Sometimes people kid around and say, "The
devil made me do it!"
We know better, don't we? Or can the devil exert enough influence
in our lives to make us act in certain ways? In this Youth
Update, we consider the occult seriously. Can the devil really
force people to do things? Who's to blame when bad things
happen? Are Satanic symbols and signs harmful? What is the
What is the Occult?
Although the dictionary defines the occult as
the world of the supernatural, mystical or magical, trying
to come up with a clear understanding of the occult is a little
like taking apart a car's engine. The more parts you see lying
around, the further you are from understanding the original
A reason for the confusion is that the occult covers so many
activities: from the relatively harmless, such as reading
your horoscope and fortune-telling, to the dangerous, such
as witchcraft and devil worship.
Despite this wide range, occult practices are linked by one
identifying element: belief in a power greater than-and opposite
to-God's. While Christianity teaches that all wisdom, understanding
and power ultimately come from God, the occult teaches that
we can tap into a more powerful source of knowledge and strength-a
source that may seem daring and courageous, but is actually
uncaring at best, and evil at worst.
This power source isn't necessarily identied as the devil
or Satan. If you accuse palm readers or psychics of having
Satanic connections, you can expect indignant protests. They
may attend Church services and even call themselves Christians.
They don't think of themselves as being involved with the devil.
As people start looking for power in sources that are alien
or unconnected to God, however, they begin to question God's
power, even if they don't do it consciously. They allow themselves
to entertain the possibility that someone or something other
than God, or the instruments of God, can help them. They reason:
If horoscopes or a Ouija board offer an immediate, clear-cut
answer to life's problems and questions, puzzling over the
will of God is unnecessary mental gymnastics!
Occult practices promise power and knowledge beyond typical
human insight. It's like the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who searched for knowledge
without trusting their creator to provide for their needs.
If you can get your answers without God, then what's the point
of going to God?
Evil does exist. And bad things happen to
all of us. For example, your boyfriend or girlfriend dumps
you for your best friend the same day you flunk an English
test, your mom nags you about your hair, the dog chews your
running shoes and you're grounded for missing curfew by 10
minutes-not a good day.
And it's not just you. Every time you listen
to the news you hear about trouble and suffering. Murder.
Rape. AIDS. Starvation. Drought. War. It's enough to make
you wonder if God really is all-powerful, all-knowing and
You read an article with new statistics and revelations
about the Shoah, or Holocaust, in which six million Jewish
men, women and children were slaughtered. You see The Silence
of the Lambs on video. Soon you can't help thinking maybe
evil does have the upper hand.
When you feel like that, it's natural to look for answers-practical,
how-to-deal-with-reality answers that will work. This kind
of thinking may lead-or mislead-you to seek answers in the
The Occult's Answers
Practitioners of the occult say the reason evil
frequently overpowers good is obvious: Evil is stronger than
good. "Just look around you," they suggest. "Christians
claim God destroyed sin and death, but people continue to
sin and continue to die. If God did what Christians say, why
is evil still around? And take the Beatitudes-all that talk
about the meek inheriting the earth. When was the last time
you saw a wimp win? The only ones who make it in this world
are the strong. If you want to be on top, then it's up to
you to make it happen. Do whatever you have to; the end justifies
That kind of argument can be pretty convincing-so convincing
that every year many young people look to the occult for answers
to life's difficulties.
Although the Bible says in Leviticus 19:31, "Do not go
to mediums or consult fortunetellers, for you will be defiled
by them," and while it's dangerous even on the fringes
of the occult, curiosity is a top teen trait.
When I was 19, I went with some friends to a fortune-teller.
When she offered to read the cards for no charge, I agreed.
She was remarkably accurate about a number of things and I
would have believed she could predict the future. As it was,
when she learned I had no money, the cards stopped "talking"
I don't think that isolated incident marred me for life, and
a one-time use of a Ouija board or similar device probably won't hurt you, either. The danger
comes when you start to believe you can control your life
through magical practices. Trouble often results from trust
in mystical, occult activities. And you can't N involved with
the occult very long before you become entangled in the shadow
world of evil. It's this entanglement with evil that is serious
and occasionally deadly.
