Friday, March 12, 2021

Occult Cold Case Isn't

I'm a big fan of the true crime genre, but the one thing about it that drives me a little nuts is the notion of "occult murders." I've written about several cases here on Augoeides where law enforcement suspected "occult involvement" and - of course - turned up nothing. Because there is literally no viable occult reason to murder someone. Generally when detectives look at a suspect, they put in a lot of effort to assess means, motive, and opportunity. But if they knew anything about magick, they would understand that "occult" is not a motive and cannot be considered as such.

I recently came across this article about a cold case from 1972. A young woman was found dead under unusual circumstances, and law enforcement apparently suspected satanic or occult activity based on "ritualistic elements" found at the crime scene. But recently review crime scene photos show a classic case of pareidola. In the photos, the sticks that were supposedly arranged in the shape of crosses in a "coffin-like" arrangement around the body are just random brush that the body was found in. You can click through to the article and scroll down to see the crime scene photo for yourself. The brush is clearly not arranged in any particular pattern.

When the unrecognizable body of Jeannette DePalma, 16, was found atop a steep, wooded hill that the locals called the Devil’s Teeth in 1972, rumors spread quickly that the Springfield girl was killed in some sort of satanic rite or witchcraft. Police sources leaked to the press that they had found signs they thought might be related to the occult, including crosses made of sticks and branches arranged in a coffin-like outline around her body. The coroner’s report mentions a “rock formation surrounding the body.” The Star-Ledger reported that police even brought a witch to the site to inspect for signs of the occult.

But crime scene photographs released for the first time this week seem to debunk those claims, showing that DePalma’s body was simply lying in a dense, brushy area in Houdaille Quarry, facedown with an arm draped over a downed tree branch. There are branches lying across one another by her head, but they do not appear to be arranged in a purposeful way. Jason Coy, a history professor at the College of Charleston who researches witchcraft and superstition, said he can’t find any sign of the occult or any other symbolism in the jumble of brush and branches. It suggests that investigators, looking for something sinister, saw patterns that weren’t there, or perhaps their initial descriptions of the branches near her body became exaggerated or misconstrued in the retellings of the scene.

Coy was one of several experts featured in “Death on the Devil’s Teeth,” a 2015 book by Mark Moran and Jesse Pollack, who had written about the case for Weird N.J. magazine. Coy recalled being shown a sketch of the crime scene then, drawn based on the memories of people who were there, depicting many crosses around the body. “Everything in that sketch that was marked out as a cross, in these crime scene photos just looks like a pile of underbrush that happened to be in a kind of pattern,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect example of how sometimes in someone’s memory, if they are influenced by the idea that something could be occult, they remember things that way.”

Thanks to "guides" for law enforcement created by fundamentalist Christians and "occult experts" who are generally "former occultists" who converted to fundamentalist Christianity, the idea is out there that anything at a crime scene that looks a little weird is "occult" - when, in fact, the natural world is filled with plenty of weirdness already and some crime scenes are inevitably a little strange. Or worse, thanks to their "experts" and "guides," law enforcement will see patterns that aren't even there, like what appears to have happened in this case.

I will say that I have now seen a couple of true crime documentaries that cover authorities looking for "occult involvement" in murders and finding nothing. That's an improvement over how things were even ten or fifteen years ago. I would like to be able to say that this is progress and hopefully we're at a point where "occult" isn't treated as a real motive for crimes. At the same time, though, we still have crazies around like the QAnon folks who allege that occult child murders are a common occurrence among everyone who disagrees with their politics.

Letting fundamentalist Christians tell law enforcement what occultists "really" do caused a great deal of harm. Fundamentalist Christians have no idea what occultists do or what the point of occultism is - they just think it's evil and a lot like what they see in horror movies. Whether or not it's evil is of course subjective, but the movie idea of magick - horror or otherwise - is nothing like the real thing. Occultists are no more criminal than anyone else, and it's about time law enforcement woke up to that fact.

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