Sexual Attitudes in the Contemporary Legend About Satanic Cults1

Jeffrey S. Victor*

ABSTRACT The contemporary stories about satanic cults arise from an ancient legend that can be traced to the eleventh century.  None of the current claims are supported by reliable evidence and historians agree that no Devil worshipping religious cults ever existed.  These legends arise during periods of disruptive social change and provide explanations and scapegoats for the anxieties people have about their society and their future.  The current satanic scare is the result of anxieties about the perceived moral corruption in modern society resulting from the rapid social changes in gender roles, child rearing and sexual attitudes since the 1960s.  Stories of sexual deviance are prominent in the satanic cult legend in which innocent children are seen as victims of an absolute evil in the form of sadistic and bizarre sexual perversion.

The Witch-Hunt for Criminal Satanists

The Salem witchcraft scare was ignited by the unexplainable suffering of teenage girls to which professional authorities, ministers and physicians, gave frightening meaning.  So too, the contemporary satanic cult scare is sparked by the apparent suffering of children, given frightening meaning by some prestigious professional authorities.  The gathering storm of this new witch-hunt is being propelled by the same social forces.

The satanic cult scare is manifested in a broad range of collective behaviors: 1) Rumor-panics: There have been community rumor-panics in response to stories about dangerous satanic cults in at least 62 locations across the country.  2) Censorship campaigns: There are nationally orchestrated censorship campaigns against supposed satanic influences in children's books, schools and rock 'n roll music.  3) Teenage satanists: There are widespread claims being made by police "experts" that secret satanic cults are recruiting teenagers into criminal activity.  4) Ritual child abuse: Allegations are being made against child-care workers of engaging in satanic "ritual sex abuse" of children and there have been some criminal trials of accused child-care workers.  5) Satanic cult survivors: There are now hundreds of multiple personality disorder patients who claim that they were victims of childhood "ritual" sex abuse by secret satanic cults, and many psycho-therapists believe them.

There is a wide range of claims about criminal satanic cults being circulated in American society.  In brief, these claims assert that there exists a secret organization, or network of criminals who worship Satan, and who are engaged in the pornography business, forced prostitution and drug dealing.  These criminals are also said to engage in the sexual abuse and torture of children, in an effort to brainwash children into becoming life-long Devil worshipers.  In their Devil worshiping rituals, these criminals kill and sacrifice infants, and sometimes adults, and commit cannibalism with the body parts.  They kidnap children for ritual sacrifice and commit random murders of indigents.  They actively try to recruit teenagers who dabble in occult magic into their secret groups.  Some claims-makers even assert that satanists have infiltrated all the institutions of society in order to subvert society and create chaos, to promote their beliefs in Satan worship.  Some claims-makers even suggest that this satanic cult conspiracy can be traced back many centuries.  None of these claims are supported by reliable evidence, either legal or scientific.

The purpose of this brief paper is to explain the origins, functions and symbolism of the satanic cult legend, as it relates to claims about the ritual sex abuse of children.  The argument is presented much more fully in the author's new book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend.2

The Medieval Origins of the Satanic Cult Legend

Contemporary stories about Satanism and satanic cults arise from an ancient legend in Western societies.  The historical roots of these stories can be traced back to Eleventh century.  Their motifs have been employed as a basis of Western counter-subversion ideologies about all kinds of alleged secret conspiracies.  The stories have been targeted at groups as diverse as heretics, witches, Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, and Communists.

During periods of rapid, disruptive social change, many people need explanations for daily dislocations in their lives and their fears about an uncertain future.  In every society, these explanations blame some kinds of evil internal enemies for the anxieties people feel about their fate.  The term "demonology" has been wed by some scholars to refer to these explanations.  A demonology is an elaborate set of beliefs about the evil forces that are inexorably undermining Society's most cherished values and institutions.  A demonology does not necessarily refer to beliefs about evil demons, and today it may even have entirely secular, non-supernatural content.  The satanic cult legend is a product of that Western demonology.

The eminent British historian, Norman Cohn, has documented the cultural development and social consequences of the Western demonology in several books (Cohn, 1970, 1975).  Its root metaphor can be found in Christian beliefs about the struggle of Satan and his earthly henchmen to undermine the Christian moral order of society.  In a brilliant article titled, "The Myth of Satan and his Human Servants," Cohn concisely describes the history of this Western demonology:

The fantasy is that there exists a category of human beings that is pledged to the service of Satan; a sect that worships Satan in secret conventicles and, on Satan's behalf, wages relentless war against Christendom and against individual Christians.  At one time in the Middle Ages, this fantasy became attached to certain heretical sects, and helped to legitimize and intensify their persecution.  A couple of centuries later, it gave the traditional witchcraft beliefs of Europe a twist which turned them into something new and strange ...  And, the fantasy has also been attached to the Jews — and not only in far-off times but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it helped to prepare the way for the secular demonology of the Nazis.  It is a long story but perfectly coherent one, and it is excellently documented (1970, p.3).

