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The Myths of Reality

witchhunts today

Bob Trubshaw

The ideas and 'folkloric motifs' of contemporary legends can also step out of folklore and become worryingly manifest in the real world. In recent years there have been a number of 'therapists' who use exceedingly dodgy hypnotherapy attempts to 'recover' memories of abuse – usually sexual – during childhood. Needless to say the person concerned has no previous recollection of such abuse (which is not to say that there may not have been some greater or lesser 'disfunctionality' in their family life as a child). The alleged abuser finds the accusations difficult to refute, leading to bitter tensions between various members of the family. The American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs has responded to this by stating: 'Contrary to what is generally believed by the public, recollections obtained during hypnosis not only fail to be more accurate but actually appear to be generally less reliable than non-hypnotic recall.' (Cited in Watters and Ofshe 1994).

This procedure for 'recovered memories' has also led to attempts to question children about alleged 'Satanic abuse'. The origins of such allegations can be clearly traced to a small group of right-wing Christians who have widely-promoted their beliefs to police authorities, social workers and child welfare charities (who have collectively been dubbed 'cult cops' by some of the folklorists studying this problem). This came to the UK in 1990, although the same people had promoted their ideas in the USA and Canada in previous years.

As a result of this witch hunt fuelled by Christian fundamentalism a number of families, notably in Rochdale, Nottingham and the Orkneys, were suspected of such 'Satanic abuse' in the 1990s, with tragic consequences. The anthropologist Phillips Stevens, in a number of articles published in America in 1989 and 1990, drew the parallels with historical persecution of Jews and heretics, and with 1950s American political paranoia about communism. He recognised that these were 'a particularly insidious and dangerous' form of folklore. The late twentieth century Satanic abuse allegations was mostly derived from the demonology of the late Middle Ages, as modified by the interest in 'esoteric magic' during the late nineteenth century. (Stevens1989 (1996: 342))

The British 'Satanic abuse' controversies led to a major study of Satanic abuse by the folklorist Jean la Fontaine (1998) – 'What might be the first report on witchcraft and Satanism commissioned by a British Government for 400 years… ' claims the review in Magonia (Rimmer 1998). Some seven years previously Magonia had brought together three quite heavyweight articles mainly devoted to analysing stories of alleged Satanic child abuse and their links with so-called 'UFO abduction' reports (Magonia No.38 Jan 1991). La Fontaine found no evidence for such practices but did see close parallels with the witchhunts of late medieval Europe and seventeenth and eighteenth century America (famously the Salem community in 1692). While it would be rational to expect that, compared to the eighteenth century, witch hunts would be on the decline in the twentieth century, sadly this is not the case.

In recent years a number of studies have been made of the way children 'confabulate' their memories of real experiences with memories of 'events' they have only been told about. In contrast, people who have been undisputed victims of abuse in childhood have no need to 'recover' these memories; on the contrary they do not succeed in suppressing or forgetting the events. These studies shed considerable light on the way children and adults alike create and adapt stories; indeed, on the whole nature of how we create 'narratives' of our entire lives. The wider implications of this extend well beyond folklore studies into the realms of philosophy and psychology.

More recently Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe's demolition of 'recovered memory syndrome' in their milestone study Making Monsters (1994) and Gareth Medway's Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism (2001) have both thoroughly undermined the procedures and beliefs of the proponents of supposed Satanic abuse.

This raises the 'parallel issue' of UFO abductions. The notion of people being abducted by aliens then subjected to 'examinations' (rather reminiscent of sexual abuse scenarios; see Sivier 2001) in UFOs has generated a contentious, indeed litigious, volume of literature since the 1980s. Although this notion has seemingly been accepted as 'gospel' by a rather large number of Americans, suffice to say that the proponents of this idea rely on the same recovered memory hypnosis techniques. As Peter Rogerson, Roger Sandell and Michael Goss all noted in their articles in Magonia 38 (1991), there are clear parallels between 'Satanic ritual abuse' and 'UFO abductions' – and with other folklore 'motifs'. But academic researchers were slow to take an interest. Perhaps their logic was that, because neither Satan nor UFOs exist, there was little or no significance to beliefs that they do exist. But the strong emotions and damage to a substantial number of people's lives most certainly exist. Significantly it was folklorists such as Rogerson, Sandell, Goss and La Fontaine who recognised that the 'motifs' here were essentially folkloric and the whole phenomena could best be approached by incorporating ideas that had arisen within folklore research.

But 'witch hunts' go well beyond examples of folklore that have serous implications. Closely-related attempts at 'categorisation' and 'demonisation' are common ways of hegemonic control. In recent decades such labels as 'muggers', 'hooligans', 'new age travellers' and 'anti-capitalist protesters' have been invented and promulgated by the media as emotionally-charged simplistic 'containers' for often-complex challenges to the status quo. By 'excluding' others (whether they are late medieval 'witches', gypsies and other travellers, immigrants, Moslems, Jews, 'the homeless', 'junkies' or whatever) a society helps to define itself (see the English and the 'Other'). The ways such exclusion and 'demonisation' is promulgated are best understood by folklorists, although the implications of such 'witch hunts' are much wider and may develop to form part of nationalistic myths.

