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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



As a category we we loath to want to continue the myths that Satanism is a viable social choice of religious practice in the USA. Finally we have a book that deals with the material as it actually exists in most of North American society which is as folklore. (Even with evidence of psychotherapists and occult crime specialists which tends to betray religious prejudice and confabulation.) Now we are aware of some groups that are morally suspect if not down right demonic and as we  find such titles we will let you know about them.

Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media by Bill Ellis (University Press of Kentucky) reveals how the Christian Pentecostal movement, right-wing conspiracy theories, and an opportunistic media turned grassroots folk traditions into the Satanism scare of the 1980s. Debunking by folklore makes many of the claims a common thread of gossip and rumour and unconscious release of fears and scapegoating the different and other. It’s good that the furour has died down and it would be even better if some of the victims of this craze were released from jail.

During the mid-twentieth century, devil worship was seen as merely an isolated practice of medieval times. But by the early 1980s, many influential experts in clinical medicine and in law enforcement were proclaiming that satanic cults were widespread and dangerous. By examining the broader context for alleged “cult” activity, Bill Ellis demonstrates how the image of contemporary Satanism emerged during the 1970s. Blaming a wide range of mental and physical illnesses on in-dwelling demons, a faction of the Pentecostal movement became convinced that their gifts of the spirit were being opposed by satanic activities. They attributed these activities to a “cult” that was the evil twin of true Christianity.

In some of the cases Ellis considers, common folk beliefs and rituals were misunderstood as evidence of devil worship. In others, narratives and rituals themselves were used to combat satanic forces. As the media found such stories more and more attractive, any activity with even remotely occult overtones was demonized in order to fit a model of absolute good confronting evil.

Ellis’s wide-ranging investigation covers ouija boards, cattle mutilation, graveyard desecration, and “diabolical medicine”—the psychiatric community’s version of exorcism. He offers a balanced view of contentious issues such as demonic possession, satanic ritual abuse, and the testimonies of confessing “ex-Satanists.” A trained folklorist, Ellis seeks to navigate a middle road in this dialog, and his insights into informal religious traditions clarify how the image of Satanism both explained and created deviant behavior.

It was a great show while it lasted, the subject of fervent newspaper reports, television specials and an exposé by Geraldo Rivera in the 1980s. Satanism was rampant across America, nay, the world, with protean manifestations, if people would just pay attention. Twenty years before, there had been Satanism, but it was not very well publicized and not very interesting. But somehow it became the fashionable scare. How did this happen, and what should we do about it?

Bill Ellis is a folklorist, and an academic specializing in English and American studies. His book, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media (University Press of Kentucky) attempts a sympathetic understanding of how the Devil made one of his cyclic emergences and how folklore can affect society and politics. Scares about Satan and witchcraft have been present for centuries, and seem to give a safety valve for social aggression, scapegoating deviant individuals. At the individual level of, say, someone who thinks he is possessed by a demon and someone who thinks he can cast that demon out, there is a social agreement on a folkloric belief that may be beneficial for both concerned (if not for the demon). But Ellis's theme is that social groups can take over a folkloric belief to push a religious or governmental agenda, with disastrous consequences. He shows how demon possession and speaking in tongues are two sides of the same coin, and how belief in demons was ballooned into the belief that there was a huge underground satanic network ruining our country. Those who promulgated such conspiracy beliefs also bought into conspiracies involving Jews, vampires, the Illuminati, and cattle mutilations.

Raising the Devil is a work academic folklore, well documented and organized. Ellis tries to illuminate the role of the folklorist in examining these sorts of belief, and realizes that he and his fellows have the difficult road to follow of showing how folklore (even if it is patently untrue) becomes a serious social force between small numbers of people. Science of folklore needs to show how these tendencies to confront institutions that would harness folklore for political or religious change. His academic prose is leavened by the strange subject matter. For instance, the Governor of Colorado is quoted as saying that cattle mutilations were "one of the greatest outrages in the history of the western cattle industry," and a leader of a coven in England warned about bogus cult groups, as he had heard about one in which members "started getting in prostitutes dressed in rubber gear and there was wife swapping, too. It gives Satanism a bad name."

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