In his book, Europe's' Inner Demons, Norman Cohn explains the essence of this demonology, indicting how it forms the core metaphor of Western counter-subversion ideologies:

The essence of this fantasy was that there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human (1975, p. xi.).

This is the structure of the Western ideology of evil, which makes it distinct.  The message is that our society's striving for moral perfection is being undermined by hidden, internal enemies, and we cannot blame ourselves for any failure to attain our ideals.  The cognitive structure of this demonology encourages people to project the shadow of their fears and guilt, their inner "demons," upon convenient scapegoat groups.

The First Accusations of Devil Worship

Accusations of the ritual murder of children did not become widespread until the time of great social change and religious ferment, just after the turn of the first Millennium.  At that time, religious dissent against the hierarchical Church began to gradually develop and spread.

In 1022, in Orleans, France, a group of about fourteen heretics were burned at the stake.  These were the first of many hundreds of thousands of accused heretics, accused witches and Jews to be executed in this manner over subsequent centuries (Cohn, 1975; Moore, 1987).  The execution of the accused heretics of Orleans was also a precursor of future persecutions in several other ways.  Those who were executed were innocent victims of a power struggle between the King and local nobility.  Accusations of heresy became a weapon in political disputes.  More importantly, the accusations were elaborated in the years after their execution, with allegations that the Orleans heretics engaged in secret rituals in which they worshiped the Devil, held sex orgies and sacrificed infants, whose ashes they used to make a special magical ointment (Cohn, 1970, 1975; Moore, 1987).

The satanic cult legend that one hears repeated today was born in Orleans in the Eleventh century.  It was as empty of literal truth then as it is today.

Devil Worship Accusations Against the Cathars

By the middle of the next century; various heresies spread widely.  The most important of the religious movements against the Church hierarchy and its allies among the nobility was that of the Cathar heresy (also known as the Albigensian heresy).  By the 1160s, the Cathars had attracted many thousands of followers in southern France and in northern Italy.  They were even able to establish their own churches and clergy organization.  In some communities, very few people continued to practice the old religion.  The response of the church hierarchy to the growing heresy was the gradual organization of what became known as the Inquisition.

The Cathar heresy is not a familiar benchmark in Western history, but it was an important turning point in the cultural evolution of the tools of mass persecution (Moore, 1987).  Not only did it give impetus to the long-lasting structure of the Inquisition, but it led to a further elaboration of the demonology of persecution.  Clerics and religious scholars engaged in a propaganda war against the Cathars and other heretics.  The Cathars were accused of engaging in sexual orgies, sometimes involving incest, and of practicing secret rituals in worship of the Devil, involving the sacrifice of children and eating their flesh in cannibalistic rites (Cohn, 1975).

The Great European Witch-Hunt

The great European witch-hunt began around 1430 and persisted over three hundred years, until about 1750.  It began as an extension of the Inquisition's search for heretics, in a rather obscure incident in the long history of persecutions.  In 1428, in the Swiss canton of Valais, agents of the Inquisition were in search of Waldensian heretics, who had taken refuge for generations in the remote mountain valleys (Strayer, 1971).  Between 100 and 200 accused heretics were apprehended, tortured, and burned.  In the confessions extracted, usually under torture, many of the accused were said to have admitted to be Devil worshiping witches.

Church propagandists elaborated the accusations against suspected heretics, with stories about their purported practice of all sorts of black magic and acts of anti-Christian sacrilege.  Heretics were accused of making compacts with the Devil to obtain magical powers.  This supposedly enabled them to fly at night between villages, so that they could attend conclaves of witches.  They were also accused of killing and eating children, their own and those of other people.  The women were reported to copulate with demons at night, and the infants which resulted were sacrificed at the witches' conclaves.

Historian Norman Cohn notes that in later years, some people, mainly women, came forth and voluntarily confessed to having engaged in infanticide and cannibalism.  These voluntary confessions provided the inquisitors with apparent evidence to confirm the coerced confessions of satanic witchcraft.

