The horrors that lurk beneath the conscious mind are legion and of them are borne eddying currents of panic that can spill over into the real world with alarming ease. It is tempting to look back with a half-stifled laugh at the witch panics that swept over Europe during the Middle Ages and smirk at the primitive beliefs that inspired them.
What then to make of the similar mental pathology that informed the belief in satanic ritual abuse that rode into the UK from America as recently as the 1980s and inflicted psychological scars on hundreds of innocent people on the basis of rumour, misapprehension and a wide-eyed certainty of belief every bit as rigid as that of the witch hunters of times past? While none were burned at the stake, families were broken and destroyed and careers and livelihoods dismantled by a belief system run wild, allied to the tacit authority of officialdom.
So widespread was this belief that in 1988, latterly canonised Geoffrey Dickens (of 'dossier' fame) rose to tell the House of Commons:
"It is common knowledge in the House that many people have been charged with and convicted of offences against children involved in witchcraft initiation ceremonies. We need a chance to discuss the working of witchcraft and how it can be controlled in this country."
If, perhaps, we can distantly imagine how an isolated community - such as that at the heart of the Orkney case - could fall into the trap of superstition, how do we account for the emergence of a similar scare in the middle of a densely populated modern council estate in the early 1990s? Why is that within 25 years of these stories having been debunked the Daily Express can tell its readers that Jimmy Savile was 'part of a Satanic ring' - quoting a psychologist to the effect that:
“Along with other young women, the victim was shepherded to wait in another room before being brought back to find Savile in a master of ceremonies kind of role with a group wearing robes and masks. She too heard Latin chanting and instantly recognised satanist regalia. Although the girl was a young adult, who was above the age of consent, she had suffered a history of sexual abuse and was extremely vulnerable.”
The belief in secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of social norms runs deep indeed. And, of course, there are outliers in the criminal castes who have trodden those very waters in individual cases which helps to strengthen belief. Allied to that are cases of genuine insitutionalised horror - such as at the notorious Haut De La Garenne children's home in Jersey. Taken together with the high profile accorded to 'stranger danger' (despite its relative rarity) our minds are buffeted by a sea of suggestion and imagery that hint at sects engaging in unspoken horrors behind closed doors.
In fact, the objective reality of ritual Satanic abuse is unproven. The roots of the belief can trace their antecedents to the evangelical movement in American Christianity and a credulous press eager to report any salacious story, regardless of factual merit, but still linger in news reports and the popular imagination.
In The Beginning...
Belief in secret societies committing atrocious acts are nothing new. Perhaps the grandfather of them all is the 'blood libel' - the claim that religious groups (although by far most commonly the Jews) murder children as part of their religious rites. In the case of the Jews, this oddly persistent belief holds that the Passover ritual involves the sacrifice of children and babies so that their blood can be drunk. Doubtless this is bound with the kind of lingering primal suspicion and enmity that societies find it easy to hold against visible minorities in their midst.
Throughout history, such plots and wickedness have led otherwise rational cultures to engage in orgies of accusation and often bloodshed. In England, "purges" against the Jews continued well into the Middle Ages, leading to tragedies such as that seen at Clifford's Tower in York. In more recent times, of course, the Nazis saw the Jews as the ultimate enemy within and strains of the belief continue to find favour (with a more modernist twist) in the theory that the British royal family are shape-shifting reptilian aliens who regularly eat babies as part of their own sinister machinations.
The evangelical movement in modern American Christianity is a particularly fecund breeding ground for such beliefs and in the early 1980s found unlikely allies in the world of psychology who found themselves dealing with surreal reports from children (often of pre-school age) that could be interpreted as having satanic overtones. That the cases themselves involved highly fantastical elements such as flying people and the use of drills on live humans didn't stop some psychiatrists taken them as reflections of real experiences.
Perhaps the most prominent of such psychiatrists was Kee MacFarlane who was a major participant in the earliest official case of Satanic Ritual Abuse - the McMartin Preschool Trial, which established the pattern for what was to follow. Despite the lack of a formal degree or training, MacFarlane gathered evidence that convinced the police that those running the preschool were actually Satanists, involved in extreme sexual and physical violence against the children in their care. The case was, by some estimates, the most expensive civil case to ever have been brought in the United States and lasted an incredible 7 years before all charges and allegations were dropped.
In the UK, the spread of the scare was in no small way abetted by Dr. Valerie Sinason - whose seminal work on the reality of Satanic Ritual Abuse and 'recovered memories' of the same was voted the second worst medical paper of all time in 2000 and described as "Credulous, superstitious, iatrogenic illness-inducing , self-righteous, incendiary garbage."
Those who today seek evidence for the existence of an alleged elite paedophile ring operating at Westminster during the 1970s and 1980s would do well to remember that such claims are not new and have been discredited in the past.
It is certainly not unknown for murder to form part of a religious belief system - from the industrial scale sacrifices of the Aztecs to the quasi-legal execution of 'witches' throughout Europe into more recent times. In African communities, belief still lingers in the power of human sacrifice - and has reached these shores, if you consider the case of the sad 'Adam' case of 2001 (although there is no evidence that this was in any way an institutionalised crime). It is also certain that sexual crimes are committed against children - often in institutionalised settings such as care homes or within the BBC.
But despite the very real existence of these two strands of human behaviour, there is vanishingly little evidence that the two have ever been brought together in the classic 'Satanic ritual abuse' format. Cases have evaporated when brought under the scrutiny of the law and so it is difficult to believe in the objective reality of Satanic abuse.
Despite this, variations of the theme continue to appear in the mainstream press.
Even today, Satanic rituals are namechecked and find their way into the popular press
Further reading and recommended books
THE TEN WORST PUBLICATIONS IN THE HISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY Valerie Sinason: Treating the Survivors of Satanic Abuse, 1994. Reopened controversy about ritual abuse of children. "Credulous, superstitious, iatrogenic illness-inducing , self-righteous, incendiary garbage,"a nomination read. [ECT.org]
Business of the House: April 14th, 1988 Will the Leader of the House set aside time for a debate on the workings of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, which repealed the Witchcraft Act 1735? [Hansard]