The Fear of the Occults and Politics

Massimo Introvigne

An article from Massimo Introvigne

7 december 2016 — Introvigne Massimo is an internationally known sociologist author. Founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of hundreds of books and articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the "Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions" of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In June 2012, he was appointed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as chairperson of the newly instituted Observatory of Religious Liberty, created by the Ministry in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale

Last 18 November prof. Introvigne wrote an interesting article titled “The Fear of the Occults and Politics”. He started describing how the fear of occult in America is at time caused by disinformation, then he moved to the Italian scene showing how also in our country such a fear is generated by the same kind of disinformation that is willingly spread. The article is published on CESNUR website ( and we are publishing it with the permission of the author.


The Fear of the Occult and Politics

An Occult Campaign


Cartoons about Trump as the Devil were not the main occult reference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Much more relevant was the accusation that Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, participated in “Satanic rituals” organized by contemporary artist Marina Abramovič.

mi_fear_occult-3.jpgAn Artist's Story

In fact, Podesta never attended Abramovič’s “spirit cooking” dinners (his brother did). Neither is the artist a Satanist. She elaborated what she called the Abramovič Method, which heals through something that is artistic performance and ritual at the same time. The method uses quartz, crystal, and other sacred stones, magnets, a search for the Earth's energy lines, and old Eastern techniques such as counting the grains of rice. Some of Abramovič’s rituals (including the “spirit cooking”) are derived from Santeria, and she also cooperated with the Brazilian Spiritualist healer John of God and actually served as a Spiritualist medium during some of John’s services.

mi_fear_occult-4.jpgThe Fear of the Elites

Even more interesting than Abramovič’s actual teachings is that accusations that she and the Clinton campaign were somewhat involved in Satanism was widely believed and reported without ridicule even by mainline media. Populist politicians like to depict their enemies as part of secret groups involved in the occult. It started with accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) in revolutionary France, and went on with the campaigns against Freemasonry in the 19th century, where Freemasons were accused – falsely – of worshiping the Devil. Basically, it never stopped. It is part of a certain populist rhetoric. The fear of the occult becomes the fear of the elites

mi_fear_occult-5.jpgHappy Halloween

My second example is about Italy. Before Halloween 2016, I posted on my Facebook page an explanation about the Catholic origins of Halloween. I insisted that the campaign connecting Halloween with Satanism originated with the counter-cult, and rabidly anti-Catholic, American activist Jack T. Chick (1924-2016, right). Italian Catholics repeated his theories ignoring their source


Chick and Halloween

Three arguments of the anti-Halloween campaign, all demonstrably false, did not exist before Chick:
(i) in the night of Halloween, occult and Satanist cults perform their main initiation ceremonies;
(ii) more crimes occur in the night of Halloween than in any other night of the year;
(iii) Church of Satan’s Anton LaVey (1930-1997) encouraged Satanists to persuade Christian parents to let their children participate in Halloween, thus worshiping Satan in that night

The Halloween Wars


The main purpose of my posting was to collect and analyze the reactions. I knew I was stepping into the “Halloween Wars,” opposing every year in Italy those celebrating Halloween and critics arguing that it is a satanic feast

mi_fear_occult-8.jpgA Facebook Survey

As I have 5,000 friends on Facebook of very different persuasions, the study of the reactions (more than 1,000) was statistically significant. 74,8% of the reactions were positive. However, those reacting positively liked and shared, while the opponents (25,2%) were the majority (86%) of those posting increasingly excited comments

mi_fear_occult-9.jpgThe Anti-Halloween Camp

The survey showed that proponents of the satanic origins of Halloween included pseudo-former Satanists turned Evangelicals, Catholic exorcists (which in Italy are still quite active), journalists, anticultists, and even some Catholic bishops

mi_fear_occult-10.jpgEnter Father Buonaiuto

Most of the arguments for the Italian anti-Halloween campaign came from Jack T. Chick, but the journey from Chick to Italy was long. My survey evidenced the crucial role of a specific Italian Catholic exorcist, Father Aldo Buonaiuto (left), who wrote a book on the subject and managed to appear in several talk shows claiming that on Halloween “occult cults” recruit new “victims” and commit serious crimes. Buonaiuto had been investigated for the alleged sexual abuse of a 5-year old boy, but in 2004 he was exonerated of all charges and not committed to trial

