A New History of the Lure of the Satanic

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I have many vices, but the easiest and the cheapest to indulge is my endless appetite for bullshit. I can get a quick cheap fix anywhere, anytime, just by picking up a daily newspaper, but the true mother lode is to be found in the darker recesses of UFOlogy, conspiracy research and religion.

I burned out on the UFO nuts back in the summer of '97, the Roswell Summer, when I spent two solid weeks holed up in my apartment with a pile of fresh tomes on the subject. Alien-obsessed gazoonies of every shape, size and description were descending on Roswell that July to commemorate their cherished extraterrestrial DUI fantasy. It was just too goddamned much, total oversaturation, and I completely lost interest in the UFO bullshit after that.

The conspiracy research is a marvelous source of ever-changing and ever-expanding material that I will never lose interest in, primarily because some of these conspiracies really do exist, and the ones that don't tend to be outlandish enough to provide a perpetually renewable source of merriment. The advent of the Internet and the forum it provides for fringe types who could never get their ideas into actual print has been a boon to this particular branch of entertainment. I suspect we're in for a real bull market for this stuff in light of what we've all come to refer to euphemistically as "recent events." Some of it will no doubt be true. The World Trade Center event is Dallas writ large. The lines go everywhere and nowhere.

Religion is endlessly fascinating. Where did the magnificent epic novel we call "the Bible" come from? Certainly not from historical fact. How did an illiterate shepherd happen to write the Koran? What in the hell was H.P. Blavatsky going on about? The neat thing about religion is that all the great lines of bullshit converge there: aliens, conspiracies, alien conspiracies, fantastic and dazzling leaps of imagination, a real testimonial to human creativity run amok.

The E-ticket attraction for sheer amusement value in this field of inquiry is Satanism. No religion, including Judaism and Scientology, has ever generated more fevered conspiracy-mongering and sheer paranoia than Satanism. It could be argued that Satanism in fact manifested as an authentic religion directly out of the paranoid fantasies of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic axis.

Gareth Medway, a student of comparative religion and occasional contributor to such publications as Fortean Studies, Magonia and Pagan News, has written a wonderful history of the phenomenon of Satanism and the unique level of hysteria attending its emergence in the 20th century: Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism (NYU Press, 432 pages, $32.95). This is the first truly authoritative book on the subject, and Medway methodically cuts through the copious heaps of bovine fecal matter that have accumulated around the subject over the centuries.

He begins by giving us a quick glimpse into contemporary Satanic and quasi-Satanic groups and adherents. He fully grasps and manages effectively to illustrate the premise that contemporary Satanism is nothing more or less than a rough version of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy in Goth drag. He does not fail to point out the presence of the occasional drug casualty or certified loony on the scene, but rightfully notes that those types are the exception rather than the rule and tend to be, by their nature, solitary dabblers rather than affiliates of the mainstream groups.

Where Medway really hits his stride is in his exhaustively researched and brilliantly presented history of the blind hysteria attending the subject. For most of its history Christianity has been utterly fixated on the notion of a secret network of heretics working in league with the devil to undermine the work of God. Confessions obtained under torture served to buttress this fantasy, never mind that when someone is crushing your shins with an iron rod you'll tell him whatever you think he wants to hear to get him to stop. Religious fanatics tend to be a few grams shy of a full count when it comes to reasoning prowess, as history continually demonstrates.

The Satanic ritual-abuse panic of the 1980s gets the full treatment, and Medway delivers a scathing indictment of the crackpot "therapists" responsible for that unfortunate wave of persecution and the despicable methods they used. He manages to skewer crackpot journalist Maury Terry's addle-headed notion of a Grand Unified Satanic Conspiracy behind the Son of Sam murders in just a few choice paragraphs.

The real point of Medway's book is that Satan-hunters are a much greater threat to society than the Satanists themselves, a point that anyone with six firing synapses who has spent any time at all among the two groups can see plainly. Satanism is and has always been a handy straw man for demagogues looking to build careers by stirring the pot of hatred and mistrust. In the absence of a clear external enemy, the hunt for Satan and his minions is a convenient method for keeping an ignorant population in a state of war fever.

Of course, in times like these, Satan is hardly necessary for that.

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