CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Ethos and Action in the Construction of the Finnish Satanism Scare

by Titus Hjelm (Department of Comparative Religion, University of Helsinki, Finland)
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

1. Introduction

Some scholars have indicated that satanism scares in America are a remnant of the late 80's and early 90's (e.g. Degh 1995: 38). That the major studies and evaluations in America were published at that time indicates at least that the heyday of public (and academic) interest in satanism dates from the same period. (See Richardson et al. 1991; Victor 1993). Other countries have followed in different succession, but generally it could be concluded that major satanism scares have been a phenomenon of the 90's.

Finland experienced it's major satanism scare only at the end of the millennium. Most commonly satanism has manifested itself in different forms of crime that are allegedly satanically inspired. The most common of this type of crime has been cemetery vandalism. This paper analyzes the way the image of satanism is constructed in public discourse, notably the media. Attention is specifically paid to the ways that the media constructs a link between ethos (satanism) and action (cemetery vandalism).

Satanism has been presented in the media especially in form of various criminal acts. Cemetery vandalism in particular has become a typical act of crime committed by alleged satanists, headlining Finnish newspapers throughout the 1990’s. Pictures of overturned tombstones and chapels scribbled with satanic graffiti have been regular news material especially during the summertime. At times cemetery vandalism has generated national waves of concern, when an incident in one locality has been followed by a similar incident elsewhere in the country. The fear of satanism spreading to the locality has aroused public discussion in numerous local newspapers, and the nationwide occurrence of the phenomenon has been a topic of discussion in the national media. Cemetery vandalism has commonly been regarded as the first sign of satanism gaining ground in the locality.

Cemetery vandalism, the desecration of graves to be precise, is an act of crime. What makes it exceptional is the motivation brought forward in the definition process of the problem: satanism. Because of this, cemetery vandalism as a crime places itself not only in the traditional criminal discourse, but also in a wider discourse related to common social values. It is my intention to study how this discourse is structured and who the parties are defining the problem in the media.

There is an obvious distinction between newspaper reports on cemetery vandalism and other types of criminal acts: satanism is an explanatory qualifier in the headlines. Whereas a headline "a man killed his friend" only recounts the actual event, a headline "Satanists stormed the cemetery" also relates the underlying reason for the actions. A description becomes an explanation also (Bodily 1994). In other words, it is assumed that the persons who vandalized the cemetery possess a certain kind of ethos which guides their actions. In this context the word ethos is used to refer to an individual philosophy of life.

However, satanism as a phenomenon makes the question somewhat different here than for example in a study of Islam or the Hare Krishna movement, because it seems reasonable to doubt whether acts labeled as satanism have anything to do with religion in the first place. Yet satanism is presented as a religion in a large number of newspaper articles. Satanism has been presented in the media also from other points of view and religious discourse is not the only one present at the coverage. I have elsewhere studied the image of satanism presented by the media more generally (Hjelm 2000). In this study the research material is examined particularly from the perspective of the relationship between ethos and actions, and how it is constructed in the media.

2. Public image and the construction process of social reality

The subject of the study of social problems is defined as "the definitional process in which morally objectionable conditions or behaviors are asserted to exist" by Malcolm Spector and John I. Kitsuse in their classic work Constructing Social Problems (Spector & Kitsuse 2001, 1977). This signifies the fact that social problems are not an absolute concept, instead each given culture and society defines the social problems specific to it. Therefore, it is a process attempting to generate action, regardless of whether that action is introducing the subject matter to public discussion or attempting to influence decision-making.

In a late modern society the role of the media in exposing social problems has constantly increased. Especially when it is a question of new phenomena, which are still alien to a culture and unfamiliar to the general public, the capability of the media to produce certain kind of information to shape public opinion towards a desirable direction is considerable (Thompson 1995: 213-214).

John B. Thompson, who has developed a social theory of the media, employs the term ‘mediated sociality’ in his study. By this he refers to a development by which a larger and larger portion of our mutual knowledge is transmitted through the media. As a consequence, the groups and communities with whom people identify themselves are more and more constructed through the media (Thompson 1995: 35). In the definitional process of social problems it is important to draw attention to any abnormal behavior and to define "we", a group of which this behavior is not part of. News reports on criminal acts are one of the most explicit examples of news reporting in which the media exposes any deviant, morally objectionable action and in this way reinforces the division into us and the others (Fishman 1998).

The focus of attention in a discursive study is in particular on the devices with which social reality is produced from a certain point of view. In determining these devices the following questions emerge when examining the media material related to cemetery vandalism:

  1. How are the perpetrators portrayed in the article? Are they active or passive?
  2. How can we know the identity of the perpetrators; who functions as a determiner of the problem?
  3. How does the article explain the motivation of the perpetrators? And in connection with the previous: whose voice is used to explain the motivation?

Cemetery vandalism has been presented as a phenomenon that has in many contexts been given features of a crime wave. The concept of a crime wave means a conception of crime that has been brought into public awareness (Fishman 1998: 53). Although crime waves are not necessarily connected with the actual crime rate, they generate action by inflicting fear. "Crime waves may be ’things of the mind’, but they have real consequences" (Fishman 1998: 53). In his study (Fishman 1998), Mark Fishman has studied the origins of crime waves on the basis of the interaction between newspaper reporters and the police authority. The present article, however, is not concerned with the actions of individual parties external to the crime report itself. Instead, it concentrates particularly on examining the way in which cemetery vandalism is constructed as a crime wave in public discourse.

