IPT Book Reviews

Title: Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Jeffrey S. Victor
Publisher: Open Court Publishing Company 1993

Open Court Publishing Company
General Books Division
P0. Box 599
Peru, Illinois 61354
(815) 223-1500
$38.95 (c); $16.95 (p)


Jeffrey Victor begins his book with the statement: "Some really bizarre things have been happening in this country.  These strange happenings may be omens of one of the biggest secret conspiracies, or one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history."  In this 408-page book the author, a sociologist and sexologist, discusses the satanic cult scare from a sociological perspective.  He observes that, despite the absence of empirical evidence supporting the reality of widespread satanic cults, thousands of people believe in them.  In attempting to understand this phenomenon, Victor views the satanic cult scare as the social construction of imaginary deviance through the social processes of collective behavior.  He understands the "satanic panic" as representing a contemporary legend and discusses the sociological and psychological factors contributing to the acceptance of the belief.

According to those who believe in the reality of organized, multigenerational satanic cults, there is a widespread, secret group of criminals that has infiltrated all institutions of society.  These cults breed and kidnap children who are sexually abused in rituals that include animal mutilation, murder, and cannibalism.  The cults are often involved in pornography, drugs, and forced prostitution and recruit teenagers who have experimented with occult magic.

Victor observes that rumors, coming from different sources, have merged to form an elaborate account of a widespread conspiracy of satan worshipers.  These rumors, such as cattle mutilation in some western states and satanism at Proctor and Gamble, along with high-profile child abuse cases such as McMartin and Jordan, Minnesota, contributed to the development of the belief in a satanic conspiracy.  The media attention given to these rumors has given them credibility.

The reports of "survivors" are the main evidence for the existence of satanic cults.  Although there is no external evidence corroborating the survivors claims, their accounts have gained credibility because some well-known psychiatric authorities are taking them seriously.  Victor discusses the "groupthink" among therapists who uncover the memories and who have been networking along with survivors at seminars and meetings.  Several highly publicized day care cases have also contributed to the belief in satanic cults despite the fact that these cases also lack corroborating evidence.

By the end of the 1980s many police, journalists, therapists, and social workers had accepted these claims as true.  The concept of ritual abuse is now at the center of a heated controversy in law enforcement and mental health.  The most widely accepted claims about satanism are about teenage involvement in satanic cult activity.  Victor believes that, although some rebellious teenagers experiment with symbols which upset their parents and others are hostile and delinquent, it is unlikely that teenage pseudo-satanists have any contact with organized satanic religious groups and there is no evidence that satanists are recruiting teenagers into secret criminal cults.

Although some believers maintain that satanic cults can be traced back for many centuries, Victor observes that the consensus of historians who are specialists in studies of social life is that no devil worshiping religious cult ever existed.  There has been no secret, organized conspiracy of devil worshipers documented in history.

Victor observes that the satanic cult scare arises from deep-seated frustrations and anxieties by people about modern society.  It signals a moral crisis in which people perceive a serious decline in traditional moral values.  The rumor-panics are thus like recurring collective nightmares.  Criminal satanists and satanic cults are an invented enemy and the satanism scare serves the unifying function of a search for evil internal enemies.

An interesting aspect of the satanic cult scare is the unlikely alliance among Protestant fundamentalists, conservative Catholics, some secular child advocates, and some feminists.  It also joins secular police, social workers, and psychotherapists together with Christian fundamentalist evangelists.  The moral crusaders against satanism include people from all of these groups.  These moral crusaders are basically rational and decent people who become involved in an organized effort to deal with confusing and ambiguous problems of everyday life.  The moral crusade against satanism comes from the need to identify scapegoat deviants to blame.

Those who are skeptical about the reality of satanic cults include professionals and technical specialists in occupations in which their work values are negatively affected by the exaggerated claims about satanism.  These skeptics include some behavioral scientists, some law enforcement personnel, and some metropolitan and national news reporters.

Victor concludes that the satanic cult scare is no mere fad and predicts that it will not only continue but will probably intensify for the next few years as we approach the year 2000.  He believes that it will persist this long because the moral crusade is anchored into many different organizations and because of the vested interests of many people who profit from it, in terms of obtaining money, public recognition as "experts" on satanism, or audiences for the sale of religious ideology.

The book ends with five appendices which contain suggested references, resource persons, guidelines for dealing with satanic cult rumors in a community, a list of satanic cult rumor-panics in the United States in Canada from 1982 to 1992, and a description of several actual satanic ritual abuse cases from 1983 to 1987.


The widespread belief in a satanic cult conspiracy is one of the strangest social phenomenon in recent history.  Victor's book is an excellent resource for understanding the underlying causes and significance of the satanic cult scare.  The book is objective, carefully researched and documented, and comprehensive.  It combines psychological research about multiple personality disorder and disturbed teenagers, sociological research about rumors, contemporary legends, social movements and collective behavior, and historical research about local life and legends in the past.

I recommend this book for both lay persons and professionals.  It provides a valuable and unique insight into a social phenomena that will undoubtedly be viewed with great puzzlement by historians in the future.

Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield, Institute for Psychological therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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