The Beasts of Satan, a gang of misguided youths from Milan, dance in a forest, their feet treading heavily on the makeshift grave of two friends they have just brutally murdered.
In the nearby town of Chiavenna, three teenage girls decide to stab and beat a nun to death as part of a macabre Satanic rite. “We were bored and wanted to do something different,” one of the girls later tells police.
These recent episodes have shocked an entire Italian nation, not least the experienced magistrates called in to investigate.
But as far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, they are merely the most visible tip of a profane pyramid which sees at its base millions of superstitious, gullible and ultimately desperate people who seek to put themselves out of their miseries by resorting to Satanism, witchcraft and the world of the occult.
Set to begin in February, the course is directed at novices and trainee priests attending the Rome-based Catholic university.
With lecturers on a variety of subjects – from demonology to witchcraft, from “applied exorcism” to canon law and the occult – the course aims to inform priests on everything relating to the Prince of Darkness.
“The idea is to help priests deal with those youths who are attracted by satanistic cults, or parents who are concerned that their children might have joined some kind of sect,” Professor Carlo Climati, one of the course’s lecturers, said in a telephone interview.
Climati, a journalist, author and expert on youth-related issues, blames the growing popularity of satanism and the occult on a number of factors.
These include what he calls “new forms of solitude” among young people – the isolation born of spending too much time in front of a television set and too little in the company of friends and relatives, and the growing availability of material now readily available on the internet.
“Once, teenagers’ exposure to satanism was limited to the record sleeve or lyrics of a few rock bands. These days, there are thousands of websites dedicated to Satan,” Climati says.
A Google search of the word “Satanism”, for instance, returns 468,000 hits. These include “The Official Web Site of the Church of Satan” and “Satanism Today”.
More generally, the fact that the bad tends to attract more attention than the good goes a long way in explaining the fascination that people hold towards anything evil.
“One tree falling makes a greater noise than a whole forest growing,” says Climati, citing a traditional Chinese proverb.
So what is satanism anyway?
While a simple dictionary definition describes it as “the worship of Satan – the chief spirit of evil and adversary of God”, Professor Climati argues that satanism is in fact an extreme “form of pessimism”.
“It is a way of seeing the world as a jungle, where only the strongest survive. A world in which all limits are absent, bad examples are on offer and in which the perfection of television’s role models is countered with the search for extremes, for power at all costs.”
Though the concept of Satan is probably as old as humanity itself, Professor Climati says the spread of its popularity in the modern world has been in part aided by the emergence of New Age – which a recent Vatican pamphlet describes as “an individualistic, egoistic and ultimately anti-Christian culture”.
Moreover, satanism cannot merely be confined to the Christian world.
“It is a global phenomenon, a human problem that transcends all barriers and which can affect anyone, particularly those with a highly sensitive soul who see their strong ideals betrayed in some way or other,” Climati says.
The lecturer says the course has already created enormous interest, both among students in Rome and among those attending the university’s branches abroad, particularly in Latin America.
While there are no plans to teach students how to deal with the most extreme forms of satanism – possession by the devil – Climati notes that the course will end with two exorcists sharing their experiences in the lecture room.