Buonaiuto and the “Occult Cults”


In 2002, Father Buonaiuto founded something called “Anti-Cult Service” within a respected Catholic movement, the Community Pope John XXIII. The Anti-Cult Service offers a toll-free number that people concerned with “cults” may call. According to its Web site, since 2002 it got 2,613 calls and some 696 cases were in fact “treated.” The Service is not the only anti-cult organization in Italy, but it is the only one that claims to specialize in “occultism, esotericism, and Satanism.”

mi_fear_occult-12-13.jpg2004: The Beasts of Satan Tragedy

In 2004, a small Satanist group connected with the extreme Black Metal musical subculture, the Beasts of Satan, was raided by the police in Northern Italy. Eight persons were eventually found guilty of various crimes, including three homicides. They appeared to be one of the exceedingly rare instances of genuine human sacrifices performed in the name of Satan, although the members of the groups who were sacrificed had also expressed some dissent from the leaders

An Invented Cult: The Angels of Sodom


Buonaiuto became famous for his work as an expert in the court case against the Angels of Sodom, which he described as a dangerous Satanic cult in the Italian region of the Abruzzi, led by a local musician. The latter was eventually recognized as guilty of drug-related offenses, but the court decisions did not confirm that a Satanist cult really existed, a circumstance the media failed to appreciate

The Strange Case of the Anti-Cult Squad


On November 2, 2006, in the wake of the emotion created by the Beasts of Satan and Angels of Sodom cases, the then Chief of the Italian Police, Gianni De Gennaro, issued a circular letter on “combating the illegal acts of satanic cults.” He announced the creation of a special and secretive “Anti-Cult Squad” (Squadra Anti-Sette, SAS) within the Italian Police. It was an extraordinary document, and this for three different reasons

An Italian Anomaly


First, Italy does not have a strong anti-cult movement. It is not France or Russia. Anticult movements do exist, but they are rarely taken seriously by quality media. Groups labeled as “cults” elsewhere are socially accepted in Italy. Soka Gakkai signed a concordat with the Italian government in 2015. The 50th anniversary of the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) was officially celebrated in the House of Parliament on October 4, 2016 (above: I was one of the speakers)

mi_fear_occult-19.jpgThe Rise and Fall of Plagio

In Italy, it is also particularly difficult to introduce statutes incriminating brainwashing, as something similar under the name of plagio (undue influence) existed since 1930. After it was used against leaders of religious movements, including the Catholic Father Emilio Grasso (left, with Pope Francis), the Constitutional Court eliminated it from the Italian Criminal Code in 1981. The Court argued that it might easily lead to incriminate unpopular ideas

Satanism: The Only Target?


The second anomaly of Di Gennaro’s 2005 letter is that it indicated as its subject matter fighting “satanic cults,” yet the lengthy discussion mentioned features anti-cultist commonly attribute to “cults” in general, including mysterious “techniques of psychological conditioning.” The usual suspects of the anti-cult literature – including the Hare Krishna, the Moonies, or Scientology – were not mentioned, and it was stated that the Anti-Cult Squad should focus on “magic, witchcraft, Spiritualism, cannibalism, and vampirism” because there it would find “homicides, massacres, and sexual violence”

Father Buonaiuto, Again


Anomaly number three: although a secular anti-cult organization was also mentioned, the letter made no secret of the fact that the Anti-Cult Squad was expected to cooperate with Buonaiuto’s Anti-Cult Service of the Community Pope John XXIII. Buonaiuto was officially designated as an auxiliary of the Anti-Cult Squad, and an expert capable of indicating which groups were “pseudo-religious.” One should consider the magnitude of the anomaly: the police of a secular State hired a Catholic exorcist to designate which esoteric groups were “pseudo-religious” and dangerous

“Esoterico-Religious Crimes”