3. Cemeteries and vandals

In their simplest form, newspaper articles on cemetery vandalism are concise reports that recount what happened and where. The articles describe the events and make some reference to the suspected perpetrators:

"Funeral crosses and tombstones were overturned in the Orthodox cemetery of Hietaniemi during Friday night in Helsinki. A total number of eight crosses and 15 tombstones were overturned on the Porkkalankatu side of the cemetery. The act of vandalism was committed between 11 pm and 9 am. A caretaker of the cemetery discovered the desecration of the graves in the morning and reported it to the police. There is no information on the perpetrators for the time being." ("Tombstones down in Hietaniemi", Uutislehti 100 25.10.1999).

The short report relates the nature of the crime (the desecration of graves) with which the Finnish public was already fairly familiar by 1999. However, when compared to the large majority of newspaper articles on cemetery vandalism reports like the one above are in the minority. Irrespective of whether there is actual information on the perpetrators, the majority of the articles point out a connection between the actions and satanism:

"Over one hundred tombstones were overturned in the Old Church cemetery of Espoo during Friday night. In addition, graves and buildings located on the burial ground were scribbled with paint. The criminal investigation department of Espoo, which is investigating the case, suspects that a group of teenagers is associated with the vandalism. Altogether over 140 tombstones were overturned in the cemetery of the church and chapel. There were also inverted crosses and five pointed stars, symbols used by Satanists, sprayed on the tombstones and buildings located in the cemetery. According to the chief inspector Pekka Partanen, the police are investigating the case as an aggravated vandalism." ("Tombstones overturned in Espoo", HS 15.6.1993).

Especially during the wave of cemetery vandalism in the summer of 1999, the actions were linked to satanism usually already in the headline. The fact that a naturalization (2) of the association between the events and satanism had already taken place culminates in a worried headline of Iltalehti, a Finnish tabloid: "Satanists strike once again?" (IL 26.7.1999). Especially the acts of vandalism that occurred in cemeteries all over Finland at the end of July were readily put down as the activity of "a cult familiar from horror flicks", a cult explicitly thus named even before 1999 ("satanism emerged in Finland not until 1998", IL 29.12.1998). At times when there is no information on the perpetrators and no marks characteristic of satanism has been discovered on the crime scene, a potential connection is introduced:

"More than ten tombstones were overturned in Sonkajärvi during Friday night. It is possible that there is only one person responsible for the vandalism. He has not been found yet. According to the police, 13 tombstones were kicked down. Evidently, no serious damage was done. Nothing suggesting satanism has been discovered." ("More tombstones overturned", Uutislehti 100 27.9.1999).

Occasionally the viewpoint of the caught grave desecrators themselves, based on police interrogation records, has been presented in public as well. One example of this is the case of a man who stormed the cemetery of Karttula in the summer of 1999. In this case, the motivation for cemetery vandalism is obvious: "during a police interrogation the man told that he was a Satanist" ("The man suspected of the grave desecrations in Karttula confessed", HS 6.8.1999). The article, which could be characterized as being moderate, leaves the relationship between satanism and the actual events somewhat vague by adding that "according to senior constable Jari Kolari the police have no knowledge on the man’s possible connections to the previous grave desecrations. There is no certainty on the role of alcohol in the case" (HS 6.8.1999).

Although in this respect it seems that satanism is almost without an exception connected to cemetery vandalism, there have also been some skeptic statements. These statements have however been in the minority in the entire coverage of cemetery vandalism during the 1990's. Before 1999 it was mostly the police, who due to the nature of their work, could not give any definite comments without credible evidence and who doubted the connections. During the first years of the phenomenon satanism was simply seen as one possibility. "A part [of cemetery vandalism] can be put down to drunken hooligans, but it does seem that in some of the cases the perpetrators have apparently been inspired by satanism ("The police increases the surveillance of cemeteries", HS 22.9.1993). The doubts of the police are the most apparent in a case from 1996, where two underage girls were caught overturning 360 tombstones in Jyväskylä.

"Superintendent Eero Myllymäki and detective Olavi Saunamäki point out that the girls could not specify a rational motivation for their actions. The execution of the crime was accelerated by the fact that the girls were intoxicated that night. Myllymäki emphasized that speculations linking the events to satanism are false. ’The person who claims that satanism was the motivation, speaks with too large a mouth.’" ("Two young girls caught on overturning tombstones in Jyväskylä", HS 1.8.1996).

However, the nature of police work has not prevented the members of the police force from confirming the prevailing image of the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism. Even if there has been no reliable information available on the perpetrators or their motives, the police may have stated, quoting chief inspector Osmo Perkkiö, that "the adolescents themselves have accounted for their actions but at this point it is still difficult to say whether this is satanism or not. In my opinion it is." ("Seven youngsters suspected of cemetery vandalism", HS 27.7.1999).

As in the latter half of 1999, also in the most recent news coverage the question is perhaps not so much about skepticism. Instead, the media has adopted a new approach also on reporting cemetery vandalism, an approach where the question of motivation is not brought out without dependable information on the police sources.