The Power of Evil
The lure of the occult is subtle. At least in
the beginning, everything is "All gain, no pain."
It's a lot like drug addiction. Drug abuse starts because
drugs can make you feel better. Getting high seems pleasurable.
It's not until later that drug abusers learn addiction is
the hidden cost of that pleasure.
The occult works like that, too. You don't learn the real
price until you are deeply involved.
How do people get involved with the occult? Remember the day
everything went wrong? On a day like that, your self-esteem
is probably at rock bottom.
What if you heard of a way to guarantee you never had another
bad day? If things were bad enough and an easy remedy was
offered, you might just say, "What's the harm of looking
into it? If it doesn't work, I'm no worse off than I am right
now. And if it does work, well, then, what do I have to lose?"
Maybe you heard about this so-called guarantee from a friend.
Maybe you read about the occult in the newspaper. Maybe you
picked up some information from albums or videos. Maybe you
studied the occult in religion class. However you got introduced
to it, you discovered that some people claim that you can
change your life through the occult.
You don't have to know a great deal. After all, you're not
planning heavy-duty involvement here, right? You just want
to see if there's anything to all this secretive yet supernatural
business. So you dim the lights in your room, draw the drapes,
light a black candle or two and perhaps mumble a couple of
Probably nothing weird happens. That's not saying it can't.
Some people have reported a sudden chill descending on the
room, mysterious movements and an indescribable feeling of
evil. But let's say you don't experience anything unusual.
The next day at school, however, you notice, people treat you
with more respect. Your former boyfriend or girlfriend sits
next to you in the cafeteria. That night your mom doesn't
even mention your hair. The only difference, as far as
you can tell, is the ritual of the night before. It must be
the reason your life has turned around.
So that evening you
try it again, rearranging your room to include an "altar,"
where you place the candles and repeat the ceremony that seems
to have reaped major benefits for you. The following day,
things are even better. You decide to make the ritual a
regular practice, investigating more details of the occult
or even Satanic practices. After all, the occult has worked
in your life, or has it?
That's how people are deceived by the occult. You do "A"
and "B" happens-none of this waiting around, hoping
God hears your prayers. All you have to do is say the right
words, and you can have everything you want. It's self-deception,
a little like thinking if you buy the right clothes and have
the right hairstyle, someone will go out with you. The difference
is that occult practices aren't just harmless, wishful thinking.
These practices are a doorway to evil. And any time you expose
yourself to evil influences, serious consequences may occur.
What's Really Going On?
It's a remote possibility that you may have
actually linked up with the physical manifestation of evil.
Father Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest who has dealt with
hundreds of ex-cultists and ex-Satanists, stresses that while
it's not likely, you actually may have encountered the devil.
Such things don't happen often, but they do happen.
More likely, however, it's not the occult that has improved
your life but your own attitude. That first day you thought
people were treating you better, they were! Your attitude,
not your rituals or chants or symbols, worked a change in
other people. You stood straighter or spoke with more confidence.
You acted as if you were a worthy person, and others treated
you the same way. Your increased self-esteem, not black candles
or a darkened room, made life more positive.
If you connect your good fortune and succcess with the occult,
you are starting down a dangerous path. The more you believe
you can make people do your bidding, the more influence over
them you may want to have. If such good results come from
so little effort on your part, what would more elaborate rituals
and more precise actions accomplish? So you try a few more things,
perhaps drawing from the writings of traditional Satanists
like Anton La Vey, author of The Satanic Bible. When your
new rituals appear to work, you continue to try more.
The tragic story of a 14-year-old male student in a New Jersey
Catholic school was reported in newspapers and magazines across the country. Tommy
Sullivan, Jr., began to experiment with the occult in ways
similar to those described here. Feeling he had tapped a new
source of power and influence, he eventually came to believe
he had a pact with the devil to kill his parents and take
his own life. He did murder his mother and then cut his own
throat. Other similar cases have been reported of persons
who believed that they had made irrevocable agreements with
It's important to remember that while practitioners of the
occult share certain ideological premises, they are not all
alike. Some are members of actual Satanic sects such as the
First Church of Satan and the Temple of Set. They worship
the devil in elaborate rituals like Black Masses but have
never been directly linked to criminal activities. A second
group of secretive, intergenerational Satanic cults share
the same beliefs, and as Father Burtner says, "They are
involved in the truly dreadful activities you read about."
