Review of "Demons of the Modern World"

By Malcolm McGrath
Prometheus Books, 2001
Review by Su Terry on Aug 12th 2002
Demons of the Modern World

Demons of the Modern World by Malcolm McGrath is an engrossing study of how the childhood fear of demons, monsters, and other scary fantasy creatures can mutate into adult accusations of satanic ritual abuse and stories about alien abductions. Written for the layperson, this study is filled with colorful case studies that not only make it make it interesting and enjoyable to read, but easy to understand.

Demons of the Modern World is a distillation of the author’s research for his doctoral dissertation. McGrath’s thesis is that historic accusations of witchcraft and modern accusations of satanic ritual abuse are the results of the split within the minds of western culture between adult scientific thinking and childhood symbolic thinking. He posits that children and primitive societies see the world in terms of mythology, i.e. gods/goddesses, devils/angels, monsters/demons. He calls this “symbolic” thinking. In the modern western world, children are taught to sublimate symbolic thinking with concrete scientific logical thinking, however, the symbolic thinking is only repressed and can exert its influence during times of stress and/or fear.

Historically speaking, legal punishment for the usage of harmful witchcraft is as old as humanity itself however widespread accusations for the usage of any kind of witchcraft or magic began with the birth of the scientific era. The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 are the best example of the Age of Faith versus the Age of Reason. In a more contemporary setting, the author focuses on the 1984 California trial of the McMartin Preschool for satanic ritual abuse. Members of the McMartin family and their employees were accused of over 300 counts of physical, sexual, and ritual abuse of preschoolers. The 28-month trial and the follow-up four-year study revealed that there was no hard evidence of abuse by any of the employees of the McMartin Preschool. How then did so many counts of abuse accrue? Videotapes of the testimonies of 400+ preschoolers involved with the case indicated that the adult interviewers badgered, ridiculed, and used “let’s pretend” to led the children into giving the expected and desired responses. The author noted that many of the techniques used are similar to those used with suspected adult victims of childhood abuse in recovered memory therapy. These methods including self-hypnosis and guided visualization, tap into the mythological thinking of childhood fears. Unfortunately, psychotherapists, social workers, and law enforcement personnel often misinterpret the mythological language and symbolic images with the harsh light of scientific realism. Their misinterpretations have led to emotional heartache, familial disruption, false arrests, and even murder by victims further victimized by bad legal and psychological advice.

On a lighter note, the author relates how all human can and do continue to use mythological thinking. Every night human being re-enter the realm of symbolic thought in their dreams and many adults seek to vicariously re-experience childhood fears in safe and healthy ways through gothic literature, horror films, science fiction, and even amusement park rides. 

Malcolm McGrath is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at St. Antony's College, Oxford. Demons of the Modern World is his first book.

Demons of the Modern World by Malcolm McGrath is an important book. Written for the layperson it presents an eye-opener review of historic and contemporary witch hunts and how they are based in childhood separation between scientific thought and symbolic language. I recommend this book for college and public libraries. It is a must read for those involved in legal and social service professions.              


© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.


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