George Csicsery started tracking it in the mid-1980s -- what he calls "a hysteria epidemic that was mounting around the issue of child abuse." The writer and filmmaker was reporting on the case of a Nigerian-born Oakland, Calif., cabbie falsely accused of child sexual abuse; a wave of similar allegations from day-care centers and elsewhere across the country quickly grew Csicsery's files. Soon he felt he had literally too much information to write a book on the matter.
Instead, Csicsery decided to make a film focusing on a single case. He met Rick and Cheryl Althaus at a conference of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, where he learned the Mount Lebanon couple's story: Accused by their teen-age daughter, Nicole, of outrageous acts of abuse -- including sex orgies, infanticide and satanic ritual -- Rick Althaus had spent time in jail during a series of episodes spotlit by Pittsburgh-area newscasts and headlines in the early 1990s. Csicsery spent the next several years researching and shooting the feature-length documentary Hungry for Monsters: A Tale from a New Age Witch Hunt, which premieres locally at the Nov. 9 Film Kitchen as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.
Nicole Althaus was 15 when she announced she had repressed memories of abuse dating to early childhood. The belief resulted largely from her relationship with Priscilla Zappa, one of her teachers at Mount Lebanon High School, and treatment by Dr. Judith Cohen, a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute. At times imagining herself as Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, Nicole claimed to have been forced to have sex for money with strangers; to have undergone two C-sections, and the abortion of two other fetuses; and, among other things, to have witnessed a murder at another local couple's home.
Removed from her parents' home, Nicole Althaus ended up for a time in the foster care of none other than Zappa; her accusations led to the arrests of both her parents and the other couple whom it turned out she had never met.
Csicsery is a veteran filmmaker whose previous credits include his own feature-length projects as well as crew work on Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven. He was determined that his Althaus film not sensationalize matters the media had already whipped into a rabid froth. Inspired by classic no-frills documentaries, Csicsery avoided interviewing experts not directly involved in the case, and even eschewed voiceover narration.
At 69 minutes, Csicsery's cautionary case study is as spare as it is gripping, at its center "a perfect victim" who, Csicsery says, reflected whatever ideas or attitudes her would-be saviors shone her way. Despite some underlying causes older than the witch hunts the film's subtitle references, the abuse-hysteria epidemic is a decidedly contemporary brew, born of a weird ferment of sexual politics, new-age therapeutics, the training of social workers and public-safety workers, and the core beliefs of feminists as well as Christian fundamentalists.
"It was somehow a confluence of forces that are usually opposed to each other," says Csicsery. "It's easy to push buttons when you have parents worried about their children. But there was no perspective. ... People trying to solve a problem, imagined or real, often get carried away with their own beliefs."