape-shifting inter-dimensional lizards who are never off this Satanic sex business. (They must fit it in between grouse shoots.) Saville was, obviously, a disgusting predatory paedophile, but he was no more a Satanist than I am. Aren’t his crimes horrific enough? Do we really need to make him literally diabolical in order to see what a vile pervert he was? If nothing else, this piece of shameless and exploitative tabloid scaremongering shows how the whole notion of satanic sex abuse contains a ready-made demonology; a paranoid bacillus custom-made to bloom should host conditions prove sufficiently moist and enticing.
A lot of people think our propensity for supernatural and superstitious belief-making is on the whole beneficial – whatever gets you through the night and all that – and when the supernatural entities involved are as benign as fairies and angels they’re probably right – the only thing you’re really damaging by believing in such things is your credibility. But what happens when the content of those beliefs is populated by malign and devilish beings? With dark forces and malevolent entities that are out to get us, and out to get our children? What of witches, demons, Satanists? Demos puts the 80s satanic abuse scandal down to a whole host of anxieties about the state of the family and the collapse of a sense of community: an epiphenomenon driven by social change and by “fear, guilt [and ] outrage”. I don’t think this particular story will gain any traction – for one thing the belief in the existence of the devil is not nearly as strong in the UK as it is in America – but many of the concerns about family and society that actuated the 80s abuse hysteria are with us still, as is the overwhelming sense of our children being in constant peril. Our fearful minds are just as ripe for delusion, that is, and the sleep of reason produces its monsters as well as its angels.