When teens venture to the Dark Side

A parent's guide to satanism, cults and violent music

Toronto Sun/May 16, 1999
By Cathy Stapells

Colin is 18 years old, a high school graduate and a satanist.

Articulate and well-mannered, he believes the philosophy of the Church of Satan suits how he thinks and sees himself.

"Satanism fits into today's materialistic culture. It's stupid to put faith into something we can't see. Satanism puts the individual first and teaches us not to be mindless followers," he says.

Colin started researching satanism three or four years ago on the Internet. He had an altar set up in his room until his parents insisted he remove it. He owns a ceremonial dagger which he uses to perform self-mutilation rituals. (This is a claim his mother denies because she's looked and can't find any scars.)

However, he says the self-mutilation "provides a strong sense of something spiritual. It's a way of testing yourself by going through the rituals."

Whether he's full of teen bravado, a search for spiritual meaning or on a power trip, Colin certainly got his parents' attention.

"I think he's doing it because it drives me crazy. It's the one way to really bug the crap out of me," says his mother, Diane, 43, who works in the health field. She and her husband also have a 16-year-old son. "He dresses in the Goth look and we have given him ultimatums to get a new wardrobe."

Sociologists say teen rebellion is a part of what draws some teenagers to satanic cults.

"Some are experimenters looking for something different. They're bored or they want to do something to get their parents' attention, and this certainly shakes up people," says Linda Maxwell, a Toronto social worker with experience investigating satanic ritual abuse of children.

This leaves many parents worried about what's happening to teenagers who get involved in satanism, cults, Goth or who listen to dark music by Marilyn Manson, Korn, Iron Maiden and Cradle of Filth.

Parents are concerned the inherent violence in these subcultures is turning their darling children into little monsters who sacrifice animals and small children.

Also a concern is how easily teens can access information on the Internet. Web sites and chatlines bring teenagers in contact with people they'd not know otherwise.

Colin's done much of his research on the Net and spends a lot of time on satanic chatlines. This has caused a rift between him and his parents and they've restricted his computer time and access to the chatlines.

"The Internet has exploded access to material on satanic cults, child abuse, pedophilia, you name it," says Maxwell.

Those who study the lure of deviant subcultures say teens who are drawn to them are often outcasts from mainstream peer groups and are searching for a place to belong.

The same pattern that draws kids into satanism fits the recent situation in Littleton, Colo., where two teenagers went on a high school rampage, killing 13 people before turning the guns on themselves.

"You've got alienated kids who don't fit in with teen peer groups. And sometimes it turns into violence and revenge," says Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "Peer groups have enormous influence over kids. We must be careful about blaming parents."

The need for empowerment by adolescents on the outside looking in can draw some towards satanism.

"These are kids on the fringe, outsiders. They often have problems at home and suffer from low self-esteem. Often the other kids are afraid of them, so it gives them identity, strength and a sense of power," says Maxwell. "To help them, you've got to deal with the underlying psychological issues so they feel okay about themselves."

Kent says he knows one 15-year-old girl involved in a satanic group who was used for sex and to recruit other members. She had come from a neglectful family.

"She told me that at least in the group she always felt she belonged," he says. But "it gives her a false sense of power and control. This is common with all deviant subgroups by the way in which they get power, meaning and status with their peers."

He cautions that not all subgroups are harmful. "It's only when they lead to or require acts of violence they become extremely problematic," he says.

It is uncertain just how many teens may be dabbling in satanic cults. Scientific research is limited, with only a few studies undertaken on teen involvement.

"One study reported 3% of young adults involved in satanism. In another study of Utah social workers, 20% reported cases of teenage satanic activity," says Dr. Michael Langone, a psychologist and executive director of the American Family Foundation, which provides information on religions and cults.

"Most teenagers don't have these problems. There's a small group that are rebellious or get involved because of a lack of parental attention. I've seen one serious teen, but he was psychotic and had other problems," says Dr. Andre Gagnon, professor of psychiatry at the University of Ottawa, who co-authored a 1988 study on satanism in adolescents.

A check of various social service agencies in Toronto who deal with adolescents found that teen fascination with satanic cults comes and goes.

"It's a phase some kids go through, a fascination with different kinds of music. The music's a way to find a different meaning of life and to determine a value system," says Michelle Anderson, program supervisor of Covenant House's Outreach program.

The narcissism in satanism also appeals to some teenagers.

"Satanism is total self-indulgence, total self power. It offers a complete licence to indulge in everything. This is very attractive to teens who are egocentric. It gives them power and an identity," says Maxwell.

Sometimes defiant teens adopt satanic symbols as an immediate way to challenge the mainstream as they seek alternatives to more established religions.

"Some are intellectually drawn to satanic ideology as a rejection of mainstream religion. It's a debate about the meaning of God," suggests Maxwell.