Thus it seems that in the vast majority of reported cases a cemetery vandal is profiled to be a young Satanist. There exists some variation on how uncritically explicit the presented connection is. However, the identification of the actions and perpetrators alone does not satisfactorily explain the nature of cemetery vandalism coverage and the process in which a certain type of crime is constructed. In constructionist study of social problems the foremost method of approaching the construction process of the phenomenon is the examination of the claims presented above. In the next stage, it is necessary to also examine the claimsmakers, as well as their backgrounds and their influence on public discourse. Many different parties interpret cemetery vandalism: the police, employees of the church, journalists and a variety of experts. Each one of these parties defines the problem in its own exclusive way. The reciprocal relationship of the different definitions and their influence on the overall picture is considered next.

4. The definition process of the phenomenon

What devices are used to create an image of a connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism? How can the readers be sure that it actually was satanism that was in question? Although the examples presented above do reveal the nature of the problem, they fail to reveal how and by whom the nature of cemetery vandalism is defined. The role of the police as the primary source of information has already been brought up. However, on what grounds can the police say and a journalist write that overturning tombstones is a sign of satanism?

At the first glance it seems safe to argue that sufficient proof can be obtained from the evidence left on the cemeteries by the vandals. Inverted crosses and five pointed stars found on the crime scenes, the primary symbols representing the ethos of the perpetrators, have been interpreted as signs of satanism. However, this cannot be satisfactory for a critical examination. How can we know that these particular symbols are connected with satanism? Also, on what grounds can we say that the appearance of these symbols on the crime scene is somehow related to the ethos of the perpetrators? In order to be able to answer these questions, it is necessary to examine how and by whom the interpretations are made. Next, I will examine the parties who all have introduced their own interpretation in the coverage, as well as the relationship between the different interpretations.

4.1. Journalists and the motives of the vandalism

When studying cemetery vandalism and crime reporting in general, it is also important to take the various genres of news reporting into consideration. Newspaper articles can be roughly divided into short, concise news flashes, more comprehensive news reports accompanied by background information, and news commentary, which resembles opinion writing (Bruun et al. 1986: 55-56). All these types are present in the news reporting on cemetery vandalism. The role of journalists in providing a perspective is accentuated in concise news flashes, where it is usually a choice of the journalist and the editorial whether to bring forward the connection with satanism or not. Both types do occur. More comprehensive news reports provide, virtually without an exception also the comments of the police and background information, featuring experts who often comment on the phenomenon of satanism in a broader sense, and are uninvolved in the case itself.

However, it is obvious that the way in which journalists lay out their questions influences the comments given by outside parties. In addition, the newspaper production process may significantly alter the original content of the article (see Fairclough 1995). News reports on cemetery vandalism endeavor to adopt comments given by the interviewed parties, those of authorities in particular. However, even if the police had expressed uncertainty on the motivation, a news report can nevertheless be constructed on a discourse based on satanic ethos. This is the case in the article cited above (pp. 3) "Tombstones overturned in Espoo" (HS 15.6.1993). In the article, the police are quoted only when relating the information on the nature of the crime and the suspicion that the perpetrators are adolescents. Making a connection between the incident and satanism appears to be the decision of the editorial; at least the article fails to identify a justification or the source for the allegation. The contradiction is also evident in the articles in which the police speak primarily on their own terms and on grounds of actual information. After the police the other associated parties are interviewed, employees of the church or other experts, who confirm the connection between the incident and satanism. It is ultimately a decision of the journalist and the editorial as to which voice to emphasize in the finished article.

4.2. The perspective of the police on the crimes

The stir created by the fear of satanism in the United States has also given birth to a special group of so-called ‘cult cops’. The cult cops serve as experts especially when investigating crimes that are presumably related to satanism (see Hicks 1991 for more on cult cops and their criticism). In Finland the role of the police in public discussion on crimes has mostly been traditional commentary of the type "who, what, where" (Chermak 1998: 178). However, also the perspective of the police is to a certain degree influenced by the news genre. For example, the police are quoted in form of indirectly stated facts, such as "there is no information on the perpetrators", "the police are investigating the case as aggravated vandalism" or "the adolescents have confessed to vandalism". Quotes like these are common in short news flashes. More comprehensive news reports feature more direct quotes in which the police outline the actions and perpetrators. Also in this case the comments of the police are concentrated on their special field, i.e. describing the incident using specific criminological language.

The connection created by the police between cemetery vandalism and satanism becomes apparent in the articles that examine the background of the phenomenon in a more comprehensive manner. Articles such as these want to present the viewpoint of the police, and other experts', on presumably criminal actions. They also seek to receive some kind of synthesis of the nature of the phenomenon from police representatives. What is interesting is an article dating from the early days of news reporting on satanism, in which the Deputy Chief of the National Bureau of Investigation, Kari Rantama is quoted:

"According to Rantama, the crimes committed in the name of satanism are an extremely dangerous type of crime for which there is no Finnish name yet. The crimes belong to a category for which the most severe punishments are given in the United States because they are aimed at breaking the morals of the society. Rantama promises that the matter will be firmly resolved also in Finland." ("Satan arrives in Finland", IL 25.9.1993).

Although it is confirmed by a police officer in a leading position that the police takes the matter seriously also in Finland, it remains unclear exactly what kind of phenomenon the police consider satanism and the crimes connected to it. Between the quotes of Rantama the journalist has positioned a clause which intensifies the vileness of the crimes: the morals of society are jeopardized if we want to follow the example set by the United States. Although by its placement the clause is attached to the statement of a police representative, it remains unclear whether it represents the viewpoint of the police.