Part of a chapter from Explore Folklore.

See also Fine 1992 and Victor 1993 for a thorough discussion of Satanic cult scares and rumor panics in general. For instance, Americans will probably be familiar with the allegations that the logo for Proctor and Gamble includes 'Satanic' symbolism. These ideas first surfaced in 1978 and continues to resurface, despite strong refutation (and at least 15 lawsuits) by the company.

bibliographical references

FINE, Gary Alan Fine, 1992, Manufacturing Tales, University of Tennessee Press.
La FONTAINE, Jean, 1998, Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic abuse in contemporary England, Cambridge UP.
RIMMER, John, 1998, review of La Fontaine (1998) in Magonia 64, 17.
SIVIER, David, 2000, 'The limners of faerie', Magonia 71 (June), 3-7.
STEVENS, Phillips, 1996, 'Satanism: where are the folklorists' in G. Bennett and P. Smith (eds), Contemporary Legend: A reader, Garland. (Essay originally published in 1986.)
VICTOR, Jeffrey S., 1993, Satanic Panic: The creation of a contemporary legend, Open Court.
WATTERS, Ethan and Richard OFSHE, 1994, Making Monsters: False memories, psychotherapy and sexual hysteria, Charles Scribner.

Since writing this article a review of Malcolm MacGrath's book Demons of the Modern World (Prometheus Books 2002) by John Rimmer has appeared in Magonia No.80 (p20). McGrath's book fully develops many of the ideas outlined here. Rimmer concludes:

    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. They are the fantasies of a society in which every priest is seen as a child abuser, every scientist is 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 detroy 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 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 as the host?


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2002, 2003

anonymous feedback

The statement that people who have suffered sexual abuse do not repress their memories or do not need to recover them is not always true. People often suffer anmesia or lose memories of traumatic events, including sexual abuse. Most of the controversy around this centers around the incompetent or manipulative use of hypnotic techniques to recover memories. No one disputes that false memories can be implanted in a vulnerable person or that confabulation does not take place, but the fact is that trauma does often induce memory repression. There are well-known neurochemical phenomenon involved. Too, there are other ways to uncover genuine lost memories besides hypnosis.

The truth is that False Memory Syndrome is just as mythological as Repressed Memory. There is truth on both sides of the fence, but few who publish in this area seek genuine objectivity and balance. Here is a link to an article by one of the few who does.

feedback from Fima

I would like to send you some links to publications about my criminal case. I worked for Mitsubishi Electric Automation in Vernon Hills, IL, USA. My case are getting public attention now as an example of miscarriage of justice. I could not defend myself, because I did not have enough money for computer expert. I was forced to confess for possession of child porn. I got browser hijackers while browsing the web. I was redirected to illigal sites against my will. Some illigal pictures were found on my hard drive only after recovering in unallocated clusters, without dates of files creation/download. I do not know how can courts press widely on people to convict them, while whole Internet is a mess.

This is my story in There is all information about case written by Irish writer Brian Rothery.

This is publication in Wired news.

This is publication in Theregester.

Article in Globe and Mail newspaper.

Article in ZDnet.

This is article in Washington Times, May 22, 2004. There is information about my case.

Article in Crime Research Center.

Article in Dallas, TX newspaper.

The problem for me now is to find lawyer, who can review the case. When I pleaded guilty, there were no any publications, like in Wired news. This article was posted on hundreds sites, published in newspapers, discussed on many boards, and translated to many languages. I think the problem with my confession was prosecutors pushed case to trial without any thoughts about computer experts. Judge answered NO for any requests. Prosecutor promised couple years in prison. My lawyer came to me and said 'You must answer in next 5 minutes, after that they call jurors for trial'. 100% you will get conviction, no doubt. 100% to get conviction, and go to prison for couple years. This was opinion of very experienced lawyer.

Going to prison with child sex conviction, there were possibilities to get raped, bitten, or even killed. These were real, very real. So it was pressing like criminals pressing on victim. I am political refugee from Soviet Union, and in my understanding, there are no difference between prosecution, court, police and criminals. I got another proof of this. People are silent in this country because charging with any crime is very easy, but defence costs huge money. Most people do not have $15,000 for lawyer, but this is not enough. I think $200,000 is not enough to defend yourself. So police and and procecution enjoy abusing of power, like masters with slaves. I just tryed to explain why there was plea agreement. Some people do not understand this. They asking questions like why admitted something you are not guilty of. Josef Stalin victims admitted to any crime just to exchance for easy death. Also you probably read Orwell's 1984.

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