Colin likens the philosophy of the nine satanic rules to the 10 commandments.

"Satanist philosophy makes more sense than Christianity. For example, one of the 10 commandments says to 'love thy neighbour.' But if you love everyone, doesn't it water down what love is? Christianity is really weak, because you can't expect everyone to love each other," he says.

People have been turning away from mainstream religion since the '60s and the Death of God movement, says David Reed, professor of theology at Wycliffe College/U of T. Through the whole New Age movement of the last three decades, people have searched for alternative religions to fill the spiritual void and gain more control over their lives.

"People want designer gods. They pick and choose from various religions trying to see if it fits, whether it's eastern meditation philosophies, wicca or satanism," says Reed. "People who are vulnerable emotionally are attracted to the darker side of satanism."

To help clear up confusion parents might have about another controversial religion, Wicca, Reed says it's essentially a benign earth-based religion which is attractive to young women because of its focus on a feminine deity.

"While white Wicca is okay, people can open up to a dimension of the spiritual that is demonic. There is black magic alongside white magic. There is a concern that some teens, particularly males, will go from one to the other to feel the power they don't have in the social area," he warns.

The whole notion of satanism as a philosophy, a practice or a religion is highly debatable.

Bruce Robinson of the Centre for Religious Tolerance, which is an information resource on religions and cults, divides satanism into four categories:

1) Religious satanists: Adults who follow the ideology and belief systems of the satanic bible (written by Anton LaVey). The Centre reports there are 20,000 members throughout North America.

2) Psychotics: Multiple murderers, psychotic killers and loners who are mentally ill and use satanism to justify killing. "The devil made me do it" types.

3) Sophisticated network of satanists: During the "satanic panic" of the 1980s, many people were convinced an underground, well-hidden network of cults practised animal and human sacrifice. This group has never been proven to exist.

4) Pedophiles: Groups of weirdos and child molesters who engage in sexual abuse and satanic ritual to scare the living daylights out of children. Intergenerational ritual abuse fits into this category.

5) Dabblers: This is where most teen satanists fit in. They are often just playing around with satanic symbols and don't really understand satanic ideology. They're cruising the Internet and reading books on satanism, magic and wicca.

"They may sacrifice an apple, chop a bug in two, or maybe, rarely, will sacrifice a cat or dog. Usually a phase of teen rebellion," says Robinson.

Colin says he's never hurt anyone or sacrificed animals, which he says is an activity that belongs to devil worshippers, not satanists. He continues to talk with people over the chatlines when he can and meets with a few local friends who share his beliefs in satanic philosophy

While Colin's parents struggle with his interest in satanism, the situation is all the more difficult for his mother, who was a victim of intergenerational ritual abuse between the ages of five and 18. She was gang raped by cult members, forced to have sex with animals and participate in animal sacrifice, subjected to cold water and animal urine enemas and put into pits with snakes and rodents.

The whole issue of satanic ritual abuse is controversial. Some people question the truthfulness of childhood memories, which are often not recovered for decades. In Colin's mother's case, she was 30 years old before the memories started to resurface.

"People who want to be skeptical about this, will be. But who wants to make this up? It's hell. It's humiliating and painful," says Diane. "I feel strongly that people should know about it, it's been in the dark for too long."

A Toronto psychologist says the focus on satanic rituals confuses the main issue, which is child abuse. Pedophiles and kiddie pornographers use quasi-religious techniques to cover their tracks.

"I think it's about child abuse and pedophiles and not wanting to get caught for something that society says is wrong," says Dr. Harvey Armstrong, a psychologist with the Parents for Youth organization and who has counselled victims of ritual abuse.

Colin says he's aware of the abuse his mother suffered. "I try to respect what mom went through," he says.

It's understandable parents will be concerned if their teens are dressing in black, putting up pentagrams in their bedrooms and listening to Marilyn Manson, who is an ordained priest of the Church of Satan.

But does that mean they're going to turn into killers like Oklahoma's Sean Sellers? He was 16 years old in 1986 when he killed his parents and another man, because "the devil made him do it." (He was executed last February after spending 13 years on Death Row.)

Psychologists say those cases are extremely rare.

For parents who are concerned their teens are treading into dark territory, Maxwell offers a few suggestions.

"Stay cool. Don't be paranoid just because your kid is wearing black. Consider how deeply your child is involved. Does he understand the theology? Does he have paraphernalia? Does he engage in rituals?" she says.

If parents think the situation is getting out of hand, they should consult their family doctor who will refer them to a health professional for an assessment.

"What they should be concerned about is why they're getting into it. Sit down and talk with your kid to see where it's all coming from. Is it an intellectual discussion or a peer problem?" says Maxwell.

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