Police representatives are bound to concise comments on the quality of the crimes primarily due to the nature of their work. Regardless of this, statements given by police representatives may be positioned in such a way that they support the discourse of satanic ethos presented by other sources. The viewpoints differ only in situations when the police explicitly deny any connection between satanism and the vandalism that has taken place in cemeteries.

4.3. Attack against the church? The viewpoint of church employees

In addition to the police, the chief commentators on cemetery vandalism have been the employees of the churches that have been target to vandalism. These include vicars, pastors and caretakers of the church. The voice of the church is transmitted through its employees in more comprehensive articles. The alleged connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism is presented very explicitly:

"It is a question of guesswork no more. The act of vandalism had an unmistakable reference to satanism", says the vicar of Espoo’s Swedish Church, Carl-Gustav Henricson. In accordance to symbolism familiar to priesthood, an inverted cross represents mockery of the Cross of Christ and professing the Devil’s faith. According to Henricson, it can no longer simply be a question of misbehavior of intoxicated adolescents because of the fact that similar vandalism has occurred even before. ("All distinctive marks of satanism: Doors of the church scribbled and graves desecrated", IL 15.6.1993).

Even if there is no certainty of the connection, representatives of the church take the possibility of satanism very seriously:

"(Vicar Arno) Toivanen is hesitant to make any guesses as to who are behind the act of vandalism that took place last weekend while the official police investigations are still in progress. — In any case we have received information that satanism has arrived also in Iisalmi… The vicar has played a very active part in erecting an anti-Satanism league in Iisalmi. According to him, it must be possible to do something about the matter." ("Satanists in an intense surveillance of the church and authorities", IL 30.3.1998).

Cemetery vandalism appears to church employees as an attack against church itself and the values it represents. Especially in the early days of the phenomenon, church employees were eager to bring up a view that the activity posed an actual threat against the basic values of society. The experts who appeared in the media were also employed by religious circles. It was often emphasized that satanism is real, a phenomenon that was now actuality also in Finland and a consequence of which cemetery vandalism was. This view was also shared by Harri Heino, head of the Research Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, who served as a semiofficial commentator on the events of 1993 in particular.

"According to researcher Harri Heino, contemplating satanic philosophy is not enough for adolescents. Instead, the cult stirs up a desire for direct action and violence in them." ("Rituals are not enough for children and adolescents", a caption in IS 22.11.1993).

Also based on the interview with Heino, Helsingin Sanomat sorts out the motives of Satanists and the criminal nature of satanism:

"Satanists completely reject the values and ideals of society. They seek to establish a counterculture where morals opposite to those of a normal society prevail. Wrong becomes right and evil becomes good. There is no need to feel guilt for acts of crime. The membership of the community together with its rituals grants magic energy which makes a weak person strong." ("The police increases the surveillance of cemeteries", HS 22.9.1993).

In both the articles commenting on single events and the news reports with background information the explanation for cemetery vandalism is presented through a Christian frame of reference in the interviews of church employees. However, the viewpoint of the church representatives is not exhausted merely by making an unambiguous connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism. The viewpoints of the church representatives presented in the media have been influenced by a shift in both the way the phenomenon is comprehended and the manner in which the way of comprehension is illustrated in the news articles. An interview with the vicar of Pieksämäki, Juhani Kaipiainen, in connection with the outbreak of cemetery vandalism in the summer of 1999 illustrates this approach:

"- This is some kind of national boom. It is the relatives of the dead that will suffer most because of it… Kaipiainen also wonders what the reason is for adolescents becoming socially marginalized. - On the other hand, overturning tombstones reflects the malaise of the offenders." ("Grave desecrators struck in Pieksämäki. ‘It feels terrible’", IL 16.8.1999).

Similar to exposing other social problems, in the first news reports on satanism the church in particular possessed an urge to bring out a viewpoint emphasizing the reality of satanism and the seriousness of the phenomenon. At first satanism was interpreted as an activity aimed specifically against the church. Obviously this interpretation was further reinforced by anti-Christian symbols found on cemeteries. Soon after more interpretations began to appear in public in which the center of attention was shifted from mystical and terrifying satanism more to those adolescents themselves who were at the focal point of the phenomenon. The social malaise among the youth and the consequences of it became part of the discussion. At this stage, also the Evangelical Lutheran church commented on the matter from a fresh point of view. One single comment that probably had a great influence was made by Archbishop Jukka Paarma. The interview of Paarma begins with a statement that "according to Archbishop Jukka Paarma, satanism in Finland is not an attack against the church and religion in particular, but is a protest against the common values of society in general." (In e.g. "Social marginalization of the youth leads to extremist phenomena", Aamulehti 15.8.1999; "The church traces underlying reasons to satanism", HS 16.8.1999 etc.). Paarma particularly brought out the subject of vandalism that has taken place in cemeteries: "The majority of the recent acts of vandalism are most likely a consequence of alcohol and lack of consideration." ("The church traces underlying reasons for satanism", HS 16.8.1999). Although Paarma is quick to add that the marks of satanism, which have been more and more frequent in connection with the acts of vandalism, force the church to investigate the matter thoroughly, making an automatic connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism has decreased in statements given by church employees.

