This paper describes how media construed «Satanism» during the late 1980s up to 1997.
av Asbjørn Dyrendal
The promotion of stereotypical images of ‘Satanism’ in Norway started late. For a short time, the Norwegian press followed examples from England and the US in pressing claims of widespread Satanism involved in ritual abuse, but this unleashed few of the same reactions. At the same time as reports of «survivors» peaked, the phenomenon of black metal «Satanism» reached the public. Soon teenage arsonists and killers made new headlines, and contributed to another image being constructed.
The promotion of stereotypical images of ‘Satanism’ in Norway started late in the 1980s. For a short time, the Norwegian press followed examples from England and the US in pressing claims of widespread Satanism involved in ritual abuse, but this unleashed few of the same reactions. But at the same time as reports of «survivors» peaked in the early 1990s, the phenomenon of Black Metal «Satanism» reached the public, and soon teenage arsonists and killers made new headlines, constructing a new media image.
While the Satanism scare was circulating in the United States during the latter half of the 1980s, in Norway such topics could only be found in a certain kind of men’s magazine that stressed «just the right mix» of true crime and female (semi-)nudity. Such publishers had been discussing Satanism for a few decades, but even there it was a rare topic. Confined to the fringes of the media, it was considered more of a mainstream problem only among the clergy. The Bishop’s Conference treated the growth of «the occult», new religious movements and Satanism as convergent problems for the first time in 1978 (case 3/78), and revisited the topic regularly through the 1980s (cases 15/81, 30/84, 24/85, 18/89).
The Bishops’ approach was cautious; Conservative Evangelical publishing companies and the similarly inclined newspaper Dagen were less so. During the 1970s and 1980s several books on «the occult» and Satanism, were published, chiefly by Hermon Forlag, which converged with Dagen’s stories on the brainwashing effect of rock music and Satanic influence among New Age adherents. Some biographies by alleged previous Satanists and occultists were also translated and published in Norwegian. The first of these was Briton Doreen Irvine’s From Witchcraft to Christ, released by a Pentecostal publishing company in 1974. (Irvine claimed to have belonged to a London «black lodge» that practiced a diabolical form of Freemasonry; later she allegedly joined a coven and became «Queen of Black Witches» before her conversion and exorcism.) The publishing of such books, which often leaned heavily towards millenarianism, saw a sharp increase during the latter half of the 1980s and the first few years of the 1990s.
Actually, the first reports about Satanism and ritual abuse, cannibalism, etc., surfaced in reports from the United States in 1988 in Norway’s second largest newspaper, Aftenposten (12-10-88), and in an AP report that was sold to several large regional papers (6-27-89). The first of these stories mainly concerned the infamous «Geraldo» program, while the other contained material about a large police conference in Connecticut, and linked the Matamoros case with Satanism and SRA. Both contained skeptical comments: in the second Robert Hicks and Ken Lanning were quoted extensively. Neither report made much impact.
Still, during this same period the topic of Satanism and «the occult» became more interesting for the Norwegian mainstream press. As the semi-serious tabloids rose to staggering (for Norway) figures in publishing, they moved more and more into the topical domains of the slick weekly magazines. «Satanism» was one of these areas. Starting as reports from the fringes, it soon became a legitimate news item. In the process «Satanism» was constructed in several different manners, but the themes of teenagers, sex, crime and music came to dominate.
Reports of indigenous Satanism hit the front page for the first time on a slow news day, June 2, 1988. Norway’s largest newspaper proclaimed that «Devil-worshippers threatened the town», a story about two brothers who were threatening people, stealing from the church and «worshipping Satan at midnight-dances» in a small town in the western part of Norway (VG 6-2-88).4 In November 1988 the next report arrived: A «Satanic chapel» was discovered in the town of Halden, in the southeast of the country, during a drug raid. Pictures of a «Baphomet» (a goat-headed image of the devil popularized by the 19th-century occultist Eliphas Levi) adorned an altar, along with «ritual» knives, a skull, Tarot cards and other occult paraphernalia. The house was frequented by young adults ranging from 16 to 30 years of age. Some were arrested for possession of cannabis. The follow-up on the next day was concerned about the fact that the Satanic Bible was available from book stores, a theme and item that came up again and again (VG 11-1/2-88). Only one of the «Satanists» from Halden was ever mentioned again. As a Christian convert, «Lucifer» warned about Satanists and their occult activity against preachers involved in a revival (Dagen 3-10-89).
