While organized Satanism includes quite small groups, social scientists have studied Satanism mostly as the subject matter of juvenile deviance and social panics. Satanism may be defined as the adoration of the figure known in the Bible as the Devil or Satan. Its first incarnation was in the circle operating at the Versailles court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) around Catherine La Voisin (ca. 1640-80) and the defrocked Catholic priest Father Guibourg (1603-83), who invented the so called ”Black Mass,” a parody of the Roman Catholic Mass. La Voisin was burned at the stake in 1680 and Guibourg died in jail in 1683. Small rings imitating what they had read of the group were subsequently discovered in France, Italy, and Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the 1880s, reporter Jules Bois (1868-1943) and novelist Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) explored the French occult underworld, and in 1891 Huysmans published his bestselling novel on Satanism, La has (Down There), which included one of the most famous literary descriptions of a Black Mass. Public opinion overreacted and sensational revelations of a worldwide Satanic conspiracy were offered to the French public by journalist Leo Taxil (1854-1907). Taxil, claiming to be an ex-Freemason converted to Catholicism, revealed that a Satanist organization called Palladism was behind Freemasonry and anti-clericalism. Eventually, in 1897, Taxil confessed that both his revelations and conversion to Catholicism had been a hoax conceived in order to convince the world just how gullible the anti-Masonic Catholics of his time actually were.

Although a body of literature inspired by the Taxil fraud continued to be published well into the twentieth century, anti-Satanism was largely discredited until British magus Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) shocked his contemporaries by styling himself ”the Beast 666” and ”the wickedest man in the world.” Crowley made use of Satanic imagery and is still regarded by many as the founding father of contemporary Satanism. The British occultist, however, was a ”magical atheist” who did not believe in the actual existence of Satan; and, although he has been influential on later Satanic movements, he cannot be regarded as a Satanist in the most technical sense of the term. On the other hand, it is true that Crowley enthusiasts, including movie director Kenneth Anger, were instrumental in creating the Church of Satan.

The latter’s founder, Anton Szander LaVey (1930-97), joined a Crowleyan group in 1951, and through this milieu he came into contact with Anger. In 1961 they founded an organization known as the Magic Circle, which gradually evolved into the Church of Satan, founded on April 30, 1966. The Church of Satan did not literally believe in the existence of the Devil. It was more an idiosyncratic and militantly anti-Christian human potential movement, devoted to the exaltation of human beings who, having been freed from religious superstitions and the false Christian notion of sin, would eventually become able to enjoy life and flourish.

In 1968 LaVey met Michael Aquino, an officer and intelligence specialist in the US Army with an academic education, who gradually became the main organizer of the Church of Satan. During the early 1970s, however, a contrast developed between LaVey and Aquino, since the latter believed in the real, physical existence of a character known as Set or Satan, and became increasingly disillusioned with LaVey’s ”rationalist” Satanism. In 1975 Aquino left LaVey and went his separate way into the newly established Temple of Set, probably the largest international Satanist organization still active today.

Currently, after LaVey’s death in 1997, the Church of Satan is largely a mail organization, and has generated several splinter groups, including the First Satanic Church led by LaVey’s own daughter, Karla. The current combined active membership of all organized Satanism does not reach a thousand.

LaVey’s notoriety certainly played a role in the early stages of the anti-Satanist campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. The McMartin case began in 1983, when the principals and a number of teachers of a respected California preschool were accused of operating an underground Satanic cult, which ritually abused and tortured children. Mental health professionals involved in the case were later accused of having ”planted” the stories in the children’s minds, based on their own theories about Satanism. The McMartin trial ended in 1990 with no convictions. It had an enormous media impact, however, and undoubtedly had something to do with the hundreds of subsequent similar accusations of Satanic ritual abuses in both day care centers and in family settings. Although complete statistical data are lacking, it is possible that as many as 2,000 cases of Satanic ritual abuse of children were investigated in the decade 1983-92, with only a handful of convictions. Sociologists and other academics emerged as the most vocal critics of the theory of a secret Satanic network. In 1994 two official reports, one by the US National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, and one by sociologist Jean S. La Fontaine on behalf of the UK government, concluded that stories of Satanic ritual abuse were largely figments of the accusers’ imaginations. In subsequent years, the number of court cases involving allegations of Satanic ritual abuse sharply decreased.

The debate on the alleged Satanic ritual abuse of children should not be confused with discussions of adolescent Satanism. There is little doubt that there are gangs of teenagers performing some sort of homemade Satanic ritual (copied from comics, books, or movies), often also involving drugs. These teenagers are often guilty of minor crimes such as vandalism or animal sacrifice. In fewer than a dozen cases over the last two decades, more serious crimes appear to have been com mitted, including a handful of murders, some of them uncovered in northern Italy in 2004. In these cases, it is difficult to determine whether drugs, gang-related violence, or Satan worship are mostly responsible for crimes which do not appear to be related to organized Satanism.


  1. Introvigne, M. (1997) Enquête sur le satanisme. Satanistes et anti satanistes du XVII” siècle a nos jours (Investi­gating Satanism: Satanists and Anti-Satanists from the 17th to the 20th Century). Dervy, Paris.
  2. Richardson, J. T., Best, J., & Bromley, D. G. (Eds.) (1991) The Satanism Scare. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
  3. Victor, J. S. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Open Court, Chicago.

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