The banal horrors

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Hi. I’m back from burying my grandparents in Ohio. It was wonderful to see the maternal half of my family again for the first time since October.

I began watching the Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness on Netflix recently.

The premise of this docuseries is that the guy the cops arrested and the courts convicted for the Son of Sam murders wasn’t the real killer. Or at least didn’t act alone.

So in Season 1, Episode 2 we start exploring whether a Satanic cult may have been involved. I believes this is when the show introduces “Occult Historian” Gary Lachman.

Here’s what Lachman has to say about this theory:

These [occult] groups are driven by this notion of extremes. It’s transgressive, slightly shocking. Excess in all directions. They find the normal world either boring or too constraining, or it doesn’t recognize them. There’s a sensibility. It wants this kind of anarchic, you know, fantastic utopia and if we can just throw ourselves into that, we can help bring it about. I’m not surprised that, more than one occasion, things probably got out of hand. I wouldn’t say it was inconceivable that there could have been a sudden eruption of violence. Random acts of violence can be justified in ideology that finds the modern world horrible. People are motivated by very strange things.

As a You’re Wrong About superstan I’m on high alert for instances of Satanic Panicking. This is just like, textbook.

Everything Lachman is saying sounds accurate enough. But it’s extremely, extremely suggestive. If you already have ideas about “the occult” then you’re going to come away with the idea that it’s very plausible that a group of Satan worshipers committed or was at least involved in all or some of the Son of Sam murders.

You see how suggestive it is by thinking about how well it applies to many groups. For example:

Let’s try it:

The Catholic church is driven by this notion of extremes. It’s transgressive, slightly shocking. Excess in all directions. They find the normal world either boring or too constraining, or it doesn’t recognize them. There’s a sensibility. It wants this kind of anarchic, you know, fantastic utopia and if we can just throw ourselves into that, we can help bring it about. I’m not surprised that, more than one occasion, things probably got out of hand. I wouldn’t say it was inconceivable that there could have been a sudden eruption of violence. Random acts of violence can be justified in ideology that finds the modern world horrible. People are motivated by very strange things.

It’s also interesting how he describes “groups” without even alluding a single specific example of any such particular group.

According to Vox, the Satanic Panic began at least in part in response to the Manson murders. The Manson Family obscured the motivations for their murders to distract from themselves and in an attempt to start a race war. But the narrative at the time, and one that endures, is that the group was an occult group. Which, according to a broad enough definition of “occult” is true as far as it goes. But any definition broad enough to include the Catholic church is probably not a very useful definition.

In fact, as far as I know, every murder or instance of sexual abuse attributed to Satan worshipers either didn’t happen or wasn’t done by Satanists. During the 80s and 90s America spent millions of dollars prosecuting many innocent people who ended up spending years in prison.

How did this happen? You can see it in the docuseries. The “evidence” presented linking the Son of Sam letters to the occult is extremely weak. For example, one letter contained the phrase "I'll be back. I'll be back." Lachman claims it’s an occult phrase because Satan says it in one obscure fantasy novel. But the phrase "I'll be back. I'll be back." is also used 5 million other places, according to Google, including in Crazy Sunday, a 1933 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The example is as much evidence that the Son of Sam is a Fitzgerald fan than that he’s a Satanist. If fact, in isolation, the former is a more reasonable assumption, considering how much more popular Fitzgerald is than James Blish.

In the beginning of the quote, Lachman defines the occult as “the study of the invisible things.” Invisible things are notoriously hard to study. They, or at least their effects, must be observable to humans in some way in order for us to be able to study them.

Invisible things are super easy to make up though.

“Once you start looking for these things, you start to find them,” Lachman said. “It’s like a language you can read. And others can’t read it.”

Lachman is correct to say it was conceivable that there could have been a sudden eruption of violence within occult groups. But, as far as I can tell, there is not one shred of credible evidence of any instances of Satanic ritual violence against humans.

Why not study, and adequately address, the visible things? Satan didn’t make Charles Manson attract more than 100 people into his weird cult and manipulate some of them into murdering folks in the hope of starting a race war. All the evidence indicates a combination of childhood neglect and sexual assault fueled the flames of Manson’s existing, likely somewhat genetic, dark personality traits. This led to him teaching himself how to use religion to control and manipulate others, especially women, so he could sexually abuse them and act out his racist fantasies.

That’s how crime works in the real world. Personality is most likely a combination of nature and nurture. And when you combine an inherited tendency toward the “dark triad” personality traits (sociopathy, narcissism, and psychopathy) with early childhood abuse and neglect you get violent and criminal behavior.

Manson is hardly the only American male narcissistic cult leader to use religion to manipulate and control women. But he’s one of the few who aren’t Evangelical Christians.

If the goal is to prevent crime and violence, why invent invisible dark forces to fight when we already know that racism, misogyny, certain religious teachings, and child abuse and neglect are vital fulcrum points? Not to mention, each of these would be worth fighting even if they didn’t measurably lead to crime and violence.

I think it’s cowardice. QAnon is cowardice. The “sex trafficking” moral panic is cowardice. All conspiracy theories are cowardice.

In every case we use a fun mystery — full of novelty, excitement, and intrigue — to distract ourselves from the banal horrors that are right in front of us if we care to look.