«Occult» and physical threats/assaults by (mostly) teenagers claiming Satanic beliefs continued to play an important role in news reports from 1988-1992. The threat of «the occult» was mainly limited to Dagen, whose main concern focused on the perceived cluster of Satanism/New Age/Rock music/backward masking/teen suicide. It was, however, among the first to publish reports about the danger of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The first reference to SRA is in a report from England dated March 22, 1990, reported both in Dagenand Dagbladet (Norway’s third largest newspaper), but the initial «breakthrough» came in Dagbladet on August 11, 1990, when British freelance journalist Fred Harrison published a long piece on the English Satanic Ritual Abuse claims. In an interview with psychiatrist Victor Harris, which contained all the usual details about secret Satanic mind control cults among the powerful, Harrison disclosed that he and Dianne Core of the British organization «Childwatch» were also following leads to Norway. Their book was published late the following summer.
But by this time a Norwegian policeman had taken the media spotlight, with Harrison confined to a sidebar commending his bravery. A long interview with a lieutenant of the Oslo police (vice squad), appeared in Dagbladet on June 11, 1991, definitively introducing the SRA mythos as a Norwegian news item. The interview, illustrated with photos of crude graffiti, was based on a long article by the lieutenant in the internal magazine of the Oslo police (OP-nytt [Mar.91]:22-26), with details learned from a Satanism seminar in the Netherlands. In both article and interview, he gave detailed gory descriptions of «satanic rituals» as well as long «checklists» to identify abused children, translated from unnamed «English and American sources.» He also gave a historical background for this «satanic revival,» linking Satanism to the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Church of Satan. The only organization known to exist in Norway is the O.T.O., which subsequently was linked (falsely) with sex crimes in many of the reports.
And the police lieutenant added something more significant: a Norwegian «case». An unnamed woman in her twenties was said to be «continually remembering more of her participation in the Satanic-ring» during therapy. At least two Satanic «rings» were operating in Oslo, she claimed, which, the newspaper alleges, the police were about to uncover. The story exploded into the media the following days, with headlines like the following:
- «Sex and black magic in secret lodges»
- «Sadistic sex magic with 14 year olds» (Dagbladet 6-12- 91)
- «Police take action against Satanists» (Dagen 6-12-91)
- «Eva escapes from Satanic meeting» (Dagbladet 6-13-91)
- «Increasing interest for Satanism in Norway» (Dagen 6-15-91)
- «Satanism is hatred towards life» (Vårt Land 6-19-91)
The story also made its way into television. The material for developing the story further, was, however, sparse. With few further disclosures, the papers soon were forced to rely on pictures of satanic graffiti, interviews and articles about «the occult», accomplishing a sort of linkage by assimilating any kind of «Satanic» activity to the lieutenants story. Teen Satanists’ engagement in violence, discovery of alleged «ritual» sites etc. were interpreted partly in the context of his claims for a while.
This assimilation of Satanism into a generic threat composed of «the occult,» drugs, brainwashing, and ritual human sacrifice almost made its way into popular culture as well. The theme of Satanism had of course been used several time in crime novels, but remained unconnected with the 1990s SRA theme. In May 1994, a movie thriller with the working title of «Set,» including all these elements, was reportedly being cast (Aftenposten 5-6-94). The manuscript was said to be based on «available accounts» and sponsored by public funds. (As of this date the movie has still not been released.)
Reactions to the lieutenant and his «survivor» were mixed. Shortly before the story broke, a group of Norwegian journalists and skeptics affiliated with CSICOP published the first issue of their magazine Skepsis, with «Satanism – a media scare» as the front page theme. They followed up with harsh criticisms of the journalists and experts involved in interviews, features and public debate (Klassekampen 6-13-91, Dagbladet 6-17-91, Journalisten 6-21-91, Vårt Land 6-29-91). Nor were they alone. Other skeptical voices were raised (Dagbladet 6-15-91) among them one of Norways most publicly active academics, anthropologist Jan Brøgger (Aftenposten 6-22-91). Many of the critical replies were based on knowledge of English and American developments, and also cited similarity to witch beliefs known from history and anthropology as a reason for more skeptical inquiry.