It seems ... that ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike, while pursuing Waldensians, repeatedly came across people — chiefly women — who believed things about themselves which fitted perfectly with the tales about heretical sects that had been circulating for centuries.  The notion of cannibalistic infanticide provided the common factor.  It was widely believed that babies or small children were devoured at the nocturnal meetings of heretics.  It was likewise widely believed that certain women killed and devoured babies or small children; also at night; and some women even believed this of themselves.  It was the extraordinary congruence between the two sets of beliefs that led those concerned with pursuing heretics to see, in the stories which they extracted from deluded women, a confirmation of the traditional stories about heretics who practiced cannibalistic infanticide (1975, p.228).

These women's voluntary confessions closely resemble those made by women today, who suffer from multiple personality disorder.  The women of the fourteenth century, whose delusions told them that they killed and ate their infants after being impregnated by demons, may have also suffered from the same personality disorder.  In a bizarre way, history may be repeating itself.  Psychologically disturbed women, who incorporate the fearful folklore of the times into their fantasies, are used by Satan-hunters, who incorporate the women's testimonials into their more lucid fantasies of a criminal conspiracy.

The Lack of Evidence for the Existence of Devil Worshipers

Over the following centuries, the mythology of the witch-hunters added an increasing variety of occult tales to their literature of persecution.  Estimates of the numbers of people executed for demonic witchcraft are difficult to obtain, but it seems that from 60,000 to 100,000 people were victims, disproportionately elderly women (Levack, 1987).

The consensus of historians who are life-long specialists in studies of social life in the Middle Ages, and who use original documents of the era, is that no Devil worshiping religious cult ever existed (Cohn, 1975; Levack, 1987; Moore, 1987).  The stories of demonic witches, no matter how elaborately detailed, were works based upon oral folklore, confessions coerced under torture, testimonies of psychologically disordered individuals, and a vast repository of accumulated religious propaganda.

It would seem that the Satan-hunters of today, who claim that criminal satanic cults are so secretive that they cannot be found, are repeating a refrain heard over and over in the past.  Police agents have proven quite competent at infiltrating secretive political groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, and even small groups of political terrorists.  However, police can't infiltrate secret criminal satanist covens, because they simply don't exist.

Sexual Attitudes in the Satanic Cult Scare

What does this brief excursion into Medieval history tell us about current claims about criminal satanists?  The lessons of Medieval history suggest that elaborate claims about secret Devil worshipers are constructed from a demonology, which is now almost a thousand years old.  Most of the motifs of that demonology originated in Medieval times.

Ultimately, all the claims and allegations about satanic cult crimes arise from a contemporary legend.  A contemporary legend can be defined as being a type of constantly evolving rumor story which is more widespread and recurrent than an ordinary local rumor.  The content of a contemporary legend is largely symbolic and not actually about particular people and events.  A contemporary legend communicates, in metaphorical language, shared anxieties about a new, collectively perceived threat.  The threat is expressed in age-old recurrent motifs, which usually convey a moral message.  In other words, the motifs of contemporary legends are usually derived from stories which have ancient origins.  However, the age-old story is transformed to fit contemporary sources of anxiety.

The current satanic cult scare arises from the deep-seated frustrations and anxieties of people about what is seen as the moral corruption in modern society.  There have been rapid social changes in gender roles, child rearing and sexual attitudes since the 1960s.  The divorce rate has skyrocketed and parenting has become more difficult.  The perceived sexual freedoms from this era are seen as contributing to the decline of traditional values.  These changes have produced widespread disruption in family relationships.  The result is a shared belief in the "moral decline" of modem society.

The cultural symbolism of the satanic cult conspiracy legend says: "The moral order of our society is being threatened by evil forces beyond our control."  In other words, many Americans are saying that they feel that their deepest traditional values are under threat by mysterious, evil forces.  The legend provides imaginary scapegoat deviants to blame for widespread social stress from economic dislocation and the breakdown of stable family bonds.  It provides a satisfying consensual explanation for deep-seated, ambiguous frustrations and uncertainties about the future of American society.

Stories of sexual deviance are prominent in the satanic cult legend — the sexual abuse of children, incest, sexual orgies, forced breeding and the ritual sacrifice of aborted fetuses and newborn babies.  As sex researchers, we must ask: What is the symbolic meaning of these metaphors?  The answer, I believe, is that these are ancient symbols of moral pollution.  They are images of the workings of absolute evil.  They symbolize contagious threats to the moral order of society.  These symbols convey collective cultural messages, rather than personal attitudes about sexuality.

