The Satanic Panic Witch Craze
The best modern example of a witch craze would have to be the "Satanic panic" of the 1980s. Thousands of Satanic cults were believed to be operating in secrecy throughout America, sacrificing and mutilating animals, sexually abusing children, and practicing Satanic rituals. In The Satanism Scare, James Richardson, Joel Best, and David Bromley argue persuasively that public discourse about sexual abuse, Satanism, serial murders, or child pornography is a barometer of larger social fears and anxieties. The Satanic panic was an instance of moral panic, where "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates"(1991, p.23). Such events are used as weapons "for various political groups in their campaigns" when someone stands to gain and someone stands to lose by the focus on such events and their outcome. According to these authors, the evidence for widespread Satanic cults, witches' covens, and ritualistic child abuse and animal killings is virtually nonexistent. Sure, there is a handful of colorful figures who are interviewed on talk shows or dress in black and burn incense or introduce late-night movies in a push-up bra, but these are hardly the brutal criminals supposedly disrupting society and corrupting the morals of humanity. Who says they are?
The key is in the answer to the question, "Who needs Satanic cults?" "Talk-show hosts, book publishers, anti-cult groups, fundamentalists, and certain religious groups" is the reply. All thrive from such claims. "Long a staple topic for religious broadcasters and 'trash TV' talk shows, " the authors note, "satanism has crept into network news programs and prime time programming, with news stories, documentaries, and made-for-TV movies about satanic cults. Growing numbers of police officers, child protection workers, and other public officials attend workshops supported by tax dollars to receive formal training in combating the satanist menace"(p. 3). Here is the information exchange fueling the feedback loop and driving the witch raze towards higher levels of complexity.
The motive, like the movement, is repeated historically from century to century as a shunt for personal responsibility- fob off your problems on the nearest enemy, the more evil the better. And who fits the bill better than Satan himself, along with his female co-conspirator, the witch? As sociologist Kai Erikson observed, "Perhaps no other form of crime in history has been a better index to social disruption and change, for outbreaks of witchcraft mania have generally taken place in societies which are experiencing a shift of religious focus- societies, we would say, confronting a relocation of boundaries" (1966, p. 153). Indeed, of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch crazes, anthropologist Marvin Harris noted, "The principal result of the witch-hunt system was that the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes. Did your roof leak, your cow abort, your oats wither, your wine go sour, your head ache, your baby die? It was the work of the witches. Preoccupied with the fantastic activities of these demons, the distraught, alienated, pauperized masses blamed the rampant Devil instead of the corrupt clergy and the rapacious nobility" (1974, p.205).
Jeffrey Victor's book, Satanic panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (1993), is the best analysis to date on the subject, and the subtitle summarizes his thesis about the phenomenon. Victor traces the development of the Satanic cult legend by comparing it to other rumor-driven panics and mass hysterias and showing how individuals get caught up in such phenomena. Participation involves a variety of psychological factors and social forces, combined with information input from modern as well as historical sources. In the 1970s, there were rumors about dangerous religious cults, cattle mutilations, and Satanic cult ritual animal sacrifices; in the 1980s, we were bombarded by books, articles, and television programs about multiple personality disorder, Procter & Gamble's "Satanic" logo, ritual child abuse, the McMartin Preschool case and devil worship; and the 1990s have given us the ritual child abuse scare in England, reports that the Mormon Church was infiltrated by secret Satanists who sexually abuse children in rituals, and the Satanic ritual abuse scare in San Diego (see Victor 1993, pp. 24-25). These cases, and many others, drove the feedback loop forward. But now it is reversing. In 1994, for example, Britain's Ministry of Health conducted a study that found no independent corroboration for eyewitness claims of Satanic abuse of children in Britain. According to Jean La Fontaine, a professor from the London School of Economics, "The alleged disclosures of satanic abuse by younger children were influenced by adults. A small minority involved children pressured or coached by their mothers." What was the driving force? Evangelical Christians, suggests La Fontaine: "The evangelical Christian campaign against new religious movements has been a powerful influence encouraging the identification of satanic abuse" (in Shermer 1994, p. 21).
In the rest of the chapter, the author continues by comparing some other movements to witch crazes, primarily the 'Recovered Memory Movement' convincing everybody that they had repressed memories of child abuse.
I find these witch scares as an interesting and compelling nexus of social pressures, from diversion of responsibility to reaction of social change. I think in some aspect, the War on Terror is a modern witch scare. We have our identified and stereotyped enemy, evil as can be, we have a (previous) government who used it to divert attention, and we have irrational fears. Yes, terrorism has killed people, and it's a real threat, but the amount that we have let it affect us is disproportional to its actual threat. Just look at this last airline bombing attempt alone. There are millions of flights. Even if this had been successful, that would still be least air deaths than many other causes of death, yet it dominated our attention, changed (again in irrational ways) our safety methods, and made everyone fearful of flying.
I think in a different way the Tea Party Movement is a witch scare. They have their witch 'Socialisms!' with an identified personification, namely Obama and democrats, but it's actually revealing a deeper fear of social and moral change. Its a reaction to the questioning of their social and political beliefs after Bush was such a letdown and the majority of the country turned to the democrats for help. It has all the signs, from a stereotyped target to allegations and accusations of activities that are unsubstantiated. That's why its largely unrational and these people are 'angry' but not really about anything in particular. They're not angry, they're scared.
And of course the war on Christmas is an obvious witch scare.