Such criticism may have caused some doubts, but the theme of «organized Satanism» and ritual abuse continued as the dominant interpretative frame in the media (Dagbladet 8-3-91, 10-20-91, 2-23-92). More «survivors» came forward in response to the news, as Core/Harrison and the police lieutenant cooperated in their quest. Interestingly, though, during Norway’s only «ritual abuse» panic, the Bjugn kindergarten case of 1992 and beyond, news reports contained no mention of Satanism, though they did mention the influence of Kee MacFarlane on the therapy used and interviewed Bill Thompson, a British criminologist with several papers critical of SRA claims.
As summer 1992 hit Norway, allegations started again, this time compounded by the sudden «explosion» of young «Satanists» involved in various kinds of criminal behavior, including assault, assault with a deadly weapon, desecration of graveyards, and possession of illicit substances. Arson was hinted to be a «Satanic» act, the first church-burning taking place on 6-6-91 (allegedly at 6 a.m., thus providing the third digit of the devil’s number «666»). Several arrests were made late in the summer. This competed as the central issue after the first criminal arrests, and took over more or less completely after January 1993.
For a long time there was nothing approaching consensus as to how this phenomenon is to be interpreted. For instance: In June a «ritual site,» a grotto containing stolen crosses and graffiti, was found outside Stavanger. Bishop Bjørn Bue, approached for comment, saw it solely as youth activity (Stavanger Aftenblad 6-15-92). In August, though, he linked the same grotto to widespread organized criminal Satanic activity (Dagbladet 8-5-92). Sexual abuse of minors (girls of 13-14) by Black Metal musicians in Bergen (aged 17+) was mentioned, but never substantiated, and the case seems never to have gone to trial. (One 17-year-old arsonist in Stavanger was later convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl.) These reports were linked to the O.T.O. and the police lieutenants claims from the previous summer, rather than to the Black Metal scene (Bergens Tidende 7-14-92).
As adolescent «Satanists» attacked young evangelists in the streets of Kristiansand, and others were arrested for one of the several church burnings this summer, public interest exploded. Over 20 newspapers and journals published editorials, interviews and analyses of the phenomenon (Vårt Land 9-3-91). SRA claims for the last time became a main issue. In a burst of activity from 10-15 October 1992, Vårt Land produced a series of articles on the topic. Five pages were devoted to a long description of alleged SRA survivor «Astrid» and the context of her story (the Norwegian scene, described by anonymous police and therapists, and British «true crime stories»). Also included was a long interview with Black Metal band-leader and store owner Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. «Euronymous,» soon to become the victim of Norway’s most notorious «Satanic murder.» The journalist carefully pointed out that these kinds of Satanism are separate issues, but the juxtaposition of stories implied a link.
The next days were devoted mostly to general debate on «Satanism,» mostly as a sign of cultural crisis. But Astrid’s story is followed up both in Vårt Land (10-15-92) where it was called a «spook story» in a television debate («Holmgang», TV2 10-13-92) and in a journalists’ magazine (Journalisten 10-23-92). Nevertheless, claims of secretive Satanic cults involved in horrendous crimes began to fade into the background. The SRA mythos resurfaced briefly when two books were published, one on black magic in contemporary occultism (Karl Milton Hartveit, Djevelen danser, Gyldendal 1993), the other on ritual abuse in general (Eva Lundgren, La de små barn komme til meg, Cappelen 1994). Debate on this issue, however, was peripheral. Reports of SRA surfaced a few times more in general accounts of «Satanism,» mostly as part of interviews. Two long interviews with Core and Harrison appeared in a Christian journal (Troens Verden 3-92, 4-92). There were also some articles in Aftenposten (9-5-93, 6-25-94, 94-08-15), some skeptical reviews of the book on ritual abuse, and a few radio-debates (I participated in two of these). TV2 aired a British documentary from Britain which promoted claims of a conspiracy that included the royal family. Even the announcer was embarrassed.
By 1993, the main perception of Satanism in Norway was controlled by the sudden high visibility of teenagers, mostly aged 15-18 years old (but ranging from 14 to 25), who were playing with the identity of being evil. Some times they would claim to be Nazis, some times Satanists, some times Odinists, and at other points they would refuse any label other than ‘evil’, spouting statements such as: «We’re not Nazis. The Nazis only hated the Jews, we hate everyone.» Or, «We’re not racists, we want all people to suffer.» Or, «If our music causes people to commit suicide, that’s good. It weeds out the weak.»