Finally, the third group is people who dabble in the occult
without becoming linked with an organized group, including
teenagers like Tommy Sullivan.
Make Positive Choices
No one knows exactly how many teenagers become
involved with the occult because by its very nature, the occult
is secretive. But according to the Cult Awareness Network,
a national organization providing information on cults, calls
about Satanism have more than doubled in the past four years.
A 1989 Seventeen magazine survey found 12 percent of teenagers
have "some or a lot of faith" in Satanism.
While you may never know people who are so involved in occult practices
and Satan worship that they sacrifice animals, drink blood
or commit other acts of violence, experts like Father Burtner
say more and more teenagers think they can flirt with the
occult and then stop when they want. But experimenting with
the occult can be compared to trying drugs "just once."
The best way not to become involved is never to begin. The
lure of power and the thrill of secrecy make it difficult,
if not impossible, to quit without therapy and professional
assistance. Beginning is easy; stopping can be a nightmare.
You can take positive steps that combat occult influences:
1) Pay attention to your music, dress and entertainment. The
consistent choices you make are obviously a powerful influence
in your life. The more you expose yourself to occult influences,
the more attractive they will become and the more likely it
is you will think of these practices instead of other, more
2) Become involved in activities that create positive memories.
Play sports. Join the drama club. Learn to play a musical
instrument. Volunteer to help with younger children. Participate
in student government. Attend youth activities in your parish.
The real, living presence of God in your life is your best
defense against evil.
3) Set goals for yourself. The occult appears to offer easy
solutions to life's problems. By setting goals and working
toward them, you can often resolve your difficulties in a
more positive, effective way. Besides, when you know you've
done something on your own, your self-esteem automatically
4) If you know someone who has been experimenting with occult
practices, encourage him or her to con-fide in a counselor,
parent or priest. When the secrecy is broken, much of the
occult's power is as well.
Some signs that may indicate your friends are involved with
occult activities include a preoccupation with heavy metal
music, backward writing, cruelty to animals, a false sense
of exaggerated well-being, obsession with fantasy and role-playing
games, secretive behavior, loss of interest in friends and
activities, preoccupation with death, a black bedroom,
secret altars and self-mutilation. None of these signs, however,
reveal the root reason many turn to the occult: the seeming
triumph of evil over good.
Claiming the Victory
Many people, if they were in charge of the universe,
would choose to wipe out evil. God has different ideas. Isaiah
55:8 tells us, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." While we can't
know for certain why God allows evil to exist, we do have
Many bad things happen because we live on the front line of
the battle between good and evil. God allows evil to put up
a fierce fight, not because God isn't strong enough to combat
evil, but because God wants us to freely choose the side of
good. If God were to destroy all evil, we wouldn't have any
choice to make. The ability to make our own decision is God's
gift of free will. God loves us enough to let us choose.
When we make our decisions we need to remember, however, that
even though evil is usually portrayed as all-powerful, it
isn't. Although we may not consistently see evidence in our
daily lives, our faith teaches us evil will lose. As Father
James Leaar, author of Cults, Sect and the New Age, puts it,
"The victory has been won by Christ. These are just skirmishes."
It isn't always easy to believe that Jesus has really won,
that the power of God is greater than the power of evil. As
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "At present we see
indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present
I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known."
If Paul were writing to today's Corinthians, he might say,
"Today I can catch only a glimpse of God's will working
in the universe, but I have faith that some day I will see
the divine plan-for the world and for myselfrevealed in all
its awesome power."
What it finally comes down to is to choose faith-faith in
empty rituals and meaningless signs of the occult or faith
in God and God's eternal promises. Which would you rather
trust? Which choice appeals to you?
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, suggested changes and asked questions of the author
are Jennifer Ernst, Ann Hornschemeier and Kyle Schwallie,
who are members of St. Mary Parish in Arnheim, Ohio. Jason
Stivers of St. Elizabeth Parish in Sardinia, Ohio, also assisted.
Rev. Thomas L. Bolte is pastor of both parishes.