In the 1980s, America was gripped by widespread panics about Satanic cults. Conspiracy theories abounded about groups who were allegedly abusing children in day-care centers, impregnating girls for infant sacrifice, brainwashing adults, and even controlling the highest levels of government. As historian of religions David Frankfurter listened to these sinister theories, it occurred to him how strikingly similar they were to those that swept parts of the early Christian world, early modern Europe, and postcolonial Africa. He began to investigate the social and psychological patterns that give rise to these myths. Thus was born Evil Incarnate, a riveting analysis of the mythology of evilconspiracy.
The first work to provide an in-depth analysis of the topic, the book uses anthropology, the history of religion, sociology, and psychoanalytic theory, to answer the questions “What causes people collectively to envision evil and seek to exterminate it?” and “Why does the representation of evil recur in such typical patterns?”
Frankfurter guides the reader through such diverse subjects as witch-hunting, the origins of demonology, cannibalism, and the rumors of Jewish ritual murder, demonstrating how societies have long expanded upon their fears of such atrocities to address a collective anxiety. Thus, he maintains, panics over modern-day infant sacrifice are really not so different from rumors about early Christians engaging in infant feasts during the second and third centuries in Rome.
In Evil Incarnate, Frankfurter deepens historical awareness that stories of Satanic atrocities are both inventions of the mind and perennial phenomena, not authentic criminal events. True evil, as he so artfully demonstrates, is not something organized and corrupting, but rather a social construction that inspires people to brutal acts in the name of moral order.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the 2007 Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion, Analytical-Descriptive Studies category, American Academy of Religion
"Mr. Frankfurter . . . shows just how similar stories about evil have been. . . . [E]vil recurs in predictably familiar form. . . . Mr. Frankfurter outlines these repeated elements with illuminating clarity and wide-ranging learning. . . . Using the term evil, he argues, prevents us from understanding context and cause; it places something beyond the human and that's when trouble starts. . . . But when the word is applied to an act, we know just precisely what it means: There is no human excuse."—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times
"In a thought-provoking . . . study . . . Frankfurter draws on religion, sociology and anthropology to uncover the reasons that societies publicly raise cries of demonic conspiracies to explain various social evils. . . . Frankfurter convincingly demonstrates that demonic conspiracies and satanic ritual abuse bare simply myths of evil conspiracies that provide societies an excuse for bullying those who are already considered suspect. He observes trenchantly that those seeking to purge demonic conspiracies have done more violence than the devotees of those so-called evil groups. . . . [H]is judicious insights about the nature of evil in our world provide thoughtful glimpses at the ways societies demonize the Other."—Publishers Weekly
"[A] fascinating, even gripping, study. . . . [It] merits widespread attention and careful study."—Dale B. Martin, Church History
"[A] brilliant, if terrifying, study."—Dennis P. Quinn, Religious Studies Review
"Frankfurter explores the social phenomenon of belief in evil conspiracy throughout Western history from the second century C.E. to the very recent past. . . . Evil Incarnate quite successfully does what it claims to do, namely explore a social phenomenon, the way in which a certain kind of myth has functioned in different historical circumstances to produce social cohesion and to provide a medium for thinking about danger, inversion and otherness. . . . Evil Incarnate also provides scholars with a wide range of interesting avenues for further study."—Heidi Marx-Wolf, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"Interpreting and explaining stories and activities, Frankfurter takes us far away and long ago. He also takes the reader through a lot of different ground with regard to the subjects of analysis, and thus he produces and uses many theoretical perspectives.... It does, however, make for fascinating reading.... In addition to his chapter on 'rites of evil,' I was particularly taken with his ritual analysis of the performance of evil."—Asbjorn Dyrendal, Numen
"This meticulously researched and clearly argued book questions the reality of evil and will be welcomed by those, including myself, who join David Frankfurter in casting doubt upon the meaning of this dangerous and destructive idea."—Phillip Cole, Journal of Religion
"Frankfurter has written an excellent account of how panics about Satanism have periodically erupted in Europe, North America, and postcolonial Africa. He pulls no punches in concluding that 'no evidence has ever been found to verify the atrocities as historical events.' The terrible irony that emerges from Frankfurter's work is that 'the real atrocities of history seem to take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but rather in the course of purging such cults from the world."—Richard J. McNally, PhycCRITIQUES
"Frankfurter's book, Evil Incarnate, is a scholarly, interdisciplinary work grounded in meticulous research. . . . What is riveting, here, is the way the myth of evil incarnate takes on new shapes with the arrival of new cultural collisions. What is exciting is his non-reductive causal approach, and the fluid, multi-layered perspectives from which he engages his topic."—Sue Grand, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society
"This is indeed a thought-provoking study and is strongly recommended for students of religion, culture and society. The discourses of evil are real in all our lives and understanding the dynamics that propagate them and turn them into unspeakable violence can liberate people and assist humanity in the journey towards peace and integration."—Dr. Rodney Moss, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae
"This book raises many questions and provides some answers in attempting to elucidate the process of demonisation."—Michaela Valente, Journal of the Ecclesiastical History
"David Frankfurter's valuable, well-written study takes us to the far reaches of demonology. In documenting the harm done by labeling others evil, he poses a challenge to those of us who believe, however regretfully, in the necessity of the concept."—Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors and The Genocidal Mentality
"David Frankfurter has taken a sensationalist topic and given it a serious, sober, and thoroughly enlightening treatment. At the heart of moral panics—witch crazes, red scares, rumors of Satanic ritual abuse, and others—he perceives not evil as an entity or sinister force, but rather a discourse of evil that draws on old traditions and common fantasies to stimulate horror, shock, and also prurient pleasure. Repeatedly, this volatile mix proves capable of inflaming passions and spawning violent campaigns whose excesses all too predictably fall on society's most marginal, and therefore most vulnerable, members. Drawing on a great many examples and much prior research, he makes a strong—and profoundly moral—argument."—Bruce Lincoln, University of Chicago
"David Frankfurter's valuable, well-written study takes us to the far reaches of demonology. In documenting the harm done by labeling others evil, he poses a challenge to those of us who believe, however regretfully, in the necessity of the concept."—Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus, City University of New York
"Challenging the idea of evil being a reality beyond human comprehension, David Frankfurter's sharp and original analysis explores how this very idea produces a terrifying, unsettling reality of its own. The great merit of this elegantly written, substantial book is that it moves us beyond a rather particularistic attitude toward separate, locally bounded cases and shows that there is a system in the variegated realm of evil."—Birgit Meyer, Free University Amsterdam
"A significant contribution to several fields including comparative religions, ancient and contemporary religious history, and even literary criticism. Frankfurter's approach—looking at evil not as some force or essence but as a discourse—is highly original."—Hugh Urban, Ohio State University
"Engrossing and well-informed, Evil Incarnate presents a cornucopia of amazing material in lucid prose, cogently organized and constructed into an engaging argument. Few authors have the range, the vision, and the boldness to break through the disciplinary and chronological boundaries to bring off a book like this."—Charles Stewart, University College London