They got the opportunity to air this philosophy when some of them also acted on it. Starting with the attacks on young evangelists late in July 1992, the majority of stories about Satanism were concerned with Black Metal «Satanists» and their crimes. During the period of 1991-1993, several people were beaten, some stabbed, at least one girl (15) was raped, allegedly by two seventeen year old arsonists, of which one was convicted of a lesser charge, and two people were murdered. The first was an adult homosexual who apparently enraged a young «Satanist» by propositioning him. The second was Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. «Euronymous,» a major figure on the Black Metal scene, killed by his best friend, Varg (Kristian) Vikernes a.k.a. «Count Grisnakh.»
As the case went to trial, the murderer got plenty of attention: His statements provided good copy, and their printing them gave Vikernes a perfect opportunity to promote his image as the prototypical «Viking-Satanist,» although he had long ago abjured the label «Satanist,» preferring «Odinist» and later «Nationalsocialist.» Vikernes seems to have been at least modestly successful, as he is still the subject of a lot of attention, and quite a few of the «Satanists» have cut their hair and joined the ranks of the growing neo-Nazi movement (Aftenposten 2-20-95).
While some attacked people, most attacked property by desecrating graveyards and burning churches. Over the next three years around forty churches are set ablaze, most of them by young people identifying themselves with the anti-Christian image of Black Metal «Satanists» and inspired by the actions taken by others. Initial doubts were dispelled, as churches continued to be burned, and «Satanists» down to the age of 14 were arrested (Aftenposten 9-3-93). In some places, interest in alleged ritual sites approached panic, and anything unusual could be interpreted as signs of Satanic activity. The drive towards action was even larger among some churchgoers. Police and congregations several times kept nightly watch over churches with variable success. Some of these churches were burned down at later dates, when watchfulness declined. Not all were as conscientious as 67 year old Victor Anderson, priest in the Trinity church in Oslo. According to Aftenposten (6-8-93) he armed himself with an axe and kept watch in the sacristy at night: «If we are to survive as a cultured nation, society has to strike back at these Plebeians (pøbelveldet),» said Anderson, a veteran in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s religious radio.
As in all such cases, media coverage varied widely in aims and quality, but as the interest approached panic-level, many of the papers delved deeper into the issue, and provided some genuine understanding by printing in-depth interviews of individual «Satanists» (Vårt Land 9-22-93, 9-23-93, Klassekampen 4-16-94). In addition, some provided calming statements:
- «Satanism is no large problem» (Aftenposten 2-11-93),
- «The accused strengthens the church» (Dagen 1-23-93),
- «Arson sets congregation alight» (Aftenposten 4-3-93),
- «Exaggerated fear of Satanism among Christians» (Vårt Land 11-18-92).
Music journalists hastened to separate the different genres of Heavy Metal from the extreme Death Metal subculture. The majority of those involved in the Black Metal scene, they said, did not hold such extreme views, and of those few who did, even fewer acted them out (Dagbladet 1-29-93, 9-1-93). For some of these papers, such depth served as a contrast to other parts of their coverage. And papers not selling on a subscriber base preferred headlines like:
- «14-year olds into Satanic groups,»
- «Razzia at Satanist-Central,»
- «Murdered by Swedish Satanist,» (Dagbladet 1-23-93, 5- 28-93, 8-11-93), or
- «Worships Evil» (VG 1-22-93).
The number of church burnings eventually declined, public attention dwindled, but the image of Satanism as a «youth problem» seems to have been firmly established. During the phenomenon, two main interpretations were in competition. The first consisted of cultural criticism directed towards either secularization, the church or both. Some of these interpretations saw several factors, like rock, fantasy novels, role-playing games or several sorts of occultism as causing the trend of adolescent Satanism (VG 7-29-92, 7-30-92, Vårt Land 10-14-92, Aftenposten 9-21-93).
Others were more interested in the poverty of experiential dimensions in the mainstream of the Lutheran church. One priest on the conservative, pro-symbolism liturgical wing of the church (Norway has a national, Lutheran church) wanted to bring back the office of exorcist into the church (Vårt Land 8-4-92, Dagbladet 8-5-92). This sparked a semi-separate debate within the church on how to meet «Satanism.» Most agreed that exorcism was not the answer (Dagbladet 8-5-92, 8-16-92, Vårt Land 8-6-92, Stavanger Aftenblad 9-7-92, Klassekampen 10-8-92).
