BSC Folklore

Satanic Fraternity (continued)

Questions

  • How soon did the legend begin? Were there still Lambda Chi's on campus?

  • How widespread was the story? Was it contained to Sigma Nu members?

  • Was there a special way in which the SNs shared the story? Told to certain people (pledges)? At certain times? Were there activities associated with the telling?

  • Is it still told on new Fraternity Row?

  • Are there similar stories told on this campus? Say, regarding the PIKEs?

  • Is the story particular to this campus? Or do many campuses have legends about such groups/organizations?

  • What effect does the tale seem to have on the typical audience? Is it a cautionary tale?

Longer Commentary

The idea that emissaries or followers of Satan are working on Earth to subvert God's order is nothing new. But the Satanic Cult scare (as legend) is specific to America in the 1980s.

Folklorists examining this phenomenon agree that the religious experimentation of the 1960s created an anti-cult backlash in the 1970s. The Jim Jones cult suicide is typically seen as the point at which Americans stopped being tolerant of “deviant” religious practices.

In the 1980s, however, the generalized anti-cult sentiment (fomented by formal anti-cult organizations) begins to consolidate around rumors of Satanic cults. In particular, such cults were seen as threats to children, and legends featured infants killed in ritual sacrifices, virgins assaulted, and teens recruited into the cult. Pop culture outlets like Dungeons and Dragons or Heavy Metal music were blamed for teenage deviance from cultural norms, and were considered, at the very least, to be “gateways” to Satanism.

Cult “experts” appeared at PTA meetings, as consultants for police, and on national television warning that Satanists were lurking in every community. Rarely did any evidence materialize to support these claims; and typically evidence that did exist was misinterpreted by people who assumed that cults were involved.

Folklorists use the term “ostension” to describe the acting out of legend. Such reenactments often take the form of “legend-trips” in which adolescents enter graveyards or haunted houses to test themselves. In the course of these adventures (which often involve illegal activities), teens will often create the kind of evidence considered satanic by police, experts, and parents. Such evidence might include burned candles, painted pentagrams, or signs of desecration. In fact, these actions are typically tailored to shock parents and other adults. Sometimes, kids are recreating the kinds of satanic rituals they've learned through popular culture; sometimes, behavior is misinterpreted as satanic when it is merely strange or rebellious. According to some social theorists, societies that are suffering from anxiety—whether caused by an unexplained event or a more general threat to traditional values—are likely to seek a scapegoat for their ills. It is easy to lump together a number of amorphous threats under one heading such as “satanism.”

In a case documented by Ronald M. Wade, a 17-year old girl's disappearance from her small Texas town triggered a witch hunt. First, particularly marginalized (or “weird”) youth, already suspected of engaging in dangerous, secret activities, were labeled as satanists; then, anyone showing any degree of deviance were suspected; then, those who disagreed with the experts found themselves under investigation. Wade's article, “When Satan Came to Texas,” demonstrates the harm that can be done to individuals when legend becomes institutionalized.

The BSC story does not seem to have developed this far or been taken this seriously. It does seem likely, however, that the rumor began in the midst of the national cult scare—that it grew from that atmosphere in which Geraldo and other TV personalities were keeping the myth alive. Certainly, the disappearance of the fraternity was either too mysteriously tempting or too psychically disturbing to go unexplained. It begged for an imaginative narrative. Perhaps it is comforting to believe that a group would have to be that bad to be kicked off campus.

Your Thoughts

Email your comments, corrections, or additions to tcowan@bsc.edu.

Bibliography

  • Balch, Robert W. and Margaret Gilliam. “Devil Worship in Western Montana: A Case Study in Rumor Construction.” Richardson and Bromley 249-75.

  • Bromley, David G. “Satanism: The New Cult Scare.” Richardson and Bromley 49-72.

  • Ellis, Bill. “Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder.” Western Folklore 48.3 (July 1989): 201-220.

  • Bill Ellis. “The Devil-Worshippers at the Prom: Rumor-Panic as Therapeutic Magic.” Western Folklore 49.1 (Jan. 1990): 27-49.

  • Bill Ellis. “Legend-Trips and Satanism: Adolescents' Ostensive Traditions as ‘Cult' Activity.” Richardson and Bromley 279-95.

  • Hunter, James. “Interpreting the Satanic Legend.” Journal of Religion and Health 37.3 (Fall 1998). 249-263.

  • Martin, Daniel and Gary Alan Fine. “Satanic Cults, Satanic Play: Is ‘Dungeons& Dragons' a Breeding Ground for the Devil?” Richardson and Bromley 107-23.

  • Richardson, James T., Joel Best, and David G. Bromley, eds. The Satanism Scare. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1992.

  • Rowe, Laurel and Gray Cavender. “Caldrons Bubble, Satan's Trouble, but Witches are Okay: Meid Constructions of Satanism and Witchcraft.” Richardson and Bromley 263-75.

  • Victor, Jeffrey S. “The Dynamics of Rumor-Panics about Satanic Clubs.” Richardson and Bromley 221-36.

  • Victor, Jeffrey. “Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend.” Western Folklore 49.1 (Jan. 1990): 51-81.

  • Wade, Ronald M. “When Satan Came to Texas: A Study in a Satanic Panic Witch Craze.” Skeptic 7.4 (1999): 40-44.