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What is an urban folk tale?

These are a type of rumor that:
bullet involves unknown people (typically a friend of a friend)
bullet has been heard by almost everyone
bullet spreads very quickly
bullet is quite believable
bullet is of an event that never happened

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Examples of urban folk tales

Some older examples of urban folk tales were:
bullet During the 17th and 18th century, stories circulated about large numbers of young white women having been kidnapped by natives and badly abused.
bullet During the late 19th century, a series of small, anti-Roman Catholic books were written. They described allegedly true accounts of events in convents, including the killing of infants. Perhaps the most famous of the books was "The Adventures of Maria Monk". This piece of hate literature was still being circulated in the mid 1950's, at least in Northern Ontario, Canada.
bullet During the early 20th century, books and pamphlets were circulated, describing how evil foreigners were kidnapping young innocent girls who had left their farm to live in the city. The stories involved allegedly true accounts of some of the thousands of girls who were believed to have been lured into a life of prostitution.

Some typical modern urban folk tales are:
bullet Alligators in the New York city sewer system
bullet The couple that fell in love with a cute dog while on vacation, smuggled it back into the US, and later found it to be a Mexican sewer rat
bullet Children cooking live cats in a microwave
bullet Evil people putting pins and razor blades in Halloween apples
bullet A terminally ill boy who wants to get into the Guinness Book of Records by collecting the largest number of business cards in history.

Occasionally, some group will research one of these folk tales and show that it is a hoax.

This essay deals with religiously-motivated urban folk tales.

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The Satanic cult legend

One of the most tenacious hoax involves imaginary evil religious groups who engage in the ritual murder of children. This story describes an evil religious cult which is engaging in degenerate sexual orgies, kidnapping babies, conducting human sacrifices, drinking blood and eating the flesh of their victims. It has many points of similarities to Urban Folk Tales: many people believe it to be true, even though it is not. This tale differs somewhat from most urban folk tales, because:
bullet it has lasted for almost two millennia;
bullet the group blamed for the abuse changed continually through the centuries (from Christians in the late first century CE to Satanists today);
bullet it surfaces from time to time, typically in rural areas, and can trigger a Satanic panic - a mass hysteria in which a many adults fear that their children are in imminent danger.

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History of the legend

This belief is directly traceable back to the first few centuries CE when the early Christians were in conflict with the Roman authorities. The government created false rumors in order to facilitate persecution of the Church:
bullet They twisted elements of the Eucharist and said that the wine and wafer were really the blood and flesh of ritually killed babies.
bullet They noted that Christians often picked up newborns who had been abandoned to die of exposure. The Christians then placed the babies in loving families to be raised. The rumor implied that they were really collecting babies for human sacrifice..
bullet They implied that the Agape (Love) Feasts were not group meals, but were really excuses to engage in sexual orgies, incest, sexual abuse of children etc. [There appears to be archaeological evidence that Gnostic Christians did engage in ritual sex; they regarded semen as a sacred fluid and consecrated their status with it. However, their rituals only involved adults, not children.]

Minicus Felix, a first century Christian writer, wrote a dialogue "Octavious," between a Pagan and a Christian. He had the Pagan repeat unfounded rumors spread about Christians. One lie involved their behaviors at religious services. The stories allege infant sacrifice, cannibalism and incestuous group sex:

"Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds."

"Thirstily--O horror!--they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence. Such sacred rites as these are more foul than any sacrileges. And of their banqueting it is well known all men speak of it everywhere; even the speech of our Cirtensian testifies to it. On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervor of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound, to rush and spring; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate. Although not all in fact, yet in consciousness all are alike incestuous, since by the desire of all of them everything is sought for which can happen in the act of each individual."

Later in the dialogue, Felix rejects these stories as unfounded.

The legend remained inactive for many centuries only to surface again shortly after the end of the first millennium. Many people had expected the end of the world would occur in 1000 CE and that Jesus would return in triumph. They were bitterly disillusioned when life continued as normal. Their anger was directed against the church, which retaliated by dusting off the Roman rumor. This time, it was directed against heretics and other dissenters, who were burned at the stake.