Some Christians used (and still use) adolescent Satanism as proof of the failure of secularization. This was one of many strands of thought also covered by Karl Milton Hartveit, one of the most widely cited experts. He stressed the religious dimension of Satanism among adolescents, and connected it closely to the ideologies of Crowley and LaVey. But he also saw adolescent Satanism as connected more broadly with the secularization of church and social life, and condemned the church for closing its doors to the brighter side of the occult (VG 8-6-92, 9-23-93, Dagbladet 9-23-93, Hartveit 1993).
Hartveit also expressed the second main interpretation: that Satanic symbols and violent actions were used as signs of rebellion in a society where all other effects had been «used up» by previous generations. Music journalists also favored such an interpretation (Dagbladet 4-16-94, Arbeiderbladet 1-22-93, Skepsis 4-94). This interpretation is not necessarily opposed to the cultural criticism offered by clergy and occultists like Hartveit, but it was often offered as an antidote to the assimilation of Satanism with rock and fantasy genres, and located Satanism more narrowly as an extremist part of adolescent subculture. Attempts to frame «Satanic» extremism within a larger perspective were often connected to other problems of adolescent extremism like the growth of neo-Nazism.
While larger societal trends are rarely mentioned from this perspective, there was one trend commented on: As many of the people interpreting Black Metal Satanism narrowly were journalists, there was some tendency to frame extremist acts of arson and murder as part of a dynamic involvement with the media.
One journalist wrote me: «Rock’n’roll Satanism existed as a peripheral subculture. With the reports about ‘bourgeois’ Satanism [SRA, murder, conspiracy etc.], a picture of Satanists as dangerous were constructed. Disturbed souls such as ‘Count’ Vikernes then got a free ticket to publicity.» With publicity and the first crimes, a spiraling process was started, the hypothesis goes, with different people competing for «street credibility» and being the «real Satanists,» i.e., the most evil. The media happily assisted in creating new headlines. He concludes: «To turn Jerry Rubin’s saying around: ‘We create reality wherever we go by living our nightmares.'»
Other centrally placed observers seems to agree: Attention begat action, and once the snowball was rolling, it became impossible to stop. The stories became scripts for actions and created reality.
Postscript, dateline December 1997
The same police lieutenant and former head of the sex-crimes unit that brought SRA allegations into Norwegian headlines in 1991 had his own demons to grapple with, it seems.
He is now under arrest for indecently exposing himself to the neighbor’s daughter–while her parents were videotaping him. This led to a small avalanche. The police started finding missing and stolen weapons at his place, dating back as far as 1977. Several other women came forward, and other investigations for indecent exposure were uncovered–dating back to the 70’s in his home town up north. The reason for his being removed from the sex-crimes unit finally surfaced as well, as the police reopened the case where he was alleged to have attempted rape on a handicapped woman (in a wheelchair) who came to his office to report abuse from her partner.
This man was perhaps the primary source of the credibility of SRA-allegations in the beginning of the 90’s, and a valued patron of the budding «Save the Children» movement in Norway.
In other news, a Swedish teen-satanist is being investigated for at least one case of murder, supposedly inspired by Norway’s infamous «Count Grisnakh,» a murderer in turn inspired by newsitems about what «real satanists» did.
So it goes.
(added for the world wide web copy)
The author would like to thank Audhild Skoglund, Kjetil Wiedswang and the archives of Skepsis for their generous loan of material.
A great thanks to Professor Bill Ellis for putting my rambling and incoherent attempts at written English into something which appears to me to be readable.
This is an abbreviated version of a much longer, but unfinished paper. A few words about references and sources: from 1993 onwards, my clippings are less representative than for the years 1989-92, as the number of articles exploded in all kinds of media. For the first few years, therefore, the references are pretty much exhaustive as my files go. After this, most of the references are of the «for instance» kind. More could often be cited, from the around 250+ reports I have, and certainly more yet if my files had been anywhere near complete. For the years 1993 onwards, my files from conservative Evangelical paper Dagen are extremely incomplete. Important strands of conservative Christian discussions are therefore missing, as I did not want to rely on faulty memory based on sketchy reading.
This article has previously been in FOAF Tale News.