4.4. Christian and social scientific expert discourse

In news reports on cemetery vandalism the police and church employees serve as primary sources of information. At times when multiple cases of cemetery vandalism have occurred within a short period of time, the media have employed researchers (academic and non-academic) who have specialized in satanism to serve as their source of information. These individuals have been presented as experts in the subject in an even wider sense than the police or church employees commenting directly on a particular case. What is noteworthy in these expert discourses is that as their starting point they try to answer the question "what is satanism?". In this way being a expert in itself defines cemetery vandalism as being a consequence of satanic ethos. Although this view is not supported by every expert, the articles intended as background information on the phenomenon of cemetery vandalism almost exclusively use the term satanism, not juvenile delinquency, for instance.

At the early days of cemetery vandalism the most often quoted expert was Harri Heino, whose views have already been presented earlier. Shortly thereafter Keijo Ahorinta, a special education teacher from Rauma, emerged as the most often employed expert in the media. Ahorinta has also written a book on satanism entitled Saatananpalvonnan monet kasvot ("The Many Faces of Satanism", Ahorinta 1997). The central ideas introduced in his book have been frequently presented also in newspaper articles:

"According to Ahorinta, satanism is ruthless abuse of people, absolutely criminal activity to which drugs and sexual abuse are related. It is sacrificing yourself to Satan, and it generates gang addiction with which the members are chained to community through earthly goods." ("The interest in satanism among young girls awoke Jyväskylä", HS 16.4.1998).

The status of Ahorinta as a expert is largely built on his long experience and his academic interest in the subject matter: "He has studied satanism for 11 years and is now working on his doctoral thesis on the subject" ("The interest in satanism among young girls awoke Jyväskylä", HS 16.4.1998). A closer inspection of the views presented by Ahorinta reveals a strong Christian influence on his views that is also evident in his book (Ahorinta 1997: 9). His view on the personal evil underlying behind the phenomenon varies depending on the context. Although Ahorinta does state also in Helsingin Sanomat that there is no distinction between satanism and worshipping Satan on ‘the final frontier’ ("The interest in satanism among young girls awoke Jyväskylä", HS 16.4.1998), his views are best presented in publications aimed at Christian readers. One of these publications is Kotimaa:

"A Satanist is a distressed, misled teenager, but we must make no mistake to disparage the underlying personal evil. ‘What is most important is that we do not bury our heads in the sand because Satan does exist.’" ("A scholar warns not to underestimate satanism", Kotimaa 11.11.1994).

Expertise and the term ‘expert’ are used ambiguously in connection with cemetery vandalism. One of those who have appeared as experts in the media is the often quoted ex-Satanist Päivi Niemi. Her personal experiences on satanism together with their terrifying details have received coverage also in national tabloids. Besides Ahorinta, Niemi has been a central figure expressing concern towards the extent satanism has spread among the Finnish youth. "People do not seem to believe how numerous Satanists are. They do not want to believe it. Maybe it is because the subject is so unfamiliar to them." ("Ex-Satanist Päivi Niemi: My parents would not have believed the deeds I did", IS 18.4.1998). In the same article Niemi tells how she was redeemed from the clutches of satanism by "switching lord", that is to say, by becoming a born-again Christian.

An academic survey of the situation had to wait until 1999, when a memorandum on satanism (Kuure 1999), commissioned by the Ministry of Education and conducted by the Finnish Youth Research Network, was published. The survey was carried out by Tapio Kuure from the Department of Political Research of the University of Tampere. In spite of the shortcomings of the brief memorandum, it was the first academic survey of the situation. The memorandum did not receive much attention in the media, and its academic language was employed as such. In comparison with the deterrent views presented earlier by experts, the conclusions of the study are presented in less explicit terms:

"Kuure describes youth satanism as a working project of evil. The foundation of satanism is the wickedness of man. This is a rhetorical method with which the responsibility for own actions is transferred to that what is beyond, ‘Satan’." ("A Survey: Youth satanism is a middle class phenomenon", HS 31.8.1999).

The views of experts on cemetery vandalism and satanism can be therefore divided into interpretations made on a Christian basis and on a social scientific basis. A notion of personal evil which has influence on the world and a concrete struggle between good and evil are behind the interpretations made on a Christian basis (See Arnold 1997: 4-12). Although the religiousness may not be immediately evident in connection with news articles, the religious viewpoint can be said to be an underlying factor for all experts with a Christian frame of reference (see Rikkinen 2000). Religious interpretation is not necessarily in any way related to the status or position of the expert, as in the case of the late Harri Heino. He attempted to approach the phenomenon from a social scientific point of view, in spite of his position as the director of the the Research Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

Interpretations that could be characterized as being social scientific, have inevitably been overshadowed by visions painting nightmare scenarios. Academic language seems to lend itself poorly to the media looking for concise and pithy statements. What is fundamental in the case of cemetery vandalism is that in spite of their critical attitude, the views of academic experts who have appeared in public (one of whom is the author) have dealt with the question "what is satanism?". Like mentioned earlier, despite the critical statements this further develops an image that there is a connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism. However, it does seem that the connection has weakened in the more recent news coverage, and satanism is not necessarily brought up in connection with cemetery vandalism.

