LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
About three-quarters of the way through In the Name of Satan, the second of a Channel 4 series about the recent history of attitudes to child abuse, someone asked a pertinent question: "Am I getting so interested that I'm getting a bit excited by it, a bit titillated by it?" The question was put by Professor Elizabeth Newson, a child psychologist, and she offered it as the sort of self-interrogation which social workers should keep close at hand when investigating cases involving ritual elements. By this stage of an infuriating film it struck you as being an important question for directors too.

I don't think John Williams had bothered to ask it of himself, or if he did he got the wrong answer. His documentary ended with a plausible thesis - that allegations of satanic abuse have been so widely discredited over the last few years that abusers may deliberately add occult flourishes to their activities as a kind of insurance policy. There was no hard evidence advanced for this but, given the malice of abusers (and given their willing exploitation of childish fears) it makes a kind of sense - while corrupting children they could corrupt the victim's testimony as well, planting seeds of incredulity which would bloom under the light of inspection.

But to get to this modest conclusion (offered, with breathtaking audacity, as a vindication of earlier hysteria about satanic abuse rather than a shamefaced confession of the damage it had done) you had to endure a muddled narrative, much of it adorned with gothic decorations - monstrous masks, cloaked figures, spooky music. All very titillating, I'm sure - they must have particularly enjoyed editing the reconstruction of child sacrifice, in which the silhouette of an inverted baby was followed by a shot of stage blood dripping into a metal cup. But what are we to make of such self-indulgent exercises in heavy-metal horror? In what sense can you reconstruct an event which almost certainly never took place (exhaustive police investigations turned up no evidence of such crimes, a point made by the programme itself)? This is a subject which demands clarity of vision - and that is hardly made easier by swirling clouds of dry ice.

The script didn't help, repeatedly falling to the temptation to inject supernatural glamour into what purported to be an account of human error. "How we loved the Devil" the voice-over said, describing the tabloid passion for satanic abuse in the Eighties, "but how we underestimated his chaotic power." Later, after noting that the NSPCC had circulated an advisory paper alerting its workers to "satanic indicators" the voice-over delivered one of those ominous sentences with which directors like to go into the ad-break: "Such reports undoubtedly brought credibility to Satan's role. And he was about to make another appearance - in Rochdale." The syntax implied that Satan was as tangibly real as a dodgy businessman, touring his outlets in the North.

There are people who believe that he is, of course. In particular the wilder fringes of Christian evangelism, who energetically promoted the idea of satanic abuse in the first place. And it was another of the weaknesses of Williams' film that you were given next to no information about the array of "experts" he had assembled - nothing that would help you place their opinions in any kind of context of private motive or previous record. Ray Wyre, for example, a believer in satanic abuse, was described as a "consultant on sex offenders", a self-appointed status which left you clueless about his professional qualifications or personal circumstances. Another woman, fighting for parents she believed had been wrongly accused, was described as a "voluntary child protection worker", an odd credential that told you nothing about her qualifications to intervene in such complex matters. In the Name of Satan raised a genuinely worrying problem - the way in which the evidence of abused children has been made into an object of suspicion - but almost everything it did added to the murk and confusion rather than diminishing it.

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