In fact, Buonaiuto’s approach influenced the whole letter. It was premised on the idea that a new category of crimes were being committed in Italy, “esotericoreligious crimes,” somewhat connected to Satanism – or perhaps to Satan himself, as described in the subculture of the exorcists – but going well beyond the scope of the explicitly Satanist groups

mi_fear_occult-23.jpg“Occult in Italy” (2011)

While the Anti-Cult Squad did not achieve very significant results, in 2011 the fear of the occult in Italy was promoted by a book, Occulto Italia, authored by two left-wing journalists, Gianni Del Vecchio and Stefano Pitrelli. They included into “the occult” Scientology and Soka Gakkai in order to “prove” that “occult cults’ in Italy had infiltrated the Parliament, large corporations, and perhaps the government itself

mi_fear_occult-24.jpg“Is Believing a Crime?” (2012)

A number of Italian academics and legal scholars reacted to “Occult in Italy” with a book, Credere è reato?, published in 2012. I was one of the authors. The general editor was Luigi Berzano, a sociologist and a Catholic priest, and the publisher was a leading Catholic press, showing that not all within the Catholic Church shared Father Buonaiuto’s anti-occult campaigns

mi_fear_occult-25.jpgThe Anti-Cult Squad and MISA

In this context, the Anti-Cult Squad managed to be involved in actions against at least two “esoteric cults,” neither having anything to do with Satanism

The first case involved MISA (Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute), a Romanian group controversial for its teachings about Tantric sexual techniques. Its founder, Gregorian Bivolaru (left), is currently in jail in Romania for an alleged sexual relationship with a minor, although the biased style of his prosecution has been criticized both by the European Court of Human Rights and by Sweden, who granted to him political asylum in 2006

mi_fear_occult-26.jpgRaiding MISA

At the dawn of 6 December 2012, the police broke into the private houses of 25 students and sympathizers of MISA. Hundreds of documents were seized, and the prosecutor mentioned possible crimes of “criminal conspiracy, prostitution, pornography, enslavement, and sexual violence.” To the best of my knowledge, no evidence of these crimes has emerged to this date and nobody has been committed to trial

mi_fear_occult-27.jpg“Violent Sex, Esotericism, and Yoga”

In connection with the raid, on December 7, 2012, the main Italian wire agency ANSA, perhaps inspired by the erotic shows promoted by some MISA members (left), reported that a dangerous Romanian group was being investigated by the police for “violent sex, esotericism, and yoga.” Several Italian daily newspapers reprinted the news without comments – and without asking themselves whether “violent sex” (whatever it might be), “esotericism” and “yoga” were indeed crimes worthy of a police investigation

mi_fear_occult-28.jpgThe Arkeon Saga

Earlier on, in 2008, the Anti-Cult Squad was involved in a raid in a Rome hotel against an event organized by the Reiki group Arkeon. Here again, the media hype (right: note the mention of 1,000 “cults” active in Italy) did not result in significant legal results. Some of the Arkeon leaders were eventually found guilty of minor crimes only, and courts did not accept the narrative of Arkeon as a sinister “occult cult”

mi_fear_occult-29.jpgThe Crusade against Dr. Di Marzio

The Arkeon case had a very special feature. During the 2008 raid, Dr Raffaella Di Marzio, an Italian scholar, was also present, as she was conducting a study of the group. Correspondence between Italian anti-cultists and the Anti-Cult Squad posted on the Web by Italian hackers (possibly connected with a “cult” targeted by the authors of the mail) proved that destroying the reputation of Dr Di Marzio and possibly sending her to jail was an aim of the campaign at least as important as putting Arkeon out of business

mi_fear_occult-30.jpgRaffaella Di Marzio, Apostate

There was a special reason for the fury against Dr Di Marzio. She had been a leading Italian anti-cultist in the 1990s, before changing her mind and exposing the questionable tactics of the Italian anti-cult movement. With a form of poetic justice, anti-cult movements, who rely so often on apostate ex-members of the cults, now had an apostate of their own. Eventually, court cases against Dr Di Marzio collapsed completely

mi_fear_occult-31.jpgThe Crisis of the Anti-Cult Squad

In recent years, the Italian Anti-Cult Squad has been at the receiving end of increasing criticism by members of the Italian Parliament and NGOs. As a result of these critics, references to the Squad
disappeared from the Italian Police’s Web site, although it still exists. As late as October 25, 2016 its current chief, Maria Carla Bocchino, was giving interviews to daily newspapers in this capacity

mi_fear_occult-32.jpgItaly’s Answer: “It’s About Satanism”

