Picture a satanic ritual. There will be candles, there will symbols (possibly drawn in blood) and there might be some kind of sacrifice involved (goat or otherwise). It’s an idea that’s formed the basis for enough horror films. Then there are the times you see it play out in real life.
If you look back over the crimes of the last century, some of the worst examples, including brutal murders and child abuse, will have Satan’s name attached to them—and that’s without having to go back to the Enlightenment era. The devil gets blamed for a lot. It’s an easy explanation for committing unspeakable acts: Satan made them do it. And in some of the most famous cases of satanic worship, it’s not true.
Take the West Memphis Three: teenagers Damien Echolls, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were arrested for the murder of three eight-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, in 1993. The children were stripped, hogtied and killed. Byers had been mutilated. It was a shocking crime that is still picked over today and the motive was said to be Satanism: a ritualistic killing. But the only links between the teenagers and Satan appeared to be Echolls’ history of mental illness and the teenagers’ shared love of metal that went against the cultural influence of their Bible belt town.
The trial was reminiscent of the moralistic outrage that took over in the 1980s in America: Satanic panic. Much of it was focused around the McMartin Preschool Case in 1983, when allegations of sexual abuse were made. A mother at the school made the initial charges of abuse, after her son had problems with his bowel movements. The charges then escalated to accusations of flushing children down the toilet to secret rooms and reports of flying witches. The charges were only dropped in 1990, after a trial that had been going on since 1987 found no evidence of abuse or satanic ritual. It was the longest running case in America’s history.
But it’s not all hype. There are cases of horrific abuse and murder that really are linked to Satanism.
Ramirez was a Satanist and made some of his victims ‘swear on Satan’ or swear they loved Satan during the attacks.
One of the world’s most infamous serial killers, Richard Ramirez, was a Satanist and partly responsible for the hysteria in the 80s. From 1984-85, he would break into people’s homes in the middle of the night. Once inside, he carried out brutal attacks that often involved rape and sodomy, before murdering his victims by stabbing, beating or shooting them. Ramirez was a Satanist and made some of his victims ‘swear on Satan’ or swear they loved Satan during the attacks.
At 17, Sean Sellers became the youngest person to be given the death penalty after it was reinstated in the 1970s. His crimes: murdering a shop clerk who refused to sell him beer and later, his parents. Before the murders, Sellers had immersed himself in Satanism, signalling his devotion by carrying a vial of fresh blood around his neck, which he would drink from (naturally). On the night of his parents’ murder, Sellers had been performing his rituals. He later said he fell asleep and woke up to find his stepfather’s gun in his own room. Sellers went into their bedroom and shot his stepfather then, when she woke up, shot his mother in the face. Sellers’ grandfather directed the police to him. Initially, he claimed to have no memory of the crimes, but later said he was two people—Sean and his demonic alter ego.
Then there’s the case of Michael Taylor, who in 1974, claimed to be possessed. Taylor lived in West Yorkshire with his wife. When he started behaving erratically, his vicar agreed to exorcise him. After hours of trying to expel the demonic spirits, Taylor was warned that a few demons still remained inside him. Quote that as the reason he then slaughtered his wife with his bare hands. He gouged out her eyes, pulled out her tongue and almost tore her face off completely. He also strangled their dog. Taylor was sent to institutions for four years. But that’s not where his story ends: in 2005, he was found guilty of indecently touching a teenage girl.
Demonic possession (or rather, mental illness) was also behind the murder of Gemma Finnigan by Daniel Johnson in 2013. Johnson, who has schizophrenia, met his partner, Finnigan, after he was released on probation from prison, having murdered a man in 1996. Finnigan had no idea. Johnson believed she was possessed by a demon and strangled, beat and stabbed her to death. He was found wandering around a school in Newcastle, covered in blood.
A sex cult that cropped up in Wales in 2011 was also linked to the occult. Led by its ‘high priest’ Colin Batley (who enrolled his wife and two other adults), the cult operated out of the group’s cul-de-sac. If it sounds genteel, the group raped and assaulted children and teenagers, enlisting some into prostitution, from that very place. The group practised occult rituals and writings but were not technically Satanists, following the teachings of English occultist Aleister Crowley.
In fact, 148 crimes were reported to the Metropolitan Police between 2004 and 2014 that involved witchcraft or ritualistic killings.
And it continues. Earlier this year, two schoolgirls in America were arrested after they were found carrying weapons. The pair allegedly confessed to a plan that included drinking other children’s blood and possibly eating their flesh. What could make two pre-teen girls plan something so awful? They wanted to be with Satan.