Let’s face it, if you want a career in religious studies, not all religions will give you the same earning potential and the more obscure your field of research, the worse off you are. Back at the turn of the last century, esoteric manuscripts about the Occult were a hit with celebrities and the wealthy, but today, they’re old hat, seen either as a bunch of people having fun rather than a “serious” exploration of the supernatural, or as communes with demonic evil in fundamentalist circles. So what’s a budding theologian to do when he finds that his dabbling in something he calls Satanism holds no money in it? Why, turn his gothic fun into scary tales for Christians terrified by the shows put on by the Church of Satan and milk their popularity for all he can, of course!
That was a strategy employed by Mike Warnke who claimed to be a former Satanic High Priest presiding over ritual orgies, kidnapping and rape, and even sacrifice to the Devil himself. Then, he stopped doing drugs and found Jesus who saved his soul and lead him into the life of a minister and Christian comedian. Yes, it’s not exactly anything new and exciting for us today but in 1973 it was a pretty original piece of work, coming on the heels of Anton LaVey’s gimmick to scare and confuse Christians with grossly over-exaggerated rituals he tied to Satan. Warnke’s timing was impeccable and his story was just juicy, lurid and scary enough to capture the minds of the faithful who have a fascination for anything dark and evil. His book, The Satan Seller, was like a b-level horror flick. Graphic, reveling in sex, drugs and violence, and clearly fake from beginning to end.
But since it was released to a crowd ready and eagerly willing to believe him, doubts didn’t really bubble to the public surface for decades. In the meantime, Warnke performed hundreds of sold out shows per year, was a feature on daytime talk shows, religious programs and even advised police departments on cult behavior in a role where he surely impeded or derailed many an investigation. Spurned by the popularity of his book, other authors started writing about Satanists hiding in people’s back yards or recollections of “Satanic ritual abuse,” the most famous of which was Michelle Remembers, widely credited for inciting full blown witch hunts in a ye old ye style that wouldn’t be out of place in Salem, circa 1600s. Dozens of people were put on trial for abusing children or running Satanic cults, all of them acquitted after the judges got bored listening to paranoia and a panel of so-called experts who didn’t seem to know anything about human memory of behavior.
It took until 1992 for Cornerstone’s investigative journalists to tackle Warnke’s story and prove that pretty much all of his claims were either downright impossible, or very inconsistent. For example, for Warnke and Charles Manson to attend the same Satanic ritual together would’ve required Manson’s release from federal prison. At the same time, for Warnke to have converted in the Navy after being drafted to fight in Vietnam, would raise the question of why he was actively involved with The Campus Crusade for Christ, a fundamentalist evangelical group which seeks to proselytize college students, well before he had anything to do with the military. There was also a disturbing history of spousal abuse to consider. In short, Cornerstone concluded, Warnke was as truthful as an average politician, playing fast and lose with the facts to cash in on a collection of lurid tales with heavy religious overtones.
Though Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott certainly do deserve a pat on the back for their thorough investigation and objectivity in the face of the subject matter involved, writing for a Christian magazine did mean that another very important thing was missed in their article. One fundamental reason why Warnke’s claims should have been dismissed as ridiculous in the first place were his descriptions of Satanism and Satanic rituals. Rather than sacrifice humans or hold ritual orgies, Satanists tend put on a scary, dramatic show or play out some of their fantasies about the dark side of Occult traditions. Other occultists who call themselves Satanists really follow the old, monotheistic tradition of Hermeticism with a Cabbalistic twist thrown in for good measure. The Illuminati sitting at the top of some Satanic hierarchy kidnapping women for ritual orgies? Smells like the Taxil Hoax with a dash of David Icke on the side…
Warnke’s story was so popular because it played on ardent Christians’ lurid fears and lust for graphic tales of sordid ritual abuse and conspiracies by Satanic agents, and despite being exposed as a liar and a fraud, his stories and performances are still sought after and well compensated for the same reasons. And this raises a question of why the people who still take him, and the many “recovering Satanists” he inspired seriously, are so passionate about this kind of stuff, even if their sources are just crassly exploiting their religious devotion and sheer gullibility when it comes to the Occult?
[ illustration courtesy of Ceytin and the Modern Church of Satan ]