4.5. The Voice of the Youth

What is striking when trying to define cemetery vandalism is the silence of the perpetrators themselves in the whirlwinds of the media. Young age, alcohol and satanism all emerge as rationalizations for the acts of cemetery vandalism. However, the definition is made by the parties mentioned above, who in all of the cases have had only second-hand information of the actual events. At times when the voice of the perpetrators themselves has been heard, it has been filtered through a police interrogation process. For instance, in the following citation the statement given by a perpetrator in a police interrogation functions as a device with which to reinforce connections with satanism: "According to the police, one of the teenagers has been interested in satanism and has acquired information on the field from books and the Internet." ("The vandals of the cemetery in Kauhajoki were released", HS 30.7.1999). Although the fact that there is correlation between cemetery vandalism and interest in the ‘field’ does not necessarily tell anything about the motivation, the connection made in the newspaper article is based on this. The choice of words in a news flash published in Helsingin Sanomat, dealing with the overturning of tombstones in Joensuu, is also interesting: The headline of the article states that "a young student of satanism overturned tombstones in Joensuu" (emphasis added). In the actual article however, it is mentioned in a somewhat ambiguous way that "the man has denied being a Satanist, but has admitted studying occultism and satanism" ("A young student of satanism overturned tombstones in Joensuu", HS 10.2.1999).

A step closer to disclosing the voice of the youth and finding out their motivation and ethos is made in an early article published in Helsingin Sanomat:

"The two young men who overturned over hundred memorial plaques in Simo were inspired by a television program on satanism. The 17- and 18-year-old teenagers have confessed to the vandalism inflicted on the Old Church of Simo, the church hall and the secondary school building in addition to the cemetery. The teenagers said that they had been inspired by a recently screened television program dealing with satanism about the church burnings in Norway." ("satanism inspired to overturn soldier’s graves in Simo", HS 15.9.1993).

When analyzing the article it becomes clear that there is an obvious tension between the headline and the text itself. Although the headline implies that the motivation for the vandalism was satanism, the voice of the teenagers themselves clearly indicates that the motivation was actually a documentary on satanism. Even though the voice of the youth is once again filtered through the police, the article specifies the actual motivation and does not settle with only mentioning that the perpetrators were Satanists. The connection between the vandalism and satanism is still there, but it is not as apparent as in the other similar cases.

Except for the cases that involve public figures (e.g. politicians) and the single cases that have received significant publicity, the voice of a perpetrator is rarely presented in the crime coverage of the media (Chermak 1998). The voice of perpetrators in connection with cemetery vandalism has been actually presented only once in the media. Iltalehti published an interview of the teenagers who stormed the cemetery of Kauhajoki in 1999 with a headline "’It was a relief to get caught’". In the interview with the teenagers who appeared in public the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism is presented as follows:

"There was a strong desire to link the vandalism in the cemetery with satanism and black rituals. Although the teenagers had admitted their fascination for satanism in a police interrogation, according to them it was just a question of sheer curiosity towards everything supernatural. Both of them stress that neither they nor the events that took place last summer had anything to do with Satan. The underlying reason for the vandalism could have been a subconscious feeling of malaise, although it is more likely that the actions were irrational foolishness of drunken teenagers." ("’It was a relief to get caught’", IL 28.2.2000).

The last sentence of the extract is left open to interpretation whether it is the teenagers’ own assumption of their motives or an estimation of the journalist. Whatever the case may be, the teenagers state as presented in the introduction of this article, that "it was a sudden idea which had nothing to do with satanism".

Obviously the statements given by the perpetrators of a single case do not exhaustively explain the motivation of dozens of other grave desecrators. However, it is worth noticing that the first time the voice of the youth is heard in public, it signals an altogether different message than the discourse emphasizing satanic ethos that prevailed throughout the 1990’s. It is possible that when entering the 21st century the media have become more receptive to different interpretations concerning the relationship between actions and ethos also in connection with cemetery vandalism.

5. Cemeteries and Satanism: Examination of the Interaction between Action and Ethos

This chapter summarizes the observations presented earlier of the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism in newspaper articles. There is a special emphasis on examining the relationship between actions and ethos presented in the beginning. I will also make a survey of the changes that have occurred in reports on cemetery vandalism since 1990 to the present day and examine as what kind of crime cemetery vandalism has been presented. Finally I will consider the manner in which the media explain the nature of a new, unfamiliar type of crime. In this connection I will also introduce the concept of religionization as a possible device to aid in the analysis.

5.1. Construction of action and ethos in news reports on cemetery vandalism

Cemetery vandalism is brought up in the Finnish media as a consequence of a new, unfamiliar phenomenon that inflicts fear in the public: satanism. The desecrations that have taken place in cemeteries since 1993 have been mostly associated with satanism. Although satanism has seldom been explicitly presented as a motivation for cemetery vandalism in the articles describing single incidents, the headlines and the actual discourse create a strong image of Satanic ethos which drives adolescents into committing acts of vandalism. More comprehensive articles meant as background information reinforce the references to satanism that appear in shorter news flashes.

However, the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism is dynamic. The intensity of the connection depends on the party defining the problem. From the parties presented earlier in this article the strongest connection between cemetery vandalism and satanic ethos is maintained primarily by church employees and experts commenting on the subject in a Christian frame of reference. According to their point of view, it is a question of either an attack against the church and the Christian values it represents, or outcast adolescents possessed by personal evil. Also some of the statements given by the police reinforce the connection with satanism.