In 2015, answering criticism by an NGO (with which several “cults” were associated) during an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) meeting in Warsaw, the Italian representative stated that the Anti-Cult Squad was about “Satanist cults” and asked those in the audience to “decide yourself whether Satanist cults should enjoy freedom of religion”

mi_fear_occult-33.jpgA Strange Answer

The answer was, indeed, strange. First, the Anti-Cult Squad was involved in cases not related to Satanism. And second, yes, Satanist movements are entitled to religious liberty, unless of course they commit common crimes. This conclusion has been reached by Italian courts themselves in the case of the Children of Satan, the largest Italian Satanist organization, whose leaders, after well-publicized arrests (left) were found not guilty in 2000 of all the charges brought against them – with the sole exception of tax evasion, not an especially “ritual” crime

A Left-Wing Affair


It is interesting to note that not only, and in fact not mostly, reactionary or rightwing organizations have supported the Anti-Cult Squad. The image shows the authors of Occult in Italy featured on the Web site of comedian Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Stars Movement, a populist party on the left side of the political spectrum

mi_fear_occult-35.jpgThe Left-Wing Fear of the Occult

It is not surprising that the Left believed more than the Right that “occult cults” were infiltrating Italian politics. Wouter Hanegraaff demonstrated that, after World War II (although not before), anti-esotericism came mostly from the Left, which suspected esoteric movements of a reactionary irrationalism making them fellow travelers of Nazism and of contacts with radical right-wing groups

mi_fear_occult-36.jpgItalian Factors: P2

Two specific Italian factors played a role in this bizarre saga. The first was the fear of Freemasonry based on reminiscences of the P2 Lodge affair. Although originally a regular lodge of the mainline Grand Orient of Italy, P2 (Propaganda 2) under the leadership of Licio Gelli (left, 1919-2015) evolved into a secretive group, accused of planning a right-wing coup in Italy and including leading Italian politicians – as well as future politicians, such as Silvio Berlusconi. The P2 affair powerfully contributed to prepare a “fear of the occult” in Italy

The Monster of Florence


The second specifically Italian element that prepared a political “fear of the occult” came from the 16 homicides perpetrated by the “Monster of Florence” (actually a group of three serial killers) between 1968 and 1985. Prosecutors tried for many years, inconclusively, to prove that the three killers could not have acted alone but were somewhat related to a secret cult (I was myself an expert for the prosecution in one of the cases: my report remains sealed, but I didn’t find any clear evidence that a “cult” was involved)

mi_fear_occult-38.jpgExplaining an Anomaly

There were some uniquely Italian factors – the Monster of Florence, P2, the Beasts of Satan – explaining why such a bizarre creation as the Anti-Cult Squad, with a counter-cult exorcist (right) as an official expert, was instituted in Italy in 2006. Eventually, the Squad became a source of embarrassment for Italy in international fora

An Unsuccessful Affair


Members of certain “cults,” however, often exaggerated its dangerousness for religious liberty in Italy. As admitted in national anti-cult conferences by its current chief, the Anti-Cult Squad has been largely unsuccessful and managed to interest the judiciary in a very limited number of cases

mi_fear_occult-40.jpgThe Fear of the Occult

The existence of the Anti-Cult Squad does not change an Italian situation where groups labeled as “cults” are less subject to public harassment than in nearby France or other countries. But the Anti-Cult Squad was never typically “anti-cult,” it was “anti-occult.” The fear of the occult had entered Italian politics and media, and will probably remain there for a certain period of time


For more information: (maxintrovigne[at]gmail[dot]com)