Given the particular cultural heritage of Americans, so many of whom regard the Devil as an active reality in the world, it should not be surprising that "Devil worshipers" have been socially constructed as scapegoat deviants to blame for the social turmoil and moral crisis in American society.  The possible existence of earthly agents of Satan is entirely consistent with the ideological fears of religious traditionalists.  It does not require a great leap of faith for many of them to believe that Devil worshiping agents of Satan are at work, behind much of the immorality and sexual perversion rampant in American society today.

However, what is curious is that many people, who do not hold a traditional religious ideology are also swept up in the satanic cult scare.  The explanation may be that the satanic demonology remains a powerful metaphor for the workings of evil even for some professionals, who are also socialized in American culture.  Thus, secular professionals see evil in the sexual abuse of children, and some of them can easily find it credible that "satanist" Devil worshipers perpetrate such heinous crimes.

In the contemporary legend, children are seen as pure and innocent and the absolute evil perpetrated against them is sexual perversion of the most bizarre and sadistic form imaginable.  Thus, a symbolic meaning of the satanic cult scare is that sexuality is dangerous, evil and readily perverted by the scapegoat deviants.

Understanding the Origins of Testimonial Claims

One basic question remains to be answered: How can we explain the testimonials of people who claim to have been victimized by criminal satanists, and those who claim that they themselves are former or current satanists?  These testimonial claims heard by psychotherapists and social workers are commonly offered as the conclusive "evidence" of the existence of dangerous satanic cults, even though there exists no external corroborating evidence to verily any of the claims.  This is where research on contemporary legends is particularly useful in explaining what is happening.

Contemporary legends create self-fulfilling processes whereby legend stories are sometimes acted out, or used in providing "accounts" for behavior.  Folklore scholars term this process ostension (Degh, 1983; Ellis, 1991).  The process is similar to the "copy-cat" modeling of behavior from movies.  The legend stories, for example, are used in hoaxes by some phony self-proclaimed "former satanists."  The legend stories are used by some psychologically disturbed people to provide themselves and their therapists with acceptable accounts of their confused mental states and bizarre behavior; as is the case of women having dissociative disorders, who claim to be satanic cult "survivors" (Victor, 1991a).  The stories are also used to provide self-justifying accounts for deviant behavior by some juvenile delinquents and violent criminals who call themselves "satanists."

In some cases, the legend stories can become part of a cooperatively negotiated interpretive account for a very ambiguous situation; as is the case when children have given accounts of satanic cult ritual sex to therapists who prime their responses (Victor, 1991 b, 1992).  Contemporary legends are active processes of collective behavior, spread by ostension, as well as by rumors and the mass media.  This is why very similar satanic cult "survivor" claims and claims of "ritual sex abuse" can be heard from people who report them seemingly independently in distant locations.

In times of moral crisis, people believe that unbelievable evil can easily happen.  When newspapers report one moral outrage following yet another, people are inclined to believe that even worse outrages are still to be uncovered, and then the incredible becomes believable.


Cohn, N. (1970). The myth of Satan and his human servants. In M. Douglas (Ed.). Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (Out of Print) (pp. 3-16). New York: Travistock.

Cohn, N. (1975). Europe's Inner Demons (Out of Print)(Out of Print). New York: Basic Books.

Degh, L., & Vazsonyi, A. (1983). Does the word 'dog' bite? Ostensive action: A means of legend telling. Journal of Folklore Research, 20, 5-34;

Ellis, B. (1991). Legend-trips and satanism: Adolescent's ostensive traditions as 'Cult' activity. In J. T. Richardson, J. Best, & D. G. Bromley (Eds.), The Satanism Scare (Hardcover)(Paperback) (pp.279-296). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Moore, R. I. (1987). The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Paperback reprint). Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Strayer, J. R. (1971). The Albigensian Crusades (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: Dial Press.

Levack, B. P. (1987). The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe (Paperback)(Paperback). New York: Longman.

Victor, J. S. (1991a). Satanic cult survivor stories. Skeptical Inquirer, 15(3), 174-180.

Victor, J. S. (1991b). The satanic cult scare and allegations of ritual abuse. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 3(3), 135-143.

Victor, 3.5. (1992). Ritual abuse and the moral crusade against satanism. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 20(3), 248-253.

* Jeffrey S. Victor is a Professor of Sociology at Jamestown Community College, 525 Falconer Street, Jamestown, New York, 14701.  [Back]

1 This paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, San Diego, California, November 15, 1992.  [Back]

2 Victor, Jeffrey S. (1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Hardcover)(Paperback). Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Co.


[Back to Volume 5, Number 2]  [Other Articles by this Author]

Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.