The connection is, nevertheless, weakest in a large majority of the comments given by the police. Immediately after the occurrence of the crime the police have no information on the perpetrators or in any case, their motives. Because of this, the police have often been unable to confirm the influence of satanism on the crime, at least not in direct quotes. Satanism is mentioned, but based on the available information the police cannot verify the suspicions. In cases such as these, it is mainly a choice of the journalist whether to create the connection or not. However, there also exist other views in public discussion that represent a weak connection. According to these views, cemetery vandalism can and should be examined especially from the viewpoint of youth culture, as a means of expressing separation from conventional values that is typical of today’s youth. Views such as these are brought together by the fact that they are still grouped together under the caption satanism (e.g. "Insecurity and troubles lie behind satanism", Aamulehti 30.7.1999).

What is most notable is that the adolescents who have vandalized cemeteries have been conspicuous by their absence in the news coverage. Although there is only one example available in the present material, it is noteworthy that in the previously cited article ("’It was a relief to get caught’", IL 28.2.2000), the outspoken adolescents deny any connection between satanism and cemetery vandalism, an interpretation which had already become natural.

The problem of front-end/back-end disproportionality (Wright 1997: 107-109), which is related to crime reporting in general and to reporting on new religious movements, may be a contributing factor in creating a strong link between cemetery vandalism and satanism. Front-end/back-end disproportionality means that a crime is reported immediately after it has occurred, but there is little attention paid on the later procession of the case for example in a court of law, except for the individual cases that have received significant publicity. As a consequence of this, remarks on the influence of Satanic ethos on cemetery vandalism survive, irrespective of whether they were justified or not. This is the case even if solving the case would not support the hypothesis of satanism as a motivation. Also the rhetorical qualities of the satanic ethos discourse have enabled its long-term survival as a primary version with which to interpret reality. However, the construction and development of the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism must also be examined in a chronological perspective, so that the dynamics of the development of the problem may be solved.

5.2.The evolution of news reporting on cemetery vandalism in the 1990’s

I have previously made a reference to the change in news reporting on cemetery vandalism that has taken place during the almost ten years that the subject has been under discussion. In a constructionist frame of reference a chronological perspective and a change in the way a subject is processed play an essential role in determining the devices with which social problems are brought into public awareness (Lowney & Best 1995). A change can be seen not only in the ones who define the problem of the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism and the way it is processed in the media, but also in the influence of different discourses on what the approved way of defining the phenomenon is.

The first news reports in Finland on satanism were about the suspected connections between satanism and child abuse as well as other types of crimes outside Finland (3). The tone of the articles was mostly skeptical. For example as late as in 1994, by which time cemetery vandalism had already emerged in public as a new type of crime, Helsingin Sanomat published an article with a headline "FBI: satanism is just an invented phenomenon" (HS 12.12.1994). The article even included a statement given by the National Bureau of Investigation which confirmed that there is no evidence of satanism in Finland.

Although news reports on satanism were sparse during the following years, experts who had specialized in satanism in particular made their appearance in public. The discourse of satanism was dominated by views presented by these experts up until the turn of the millennium. A book which had a particular influence on this was Saatananpalvonnan monet kasvot, written by Keijo Ahorinta and published in 1997. The book became the first source of information on anything related to satanism. Even before that there had been strongly religious redemption tales of those who had fallen into the clutches of satanism but had since discovered Jesus (Rinne & Jääskeläinen 1994, Rinne 1996). The image of a solid connection between satanism and crime was constructed mostly on the basis of these works which approached the subject from a religious frame of reference.

There are still not many academic studies on the subject in Finland, and they have been introduced to the public even less. The previously mentioned memorandum on youth satanism (a term used by Kuure himself) by Tapio Kuure is the only academic survey that has gained publicity also in the mainstream media. The function of academic researchers in connection with news reporting on satanism has been not so much to present the results of their studies, but to function as general commentators on the subject. In this role the views presented by academic researchers can be said to act as a certain kind of ‘sociological intervention’ in increasing the sense of proportion of the parties participating in the discussion. Especially in comparison to the nightmare scenarios presented by experts with Christian views, the academic viewpoint has brought up alternative ways with which to interpret the phenomenon. The views based on social scientific research, which have received still more coverage in the media by the turn of the millennium, have quite possibly also influenced the way the media treats the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanism. In the most recent articles the cause and effect relationship has not been presented as the self-evident fact it used to be. At the time of writing of this paper it is still too early to point out the exact reason for this, and even more difficult it is to predict how permanent the change will be.

5.3. Religious ethos and religionization

Studying the relationship between action and ethos theoretically has been based on the concept of homology. A concept familiar from sociological language, homology refers to a correspondence which manifests itself between ethos, i.e. ‘internal orientation’ (Lähteenmaa 1996, 104), and action, i.e. external behavior. The theory was made well-known by the so-called Birmingham school in the late 1970’s, especially in connection with youth subcultures. According to views presented by the later widely criticized Birmingham school, it can be specifically indicated that ethos is the guiding factor of actions (Lähteenmaa 1996: 105). Transferring the theory into terminology used in the comparative study of religion, it can be said to signify a religious conviction of a certain group which manifests itself in e.g. praying, giving alms, going to church etc.