Between 1022 and 1792, the same lie was repeatedly applied against lepers, Jews, heretics, Cathars, Knights Templar, and Witches. The persecution of the Witches was particularly awful. It was directed at followers of the Old Religion, the Wiccan religion of the ancient Celts. The killings lasted over three hundred years and resulted in the torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; most were women; most died by burning at the stake (in Roman Catholic lands) or by hanging (in Protestant countries). There were suggestions of the same rumor during the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was accused of kidnapping, killing and drinking the blood of poor children.

The legend remained relatively inactive during the 19th century, only to re-emerge in the 1930's when it was used by Nazi Germany against the Jews and Gypsies. The story remained unaltered; only the victimized group was changed. The lie was subsequently used by the USSR against the Jews.

It emerged in 1980 in North America with the publishing of the book Michelle Remembers, the first of the fraudulent Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) survivor stories. (This book was later investigated by three separate groups and found to be a hoax.) In 1994 the rumor was directed by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church against Evangelical Christian missionaries who were accused of eating babies for breakfast.

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Future of the legend

The long-running belief in SRA is believed to be more related to our fascination with evil, demonic activity rather than to any reality. Numerous government studies have concluded that no Satanic conspiracy exists. Hard evidence has never been found. However, belief in the legend continues. It is supported by:
bullet A widespread and increasing belief in the existence of the devil. The General Social Survey (GSS) of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found in 1991 that 65.4% of adult Americans believed that the Devil either probably or definitely exists. This is the highest percentage of any industrialized country other than Ireland. A Barna Research study in 2001 found that only 27% of the adult population strongly disagrees that Satan is just a symbol of evil.
bullet Past discussion of SRA on TV talk shows
bullet Plenty of soft evidence, the memories of SRA survivors recovered during therapy (one author conservatively estimates 1 million Americans per year enter therapy and recover memories of childhood sexual abuse during the 1980s and 1990s; this implies about 200,000 per year recover memories of SRA)
bullet Horror movies which often have a Satanic theme.
bullet Projection of parents' guilt onto a scapegoated group.
bullet Promotion of SRA during seminars and in books by "survivors" and conservative Christians, now in rapid decline.
bullet The need to have a new enemy to fear, after the fall of Communism.
bullet General public anxiety over the imminent end of the world.

There is evidence that the legend's target is shifting. During the 1980's, Satanists were almost exclusively blamed for the abuse. SRA promoters now realize that there are very few Satanists in North America - certainly not enough to create all the abuse that is supposed to occur. Seminar leaders and authors are now pointing at benign religious groups (New Agers, Quakers, small Christian and Jewish groups, Wiccans, etc.), at criminal gangs, at men's fraternal organizations, and at self-help/mutual support groups.

We hope that the legend will eventually fade from view - perhaps by the year 2010. Several factors will contribute to this:
bullet Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian authors and seminar leaders who are promoting the SRA belief system are being increasingly exposed as frauds by fellow Christian and by Pagan groups;
bullet 30 years will have passed without any hard evidence of SRA. Eventually, people will realize that it does not exist;
bullet A consensus will be reached within the mental health community about recovered memories of SRA. We expect that memories revealed during therapy (involving guided imagery, hypnotism, age regression, etc.) will be found to be false memories. These are recollections which feel real, which are believed in by both therapist and client, but which are of events that never happened.

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SRA revisited

Since the above essay was written in 1995, there is further evidence that the "SRA" craze is diminishing. There appears to have been a major reduction in accusations of childhood sexual abuse based on recovered memory therapy. With this reduction has been a parallel reduction in accusations of SRA.

 Authors and lecturers are still making a good living today raising public hysteria about secret groups abusing children. However, they are now accusing men's fraternal organizations, criminal gangs, self-help groups and others, rather than focusing exclusively on Satanists.

The hoax still surfaces from time to time. The most recent case was in Lewis Island, off the coast of Scotland. In 1993-OCT, several adults were accused of conducting abusive Satanic rituals, and arrested. The charges were without merit. More details.

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  1. Jan H Brunvand, "Curses! Broiled Again!: The Hottest Urbal Legends Going," W.W. Norton, (1990). Read a review and/or order this book from
  2. Jan H Brunvand, "The Choking Doberman and other 'New' Urban Legends", W.W. Norton, (1986). Review and/or order
  3. Jan H Brunvand, "The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends", W.W. Norton, (1994). Review and/or order
  4. Jan H Brunvand, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings", W.W. Norton, (1989). Review and/or order

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Copyright 1995 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-DEC-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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