A strong homological connection has developed between cemetery vandalism and satanism in the Finnish printed media. Cemetery vandalism, the action, has been usually seen as a consequence of satanism, i.e. the ethos serving as a motivation. The connection between vandalism and satanism has alternated from a strong, explicit connection to a weaker, almost nonexistent connection, possibly even questioning the theory. Except for the most recent news reports, the intensity of the connection has remained a choice of the journalist and the editorial at least on the headline level, in spite of the fact that in the article itself experts or other interviewed parties may have denied the connection. The discourse transmitting satanic ethos in terms of critical discourse analysis has become a hegemonic way of comprehending the phenomenon of cemetery vandalism in the media (Fairclough 1995: 38). This hegemonic view of cemetery vandalism on the media can be approached and criticized in two ways: First of all, by directing attention to the definitions of the problem itself, and secondly by directing attention to the definition process and the ones who define the problem. Like the Birmingham school theory on subcultures (Lähteenmaa 1996: 105), reporting on cemetery vandalism can be primarily criticized because of the causal cause and effect relationship constructed in it between satanism and the acts of vandalism that have taken place in cemeteries. The way of reporting on satanism can be criticized more widely as well because of the fact that it fails to distinguish between correlation and the cause and effect relationship. Even if the perpetrators admitted their interest in satanism, as in some of the cases, it does not automatically mean that satanism has been a motivation for the crime. In social scientific studies actions and ethos are in general understood to be working in an interactive relationship, instead of an explicit cause and effect relationship (Lähteenmaa 1996: 105). This is also the case with cemetery vandalism: it can be hypothetically argued that public discussion has given a name to the action which does not necessarily have any particular motivation. In other words, whereas car side mirrors could have been a target of vandalism earlier, now the same vandalism, which possibly has no explicit motivation, is exercised in cemeteries.

I use the term religionization for interpreting cemetery vandalism as an activity motivated by satanism. By religionization I mean a definition process by which a phenomenon is constructed in a religious frame of reference. Religionization can be external or internal, depending on who defines the issue. Especially in the case of cemetery vandalism, where the actual motives for the actions often remain unsolved, the interpretation of the actions as being motivated by religious ethos is done by others than the perpetrators themselves. This is an example of external religionization.

The religionization of cemetery vandalism is related to the problems in so-called typification process of social problems. Typification refers to the type a social problem which is used to present the phenomenon (Best 1995b: 8). The view according to which the problem appears as a consequence of religious ethos motivating a criminal lifestyle has become the mode of hegemonic typification of cemetery vandalism.

Religionization of the public discourse in Finland is clearly related to personal ethoses of the individuals who have been given a expert status and the rhetoric originating from it. Religious arguments, were they explicit or implicit, have been presented in a remarkably uncritical manner as valid ways with which to interpret the phenomenon of cemetery vandalism. No doubt religious commentary has its place in a wider discussion, but especially the manner of speaking which portrays nightmare scenarios and mystifies the phenomenon has mostly replaced alternative interpretations because of its rhetoric qualities. A religionized discourse then classifies the problem as a moral one. Like anti-satanist Keijo Ahorinta explicitly states, satanism is a consequence of the youths' lack of ideals today, which is a distinctive feature of modern society ("An young person needs grown-ups, not Satan", HS 11.1.1999). Also, the criticism aimed at the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran church often comes from the inside ("Ex-Satanist visits schools to talk about values" HS 4.11.1994).

It is ultimately a decision of journalists and editorials who is given an expert status in the public discourse. In this regard the reason for the popularity of the religionized discourse can be found in the desire of the media to get a short, concise and explicit explanation for cemetery vandalism. On the other hand, it is possible to find a crime wave type phenomenon in news reports on crimes that have occurred in cemeteries, in which case a certain crime is established with a name and an explanation. In the material of this study the crime is cemetery vandalism and the explanation satanism. When the explanation has gained sufficient ground in the media, similar crimes are associated with the same explanation even more promptly. This develops into a crime wave (Fishman 1998: 68-69).

What is significant is that regardless of whether the crime waves brought up in the media correlate to actual level of crimes (or their motivations), they have real consequences. Crime waves cannot do any direct harm but they may inflict fear (Fishman 1998: 53). Furthermore, they bring the chosen problem out into the open and thus make it easier to see that particular crime in the events that have taken place. This dynamic has also had an effect on the naturalization process of the connection between cemetery vandalism and satanic ethos that has occurred in the media. In this situation it is, however, essential to realize the interactive nature of actions and ethos and instead of settling with a straightforward causal explanation, move to examine the interaction between all the involved parties: the youth, the media, experts and the general public.


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This paper is a revised version of an article that appeared originally in Finnish in Tuula Sakaranaho & Heikki Pesonen 2002. Uskonto, julkisuus ja muuttuva yhteiskunta. (Religion, Publicity and the Changing Society) Helsinki: Helsinki University Press. The author would like to thank the Finnish editors for helpful comments on the preliminary drafts of this paper.

Abbreviations used

HS Helsingin Sanomat (Finland's largest daily newspaper)

IL Iltalehti(Tabloid)

IS Ilta-Sanomat (Tabloid)


1) Throughout the article I will use the term Satanism, although the terms Satanism and Satan worshipping are used side by side in the Finnish news coverage. The media refer primarily to newspapers, but the results can be applied to TV news and documentaries made on the subject as well, naturally each with their own emphasis.

2) The discourse analyst Norman Fairclough employs the term ‘naturalization’ when referring to processes in which one particular discourse becomes dominant, perhaps replacing all other discourses as a way of presentation. Such discourses appear as so-called ’common sense’ expressions. Fairclough 1989: 91-93.

3) The news articles refer to the satanism scares and the alleged satanic child abuse in Britain at the turn of the 1990’s that has been excellently documented by J.S. LaFontaine in her book Speak of the Devil (LaFontaine 1998).

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